Advent 3B 2020
In these very dark times, today is called to be a happy day. This is Gaudete Sunday when we light the pink candle in the advent wreath. This comes from “Gaudete in Domino semper.” (“Rejoice in the Lord always) Through the season of Advent, while we try to make ourselves ready for the coming of baby Jesus, we have weeks of calls for repentance and warnings about the end times, but we get a break for just one Sunday: today, we get to cheer up and rejoice in the coming of the Lord.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is known to be the oldest scripture in the New Testament, probably written around the year 51 just 20 years after Jesus died. This community in Thessalonica was suffering a great deal as they were persecuted and killed for their faith. From a bible called the “Easy to Read” version, let me read this short scripture again:
“Always be full of joy. Never stop praying. Whatever happens, always be thankful. This is how God wants you to live in Christ Jesus. Don’t stop the work of the Holy Spirit. Don’t treat prophecy like something that is not important. But test everything. Keep what is good and stay away from everything that is evil. We pray that God himself, the God of peace, will make you pure belonging only to him. We pray that your whole self—spirit, soul, and body—will be kept safe and be blameless when our Lord Jesus Christ comes. The one who chose you will do that for you. You can trust him.”
How must these words have struck the persecuted, isolated community of Thessalonica? A call to “always be full of joy” must have sounded as odd to them as it does to us today in our dark time. And don’t you think these are impossible commands? “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks.” If Paul had only said, “Rejoice a lot, pray often, and try to be thankful,” I’d say, “Okay, I can do that!” No one honestly can say, “I never stop rejoicing, praying, or giving thanks!”
But when I wistfully remember worship at St. Mark’s I am struck by how much joy, prayer, and thanks we have around here. In our Bible study we pray, study, and have fun. Our Sunday worship is full of joy and laughter and often, some of us are moved to tears. We are open to the work of the Holy Spirit here at our church, and for that I am grateful! I so long to return to worshipping together. But I understand that we are doing the most Christlike thing when we put the health of others before ourselves and stay home.
Back to Paul exhorting the Thessalonians to “always be full of joy.” Always? Paul isn’t looking at these folks through rose colored glasses. He knows that they are facing persecution, they are poor, and oftentimes their families disown them when they began to follow Christ. Yet Paul and his fellow writers often call the early Christians to live lives characterized by joy.
The good news is that this call to joy is immediately followed by “Never stop praying.” God gives us prayer to cope with all that we face in life. When we pray, we walk with God, we walk with the Spirit. While we ask God for help, he might just interrupt us and tell us to help him out with the needs of others. Prayer takes us out of ourselves and makes us people for others.
Paul exhorts: “Whatever happens, always be thankful.” Certainly, in this past year I’ve been incredibly thankful for simply staying healthy and having a home. In my journal I remember to be grateful for small blessings like rainfall, the beauty around us and of course, our dog Luna! Find the good in each day and then thank God for it.
Rejoice, pray and be thankful. Paul tells us that this is how God wants you to live in Christ Jesus. Listen to that carefully: we live IN Christ Jesus. We may live in the world, but it is really Jesus who is in control. Christ is central to our joy, our prayer, and our thanksgiving.
Then Paul closes with a beautiful blessing for the Thessalonians. Let Paul say this to you today: “We pray that God himself, the God of peace, will make you pure—belonging only to him. We pray that your whole self—spirit, soul, and body—will be kept safe and be blameless when our Lord Jesus Christ comes. The one who chose you will do that for you. You can trust him.”