1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
We are twelve days away from Christmas. Does it feel like Christmas to you yet?
Last Monday we hosted an area pastors’ meeting at Immanuel. Every month the Northern Circuit gathers together for Bible study and fellowship. Pastor Schubert walked us through a study of this particular text. He mentioned that he chose it because he thought it spoke well to the current malaise that has descended upon us in the year 2020. I said to myself, “I’ll probably preach on these verses as well.”
What solidified it for me was driving home with my children after school. We were listening to the song, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”, and I am thinking, “No it doesn’t. Not at all.” There is no snow. It is not even that cold. We are in the midst of a tier 3 state lockdown. And people are extremely hesitant to come to church. Does it feel like Christmas to you? I know it is not all that bad. It is not like life is horrible, just lousy. And so, I thought I’d title my sermon for today When Life Is Lousy.
In 1 Thessalonians 5 the apostle Paul gives us some practical Christianity. What is practical Christianity? Well, if we define “practical” as “the actual doing or use of something rather than mere theory and ideas”, then practical Christianity is putting our beliefs into daily living. Which is obviously God’s intent for us. He doesn’t want us to simply live in our heads as if we were human tadpoles with large heads and small bodies. He wants our theology to extend to our daily living and doing. And so, Paul exhorts the Thessalonians as to how they can practically prepare themselves as they wait for the Lord’s coming.
That is a good theme for the season of Advent—preparation for the Lord’s coming. And so, we are going to take Paul’s exhortations one by one.
Verse 16: “Be joyful always.” Okay. Does that mean I am to always put on my happy face and act as if 2020 wasn’t lousy? How do you be joyful always? By recognizing that joy is different than happiness. It is impossible to always be happy. There is evil and suffering in the world. Being joyful however is a state of gladness and well-being. It is independent of circumstance. It is a state of being.
Ask yourself, “As a Christian, what reason do I have to rejoice?” Well, if you look only at the current state of affairs, you might be tempted to answer, “There isn’t one.” Then you think of your family, or you console yourself by saying, “It could always be worse”, or that it is worse for many around the world today, but that doesn’t really bring a sense of joy.
How about trying this: contemplating the angels’ message to the Shepherds at Christmas. “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord” (Luke 2:10,11). Think of the wonder that filled the hearts of Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds as they saw Jesus. Anybody who sees a newborn baby is smitten with wonder. Well, this was God. This was God incarnate! The Messiah had come. The world is saved. As lousy as life may be, you are going to heaven! The rest of all “this” is only temporary. And so, despite it all we are glad!
Verse 17: “Pray continually.” As if that is what the pastor does 24/7. No. But some monks attempted to do that throughout history. They removed themselves from the world in order to focus on mediation and prayer. That is not what Paul is advising.
Prayer has much more to do with relationship than with mouthing specific words. When you have an intimate relationship with someone your mind is continually on them. You are not around them constantly. You are not talking to them constantly. But they are never too far out of mind.
Think of all the times a Christian does pray in any given day: in the morning, before meals, bedtime, during worship. It is a way of life. Luther said that prayer is a practical way to keep the devil away. The devil can’t mess with your mind when God is in your mind. Prayer keeps despair and depression at bey. So, sing a hymn. Hymns are prayers. Hum a Christian tune. Basically, what Paul is saying is to be “God attentive.” Attentive to God through the ordinary rhythms of life.
Verse 18: “Give thanks in every situation.” I suppose this exhortation is related to “be joyful always”, but it speaks perhaps more pointedly against a habit of complaining. Grumbling. You know, the attitude that “Everything is bad. I am a helpless victim.” Not that we can’t have bad days or moods. But the temptation from the devil is to become an Uncle Scrooge, especially when things can’t be the way they used to be. So, traditions fade away with the passage of time. Lockdowns mean we can’t gather as easily with loved ones.
I admit that I am a good complainer. But then I have to write a sermon each week and being forced to think about God’s Word I say to myself, “Well, quit complaining. Get writing! Get visiting! Get on the phone and call someone in the church!”
You see, circumstances are just that. They are circumstances. They are events. They are a temporary condition. But they are not a status. A status is permanent. A status is a state of being. You are justified. That means you are declared “not guilty” by God, right now. Whether you sin, whether you grumble, whether you forget to pray—each and every moment of your Christian life you declared not guilty by God in heaven. How so? Jesus died once for all. His payment extends for all of eternity. God’s promise is irrevocable, loved ones. And so, if I am not thankful, what is my heart truly set upon?
Verses 19, 20, and 21: Because of time, let me just say this. The tool the Holy Spirit uses to stir up your heart with gladness, thankfulness, and prayer is the Word of God. Paul says, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire. Do not treat prophecies with contempt.” The word “contempt” makes me think of the word “despise”. It is the sin against the Third Commandment—despising God’s preaching and his Word.
How does this happen? Slowly usually. Sometimes it happens rather suddenly through willful sin. The Christian knows that what he or she is doing is wrong but says “I don’t care.” And so, without repentance, the Holy Spirit is grieved, and he eventually leaves the person’s heart.
Most of the time, however, it is due to spiritual laziness. The Thessalonians were a lazy bunch. That much Paul makes clear throughout his two letters to them. Have you ever watched a flame die out? That is what happens when Christians spend too much time away from preaching and God’s Word. And there are casualties that we can point to all around us. But it’s not that the Christian simply empties his or her mind of God. It is that the mind gets filled up with something else. It becomes distracted.
So, Paul says: “Test everything.” Garbage in, garbage out. Our eyes and ears are pathways to the soul. What you gaze upon, what you listen to influences, if not determines, who you are. “Test everything”, Paul says. It’s like going out to eat in one of those wet markets. I am not just going to pick up anything and put it into my body. No. Paul says, “Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.”
Now, let’s move away from these exhortations. For you realize that every single one of them is Law. God is telling us: “This is the way the Christian is to live. This is the way to remain prepared for Christ’s coming.” But perhaps the thought has crossed your mind as I have spoken this morning, “Okay, Pastor. I try to do all those things, but I find myself still not being able to do them, at least not very well.” My response to you is, “Hey. Me too. I have to come to church each Sunday; it’s my job. Would I always if I were not a pastor? I like to think so, but would I?”
God is not telling us, “This is how you get to heaven—by rejoicing always, praying continually, giving thanks in every circumstance, etc.” What he is saying is “Because you are going to heaven—that is the fact—because you are believing men and women in the Lord Jesus Christ—remember, Paul is writing to the Thessalonian believers—then this is how you can take what you believe and put it into practice. This is how you can access the power of God to defend yourself against the devil.”
Notice verses 23 and 24 (and with this we will close). Paul writes, “May God himself, the God of peace sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”
God himself will save you. God himself will see that you cross the finish line. God himself will “sanctify” you. That means he will make you holy. He will make sure that you are blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. You see, the temptation is to read verses like this and say, “I know God says I should be this way, but I’m not, at least not always. How can I be sure I will go to heaven?” Oh, because God himself will do it. He himself will sanctify you through and through.
There are two covenants in the Bible (sacred promises between God and his people). One of them was made on Mt. Sinai. God said, “I will be your God if you keep my commandments.” The people didn’t keep God’s commandments, and so God rejected them.
But the first covenant God established in the Bible came way before Sinai. And this one God did not establish just with the nation of Israel; he did it with the entire human race. He told Abraham to cut several animals and lay each half opposite of each other with a pathway to walk through them. Both parties were to walk through them, God and Abraham. The idea was that if one of them should break the covenant then they would end up like the dead animal.
Spoiler alert. Only one of them walked through the carcasses, and it wasn’t Abraham. God himself walked through alone showing that it was a one-sided covenant. In other words, it only depended on one of the parties. Ask yourself, who died? Jesus, the incarnate God. Ask yourself, who deserved to die? Abraham/Man. We broke the covenant. But Jesus became a man (do you see how that works) and as our representative, he suffered the penalty of breaking the covenant. He died.
And loved ones, the good news is that he died for you! That is why you can rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in everything. The God of peace himself has sanctified you and will continue to sanctify you. “The one who called you is faithful, and he will do it.” Amen.