Advent 3, 2023
Today is a happy day. Today we are called to REJOICE! This is Gaudete Sunday (which means ‘rejoice’) when we light the pink candle in the advent wreath. What’s this all about? Through the penitent season of Advent, while we try to make ourselves ready for the coming of baby Jesus, we have four 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.
In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, we are called to rejoice, pray and be grateful. This is known to be the oldest scripture in the New Testament, probably written around the year 51, so just about 20 years after Jesus died. Let me read a different version of this, from a bible called the “Easy to Read” version:
“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 chooses you will do that for you. You can trust him.”
Does anyone else 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!” Can anyone honestly say, “I never stop rejoicing, praying or giving thanks!”?
But when I think about St. Mark’s I am struck by how much joy, prayer, and thanks we do have around here. Our Sunday worship is full of joy and laughter and often, some tears. We are open to the work of the Holy Spirit here at our church, and for that I am grateful! John Stott argues that ‘Paul’s commands are not directed to us individually, but rather to the church. And while our corporate worship should be filled with joy, prayer, and thanksgiving, we will not do these together in worship if we haven’t been doing them individually during the week.’
Let’s break this down a bit: Paul exhorts 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’re poor, and oftentimes their families have disowned them when they began to follow Christ. Yet Paul and his fellow writers often call the early Christians to live lives characterized by joy. Leon Morris describes the early Christians thus: “They thought more of their Lord than of their difficulties, more of their spiritual riches in Christ than of their poverty on earth, more of the glorious future when Christ would come than of their unhappy past.”
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. Prayer is an attitude, a sense of fellowship with God, an awareness of God’s presence in our lives. 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. I’m so grateful that I have prayer to help me get through life.
Paul reminds us that: “Whatever happens, always be thankful.” I’ve fought depression my whole life and have found that living with an attitude of gratitude really does make a huge difference in my mental health. Actively look for the good in each day and then thank God for it.
The next part of our reading is: ‘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.’
It appears that folks in Thessalonica weren’t happy that some in their midst claimed to have the gift of prophecy, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Paul tells them to not take that lightly but test everything. In our present days of ‘alternative facts’ – testing is a good idea. Just apply this one test to any spiritual prophecy: “If it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.”
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 chooses you will do that for you. You can trust him.”
All this talk about prayer reminds me of a joke: A pastor had a little kitten stuck high up in a tree, and the kitty would not come down. The tree wasn’t strong enough to climb so the pastor decided that if he tied a rope to his car and drove until the tree bent down, he could reach up and get the kitten. But as he moved just a little too far, the rope broke, the tree snapped upright and the poor kitty sailed through the air and out of sight.
The pastor felt just terrible and went all over the neighborhood looking for his kitty, but no luck. Finally, he prayed, “Lord, I commit this kitten to Your keeping,” and went home.
A few days later he was at the grocery store and met one of his church members who was buying cat food. Now this lady was a known cat hater, so he asked her why she was buying cat food.
She replied, “You won’t believe this, but I have been refusing to buy my little girl a cat even though she has been begging for one. Finally, I told her that if God gives you a cat, I’ll let you keep it.
“I watched my child go out into the yard, get on her knees, and pray to God for a cat. And really, Pastor, you won’t believe this, but I saw it with my own eyes. A kitten suddenly came flying down out of the blue sky with its paws spread out and landed right in front of her. Of course, I had to let her keep the kitten since it came from God. . . .