By Rev. Heidi L. Barham | December 17, 2017
Read 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
As we come to this third Sunday in Advent, Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica helps us to turn our focus to a tiny little word that can be packed full of emotion. That little word is JOY.
And according to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, it is defined as, “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.”
But what does the Bible tell us about joy?
The Prophet Nehemiah (8:10) said that “the joy of the Lord [was his] strength.”
While the Psalmist (30:5) wrote, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
And Jesus said, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:10 – 11).
Nehemiah suggests that Joy gives us strength. David explains that Joy has the ability to replace sorrow. And Jesus tells us that our Joy is made complete in Him.
It seems to me that Joy is pretty powerful, wouldn’t you agree?
Perhaps that is why Paul told the Thessalonian church to “rejoice always”; or as the NIV puts it to “Be joyful always,” because joy is more powerful than we might imagine, especially when we have the joy of the Lord and our joy is made complete in Jesus.
And when we have the power that comes from rejoicing always, it becomes the fuel that propels us to do what Paul says next which is, “pray constantly,” or as it reads in the KJV, “pray without ceasing.”
Now, it would seem fairly obvious that we cannot live our lives, spending all our time on our knees in a posture of prayer. However, we can live our lives with a constant attitude of prayer; recognizing our total dependence upon God for everything; acknowledging His presence with us everywhere; and striving to obey Him in every circumstance.
Which in a nutshell means that every moment that we are gifted to live, is truly a God moment.
There is no point in time or space where God is not. Nor is there an instant when God does not desire for us to be in relationship with Him.
And being in relationship with God means being in communication with Him. And how do we communicate with God in each and every one of those moments? You guessed it – by praying constantly.
But not only does Paul tell us that we ought to rejoice always and pray constantly, he says that we are to “give thanks in all circumstances…”
It is important to take note that the text does not say that we are to give thanks FOR all circumstances -- but we are to give thanks IN all circumstances.
Most people would say it is pretty much impossible to give thanks FOR death, disease and destruction. But it is possible to give thanks IN those times of sorrow, sickness and suffering because we know that God has promised to be with us, even in the midst of tragic circumstances.
It would be extremely difficult to give thanks FOR bankruptcy, unemployment or homelessness. But it is conceivable that we can give thanks IN those times even when we have lost money, jobs or homes because we have the assurance found in Philippians 4:19 that God has and always will provide for our needs according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus. And in the same way that He has made a way for us in the past, He will do it again in this present age.
So, what is the purpose of Paul telling us to rejoice always, pray constantly and give thanks in all circumstances? Because, “[it] is the will of God in Christ Jesus for [us].”
And when our lives are lined up in accordance with God’s will -- joy, and thanksgiving are the natural byproducts.
But just how can we learn to live like that?
Well, I am glad you asked, because Paul offers some instruction that will help us along the way.
First, Paul says that we should not quench the Spirit or as it says in the NIV, we should not “put out the Spirit’s fire.”
Have you ever been in a situation when someone tried to rain on your parade? When their words, attitudes and actions seemed destined to douse your enthusiasm… It can be enough to make us angry and downright bitter if we’re not careful.
Well, let me suggest that we also have the ability to do that to ourselves -- to smother our own spirit when we do not operate in the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given to us -- when we try to run or hide from what God has called us and gifted us to do.
Paul told Timothy (2 Tim. 1:6-7, MSG), “And the special gift of ministry you received when I laid hands on you and prayed—keep that ablaze! God doesn’t want us to be shy with his gifts, but bold and loving and sensible.”
Now lest anyone get hung up on that word “ministry,” that does not mean simply what the Pastor or the Elders have been called to do.
Ministry is what each of us is called to do as we serve God and God’s people. To minister simply means to serve. And as we serve God and the people of God, Paul reminds us that God doesn’t want us to be shy with His gifts, instead we are to be bold, loving and sensible.
There really is no reason for us to hide the gifts God has given us. As James (1:17-18) writes, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”
God has gifted us for a reason which is why we should be bold, loving and sensible in sharing those gifts with others. That is why Paul tells us not to quench the Spirit who gave us these gifts.
And then Paul refers to one of the specific gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to us.
He writes, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.”
Reading those same verses from the Message, we find, “…don’t stifle those who have a word from the Master. On the other hand, don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what’s good. Throw out anything tainted with evil.”
We have a duty to read and study God’s word so that we have a weapon in our arsenal by which we can test what other people are telling us, especially when they say they are speaking for God.
Paul’s word of caution to us is that if anyone tells us something which they claim to be a word of prophesy, we need to be able to check what they are saying to see if it lines up with God’s Word. We should not just simply take their word for it.
Paul says we ought to then take what is good, what is in line with God’s word, and hold onto it. But whatever is evil, we need to do our best to steer clear of. That can be somewhat challenging in light of the fact that we are living in a day and time when evil seems to be lurking around every corner.
That is why it is so important for us to study and pay close attention to what the Word of God says because it holds the key that will help us keep from allowing sin to gain a foothold and keep us from getting caught up in temptation.
In fact, 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
God already knows that this world is filled with temptation but that does not mean that we need to give into it. We can look to God to show us a better way.
I just got through listening to an audiobook entitled, “The Best Yes” by Lysa TerKeurst. And there was a concept in the book that really caught my attention. She said, “Where you stare, you steer.”
She went on to describe a time when she and her colleagues were on the way to attend an event at a church in an area that they were not familiar with, so they were planning to follow another group of people who knew the way to the church.
The author said they were very focused on following the red SUV along the highway and things were going well until an 18-wheeler got in between them for a short stretch of the road. But as soon as the truck moved, they began to follow the red SUV once again.
She describes how they got off the highway and began to drive through a variety of neighborhoods and that at one point, they thought the group in the red SUV was deliberately trying to lose them. But they were relentless in their efforts to follow along. But when the red SUV turned into a driveway at a house and not the church they were expecting, they realized what had happened.
When the 18-wheeler had moved, they started following the wrong red SUV. Where you stare, you steer…
So, if we are looking at or staring at the wrong things -- things that will lead us into temptation -- that is where we will ultimately steer. But if we are looking at and staring into God’s Word -- we will be able to steer clear of temptation and follow the paths where God would have us to go.
And then as we turn our attention to the last verses of our New Testament lesson, we find what is essentially a prayer, that in anticipation of the coming of Christ, that God, the God of peace, will completely sanctify us and bring together spirit, soul and body.
And we also find words that offer reassurance that God is faithful and will do what He has said He will do.
That is good news, especially during this season of Advent. Because as we wait with expectation and anticipation for Jesus to return, we have the confident assurance that what God has promised in His Word -- He will deliver.
As Hebrews 10:23 says, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”
And because God is faithful we can do as Paul suggests -- we can rejoice always, pray constantly and give thanks in all circumstances -- which truly is God’s will for us.
That is God’s desire for how we are to live until that day when Jesus comes back for His church. Our hearts ought to be filled with joy and thanksgiving because every day brings us one day closer to that glorious day.
And when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we can look forward to that day without fear or trepidation, secure in the knowledge that Jesus gave His life for us so that we would have eternal life.
And that is certainly cause for joy!
Hymn of Discipleship [We Have Heard a Joyful Sound #479].