Thursday, December 21, 2023

Rejoice, Pray, Give Thanks...Always

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

Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is Joy Sunday. Our celebration of our Lord’s birth is right around the corner, and there is much to rejoice about. Today’s epistle reading begins with the words, “Rejoice always” (v. 16).

The verbs are all plural. Paul is not addressing individuals, but the community of faith. This is a church that has experienced much persecution, and yet Paul writes,  “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). The command is to rejoice not only when things are good, but when they are bad as well.

Paul says to pray always; that is the only way to be joyful in times of trial. This conversation 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). Prayer opens our hearts to the possibility of receiving God’s gifts.

Prayer “without ceasing” is a constantly recurring prayer from an attitude of dependence upon God. Lifting our hearts to God while involved with various duties is what counts. Verbal prayer becomes spontaneous, punctuating our daily schedule.

We can eventually live in prayer as an attitude of gratitude, like a second skin, making it possible to pray without ceasing. Constant rejoicing and regular thanksgiving are themselves perpetual prayer (Bartlett)

Next, Christians are to give thanks in all circumstances. What can this mean? Should we rejoice when the person we love dies horribly before our eyes? Should we pray when we are studying, when we are making love, when we are eating, or when we are sleeping? Should we give thanks when we get the news that we have contracted a fatal disease that will kill us painfully within six months?

These are not gifts for which we rejoice, but occurrences of loss that call for lament. Lament is the prayerful response to the damage to God’s gifts, just as gratitude is the response to their wholeness. “Both are required in a damaged world, and both belong to prayer” (Griffiths).

Cultivating gratitude, the basic attitude of prayer, makes a difference in our openness to God. It removes deep anxiety, a problem for many of us. This happens 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), justifying 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.

God seeks to be glorified in every avenue of our lives. Voting, family relationships, and 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, “Stop putting out the Spirit’s fire.” The Holy Spirit is likely 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, imparting special gifts for ministry to the people of God.

Perhaps Paul tells the Thessalonians to “stop” quenching the Spirit because there has 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.

If we quench the Spirit, worship becomes a lifeless ritual and chore rather than something that revitalizes us. We lose prophetic consciousness. The church then becomes a despiser of the poor and a hater of the weak instead of obeying the prophetic impulses of the Spirit when issues of poverty and care for the destitute and needy are at stake. In today’s world, we have many opportunities to care for these hurting ones.

Paul instructs, “Do not “despise the words of prophets” (v. 20). The Thessalonians’ lives were to be grounded not only in the Holy Spirit but also in the words of the prophets, who had already been directing their lives. Prophets are not psychics who claim to predict the future, but ones who proclaim God’s will, forth-tellers rather than foretellers.

Without the Holy Spirit’s work, 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. Just because someone claims to speak for God doesn’t mean that he or she does. Do their words glorify God? Is the cross uplifted? 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. 

Paul ends this passage with 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. Sanctification and blamelessness are God’s work. The issue at hand is wholeness and completeness. 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, through and through.

“The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (v. 24). Phew! All of these “dos” and “don'ts” 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. This week, let's think about a few things. What has made us hopeful? What have we thanked God for? How have we been open to God’s Spirit in practical ways? Where have we seen God at work in our lives and in this world?

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

Amen.

References

David L. Bartlett, W. C. Turner, Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. 

Larry Broding, sunday.com/Filesb/3Advent-b/SR-3Advent-b.html

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, workingpreacher.org

Robb McCoy and Eric Fistler, pulpitfiction.com

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