Giving thanks in difficult circumstances

1 Thessalonians 5:16, 18

Our text today is from 1 Thessalonians 5:16 and 18. v. 16 says “Rejoice always” and v. 18 says, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Our focus today is on why we can rejoice and give thanks “always” or “in all circumstances.”

Now it’s easy to rejoice and give thanks when God answers prayers and delivers us from our problems, although certainly sometimes we forget to do this. But it’s surely more difficult to give thanks when things are going badly for us. But it is possible.

Let’s look at some –

Examples of rejoicing in difficult circumstances

The twelve apostles did this. They were put in prison for their preaching but were miraculously released. Then whey they preached more, they were taken to stand before the governing authorities where they were beaten and warned to stop preaching. Acts 5:41 says, “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”

Paul and Silas rejoiced when things were hard. In Acts 16 Paul cast out a fortune telling demon from a slave girl. This made the owners mad because they made money off of her. They promptly caused a stir and got Paul and Silas in trouble with the authorities.

Vs. 23-25 say, “And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison . . . into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them . . ..” They were unjustly beaten, arrested and shackled – but they were singing praises to God.

This happened just before Paul came to Thessalonica, so he knew what he was talking about when he told them “rejoice always . . .  (and) give thanks in all circumstances.”

And the Thessalonians themselves knew about rejoicing in suffering. From the time they first believed they suffered. 1 Thessalonians 1:6 says, “you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” They suffered, but they had joy.

Finally, the readers of the letter to the Hebrews. They had undergone persecution and the writer reminds them of this in 10:34, “ . . . you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” Can you imagine having all your goods hauled away because of your faith – your big screen TV, your dining set, your couches? Would you be able to keep things in perspective and still be joyful?

They did. And we can too by God’s grace. It’s difficult. But it is possible.

Now let’s look at –

Why we can rejoice in all circumstances

– including when things are difficult. It certainly can’t be based on our feelings, these change all the time. It has to be based on something much stronger and more stable – our faith. So here are four aspects of our faith that show us why we can do this:

1. God is worthy of praise – period. Nothing else needs to be said. Whether we feel like praising God or not – God is worthy. Whether we’re in good times or in bad times, it doesn’t matter. God is still the same – yesterday, today and forever and is still worthy of our praises.

Apart from anything God may or may not do for me; apart from whether God allows me to go through good times or bad, God is worthy of praise for who God is. God is awesome! God is holy! God is good! None of this changes based on our circumstances.

Habakkuk the prophet lived in a difficult time. The people were unfaithful to God. And he knew that judgment was coming – things were going to get worse. But he praised God anyway, because God deserves to be praised. Habakkuk 3:17-18 says, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord . . ..” I believe that this is the purest form of praise to God because it’s not dependent on something that we get from God.

2. God has blessed us in many ways. Even in the worst of times, if we’re able to step back and think about it, we can recognize that this is true.

James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . ..” You have been given the gift of life. Also think about your abilities, your strengths, your family, your friends, your home – whatever good thing you are or have is from God.

And this includes our salvation – God’s grace and mercy to us in Jesus Christ, forgiveness of our sins, new life by the Spirit, a relationship with God, fellow believers who walk with us, strength and peace in difficult times – all these are gifts from God as well.

And so despite whatever else may be going on we can give thanks for God’s blessing to us.

3. God gives us hope for the future. God allows each of us to go through hard times, and a part of this is simply living in this sinful and broken world where evil is normal. But in the midst of this as Christians we have a hope for something better. This life is not all that there is. In fact, we are to live for the life that is to come, not this one.

When Jesus talked about suffering for our faith; being reviled and slandered, he said, “Rejoice and be glad” Why? “For your reward is great in heaven . . .” – Matthew 5:12.

In 1 Peter 1:6 Peter tells his readers that “now for a little while . . . you have been grieved by various trials.” Just before this he said, “in this you rejoice.” Why do they rejoice in their trials? It’s because of what he had just mentioned in vs. 4-5. They have “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven . . . a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

This hope puts things in perspective for us as Christians. Yes, we will suffer in this life. But we will be blessed in the world to come. And in fact the blessing will outweigh the sufferings. Paul says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” – Romans 8:18. Similarly he says, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” – 2 Corinthians 4:17. Our suffering may well be great, but what awaits us is far greater. God gives up hope for the future.

4. God harnesses trials for our good. We go through fiery trials. This is an image that is used in Scripture (Isaiah 48:10; 1 Peter 1:7). And it makes a point. Fire can consume or it can refine. If we go through the fire in faith we will not be consumed. Rather, God uses the flames to refine and purify us.

God is able to bring good out of pain, suffering and tears. This doesn’t mean that God causes the pain, only that God is greater than whatever evil befalls us.

Paul makes this point in Romans 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God is able to work in and through all that happens to us to bring some good to us.

James tells his readers, “Count it all joy” when you suffer various kinds of trials. Why? “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” – James 1:2-4.

Along the same lines, Paul says, “. . . we rejoice in our sufferings.” Why? “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope . . .” – Romans 5:3-4.

The world will throw hard times at us left and right. But when we endure them in faith, God brings something good out of them for us. That’s how great God is. And we can give thanks for this. That’s how great God is. And we can give thanks for this.

10 promises you can stand on

Series: Faith in God

Last time we talked about how, to have real faith, you need a word from God to stand on.  And when you don’t have a word to stand on, it’s called presumption, because you are presuming upon God to do something that he never said he would do. This leads us to have unwarranted confidence, which can lead to wrong actions, which leads to a mess.

As we saw, one of the things we need to do to avoid all this is to know what God’s promises are – their context, the scope of what they cover, and the conditions that are attached. We need to know what they mean. We need to know God’s will so that we can have faith in this and receive from God.

So today, I want to give you 10 promises that you can stand on; that apply to you. And I hope as we go through this, God will speak to you about where you need more of him and his blessings and that you will latch on to this by faith.  

1. God will forgive your sins

 “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” – Matthew 6:14

The condition certainly stands out right at the beginning. We have to give grace to receive grace. But if we do this, God tells us here, he will forgive our sins. As Psalm 103:12 says, God will remove our sins “as far as the east is from the west.” As 1 John 1:9 says, God will “forgive us our sins and . . . cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Others may not forgive us, we may struggle to forgive ourselves, but in faith we can stand on this promise that we are indeed forgiven by God.

2. God will give you the Holy Spirit

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” – Luke 11:13

In Luke 11 Jesus talks about asking with persistence in our prayers. And then he ends this teaching with this verse. So he is saying, ‘If we persistently ask for the Spirit, God will answer.’

It is the Spirit who gives us life. It is the Spirit who makes God’s presence known to us. It is the Spirit who gives us God’s guidance and comfort. It is the Spirit who empowers us to do God’s will and to minister in his name. So, this is a promise we all need. We need to be continually filled with the Spirit as followers of Jesus.

3. God will give you eternal life

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16

This is a familiar and popular promise and rightfully so. Because of God’s love for us and  what Jesus has done for us, if we believe in Jesus, we will not be judged, but we will have eternal life. That is to say, right now. No waiting. God’s life comes into us and this will continue on forever.

4. Jesus will set you free from bondage to sin

“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” – John 8:36

Just before this, Jesus talks about how “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” But the promise is that Jesus is both able and willing to set us free; to break the chains of our bondage so that we can serve God and live a new life.

This doesn’t mean that it will always be easy, and that there won’t be hard choices and difficult times ahead. But Jesus will give us what we need to remain free.

If this is where you are, I encourage you to claim this promise by faith. Ask Jesus to come and set you free.

5. God will provide for your material needs

“But strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” – Matthew 6:33

Notice the condition: seek the kingdom and his righteousness. Give this more thought and time than worrying about how you will gather up what you need for this life. And then, Jesus tells us, God will provide.

Now this is no promise of great wealth. In this scripture here (Matthew 6) the promise is for food and clothing. Like in the Lord’s prayer, we ask for daily bread. The promise is that God will give us what we need, not what we want. But yet, God’s provision is all we truly need.

6. God will providentially watch over you

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than sparrows.” – Matthew 10:29-31

Jesus spoke this to the disciples while teaching them about persecution and the danger of death. Jesus promises that God watches over us as his disciples and knows what goes on in our lives, down to the details.

If we find ourselves in danger, and we are walking with God – we don’t need to fear. God knows what’s going on. Whether it goes badly for us, or we are rescued, we know that we are in God’s loving hands.

7. God will give you wisdom

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” – James 1:5

We need to ask, and we need to ask in faith as James goes on to say. But if we do this, God will give us guidance and good judgment in how to make decisions and how to live our lives. And who doesn’t need wisdom, really, every day of our lives? What a great promise!“It will be given.”

8. God will give you peace

Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:6-7

We don’t need to be stressed out. Rather, we can lift up our burdens to the Lord, give them to him, and ask for his help. And the promise is that God’s peace will guard our hearts and minds to keep the stress away. Like a soldier keeping patrol.

Unless, of course we let our worries back in. We have to let go of them all, and give them to God knowing that he will take care of us.

9. Nothing God calls you to do will be impossible for you

“For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” – Matthew 17:20

 Jesus had commissioned and empowered the disciples to cast out demons as a part of their work. But they had a case they couldn’t handle. Why? Because they thought it was way too hard!

And so Jesus teaches them, and us, that whatever God calls us to do we will be able to do, if we simply trust in God to act for us in each situation. Even if it seems impossible, like moving a mountain from one place to another.

10. God will give you a blessed future

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven . . .. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” – 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17

The promise is that Jesus will return. And when he does, all faithful Christians will be resurrected to new life, with a new body.

We have an amazing future ahead! Things might not be going well for us now, but we have blessings waiting for us. And we “will always be with the Lord.” We can keep this in mind when we are going through hard times. In faith, think on these things and be encouraged.

  1. God will forgive your sins.
  2. God will give you the Holy Spirit
  3. God will give you eternal life
  4. Jesus will set you free from bondage to sin
  5. God will provide for your material needs
  6. God will providentially watch over you
  7. God will give you wisdom
  8. God will give you peace
  9. Nothing God calls you to do will be impossible for you
  10. God will give you a blessed future

So these are some of the many “precious and very great promises” that God gives to us, to use the words of 2 Peter 1:4. We will not be presuming upon God if we ask for these things.

But we do have to trust in God to receive all that these verses talk about; to receive the blessings of God. As I have said several times now, without faith, we should not “expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:7). But with faith, “all things are possible” (Mark 9:23). We can receive all that God has for us.

And let’s not be satisfied with what we have already received. We need to up our game! For instance, we need more of the Spirit, some of us need more deliverance, we all need more wisdom, peace in difficult times and power to do God’s will. Let’s raise our expectations and trust in God to act for us, standing on his promises.

A divine providence. The anointing of Saul. 1 Samuel 9:1-10:1a

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 9-10:16 or how this story is put together

Today we’re looking at the story of the anointing of Saul. This is an unusually long story covering all of chapter 9 and 16 verses of chapter 10, or 43 verses. So I’m gonna summarize most of it today, but also come back to the end of it, Lord willing, next Sunday in more detail (10:1-16). I encourage you to read through this story. It’s artfully arranged. (See above, the literary structure of this narrative.)

Last time, at the end of chapter 8, Samuel had sent the elders of Israel home, so that the process of selecting a king could begin. And God is busy at this in our story.

The anointing of Saul

A brief introduction. In vs. 1-2 – we learn about Saul’s family and father, Kish, who was well to do. We also learn a bit about Saul’s looks. v. 2 says that –

he was “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people.”

[Commentary for those who want to go through the verses and not just have a summary: The introduction in v. 1 is similar to what we find in chapter 1 regarding Elkanah. Kish was a “wealthy man” or it can be translated, “a man of standing” NIV. He did have wealth as we see here, he had more than one servant and he had donkeys (9:3). That Saul was outstanding in his looks is not a negative portrayal, as if this is all Samuel or anyone else is looking at (1 Samuel 16:7). Saul also has good qualities and God gave him “another heart” (10:9). And David was noted as being handsome (16:12). There is a tendency throughout this passage to read into the story negative characterizations based on Saul’s later choices.]

Saul’s journey.  vs. 3-4 introduces us to the problem. Some donkeys are missing and so Saul and a servant are tasked to find them. They traveled for three days (v. 20) through the territory of Ephraim and Benjamin and ended up in the land of Zuph. But their search was futile.

In vs. 5-10 Saul is ready to give up since he doesn’t want his father worrying about him being lost, but his servant counsels that they ask the man of God in the city about the donkeys, whom we find out later is Samuel.

[Commentary: The first clue that the so far anonymous “man of God” is Samuel comes from v. 5. The land of Zuph is the territory where Samuel lives, in Ramah (1 Samuel 1:1). The second clue is in v. 6. The phrase, “all that he says comes true” refers back to 1 Samuel 3:19, “The Lord . . . let none of his words fall to the ground” (also Deuteronomy 18:21-22). Ramah was just 5 miles from Saul’s home in Gibeah. The issue of the gift for the man of God is not that such was required by Samuel, but that it was a form of support. Like with Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 10:8-10 no payment is required by the prophet, but it is the responsibility of the person to give. A quarter shekel of silver is a little over a week’s wages for an ordinary person.]

vs.  11-14 – As they went toward the city they met some young women who told them how to find the man of God. And sure enough, they run into Samuel on his way out of the city to a sacrificial feast.

[Commentary: This was most likely in the evening, since this was the common time for women to gather water. Note the sense of urgency – Saul and his servant are to hurry to go meet Samuel. At this time Israelites still used “high places” for sacrifice and worship. After the temple was built in Jerusalem they were forbidden. This one was most likely built by Samuel – 1 Samuel 7:17. As noted before, Samuel was a Levite and has some kind of oversight role here.] 

Next, we jump into our text, with a flashback –

God’ word to Samuel about anointing a king.

15Now the day before Saul came, the Lord had revealed to Samuel: 16“Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.” 17When Samuel saw Saul, the Lord told him, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you! He it is who shall restrain my people.”

So God has prepared Samuel with instructions ahead of time. And now he points out the very man – Saul, who is to be king. He is to anoint him to be “prince” which probably means here, the one who will become king. He will “restrain” or keep within proper bounds God’s people.

To anoint with oil in this way is to symbolically designate someone for a role. Saul is anointed king and deliverer. (Before this, it seems only priests were anointed, e.g. Exodus 28:41). The oil represents the Spirit’s empowerment (Isaiah 61:1, 1 Samuel 16:13)

It’s amazing that despite their rejection of him, God is concerned about their well-being and raises up Saul to defeat the Philistines for them. This is another example of how God’s love is truly steadfast.

A banquet. In vs. 18-20 Samuel invites Saul and his servant to a meal and tells them that their donkeys have been found.

[Comments: It’s not clear what “all that is on your mind” (v. 19) refers to. Is Saul concerned about the well-being of Israel? Does he know that there is a search going on for a king? v. 12 indicates that this meal was already planned. Samuel is in town “because the people have a sacrifice today.”]

In vs. 20b-21 Samuel gives him a big clue as to what’s going on; he tells Saul that he is the one chosen as king – he is the one desired by all Israel. And Saul responds by humbly expressing his unworthiness.

[Comments: Saul responds humbly, even though he is from a prominent family. And it is true that the territory of Benjamin was small and they were almost wiped out by the rest of Israel in Judges 20-21. Samuel acknowledges Saul’s humility in 15:17  when he says, “you are little in your own eyes.” Samuel never responds to his question in v. 21.]

In vs. 22-24 Samuel gives Saul a head seat and the best portion of the meal, before 30 invited guests. And then in vs. 24-26 Samuel hosts Saul and his servant overnight and sends him off in the morning.

[Comments: After the meal at the high place they come back into the city and Saul stays in Samuel’s home. Sleeping on the roof was a cool place on a hot night.]

This, then brings us to the anointing of Saul and God’s word to him.

27As they were going down to the outskirts of the city, Samuel said to Saul, “Tell the servant to pass on before us, and when he has passed on, stop here yourself for a while, that I may make known to you the word of God.”

So here it comes!

10:1aThen Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head and kissed him and said, “Has not the Lord anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies.

As we saw, anointing symbolizes the empowerment of the Spirit, and the reality of this happens in 10:9-10, when the Spirit God comes upon Saul.

The key theme in this story is that –

God is orchestrating all of this

Saul and his servant were guided to an end that they had no idea about. They were clueless, but God did it anyway. (Tsumura highlights this kind of reading of the story.)

1. That the donkeys were lost is not an accident, and also that Saul couldn’t find them. This is what God told Samuel in v. 16 – “Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin.” This was how God did this, having the donkeys run off three days before.

2. They end up in Samuel’s hometown in the region of Zuph and the city of Ramah.

3. The servant speaks up just in time to keep Saul from going home. He suggests that they should talk to the man of God in the city about the donkeys first.

4. The servant finds money to give to the man of God, to appease Saul’s concern that they can’t talk to him without a gift. v. 8 says more literally, “there is found in my hand” this money (a divine passive). God provided that this would be there a head of time, so Saul would have no reason not to go to Samuel.

5. Samuel “happens” to be in town for a sacrifice. In v. 12 the women tell them that “he has come just now to the city.” God times things just right.

6. The women tell them to hurry or they will miss Samuel.

7. Samuel is the first person they come across as he is on his way to the banquet (vs. 14, 18). Again, the timing is perfect.

And God also worked on Samuel’s end to prepare things for Saul’s arrival. If Saul was unknowing in all this, Samuel knew.

1. God spoke to him a day before about a Benjamite (v. 16)

2. God identified Saul when they met. This is the guy!

3. By faith Samuel had the best portion waiting for Saul, as v. 24 says, “it was kept for you until the hour appointed, that you might eat with the guests.”

God brought all this together. This is a true divine appointment between Saul and Samuel.

For one thing this teaches us that God really has chosen Saul to be king. And the story goes on to confirm this more as I hope to show you next week. Despite Saul’s later disobedience and failure, it was God’s plan to have him be king. The failure was due to Saul’s choices, not God.

But clearly this story emphasizes how amazing God is, who can know all things and bring things together in this way, when he chooses to do so.

 And God still works in this way today

 1. God providentially watches over us.  This isn’t to say that things are always so scripted, as it is here. But as Jesus teaches in Matthew 10:29-31, God knows everything that is going on, even when a sparrow falls to the ground. And he knows the number of our hairs. We are not subject to fate, powerful forces that control our destiny that have no love or concern for us. Neither are we subject to a random, arbitrary world, where nothing has meaning or leads to any purposeful end. God orders and shapes all things according to his will. And God acts for us to care for us and intervenes in our lives according to his purposes. This is reassuring.

And this also applies to our congregation. All that has happened in the last number of months. God knows and God is overseeing. We don’t usually see the bigger picture in the moment or maybe even after many years. In the story of Saul we have a divine window into what’s going on. But in the end, on the final day, we will see how God has worked to bring things together and what God has been up to in our lives, and in our life together as a congregation.

2. God works to raise up leaders for his people. This is what is going on in this story. And he often picks and prepares those that no one would expect. Saul was focused on farm life – here looking for donkeys. But then he is anointed to be king. No one expected this, least of all Saul.

Who will God raise up to be leaders among us? Maybe we will be surprised as well. Maybe God will surprise you by tapping your shoulder.

3. Everyone has a role in God’s plan, not just prophets or princes. (Mary J. Evans) Both Saul’s servant and the young women played a crucial role. Without them, the story would not have played out like it does here.

What is your place in God’s plan? And what is your role in what God is doing here at New Providence? What is God asking you to do? How will God use you?