Advent (Third Sunday, Year B)
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Rejoice. Pray. Give-thanks. Do not quench. Do not despise. Test. Hold-firmly. Hold-back. Try repeating those verbs out loud a few times. (No, seriously, try it.)
Rejoice. Pray. Give-thanks.
Do not quench. Do not despise.
Test. Hold-firmly. Hold-back.
Perhaps, as you spoke those words out loud, you noticed that Paul gives three positive commands, followed by two negative commands, followed by another set of three positive commands. Each set of commands fits together as one unit, and each of those units fit into each other, forming a neat symmetrical structure.1 This structure is a neat little way to illustrate that Paul knew exactly what he was saying. His closing thoughts were well thought through, organized, and intentional. He said things in such a way that there really should not be room for doubt or debate as to what he meant. But of course, we do anyway. We doubt at least a little bit because Paul didn’t simply say “Rejoice.” He said rejoice always. He said give thanks in all circumstances. He said test all things, and hold-back from every sight of evil. Once we hear such penetrating and seemingly unqualified instructions for the Church, we want to ask questions like, ‘Did Paul really mean to rejoice always?’ ‘Am I really supposed to be praying constantly, or to be giving thanks in everything?' As I am going to contend in this message, I think the answer is “yes.” I think that set of commands was meant to be understood exactly as we find it today; and that set of commands were not just the will of God for the Christians in Thessalonica, to whom Paul wrote (1 Thess. 5:18), but they also remain valid commands for the Christians today.
But I’m willing to bet that doesn’t clarify things for us very much. Such unqualified terms do not, in fact, help us understand why Paul would gave such broad, sweeping commands and actually expected people to honor them.
Fortunately the lectionary readings assigned for today help us make sense of this. In our old testament reading, Isaiah preached about the gospel of God coming to visit His people and to deliver them from exile. It begins with a familiar poetic proclamation, something Jesus used to describe his own ministry as he read from the lectionary in a synagogue in galilee (Luke 4:16-20):
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
Isaiah, of course, is the one who spoke those words originally; and if you were living in Isaiah’s generation, and listening to him say those words, you might have thought he was referring to himself. But he wasn’t. He was referring to someone else, someone coming after him, whose sandal he was not worthy to untie.
There is something else peculiar about this message from Isaiah, which Jesus quoted with regard to Himself. Isaiah’s prophecies of salvation are always accompanied by messages of judgment. They are, in fact, messages of salvation through judgment; and Jesus stops his quotation of this passage at the very end of the salvation portion. Jesus stops right before the Isaiah passage talks about God’s judgment—about the Day of vengeance, a day not at the end of human history, but at a time when God would come down to judge Israel for her sins, sending them into exile and destroying Jerusalem for the empire of idolatry it would eventually become. Such messages of salvation proclaimed through the mouth of Isaiah could hardly be taken as “good news” if his own generation and the city of Jerusalem would first have to endure God's judgment. So God’s promise in the days of Isaiah was not simply that God would come and save Israel. God’s message to Isaiah's generation was primarily one of judgment for everyone who would not repent and turn to God, and be saved through it. Yet, somewhat enigmatically, this means that the salvation promised by God would have to come at a later time, to the people of God sent into exile after Jerusalem was destroyed. This means that if you happened to be living in Isaiah’s time, you would not have lived to experience the glorious deliverance that God had promised. That generation could not have experienced the salvation Isaiah described because it didn’t occur in Isaiah’s time. It occurred much later.
It doesn’t take much to realize that such a message does not appear to be good news, at either the first, second, or fifth glance. But it was, in fact, good news. It was good news to the people who trusted in God’s faithfulness, those who prepared their hearts to endure through God's judgment upon Israel; and it was also good news to the generation who lived through Israel’s second exodus—their return from Babylonian captivity. If you study the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, God’s promises through Isaiah were most certainly promises of good news. At the time of Ezra and Nehemiah—roughly 500 years before Christ was born—God had done far more than simply proclaim liberty to his people held captive in Babylon; He had actually given them liberty to return to Jerusalem and re-build the House of the Lord, i.e. His Temple. He released His people who had been held prisoners in a foreign land so that they could proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor back in Jerusalem.
From our Psalm reading today (Psa. 126), we learned a little about how the people of God felt at that time, when they returned from Babylonian captivity:
When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion,We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter
And our tongue with joyful shouting;Then they said among the nations,“The Lord has done great things for them.”The Lord has done great things for us;We are glad.Restore our captivity, O Lord,As the streams in the South.Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting.He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed,Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
With all of Israel’s future talk (in these Psalms) about the greatness of God in restoring them from captivity, the people probably expected the prophecies of Isaiah to have reached their fulfillment. In other words, if you were an Israelite in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, you probably would have thought that God’s ultimate promises for His kingdom had now come to fruition. You might have thought that the end was near and it was only a matter of time before God would make all things new again. However, there would have been one significant dilemma for those who held that belief. No matter how close one looks at that period in Israel’s history (i.e. Ezra, Nehemiah, etc.), what will not be found is a record of the Lord returning to His House, the Temple. The people returned, but the glory of the Lord did not.
You see, when God gave Israel plans to construct His House in the wilderness, at Sinai, He showed up and made His glorious presence known. He didn’t just give His people instructions to build a House for Himself and then sneak into His throne-room quietly in the middle of the night. To the contrary, the Lord descended in a glorious cloud onto the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34-35) just as He did onto Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:18-20). There, in the presence of everyone, YHWH shook the earth and sat down on His throne in the Most Holy Place, seated on the Cherubim above the ark of the covenant (I Sam. 4:4; Psa. 80:1; 99:1; Isa. 37:16; Ezek. 1). The Lord also showed up when Solomon finished building the Temple in Jerusalem. The shekinah glory descended upon the Temple and the arrival of His glorious presence is given extra special attention in those passages of Scripture (II Chron 7:1-3). But the glorious appearance of the Lord did not occur in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah after Israel’s return from Babylonian captivity; and the glory of the Lord would not appear again until a man name John started baptizing Israelites in the wilderness.
We read a little about that in our lectionary assignments for today. It’s interesting that we are only given a very small amount of information about who John the Baptist was, and perhaps even more interestingly, John’s gospel makes a special point to tell us emphatically who John was not (1:6-8). John was not the light of the world. But he was a lamp with just enough brightness to be noticed; and because the world of Jesus' day was so dark and gloomy, when the Jewish authorities saw John’s light the first thing they wanted to know was if he was the promised Messiah. This confirms what I have already said: the Jews themselves understood that God’s promises in Isaiah and other prophets were not yet fulfilled, and that the glory of the Lord had not yet returned to His Temple to rule and restore all things as promised.
Now fast forward to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church. In 1st Thessalonians, Paul was writing to Gentiles who had received the Spirit of God because the glory of God had finally returned. God had returned, in the flesh, to restore not just Israel, but the whole world from its bondage. Paul spoke as one who believed that kingdom-building project throughout the whole world was well underway—that God had come down in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth and was now, after his resurrection, working powerfully by His Spirit to build a new and glorious Temple not just in the earth, but of the earth, of the whole earth. Jesus came to make all things new, not just some things new. The scope of His salvation was cosmic. He came to build up all the ancient ruins, raise up all the former devastations of many generations, and to plant oaks of righteousness across the globe (Isa. 61:3-4). Paul saw a forest of God’s righteousness and praise springing up before all nations as Isaiah and the other prophets had spoken. That is the background of Paul’s commands at the end of 1st Thessalonians. Paul understood that God was up to something He had never done before—something far more powerful, and influential, and lasting than the kingdom-building projects of Israel’s early days.
Now, as you read through the commands of Paul at the end of 1st Thessalonians, allow that vision to permeate the way you view what has been said. Paul said, rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in everything, for this is the will of God for you all who are in Jesus the Messiah. Do not quench the flame of the Spirit working throughout the world. Do not despise the words of prophets who confirm this glorious temple-building project of God; but rather, test all things, hold-firmly to what is beautiful, and hold-back from every sight of evil; and may the God of peace, Himself, sanctify you all completely; and may the complete spirit, soul, and body of you all be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.
Paul knew that the glorious faithfulness of God had been manifest for the whole world to see. Paul had seen it with his own eyes, and heard about it from distant lands far beyond what he had ever traveled, and that is why Paul could confidently say to the Thessalonians, “Faithful is He who calls you, and He will bring it to pass” (I Thess. 5:24).
The Spirit’s powerful work in Paul’s day is something we too should be encouraged by and hopeful for as we wait upon the Lord this Advent season. That same Spirit which spoke through prophets and spread the gospel through Paul’s world was the same exact Spirit who empowered men, women, and children all over the globe to rejoice always, to pray constantly, and to give thanks in every circumstance; and it is that same exact Spirit of rejoicing, thanking, testing, and self-control which continues the kingdom-building project of the Messiah today. Christ Jesus is still making His name known among all the nations today by the work of that same Spirit in Paul’s day, and all who see the Spirit’s work in us—watching us test all things carefully, holding firmly to what is beautiful, and holding back from what is evil—they see the God of peace sanctifying the world through us. As Isaiah prophesied, they see that we are a people whom the Lord has blessed (61:9). It is because we are truly blessed by the Spirit of God that we can always rejoice and in every circumstance give thanks.
One important way in which the Church has always rejoiced and continuously gives thanks is by celebrating the Eucharist. Even the word “Eucharist” means “to give thanks.” It is also the word Paul used in our reading today where he told the Thessalonians to “give thanks.” It is here, in the Eucharist, where the Church learns to rejoice, where our tongues are trained for thanksgiving. Here we gather together in “Eucharist”—in thanksgiving—for the gifts of bread and wine, for the gifts of Jesus’ body and blood. Here we hold firmly onto the beautiful gospel made food. So come to the Lord’s Table today and rejoice! Taste and see that the Lord is good.
* * * * * *
O Heavenly Father, who has filled the world with beauty. Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in the cosmic scope of renewal which you have begun through Christ in his first advent, we would learn to serve you with gladness always, holding firmly to what is beautiful, and holding back from every sight of evil; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
1. The structure looks like this:
A) Rejoice always
B) Pray constantly
C) Give thanks in everything,
D) for this is the will of God for you all who are in Jesus the Messiah.
E) Do not quench the Spirit
E') Do not despise the words of prophets
A') Test all things
B') Hold-firmly to what is beautiful
C') Hold-back from every sight of evil,
D') and may the God of peace—Himself—sanctify you all completely; and may the complete spirit—soul and body—of you all be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.