Today is Gaudete Sunday, which I’ve already introduced in my previous post. It’s a day we particularly remember the joyful anticipation of the return of Christ. The end of Paul’s 1st Epistle to the Thessalonians speaks to this theme in three ways:
- We are to live a lifestyle of praise & thanksgiving (5:16-18).
- God is working in the meantime, and so should we (5:19-21).
- Penitence & discipline belong in this context of praise (5:22-24).
First of all, though, we should note that this whole epistle of 1 Thessalonians has a particular focus upon the return of Christ – it’s mentioned in all five chapters. Furthermore, it has a reoccurring theme of living holy lives in preparation for eternal life. Our passage today is at the end of the epistle where Paul typically has a final salvo of instructions, hence the shorter verses and condensed style.
Verses 16-18: At all times, rejoice; unceasingly pray; in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you all.
Ever struggled with the question of discerning God’s will? It’s a big topic that we, as Christians, often spend a lot of time kicking around in prayer and conversation; it matters to us a great deal. There are certainly times when God has specific instructions for specific people, but in general this is a lot simpler than we think! These verses give us a general command: live a lifestyle of worship, particularly one of rejoicing. In the context of Advent, in which we find ourselves today, we can find that experiencing the joy of Christmas can help us look ahead to the joy of the Parousia – the return of Christ. We don’t know exactly what that day will be like, but we can “practice” on Christmas. That’s one of the liturgical purposes of the season of Advent, if you want to be technical.
So by all means, we’re free to enjoy advent calendars with the little chocolates in them, the festive music and decorations, and exchanging gifts – these all can help us to rejoice in Christmas and give thanks to God. Of course, if we make Christmas all about these traditions, then we fall into consumerism and materialism and are distracted from the true object of our worship: Christ Jesus. But insofar as we are able to use these traditions to help us worship God and celebrate his first advent in anticipation of his second, they are good things!
Verses 19-21: Do not stifle the Spirit; do not scoff at prophecy; but examine all things, and adhere to what is good.
A key thing to realize from these verses is that God is not sitting in heaven watching the clock; the Spirit is active! And so should we: “prophecy” is not just predictions about the future, it’s the proclamation of God’s words to us – kind of like preaching, ideally. We’re instructed to hear the proclamation of God’s word, examine it, and stick with whatever good comes out of it. It’s an invitation to join God in the work of His Spirit in the world, and minister to the needs of those around us.
A classic Advent tradition along these lines is alms-giving. Not only to help provide the needy with what they need to survive, but also to help supply the needy with what they need to rejoice in God. Sure, there are a lot of questions about how much we should give, and if we should give indiscriminately or not, but I don’t want to get into that right now. The short answer here is don’t ignore the Salvation Army guy with the bell outside the mall! I’m guilty of this already; Becca & I were going to the mall last week, and one of those bell-ringers was outside the entrance we were headed for. I calculated which door to go through, and how to approach it carefully so we’d be least likely to make eye contact with him, cos if you don’t make eye contact there’s a lot less guilt about ignoring him, and you look like you’re in a hurry, on your way to something important… Seriously, what lengths we go to in order to avoid charity sometimes! Advent is a good time to reexamine ourselves on this front.
Verses 22-24: From all kinds of evil abstain; but may the God of peace himself make you all completely holy, and may you all be kept entirely (spirit & soul & body) blameless until the parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is the one who calls you, and who will do it.
There are a few important points to realize here. First, God is the one who makes us holy. For sure, we’re not passive – we’re called to cooperate with the Spirit on this and actually avoid evil, but in the end, God is the one who makes us holy. Secondly, being holy or blameless is a holistic reality. It’s not just an estoeric inner reality, but it’s our whole self, our spirit, soul, and body. (For those not familiar with the distinction, soul in Greek is ψυχη, psyche, which generally refers to the mind & heart.) Finally, holiness has a purpose; it isn’t arbitrary. Just like in Genesis 2: God did just tell Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge, but also explained that doing so would spell death for him. The rules aren’t there for the sake of having rules, they’re there for our benefit. Similarly here, holiness is a preparation for the parousia – the return of Christ.
As a brief interesting aside, the three sections of this passage also actually line up with the three-fold purpose of the Church: rejoicing & thanksgiving (worship), ministering to the spiritual & physical needs of others (serving), and resisting evil & becoming holy (edification).
So all these things work together throughout our Christian lives, and especially in this season of Advent as look ahead with joyful anticipation to the return of our Messiah, Jesus.