a sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
preached on December 11, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
In the wonderful list of exhortations and instructions that the apostle Paul offers to the church in Thessalonica, I think this one has to be the hardest. It’s not easy to pray without ceasing or give thanks in all circumstances, nor can we easily be open to the words of prophets, hold fast to what is good, or abstain from every form of evil. But “rejoice always”? It just seems nearly impossible.
Thankfully there has been a lot of reason for me to rejoice lately. Last weekend, I spent an afternoon with dear friends and their two sons, enjoying many laughs and lots of fun as we saw a movie and took a leisurely afternoon to wander around Brooklyn together. Then I spent last Sunday evening in one of my favorite churches in Manhattan, listening to beautiful music and timeless words of waiting and wonder amidst the quietness of the Advent season. This week has been a good one on the church front, too – first as we learned that the pending litigation against the church is finally being settled and as we took some major steps toward completing the sale of the manse, too. You’ll be hearing more about these things in the coming weeks, but I for one am quite joyful that things are finally moving along with two projects that have occupied a lot of our time and energy in recent months.
But even amidst all this, everything hasn’t been joyful this week. Even all this joy has been tinged with something else – there’s always been something just under the surface nagging me and suppressing my joy. There were little things that went wrong – a broken paper shredder in the midst of a major cleaning project at the manse that led to an unexpected, unbudgeted expense for me – but also bigger things like changing plans that took away from hoped-for time with friends and another friend who lost his job this week and just doesn’t have a clear picture of what is ahead.
But all the little things that suppress joy in my own life seem so small amidst all the pain and struggle around us in our world – the uncertainty around elections in Russia and the Congo, the continued frustrations of economic and political life in our own nation, state, and city, and the heart-wrenching news of another shooting at Virginia Tech University on Thursday just as they finally were beginning to recover from the last tragedy there several years ago.
So in the midst of all the struggles of our lives, it’s not so easy to “rejoice always” – unless you count schadenfreude, that German concept of taking pleasure in the pain of others, as rejoicing! But yet Paul’s exhortation is still before us: “Rejoice always.”
It was surely just as difficult for his first hearers to take this seriously. They were some of the earliest converts to this new religious practice, and they didn’t have a clear path for how to behave or what to do. They were a tiny minority group in a city and nation where even perceived disloyalty to the practices of the empire meant troubles of all sorts. And people around them just didn’t understand why they would embrace this new religious faith and practice that seemed to bring nothing more than difficulty and struggle. And yet Paul instructed them to rejoice always.
I don’t think Paul didn’t understand what this was all about – he knew that rejoicing isn’t always easy. But he knew that rejoicing is about more than temporary things, about more than happiness in the here and now, about more than just seeing our needs and desires fulfilled and realized right away. Our vision of joy has become so limited, captured in an ideal of happiness for this immediate moment, locked up in snow-capped letters with little meaning on holiday cards or alongside the latest display in your favorite store, found first and foremost in gaining something right away for our immediate fulfillment and happiness.
But there is so much more to this joy and rejoicing than just these things. Joy goes beyond this immediate moment, beyond mere platitudes and snow-capped letters that show up in the ever-expanding holiday season, beyond the momentary happiness that comes as we enjoy time with friends and watch long-planned projects finally come to an end. Instead, real joy inspires us and even demands for us to look beyond the immediate things, to trust that there is something more than what we can see happening before us, to open our eyes to the transformation possible in and through our struggle and our happiness, to hope that God will be up to more than we can imagine and understand.
Advent and Christmas bring us true joy not just because Jesus has come but also and even more because Jesus is coming again, because there will be joy beyond all our dreams, because everything that drains us of true joy will be drained of all its power over us, because this world does not and will not have the last word on anything, for there is great joy yet to come in and through Jesus Christ our Lord.
And so on this Sunday when we celebrate joy, when we let a little more Christmas joy creep into the preparations of our Advent, when we look again to God with hope and longing for the new things yet to come, when we light a pink candle and sing songs that speak of deep joy, we remember not happiness but deep and real joy, not empty platitudes of happiness that last only as long as the newness of gifts on Christmas morning but the joy of promises once fulfilled that will be fulfilled again, not temporary happiness for a few privileged people but permanent and transformative new life for all creation.
Pastor Abby Henrich puts it well, I think:
Joy is not easily won. You only get it by giving of yourself. Then, joy cracks the very center of your being open and allows the terrifying beauty of this world to creep in.
Joy has no defenses. With joy the pain of this life creeps in too.
Yet joy is like slipping on a new pair of glasses. Everything in the world becomes more beautiful and more painful when we open ourselves to joy.
So may we have all that we need to “rejoice always,” to give thanks in all things, and trust that God is still working around us to make all things new in Jesus Christ our Lord, the one who has come and is coming again. Alleluia! Amen.