1 Thessalonians 5:12-28
We have reached the Third Sunday of Advent. We have lit the rose-colored candle, which symbolizes the message of joy. The Psalm for the day declares that “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.” Then in the closing verses of the Psalm, the people sing: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (Psalm 126:5-6).
As we gather to celebrate this message of Joy, we hear the words of Paul to the church at Thessalonika. If you want to get a sense of what the church looked like in its earliest days, this letter to a Macedonian church is a good place to go, since this is believed to be the oldest part of the New Testament. What we have read are Paul’s final exhortations and benediction. There’s a flurry of information here that can overwhelm the reader and leave the preacher puzzled as to how to deal with it. Fortunately for this preacher, there are a couple of phrases that lend themselves to an old style of preaching. Preachers fondly refer to this style as “three points and a poem.”
If you look at verses 16 through 18 you’ll find Paul telling the Thessalonian church to “Rejoice Always, Pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of Christ Jesus for you.” This makes for a nice three point sermon: “Rejoice Always, Pray Always, Give Thanks Always.”
We hear this command to rejoice, pray, and give thanks during this time of waiting. As we noted last week, waiting is difficult. Paul Tillich suggested that part of the problem with waiting is that we think we possess God. We want to think we control everything around us, including God. But that is simply not the case. God always seems to evade our attempts to control or manipulate the divine. So we get frustrated. On the other hand, Tillich also suggests that “the fact that we wait for something shows that in some way we already possess it. Waiting anticipates that which is not yet real. If we wait in hope and patience the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us.” [The Shaking of the Foundations, pp. 150-151]. It is in that spirit that we hear Paul the Apostle invite us to rejoice, pray, and give thanks—always—as we await the full unveiling of the realm of God, which is already working within us and around us.
We hear the first word:
• Rejoice Always
What a fitting word for the Sunday we light the candle of joy. Yes, rejoice always, but how? What does this mean for us in daily life? Surely there are many times when we’re not happy about things, so how do we rejoice always? Paul Tillich writes that “joy is born out of union with reality itself.” [The New Being, p. 146]. That reality can include pain and suffering, but joy is still present. Indeed, “joy is more than pleasure; and it is more than happiness” [p. 149]. It is more specifically a state of blessedness. As Tillich puts it, “blessedness is the eternal element in joy, that which makes it possible for joy to include in itself the sorrow out of which it arises, and which it takes into itself” [p. 150]. So rejoice, for even as you sow tears you will reap shouts of joy, because God is the source of blessing.
• Pray Always
If it is difficult to rejoice always, isn’t it even more difficult to pray without ceasing? Maybe if I was a monk or a nun, then I could spend my life in constant prayer, but I have things to do. I have people to see. So, how can I pray without ceasing? What if Paul has something different in mind than what we might think of as praying always. Perhaps what Paul has in mind is keeping God always in focus. Buddhists speak of mindfulness, and perhaps that’s a good place to start.
It is said that most of us are practical atheists. We live our live daily lives without giving much thought to God’s presence. We live as if everything depends upon us. Perhaps to pray without ceasing is to keep in mind God’s grace and presence in all that we do. The promise of Advent is that Emmanuel, “God Is with Us” is coming. The promise of Advent is that we are not alone. We are bathed in the presence of God, whether we acknowledge that presence or not.
I have been exploring Tom Oord’s theology of the “uncontrolling love of God.” In fact, I had a lengthy Skype conversation with Tom earlier this week, and we talked about Tom’s vision of God as noncoercive love. In this vision, God continually reaches out to creation, lovingly inviting us to participate with God in God’s redeeming work. Perhaps this is what it means to pray without ceasing. If we understand God to be spirit, and the Hebrew and Greek words for spirit can be translated as wind, we might think of prayer as putting up our sails and catching God’s loving wind, and doing so we move about as God’s partners in ministry.
• Give Thanks Always
Finally, we are invited to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus” for us. This might be the most difficult request, because there are lots of circumstances in life for which we would rather not give thanks. There have been several points in my own life, where I have found it difficult to give thanks. We have all joined the writers of the Psalms who cry out in anguish asking why God has abandoned them. The words from Psalm 22, which were on the lips of Jesus as he hung on the cross, might reflect our own sense of divine abandonment: “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest” (Ps. 22:2).
Perhaps the answer is to be found in the choice of prepositions. We are not commanded to give thanks for everything. Instead, we’re told to given thanks in all things. The promise that supports this call is rooted in God’s faithfulness. As Paul writes in verse 24: “The one who calls you is faithful.” We don’t give thanks for the circumstances, but for the presence of the one who is faithful, the one who walks with us in every circumstance, including the most challenging of circumstances. When Deanna Thompson was with us, she shared the story of her experience with cancer. I don’t think Deanna relishes this disease that has stricken her life, but she has found hope in the midst of her circumstances. She writes this in her book Hoping for More of her battle with cancer:
What ending in hope does mean is that I am learning to trust that grace is sufficient for today, for tomorrow and beyond. And that whatever happens, I know that grace will continue to accompany me on the rest of my journey through this life and even into the next. [Thompson, Hoping for More, p. 144].
Deanna’s story is a good lesson in what it means to give thanks in all circumstances. It is simply a word of trust that God is faithful and that God is present in all things, including our suffering. Yes, we give thanks because we are not alone.
Paul concludes his letter with this benediction: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” When Paul wrote this letter early in his ministry, he apparently believed that the second Advent was near at hand. He didn’t counsel the people of God to put down deep roots, though he did tell the people not to be idlers, and to do “good to one another and to all.” Paul’s instructions were given to people who thought the end of the age was near at hand. Time was running out. Of course, time continues to roll on, and we continue to wait. The season of Advent might only be four weeks long, but our wait for the coming of God’s realm has taken a lot longer, and the end is not in sight.
Here are the three points: rejoice, pray, give thanks—always—for that is the will of God. Now for the poem, which I draw from a hymn of Alberto Taulé
All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
and open furrows, the sowing of our God.
All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
it cries out for justice and searches for truth. [Chalice Hymnal, 139].
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
December 17, 2017