Rejoice + Pray + Give Thanks

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent [Year B]

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 and Psalm 126

One night this week my family was seated at our kitchen table for our Advent devotions, which we typically do right as everyone finishes eating. We prefer to have the table cleared before we do them, but on this particular night we were in a rush so we just shoved the dishes to the middle of the table and made-do. There are different duties all associated with our devotions routine. In our kitchen window we have our Advent log, which contains one candle for every day of Advent. We also have an Advent calendar and some devotional readings I’ve worked up over the years. Everyone has multiple roles to play, and no matter how well-organized we are, there is always some fuss and debate about who gets to do what.

what a completed Advent log looks like

On this particular evening, as he watched the rest of us try to figure out what was going to happen in what order, the 4-year-old announced, all on his own, that he wanted to lead us in a prayer. It kind of caught us off guard, and even though our routine was already a little too elaborate, perhaps, we couldn’t turn down his request. And so we bowed our heads and let him offer a prayer. There was no hesitation on his part. “Dear God,” he said, and then clearly waited for us to repeat: “Dear God.”

“Thank you for loving me.”
“Thank you for loving me.” And then a pause.

“Thank you for loving Bigger Bear” (which is his number one stuffed animal)
“Thank you for loving Bigger Bear.”

“Thank you for loving our food.”
“Thank you for loving our food.”

“Thank you for loving our vegetables.”
“Thank you for loving our vegetables.”

“Thank you for loving an apple.”
“Thank you for loving an apple.”

And at this point I couldn’t resist opening my eyes just a bit and I saw him scanning the room looking for the next thing to plug into his prayer formula. The girls were starting to get the giggles, and I wasn’t sure how long this was going to go on considering we have a very cluttered kitchen right now. He had plenty of things to choose from. But right at that moment he said, “Amen.”

In his final words to his congregation in Thessalonika, Paul says to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances. There we were in our kitchen, doing all three, and our 4-year-old was leading the way. In the Thessalonians’ case, Paul is not discussing family devotions or rituals, but the situation they are dealing with is not all that different from ours on this third Sunday of Advent. They are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Jesus. They are taking serious Jesus’ own promise that he would return at any moment and usher in a reign of peace and justice. We get the sense from reading the letter that they are starting to get a little impatient and that impatience is leading to some anxiety and even some fear.  I thinktThe Thessalonian congregation sounds a little bit like a popular Christmas song by the Chipmunks, rephrased:

Our Lord Jesus’ time is near.
Time of peace, time of cheer.
We’ve got faith but we can’t last.
Hurry, Jesus. Hurry fast.

Oh, how hard it is to wait!

Then in his characteristic pastoral tone, Paul assures them that anxiety and fear are not in order. Even in this time of waiting they can rejoice. Always. They can pray. Constantly. And they can look around the room wherever they are and start plugging things they see and notice into a prayer of thanksgiving.

There are several times where prepositions become very important in our faith, and I find that this is one of them. Paul doesn’t say to give thanks FOR all circumstances, but to give thanks in all circumstances. And so even as they pray for Jesus to hurry, even as they confess some frustration with how long the waiting is turning out to be, they can still be thankful. That is, they don’t need to feel thankful for Jesus’ delay, but it’s absolutely appropriate to be thankful while Jesus is delayed.

We find that this expands to all kinds of situations of faith and life. I’ve had a conversation this week with a woman in our congregation whose father just died. She told me how she has feelings of sadness, because, after all, he was her dad, and she loved him, but at the same time expressed to me how thankful she feels nonetheless—thankful his death was peaceful, thankful all siblings had time to gather and spend time with him, thankful the nursing facility relaxed COVID restrictions just so they could say goodbye. She’s not thankful for his death, but she’s thankful in the circumstances.

I spoke recently with someone whose child had received a cancer diagnosis. Those are never words you want to hear. You rarely, if ever, give thanks for cancer, but at the same time there was clear thankfulness, in this case, that it had been caught far earlier than it should have. There is thankfulness for support from so many friends and caregivers.

I don’t think I need to belabor the point, and Paul doesn’t either. These three little commands at the end of his letter are brief and to the point. Through joyfulness, fervent prayer, and a spirit of thankfulness they will have all they need to be blameless and sound at the coming of Jesus. To be blameless and sound is to be ready, to be whole. And all three of these things—thanksgiving, prayer, and joy—have a way of doing that to our soul. God, the one who calls us, is faithful, Paul reminds us, and will provide us the ability to sit around the table, virtually if we have to and share these things together.

Of those, the one we might need to hear most in these days is the command to rejoice always. For obvious reasons, joy goes a long way during stressful times. Traditionally, the third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, taken from the Latin word for joy. The Scripture readings appointed for this Sunday typically focus on joy if they don’t mention joy directly, and we certainly hear them today. In some traditions the Advent candle is pink today, a color that symbolizes joyfulness and gladness, which reminds us that ultimately we are anticipating joy in Jesus.

That Latin word, Gaudete, is also where we get the word “gaudy,” which is a word that comes to mind with pink. Gaudy also makes me think of what has become many people’s favorite ways to mark this time of year—the gaudy Christmas sweater. Things that are gaudy often bring joy. They are flashy and fun. They don’t hold back and aren’t subdued by social convention or feelings of embarrassment. They’re kind of bold in the midst of the whites and golds of Christmastime. The third Sunday of Advent tells us our faith can wear a gaudy Christmas sweater, especially in the midst of a world that is dark and hurting. It’s a garland instead of ashes, a mantle of praise rather than a faint spirit, as the prophet Isaiah says.

But we know the joy that Christ brings us is not a shallow or surface happiness. It is a joy that knows God plays the long game, as theologian Walter Brueggeman says. It is a “deep, glad confidence,” he says, “that God’s good will for the world will outrun all of our troubles and tribulations.” This, you see, is a joy rooted in the cross and shining with the light of Easter morning. It has already looked death head on and let it do its worse and still not been conquered. Nothing can now take that away.

The truly amazing thing about this joy that Christ brings is that it isn’t just intended for us and for our salvation. It is a joy that is reflected in the transformation of the world around us. The brokenhearted find themselves bound up in hope. The captives are set free. Prisoners to sin and grief are set free. The ruins of human communities are rebuilt and restored. Goodness and mercy flow through God’s people again, like the watercourses of the Negeb, which is a desert wilderness in southern Israel, after a storm. They blossom and grow in a riot of color even though the surrounding hills and rocks, in their desolation, suggest they are out of place. A gaudy sweater stands out, looks “out of place.” The deep joy from knowing Christ sets God’s people apart, even as the world seems fearful.

Jesus, in all his goodness, comes to us. In fact, John says he is standing among us now. May we be sound and blameless. Ready and whole. It’s a joyful thing. Next thing you know—this joy spills over from our personal gaudiness, and the whole world wants to wear a sweater like ours. It spills over in your generosity through the Giving Tree and Thanksgiving baskets. If flows over in your commitments to carry this congregation into another year, even as a pandemic is ongoing.

The writer of the psalm would call this shouldering the sheaves. That is, carrying so much more harvest than you expected that you bear them on shoulders, ready for a party.

John the Baptist would call this testifying to the light, the light that ends the darkness.

Paul would call it rejoicing always, giving thanks in all circumstances.

Jasper, my son, would say, “Thank you, God, for loving me. And that over there. And that over there. And that and that and that.”

Take your pick, it’s all the same.

The Lord is near. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do this.

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