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 signBlockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mindDo 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, Baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/92494.pdf
Lucy LInd Hogan,
Robb McCoy and Eric Fistler,
W. C. Turner, Feasting On the Word