Summary: What Does God Want for Christmas? Genuine Optimism
All I want for Christmas is…my two front teeth…a laptop…a pet hamster…a power saw…to see my family… How would you finish that sentence? If I gave you ten seconds right now, I’m sure you could come up with a Christmas wish-list that’s half a page long. You may know what you want for Christmas but have you ever considered what God wants? The Apostle Paul tells us in our sermon text when he wrote to Christians living in the Greek city of Thessalonica: “Be joyful always; 17 pray continually; 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
What does God want for Christmas? He wants genuine optimism. That shouldn’t be too tough to deliver - especially not at this time of year. Everyone’s in a good mood at Christmas! Well, no, not everyone. If you’ve recently lost your job or a loved one, Christmas can be a particularly painful time of year. And the thing is God wants us to be joyful always, not just at Christmas. He wants us to give thanks in all circumstances – even in the difficult ones. But how am I supposed to give thanks when the doctors can’t figure out why I keep getting headaches? How am I supposed to be joyful when I have to work on Christmas? Perhaps the poet, James Lowell, was right when he said, “An optimist is a guy who has never had much experience.”
But Lowell never met the Apostle Paul. Paul had been beaten, imprisoned, and shipwrecked and yet he continued to rejoice and give thanks to God in every situation. Think of what he was doing when he had been jailed in Philippi. He and his sidekick Silas sang hymns to God! (Acts 16) Is that what you would do if you had been falsely arrested – lead your cellmates in a rousing rendition of “Amazing Grace”? Wouldn’t you, instead, protest your innocence and angrily demand a lawyer?
Why was Paul such an optimist? Why did he encourage the persecuted Thessalonians and now us to be optimists…because no one likes a crybaby? That may be true but Paul gives us a better reason than that for genuine optimism in every situation. Paul said: rejoice and give thanks in all situations because “this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). If Rayann is like most babies, she’ll sleep…well like a baby after she’s been fed and bundled into her warm crib. Her sister Evylyn can tear around the house; her mom and dad can bang pots and pans in the kitchen and none of this should disturb Rayann. She has everything she needs. She’s safe. She’s content. She’s happy. Now through holy baptism Rayann has been wrapped in Jesus’ embrace. She has been filled with forgiveness and the certainty of an eternal life of happiness after death. And so even if her whole world comes crashing down around her, she will have reason to rejoice and to give thanks: she’s safe in Jesus’ arms – and so is every one of you, for Jesus died and rose for all.
“That’s a nice picture, Pastor, but everyone knows that babies can be disturbed.” You’re right. So can believers. Look at how the Apostle Paul himself suffered. And so I don’t want to give you the impression, Loraine and Justin, that just because you’ve had Rayann baptized that you’ve somehow secured an invisible shield around your baby that no harm will ever come to her. She’ll still catch colds and probably worse. So how can we be genuine optimists then? Because we also know that God will use every difficulty for the eternal good of those who are “in Christ.”
That truth is illustrated in an interesting way in Psalm 84. In the middle of that psalm we read: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. 6 As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. 7 They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion” (Psalm 84:5-7). The psalmist is describing believers in Old Testament times making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where they were intent on worshipping God. Their journey, however, took them through the wilderness and it wasn’t easy. That’s not unlike our lives in this sin-filled world. It often feels like we’re just going from one crisis to the next and hanging on by our fingernails and getting weaker and more tired by the minute. But such is not the case. The psalmist says that believers “go from strength to strength” until they finally appear before God (Psalm 84:7). How can this be? Well, think of what happens when you’re in the midst of a crisis. When your best efforts have failed to remedy the situation where do you turn? You turn to God in prayer, don’t you (though this should have been the first thing we did)? You also turn to God’s Word for comfort. Whenever we take time to be in God’s Word our faith is strengthened and our burden suddenly becomes lighter because we’ve been reminded that God is carrying it for us, and is also carrying us through the crisis. Like a car stopping to fill up at a gas station, life’s crises are God-given opportunities to pause and fill up our faith so that we drive away stronger, not weaker. (Sarah Habben) Why can you be a genuine optimist? Because “in Christ” believers go from strength to strength on their drive to heaven.