2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Sermon Ideas For 1 Thess 5:16-24 Part 2

It is hard to get past the first two words of this scripture: "Rejoice always!" Always is a word I try hard to avoid. It's a word that comes readily to the lips when blaming, along with never: "You always do X!" "You never do Y!" "I always end up doing Z—which is your job anyway—and you never appreciate it!"

And this notion of rejoicing. Or, more precisely, of being exhorted to rejoice. Or still more precisely, of being exhorted to rejoice "because it is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." A strange and touching notion, especially in light of the chronic anguish that is the human condition.

Being exhorted to rejoice when one is already elated for some reason—this is no great challenge. But what does this exhortation mean to the kind of person with whom the pastor spends so much time: The grief-stricken, the despairing, the resentful, the frightened?

I'm clearer about what it cannot mean: It is not a call to denial, to "fake it `til you make it." It is not a call to pretend that you do not feel what you really feel, or to pretend that you feel what you really do not feel. Christ does not call us to a masquerade in which we wear joy as a disguise in hopes that we might somehow fool ourselves and others—or at least earn points for trying. I find few sadder circumstances than that of the desperately cheerful Christian. It is like watching a person starve to death, unable to eat while seated at a banquet.

A mentor of mine once commented: "Life is at its fullest when lived out of a stance of gratitude, but most people live out of a stance of deprivation." It's a powerful statement, hard to dispute. But it also begs an important question: Is this a reflection on the state of deprivation in which most people live, or is this a comment about how many pansies there are among us? Or perhaps this is more to the point: So what do you do if your honest experience of self and life points you directly to the stance of deprivation? Certainly we know people for whom this is true; certainly the events of almost anyone's life contain enough loss that a claim to the stance of deprivation could be asserted.

Simple, unsatisfying answers abound: The glass isn't half empty, it's half full. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. Little by little, day by day, I'm getting better in every way. These answers press us back to denial, to ignoring whatever realities are present (including our feelings) that aren't supposed to be part of the perfect life as popularly defined.

Some bring God in to buttress such answers, applying the divine endorsement to such mercenary approaches as prosperity, theology and other tools of televangelism: If you do things right, you will have prosperity worth rejoicing. These approaches certainly sell, and in our culture that is validation enough.

But Paul is no stranger to suffering and not shy about describing his own. Whatever rejoicing means to him, it doesn't promise an end to suffering, loss, fear, poverty, rage, or death. So what can he mean? What is authentic rejoicing that does not deny pain, but rather occurs alongside it?

I can only offer that it grows out of the experience of presence rather than out of ideas. Ideas are notoriously unhelpful in the face of direct pain. The image here is of parenting: You do not tell your young child, "That bump on your head is nothing to worry about, it won't hurt long." That input only brings from the child a glare that says, "But it hurts now!" Instead you gather the child up in your arms, you kiss the bump and murmur softly. The soothing, holding presence is all you have to offer and, in an important sense, all you need to offer.

So God-with-us is with us. Or not. The experience of God's presence is something we can resist but not evoke or command. We can all have the idea of God's presence, just as we can all conjure an image of Moses' burning bush. An idea has the benefit of easy transmission; anyone can "get it" and then "have it" thereafter. But the idea of God's presence is an empty vessel awaiting experience to fill it. In our passage Paul wrote to a congregation whom he believed had experienced the fullness of God's presence—not just the idea but the deep, mysterious warming of the heart by which we are led to say, "It is the LORD."

Sadly, denial reasserts itself here: Persons who have only the idea often proclaim the idea of the LORD's presence as though the idea is sufficient. This leads people away from authentic Advent anticipation (prepare, the LORD comes!) and toward shame: I feel empty; my faith must not be strong enough.

So what would Paul say to us all, those who have felt this presence and those who have not, about rejoicing? Perhaps he would share the same good news: It is God's will that we rejoice. Perhaps he would try, not so much by his ideas as by his own presence, to hold us too, to comfort and assure us—to give us a glimpse of that greater Presence which is the source of joy. We need to be held—with voice if not with touch—to feel loved, soothed, comforted; we do not outgrow that human need. In that holding, rejoicing is possible even and especially when there is pain. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. In danger, our cups overflow.

As we feel that Presence, rejoicing comes unbidden. Our challenge is to embody it for others—and the joy that it makes possible.

Gregory A. Hinkle