Friday, January 19, 2018

Cycle of Discipleship

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches on Sunday, Jan. 14. The text is John 1:43-51.

There is a cycle of discipleship that causes the church to grow: First is Jesus’ invitation to follow him, followed by the invitation to come and see. Then we are told what we will see, which is akin to receiving teaching and growing in faith. When this cycle is perpetuated and reproduced over and over in the lives of Christ’s followers, the church grows. This may sound a little crass, but it’s like the message on a bottle of shampoo: lather, rinse, repeat. In today’s gospel reading we see the lather, rinse, repeat of discipleship.

First, we have Jesus’ invitation to follow him. Jesus found Philip. Philip didn’t search high and low for Jesus. We cannot find Jesus. He isn’t lost, for one thing. Jesus finds us.

After finding Philip, Jesus says, “Follow me.” That’s good enough for Philip. “What is not obvious is the mysterious, inward, hidden work of God in creating each and every disciple, regardless of outward [means].  This first principle of discipleship is “obvious” only to those who believe—and even, then, not as something that is rationally explained, but simply confessed.” (Kuhl).

Next is Philip’s invitation to come and see. Just as Jesus found Philip, Philip found it necessary to find his friend Nathanael. The news about Jesus was something he just couldn’t keep to himself. There are two parts to Philip's witness: 1. Jesus is the fulfillment of scriptures and 2. Jesus is the son of Joseph from Nazareth. By "sight" he is the son of Joseph from Nazareth. By "faith" he is the Son who has come from God (Stoffregen).

How did Nathanael respond? “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” That seems negative, doesn’t it? The second title of Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth leads to Nathanael's prejudicial attitude about people from Nazareth (v. 46), which might be contrasted with Jesus' positive statement about Nathanael (v. 47) (Stoffregen).

Nazareth was a village of 200–400 people, like other villages, it was economically dependent on the city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee at that time. The Hebrew Scriptures never mention Nazareth, and certainly don’t associate it with messianic expectations. Nazareth, then, gave no special status to its inhabitants, so when Philip told Nathanael that Jesus was the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Nathanael figured that Philip had to be mistaken, since Jesus was the “son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1: 45). In Nathanael’s view, Jesus could be nothing more than a simple Jew from an insignificant village in Galilee. The Messiah would certainly be of more prominent parentage and come from a more significant town (Hoppe).

Philip demonstrates a good evangelistic principle for us. Rather than getting into an argument with Nathanael about Jesus, he issues an invitation to him to “Come and see.” When Nathanael takes Philip up on his challenge, Jesus says to him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” What does that mean? To be without deceit is to be honest, especially about oneself.

Then Jesus tells Nathanael that he saw him under a fig tree. Whether Nathanael was meditating, teaching or loafing, we don’t know, but Jesus did. Jesus knew him. This was overwhelming news to Nathanael, indicating that Jesus had some supernatural knowledge.
At this point, for Nathanael, transformation/faith/deceitlessness happens. Nathaniel becomes what Jesus declares him to be:  without deceit.  Through Jesus, deceitful/skeptical Nathanael is transformed by God into deceit less/believing Israel.  To affirm this transformation, Nathanael makes the first clear confession of faith in the Gospel of John:  “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (v. 49).  Discipleship (faith in Christ) and confession of Jesus as the Son of God go hand in hand.  A true Israelite is one who sees in Jesus the promised One of Scripture (cf. v. 45, 5:39, etc.). Nathanael believes and confesses his faith. He had been transformed. Nathanael had participated in a form of “show and tell.”

Jesus knows us—warts and all. He knows what we’re struggling with, what we’re joyful about. He knows us through and through and calls us beloved.

The third step in the discipleship process is, when we believe, we see greater things. In the final verse of today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells Nathanael, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” This is reminiscent of Jacob’s dream in Genesis of the ladder with angels ascending and descending on it. But the place where we now meet God is not in the ladder of Jacob’s dream, but in Jesus Christ, who himself is the ladder between heaven and earth.

“Nathanael will see greater things, like Jesus putting others’ lives before himself. Jesus will be the King of Israel (“King of the Jews” in 20:19) who puts the salvation of Nathanael, and Mary, and John, and you and me, ahead of his own life. He will be the Son of God and King worth being impressed by…” (Cornell). Jesus transformed Nathanael from skepticism to confession and the possibility of even greater experiences (Stoffregen).

When we get to this last verse, the “you” is not singular, but plural. Jesus is talking to a wider audience than simply Nathanael. He is speaking to us as well.

Last Sunday we heard about Jesus’ baptism, and now we have heard about his calling of the disciples. Jesus has found us in baptism and issued us the call to follow him. This Sunday’s gospel reading calls Jesus, son of Joseph, Rabbi, Son of God, King of Israel, and Son of Man. To speak the mystery of Christ, we need many titles.

Early followers of Jesus in the first and second centuries were not rich, influential or well-educated. They were often quite the opposite. The reason the church grew exponentially was because of their witness, their sharing of their faith, even at the potential cost of their lives. The same holds true for us. We don’t have to be anyone special to share our story of faith.

Think specifically and intentionally about what in your life reflects Jesus. How can you invite people to experience Christ through you during the week? There are a number of ways to witness to God’s love. You can commit to praying with someone. You may invite a friend to join you in serving the community through volunteering at a shelter, literacy program or other organization. In the coming weeks, you will hear more about an opportunity to help school children in Bemus Point, called 5 & 2. And of course, you can always invite someone to worship.

Do you know what the main reason is that most people come to a church for the first time? It is because someone, usually a friend or relative, has invited them! This is often difficult for us as Lutherans. But when we think about the future of this congregation, we need to consider the importance of multiplying disciples.

We can learn a lesson from some of our neighboring churches. In my past life, I had a “come to Jesus” experience. Like my peers who had experienced a conversion to Christ, we couldn’t help but share what God had done in our lives. People who go to the non-denominational, charismatic and Pentecostal type churches are indoctrinated with the importance of telling others about Christ. It is presumed that if you are a Christian, you will do that. Because members do that, more people come.

However, some of us are doing all we can just to get to church! God knows that. There is a great quote of Martin Luther’s that speaks to this. “We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.” This is just like the phrase, “I’m not what I’m going to be, but thank God I’m not what I used to be.”

Jesus has invited us to follow him. He has invited us to come and see what He is all about. “…when it comes to Jesus, it doesn’t stop with come and see, but always moves to the deeper invitation to come and be. Be what God has called you. Be the person the world needs Be the beloved child of God who invites others to a similarly transformative experience of relationship with Christ” (Lose).

Now it is our turn to respond to God’s call to us by inviting others to follow Jesus, to come and see what God has done in us. What might our lives and church look like if we all did this? God has so much more in store for us than we can ever ask, or think or imagine. And the best is yet to come.



Lori A. Cornell, Sabbatheology: 2 Epiphany, Gospel, Year B
Leslie J. Hoppe, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting On the Word, Year B, Volume 1
Steven C. Kuhl, Text Teaser for John 1:43-51, Epiphany 2, 2018
David Lose, Gracious Invitation,
Martin Luther, Defense and Explanation of all the Articles (1521), LW vol. 39.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

Thursday, January 18, 2018

One of These Things...

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. The text was Genesis 1:1-5. 

I’m sure most of us, at one time or another, have watched Sesame Street—either as children, or with our own children or grandchildren. One of my favorite things on the program is when they show a number of images and ask, “Which one of these is not like the other ones?” Well, I must say that those words came to me as I looked over the scripture lessons for today

I understand how the gospel story of Jesus’ baptism and the story from Acts regarding baptism fit together, but Genesis? That seemed to be the one thing that was not like the other things. Let’s see if we can get a handle on the creation and how it relates to the Baptism of Our Lord.

Have you ever seen an image from the Hubble telescope? I recently saw one that contains around 10,000 galaxies, including some that were not visible in previous imaging. It was so beautiful and was such an illustration of the power of the God who created the heavens and the earth.

First of all, in order to understand Genesis, we must realize that it is not a scientific treatise. Rather it is poetic theology regarding the character of God and his relationship to his creation. It is a passage of revelation and testimony of God’s creative works.

“In the beginning…God.” The Hebrew word used for God here stresses God’s sovereignty and incomparability. He is the “God of gods.” There is no other like our God.

“God created” (v. 1). Create “always describes the divine activity of fashioning something new, fresh and perfect.” It often stresses forming anew, reforming or renewing (Ps. 51:10; Isaiah 43:15, 65:17) (NET notes).

At this time, chaos and disorder reigned. “…the earth was a formless void…darkness covered the face of the deep” (v. 2). Listen to the way the Message translates the Hebrew. “Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness” (MSG). That’s exactly the way Hebrew scholars describe the term “formless void.”

God brought order about by a “wind from God,” the Spirit of God or the Holy Spirit. In both the Old Testament language of Hebrew and the New Testament language of Greek, the word translated “wind,” can also mean breath or spirit. Since that spirit is God’s, it is the Holy Spirit.

The Message once again beautifully and accurately describes the work of the Holy Spirit in creation. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss” (v. 2).

God’s next creative act is to bring light from darkness. This was done by God’s voice.
 “God said” (v. 3). When God speaks, something happens. Here God speaks creation into being. Let there be light(v. 3) and it appeared. This is but the beginning of what God speaks into being. Our God is talkative and creative. God is chatty. When God speaks, things happen.

“God saw that the light was good” (v. 4). Good signifies whatever enhances, promotes, produces or is conducive for life. God is good and that goodness is reflected in all of his works.

The opening verses of Genesis speak of beginnings and hope. “…light bursts into being (v. 2) and enables the possible perception of all other elements of creation” (Price). Light is the basis of life and order and is judged by God to be good (v. 4).  Light becomes a profound symbol for God’s coming into our world in Christ and for the fullness of life itself (John 8:12; 9:5).

God speaks and actions occur. We should understand our active God as a verb, not a noun.

What about the chaos of the world around us? What does creation have to do with that?Abuse of drugs and alcohol is rampant. Homelessness is all around us. On top of that, we see devastating, natural disasters and war. Are these issues outside the realm of God’s creative and re-creative powers? Absolutely not! When God entered our world’s chaos in Christ, in Bethlehem, the world was no better then than it is now.

God cares and wants to work in our world, so he calls us to be his co-creators in this world. One of the organizations I’m involved in is the Addiction Response Ministry. It consists of people from various denominations who care about this scourge in Chautauqua County. We’ve had the most response and success in the outpatient addiction unit at WCA. God is also creating and recreating lives in several of the area’s prisons.

There are many other organizations that need our help through prayer, giving and volunteering.

What about the chaos we may be experiencing in our own lives? We may not be in a place to help anyone else because we are barely keeping our heads above water.

In Genesis, we have the image of the Holy Spirit moving over the waters we feel like we’re drowning in—speaking and creating. Baptism can be seen as a new creation compared to the creation in Genesis. The original act of God was the first creation. The baptism of Jesus inaugurated Jesus’ ministry. Our own baptism inaugurated our new creation.

Our lives may be a mess. Is our marriage falling apart no matter what we do? Do we have a problem with an addiction of some sort? Or perhaps we have a child going his or her own way, making a mess of their life. Here the image of darkness seems to sum up what we’re experiencing. Has that ever been part of your life? Darkness describes what I have experienced at various times.

When I was in the hospital in February and had an ecoli infection, things were pretty dark. I overheard a nurse say to someone, “We thought we were going to lose her.” I felt so awful and weak and sad. I didn’t want to leave my family. Even though I knew I’d be ok, I wanted to see my granddaughter grow up and I wanted to have many more years with Ray. And I wanted to continue being a pastor.

During this time, twice I had the same dream. I was in a dark tunnel, trying to feel my way through. I was miserable and didn’t know which way to go or what to do. I was scared. Then there was a force ahead of me and I had the urge to push forward into that unknown force. After pushing into the force, I discovered it was the Holy Spirit. I felt embraced by the Spirit. I understood these dreams to mean that the Holy Spirit would bring me through the darkness, if I just trusted and let myself be engulfed by God’s Spirit. And here I am.

I have to admit that I wondered if these were dreams from God or if they were because of all the meds I was on. My spiritual director and others confirmed that they were from God, which is why I can share this experience with you now.

If God is still creating order out of chaos in the succession of day and night, just maybe, God might create order out of the chaos of our lives. God brings light out of darkness, not only in the first creation, but in us whenever we trust him to do so.

This initially happens in baptism, where God recreates us and infuses us with the Holy Spirit. On this celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord, I’d like to share something Luther wrote about baptism that applies to us:

Therefore every Christian has enough in Baptism to learn and to practice all his life; for he has always enough to do to believe firmly what it promises and brings: victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, the grace of God, the entire Christ, and the Holy [Spirit] with His gifts. 
By God’s grace, we have a hope that will sustain us in whatever circumstances life may throw at us. We have the Holy Spirit and his gifts so that we may not only be healed, but that we may spread the good news of the gospel in word and deed. We are to be God’s hands and feet in our world so that God’s creation of humanity, may be recreated into wholeness and health through us as co-creators with God.

“In the beginning…God” (v. 1) is the whole story in a nutshell—creation, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and God’s continuing, healing work in our own lives. As Luther wrote in The Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy [Spirit] has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith…” (The Small Catechism).

This is most certainly true.


Shauna Hannah, “Preaching Helps, Currents in Theology and Mission,” 45:1 (January 2018).
John H. Hayes, Preaching Through the Christian Year B
Mary Johnson, “Midweek Musings” for Sunday, January 7, 2018.
Martin Luther, “Baptism” in The Book of Concord.
___________, The Small Catechism in The Book of Concord.
Richard Boyce, Joseph L. Price, Donna Schafer, Feasting On the Word: Year B, Volume 1.
New English Translation, notes.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Order from Chaos

This is what I shared with St. Timothy Lutheran Church in our weekly eministry. It is my thoughts about the upcoming scriptures for this Sunday, the Baptism of Our Lord.

Genesis 1:1-5
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.


I’m sure most of us, at one time or another, have watched Sesame Street—either as children, or with our own children or grandchildren. One of my favorite things on the program is when they show a number of images and ask, “Which one of these is not like the other ones?” Well, I must say that those words occurred to me as I looked over the lessons for this coming Sunday.

I understand how the gospel story of Jesus’ baptism and the story from Acts regarding baptism fit together, but Genesis????? That seemed to be the thing that was not like the other things. Then I thought about it and read about it and a light went on.

There are commonalities in all three readings: the Holy Spirit, water and God’s work. It’s a bit harder to see in Genesis, but these factors are there. First, a wind of God “swept over the face of the waters” (v. 2). The word in Hebrew for wind is the same as spirit. A wind from God, may be understood as the Holy Spirit. We have the water. And then the really marvelous work God does is God brings order out of chaos, light from darkness.  God spoke the order into being: “Let there be light” (v. 3).

God brings order out of chaos. God brings light out of darkness. God the creator did all of that in Genesis and God is still creating and recreating in our lives today. If we are struggling in the dark, allow God to bring light and order to our lives, so that God may see, that it is good. 

Dear Lord, allow your Spirit to move over the chaos and troubled waters of our life. Bring order out of confusion and light out of darkness.

Friday, December 29, 2017

God Uses the Ordinary to Reveal the Extraordinary

This is the sermon I preached on Christmas Eve at St.Timothy Lutheran Church and at the combined worship service of St. Paul's Episcopal Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church. The text was Luke 2:1-14.
During Advent and Christmas, we are presented with the idea that Christmas is a magical time and anything is possible because after all, it is Christmas. We see this in television shows and the movies, especially the schmaltzy Hallmark movies that many of us love. But our personal reality is often quite different.
This is a time when people suffer from depression, from their first Christmas without a loved one, from illness, you name it. For many, it isn’t all magic and happiness.

After all the shopping, cleaning, cooking and preparing and after trying to make ends meet; keeping a distraught family together, struggling to get a job and worrying about a loved one serving overseas—after all the stuff that makes our lives crazy—the short, simple, peaceful word that we are of infinite value and worth to God is perhaps just what we need to hear tonight.

We long and hope that God will counter the challenges of our lives and our world. We look to One who claims us from marginal lives and engages us in this story of hope and promise.

Unlike Matthew’s birth narrative of Jesus, Luke emphasizes those of low and no status: a pregnant, engaged woman, “no place in the inn” and low class shepherds.

In Bethlehem, God reveals his power in weakness and the people who count include migrant workers keeping watch over their flocks by night. Why do you think Luke mentions the shepherds? Shepherds had bad reputations. Socially and religiously, they were treated almost as non-persons. They usually ranked with ass drivers, tanners, sailors, butchers, camel drivers and other despised occupations of the time. Because they had to be with the sheep at night and could not protect the women of the house, they were considered dishonorable. They were often thought of as thieves since they grazed their flocks on other people’s property. Because of their work, they normally couldn’t make it to the temple worship services. They didn’t practice sabbath day observances. They were seen as ignorant, irreligious, immoral, crude and vulgar.

The early rabbis added herdsman to the list of those ineligible to be witnesses in court and were among the type of dishonest people excluded from the court. But you know what—men who were not considered fit to be witnesses in court, are the first to witness the Christ child.

Shepherds are important because on the positive side, shepherds connected Jesus to the shepherd King, David. We also find them on Luke’s guest list for God’s kingdom: along with the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame (14:13,21).

In scripture, whenever someone has an encounter with an angel, they are afraid. The first words out of the angels’ mouths is always, “Do not be afraid.” When the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds, they were not only terrified, but “they feared a mega-fear.” This was a rare, special agony that was replaced by the “mega-joy” of the angel’s good news.

It was common in the Roman Empire for poets and orators to declare peace and prosperity at the birth of one who would become emperor. However, here in Luke’s gospel, from heaven comes good news of joy and peace because of the birth, not of an emperor, but of a Savior, Christ the Lord (v. 11). It was not in palace halls, but in fields to the poor and lowly that the news came first. The prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, that the poor have good news preached to them.

Why should anyone pay attention to a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, just like any other baby, whose crib is a manger, an animal’s feeding trough? God's son, vulnerable as every infant is vulnerable, subject to all the conditions under which we all live, fully identified with every human being's need for love. He lies here unnoticed—without trumpet or drum roll and without a place to lay his head.

Jesus came to show us just how much God loves us. After giving the law and sending prophets, God got involved—personally and intimately with God’s fallen creation.

The angels declare that which we so desperately long for today, peace on earth. Peace is a quality of wholeness in life. It is too immense to be confined to an inner experience and too personal to be left to the affairs of nations. It is fulfilled in the Christ child who would “guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:79) as Luke writes in his first chapter.

While people often speak of the magic of Christmas, God calls us to speak of the incarnation of Christmas. We come together to hear a familiar story and sing familiar hymns. The blessing and challenge of this time is to once again witness to God’s promise and promise-keeping with vitality, and to join the chorus of joy in what God has done and continues to do in being made real among us, ordinary people.

This Christmas, what does it mean for us to hear that God is found in the hidden and neglected places of the world? What does it mean for us this year to know that when God takes a census, all the people of the world matter as much as any citizen of any empire and any citizen of high class birth?

Jesus’ nativity demonstrates God’s reign spilling over the boundaries set by the powerful people of this world and into the margins. The holy family’s peace is interrupted by migrant laborers and an army of angels who point to a vision of the world as it could and should be. Being connected to the right people is replaced by being interconnected by a spirit of unity that brings all of us from the margins into the center of life. In Jesus, God declares a new standard for power, a word of hope, “good news” for all the fragile, the weak, the overlooked, the despised, the abandoned, the homeless and all those hovering between life and death. The festival of Jesus’ incarnation as one of us is “salvation to all” (Titus 2:11).

I bet you have been wondering about this arrow I drew. There was a seminary professor who drew a similar arrow on the chalkboard and then left the room. The seminarians were of course, very confused. When the professor returned he explained that “God is the God who always comes down.”

We can’t do anything to make our way up to God. In the incarnation, God came down to us and God continues to come down to us because we are incapable of even living the Christian life on our own. We might not be as bad as shepherds, but it is only by God’s invitation and work that we have come to Jesus. God not only invited shepherds to see and believe in Jesus, but God has invited each of us to see and believe in Jesus, the world’s Savior and our own Savior.

We cannot and dare not keep this amazing good news of God coming to humanity to ourselves or in our church. After all, Mary’s baby is God’s yes to all the world, including us.

Earth is not looking to heaven for a sign, but heaven looks to earth. The extraordinary points to the ordinary and says, “See, God is among you.” Share this good news.



Jerry Burce, Sabbath Theology
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year C 
David Ewart,
Brian Stoffregen,

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Christmas Memories

In the 1980s, my family and I lived in Palestine, in Bethlehem. Christmas, obviously, was a very special time. We would have a 3 day Christmas Feast for Muslims, where university students would pour into the Friendship Center that we worked in.

The stories below, especially the one by Carrie, really struck me and brought the memories flooding back from so long ago.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Rejoice, Give Thanks, Pray

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches. The text was 1Thessalonians 5:16-24.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, also known as gaudete or rejoice Sunday. We are near the end of our advent pilgrimage and that much closer to the celebration of our Lord’s birth and so there is much to rejoice about. Today’s epistle  reading begins with the words, “Rejoice always” (v. 16).

The more I looked at this reading, the more I noticed a whole lot of “dos” and “don’ts.” In fact, the chorus of the 1970 song, “Signs,” by the Five Man Electric Band came to mind:

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

The first four verses are filled with the “Do this, don’t do that[s].” It seems like Paul is laying down rules for the Thessalonians and for us, what we Lutherans would refer to as law.

The verbs in this passage are all plural. Paul is not addressing the Thessalonians as individuals, but as a community of faith. This letter is addressed to a church that had experienced much persecution, and yet, this passage starts out, “Rejoice always” (v. 16). Really???

Rejoice is but the first of three, quick, staccato-like commands to be done “always…without ceasing…[and] in all circumstances” (vv. 16-18).  There is no time to pause from these actions. The Thessalonians were not to rejoice only when things were good, but when they were bad as well.

Next, Paul says to pray without ceasing, pray always. This is the only way to be joyful in times of trial.

What is prayer? It's a conversation that grows out of a relationship with God and God’s people. To pray always is to cultivate “the habit of gratitude… [so] that being grateful becomes…an attitude that [enlightens and molds] all that we do” (Griffiths). Through prayer, our hearts are opened to the possibility of receiving God’s gifts.

Prayer “without ceasing” does not mean continual, non-stop prayer. It is constantly recurring prayer, out of an attitude of dependence upon God. Whether or not prayer is verbal, lifting our hearts to God while involved with various duties is what counts. Verbal prayer becomes spontaneous, punctuating our daily schedule.

Prayer as an attitude of gratitude can eventually be lived in, like a second skin. This understanding of prayer makes it possible to pray without ceasing.
Constant rejoicing and regular thanksgiving are themselves perpetual prayer (Bartlett)

The next command is to give thanks in all circumstance—not just when things are good and easy.

What can this mean? Should you rejoice when the person you love dies horribly before your eyes? Should you pray when you are studying, when you are making love, when you are eating, when you are sleeping? Should you give thanks when you get the news that you have contracted a fatal disease that will kill you painfully within six months?

It does not sound immediately sensible to give thanks in these circumstances. So what in the world could Paul possibly mean? These experiences are not gifts for which we rejoice, but they are occurrences of loss, that call for lament. Lament is the prayerful response to the damage of God’s gifts, just as gratitude is the response to its wholeness. “Both are required in a damaged world, and both belong to prayer” (Griffiths).

Cultivating gratitude, which is the basic attitude of prayer, makes a difference in our openness to God. It removes deep anxiety, a problem for many of us. This does not happen right away, but over time as we grow in faith and love.

Paul continues, “…for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (v. 18). This justifies the brief commands to rejoice, pray and give thanks. These are such vital parts of God’s will for us. Only “in Christ Jesus” can our inner motives be touched.

The call to follow Christ is simple and direct, rejoice, pray, give thanks always and no matter what happens (Hogan). “The ability to [do so] forms the model for worship as a community” (McCoy and Fistler). It is the sign that the Holy Spirit is with God’s people.

We cannot divide our lives into God and not God-related parts. God seeks to be glorified in every avenue of our lives. Voting, family relationships, business decisions are all as important to God as are public and private worship. There is no situation in which we cannot recognize expressions of divine mercy; thereby giving God thanks.

Paul writes, “Do not quench the Spirit.” Literally this verse means, “Stop putting out the Spirit’s fire.” The Holy Spirit is probably the person of the trinity that we understand the least. Its work is more behind the scenes and yet so integral to the life of Christ’s church. The Holy Spirit is a burning presence, which imparts special gifts for ministry to the people of God.

Perhaps the reason Paul tells the Thessalonians to “Stop” quenching the Spirit is because there had been abuse of the Spirit’s gifts in worship, such as prophecy. Rather than risk misuse of such gifts, they may have been prohibited altogether.

What happens if we do quench the Spirit? Worship becomes a mere rote, lifeless ritual and chore, rather than something that revitalizes us. Another consequence is the loss of prophetic consciousness. The church then becomes a despiser of the poor and hater of the weak, instead of obeying the prophetic impulses of the Spirit when issues of poverty, care for the destitute and needy are at stake.

Paul tells the Thessalonians, “Do not “despise the words of prophets” (v. 20).
The Thessalonians’ lives were to be grounded not only in the Holy Spirit, but in the words of the prophets, who had already been directing their lives. Today we think of prophets as psychics who claim to predict the future. However, a prophet is one who proclaims God’s will, a forth-teller rather than a foreteller.

Prophecy was among the gifts showing that the Holy Spirit was alive and present within the body of Christ. Without the manifestations of the Holy Spirit, the church’s life becomes dull and fades. Yet without discernment, everything may be attributed to the Spirit, whether it is from God or not.

The role of the congregation is to “listen attentively and generously,” (not quenching the Spirit) and to “listen thoughtfully” (thereby testing everything). Just because someone claims to speak for God, doesn’t mean that he or she does. Do their words glorify God? Is the cross lifted up? Is Jesus Christ proclaimed as Lord? Ultimately, genuine gifts of God are conducive to growing Christian love and the Holy Spirit’s power in our communities of faith.

Paul writes, “Abstain from every form of evil” ( v. 22). To put it simply, if it isn’t from God; stay away. If it fails the test, we don’t want it. Thankfully, this discerning of whether or not something is from God is not up to us individually, but rather it is done in community, with the Holy Spirit.
The last two verses are a prayer and a promise. Paul prays for wholeness and sanctification for the Thessalonians. The promise is that it is God who makes us whole.

Our sanctification and blamelessness is God’s work.  It’s not about specific actions or a list of things one shouldn’t do, such as an old adage, “Don’t smoke, drink or chew or go with girls that do.” The issue at hand is wholeness, completeness.

Concerning sanctification, Daniel Wallace writes that Christians should have a “robust faith and a life of enjoyment of God and of the good gifts he bestows on us…” The sanctification Paul writes about concerns staying away from false teaching and has nothing to do with one’s lifestyle per se.

God wants to sanctify us in our entirety; Spirit, soul and body. This does not regard a dividing up our lives, but instead it’s concerning the totality of who we are, through and through.

Hear the good news: “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (v. 24). Phew! All of these “dos” and “don’t” are not put on our shoulders to carry. God does all of this work in and through us.

God does, therefore, we can. The result of a joyful, prayerful, holy life is not that we sit inside and pray all day, ignoring the world around us. God’s concern and care for all humanity and creation motivates us to take action. God directs us by the Spirit into ways we need to be involved in our world. God’s work. Our hands, as the motto of the ELCA declares.

This week, I’d like you to think about a few things. What has made you hopeful? What have you thanked God for? How have you been open to God’s Spirit in practical ways? In other words, where have you seen God at work in your life and in this world?

Our lives are full and joyful because of God’s work in and through us and God is faithful.


David L. Bartlett, Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; David L. Bartlett and 

Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors.

Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year B

Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Abridged Edition): New Testament

Paul J. Griffiths,

Lucy LInd Hogan,

Robb McCoy and Eric Fistler,

W. C. Turner, Feasting On the Word