2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Preaching: 1 Thess 5:16-24

"Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of god in Christ Jesus for you," (1 Thess 5:16-18).

This and the verses that follow offer a wonderful text that is filled with preaching possibilities, but it is also a text that can be easily misunderstood and misused especially at this emotion-laden time of the year. The danger is that the text lends itself to moralizing and shaming. The widow facing her first Christmas alone might mistakenly hear in this text a word that says, "You should not be feeling what you are feeling." The unemployed father who has searched for a job for the last year and faces the possibility of being unable to provide for his children this Christmas might hear words that shame rather than comfort. Consequently, we preachers need to handle this rich text with great care lest we cause some in the congregation to hear it as bad news and as another burden rather than as liberation and good news.

The easy and most obvious path for the preacher to follow is to make this into a six point sermon about the things we need to do to get ready for Christmas: (1) rejoice; (2) pray; (3) give thanks; (4) hold fast; (5) abstain; (6) look forward. The truth is, of course, that these are things we need to do in order to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord of life and light; but we can only do these things in the light of the future that comes to us as a gift from God and not in the light of the present that has been created out of our past.

The Third Sunday of Advent marks the half-way point of this Advent season. The congregation is midway between bondage and liberation; between despair and hope; between sadness and joy. Three candles are burning on the Advent wreath. The light shines more brightly in the darkness. But the darkness must not and cannot be ignored. This darkness is certainly real in the lives of many in the congregation who feel its cold presence more now than at any other time of the year. The light may shine in the darkness, but the darkness is certainly there.

Years ago when I was a chaplain intern at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, I remember sitting one night with a woman who had just lost her two little children in a horrible fire. She was overwhelmed with grief and anger over the slaughter of these innocents. "What kind of God is it that would allow such a thing?" She asked. I had no answer. The darkness pressed in upon us. I wondered about what kind of God would allow such a thing? We sat for a while in the gathering darkness. No words were spoken. Certainly no admonition to rejoice or pray or give thanks was offered. Only silence and darkness. Then somewhere out of my own darkness I remembered the words of a friend who had suffered and hurt and who could make no sense of the pain. "Sometimes when the darkness is very deep, and we feel overwhelmed; remember what has been and look forward to what will be." On these days that feel like good Friday, remember Easter. In moments of fear and loss, remember Emmaus, and Bethlehem, and Pentecost, and promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Remember the gifts of God for the people of God. Remember that resurrection came after crucifixion. And in that moment in the darkness beneath the rage and hurt and confusion I found a deeper joy in knowing that what often appears to be a godless and god-forsaken world is not the real world. It is not a world that has any ultimate future. A new world is coming. This new world and this new future is Advent. Advent remembers and looks forward to the coming of the kingdom of God where we have all been given the gift of citizenship through baptism. In that kingdom there will be no more slaughter of the innocents, no more cancer, or AIDS, or death, or loneliness, or broken hearts or broken promises for the God who comes to us at Christmas is a God who will make all things new. And there in the darkness of that hospital room with all its hurt and horror I understood the basis of Christian joy. It is like faith. It is not based on the evidence of the present, but on the hope of the future. It is in the light of this memory of the advent of God's kingdom that we preachers can dare to say to our congregations: "Rejoice!"

Hugh L. Eichelberger