Rejoice in the Lord always…with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Gracious God, we gather together during this season,
out of custom and a broad sense of national community,
to recognize your hand of blessing that has rested upon us for so long.
Yet we also come out of a sense of our own need—
some believing and rejoicing, some afraid or full of doubt—
many wanting and waiting for a word of hope from you.
May such hope well up inside us, even as we consider the words of the day:
your grace and our gratitude.
Parents want their children to be polite. “Please and thank you” is one of the first things we learn to say. But near the end of his letter to the early church at Philippi, St. Paul says, “with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Thanksgiving comes first, then our requests. It’s our childhood duty in reverse: “Thank you and please.”
Before he was a Christian, Paul was a very religious Jew. He knew the Hebrew Bible backward and forward. He knew that the Old Testament is full of stories about God at work in history—not only for Israel, but for the whole world. This point of view was part of Paul’s integrating worldview. He could see in Scripture an important and recurring pattern of God’s action and our reaction, God’s call and our response, God’s grace and our gratitude. The clear pattern is this: God acts on our behalf. God takes initiative. God intervenes. Then God invites us to notice.
Over and over in the Old Testament, Israel was challenged to remember what God had done for them. Not just so they could keep straight the facts, but so they could interpret and teach their significance and meaning from generation to generation. In Deuteronomy 29, near the end of his life, Moses told the children of Israel,
Secret things belong to the Lord our God,
but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever,
that we may follow all the words of this law.
Paul’s New Testament letters also emphasize that God clearly acts on our behalf, and wants us to clearly recognize those initiatives and benefits. It’s a matter of perspective. Noted preacher Earl Palmer, says that “for Paul, it’s the love of God that triggers human faith, not human faith that creates the love of God.” Paul presumes and preaches that God actually has done something for which to be thankful. Christians are marked chiefly by gratitude.
This isn’t a universally shared conviction. The late Ray Stedman, a pastor himself, told a story of a well-known minister who was awaiting his meal in a crowded restaurant. As he was being served, a man approached him and asked if he could join him. The minister invited him to have a seat, then as was his custom, bowed his head in prayer.
When he opened his eyes, the other man asked, “Do you have a headache? The minister replied, “No, I don’t.” The other man asked, “Well, is there something wrong with your food?” The minister replied, “No, I was simply thanking God as I always do before I eat.”
The man said, “Oh, you’re one of those, are you? Well, I want you to know I never give thanks. I earn my money by the sweat of my brow and I don’t have to thank anybody when I eat. I just start right in!” The minister said, “Yes, you’re just like my dog. That’s what he does, too.”
But even a dog nuzzles the hand of its master, and finds great joy in pleasing its benefactor. God’s children know that grace invites gratitude, and blessings invite thanksgiving.
Two New Testament words beautifully characterize this pattern of gratitude following grace. The first relates to God’s initiative, God’s intervention, and God’s invitation. From it we derive our words, evangelism and evangelical, because it’s the word for God’s message to us: the Gospel. The second relates to our response to God. It forms the basis for one of the words we use to describe Holy Communion: Eucharist.
Evangel conveys a sense of joy, news that cannot be contained, something to be heralded. Luke records the words of the messenger-angel: “I bring you good news of great joy…a Savior has been born to you.” Eucharist conveys a sense of grace or favor, leading to gratitude and giving thanks. Opportunity for rejoicing inherent in the word is why it has become one of our chief descriptors of the Lord’s Supper. Together Evangel and Eucharist beautifully capture the flip-side nature of God’s grace and our gratitude.
In one of his pithy “Rest of the Story” radio moments years ago, commentator Paul Harvey related the following story:
It is gratitude that prompted an old man to visit an old, broken pier on the eastern seacoast of Florida. Every Friday night, until his death in 1973, he would return, walking slowly and slightly stooped with a large bucket of shrimp. The sea gulls would flock to this old man, and he would feed them from his bucket. Many years before, in October 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was on a mission in a B-17 airplane to deliver an important message to General Douglas MacArthur in New Guinea. But there was an unexpected detour which would hurl Captain Rickenbaker into the most harrowing adventure of his life.
Somewhere over the South Pacific, the Flying Fortress became lost beyond reach of radio. Fuel ran dangerously low, so the men ditched the plane in the ocean.
For nearly a month Captain Rickenbacker and his companions would fight the water, and the weather, and the scorching sun. They spent many sleepless nights recoiling as giant sharks rammed their rafts. The largest raft was nine feet by five. The biggest sharks were ten feet long.
But of all their enemies at sea, one proved most formidable: starvation. After only eight days, their rations were long gone or destroyed by the salt water. It would take a miracle to sustain them. And a miracle occurred.
In Captain Rickenbacker’s own words: “Cherry—that was the B-17 pilot, Captain William Cherry—held a worship service that afternoon, and we finished with a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise. There was some talk, but it tapered off in the oppressive heat. With my hat pulled down over my eyes to keep out some of the glare I dozed off.
Then something landed on my head. I knew it was a sea gull. I don’t know how I knew, I just knew. Everyone else knew, too. No one said a word, but peering out from under my hat brim without moving my head, I could see the expressions on their faces. They were staring at that gull. That gull meant food… if I could catch it.
“And the rest,” as Harvey typically says, “is history.”
Captain Rickenbacker caught the gull and it was eaten. Its innards were used for bait to catch fish. The survivors were sustained and their hopes were renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically a thousand miles from land, offered itself as a sacrifice.
Captain Rickenbacker and his companions made it. And he never forgot. Because every Friday evening, about sunset, on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast, you could see an old man walking, white-haired, bushy-browed, slightly bent. His bucket filled with shrimp was to feed the gulls… to remember that one which, on a day long past, gave itself without struggle… like manna in the wilderness.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!
This is no idle call to naïve, “Pollyanna” living. St. Paul does not say “Always be happy!” Happiness is an emotional byproduct of an act of the will. Rejoicing is that act of the will—anticipating and responding to the initiative and intervention of God, no matter what happens, as did Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and his companions, lost and found at sea.
What a beautiful metaphor this is for us, in many ways lost at sea and in need of rescue. Our salvation has come through the advent of a Savior, uncharacteristically far away from heaven’s throne, to our little rafts, where otherwise we are without hope. News of his coming was a good word, the best word we could hear. How appropriate that this gospel was heralded by angels! Worship, and witness to this “good news of great joy,” are our best and most grateful responses to the seeking and finding grace of God.