December 11, 2017
The Advent 3B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 1:6-8, 19-28 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 126 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 116 (Lord’s Day 45)
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Author: Scott Hoezee
“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: Doug Bratt
We often connect much of the Christmas season to happiness. God’s people love to sing, “Joy to the World.” We decorate our homes, stores and communities with bright lights. Most of us like to celebrate with both the young in age and the young in heart.
This Sunday, however, is also a part of a season of some darkness. After all, the days shrink as we approach our celebration of Christ’s birth. This Thursday, in fact, is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Even our churches are relatively dark, symbolically lit largely by the candles of our Advent table.
However, Christmas is also a season, for some, of emotional darkness. Studies suggest that during this season depression and heartache are all too common for some of us. What’s more, others’ holiday celebrations sometimes only heighten some peoples’ sense of grief or loneliness.
This evening’s text talks about good news and gladness. However, it’s not the kind of joy that’s tied to happiness, bright lights around us or gifts under our trees. It’s not even tied to happy economic, political or sports news. This joy is, instead, linked to God’s promise to free us from our pain.
Isaiah’s 61’s author knows what it’s like to live in spiritual darkness. He, in fact, speaks in its opening verses of broken heartedness, grief, captivity and despair. The prophet probably writes about such darkness after Israel has trudged home from Babylonian exile. The small remnant of returning Israelites is experiencing persecution, internal division and disappointment.
Some who proclaim as well as those who hear Isaiah 61 know pain that’s similar to that about which the prophet writes. Something or someone has broken or is breaking our hearts. Some sit in the darkness of mental illness, fear or doubt. Others feel as though others’ expectations or our jobs enslave us. Still others grieve those who have died or our own decline.
On the third Sunday in Advent God’s adopted sons and daughters gladly hear God promise to comfort the brokenhearted. We gratefully hear the gospel of a servant who will bring freedom from various captivities.
513 American and Allied prisoners of war survived World War II’s Bataan Death March only to have the Japanese imprison them in the Philippines. Those prisoners nearly gave up hope after three long years of horrendous captivity. Many others had, after all, already died during the march or in the camp of either malnutrition or execution.
On January, 1945, however, 121 American Rangers emerged from the jungle surrounding their prison camp, chased their guards away and freed the captives. Hampton Sides’ account of it, Ghost Soldiers, reports, “Slowly the awareness that this was a jailbreak was beginning to sink in among the rest of the prisoners …
“One prisoner wrapped his arms around the neck of the first Ranger he saw and kissed him on the forehead … Alvie Robbins found one prisoner muttering in a darkened corner of one of the barracks, tears coursing down his face. ‘I thought we’d been forgotten,’ the prisoner said. ‘No, you’re not forgotten,’ Robbins said. ‘We’ve come for you’.”
Both those who proclaim and those who hear Isaiah 61 may also feel forgotten, if not by God, then perhaps, like that former prisoner of war, by people. However, our text’s message is that God has not forgotten those who live under the clouds of sadness, loneliness, fear or grief. In fact, the Bible consistently insists that just when God’s people feel almost completely forgotten, God comes for us.
The Church has come to link the Old Testament passage the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday to Jesus Christ, God’s promised Savior. It recognizes that it’s as if on that first Christmas Jesus burst out of the figurative jungles that surround us, chased away Satan and his allies and freed us.
Jesus, in fact, controversially quotes Isaiah 61 in his first sermon in his hometown synagogue. He even claims to be the fulfillment of this passage of liberation. So in Luke 7 he says about himself, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured; the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” In other words, Jesus insists that his ministry of preaching and healing fulfills God’s promise in our text to free us.
Of course, some who proclaim and hear Isaiah 61 may not feel like we need God to free us. In the December 14, 2004 edition of the Christian Century, Neal Plantinga writes, “When life is good, our prayers for the kingdom get a little faint … When our kingdom has had a good year, we aren’t necessarily looking for God’s kingdom. When life’s good, redemption doesn’t sound so good.”
So perhaps God’s people need to look a bit closer to identify the things that may enslave the people we love or even us. We ask ourselves what’s keeping us from being the godly servants that God has created you and me to be.
Perhaps the guilt about something those who proclaim this passage have done is imprisoning them. Or our hearers have disappointed both themselves and the people who know about it. Isaiah 61 reminds God’s children that the One who knows that guilt even better than we do has come to free us from it.
Or maybe preachers, teachers and those who hear us are sitting in a prison anger has built. Someone has so hurt us that we can’t stop thinking about it. Tonight we remember that God has come in Christ to replace our anger with joyful songs and dancing.
Or maybe God’s children are sitting in the darkness of an addiction or a bad relationship. Perhaps the chains of materialism and greed have tightly wrapped themselves around you. On this Sunday those who proclaim Isaiah 61 announce that God has, in Christ, brought light to those who sit in all sorts of chains.
As my colleague Scott Hoezee notes in his fine December 8, 2014 Sermon Starter on Isaiah 61, the prophet promises a great reversal of fortune for those who have so little of it: “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.”
On this third Sunday in Advent God’s adopted sons and daughters remember that Christ has come to free us from our pain, darkness and grief. Some of our churches even celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to remember how Christ lived, died and rose again from the dead to free us from what enslaves us.
However, as John Buchanan also notes, God comes in Christ to free us in part so that we can respond by addressing others’ brokenness. After all, God sends God’s servant to free captives and comfort mourners so that we may, according to verse 4, do things like rebuild ancient ruins and renew ruined cities.
So those whom God has in Christ freed look for where we can help rebuild what has been ruined, for where we can help free those who are enslaved. God’s adopted sons and daughters look to minister to those sitting in some kind of physical, emotional or spiritual darkness. After all, Christ’s disciples go where Christ leads us.
Not long ago people discovered a lengthy correspondence between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his fiancée, Maria von Wedmeyer. The Nazis had imprisoned him for plotting with members of the German resistance to assassinate Adolf Hitler. They executed Bonhoeffer just a few days before World War II’s end.
Yet not long before that, on a day like that on which we proclaim and hear Isaiah 61, just twelve days before Christmas, the prisoner wrote his fiancé: “Dearest Maria, let us celebrate Christmas … Don’t entertain any awful imaginings of me in my cell, but remember that Christ, too, frequents prisons, and that he will not pass me by.”
Author: Stan Mast
On this third Sunday of Advent the Lectionary directs our attention to the third post-Exilic Psalm in a row (see previous articles on Psalms 80 and 85). Each of these three is focused on the word “restore.” But in Psalm 126 the tone is decidedly different than Psalms 80 and 85, where there was much about sin and anger, enemies and despair. Here there is joy, joy, joy; “songs of joy” three times and “we are filled with joy” in the theme verse (verse 3). This is appropriate. As we get closer to Christmas, the church’s mood should rise. After all, we are about to sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is come.”
What a surprise, then, that verse 4 should follow so quickly upon verses 1-3 and that verses 5 and 6 should be filled with tears. It’s enough to make a preacher do a double take and exclaim, “What in the world just happened here?” If “the Lord had done great things for us and we are filled with joy,” why should we pray, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord,” with tear filled eyes?
Well, strange as it may sound, that juxtaposition of joy and sorrow, memory and hope, salvation and suffering, dreams fulfilled and expectant prayer is exactly what Advent is all about. In my last church, a retired minister was constantly criticizing the idea of the church year, the liturgical tracing of the great events of salvation history. He was particularly scathing in his assessment of Advent. “So, Christ has already come, but we have to spend 4 Sundays pretending that he hasn’t. Why not just celebrate his first coming and pray for his second?”
That would be simpler, but it would miss the tension that Advent creates, the tension expressed in Psalm 126. It is the tension all Christians experience all the time, the tension between what God has already done and what we still need him to do, the famous tension of the “already, but not yet.” Christ has already come, bringing the Kingdom of God, but that Kingdom is not yet here in its fulness, because Jesus has not come again. So, we pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” even though it already has. That is spirit of Advent, and that is the theme of Psalm 126.
Let’s explore this little gem of a Psalm more carefully. I called it a post-Exilic Psalm, along with almost all scholars, because of its opening line, “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion.” That is as clear as can be, except that the Hebrew can also be translated more generally as “restored the fortunes of Zion.” Then the Psalm could be a response to any number of times when the Lord came to the aid of his stricken people. That would make Psalm 126 applicable to the lives of God’s people at any point in history.
However, the language celebrating this restoration is so exuberant that it suggests something big, something earthshaking and epoch making, something like the Exodus or the return from Exile. We “were like men who dreamed,” like people who had dreamed of the impossible for so long that when it finally happened, we couldn’t believe it. We had to pinch ourselves to convince ourselves that we weren’t dreaming. Our dreams have come true! Can that be true? Think of the disciples’ reaction to meeting the Risen Christ: “and while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement… (Luke 24:41).”
The redeemed didn’t respond with a polite little smile and a timid cheer. “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy (or shouts of joy).” Think of the celebration in contemporary America when your favorite team scores a touchdown in the rivalry game of the year, or when the hottest performer steps on stage before a crowd of thousands, or when an army celebrates victory against an evil enemy. Three times the Psalmist uses the same Hebrew word translated “songs of joy.” It’s as though the singing won’t stop, like the songs that European soccer fans chant throughout the match.
Except these are songs of joy over what the Lord God has done. That’s the great theological point of Psalm 126 (and, indeed, the entire Psalter). Even the nations that don’t believe in Yahweh are forced to acknowledge that Yahweh has acted for his people. “Then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great thing for them.”” And Israel joyfully agrees. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.”
The nations and Israel might have come to different conclusions about Israel’s restoration to the Land. News commentators today surely would. After all, it was Cyrus the Persian who released Israel from exile and sent them back to Zion. Politics played a role in that earthshaking, epoch making event. And he might have done that for socio-economic reasons; perhaps a drought or a flood made it imperative that he get rid of those Jews. Or he might have been militarily challenged on a distant frontier, and he needed to get potentially troublesome immigrants out of the way so he could focus on the enemy to the north.
Psalm 126 joins the rest of the Bible in giving a thoroughly theological interpretation of history. While many other factors may be involved in the events of our lives, it is ultimately Yahweh who is in charge. That is cause for great joy, because Yahweh is our covenant God who is always characterized by the kind of attributes we heard about last week in Psalm 85.
So, when trouble rears its ugly head again (and again and again), our first and last response should always be to pray to our God. Rather than becoming obsessed with politics and policy. socio-economic solutions and military power, the people of God should become focused on the God who has done great things in the past. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord….”
Psalm 126 acknowledges the hard fact that being delivered by God in a stunning way doesn’t necessarily (or always or very often) result in a trouble-free life. When Israel was brought back from Exile, some of their relatives and friends were left behind in Babylon/Persia, and it would take a while before they all came home. Not all did; some chose to stay in a foreign land because it had become home. Those who did return found a land that had been devastated. Their homes had been destroyed, their fields were wasted, their Temple lay in ruins, their capital city had been leveled, and they were surrounded by people who didn’t really want those pesky Jews back. The books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and the last chapters of Isaiah tell the story of people who had seen Yahweh do a great thing, but who were praying fervently that he would now come and finish his work.
The connection to Christ and us is obvious, isn’t it? In the one named Yeshua (Yahweh saves), God has done the greatest thing the world has ever seen. To paraphrase the Old Testament, has any God ever done what Yahweh has done? Not only did he make a nation out of a straggling band of nomads and then make that nation a testimony to the world, but even more Yahweh sent his own Son to save the nations from all that ruins human life. As the angels sang at his birth, he brought “glory to God in the highest and on earth Shalom for those on whom his favor rests.” “And we are filled with joy.”
In this Advent season, we all want to rush on to Christmas and sing those beloved carols about the great thing the Lord has done in Jesus. But even those carols acknowledge that the saving work of God in Christ is not yet finished. The most joyful of all carols, “Joy to the World,” has a fervent prayer in the middle of it. “No more let sin and sorrow grow nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found….” Sin and sorrow are still very much with us, and the effects of the curse are found everywhere.
With the Psalmist, we cry out in our joy mixed with sorrow, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord….” The Psalmist uses two metaphors to express our situation, one from nature and one from agriculture. Pointing to the bone-dry land on the southern border of the Promised Land, where it butts up against that wilderness of Sinai, the Psalmist alludes to the way the monsoons turn the Negev into a landscape filled with streams. Transform the dryness of our lives into fertile soil so we can flourish and have “abundant life in Christ.”
That metaphor naturally leads to the next, where we see farmers throwing their seeds into dry ground, hoping that one day the rains will come and those seeds will sprout and grow and yield an abundant harvest. This annual agricultural hope is a precursor of the eschatological hope of God’s final harvest. Indeed, the Psalmist promises that God’s work of sowing will not be in vain. “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.”
The Man of Sorrow spoke in these very terms as he was headed to the cross. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls in the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces much fruit (John 12:23, 24).” So, he did fall into the ground, but then he rose from the ground, “the first fruit of those who have fallen asleep (I Cor. 15:20.” One day, all of those who have believed in him and in the great thing Yahweh has done through him will also rise from the ground, the abundant harvest of him who sowed in tears. “So it will be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable; it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory…(I Cor. 15:42, 43).”
Psalm 126 is the perfect Advent Psalm, because it stands in the middle of God’s work, proclaiming what he has done and praying for what he will yet do. In a world filled sorrow, it sings for joy, even as it prays with tears. That’s Advent. That’s the Christian life. But that’s not how it will always be. Romans 8:31, 32 promises that the hope of Psalm 126:5 and 6 will come to pass in Christ. “What then shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” We have nothing but “songs of joy” awaiting us when the Great Harvest finally comes.
The “already, but not yet” dynamic at the heart of this Psalm has many echoes in human history, most notably in times of war. Everyone knows that the decisive invasion of Europe on D-Day in World War II was the great turning point in that conflagration, but it was not yet final victory. Many months of bloody fighting would follow before V-Day. In the Iraq War, President Bush infamously announced that we had won with a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him. And we are still mired in the Middle East. The final victory of God is completely certain; we just don’t know when it will be.
Though many will think it corny and most won’t even remember it, the old Gospel song, “Bringing in the Sheaves,” captures the mood and message of Psalm 126:5, 6.
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eye;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When the weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Author: Scott Hoezee
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.