By Julie Carew, Lay Preacher
Creator and Sustainer, thank you for these illustrations of being your Beloved ones- of what it looks like to be blessed, chosen, cared for and called by You. Amen
The passages in today’s liturgy bring us some beautiful stories of being God’s people:
In Isaiah we hear about what it can look like to be filled with the spirit of God, to belong to God. Here, God’s people bring good news, they help others, they seek and provide for the good of others. It doesn’t say there won’t be hardship and mourning, but that they will be brought out of it, comforted, transformed.
In her Song in Luke, Mary is rejoicing in and celebrating what God has done and is doing for her. She is recounting God’s mercy, strength against evil, care for those who are in need, and faithfulness.
In the Gospel reading, we hear from John the Baptizer, starting with what he is NOT- the Messiah, Elijah, a prophet. He says “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness…” and we read that “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”
The word that has been occupying space in my brain as I sit with these passages is WITNESS. I know I’ve had several occasions in my life where I was seeing something happen and I reminded myself to pause and take it all in, knowing I was witnessing a significant event. When we know we are witnesses, we pay attention and take it all in so that we can remember and share what we have observed and experienced, and that seems to be what is happening in all of these passages. Isaiah is recounting a history, giving credit where it is due. Mary is celebrating and proclaiming all that God has done and giving thanks. John is demonstrating and telling of what he has heard from God and how it has impacted his life, pointing others towards God.
They are all WITNESSING to who God is and what God has done- remembering and treasuring it for themselves and sharing it with others.
In 1 Thessalonians we read what Paul wrote to those to whom he had witnessed in Thessalonica.
This letter is likely not only the first of Paul’s letters to be preserved for us, but the earliest surviving Christian writing, dating just 15-20 years after the crucifixion. Paul spent a few intense months living, working and spreading word about Jesus in Thessalonica, the leading city in Macedonia, before he and his traveling companions were forced out. This letter is written as a response to the news brought back from Timothy that the Thessalonians were standing firm in their faith and continued to hold Paul and his companions in high-esteem, and he seemingly writes it intending to build them up and celebrate them. Through this beautiful letter, we sense the deep love and affection Paul has for these people he taught, lived and worked among. Throughout 1st Thessalonians we see glimpses of how he shared life and the Gospel with them, what he saw as essential in the foundation of their faith and his hopes for them in the future. He praises them for their work and faithfulness, encouraging them to continue on as they have been.
Paul also addresses their concerns about those they have lost, reassuring them that their loved ones will not be left behind by God. It’s clear in many of Paul’s teachings that he expected Jesus to return during his lifetime and preached with that urgency in mind. And in this letter, he reassures them that the promise of Jesus’ return still stands, if on a different timeline than he originally expected. He encourages them to continue on in love, peace, kindness, patience and goodwill, as they await Christ’s return.
It’s in that context that we find today’s passage from 1 Thessalonians 5.
Here we read Paul’s final words in this letter to this community that is cherished by him and has undergone many challenges and trials. I have to believe that, knowing what they have been through and that they may be losing hope, he purposely doesn’t leave them with more to do, or challenge them to do better or harder, but with reminders of what is essential on their journey. He begins with “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances”.
“Rejoice” is translated from the Greek word, Chairo (khah'-ee-ro)- to rejoice, be glad, to rejoice exceedingly, to be well, thrive
And “Always” from Pantote (pan'-tot-eh)- at all times, always, ever- in the King James Version, this word is translated as “evermore”.
What does it look like to rejoice always? I would posit that this is not about being happy all the time. In fact, there are other places in the Bible where this same word, “Chairo” is translated as “be glad”, but not here. I see this more as a call to reflection, to taking time to process and find joy and then, perhaps, to share it. I think that, knowing full well the trials they are facing, he is encouraging them to find joy in all that they can.
What does it look like to pray without ceasing? Paul uses this same word for “without ceasing” in Romans 1:9 in reference to specific people he is praying for. We see then that this can’t be a literal “constantly”, but rather seems to be explaining a posture, a practice of being always in communication with God about the things that are on our hearts and minds. Prayer is a conversation, an ongoing conversation with God. If we start our days remembering that we are of God, and reminding ourselves of who God is, it seems likely that we will be able to freely access that conversation throughout our day. When we notice something beautiful, we give credit to the creator and allow ourselves space to be awed. When we are challenged by something, we remember that we can ask for help. When we feel the loss of someone missing from our lives, we remember that we are not alone in that loss, and have a companion through it.
What does it look like to give thanks in all circumstances? To take what we are rejoicing in and in communion with God and with others, to give credit where it is due, giving thanks to God. This strengthens our connection to God, and invites us into a posture of gratitude within it.
Paul’s words here are simple and concise, but not tasks that can be taken lightly; he gives them three things they simply can’t do without acknowledging they are beloved creations of God and everyone else is too. In them, they must acknowledge where everything comes from, hear and accept guidance, cling to their Creator, their value and purpose, and be grateful for those who have entered into their realm.
Paul then says, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” I think this is maybe the most important phrase here. He is saying that these are not rules to follow, but that this is what God WILLS for God’s people, this is how God created them (and us) to be, in continuous communication with our Creator, noticing and appreciating the creation around us and the connection we have with all of it.
Paul goes on to encourage the Thessalonians to celebrate and look for opportunities to be guided by the still small voice that is the Spirit living in them, whether in wrestling with the writings and teachings that are challenging to them or distinguishing good from evil.
Paul then blesses the Thessalonians, “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 one who calls you is faithful and he will do this.” These are beautiful, encouraging words. Our goodness, our worthiness, our blamelessness comes from being a creation of God and our relationship with God as our Creator.
So what does this mean about our witness as followers of Jesus? For Mary, witnessing meant trusting what seemed impossible and sharing what she knew of God, even when all the pieces didn’t quite make sense. For John the Baptist, it meant wearing camel's hair, eating locusts and wild honey, wandering in the desert, calling for folks to prepare themselves for relationship with God, and baptizing them. As interesting as that sounds, I think I’ll take to heart what Paul is saying here to his friends, the Thessalonians- that being people who draw their value and that of others from being part of God’s creation and investing in being part of God’s community, is their witness. I believe (and it sounds like Paul did too) that God created us to notice, to draw joy, to find hope and to be in continuous communion with God. We don’t have all the answers, but we know the source of those answers and can rest and trust in that. We can find joy when it seems impossible, and we seek more, better and truer relationship with God and with each other.
Paul gave the Thessalonians a gift in this letter, a reminder that it’s in God’s presence and our practicing of that presence that we find what we need. Will we also accept that gift as we journey through Advent? Let us be this kind of witness- Rejoicing Always, Praying without Ceasing, and Giving Thanks in All Circumstances. (Or at least head in that direction…) As we daily face a world with so many things we will never make sense of, let us cling to our Creator and know that we are seen and known. And let us love well those around us and encourage them to do the same. Amen.
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