Reading 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
A reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians,
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God
Today is an odd day in the church calendar, not only is it a weird day – it has as weird name: Guadete Sunday. For those of you who are linguists or did Latin in school, you can tell us mere mortals that it means Joy. Why on earth did the church put joy in the third Sunday of Advent – a season of waiting. Surely joy is reserved for the big day – Christmas. Joy is around 2 weeks away, with the family round, the turkey carved and the first sips of bucks fizz to warm your hearts. Not here, not now surely, two weeks early whilst the wait goes on. Waiting is not joyful, for many it’s painful, it’s difficult: no one has joy waiting on a doctors letter; waiting in the long queue outside the post office, waiting on amazon to finally arrive with your gift at an inconvenient time. Surely, the joy is in getting a clean bill of health; arriving at the front of the queue, opening the gift under the tree, enjoying Jesus birthday on Christmas Day. Joy is the main event after a long, impatient wait. Maybe the church has made a mistake and should reschedule gaudate Sunday to after the 25th.
The church at Thessalonica in Greece was of that mind too. Anxious to see Jesus return to bring about the perfect heaven on earth, they were getting impatient. They wanted joy, not in two weeks, not in one year, definitely not 2000 years later, but immediately. To them Paul writes those famous words which mark this Sunday “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances”. Those words contradict the model we’re used to of waiting, keeping ourselves for one big celebration. It challenges our impatient results driven mindset which only enjoys the outcome and hates the process of waiting. The fact that Gaudete – Joy Sunday – is in Advent, the time of waiting, challenges us to do waiting far differently than we’re used to. Paul gives us the Do’s and Don’ts needed to wait richly, patiently and joyfully before we fully celebrate Jesus arrival, and anything else we pin our hopes to.
Rejoice Paul says. Feel and express joy always, not just at the times when it comes most easy. Not just when the high standards of your expectations are met. Do it always. This is a difficult command to keep, but the fact that Paul can command it gives us a clue that it’s not all based on feelings – feelings that are here today and gone tomorrow or indeed may never arrive. Instead, to rejoice might be better described as a skill. This a notion that the world of psychology has been exploring in recent years, calling it: Learned Optimism. It’s a common assumption that people who are successful are happy. Surely many are, but if reality TV shows and news headlines are anything to go by then there are plenty who aren’t. On the other side of that, there are many people who live in extreme adversity and poverty, who somehow find the strength to rejoice. For those reasons, some psychologists now think we’ve had it backwards. Instead of success leading to happiness, happiness may lead to success. Rejoicing provides deeper reserves to draw upon when things get tough, and more consistent motivation to get things done. Rather than allowing circumstances to dictate happiness, some people use the skill of rejoicing to respond well to challenges and waiting. For them, as for St. Paul, rejoicing appears to be a skill to be learned, a constant habit of joy, rather than a momentary glimpse at heaven.
What follows Paul’s command to rejoice is a practical set of instructions on how to build this into your life. Pray without ceasing he says. In other words, the only way that rejoicing can take place all the time is if prayer is taking place all the time. Yes, pray in church. Pray at mealtimes. But what’s called for here is a bit more ambitious – pray without ceasing. For Anglican Christians like ourselves, the tradition of praying what’s called the office – a set of prayers for morning and evening – is important. It’s mandatory for Clergy, but don’t let that stop you from trying too. You can find easy ways to do this online, you can even put the Church of England Daily Prayer app on your phone, which automatically updates each day with different readings and prayers. We also have blue daily prayer booklets that we can give you to take home. Or, for when you’re driving, you can do what I do and listen to Pray as you Go, another App; which has a piece of reflective music, scripture reading and reflection for each day of the week. Not only will you get better at prayer, but you’ll never experience road rage ever again. As I well know. If you believe that you’ll believe anything. For many, finding a plan to read the bible in one year during a quiet time, usually in the morning, is another way to feed their prayer life, which otherwise feel a bit dry. Some call it coffee with Jesus, which is a great name. These are but a few simple tools to build prayer into your everyday life
Prayer can result in joy is because it’s a recognition that God is with us here and now – we don’t need to wait on him. You never face your problems alone when you pray about everything. Instead, each worry becomes an opportunity for prayer; each decision an invitation for God to guide you, each desire gets offered to God, and it may surprise you how many times God will answer your requests or at least give you the strength to continue. And, on a deeper level, prayer brings your life, your will, your inner person into line with God, who will slowly but surely become the source of your joy, rather than outer circumstances.
It’s this relationship of prayer that enables gratitude in all circumstances, not necessarily for what’s going on but for God who is with you whilst it is going on. Any good that happens in a day – no matter how small – should be held onto tightly, savoured, before being packaged in grateful prayer to God who is its source. ‘Hold fast to what is good’ as Paul says, and be a source of goodness to others so they may be grateful to God for who you are and what you offer to the world. The alternative is to complain and get bitter about your circumstances, feel isolated by them, which will ruin your wait and prevent you from recognizing God by your side. By praying without ceasing, by giving thanks in all circumstances, we will not wait to find joy in a distant and uncertain future, but rejoice as we wait – even in Advent.
Lord God, your Apostle Paul tells us to rejoice and to rejoice always. Taking him at his word we rejoice at your great love for us and that you hear us when we pray to you in faith.
We rejoice at the vision you give us of your kingdom and its values where peace and justice reign. We remember nations currently at war, peoples locked in civil strife, countries ravished by famine and drought. Raise up people in these places to relieve them of their suffering and to establish justice and peace, that all my rejoice at your love and compassion.
Lord hear us. Lord graciously hear us.
We rejoice at the vision you give us of the Church as the body of Christ. We give thanks for the ministry of Kevin our Bishop and of all who serve in your Son’s name. Stir up your gifts in us that we may play our part in the building of your kingdom and so inspire others to rejoice at your love and compassion for all.
Lord hear us. Lord graciously hear us.
We rejoice at the vision you give us of community in the Holy family and in the circle of the apostles and disciples. As they care for one another, so we ask you to call us to care for those in need around us in our families, neighbourhoods and towns. We pray for our sick: Christine, Ian, Les, Olive, Chris, Bill, John, Avril, Helga, Colin, and Margaret. We ask for your blessing on all doctors and nurses as they begin the enormous task of vaccinating people against Covid. We rejoice that you are a God who longs to heal us and to make us whole
Lord, hear us. Lord graciously hear us.
We rejoice at the vision you give us of your eternal Kingdom in heaven. We commend to you the souls of Barbara , Anne and Ruth, who have died recently, and we give thanks for the lives of Alison and Trevor , whose years minds fall this coming week. We pray that, as they rejoiced at your salvation on earth, so they may now rejoice at their salvation in heaven.
Lord hear us. Lord graciously hear us.
Lord God, we rejoice that you are ever present in our lives. And we thank you for giving us each new day in which we can glorify You by showing Your love, compassion and joy to all we meet, serving You to the best of our ability at home, at work, at pleasure and at prayer.
These and all our prayers we ask in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.