Summary: Paul exhorts us to "rejoice always." True joy and rejoicing is a gift recieved vis-a-vis our relationship with Christ.
Sermon for Advent III, Yr B Dec 15, 2002
Based on I Thess 5:16
Grace Lutheran Church, Medicine Hat
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
A woman was sitting on her living room couch one day when a black snake slithered past. The woman, who was deathly afraid of snakes, dashed to the bathroom to get her husband from the shower. He grabbed a towel around his waist and rushed into the living room with a broom. Using the handle, he began to poke under the couch trying to get the snake out.
The sleeping family dog woke up and wondered what all the commotion was about. He touched his nose to the back of the man’s foot. The man jumped, thinking he had been bitten by the snake and passed out. His wife, believing her husband had had a heart attack, called 911 and ran to the hospital a block away.
The ambulance drivers who arrived shortly afterward hurried in and placed the husband on a stretcher. As they carried him out, the snake reappeared from under the couch. One attendant who was also deathly afraid of snakes dropped the stretcher and ran. The husband then fell on to the floor and broke his leg. Seeing his twisted leg, his wife, who had just arrived home, fainted. The remaining attendant watched as the snake slithered out the open front door. It was just one of those days....1
Have you ever had “one of those days?” You know, those days when you “wake up on the wrong side of the bed,” marking the beginning of a chain of events that go downhill from there--nothing seems to work out, everything is a mess, chaotic, and fails. Sometimes it’s not merely “one of those days,” it continues relentlessly on, and becomes “one of those weeks,” or worse yet, “one of those months,” or worse yet, “one of those years.” It’s kind of like that old adage, “If it wasn’t for back luck, I’d have no luck at all.”
However, we Christians are not suspicious, we do not believe in bad or good luck. Ours is a faith, a trust in God who has a purpose for all things in life--good, bad, or otherwise, whether we understand it or not. Today in our second lesson, the apostle Paul admonishes all would-be followers of Jesus; listing several attitudes and behaviours necessary for the health and well-being of any individual and congregation. The one attitude and behaviour that jumped out at me was the opening verse of our second lesson--it says a tremendous amount in only two words: “Rejoice always.” As I reflected on those two instructive words of Paul in relation to what he says along with them; the first thing that struck me was that I personally do not live up to these words. I fail miserably some days. How is one able to rejoice always? It seems, at face value, an impossible task or attitude to reach.
Yet, this is the third Sunday in Advent, in the old days, referred to as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin, meaning to rejoice. The focus today is that of joy. Yet, we struggle with that, don’t we? How is it possible to be full of joy all the time. Bad and even evil things happen to people, including us. Is Paul some naive, head in the clouds dreamer when he exhorts us to “rejoice always?” Is his instruction here so heavenly minded that it’s of no earthly benefit to us? In one respect, I would answer yes and no. Yes, Paul was an intellectual giant of the early church and thus had the inclination towards being idealistic at times. Yes, too in the sense that Paul, for a time probably sincerely believed that heaven was coming soon because Jesus was going to be coming again for a second time very soon. Paul, it seems, for a time anyways, believed and expected Jesus to come, probably in his lifetime. I would also answer no, Paul was not some overly naive, head in the clouds dreamer. Nor was he totally heavenly minded when he instructs the Thessalonians and us to “rejoice always.” He was a man who knew the ways of this world, and learned much in his life through the school of suffering. Much of his instruction to Gentile congregations is full and rich with very practical wisdom and insights into the human condition and the complex, multidimensional nature of human relationships.
What Paul IS NOT saying here when he admonishes us to rejoice always is that we lay a guilt trip on people; pressuring them into being joyful OR ELSE! NO! That’s not what Paul means at all. He is not clobbering us over the head or stuffing joy down our throats with the law. Unfortunately, for some Christians there may be considerable negative baggage around joy. Instead of joy being a precious gift to us; it becomes an oppressive monster, insisting that one is not a Christian unless they are always feeling happy and joyful. This attitude is a perversion of true joy and rejoicing. It seems to me that it produces a phony, shallow, hypocritical joy, which is useless when the going gets tough.