1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
This week the nations electors will meet to officially elect the next President of the United States. This week, the new COVID vaccine will be released and the big issue we face is who gets the limited supply vaccine first and when do the rest of us get it?
This week Congress will struggle to pass a budget resolution. So far, the two sides have not been able to agree. Meanwhile, a nation on lockdown struggles to make ends meet at Christmas time. This week, more families will receive news of a COVID death, or a cancer diagnosis or maybe a divorce.
There’s a lot of pressing concerns that loom on the horizon for each of us this week. But today, on the Third Sunday in Advent, the most pressing concern that we must address is. . .why is the candle that we lighted this morning pink?
If someone were to ask you, “Why is one of the candles on your Advent wreath pink?”, how would you answer? Well, first of all, I hope you would tell them that it is not a pink candle, it is a rose candle. I know it looks pink. But it’s officially rose! Work with me on this.
This is the Third Sunday of Advent. Tradition has named it Gaudete Sunday. It gets that name from the opening of the Latin Introit used for this Sunday: Gaudete in Domino semper, or rejoice in the Lord always. So the theme of this Sunday is Joy. And that rose candle is the JOY candle.
Advent has been a rather sedate season when we focus on preparing to receive the Lord. But today, the church calls us take a little breather and changes the theme to JOY for this one Sunday. Here is how that came about.
Advent started in the fifth century. At that time it was a forty-day-long fast to prepare for Christmas beginning on St. Martin’s Day. It was also a penitential season – a kind of counterpart to Lent. So it was often called “St. Martin’s Lent.”
Now, the middle Sunday Advent corresponded with the Middle Sunday of-Lent. And on that Middle Sunday of Lent, the church allowed a little respite. It was a day to ease up a bit on the Lenten discipline. The church marked that Middle Sunday of Lent by changing the seasonal color to rose for just that one day.
So, likewise, on this mid-Advent Sunday, the church gives us a little ease-up for one day. And just like mid-Lent, the liturgical color is rose for just this one day. Indeed, in some churches you might see the priest wearing rose-colored vestments instead of purple. And the theme is JOY!
So this Gaudete Sunday we light a rose candle instead of a purple one. We focus on the joy that we own as Christ’s own. And it couldn’t come at a better time for us.
As Anglicans, we cherish the patterns of worship that have come down through the centuries. Indeed, they bring us joy. Some of those patterns can be complex as you would know if you ever had to correctly cense an altar. And some patterns are as simple as lighting a rose candle.
But here is something that is not complex. Being a Christian. Some would want to make it complex. Being a Christian is not as complex as they would want to you to think.
Paul lays it out for us in his letter to the Thessalonians this morning. It comes down to some timeless truths and some basic beliefs.
Some of you have read some of the writings of C.S. Lewis. C.S. Lewis was an Oxford professor. He was God’s missionary to the intellectual set. In 1952 he published a book called Mere Christianity’
That book has become a Christian classic. It lays out the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times. Timeless truths. Basic beliefs. Common convictions. Or …..Mere Christianity.
In this morning’s passage from 1 Thessalonians, Paul is trying to do the same. He is not trying to create a distinctively Thessalonian Christian. Instead, he wants to help people to be merely Christian. And he does that by presenting some basic truths about what it means to be a Mere Christian.
He begins with three imperatives: Rejoice always, Pray without ceasing, Give thanks in all circumstances. Really?
This past week I learned that a good friend in Oakhurst had been diagnosed with cancer. He joins two people in our congregation who are also battling cancer.
Another friend of mine struggles to minister to her 87 year old mother who is slowly wasting away from depression in a nursing home. The COVID virus has kept them apart all year and now my friend can only stand outside Mom’s bedroom window with cell phone in hand to ease the depression. Don’t know if Mom will still be around at Christmas.
I spoke with a student yesterday who is away from home at school. He learned that his parents are getting a divorce. The family home will be sold before he can return home this summer.
These are all good Christian men and women facing difficult times. And Paul says to them, “Rejoice always!”
Now, I could understand if Paul said, “When you receive God’s blessings in life: “rejoice,” … “pray regularly” … and “give thanks.” But that’s not what he says.
Instead he says that we are to rejoice, pray and give thanks constantly, Regardless of the difficulties of our lives! In good times and in the bad times. Rejoice!
It would be easy to dismiss Paul if he were some theologian speaking from the comfort of his paneled library while sitting in front of a blazing fireplace. But, that’s not the Paul we see in the New Testament.
The Paul who tells us to rejoice ALWAYS experienced a lot of difficult times in his ministry. He spent a lot of time confined in prisons for following the Lord. He survived a shipwreck on a stormy sea that should have killed everyone on board. He was stoned so badly by an angry mob that he had a near death experience.
Paul is no Pollyannanm.He understood adversity because he lived it.
Yet, this man was indefatigable. Despite all the assaults, Despite all the adversities, he kept going and going and going. Kind of like the Energizer Bunny. He lived what he preached.
How did he do it? How was he able to “Rejoice always” even through the hardships that he suffered? We get a clue in his letter to the Philippians which we talked about last Thursday in bible study.
Paul wrote that letter from his prison cell while waiting a verdict for a capital offense. Any day he could be taken from his cell and executed. Yet, even as he awaits his verdict, the letter he writes is filled with joy. That’s because Paul had a different focus than most people.
Most people see this life as all that there is. They will say, Life is not a dress rehearsal.” You have one life to live so make the most of it. Go for the gusto.
And then when something interrupts their life, when something changes the course of their life, they’re knocked down. It’s not the way life was supposed to go. What is there left to live for?
Paul had a different focus on life. He wrote: For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
“To live is Christ.” There is something more beautiful and more wonderful than this life we’re living. It’s the life that we will live with Christ after death.
For Paul, that life to come was more than just a hope, more than just pie in the sky. “To die is gain.” Paul lived as a soldier for that city on the other side of death. As a soldier for that city, he had a realistic view of this life. And his very realistic view of this life carried him through good times and bad times. So he could rejoice always.
I remember watching a movie about the D-Day invasion. Days before the invasion, the commanding officer handed out forms to all his men and told them to write out their wills. That scene gave me the chills. Because it brought into focus the reality of what those soldiers faced.
But it showed something else. As they wrote out their wills, they were taking a clear headed approach to their lives. There was no guarantee of a safe return. There was every possibility that they could be killed or crippled in the days to come. Making out their wills was a necessary part of facing their future and the task at hand.
That clear headed thinking would guide them to make the best choices in their days ahead. That realistic thinking would give them confidence to face the unknown. So however long their lives might be, they could move forward and live each moment to the fullest – undaunted and unencumbered.
So too, Paul calls us as citizen soldiers of that city on the other side of death. He calls us to live clear-headed about this life so that we might make the most excellent choices for the days ahead. Choices made joyfully knowing that we don’t cling to this life, we cling to Christ.
When you were baptized, you were adopted by your heavenly Father into his forever family. You are never without His help. The same Jesus who wrapped himself in flesh and then died on the cross is there with you in every moment of your life. He walks with you through every trial in your life.
When trials arise, he gives you strength to face those trials with confidence. When you’re feeling all alone, he will gives you assurance. Just as he did for Paul. “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
So that’s why you can rejoice always, in every situation, good times and bad times. Rejoice that Christ goes before you, that Christ remains with you. Just as he was there for Paul to be that Energizer Bunny that could go on and on.
C.S Lewis offers this perspective of God working in our lives through difficult times. Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that [God] is building quite a different house from the one you thought of — throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but [God] is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself.”
It’s Advent, a season of preparation for the Coming King. His arrival at Christmas gives us a chance to rejoice. But we don’t have to wait until Christmas. Paul calls us to Rejoice always, Pray without ceasing, Give thanks in all circumstances.
So this week there’s a lot to be concerned about. Our nation finds itself in the wake of a contentious and polarized election. Our economy is suffering from lockdowns that have been on and then off and then on again. Our Congress has spent over $6 trillion dollars in 2020 with no plan to pay any of it back.Our families are struggling with isolation. And some of us are facing serious health issues.
Yet, given all of these mounting troubles,With all the current events that clamor for our attention, The most important question we need answer for ourselves on this Third Sunday in Advent is this:
Why did we light that rose candle today?