It’s not surprising that a text from Paul’s letter to the Philippians was chosen as the epistle lesson for Thanksgiving. It is, after all, a letter of thanksgiving. Paul is writing to a church that was very special to him in order to thank them for money that they had sent to support him.
Paul had founded the church at Philippi when he preached the Gospel there during his second missionary journey. The apostle and the Christians at Philippi developed a very close relationship, and even after he had continued on to other cities they sent money to support him. He says in our text, “And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.”
Paul is saying thank you, and he is also seeking to handle an awkward situation that had transpired in relation to their gift. The Philippians had sent their gift to Paul in the hands of their pastor Epaphroditus. No doubt, in addition to being a trustworthy person to transport the money, they also thought he would be of assistance to Paul.
However, things had not quite gone as expected. Epaphroditus had become seriously ill while with Paul. Instead of their pastor helping Paul, it had turned out that Paul needed to care for Epaphroditus! This was an embarrassment to Epaphroditus, and also the Philippians who had sent him.
So Paul says in the second chapter of this letter that he is now sending Epaphroditus whom he describes as “my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need.” Paul wants the Philippians to know that Epaphroditus had in fact been been near to death. And then he adds, “I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious.b So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men,for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”
The apostle thanks the Philippians for their gift. He says, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me.” He recalls that this was just one more example of the love and support they had showed toward him.
Paul has reason to give thanks. And at the beginning of our text as he encourages the Philippians to pray he also encourages them to give thanks. He says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
The theme of thanksgiving prepares us for tomorrow as we celebrate Thanksgiving Day. If the things tomorrow don’t make you want to give thanks, then nothing will. There will be turkey and stuffing and pies; family, friends and football.
But the interesting thing about our text is that in much of it, Paul talks about situations that we don’t normally associate with the giving of thanks. He begins by urging the Philippians not to worry. He introduces his thanks for the gift by saying, “Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.” For after all, Paul writes from prison. He needed help because at that time he was imprisoned for the sake of the Gospel.
Our lives are filled with circumstances that we don’t want – situations that are challenging, difficult and can wear us down. We encounter illness, struggles in relationships and questions about the future. These are not situations in which we feel motivated to give thanks. They are not situations in which we are inclined to feel content. More likely they are times when we find our trust in God faltering; when we are frustrated with him; when we question him.
Paul is thankful for the help he has received from the Philippians. But in our text he acknowledges that in addition to the good, life is also filled with unwanted circumstances. He says, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”
Why can Paul do this? He says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Now this verse, Phil 4:13 is one of the more commonly used texts in the Bible. It is also one of the more misunderstood verses for two reasons. The first is a translations issue. In trying to give a smooth English translation we have, “I can do all things.” It sounds like Paul says he can do anything. But more literally it means, “I am able with respect to all things.” It doesn’t really mean “I can do.” The apostle is not saying he can do anything he chooses – anything he sets as a goal. He is saying that has the sufficiency to handle things. And the “things” to which Paul refers are specifically those that he has just mentioned: being brought low and abounding; facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. These are not self chosen goals. They are the circumstances that God allows in life.
Why does Paul have this ability? It is because of the One who strengthens him. It is because of God in Christ. As Paul says at the beginning of our text, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The source of this ability is the love God has revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The source is our baptism into Christ by which the Spirit has given us regeneration and renewal. The source is the Spirit’s work who gives us confidence in God’s continuing love and care. The source is the hope for the future we have because of the resurrection of our Lord.
When we live with our minds focused on God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, then we have the ability to handle being brought low and abounding; facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. As those in Christ, through the work of the Spirit, God gives us that ability to trust in him and to carry on doing the things we need to do. This is not the promise of going from one great self chosen success to another. It is God’s promise that in Christ he gives us the grace we need to believe, trust and walk faithfully through the course of life that he wills. It is the ability to trust that it is God’s will, and that God is working for my good no matter whether I would have chosen it or not.
Now this may not sound like a Thanksgiving sermon. But recall again how our text begins: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” What are the occasions that make us anxious? They are things like being brought low, and facing hunger and need. And Paul says that petitions about such things are made with thanksgiving. How can we give thanks in the midst of such things? It is because we know that through Christ who strengthens us we are able with respect to all things – including all those things.
And of course, as Paul tells us, those things are not only bad. They also include abounding; facing plenty and abundance. Spiritually, we always have this. We always have the crucified and risen Lord. We always have the certainty of God’s love and forgiveness – a love and forgiveness we continue to receive through his Means of Grace. We always have the certainty that the final outcome is not only eternal life with Christ, but resurrection on the Last Day.
And in abundant ways, God does continue to give us everything that we need to support this body and life. He has promised us food and clothing. Yet he has given us so much more than that. And so we give thanks to the One who strengthens us.