1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.
23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.
When Mandy and I were engaged, we went through premarriage counseling with one of my professors at the Seminary. It’s something I ask all engaged couples to do. It’s just a good idea before you get married to take some time and learn from the one who created marriage, how it is going to work out well in your life. During that class, I remember a list of instructions and encouragements. And one of the items was: avoid “always” and “never.” Those two words don’t lead down a good road for a marriage. They are hyperbolic, exaggerations. Sometimes you could say “them be fightin’ words.” They go to the extreme and make a situation worse than it actually is. You say something like, “You are never home when you say you will be.” “You always forget to change the toilet paper roll when it’s empty.” In reality, you were home late 2 or 3 times last week or you forgot to restock the toilet paper roll once or twice recently. When you use words like always and never, it’s not quite accurate and it heightens tension.
In this section for God’s Word today, the Apostle Paul is giving some instructions in this letter that he first sent to a group of Christians in Thessalonica. These are quick phrases, almost like Paul is running out of room as he gets the end of this parchment or scroll. “Pray continually. Give thanks! Don’t quench the Spirit…” And right there at the beginning is “Rejoice always.” He uses one of the sweeping hyperboles that you just shouldn’t use.
He has to be exaggerating, right? There is no possible way that God would have Paul write down in the Bible that we need to rejoice always, be happy all the time. Doesn’t he know what kind of world we live in? Maybe he doesn’t understand the kind of 21st Century problems that are consuming us day by day: mass shootings, bigotry, political divides deeper than the Grand Canyon, financial insecurity, bullying, suppression against all types of races and religions, sexual harassment and abuse, the promiscuous and immoral ideologies about sexuality, the idolization of Hollywood, the greed, the lust, the hate – shall I go on? When Paul wrote this, it was a different time. It must have been an easier time.
Well, the same kind of people who put Jesus to death were still trying to remove his name from the earth. That meant wherever they heard rumblings of houses or gatherings where Jesus was being preached and taught, there they were to threaten, pressure, put down, and persecute. How would you live if you knew being here might mean you’d would have a target on your back, you could lose your job, your house could be vandalized or burglarized, your family could be in danger, or worse?
Or is Paul one of those guys who is telling this fledgling group of believers and us that we should spend a day in his shoes? Is he saying, “You have those little problems. You can imagine what I’ve been through. I’ve been beaten, stoned, imprisoned, shipwrecked, shackled so many times. I’m literally in danger wherever I go. I cannot escape the price on my head. Seriously, you guys should just relax and count your blessings. You guys should be content that you don’t have it like me. You have every reason to be happy. You guys should enjoy your life. Rejoice always, because you have it pretty good.”
Is this just a Paul thing? Is he the only Bible-writer that thinks we can “always look on the bright side of life?” Actually, Peter says something pretty similar: “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ…” It’s in the Old Testament, too: “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.” And “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Even if this is day where you are facing a huge mess, even if you are in the lowest point of your life, it’s still a time to be happy. Jesus, himself, had this to say, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad.”
The whole Bible is full of this kind of language, and every time you come a cross it, does it make sense? In every circumstance, all the time we are supposed to rejoice? How is that possible? How can I rejoice when I don’t understand what is going on in my life, or when I don’t know how to do what is asked of me, when I’m not sure what the next stage has in store, or when my beliefs might get me in trouble? “Rejoice always? Tell me how.”
Maybe it’s not a bunch of questions that come to mind when you hear this, but it is the heaps of past unhappiness. God says “rejoice always,” and the guilt starts to weigh you down because you can probably remember a whole bunch of times when rejoicing and happiness was the last thing on your mind. You don’t have a smile on your face when the kids are being less then helpful. You don’t have a smile on your face when you see the gas prices rising. You don’t have a smile on your face when you see the lines at the store or someone in the line behind you is the chatty type and you have a headache. You don’t have a smile on your face when you or a loved one gets a tough call from the doctor.
Is that type of stuff a sin? In light of these words, “rejoice always,” is it a sin to be sad, to deal with depression, to be grumpy, or to react negatively? Our knee-jerk response would be, “No! You’re speaking metaphorically. You are using a hyperbole. You’re exaggerating.”
But don’t be so quick to say that. If I’m sad because I have come to the realization that I am not in control of my life, then my sadness is a symptom of a sin called idolatry. I want to be in control, I want the power, I want to be the god of my earthly life, which means God has to take a back seat. That sadness is breaking the first commandment. If I’m sad because someone else is causing me pain and “what in the world is wrong with them and I wish they would just stop or I wish I could shut them up for a while,” then my sadness shows that I’m not loving others as I should. I’m not being the humble servant God wants me to be. If I’m sad because my life is not as easy as them and “I just wish I could get ahead and have a few of the things they had,” then my sadness shows that I’ve got some greed and lust and coveting in my heart. In these situations, God’s Word shows us that we have some work to do.
We can also turn this encouragement into an oppression that never allows real joy. Instead, we just feel the pressure. “If I’m a Christian I always have to be happy. I always have to have a smile on my face and tears are not allowed. I have to prove my faith with my joy.”
But God had Paul record this, not to be an oppressive law to follow or to heap a load of guilt onto our shoulders, but for one main reason. God wants to draw attention to the improbable and impressive gift we have from his loving heart. In fact, this gift is so incredible that it can cause rejoicing and happiness every minute of every day God gives us on this little third rock from the sun.
The one way to rejoice always does not come from the physical blessings I have (or the ones you are hoping to have in 8 days). It does not come from the other sinners taking up space next to me for a few decades on this little third rock from the sun. Rejoicing does not come from the triumphs and success I have produced with my skills and efforts. Rejoicing does not come from the positive emotions that swell so much I just can’t keep them in any longer. The one way to rejoice always comes from the one who is with us.
Do you ever see those videos of a soldier coming back from duty? The wife and kids are jacked out of their minds to be with their dad or mom again. Do you think that soldier who is a father of two kids that are finally in his arms is upset or sad at that moment if he finds out all his luggage is lost? Not a chance. He his rejoicing because of who he is with. Do you think those kids are bummed out because of a bad grade or bullies at school? No. They are rejoicing because of who they are with. To rejoice always is not so much about positive emotions or favorable circumstances, but it’s about who is with you.
This time of year is an overwhelming reminder of who that is. It’s not a funny snowman. It’s not a jolly man from the North Pole. It’s not an elf on the shelf. It’s not a red-nosed reindeer. It’s not Clark Griswold or Ralphie Parker. This advent tune we just sang tells the story. Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to you oh Israel. You have a God who came here to be with us, even in the rotten, sinful world, he came to be here with us so that we could be with him forever in heaven. That song reminds us that Jesus once came to be with us to save us from our unhappy wretchedness, to save us from our sinful sadness, to save us from an eternity of doom and gloom. He was happy to do it, not because you earned it with your sunny disposition or positive outlook, but because of he loves you that much and he wants to be with you.
Isn’t that reason to rejoice every day and always? Your God came to be with you and promised to never leave you or forsake you until he returns to take you home. That makes a merry Christmas. That makes a Happy New Year. That makes a gleeful Groundhog’s day. That makes ever single day of your life a day of rejoicing.
And how does that rejoicing take shape? Today, Paul is not advocating that in every and any circumstance you are ready to burst into the Hallelujah chorus. But…but, the God who is with us gives us endless opportunities to rejoice always. Maybe it’s your disposition, how you carry yourself and how people would describe your attitude and temperament. Maybe it’s your volunteerism. Maybe it’s your giving heart. Maybe it’s your positive encouragement. Maybe it’s your patience and loyalty. But we all have a way, in our own God-given way, to rejoice because God is with us in every single situation you have ever been in and every situation you will ever face in your entire lifetime on this little third rock from the sun.
And so if the day comes where you have to call me to the hospital, rejoice always because God is with us with the gift of his Son. If you are looking at the impending December 24th with a little anxiety because this is the first one where grandpa or mom isn’t there, rejoice always because God is there with his assurance that not even death can separate us from his love in Christ. When you are sulking in the darkness of your sin, when you are overcome with the thought that God might not be on your side, when you are hard-pressed with guilt, rejoice always because God proved he is with you when he left heaven for a feed box, for a brutal death, for an empty tomb that opens heaven for, as Paul says, even the worst of sinners.
Today, this is not hyperbole and exaggeration. You and I have reason to rejoice always because it is not dependent on us. After all these final instructions, do you recall how Paul ends this section? The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. If you want to know the one way to be happy always, it’s right there: God is with us and always will be. Amen.