As you have probably noticed, when I have to preach I usually go straight to the heart of the matter – to the Gospel. There are different reasons for that, the main reason obviously is that the Gospel is at the center of our faith – the Good news of God in Jesus-Christ, symbolized in church by the solemn reading of the lesson in the midst of the congregation with the sequence hymn, the processional cross and sometimes even the torch bearers – something we haven’t been able to do for a while now! This week, though, it’s the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians that really gave me a pause and so I would like to spend time with you on this passage.
Interestingly, the First Letter to the Thessalonians is believed by most scholars to be the oldest text, the first put down in writing, in the whole New testament, probably around the years 48-52 of our era. The first stories about Jesus and reports of his teaching were oral and probably put on paper (papyrus!) to become the Gospel only at the end of the first century, when the first generation of witnesses was about to pass away. But Paul, as he started his ministry planting many churches throughout Macedonia and many other places, had to find a way to keep in touch with the congregations and so he started sending them letters. And this is what Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”.
Well, when I think about it, I find it very beautiful you know that those words are probably the first ones put down in writing in all of the Christian literature. This first message Paul sent is not about church administration, it’s not about moral living, it’s not about dogma, it’s about having joy in our hearts, being in relationships with God through prayer and being thankful. A message that is still true for us today – and that we need to be reminded of. A few famous philosophers, like Aristotle and Spinoza, said that joy is what happens when we live a perfect life or when we do the right thing, or just what we have to do – when we do our duty. And we may experience some of that. I know for myself I feel joy in my heart when the house is finally clean or when the sermon is done. For most of us, joy comes after the work is completed. And yet, yet, for Paul it looks like it’s the other way around: Joy is not something that comes later for those who have managed to do things well, to do things right, or maybe to just do things quickly, joy is at the root of it all, joy is the place to start, and maybe, just maybe, joy is what enables us to lead a good life, to be faithful to God and loving towards one another. Joy is not something that makes life a little nicer, a little reward that we can appreciate when the essential has been reached, joy is at the root of it all, and joy is the will of God for us.
Joy is the will of God for us. But how often do we think about it?
As Christians, I think, most of us wonder what is God’s will for our lives. We wonder of course, what is the right thing to do, how to be nice people, good Christians, and we also have been schooled to believe that God has a plan for our lives and that we have to discern what it is and to do it. It may be the place where God wants us to live, or the occupation God wants us to have, or the career God wants us to pursue, or the people God wants to bring in our lives: friends, spouses, children. Maybe that’s things we thought about when we were young – I know I did! – maybe we still try to understand what is the next step for us – or maybe we just look back at our lives and wonder if we have gotten in right, if we have done “God’s will”, if we have done what God expected of us. And yet, in the midst of that, Paul today tells us that God’s will for us is to rejoice, and that far from being something that would come after we have done all those things right, it is the place to start.
When I think about that, my first reaction is that it makes sense, does not it? There are different ways to understand God’s will, yet they all depend on the image we have of God. If you think that God is a judge, then the most important is to lead a moral life and to what is right. If you think that God is an architect, the supervisor of the world, then the most important is to find your perfect place in the world, but if you believe that God is love, then the most important thing, indeed, is probably to rejoice. Paul tells us that the God of Jesus-Christ is a God who wants us to rejoice and it makes perfect sense because Jesus called God his “father”, and we know that’s what loving parents wants for their children. Parents may want children to behave when they’re little and then as grown up to follow the right path, to find a good job and to have a family but mostly parents want their children to be happy. If one of your children had the perfect life, did all the right things, but was very unsatisfied or very depressed, how would it feel for you? Yes, exactly – and I think this is the way God feels as well.
God wants us to rejoice. Not because God is nice and that joy is something God would allow us to feel, God’s deepest will is for us to rejoice because God is love. This third Sunday in Advent is known as “Gaudete Sunday” – the Sunday where we are call to rejoice – not just as a pause in this penitential time of Advent – but because “Joy to the world” is what God brought to us in Jesus-Christ.
Now how do we do that? If we look around us, the least we can say is that rejoicing is difficult – and it could seem ironic, even cruel to ask of us to rejoice. And yet, as we’ve just heard in our first reading – we see that Isaiah announced joy at a very difficult time for Israel – during their exile – Paul announced joy to the first Christians while they were persecuted – Jesus came to the world in the darkest night during the time of the Roman occupation. In the past as for today, God wants to bring joy to God’s people in their most difficult moments, it’s God’s will. We often think about God’s will as “What God wants us to do” but maybe “God’s will” means first “What God wants to do”. And God sent Jesus, the Christ, God’s anointed one to fulfill the promise of the Scriptures to: “Bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to release the prisoners (…) to comfort those who mourn”.
When Paul asks us to rejoice, he is not denying reality or trying to send us on a guilt trip by telling us how to feel. Paul says that Joy came to us in Jesus-Christ, who still brings us comfort, hope and new life whenever we turn to him. And in those times where rejoicing seem very difficult for most of us, I think this could be a way to find joy: Turning to him, by, as Paul puts it, “Praying without ceasing and giving thanks in all circumstances” (if not for all circumstances). Here’s what we can say about that:
– Praying without ceasing does not mean we are supposed to make prayers all day. To me, it states more simply that we shouldn’t stop to pray. It’s easy to stop praying when we are very discouraged or feeling blue. I have a friend who told me once she didn’t call me for a while because she was feeling depressed. Well, it made me sad for her and questioned the relationship. Because she is my friend, I expected she would have trusted she didn’t have to feel cheerful me to be in touch with me. Not only it wouldn’t have bothered me, but maybe it could have helped her feel a bit better! If we feel that way, imagine how God must feel! When we feel sad, or even frustrated or angry, that’s the time we really need to pray, not only for ourselves, but as a church, as a nation. We need to pray for the world. It is with God as it is with a good friend, when you feel that you are not alone, you already feel better, you rejoice in the presence of the loved one and the one who loves you. “Praying without ceasing” may mean that we have to continue the conversation with God in whatever way that seems right to us. To ask God to help us, to support us, to bring us the comfort joy and hope God has promised to us. Not only because it is our desire, but because it is God’s will to do so.
– And then the second thing Paul invites us to do is to be thankful. If you look around you, you’ll notice that the happiest people aren’t those who have it all, rather it is those who are thankful for what they have, who they are, who they are with. Being thankful is what open our hearts to joy. It is not use that God fills the world with beautiful things if we have no eyes to see them. It is the same with joy. God can send us as much joy as possible, if we aren’t open to rejoice then it’s no use. Being thankful is opening up to receive joy. And it’s not only when good things happen to us that we can be thankful. Even in our grief, we can be thankful. Allowing us to feel the loss is a way to acknowledge the gifts that were made to us in this person, this life situation, this ability we cannot enjoy any more. But more than that, more than acknowledging the gift that was once given to us, we will be reminded that God’s will in Jesus-Christ is to make all things new, to rebuild what has been destroyed. As Isaiah prophetized: “[Those who mourn] shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastation, they shall repair the ruined cities and the devastation of many generations”.
We can experience that in the joy of the incarnation, the coming of Jesus among us at Christmas, we already rejoice in the Resurrection and we begin to think, live and act as resurrected people bringing the hope, comfort and healing in a world longing for salvation. I haven’t talked today about our Gospel, but as you’ve heard, it’s about John the Baptist witnessing to Jesus. Maybe you remember that the first way John the Baptist gave testimony to Jesus was by leaping for joy in his mother’s womb? So my question for you today is the following: What is the joy at the root of your being that gives us you energy and desire to live as followers and witnesses of Jesus-Christ?