Sunday, December 11, 2011
Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent (December 11, 2011)
“Joy: God’s Advent Will for You” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24)
Advent and Lent are both known as penitential seasons. In Advent we spend time reflecting on the reason WHY the Son of God became flesh … to save us from our sin. In Lent we spend time reflecting on HOW the Son of God saved us from our sin … by giving up his life for us on the cross. In both seasons, we omit the Hymn of Praise in the liturgy. In both seasons, the hymns we sing are not always the most familiar, nor are they always the most rousing.
That being said, Lent is definitely more somber than Advent. Advent is full of anticipation for Christmas. It’s hard to be penitential with all the smells and sights and sounds of the season. Twinkling lights. Trimmed trees. Crisp, cold air. Christmas carols. Cookies and candies and all sorts of confectionary delights. The scents of cinnamon, vanilla, fires in fireplaces, and evergreen all mixing together and wafting through the house. Nevertheless, the Church still keeps Advent. We remind ourselves that our Lord’s Second Advent is on its way, too. We patiently wait. We prepare with repentant hearts.
In the midst of both of these penitential seasons, there is a sudden burst of joy. Pink or, more properly, rose is the color of the day … “lightening” the mood just for a moment until the high feast days ahead. The fourth Sunday in Lent has some joyful themes as Easter draws closer. The third Sunday in Advent also urges us on towards joy as our celebration of the incarnation draws near. “Rejoice always,” St. Paul writes in our text. “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,” Isaiah declares in the Old Testament reading. Each Sunday in Advent, we have sung “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” in the Gradual. In Advent we sing “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel will come to thee, O Israel,” which prepares us to sing “Joy to the world! The Lord has come!”
“Rejoice always,” St. Paul says. Isn’t that kind of forcing the issue? This is kind of like those days when you wake up on the wrong side of the bed. It’s obvious that you don’t feel the greatest. You’re tired. You ache. Your husband ticked you off yesterday. He greets you with “Lighten up!” You respond, “Don’t tell me how I’m supposed to feel!”
“Rejoice always.” Don’t tell me how I’m supposed to feel, Paul. You don’t understand. It is really hard to be joyful at this time of year. All this glitter and tinsel is just masking my pain. I’m not nearly ready for Christmas. I have more shopping to do. I have to get the house ready. I have family problems. I have health problems. I have guilt problems. I have done some things that I’m not proud of. I have said some things which I wish I could take back. I have some terrible thoughts in my head which, if they ever were known by anyone … well, I would probably just rather die than have those things exposed. Joy? Yeah. Right.
The Thessalonians could have responded this way. Things were not all that rosy for them. They had good reason to NOT be joyful. Paul describes how they were being persecuted for their faith by their “own countrymen” (1 Thess. 2:14-16). In addition, there is evidence that there was friction among the members of the Thessalonian congregation. It seems that there were some who did not respect their pastors and elders (1 Thess. 5:12-13). Paul urges them to “Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thess. 5:13). Perhaps there were people at odds not only with the leaders but with fellow church members. Paul then also tells the congregation to “admonish the idle” (1 Thess. 5:14; see also 2 Thess. 3:6-12). In light of the expected return of Jesus, there may have been some who sat back, refused to work, and became lazy, simply waiting for the Day of the Lord.
Things were dark for the Thessalonians, from an earthly perspective. Things may be dark for you. But St. Paul explains why we can rejoice in spite of what is happening around us. Joy is not based on what or how much you have. Joy is not based on what you have achieved. Joy is not based on how you feel. Joy is not based on what your circumstances are, whether good or bad. Joy is based on Christ and Christ alone. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Rejoice … in Christ Jesus! Pray … in Christ Jesus! Give thanks … in Christ Jesus!
“Rejoice always.” You can rejoice no matter what happens to you because you know that you are baptized into Christ. You are God’s own child … you can gladly say that! You belong to the Triune God. Your sins are forgiven. You have the privilege of eating and drinking the body and blood of your dear Savior. He is present with you always. No one can take any of this away from you no matter what earthly things are taken away from you.
“Pray without ceasing.” This doesn’t mean, of course, that you must be on your knees 24 hours of the day. What it does mean is having regular, scheduled times of prayer, such as when you get up in the morning and when you go to bed at night. It also includes spontaneous prayer when needs arise. The Holy Spirit leads the baptized believer to have an attitude of prayer, a readiness to bring our needs and the needs of others before the Lord. Moreover, even in the times when we don’t know what to say or how to pray, the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words … according to the will of God” (Rom 8:26-27). And when we pray “in Christ Jesus” or “in the name of Jesus,” we can be fully confident that God the Father hears our prayers because of his Son who broke down the barrier between us sinners and a holy God. Our Heavenly Father receives our prayers graciously and will answer them according to his will for the sake of his Son. And when we pray, we can begin to cultivate a joyful attitude even in times of suffering. Prayer helps us to keep our “temporal and spiritual values in balance” (EBC 11.291).
“Give thanks in all circumstances.” It’s not always easy to give thanks when things are rotten. We need to remember that nothing happens to us outside of God’s loving care. We can be confident of that because of the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus. If God was willing to go to such great lengths to forgive our sins and give us eternal life, we can be sure that he will not abandon us in our moments of pain and affliction. Since this is the case, even what we see as evil happening to us is still put to use in God’s eternal plan. “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
The Thessalonians were suffering. But Paul says in chapter 1 that they “received the word with much affliction” … and then he adds this important phrase: “with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” They “received the word” … the Word of the Gospel, the Good News that Jesus suffered and died and rose again for them. Remaining in that Word, the Holy Spirit will never be quenched, but the faith that he ignited in us will always be fanned into flame (2 Tim. 1:6). We are never to despise the proclamation of that Word, but always to discern whether that proclamation is in line with the Holy Scriptures. If it is, then we hold fast to it. If not, then we are to keep it far away from us. Even the smallest amount of false teaching should not be allowed a place among us. It starts small, like a match thrown along the side of the road. But when the conditions are right, it will spread quickly and become a destructive wildfire. The fire of false teaching must be quenched by the truth of the Gospel so that salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone remains the fountain from which all other doctrines flow.
Our text concludes with these poignant words of promise: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thess. 5:23-24) When you hear about making Advent preparations, it may be easy to get the wrong idea. You may be inclined to think that your Advent preparations have something to do with making you worthy to be received by your Savior when he comes again in glory. On the contrary, it is the “God of peace himself” who makes you ready by sanctifying you. That means you are made holy, set apart for God, completely, through and through, in every part. You are precious to him, loved, forgiven, declared not guilty … and in this way, you will be kept blameless on the day when Jesus returns. This is not about your preparations. This is about what God has done for you. And just in case we still didn’t get it, the final sentence of our text adds an exclamation point to all of this: “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”
Now that is truly a reason to be joyful. So, rejoice! This is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.