How to Rejoice in the Midst of Darkness

Sermon,  December 17, 2017 –  3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Some of you may know that today is a special Sunday in Advent.  You may have noticed that a rose-colored candle was lit today on the Advent wreath instead of a purple one.  If St. Luke’s was a wealthy church, with lots of money to spend on liturgical garb, there would be rose colored linens and Barbara would be wearing a rose-colored chasuble.

Today is the third Sunday in Advent, which is known as Gaudete Sunday.  It is so-called because back in the Middle Ages, when Latin was the language used in church, and when a Psalm or other piece of Scripture was chanted instead of the congregation singing a processional hymn, Philippians chapter 4 verse 4 was the entrance antiphon.  And the priest would have said “Gaudete in Domino semper iterum dico gaudete” which translates to “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”  Gaudete means rejoice.

Our theme today is rejoicing.  We are in the midst of Advent, the season of the church year in which we look forward to the coming of Christ.  It is penitential, yes, because we must examine ourselves and our sinfulness as we await the coming of our Lord and Savior.  And yet, it is also a season to rejoice – and for the same reason – because we await the coming of our Lord and Savior.  We rejoice because the Lord is near.

I don’t know about you but as I look around the world we live in, I don’t see a lot to rejoice about.  The news and entertainment industries, social media, politicians, celebrities, and a good many religious leaders as well, feed us a steady diet of fear, anger, despair, bitterness and rage.  And its not just that we are told things are bad, there actually is a great deal of sin, evil and misbehavior that happens all around us every day.

And yet, we are called to rejoice.  In today’s reading from the New Testament, we read Paul’s closing thoughts from his letter to the Christians in Thessalonica.  This is the part of the letter where, if your mom had written it, she would have told you to be sure to eat your vegetables, get enough sleep, and to always put on your coat and hat when you went out into the cold.  Your mom would also tell you that you’d better do all these things to avoid getting sick.

Well Paul does something similar.  He gives us his list of things he expects Christians to do, and he also includes the reason why.  He writes “Rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”   Let’s look a little bit more carefully at what Paul is saying to us here because he clearly believes it is important.

First, he tells us to “rejoice always”.  What is Paul telling us here?  Is he expecting us to put on happy faces and pretend that the horrible things that are going on around us don’t exist?  Is he telling us to turn off our empathy and sympathy?  Doesn’t this conflict with Jesus who says, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”?

We need to take a step back.  We need to understand what Paul is talking about when he says rejoice.  As we will see when we discuss Paul’s two other instructions, he is really looking at an overall mindset or outlook on life.  When he says, “rejoice always”, he is not telling us that we must be happy and in a party mood every minute of our life.  That is simply not realistic and doesn’t match with anything else that God tells us in the Bible.  That’s not what Paul means here and that’s not the message of Advent.

Let’s listen to the first verse of the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” because I think that verse brings the right balance between mourning and rejoicing.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

On the one hand, captive Israel mourns in her lonely exile.  She has been cast out of her home, she has been utterly defeated and humiliated by her enemies.  And she is right to mourn.  However, Israel is awaiting the coming Emmanuel who will ransom her from her enemies.  Evil does not get the last laugh.  Redemption is coming.  And because of this wonderful news, Israel can rejoice.

So it is with us.  We are right to mourn the sin and brokenness that we see in our own lives and all around us.  But we must never lose sight that Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, is coming.  And so, even as we mourn, we can rejoice.  There is a vast difference between those who mourn with no hope and those who mourn, and yet have hope.  To rejoice always is to never lose sight of the hope and trust we have in God.

Paul’s next instruction is to “pray continually”.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything other than fold our hands and kneel down in prayer.  Just as with Paul’s direction to “rejoice always”, we need to ask what Paul means when he says to pray continually.  Prayer is, in many ways, a state of mind.  As one pastor put it, prayer is “an overall attitude toward God that permeates all of life’s occasions.”  Prayer isn’t about us asking God for this or that, nor is it our making sure that God knows all of the people and things we expect him to fix.  Prayer is a way to frame our outlook on the world.  When we bring things to God in prayer we confess our inability to fix them, confess our dependence on God, and listen for God’s will for us as we are immersed in Scripture.  Prayer is also our way to expressing our eternal gratitude to God.

Paul’s instruction to pray continually is an instruction to constantly keep our focus on God and to live our lives as God would have us live them.  We are either fully children of God – in all aspects of our lives – or we are not.  It is not an option to be part-time followers of Jesus.  With every breath that we take we need to keep our focus on God.  We need to pray continually.

Paul’s third instruction to us is to “give thanks in all circumstances.”  He does not say to give thanks for all circumstances, because that would mean giving thanks when bad things happen.  God does not want us to give thanks for sin or suffering or death, because these things are contrary to his will.  Paul tells us to give thanks in all circumstances.  The circumstances may be bad, and we might not be thankful that we are stuck in them.  But we can give thanks in those circumstances because we know that God has sent his Son for us.  We know that evil does not have the last word.

It is very easy for us to fall into the same trap that so much of our culture has fallen into and take on attitudes of anger, bitterness, revenge, entitlement or cynicism when we encounter the unpleasant and downright wicked aspects of life.  But Paul will not let us go there.  To allow such a negative mindset to take hold within us would snuff out the Gospel and strangle any faith we might have in God.

Just as we are called to rejoice even in the midst of our mourning, so we are called to give thanks, even in the midst of sadness and tragedy.  God is still God in the midst of our fallen world, he still loves us, and he sent his son to rescue us.  If we allow the sin, sadness, suffering and tragedy of this world to snuff out our knowledge and joy in what God has done for us, then we allow the Gospel light to be snuffed out in our lives.  We must not let this happen.

Near the beginning of his Gospel, John speaks of Jesus as a light.  He writes “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  If there is no darkness, then we don’t need a light. God doesn’t expect us to pretend that there is no darkness.  We can acknowledge the darkness and yet be thankful for the light.

Let’s listen to verses 16, 17 and 18 once more.  “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  If we follow these directions, we will protect ourselves from anger, despair and cynicism while staying focused on God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Paul is not telling us to ignore the sin, suffering and death around us, but he is instructing us on what we need to do to keep our eyes fixed on God.  This is indeed God’s will for us in Christ Jesus.

And this is what Advent is all about.  We live in dark times, but people have always lived in dark times.  We are captive people in lonely exile in a world that despises the Gospel.  It is right to mourn because of this.  But we must not lose sight of the imminent coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, who has paid our ransom with his blood.  With John, we can confidently declare “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  And this is why we rejoice!

Let us pray.

God of all Creation, fill our hearts this Advent season. May we know the greatest joy in the love you hold for us and that we, in turn, hold for one another.  Jesus, Lord and Savior, you taught us to pray for all things in your name.  May all of those who suffer from pain, loneliness, fear, and despair find joy in the promise of your light and life.  Spirit of Hope, we take refuge in your wisdom and grace. May we become beacons of joy to all those around us, and in a world that aches for peace.  Amen.