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Glad Preparation in Difficult Times

December 15, 2002, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Third Sunday in Advent
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor Emeritus

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28;

The prospect of a transportation strike looms over this city as the clock and negotiations move toward midnight. UN weapons inspectors feverishly go about their work in an attempt not only to validate their own veracity but also to divert a war that many believe this administration is bent on having regardless. Conservative supreme court judge Clarence Thomas holds his justice colleagues in "rapt attention" as he reminds them that a burning cross is not a matter of free speech, but an act of terrorism, while the second ranking Republican senator in this country tries to duck remarks that remind us the racist sins of our past are not that past, making Justice Thomas' remarks more than hyperbole. Thirty-seven black boxes labeled "fear" appear in a subway station, and we are reminded not only of the power of art in life, but that for all of this city's grit and determination during hardship, we have, as a philosophy graduate student from Tel Aviv reminds us, "a lot to learn here."1 In these difficult times we enter the third week of Advent waiting, watching and preparing. We light the rose candle and hear the words "Rejoice always!" Rejoice? In what? The apostle Paul presses us to glad preparation in difficult times.

These are challenging words in almost any circumstance. They have added integrity because they were written not only to people who were experiencing persecution for their faith2 but by one who himself had been stoned and left for dead in Lystra, flogged and jailed in Philippi and driven out of town under the cover of night in Thessolonica.3 In other words, when Paul writes "Rejoice, always!" he knows of what he speaks. He is not suggesting that they or we take pleasure or glory in hardship for its own sake, as though this were God's will. Paul has written, just a few verses earlier, God has not destined us for wrath but salvation.4 Paul is not telling the woman living in an abusive situation today that she should not only remain in it but rejoice in it, that it is somehow God's will for her. It is not. What she is to rejoice in is that God not only wants more for her, but also promises her the power to walk away from that abusive situation, leave it behind and begin again. You and I are to rejoice always, not because things are always joyful, but because we belong to one whose future coming will do away with wars and rumors of war, do away with spouse and child abuse, do away with burning crosses and imbedded racism, and, as Isaiah writes in this morning's Old Testament lesson, "cause righteousness and praise to spring up among the nations."5 But more than rejoice in what seems a remote future, we are to rejoice that God calls us to alternatives and gives us the power to embrace them now.

Therefore, pray constantly--without ceasing. To pray without ceasing does not mean that you and I are to withdraw to prayer closets for the better part of our days and nights in quiet time, meditation and verbal intercession to the exclusion of all other responsibilities. The Christian life is not a call to spiritual withdrawal from the world. Paul's injunction to pray constantly is infinitely more practical and possible than that. It embraces the world, living each moment of life in conscious contact with God, which is still my favorite definition of prayer. Praying unceasingly means being aware of God's presence, being guided by God's standards, being sustained by God's Word and Spirit as we take up the moment by moment responsibilities of our lives. It means living in the moment, with God's presence and values so transparent to us that they have become what Father Thomas Keating has called the "fourth dimension" of what is otherwise simply a three-dimensional world.6 Praying unceasingly means living with this fourth dimension fully integrated into all we do. It means being so aware of God's presence in every event of our lives that we find ourselves in a spontaneous stream of conscious conversation with God, stepping off the bus, navigating our way through the holiday crowds, reading our newspapers, watching the news, walking to work, sharing a cab, writing a letter to our political representatives, investing our resources, picking up our children at school or speaking with an aged and increasingly incapacitated parent because they need to know they are not alone. Each and every action is lived under the transcendent umbrella of the fourth dimension--conscious contact with God--rather than the despair and anxiety crystalized and symbolized by those black boxes marked "fear" in the Union Square subway station. As the sampler in my Grandmother's dining room used to remind us, "Life is fragile, handle it with prayer." Pray without ceasing.

Give thanks in all circumstances. When you and I live with the fourth dimension of God's presence fully integrated into our lives we can find reasons for thanksgiving even in hardship. For one thing, such circumstances reveal and strip away the false gods which so regularly vie for our attention, devotion and loyalty. God is able to use the difficult times to help us see more clearly our stewardship of the gift of life--what is really important. More, God uses them to mature us in the faith and shape us for the future, to give us strength for it, reminding us that there is no circumstance beyond God's power, mercy and grace. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, writes Paul, "this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."7

But there is more: do not quench the Spirit and do not despise prophecy. This is a call to discernment. This means looking for the places where God's Spirit is at work in and among us in the difficult times--the clamor for war, the political infighting, in our renewed sense of just how fragile life is. And, it is a reminder that God is still speaking to us through prophetic voices in the church today. The Spirit is God's presence in the world today. The question is, do we perceive and listen to the Spirit among us, or quench the Spirit? How do we quench the Spirit? We quench the Spirit when we do not listen to or heed those prophetic voices in our midst who are God's mouth pieces, whether the preacher or teacher, the elder or deacon, the fifty-year member or the one just joining the church; the Spirit can and does speak to us through one another regularly.8 We quench the Spirit when we dismiss the possibility of expanding our ministry, expanding our membership, expanding our reach into this city, and our witness beyond it into the world. We quench the Spirit when someone asks in a moment of envisioning "What would happen if...?" and we discount the question as naive or impractical. Just as we quench the Spirit when we think a war with Iraq or between Israel and Palestine is inevitable and so the church should quit following the Spirit's prompting us to be peacemakers. We quench the Spirit when we give up on reconciliation, when we quit working for a more just world, when we throw our hands up in hopelessness saying "What's the use?," and decide to return evil with evil rather than return it with good.

But hear this carefully, what keeps the injunction to not quench the Spirit from being naive optimism is these cross-checks: test everything, hold to what is good and avoid every kind of evil. The word "you" here is plural; Paul is speaking to the church. The task of discerning the Spirit's presence, the task of discerning whether it is the Spirit speaking in and through an authoritative voice, be it preacher, teacher, church officer, or outspoken visitor, the task of perceiving God's future for us is the task of the community, not its individual members, certainly not its preachers. It is a mutual task. This is why, in the Reformed tradition, no decision is left to the prevue or discrimination of one person alone. All decisions governing the life of the church are made severally or jointly and always under supervision, trusting that the Spirit will lead us into faithfulness. This is why, by the way, there are no proxy votes in a Presbyterian church. One must be present in the body as a question is being deliberated. One must be in the realm of the Spirit's activity as the body tests the question collectively, if one is to have the authority to vote. Test everything, hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

That said, Paul brings his exhortation to a conclusion with an extraordinary finale. At first, it sounds like a benediction--those good words spoken to send forth the people of God--or a prayer of intercession. Indeed, Paul begins sounding almost like a wish: "May the God of peace sanctify you entirely." But Paul is doing more than asking God to make the people in the church of Thessolonica completely holy and perfectly set apart for God and God's service. Paul is saying that God in fact, is making them holy, perfectly set apart for God and God's service, as they give themselves to this glad preparation. As you and I rejoice, pray, give thanks, remain open to and listen for the Spirit's voice in one another, as we test everything, holding fast to what is good--rejecting every sort of evil and returning evil with good--God is, in fact making us holy, restoring us to wholeness, and securing us in peace.

God is at work in each of the circumstances of life, regardless of how difficult. As you and I live out of the fourth dimension of the Spirit, as we live in conscious contact with God, God engages us and our work to do his work, not only in us, but in the world to which each of us has been called to minister. God makes us both complete and blameless, so that we will be completely prepared for the day of Christ's coming. The one who calls us is faithful and is doing it. Here is reason to rejoice!

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

  1. Robert F. Worth and William K Rashbaum, "37 Black Boxes Labeled 'Fear' Cause Commotion in the Subway," The New York Times, December 12, 2002, B1, B5.
  2. 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14-16.
  3. Acts 14:19; 16:22ff; 17:5-10.
  4. 1 Thessalonians 5:9.
  5. Isaiah 61:11.
  6. Thomas Keating, "Awakening to the Present: An Interview with Father Thomas Keating," Parabola 19:92.
  7. Abraham Smith, "The First Letter to the Thessalonians," The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. XI, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 732.
  8. The word prophecy when used in letters to the churches of the New Testament, generally refers to what today we call preaching--speaking God's word to a people in their specific circumstances.

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