Advent 3, Dec. 13, 2020

From our second reading, Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica, these words: Rejoice
always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ
Jesus for you. Thus far our text.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Paul wrote a lot of stuff like this in his letters. Often he’d ramble on and on in what teachers
today would call “run-on” sentences. At other times he would provide lists of things that ought
to mark the lives of God’s children. I hope that Paul’s readers—especially in our contemporary
setting—don’t get to a point when we tune him out, or where he sounds like this: I hope my preaching hasn’t reached a point that sounds like that!

Truthfully, it is easy for messages to grow stale, especially when we hear the same basic themes
over and over again. I experience this almost every season as a coach. The first handful of
practices, the kids are tuned in, focused on my every word, and anxious to learn. By the end of
the season, some of them hardly hear a single word I say. As the wise sage, Yogi Berra, once
quipped, for them: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

With all that said, I will risk the possibility of sounding redundant and repeat Paul’s words from
our text, but I will change it up with some different inflection which might reflect how we may
honestly feel about what he is saying here: Rejoice always? Give thanks in all circumstances?
Pray with ceasing?! Come on, Paul… you can’t be serious!

If we were uniformed about Paul, we might even be inclined to say something ignorant, such as,
“Sure, Paul, easy for you to say!” But we are aware of just how difficult Paul’s journeys as a
missionary for the Jesus Movement were, part of which he recounts in this passage from 2
Corinthians 11: Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was
beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I
was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my
own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger
from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and
thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure
because of my anxiety for all the churches. And we think we have it rough!

Actually, that’s not really fair. In many ways we do have it rough. This is the most difficult
stretch I have experienced in my lifetime… which in part shows how good I have had it my
whole life. But the loved ones of nearly 300,000 of our fellow countrymen are mourning their
loss to the COVID-19 crisis, and many others—including members of our church family—have
suffered greatly with the infection. The impact on our economy has been devastating, with
record numbers of people losing jobs and businesses.

Add to that the horrific wildfires of 2020… and here in mid-December California is still very
much in danger of seeing more fires. And our country continues through a time of political and
social turmoil that hasn’t been seen in many generations, causing relational damage impacting
families, friendships, and churches, and leaving our United States far from united. I am not
about to minimize the fact that these are dark times indeed… especially for those who have
added physical, relational, and emotional setbacks on top of all these other hardships.

It is into this—and every— dark setting that Paul speaks these words: “Rejoice always, pray
without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” In
the midst of our struggles, in the midst of our fear, and in the midst of all of the uncertainties,
we can “Rejoice always” because of the truth that the Light of the world has come, as John
proclaims in our Gospel: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. … to
all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were
born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became
flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace
and truth.”

But how is it possible to Rejoice in the middle of the chaos? Well, first we must realize we are
not talking about ‘celebrating’… at least not in the sense of jumping up and down all filled with
“happy, happy, joy, joy!” and throwing a party to celebrate all of the bad news. The root for the
Greek word translated as rejoice has the meaning of being favorably disposed. In the context of
hardship, we can find meaning in suffering because we know God can ultimately use it for good.

What makes it possible for us to be somewhat favorable disposed toward hardship, to embrace
times of crises as an opportunity to experience blessing? It is trusting that God is faithful to His
promises… including those Paul wrote about in the 8 th chapter of his letter to the Romans, which
I’ve repeatedly cited during the last nine months: I consider that the sufferings of this present time
are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. … We know that all things work
together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. … Who will
separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness,
or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to
come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We can “give thanks in all circumstances.” Hardship can be endured, even potentially embraced,
because we believe that good will come from it. The good might come in the form of a needed
wake-up call, leading to a season of repentance, reconnecting with our Abba Father and Brother
Jesus through the calling and empowering of the Holy Spirit of God. Good can come in the
form of an increased awareness of our need to draw closer to God, to go deeper in our faith.

Good can also come in the form of increased opportunity to love and serve others, to more fully
demonstrate our love for God through our willingness to make sacrifices for others and to put
the needs of others before our own. We can give testimony to our connection with Jesus as we
express trust in God and display the peace which comes from God and God alone, the peace
which passes all human understanding, the peace which keeps our hearts and our minds in
Christ Jesus.

May the light of God’s love and grace come to each of us and all of us together, and may that
light shine in the darkness through us, displaying “his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full
of grace and truth.” Amen.

  January 2021  
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