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I wonder how everyone is feeling this close to Christmas. I wonder if some words about joy are welcome at this point. We’ve been in the middle of a lot of activity maybe. We’re trying to figure out maybe how to get everything done. At the same time, we see advertisements that show kids opening presents joyously, of people finding and giving the perfect gift. Magazine covers that talk about how to host the perfect Christmas.
We’re probably excited, trepidatious, sentimental, sorrowful. Looking forward to the events of Christmas. Feeling sad about people who won’t be spending Christmas with us, maybe for the first time. Imagining possibilities perhaps. Thinking back to Christmases of long ago and longing for something that’s lost.
We’re probably all over the place on this – and I don’t even mean just as a group of people, but as individuals.
And today we lit the candle of joy. What is joy to us as followers of Christ? How are we to see joy as we wait? Is joy something that we can command? Surely not. There are surely few things worse than false joy, forced joy. Grinning and bearing it. Smiling as we try to fake it ‘til we make it and it all we want to do is break it. Or conversely getting lost in sorrow over the state of our lives, the state of our world – the myriad of things over which we may get lost in sorrow.
And you may be thinking “What right does he have to talk about joy?” It’s a good question. We are a people who are waiting after all. We’re not just waiting for Christmas, we’re not just awaiting the Advent of Christ of course. We await the return of Christ. Waiting can be difficult. We don’t generally like waiting. We may see waiting as a waste of time, and seek to fill any waiting time on our phones or however it is we while away the time. How are we called as followers of Christ to wait?
And what does it mean to make joy our home? When I think about visions of home, or if your experience of home has been largely negative – idealized visions of home – I think of home as a place where you are accepted, safe, cared for, loved without condition.
How are we as people of God to live as we wait? This was what Paul wrote to the people of Thessalonica. It’s thought to be the first part of the NT that was ever written. The people of Thessalonica were people who waited too. Some wondered no doubt why Christ hadn’t already returned. They worried about the status of those they loved who had died. There were issues with leadership no doubt because there are often issues with leadership.
Paul reminds them what their story is. By extension, he reminds us what our story is. This is the thing about our waiting as the church. We await actively. This is our story friends one week before Christmas. We await in the presence of and by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit of God. The coming of Christ has brought about a new age. We are called to usher in this new age as we wait for Christ’s return. How are we to live in this waiting?
In answer, Paul rhymes off a list of things toward the end of his letter. Someone has compared it to a grocery list, with the seeming randomness of a grocery list. Of course, not all grocery lists are that random. My wife Nicole, who is extremely resourceful, always writes her grocery list to correspond to our circuit through Fortinos. I never like going to a strange grocery store because I always feel a little ill at ease – not knowing where everything is. So let us go through Paul’s list.
Before we do though I want to say, as is usual with Paul’s letters, any talk of who the church is called to be is predicated on who God is and what God has done in Christ and will do in Christ and what God does through the Spirit in and through us. In Christ, God has shown that God is for us. All of this active waiting we are called and enabled to do is based on this fundamental truth. “This I know, that God is for me,” is that line from the Psalms that says it so well.
Look inward. Respect your leaders. Esteem them very highly in love. Seems I could stop right there! You know I don’t say this to be self-serving, and Paul is not just talking about church professionals. Look at how he describes leaders here – those who labour among you (it’s hard!). Those who have charge of you in the Lord. This does not just mean have authority – and we might blanch at that, mightn’t we, depending on how we feel about authority and because we may have been burned or hurt by leaders in the past. Trustworthy human leadership is vital in this whole thing. We talked about that when we went over the story of Moses’ arms being held up by Hur and Aaron. Trustworthy human leadership plus community involvement plus divine leading. The verb for “having charge” also means “caring for.” Those who care for you. Those who admonish you. That’s difficult too and we must always examine our motivations for any sort of correction and make sure we’re acting out of love. Esteem them very highly in love, because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. Make sure things are right in here. We’re going to have a meeting after our service to welcome in a new group of leaders for 2018. Encourage them. Let them know you’re praying for them. Esteem one another highly in love.
Speaking of in here, the appeal is not just for how we view leaders. This is the thing about any faith community. It’s one of the most challenging things. We’re on all different stages of our faith journey. Recognize this with a lot of love and patience. Love is patient, Paul so famously wrote to the people of Corinth. We’re not all at the same place. Some are not as far along the path as you. It’s not a matter of getting angry at one another because of this. Some will not be doing as much as you think they should. Some will seem to complain all the time and just generally bring you down. Some seem to be into creating disorder. Admonish the idlers. This word has the sense of being idle, it also has the sense of being unruly or disruptive. Let us keep an eye out for such things. Sit down with them. Ask what’s going on. Pray with them. We can hide behind a mask of indifference or not care, sure, but we’re called to something else.
Encourage the fainthearted. Those who are “small of soul” as it says in Greek. Small of soul. Paul had just written about those who grieved. Those who are grieving among us. Those who suffer from illness. Encourage one another. Put good things into one another’s hearts. Help to make one another feel at home. A place where you are accepted, cared for, loved, no matter where you are on the Christ following journey or how faint of heart. One writer puts it like this – “We may not name them as weak, faint-hearted, and disorderly, but we do recognize the distressed… the susceptible, who fall prey to every rumour, the perpetual objection-raisers, faultfinders, problem-pointers. What Paul encourages exceeds the conventions of ‘making nice’ to these people; it is active involvement that seeks their good because their good is that of the whole body of Christ.” We are called to seek the good of others because, in Christ, God has actively sought our good. Put good things in one another’s faint hearts. Isaiah put it like this – “Say to those who are fearful of heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.’” Help the weak. Be patient with everyone.
Speaking of everyone, See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another, and to all. This is a whole new ethic brought about by the one who came to seek and save us while we were God’s enemies. Do good to one another, and to all. Take this stuff out of this place. We’re waiting sure. We’re in that pre-dawn time between “the Kingdom of God is at hand” and our prayer for God’s Kingdom to come. We’re in that pre-dawn time but the dawn is breaking. The day-star is in sight. We’re called to usher in that new morning. One writer puts it like this – “It (Christian ministry) is regarded as a means by which the Holy Spirit mediates the blessing and power of the age to come into the present age of sin and death. In a word, for Paul ministry is a present manifestation of the coming kingdom of God.”
Mediated, empowered, enabled by the Holy Spirit of God with us. Emmanuel!
Isn’t that a cause for joy? Rejoice always. Not a false or forced joy. A joy that doesn’t ignore sorrow and doesn’t weep with those who weep out of a twisted sense of piety. A joy that goes beyond circumstance.
“(F)or Paul, joy is more is more than a mood or an emotion. Joy is an understanding of existence that encompasses both elation and depression, that can accept with creative submission events which bring delight or dismay because joy allows one to see beyond any particular event to the sovereign Lord, who stands above all events and ultimately has control over them.”
To pray without ceasing. To live in a posture of prayer toward God. From what we do as individuals, to what we do in small groups, to what we do when we worship together. To recognize that prayer is not a quid pro quo asking of God but that it begins from the knowledge in our hearts that God our heavenly Father loves us and thus is eager to give good gifts to us as his children.
To give thanks in all circumstances. Not for all circumstances because to ask that would be monstrous. To recognize, rather, that even in the direst of circumstances we are thankful not to face them alone. We are thankful for the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
Don’t quench the Spirit. We don’t do any of this without the Spirit of God. The faith community that Paul describes in this passage is one in which God is at home. A place in which we feel at home. A place in which the gifts of the Spirit are seen. In this case, Paul mentions prophecy. Telling a word of God, either about what’s to come or what’s going on now. It could be teaching, service, mercy, giving. Let those gifts operate. Test them of course, because even when we’re at home it’s not all about us. It’s about the community. Are our gifts building the community up? Hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.
This is the will of Jesus Christ for us.
This is home.
This is joy.
And so friends as we enter the week before Christmas, may Paul’s blessing to the people of Thessalonica be ours. May the god of peace sanctify us entirely. May your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For whom we wait.
And who is faithful, and he will do this.