Advent 3B. 14 December 2014.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
The Epistle lesson this morning is almost the very end of the first letter to the Thessalonians, the church in Thessalonika. Each of the Epistle lessons in Advent contain a sense of urgency, and a call to a more devout life. The urgency in these words is hard for us to internalize in the same way that the letter's original recipients internalized them. They believed—and we are also meant to believe—that Christ's return is imminent.
Therefore the injunctions to rejoice and give thanks, and test, and not to quench, and to abstain, and so forth, are tersely given—like the last words of someone leaving someone else in charge. "Remember to feed the cat, and water the plants, and the trash goes out on Wednesday." Paul is drawing the letter to a close, and he's doing so with these reminders.
And the last words—at least of this lesson—contain a short benedictory prayer with an important promise. Paul writes, "May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The prayer is that the church be sanctified—that God would hold them and keep them apart from the world around them with its corrupting influences—and that their spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless.
It's an important prayer, especially for the early church. Remember that they have no roots in history to draw from. The cemetery does not contain the remains of generations of Christians before them. This is a brand new faith.
In addition to that, Thessalonika is not in the Holy Land, which would provided, at the very least, a cultural Jewish tradition to draw from. Thessalonika is in Macedonia, which is northern Greece. So here they are, a little church in a Greco-Roman city. They have converted to a new faith that has deep roots in Judaism—itself a foreign religion—and is based very much on this belief that Christ Jesus is due back at any moment.
For them to be "sanctified entirely" means that they would be held together in mutual love, and in the disciplines that Paul has taught them for worship, for maintaining the Christian faith. Paul addresses them as their spiritual father. He wants them to be safe, and to not let go of what he has taught them.
And so, after this prayer comes a promise. Paul writes, "The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this." That God who has welcomed them into this faith is going to be actively with them, and within them. Let me suggest that that is very profound; and something we can blithely ignore when times are good, but draw strength from when evil days come. "The one who calls you is faithful."
You may or may not consider yourself called, but you are. The Church must never allow our understanding of "call" to become domesticated, or hostage to the traditional orders of bishop, priest, and deacon—as if they represent some sort of post-graduate diploma to one's Christian identity. To use one of St. Paul's favorite expressions: μὴ γένοιτο "May it never be."
Sacred orders are important, but they are only meaningful if they serve to help the whole church discover the deeper call, and that is the call within you. Within all of us. It is a call to know God, and to be known by God.
God is deeply and devotedly in love with you. You might just allow yourself to sit with that thought at some point. Maybe in your devotional life, you could put aside your prayer list, and even your books—and let yourself sit with the single idea that God is deeply and devotedly in love with you.
Our heads get so filled with other messages, don't they? And even if you have a regular form of private prayer, it's so easy to sit down to it and not have your mind on it. It becomes this thing to do.
I have learned after many years that stillness must precede prayer. It's like listening for the dial tone. And then, when we can finally rest in oratory of our souls, and a sense of connection is nurtured—we discover God within us—then finally a prayer may be said.
There are so many occasions when prayer is expected to be on our schedule. The prayer before a meal, or the prayer before a meeting, or something, and I invariably feel this internal awkwardness about it, because the food is getting cold, or people are impatient. I remember one time I had someone come into my office for help—she wasn't a parishioner, she was in need of assistance with something financial, and she said, "I really need you to pray for me." It was like, if I didn't start saying words right now that something bad was going to happen.
So I tried to calm her a bit by saying, "Let's just bow our heads and take a minute first." But after about five seconds she said, somewhat angrily, "Are you going to pray for me or not?"
Why do we pray if it isn't to find the giver of the gift, as well as the gift? Everything about Christ, and the story of his life, death, and resurrection is meant to communicate the very simple fact that God is deeply and devotedly in love with us. And within that love there is a constant call to deeper relationship, too deeper trust in the one who loves you most.
What is so powerfully profound about the promise is that the one who calls us is faithful. We all know what it is to experience unfaithful love. We all know what it is to be enticed by a feeling or a thought only to be disappointed.
This is a frequent theme in ordination sermons. Young men and women brightly arrayed in their albs with red stoles standing by. They fidget in their band-new clerical collars, and the sermon is often along these lines, "The one who calls you is faithful." It's a sermon the ordinands need to hear and can already preach, because if you manage to make it through seminary, internships, hospital chaplaincies, the General Ordination Exams, and the Commission on Ministry, by goodness, you have learned that God is faithful.
But again, this isn't, and shouldn't be, just about the ordained. Everyone needs to hear that following God's voice will not be in vain. That we aren't being teased, or led out on some fragile branch that cannot bear our weight. But it can be a real struggle sometimes, especially if the road ahead is uncertain, and if we are already planning certain outcomes.
Anxiety does that. Anxiety is a pick-pocket thief of emotions. Anxiety talks to you about wisely planning for contingencies, and all the while it has its hand in your pocket taking away all your faith, and all your happiness.
Anxiety is a fortune-teller, a palm reader. Give him your peace of mind, and he'll give you nightmare scenarios that will likely never happen. No one can see into the future. No one can account for every little thing that adds up in your life to influence you or the immediate world around you.
And at the same time, neither do you really understand the full power you have. The significance of your being. You have the ability in any given situation to influence it for the better or worse. We so often think of the problems and people in our lives as inflexible or insurmountable obstacles. And we think we could never do anything to make it better.
There is a church I know of that had a major situation that had built itself around a central issue, namely that Mrs. SoandSo would never be okay if we did X. It was taken for Gospel that she would be deeply offended, and no one wanted to do that. It was subject of whispers and worries for weeks on end.
So one day, the priest got tired of it, and explained the situation to Mrs. SoandSo, line by line, what had brought us from this to this, and what finally has led us to wanting to do (GULP)….this-thing-that-we-just-knew-she-hated. And she said, "Oh, well, when you put it like that, it's fine. Go ahead." And when she said that, a whole tangled mess of anxiety, strained relationships, weird little attending problems, all of them resolved almost overnight. We forget that people are always in transition from one thought to the next, and from one feeling to the next, and what is "no" now, may be "yes" tomorrow.
The word confidence is from the Latin confidere, which brings together con, meaning with, and fides, meaning faith. To have confidence, to be with faith, or with trust. And so to have confidence in God is to believe that the one who calls you is faithful. That you will not be left without comfort, or without love.
As you have come to church today it is likely that you bring with you an assortment of feelings about this time of the year. It's cold and grey. There are people we miss. There may be strange sadnesses that come upon us that we do not even know how to explain.
We need to hear that below it all, or perhaps above it all, the one who has called us into relationship through his own beloved son, is faithful. You are not alone. You have not been teased, or led out on a branch that cannot bear your weight, God is faithful.
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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel