December 11 2011 Sermon
1 Thessalonians 5:16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil. 23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
Uncertainty breeds anxiety. What isn’t yet set or determined or certain or done naturally makes us nervous. Your team is leading by three points going into the fourth quarter. You know that one more win will clinch a play-off spot, and you get an anxious feeling—even if you know you’ve got three more games to lock it up. You can’t celebrate yet, until it’s done.
Waiting for results of college entrance exams means you can’t fully enjoy your senior year just yet. Waiting for results from a medical test—that’s a lot harder still. Until the lab calls with a clean bill of health, we probably worry.
So, in times like today that may be every bit that anxious—for other reasons as well—it may not be easy to hear Paul’s’ exhortation to us this morning: “Rejoice always.” In fact, with so much uncertainty in life, it may be difficult to hear a whole lot of things God says to us through the apostle in our text. Paul actually gives us quite a lengthy list of things that ought to reflect the sanctified, holy life of the Christian: three “dos” and three “don’ts.”
First of all the three “Dos” in our sanctification. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.”
Rejoice always: Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience and so on…” Says St. Paul. That means, joy is something the Holy Spirit gives us and produces in us. We cannot command joy. We cannot tell someone to be joyful. It is not something that a person can produce himself. It is the fruit of, a gift of, or the working of the Spirit of God. Joy is often observable and contagious. When we are around someone who is full of joy, we can’t help notice their enthusiasm. It is hard to not feel a little bit of joy ourselves.
But joy isn’t easy, especially when we’re anxious about so many, many real-life, everyday uncertainties. When it comes to health issues, sickness, money and economic difficulties, to school, to problems getting along with others at work, to getting older and unable to do all the things we must do in life and having to depend on others to do them for us. How can we be joyful. Even in this most joyous seasons of the year, how can we find joy among all the stress and pressure, the running around, the shopping, the crowds, the parties, the decorations, the tight schedules. It seems like joy is what comes when it is all over and we can get back to normal life. We are told to do it always, but it is not something we can even do. How can we have joy in all the uncertainties of life?
The next do in our list, is “pray without ceasing.” Relationship grow with communication. That’s true of human relationships, and it’s true in our relationship with God. Prayer is communicating with God. And God invites us to bring our cares before his throne of grace. That is a joyous relief. There is someone we can go to in all this stress, anxiety and worry who will listen to our heartfelt cries. Like a loving father he invites us to call him Father and lay down our burdens before him. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice….Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God and the peace that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” But, can we be sure he answers? What if I’m too worried and anxious even to pray?
And the final do: “do give thanks in all circumstances.” The Gospel gives us an attitude of gratitude. It makes thanksgiving possible because there is truly something to give thanks for. The greater our faith the more grateful we are to God. Being grateful even in adversity and in the midst of problems and sufferings is evidence of spiritual maturity. But how can I be grateful when I don’t even know if I’ll have a job or my health or all my family members tomorrow? Thanksgiving is often illusive as we are faced with so many problems and worries.
Do: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. Now the don’ts: do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophecies, do not give in to evil.
Don’t quench the Spirit: quenching the Spirit occurs when one allows sin to enter his life. When one returns to sin unchecked; allowing it to go on without stopping it. When one stops resisting sin and gives in to it willfully. That is quenching the Spirit. Quenching the Spirit occurs when one avoids the means by which the Spirit works in us, that is, when we stay away from God’s Word and Sacrament. These are what worship is all about: receiving the word and sacraments. If we stay away from the Bible and from the Sacrament, we are shutting off the Spirit of God. The Comforter can’t comfort us if we shut him out. Apart from these means, the Holy Spirit cannot do his work in us. He cannot preserve us in the faith, he cannot sanctify us, he cannot keep us until the day of the Lord’s return. We will turn back to our sinful ways. We will return to live in sin and are cut off from Christ. The comfort which the Holy Spirit brings to us is taken away from us.
But sometimes, even when I come here for preaching and the Lord’s Supper, I still don’t feel all that comforted. Fact is, I still have to face Monday morning—and I don’t know what that will bring. I still have to return to my problems, my worries, my anxieties.
Paul also says, don’t despise prophecies. Prophecy is when God speaks to us. He speaks to us in his word. Despising prophecy is when we do not hear the Word; are lacking in hearing the preaching; do not read and study God’s Word. Despising prophecies is when we look elsewhere for God to speak to us or reveal something to us. It is when we look for spectacular manifestations or special signs or message from God. When we look for “fleeces” we lay out, rather than look into the Word which God gives us in Scripture. For the Scripture contains all the prophecies of God, his direct and clear word to us.
Despising prophecy occurs when God speaks to us, but we think we know better. Often the things he says in his word we disagree with. We say it doesn’t make sense to us. Often it doesn’t make sense because it goes against what we want to be the truth. It doesn’t seem reasonable to us. It is not convenient for us. It tells us to do something we don’t want to do. Or it calls one of our favorite activities sin. So we ignore God’s word or don’t pay attention to it. Or just plain don’t have any interest in reading and studying God’s word. Despising prophecy is when we think we already know it all. When we have the attitude that we have learned it all in Sunday School and Confirmation class, or even in the university or Seminary so we don’t really have to study it any more. But, if God would just tell me how I can make ends meet this month, it would be so much more useful to me. I want him to tell me what to do to be happier in my family life, or make my children behave, or to be more successful in my career. That’s the kind of stuff I really need to hear about. Then I would come and hear his word more if that’s what he told me.
Finally Paul tells us: Don’t give in to evil. This refers to all forms of evil. It refers to our own sinful desires of the flesh or the temptations from the world around us. It refers to our sinful thoughts and desires. Sin is what dwells in our hearts, not just our actions. It is impossible to avoid evil in our hearts and so often we give in to its desires and thoughts.
Giving in to evil includes listening to false teachers—like TV evangelists who promise us just what we want to hear about our futures; health and wealth and success. “Have your best life now,” we are told, “in this world of sin and death.”
But not fleeing from evil lusts and desires is fatal to our faith. Listening to false prophets can lead us away from Christ and eternal life. Shallow promises of prosperity and wealth and success are just that; shallow. They ultimately disappoint and only increase our anxiety.
But what then does God promise? St. Paul declares God’s will and what God has “done” for our sanctification. He says, “This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Your sanctification is God’s will. Sanctification means being made holy. He wants us to be holy people and he wants us to live lives that reflect that. By doing good works, by loving him, and by loving our neighbor in all kinds of ways. These are the dos and don’ts we just talked about. What he wants us to do and not do: rejoicing, praying, avoiding evil. God truly wills all of these for us.
God will surely do it. What God wills, he will surely do. And he does it all the way. See, God does this! It’s not up to us. God makes us holy! It’s not a matter of how hard we try or how confident and joyful we happen to feel on a particular day. God sanctifies us, “your whole spirit and soul and body.” Your heart, your thoughts, your physical being: it’s all holy, perfect, God’s best handiwork. Through all our uncertainties about tomorrow, until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, until he comes back and takes us to heaven. But how?
It has already been done. Paul says our whole spirit and soul and body will surely be kept blameless. He doesn’t say they will be made “blameless.” But “Kept blameless.” He has already made us blameless when Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world on the cross. It is finished! Done! All people were justified!
And when you were baptized, what Jesus did on the cross was made yours personally. That’s been done, set in concrete, on a date written on your baptismal certificate. Nothing can undo it. Your sins were washed away. You were made blameless, justified.
So now, you see, your sanctification is a result of the life and death of Jesus Christ. It is the result of faith, the work of the Holy Spirit. Because you are holy, you also do holy things. The fact that you are holy, and know that God will keep you that way, is the reason you rejoice; it’s the reason you know he’ll really answer your prayer; it’s the thing you give thanks for. It’s what the Spirit keeps telling you here in the Word and Sacrament, the promise he does make to you, through faithful teachers.
We do rejoice, and, in fact, are sanctified completely because of the One Done.
You see? We do the dos of our sanctification and don’t do the don’ts because of what God will do; because of what he has done in the cross of Jesus. It is all done for you.