2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Sermon Briefs: 1 Thess 5:16-24

This rich text has generated such an abundance of excellent sermons that selection becomes difficult. We shall look at two sermons that explore Paul's command to rejoice (v. 16) and one sermon each on the commands to pray (v. 17), to give thanks (v. 18), and to hold fast to what is good (v. 21).

John Donne (1573-1631) preached his sermon Rejoice Evermore1 in Saint Dunstan's. His was no doubt a highly literate congregation, for the sermon is filled with Latin phrases and sentences and with literary allusions, mostly biblical.

Donne begins by asserting that we are commanded to rejoice and that it is a commandment of much importance. We are to rejoice in both prosperity and adversity. Because we are to rejoice always, our rejoicing must be in the One who is always—who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

What is joy? It is the end of our desires.

It is the rest and testimony of a good conscience that we have done those things which belong to our calling. In fact, the best evidence that a person is at peace and in favor with God is that he/she can rejoice. This joy properly has outward manifestations such as laughter.

Even sorrows can be occasions for our rejoicing. When we see that our sorrow is God's way of correcting us, we discern that God wants to cure us. God is neither unjust nor cruel in dealing with us.

The imperfect joy of this world prepares us for the perfect joy that is to come. The example is Christ himself, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross (Heb 12:2). Christ spoke of our finally entering into our Master's joy (Mt 25:21), a more complete joy. The first thing that the seeing of God shall produce in us is joy.

In 1886 C. H. Spurgeon (1834-92) preached his sermon Rejoice Evermore2 at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. It resembles Donne's in its main points. Spurgeon asserts that rejoicing is a duty, a commandment, for the Christian. In fact, it is a sin not to rejoice. If you lose your joy, "you will lose your power both to warn the unruly and to comfort the feeble-minded."

The Christian's rejoicing has several qualities. It is not a carnal rejoicing. It is not presumptuous nor fanatical. It is a rejoicing in God. If we are right minded, every grace of the Spirit will make us glad: Faith, hope, love, patience, prayer, singing, Bible reading, Communion.

Rejoicing brings positive benefits. It wards off temptation, it greatly encourages others, and it attracts sinners.

Francois Fénelon (1651-1715), Archbishop of Cambry in France, was known for his effective preaching and searching spirituality; but unfortunately only a few of his sermons have survived. The best of these is thought to be his sermon Prayer,3 based on 1 Thessalonian 5:17: "Pray without ceasing."

The first sentence has a timeless ring: "Of all the duties enjoined by Christianity, none is more essential, and yet more neglected, than prayer." Prayer is vital because God alone can instruct us in our duty. Human teaching is always imperfect.

Genuine prayer does not necessarily involve many words. To pray is to say, "Thy will be done." It is to form a good purpose and to desire that everything one does be done to God's glory.

Believers should reserve a portion of their time for prayer. They should see it as the remedy for their weaknesses.

Rules apply: (1) Pray with attention. Use your whole heart. (2) Ask with faith and confidence. (3) Ask with humility. (4) Pray with love. (5) Pray with perseverance. (6) Pray with a pure intention. Do not include unworthy concerns in your prayers but ask for the true riches.

At the end Fénelon hurls a sharp spear at his hearers. We, no less than they, feel the stick. He says: If God were to offer to give you a new heart and render you humble, meek, etc., you would not accept the offer! Your pride would revolt, or you would try to hang on to your ruling passion! (One is reminded how God is said to have offered to drive seven devils from a religious pilgrim. The reply was, "God, could you make it 6?")

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) preached In Everything Give Thanks4 (1 Th 5:18) to university congregations in this country in the late 1950s. He begins by contrasting the superficiality of thanksgiving in most cultures with its deeper religious significance. Not only are we mortals driven to give thanks, but we also have a profound need to receive thanks.

Tillich explores what he calls "the state of silent gratefulness." God is creatively present in everyone in every moment whether we are aware of it or not. But when we are in the state of silent gratefulness, we are aware of God's presence; we experience an elevation of life.

Thanksgiving serves an important function in that it consecrates everything created by God. It transfers something that belongs to the secular world into the sphere of the holy; it becomes a bearer of grace.

There are no limits to giving thanks. The Bible is full of examples of people who give thanks despite the misery they are presently experiencing. Our consolation is that we can become aware of the ever active presence of God in every moment and can be filled with silent gratefulness for that presence. Such experiences give birth to true and honest words of thanks.

Elton Trueblood preached on 1 Thessalonians 5:21 ("Hold fast what is good") in the late 1950s. Called What Makes Men Good?,5 the sermon was first given at Stanford University.

Trueblood believes goodness to be the most prized and permanently satisfying human trait. He enumerates several conditions which in themselves are not sufficient to produce moral excellence: Wealth, education, one's profession (including the ministry!), beauty of physical surroundings.

Two things above all others produce goodness: Contagion and discipline. Goodness is "caught" from others, so believers do well to surround themselves with good people. Self-mastery is always vital to the moral life. Key disciplines are times of personal quietness and public as well as private prayer.

Sandy Wylie


1. The Sermons of John Donne (Simpson & Potter), Vol. 10, pp. 213-228. 2. Spurgeon's Sermons, Vol. 17, pp. 137-158. 3. S. E. Frost, Jr., ed., The World's Great Sermons (Garden City, NY: Halcyon House, 1943), pp. 95-99. 4. Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963), pp. 173-85. 5. G. Paul Butler, ed., Best Sermons 1959-60, pp. 149-54.