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Sermon based on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
It is so hard to believe the month of December has arrived. In thinking of this month there is one word that is sometimes used to describe this time of the year. This word is chaos. I am not looking forward to being part of those traffic jams, having to begin my Christmas shopping and endure those long checkout lines and needing the patience of Job in order to find a parking spot anywhere there is a shopping center. All of this anxiety leading up to Christmas can remind us how easy it is for us to forget the real meaning of Christmas. Advertisers implore us with messages to buy bigger and better. Many retail stores are now removing Christ from the Christmas celebration. I am also reminded that many people this time of the year are already tired, stressed, busy and sometimes even grumpy. Most of all it reminds me that we can get so busy being busy that the Advent season passes over us like a plane in the night, heard but not really seen.
How do we cope with these feelings of anxiety and stress that are often associated with the holidays? Perhaps we have heard the 23rd Psalm for Busy People before but this might help us and provide a little perspective when things seem to become overwhelming. The Psalm reads as follows:
The Lord is my pacesetter, I shall not rush. He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals, He provides me with images of stillness which restore my serenity, He leads me in ways of efficiency, through calmness of mind, and his guidance is peace. Even though I have a great many things to accomplish this day, I will not fret, for His presence is here; His timelessness, His all-importance will keep me in balance. He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity by anointing my mind with the oils of tranquility. My cup of joyous energy overflows. Surely harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruits of my hours, for I shall walk in the pace of my Lord, and dwell in His house forever.
I’ll admit that I have found this Psalm to be helpful but it is not quite enough for me. I have often thought to myself there must be words of Scripture that can provide us some guidelines on how to make life easier during the holiday season. I have found the first three verses from the fifth chapter of 1 Thessalonians to be helpful as it provides simple directions for living. These verses have often been called, “The standing orders of the church.” These standing orders are the following:
- Rejoice always
- Pray without ceasing
- Give thanks in all circumstances
We can see these verses are imperative in mood, some might say they are forceful commands directing our attitudes and actions. This use of the imperative almost forces us to regard rejoicing, praying and giving thanks as things other than feelings. We all know however feelings cannot be commanded. Telling a spouse not to be sad or a child not to be angry is easier said than done! But certain behaviors can be encouraged and that is what Paul is doing in these verses. These simple directions for living not only will make our life easier this month but every day of our lives as well. This morning we are going to explore each of these behaviors and how we can apply them in our lives.
First Paul writes for us to rejoice always. One of the most difficult things for us to do is rejoice always. There are some days when we don’t feel like rejoicing especially when certain things happen to us. When a loved one is suffering, where do we find the happiness? When a decision is made that we do not like, it’s tough to find that silver lining in the dark clouds. When someone hurts us deliberately, how easy is it for us to rejoice when we have been wronged? I think for us to rejoice always there must be a willingness to look at the bright side of things. I often wish I could have the attitude of the late Robert De Vincenzo when it comes to rejoicing always. For those golfers in our congregation the name Robert De Vincenzo might sound familiar to you. De Vincenzo was a great golfer from Argentina who is probably best remembered back in the 1960’s of signing an incorrect scorecard causing him to lose the coveted Master’s championship by the single stroke of his pen! Despite this huge blunder he always displayed a gracious attitude and a joyful personality. This became even more evident as he grew older. Once after winning a tournament and after receiving his check and smiling for the cameras, he went to the clubhouse and prepared to leave. Sometime later, he walked alone to his car in the parking lot and was approached by a young woman. This woman congratulated him on his victory and then told him that her child was seriously ill and near death. She did not know how she could pay the doctor’s bills and hospital expenses. De Vincenzo was genuinely touched by her story as any of us might be, and he took out a pen and endorsed his winning check to this woman. “Make some good days for the baby,” he said as he gave her the check. The following week, as he was having lunch inside the country club of the next tournament event, a Professional Golf Association official came to his table. This PGA official said the following, “Robert, some of the boys in the parking lot last week told me you met a young woman there after you won the tournament.” De Vincenzo nodded. “Well, said the official, “I have news for you. She’s a phony. She has no sick baby. She’s not even married. She fooled you, my friend.””You mean there is no baby who is dying?” said De Vincenzo. “That’s right, said the official. What was De Vincenzo’s response to this news? He replied to the official with a smile upon his face, “That’s the best news I’ve heard all week!”
As this illustration shows, our attitude dictates how we will respond to everything in our life. A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes. Rejoicing always means looking at the good things in our lives and celebrating them rather than bemoaning what we don’t have. Throughout the Bible we are called to joy and to rejoice in our sufferings. Years ago I accepted the fact that I cannot be happy at all times. Despite this fact I find comfort that there can always be a basic joy in my life and this joy is found through my relationship with Jesus Christ.
The second thing Paul tells us is to pray without ceasing. When I think of praying without ceasing, I think of the analogy of being in love with someone. When one is in love with another, there is an unceasing awareness of the other. This does not mean that one is constantly engaged in thinking of the other person, but the presence of the other person is constant. All decisions are made with that loved one in mind. Praying without ceasing doesn’t mean that at work when a supervisor asks us to do something, that we respond, I’m sorry I can’t do that right now, “I’m praying without ceasing as the Scripture has instructed me to do!” What it does mean is that we can pray to God no matter what the circumstance might be. The late author and Biblical scholar J.B. Lightfoot clarified this point by saying, “It is not in the moving of the lips, but in the elevation of the heart to God, that the essence of prayer consists.” Over the years I have found comfort and strength in prayer. A German proverb says the following: “When in prayer you clasp your hands, God opens his.” God can help us even more when we communicate our needs to God through prayer.
The third and final point Paul brings to our attention is that we are to give thanks in all circumstances. This command grows out of the first two. Joy and unceasing prayer will bring us a constant stream of gratitude. One of the themes that we find throughout the Scripture centers upon the belief that God is at work for good in the lives of people. The apostle Paul writes for us in Romans 8:28:
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
Sometimes when thinking about that passage, we make the subject in those words, “all things” rather than God. We must never forget that God is at work in and through, and often in spite of all the things that happen to us good or bad. It’s only when we choose to give praise for the rough spots in life that we will begin to see how these events can give strength and meaning to our lives. We can give thanks during those bad times because we know that God is always present and is always at work in our lives. One of my favorite cartoon strips is Peanuts by the late Charles Schultz. In one particular cartoon Charlie Brown is all bundled as he prepared to walk on a cold winter day. He was wearing several sweaters, a furry hat, a huge overcoat, gloves and boots. Charlie Brown started across a frozen lake and he slipped and fell. He was so bundled up that he could not get himself up. He wondered whether he would remain there until spring. Fortunately Snoopy comes to the rescue and begins pushing Charlie Brown to the shore. Charlie Brown looks up and says, “This is very embarrassing.”
Likewise, sometimes for us it is an embarrassing feeling to admit that we need to be rescued. Yet God has given each of us the gift of being rescued from our sin, our doubt and our fears through the birth and blood of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Indeed the greatest gift of Christmas is one we don’t find through online shopping or even in a department store. The greatest gift of Christmas is that Jesus Christ came to live among us and one day will return in all his glory. In these weeks of Advent I hope we can take time to give thanks for the gift God has given each of us.
While we wait here on earth for that day when Christ is to return in all his glory, we have been given simple directions for living that can help make our lives less stressful and more fruitful. Together let us rejoice always, pray and give thanks in all circumstances.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
December 2, 2018