A brief meditation to go along with our children’s Christmas pageant.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 ; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Joy is our theme today; it is the symbol of today’s special rose Advent candle. The other candles are purple, which marks this season, like Lent, as one of fasting. We fast because we recognize that Emmanuel, God with Us, is not yet truly with us. But Advent is also a season anticipating the Coming of Emmanuel. It is a time of pregnancy. Already we can senses the presence of this newborn. Like expectant parents, we are already imagining what this Coming One will be like, already delighting in the arrival, already preparing the nursery of our heart. We might be a little off in our expectations. We might be expecting a boy and it turns out to be a girl. We might have a name picked out, and when we see the baby we might find ourselves saying, “Oh you’re just not a Stan, are you?” (Ever hear of that happening to parents?) But we are certainly right to already feel the joy. So we switch from a purple candle to a rose candle, for the joy already promised to us.
There is joy in the fast. I’m not convinced that this is the same joy as the one called for by the Christmas frenzy all around us. Everyone knows you’re supposed to be joyful at Christmas. Can’t you hear Andy Williams singing it: “It’s the most wonderful time, of the year. With the kids jingle belling, And everyone telling you be of good cheer!” (I heard a lot of Andy Williams growing up.) It’s the hap-happiest season of all. But often people can’t say why you should be so happy. It’s just Christmas. And that’s fine. We don’t need to begrudge people a chance for midwinter cheer with friends and family. It can be a problem when people are unable to summon the joy that is supposed to be lighting up our faces, perhaps because we are missing loved ones. Joy without any real reason behind it can easily fall flat.
So it might help to investigate this distinctly Christian, Advent joy, this rose-amid-purple joy, that we celebrate today. This joy is deeper than just the feeling of happiness, in many ways. So when we hear Paul say in our reading, “Rejoice always,” does he just mean, “Don’t worry, be happy?” (Remember that?) Because I think lots of people will hear the reading from today and will latch on to just that one phrase, “Rejoice always” and, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” We’ll immediately think that Paul’s telling us to count our blessings and be happy. So then how does Paul go from there to, “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything.” Did you hear that also? And finally, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely.” There’s nothing wrong with rejoicing always, but there’s more going on in this passage.
To be brief, Paul’s message of rejoice, give thanks in all circumstances is about being happy in church. He’s writing this to “you all” in the church of Thessalonica. And he notes just before our passage that there are people in church who are idle, who are faint of heart, who are weak. (That’s true anywhere.) “Be patient with them all,” he says. Repay no one evil for evil, he says, but seek to do good to one another and to all. Then he says “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” So he means: community has its problems and its challenges. But give thanks for all the challenges, because they are part of your life in God. (He’s not saying give thanks for everything that happens to you personally, no matter how lousy it is. This is about the challenges specific to being a church.)
Such as the challenge of hearing and receiving the god-given wisdom that any of us can have. Thus Paul continues: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything.” We need to listen for God speaking in each one of us. And then not just say, “That’s nice, Fred,” but test everything, because we are taking each other’s words seriously. Your words about God make a claim on me, because we are trying to be one community before God together. How do we test? “Hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form (or idea) of evil.” That kind of listening, with critical testing—what we might call “dialogue” about God and God’s will—is critical to being “sanctified,” set apart as God’s people. It’s what I want to do with the adult (re-) confirmation class. It is not easy. Those of us closest to running this church know how challenging it can be, especially when it comes to listening to one another. We try not to repay evil for evil. We need to be reminded in Advent to rejoice in the challenges, for these are the labor pains of the Christ being born in us.
And come Christmas Eve, we will be able to lay down our challenges and stresses for a time. We will be joined by many friends—call them C&E Christians if you like, but they will remind us that the church is not just about we who labor and struggle, but about good news to all. Then our joy shall be complete. “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”