1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

by | Nov 26, 2023

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Nancy Myer
November 26, 2023
1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

12 But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing,18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.
23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

It might feel a little early, but have you started pondering your New Year’s resolutions yet? Now before you think to yourself that perhaps I’ve lost my mind and have completely lost track of time, let me explain. Today is the last Sunday of the Church year. Next Sunday, December 3, is the first Sunday of Advent, which starts a new year on the Church calendar. So I propose we can think of today as New Year’s Eve in the Church world. Traditional activities for New Year’s Eve, in addition to counting down to midnight and watching the ball drop, often include thinking ahead about the year to come and sometimes setting some intentions for our lives.

This weekend is sort of a crossroads for us. We have just celebrated Thanksgiving, and the retail stores have long ago catapulted us into Christmas. Here we sit on the cusp of Advent, a liturgical season that encourages us to wait, and to be thoughtful as we do so. Adding the whole idea of New Year’s Eve into the mix can only make things more interesting, right?

As usual, Paul has something to say to us, and perhaps it could be helpful as we enter the new Church year. As Paul closes out his letter, in his own quick, on-the-go way, there is a whole list of imperatives. One scholar says it’s almost like a family member would say to another as the other was leaving for the grocery store, “And don’t forget to buy carrots!” or a parent saying to a teenager walking out the front door, “Drive carefully!” and “Buckle your seatbelt!” In what is considered likely to be one of the earliest Christian writings, the Thessalonians – and we – are, among other things, told to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.

“Rejoice always” sounds like a fun one. We all love to rejoice, to be joyful, to live happy days. And yet “rejoice always” means more than just happiness, more than just a smile on our face. We can have a down day or find ourselves feeling sad and still have joy in Christ. The true joy found in Christ cannot be taken away by any human condition or the events of this world. “Rejoicing is an attitude, not a response to individual circumstances.”

The Greek word for “rejoice” (chairete) was also used in greetings, as a word of joyful acknowledgement. Could Paul be encouraging us to greet everything we do with joy or at least attempt to do that? If we are to “rejoice always,” we may have to encourage ourselves to think about the big picture rather than focusing on what is happening in this very moment. We can attempt to begin each day with joy. The whole day may not feel positive, and yet joy can still be present.

Paul then goes on to talk about prayer. When I am teaching children about prayer, I often tell them that I find myself praying all day long, without ever ending one prayer and starting another, without ever truly saying, “Amen.” One moment I will be praying, the next I might be answering a text, responding to an email, or distracted by something on the radio, and then I resume my praying. It’s as if I am having a conversation with God just as I would with a friend sitting next to me in the same room.

One of you also shared with me your practice of praying in a similar fashion. You told me that you pray at one point during the day, then go off and do something else, and then come back to your prayer with the phrase, “As I was saying…” I wonder if that is what Paul meant when he said, “pray without ceasing…” I wonder if he meant that we should never really end a prayer and instead should maintain an ongoing, open conversation with God. Or maybe he meant that we should never “give up” on God and on God answering our prayers, even though it may not always be in the ways we would prefer.

Some of you may get a text or a phone call from a friend that leads you to pray for that person. Or you may meet up with somebody for lunch and pray while you’re together or silently as you walk away. Sometimes the name or face of a person pops into our mind, for seemingly no reason at all, and so we pray. If we pray without ceasing, we are always, always, always praying. We know that our own work and practice of prayer is never finished, because God is never finished with us or with the world. We will keep on praying, and God will keep on working in our lives and in the lives of all of God’s people.

The third imperative in this particular trifecta is “give thanks in all circumstances.” I do believe that as people of faith, as a Church, and maybe even as a society, we have gotten much better about focusing on gratitude. It almost feels like it is the popular thing to do around Thanksgiving. For what do you find yourself thankful today? We reflect on that question a lot, especially in the month of November. And yet giving thanks in all circumstances is something entirely different. You got in to your top choice graduate school or continuing education program… Give thanks in all circumstances. The news at the doctor’s office confirmed your greatest fear… Give thanks in all circumstances. Your family will be all together for the first time since pre-COVID… Give thanks in all circumstances. The ceasefire in Gaza might only be temporary… Give thanks in all circumstances. Your family will be expanding in the new year… Give thanks in all circumstances. There are unhoused people right here in Chapel Hill who wonder from where their next meal will come… Give thanks in all circumstances.

Last year, The New York Times did a piece called “12 Tiny Stories of Gratitude.” Emily from Boston says, “I work from home, taking twice-weekly breaks to walk to the market. I talk to Mirella the cashier as she rings up my purchases. I ask about her grandson. She asks about my kids, who she has seen grow from stroller to college. This year, we check in about her sister and my mother, who both have Alzheimer’s. The brutal disease is robbing us both, and as part-time caregivers, the sad weight of it all can be a lot. But twice a week, someone I’ve never seen outside the market checks in with me and I’m grateful.” Give thanks in all circumstances.

John from Pawley’s Island tells his story. “It was a tough week and I was exhausted as I drove home from the airport. Suddenly the engine just cut off. I drifted to a stop on the shoulder of a busy highway. I called a tow truck and my car ended up at a nearby repair shop. This was going to be expensive. I called a cab and got home. The next morning the repair shop called and said the bill was $10. What? Turns out I had run out of gas, not broken down. He could have charged me anything, but I found an honest repairman.” Give thanks in all circumstances.

It does not seem to add up, does it? How can we be expected to give thanks in all circumstances when parts of life just do not seem fair or like the way we think things should go? Why should we give thanks when we would rather cry about the state of the world or the news we just received in our family or from our friends? Surely God is crying right alongside us.

One of the things that is simultaneously helpful and difficult about scripture is the way in which it challenges us. I think this is one of those times, one of those times that causes us to tilt our head, wonder a bit together, and ask questions about how this might play out in our lives.

Paul Tillich writes about the apostle Paul’s words in this letter as an invitation to a state of silent gratefulness: “We are simply grateful. Thankfulness has taken hold of us, not because something special has happened to us, but just because we are, because we participate in the glory and power of being. It is a mood of joy, but more than a mood, more than a transitory emotion. It is a state of being.”

I do not think the apostle Paul is telling us we have to be happy all the time, and I do not think he is asking us to give thanks for all circumstances. If I understand him correctly, he is not inviting us to give thanks for the difficult diagnosis or for the fact that people in our community go hungry every day. I also do not believe he is telling us we must accept the state of the world as it stands right now, without wondering why it is the way it is and what we can do to help. I think Paul is encouraging us instead to give thanks because of and sometimes even in spite of what is going on in our lives and in the world. I do think he is telling us there is always something for which to be thankful. And I think sometimes we simply cannot see it on our own, without the help of somebody outside the situation. I think Paul is also reminding us that we have a calling and a responsibility to live as people of joy, prayer, and gratitude… in our very souls, in our very beings.

If we are rejoicing always and we are giving thanks in all circumstances, I wonder if we are, as a result, praying without ceasing. If we are aware that our joy comes from God and that we are to give thanks to God no matter what, then perhaps our life is prayer in itself. Maybe, as Tillich says, we are allowing our gratitude and our joy to become a state of being, allowing it to seep into our very bones.

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, there is no “right” or “wrong.” And yet I think in this 1 Thessalonians text, Paul has given us guidelines for this year’s – and every year’s – resolutions. What could life look like if we rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances? What could the world look like if more of us did even just one of those things on the regular?
We made baptismal promises this morning. We promised to remind [name] that he is called, claimed, and loved. As this child grows in age and in faith, he will also look to us to model what it means to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances. As we prepare to enter the season of Advent, as we continue to wait for Jesus, perhaps Paul has provided us with all we need to know about how to live as people of faith in the meantime. For this is indeed the will of God in Christ Jesus for us, for all of us. May it be so. Amen.