December 08, 2014
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions
Among you stands one you do not know.”
Those were John the Baptist’s words as recorded in John 1:26. Of course, at that time it was literally true that a quiet carpenter’s son from the backwaters of the Roman Empire was rubbing shoulders with lots of people—including the crowds that jostled together at the banks of the Jordan River—but no one had a clue that this unimpressive-looking man was The One, the Son of God, the Word of God who had been with God in the beginning.
Among you stands one you do not know.
There’s more gospel and Advent mystery packed into that little line than we may realize. After all, if the Son of the Living God is on this earth—if the Word of God through whom everything that exists had been made was walking the soil of his own creation—wouldn’t common sense tell you that he’d be someone no one could possibly miss seeing? Shouldn’t everyone have been able to know who he was at a glance?
Among you stands one you do not know.
Jesus came down to this world in such non-descript packaging that to most people’s minds he didn’t even look like a fake Messiah or some imposter Christ. Years ago there was a funny story on the news about a Florida congresswoman who hung up on then President-Elect Barack Obama on account of her being sure it was a prank call by some local radio hosts known to prank people on the air by doing really good imitations of famous people. It took two more phone calls from two other people before she was able to be convinced that the original call had really been from the president-elect! But it goes without saying that even if it had been a prank call, the prankster would have done his level best to sound as much like Mr. Obama as possible. When you are imitating someone or trying to fool someone into thinking you are someone you are not, you have to work hard to sound and act the part.
Among you stands one you do not know.
Apparently, Jesus did not even sound or act the part of a would-be Savior of the world. You could stand in the baptism line right behind him, shuffling toward the water’s edge and waiting your turn to be dunked by John, and have no clue who was in front of you. You could be at a dinner party with this man and even ask him to pass you the salt and pepper and have no idea that the fingers that would grasp the saltshaker were the same fingers that once set quasars to spinning.
Among you stands one you do not know.
It’s still true today, of course. But Christians forget the divine M.O. Since after 2,000 years the Church has managed to make a name for itself; since we have soaring cathedrals and, these days, former sports stadiums-turned churches that pack in crowds of 10,000+ people every Sunday morning; since we’ve built impressive colleges, universities, and seminaries; since we fill whole libraries with the fruits of two millennia’ worth of Christian scholarship—because of all this we tend to think that there is something just obviously impressive about the Christian message and about the presence of Christ in the world yet today. And so some in the Church are merely agog to read the rantings of Richard Dawkins (God is a delusion) and Daniel Dennett (faith is a pathology) and the late Christopher Hitchens (God is not great) and we feel that we need to hit back at these people. Hard. After all, aren’t they missing the obvious? How in the world can anyone miss seeing the manifest truth of Jesus’ presence in the world?
Among you stands one you do not know.
It’s God’s way. It’s the gospel way. Salvation comes from the quiet strength, the gentle humility, the servant heart of God’s only Son. The Word who spoke everything into being was perfectly willing to come to this world less as a Word and more as a Whisper. He was perfectly willing to remain anonymous to the Herods and Caesars of the world so as to make himself known to blind people, deaf people, lepers, prostitutes, fishermen, and so very many others who were also the invisible members of the world, living on the margins of society, on the wrong side of the tracks.
Among you stands one you do not know.
Jesus knew something about going unrecognized. He knew something about not being seen. And so maybe that’s why he was so good at lifting up those others among us whom we do not know: the homeless, the street people, the AIDS victim, the working poor. These people are also among us and we do not know, most of the time, who they really are, either. Among us stand those we do not know. Who are they? They are image-bearers of God. They are children of the heavenly Father. They are precisely the last, least, lost, and lonely whom Jesus came to save, they were the poor to whom Jesus came (a la the Old Testament lection from Isaiah 61) to preach good news and release from captivity.
Among you stands one you do not know.
But if today you do know him, if by the gift of faith you can recognize him, be thankful. It’s not an obvious truth to recognize. But once you do discover that this One is the Lamb of God who has come to take away the sin of the world, then you can but pray that the Holy Spirit of God will open also your eyes to all the invisible people among us all who in Advent and at all times sorely need to hear the best news ever proclaimed.
Among you stands one you do not know.
But now it is our task to imitate John the Baptist and do our level best over and again to point him out to a world that so needs all the grace and truth Jesus alone brings.
If you know any Greek at all, then you will recall that the Greek word for “witness” as used consistently in John 1:6-8 transliterates into the English word “martyr.” And, of course, as the gospels make clear, in the case of John the Baptist his role as witness did indeed lead to his role as a martyr for the one to whom he bore that witness. That fact is a sobering reminder of what the cost of discipleship / witnessing can be for also all of us latter-day people who can see ourselves in the picture Jesus sketched in also Acts 1:8 when he told the disciples, “Now you are my witnesses . . . you are my martyrs.”
From Fred Craddock’s sermon, “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?” From A Chorus of Witnesses, Thomas G. Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., eds (Eerdmans 1994), p. 43:
“The Bible calls [repentance] a new birth. You’ve been to that window, haven’t you? The maternity ward, the nursery, and all that stuff up there in that big window. And all the men outside trying to figure out which one it is? You know, Julie is in there somewhere, and I know she’s the prettiest one, and you can’t read those little old bands where the arm comes down and the hand joins and there’s a deep wrinkle and there’s that band, and it’s so small, and you say, ‘Well, I think that’s . . .’ And the Bible says, That’s what it is, that is it. And John offered that. The Bible says it’s like a snowfall. You get up in the morning early, and you look out: about four inches and there’s not a print in it yet. And you look across the alley, and what yesterday afternoon was the ugly garbage dumpster is now a mound to the glory of God. That’s what the Bible calls it. And John is offering it. Did you ever hear John preach? If you haven’t, you will. Because the only way to Nazareth is through the desert. Well, that’s not exactly true. You can get to Nazareth without going through the desert. But you won’t find Jesus.”
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Author: Scott Hoezee
Who doesn’t want to preach on a passage as chockfull of lyric imagery as is Isaiah 61!? These words are so redolent of new hope and new beginnings and fresh joy that just reading this chapter aloud delivers more gospel freight than even some whole sermons that are four times as long.
Of course, many of these words gain in poignancy when we read them today because we know that they formed the basis of Jesus’ first sermon as later recorded in Luke 4. But even without that connection, it’s hard to doubt that when Isaiah first penned and/or spoke these words to a tired and defeated people these words sizzled and popped and fairly exploded into people’s consciousness with hope and joy.
Isaiah points to precisely what so many people pine for every single day of their lives: the great reversal. The poor whose lives have for so long been filled with nothing but bad news get the gift of good news. Those long held captive in dungeons and prisons of all kinds get promised their freedom. Those who for years have spent so many days dampening handkerchiefs with their tears get comforted and pointed toward a day of smiles and laughter. Ashes get blown away to make way for glittering crowns. The drab duds of mourning get replaced with festive and colorful garments fit for a really great party. People who for too long have felt like dead sticks are promised that they will soon stand as tall and sturdy as the grandest oak tree.
This is Miss Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations actually having her groom arrive at last. The window shades go up, the sun streams in, the old and rotten wedding cake is replaced with a freshly iced one, Miss Havisham’s tattered wedding dress is swapped out for a glistening new gown of silk and lace, and the long-postponed (and apparently never-to-happen) wedding takes place among great laughter and smiles all around from the throng of friends and family who have suddenly burst in on her loneliness from seemingly out of nowhere.
This is Nelson Mandela emerging from his jail cell after so many years of unjust incarceration and walking out into the sunlight of a new day dawning. This is the rollback of injustice and of oppression as the once-imprisoned man takes the oath of office as president of the very nation that had locked him away for 27 long, and seemingly never-to-end, years.
This is exuberant crowds of disbelief standing atop the Berlin Wall 25 years ago this Fall and taking whacks at it with sledgehammers as the old order of things was swept away. This is East German families streaming through the cracks in the walls to embrace loved ones who for decades had lived both three miles away and a million miles away on the other side of the wall. This is tears of wonder. This is Psalm 122 when people arrive at a new day and find their mouths filled with giggles they could not suppress even if they tried (and they have no desire to try!).
When Frodo Baggins awakens only to see Gandalf—whom he was sure had died—standing watch and letting loose with a laugh so contagious it soon swept up everyone in the vicinity. This is Samwise Gamgee asking the loaded and eschatologically joyful question (in the book, not the movie version), “Does this mean that everything bad that has ever happened is going to be unmade.” This is God’s “Yes” to such a question.
Let those of us who preach never underestimate how badly most of the people to whom we preach long for just such reversals. Even those who are not outwardly imprisoned, even those who by all worldly standards are far from being poor in any economic sense, even those whose haute couture outfits seem miles away from garments of rags and whose heads show no sign of being laden with ashes: even they long for the day of the great reversal. Scratch the surface of anyone’s life, a friend of mine always said, and you’ll find just below that outwardly calm-looking surface a world of hurts sufficient to bring most anyone to tears.
Isaiah 61 looks forward to a better day for all people but makes clear at every turn what the source of all that goodness, of all that happy reversal-of-fortune stuff, would be: God alone. It is the Spirit of the Sovereign God who makes the proclamation of hope possible in the first place. And when the people go from dried-up sticks fit for burning to “oaks of righteousness,” the planting of those mighty trees would be no tribute to human ingenuity but would be a planting “for the display of [God’s] splendor.” And when God’s people become paragons of justice, when injustice is swept away, those who look upon this just nation would not say, “Good for you! Look what all of you have wrought!” No, the text says in verse 9 that the others will see “that they are a people Yahweh has blessed.”
In this Advent Season, we know something else: the precise way that God would accomplish all this planting and sprouting of righteousness—the way the kingdom would finally come—took on the astonishing form of the incarnation of God’s only Son into the humble Savior we now know as Jesus Christ. We now know that not only is the work of Isaiah 61’s great reversals singularly and solely the work of God Almighty—and not the result of human hard work—but we know that it had to be this way because the way salvation finally comes to us is something only God could do (and even God would have to go all the way to a wretched cross of death to pull it off even so).
We are right to long and yearn for the great reversal of all things. But in Advent above all—and really at all times, of course—we are also right to locate the sole source of where this outbreak of goodness and shalom will come from: namely, from the Triune God who alone has both the power and the supreme savvy to make it all happen in the most surprising ways anyone could ever have imagined!
So we preach hope to the person who wishes his life had turned out more exciting, more fulfilling than it did. We preach hope to those whose marriage was never all it was cracked up to be (and to those whose marriage fell apart for just that reason). We preach hope to the adult child who has forever been disappointed in mom and dad and to the parents who have long been let down by their children’s lifestyles. We preach hope to those whose bank accounts are full and whose hearts are empty as well as to those whose hearts are full but they scratch out a poor existence. We preach hope to the lonely who never could find the love of their lives and to the minorities who were forever made to feel inferior by others.
We preach the year of the Lord’s favor because more than we know a lot of the time, most of the people who hear us preach are panting for just that word that Isaiah spoke and that Jesus later came to fulfill once and for all.
I once read a poem written by a Korean girl. It is just one girl’s words and yet, as Douglas John Hall has noted, these words could fit equally well on the lips of altogether too many people with whom we share this planet:
My mother’s name is Worry.
In summer, my mother worries about water;
In winter, about coal briquets.
And all year long she worries about rice.
In daytime, my mother worries about living;
At night, she worries for children;
And all day long she worries and worries.
My mother’s name is Worry.
My father’s name is Drunken Frenzy.
And my name . . . my name is Tear and Sigh.
Someday, as Isaiah tells us and as Jesus later confirmed, all who live this way (and oh the sorrow and the pity of realizing how many do indeed live just this way every day of their unhappy lives) there will be good news, there will be comfort, there will be an end to the worries that an unjust and fallen world bring to too many people. Some day . . . some day. But for this day, we point them to The One who has already advented into this world and who is coming again to make all things new.
Author: Doug Bratt
Notes and Observations
While this is obviously not what’s popularly called a psalm, it is Luke’s record of Mary’s song of praise to God upon learning that she’s pregnant by the Holy Spirit with Jesus. Since it’s quite familiar to most worshipers, those who preach and teach Luke 1:47-55 may want to think about some possible “entry points” into leading people through it.
In verse 48b Mary sings, “from now on all generations will call” her “blessed.” In doing so she rejoices in the place God has given her in salvation history. The Roman Catholic Church has long recognized and celebrated Mary’s centrality. However, Protestant Christians have sometimes shrunk back from that perceived veneration. So those who preach and teach this text might ask worshipers and ourselves how we might recover the idea of Mary as “blessed” by God. How might we restore her to the rightful place God has given her? And might God’s exaltation of Mary have implications for Christians’ own sense of vocation?
Christians rejoice in God’s exultation of Mary and other “lowly” people. Yet some seem to shrink back from the implications of the reversals about which she sings. We naturally wrestle with pride in our own “inmost thoughts” (52). Many worshipers are also numbered among the “rich of the world” (53b). So how might we think about this reversal of our own “fortunes” in ways that prepare us to celebrate not only Christ’s first coming, but also his second?
In verse 49 Mary rejoices in the “great things” God has done for her. Yet with those great things come likely also whispers and insinuations about her pregnancy out of wedlock. Mary also seems to experience at least some rejection by her son. She must also endure the unspeakable heartache of watching her relatively young son unjustly arrested, tortured and crucified. This might lead those who preach and teach this text to ask whether God’s “great things” always come as unmixed blessings.
Finally, there may be some fertile soil worth tilling in asking if God’s reversal of fortune for Mary and others at the bottom has implications for the way Christians treat those whom our world so often debases but God exults in our text. It might also be worth exploring how God’s reversal of fortune blesses not only those at the bottom of society’s heap, but also at its top.
Mary’s song itself moves from a focus on the individual that is herself to the corporate that is God’s adopted sons and daughters. She begins, after all, by singing, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior … the Mighty One has done great things for me” (italics added). Yet in verses 42-44 she moves on to sing of how God has “lifted up the humble … filled the hungry [and] … helped his servant Israel.” So she recognizes that the amazing thing God has done for her has implications for all people.
The first thing Mary celebrates in her song is not her conception of a son, as we might expect, but “the Lord.” If you don’t think that’s unusual, ask yourself how often birth announcements begin something like, “God has done a great thing in our lives. God has given us a baby.” Yet that’s basically what Mary does. She, first, glorifies the Lord.
In verse 48 Mary celebrates God’s “mindfulness” of her “humble state.” This suggests that she’s a very ordinary person, perhaps a teenager, precisely the kind of person whom others sometimes overlook except when scolding or criticizing them. Even if people paid attention to her, they’d never think of unwed Mary as the world’s Savior’s mother. Yet God, sings Mary, has looked kindly on her. “The Mighty One” has done great things for her.
However, the Spirit has empowered Mary to recognize that she’s not the only ordinary person on whom God has smiled. After all, in verses 50-55 she reflects on God’s mercy to all sorts of vulnerable people. God has shown mercy, Mary sings, to those who fear the Lord. God is, in other words, kind to those who live in faithful and obedient respect for who God is. This mercy, Mary sings in verse 50, extends “from generation to generation.” So while human mercy is, at best, temporary, God’s mercy is persistent and multigenerational.
What’s more, at the end of verse 52 Mary sings of the way God has “lifted up the humble.” Scholars suggest that the “humble” to whom she refers here are those who are poor. The Psalms often refer to the “humble” as God’s children of Israel. These are the people who have little choice but to depend completely on the Lord. In speaking of God’s lifting of them up, Mary evokes an image of people who are flat on their faces in humble dependence on God for their well-being.
Yet Mary also speaks of God’s mercy that is the “bringing down” of those who are at the top of society’s heap. We don’t have to wait long to hear from Luke the names of some of those mighty people. When, after all, he announces Jesus’ birth, the gospel writer refers to Caesar Augustus and his governor Quirinius. These people who don’t have to bow down to anyone are precisely the kinds of rulers Mary sings God has brought down.
Mary also refers to God’s humbling of “those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.” God, she sings, forces them to rely on God rather than their own devices by “scattering” them. She also sings of the way God has sent the rich away “empty,” forcing them too to rely on the Lord rather than their own formerly substantial resources.
The tenses of the verbs Mary uses in her song are interesting. All of them suggest actions that God has already completed sometime in the past. Yet how, as Stephen Farris asks, can we say all of the wonderful things about which Mary sings have already happened? The people with the most money, biggest arsenals and fullest pantries still seem to run the world. What’s more, the world still overflows with needy people.
Some scholars suggest that Mary’s use of aorist verbs points to what God constantly does. God is, according to that interpretation, always reversing fortunes. Others suggest that Mary’s so confident about what God will do in the future that she can sing as if it’s already happened.
Farris, however, suggests what he calls a more nuanced reading of those aorist verbs. He says that Mary looks back on her pregnancy that reveals God’s reversal of her own fortunes as a sign that God will keep her song’s other promises as well. Just as the Spirit has fathered Mary’s child, God will also raise up those who are humble, hungry and waiting, with her, on the Lord.
In the light of what Mary’s son Jesus has already done in his life, death and resurrection, Christians too can be confident that God will reverse human fortunes. In Christ the humble have already been exulted, the spiritually hungry have been fed and the spiritually poor have been made rich. What’s more, because all of God’s promises are “yes!” in Jesus Christ, one day in the new creation God will make all things new, including both those at the “bottom” and “top” of society’s heap.
In her Mrs. Piggle Wiggle stories, Betty MacDonald writes about an upside down house. Children love to visit this amazing place because it floors stretch overhead, while its ceilings lie underfoot.
The piano that dangles from Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s house’s floor is difficult to play. People must swing from a trapeze in order to play it. Couches and chairs also hang from the floor above in this upside-down house. This, of course, makes it hard to sit in them.
People who want to open a cupboard, use the bathroom or even heat something on Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s stove must carefully plan how to do it. Nothing, after all, is quite where you expect it in this upside down house. Surprises wait for anyone who’s careless in it.
As Neal Plantinga has noted, the world about which Mary sings in our text is a bit like Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s upside down house. Things in its world seem upside down too. Surprises also await people who are careless in it.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions
After the heavy duty apocalyptic warnings and the stern commands of II Peter 3:8-15a, our reading for this third Sunday of Advent feels a bit lightweight, like a snow flurry of commands that don’t really fit the Advent season, except that our reading ends with Paul’s final reference in this letter to “the Parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Our first impression of this text changes a great deal if we begin with that ending. Then this is a perfect text for a pointed sermon about Advent. The commands become the moral imperatives of Advent. They are followed by an Advent wish, or prayer, or even blessing. And the whole passage ends with a firm assurance that the God who fulfilled the promises of the first Advent will certainly fulfill all that he commands at the Second Advent of Christ.
In fact, if we focus on the end of verse 18 (“for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus”), and play with the Greek word thelema a bit, we could preach on the whole text as “God’s Christmas List.” Our children spend a great deal of time making a list of all the things they want for Christmas. Well, our text shows us exactly what God wants of us in this season of Advent, and tells us what he will do to help us achieve his will.
God’s list of commands begins with a group of three that might seem fluffy in their brevity, until we note the universals attached to each one. “Rejoice always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances….” When we take those universals seriously, these three little commands become almost unbearably difficult. And yet, says Paul, this cluster of commands is “God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Those last three words are, of course, the key. We can take them in different ways. They might mean that we are in Christ Jesus in the sense that we live in a different sphere. We live in the world, but it is really Jesus who is the dominant sphere of influence or control. Or Paul might mean that in Christ Jesus we have a revelation of God’s will for our lives in the world. He is our model or example. Or perhaps Paul is talking about the way Christ Jesus gives us the will and the power to live according to God’s command. Paul probably means all of these things. Christ is absolutely central to our joy, our prayer, and our thanksgiving. Let’s think about each of these commands separately and in connection with each other.
Leon Morris points out that “the New Testament is full of exhortations to joyful living—startlingly so, if we fix our attention on the outward circumstances of their (the original readers) lives. They were persecuted or threatened with it. They lived in straitened circumstances, often poor, always working hard for a living. They had a hard lot in life.” Yet Paul and his fellow writers often call the early Christians to live lives characterized by joy, no matter what the circumstances of those lives. They are to “rejoice always.”
One wonders how that fits with the fact that the Psalms are filled with lament. Does this command supersede those Psalms? Are we forbidden to mourn? Given Paul’s words earlier in this letter about grief and hope (I Thess. 4:13), he cannot mean that grief is contrary to God’s will. Jesus wept, after all. Paul probably means that in the end, our joy in Christ Jesus will overcome our sorrow. Leon Morris characterizes 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.”
One of the practical means God has given us to cope with our grief is prayer, so the command to “rejoice always” is followed by the command to “pray continually.” Once again, that universal word is what makes this command so difficult. How can we pray as we do brain surgery, or take a calculus test, or discipline children, or build a house, or do anything that demands our full attention? The answer lies in how we think about prayer. Is it an occasion that interrupts all other occasions or is it an overall attitude toward God that permeates all of life’s occasions? I think it is obvious that Paul means something like the latter. We must always with live with a sense of fellowship with God, with an awareness of God’s presence. Brother Lawrence put it well when he spoke of “practicing the presence of God.” On occasion, that prayerful attitude breaks out into the specific thoughts and words and gestures we call prayer. But we must always have that attitude of dependence and gratitude that is the substratum and heart of specific prayers.
So it is natural that Paul’s next command has to do with giving “thanks in all circumstances.” We simply cannot pray continually unless we can give thanks in all circumstances. We must be careful how we preach this. God does not want us to give thanks for all circumstances, because that would mean giving thanks for sin and suffering and death, which are contrary to his will. God does not want us to call the Holocaust good. But, says Paul, God does want us to give thanks in all circumstances.
How on earth can we do that? Only if we genuinely believe that “God works all things together for good for those who love him….” (Romans 8:28) The only way we can believe that promise in the face of the horrors of human existence is “in Christ Jesus,” that is, in the light of what God has done for us in him. We will be able to give thanks in all circumstances only if we believe that Jesus proves God’s commitment to turn even the worst into the best.
God’s Christmas list has gotten very heavy, hasn’t it? But Paul isn’t done yet. Although his words about “this” being God’s will clearly point back to those three little commands, I think it is obvious that what follows is also God’s will. God doesn’t want us to “put out the Spirit’s fire.” That is an interesting translation, given that the word “fire” doesn’t occur in the Greek. Paul really says, don’t quench the Spirit. But the presence of tongues of fire on Pentecost and Paul’s similar command in Romans 12:11 (“be aglow with the Spirit”) and Wesley’s famous words (“my heart was strangely warmed”), give us a powerful image to work with.
It is entirely possible that the Thessalonians had the exact opposite problem as the Corinthians. In Corinth, the fire of the Spirit was in danger of burning out of control, while in Thessalonica the congregation was in danger of controlling things so strictly that the fire of the Spirit was being extinguished. Whereas in Corinth, the gifts of the Spirit were being used too freely, perhaps in Thessalonica those gifts were being treated with contempt. Particularly the gift of prophecy was scorned. It is hard to know whether Paul is referring simply to preaching here or to that more ecstatic gift in which someone stood up in church and announced that God had told him to pass a new word along to the congregation (think of Agabus in Acts). Whatever Paul meant, it is clear that Paul wants their worship and their lives to be deeply spiritual, rather than simply religious.
That doesn’t mean that Paul wanted an “anything goes” spirit to govern them. No, says Paul, “test everything.” And “hold on to the good and avoid every kind of evil.” Notice, again, the universals—“everything, every.” Paul was not into relativism. In their spiritual freedom, they were to test every practice, every truth claim, every ethical norm, the way people test a metal. The Greek dokimadzo was almost a technical term in metallurgy, referring to the process of heating up ore to purify it. Christians are to live critically in a world filled with fool’s gold. If verse 20 was about the use of the ecstatic gifts given by the Spirit, verse 21 is probably about the ethical fruit of the Spirit.
So, here is God’s Christmas list, or more properly, God’s Advent will. In a world that mindlessly shouts, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,” we are to “rejoice always.” In a world filled with the endless sound of advertising, God wants us to “pray continually.” In a world that is never content, we must “give thanks in all circumstances.” In a world that has quenched the true spirit of Christmas, we must not “quench the Spirit” who gives gifts to be used and fruit to be displayed to an incredulous world. That’s what God wants of us in the season of Advent, as we await the Parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ.
That’s an imposing list of commands. Thank God for Paul’s next words. “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.” As I said before, that’s a wish, or a prayer, or maybe even a blessing. Whatever it is exactly, the idea is that the God who drew up his Christmas list is the very God who will enable us to do his will. “Himself” (autos in Greek) is thrust forward in the sentence to emphasize that God and only God can enable us to fully do his will.
Paul uses some very interesting words to indicate the full extent of God’s sanctifying work. “Through and through” is the Greek holoteleis, from holo meaning whole and teleis meaning end. The idea is that God will sanctify us entirely and to full completion. The next sentence expands on that with these words about “spirit, soul and body.” These have given rise to ferocious debates about the composition of humanity. Are we bi-partite or tri-partite? Such things matter a great deal to some Christians, but it probably wasn’t Paul’s intent here to teach us anything about anthropology. His interest was in soteriology, in the doctrine of sanctification, to be specific. God will make every part of us holy, even blameless, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, whatever else we can expect at the Parousia, we can expect to be found completely holy, because of the work of God. That is God’s Advent blessing in a world filled with striving for all sorts of things. “I will fulfill your striving to be holy.”
In fact, that is precisely what Paul says next. God “will do it.” He will fulfill his own Christmas list, doing in us the very thing he wants from us. (Cf. Phil. 2:11-12 for a similar thought.) We can be sure that God will do this, because the one who has called us into this new life is faithful. Indeed, Paul thrusts the “faithful” to the first place in the Greek as a way of emphasizing the certainty of the blessing. God kept all his promises in the first Advent of his Son. He will keep all his promises at the Second Advent, including this one about complete sanctification. Yes, God calls us to do things that are impossible in our own strength. But he also promises that he will enable us to do them perfectly in the end. “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.”
As I ponder the Good News at the end of this demandingly heavy little text, I can’t help but contrast the Gospel of Christ Jesus with the secular emphasis on Santa Claus. I know, I’ve mentioned this before, but think about it again. Santa has a list. He checks it twice. He wants to know if you’ve been naughty or nice. In fact, his whole bag of gifts is a very uncertain thing for you. If you don’t do the right things, you might lose all the things you put on your Christmas list. Everything depends on your performance, so “be good for goodness’ sake.”
No, says Paul. You should be good for Christ’s sake, because God not only wants you to be perfect, but will also make you so in Christ Jesus. That Good News makes for a genuinely joyful, prayerful, thankful, and spiritual Christmas, as we await Christ’s second coming.