Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent – December 13, 2020
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Many years ago in my previous congregation I had a parishioner named Roscoe. Roscoe was in his nineties when he got the diagnosis which would eventually end his long life. I had heard that the news wasn’t good, and so I went to see him and his wife Ruby. I sat down on the couch across from their matching recliners. “Well, what did you hear, Roscoe?” I asked. And he said, “Hallelujah! I’ve got bone cancer.”
Now let me tell you what this proclamation was not: It was not a proclamation from a man who wanted to die. Just months before we had celebrated Roscoe and Ruby’s 75th wedding anniversary, at which Roscoe spent most of the time with his hand on his wife’s bottom – so he still had a verve for life! This proclamation was not pious posturing for the pastor. Roscoe was about as down-to-earth as they come, which is one of the reasons I loved him so much. Nor did this proclamation come out of a Pollyannaish optimism, as though he was convinced he would beat it somehow or that it was no big deal.
So why did he say it? What in the heck moves someone to say, “Hallelujah! I’ve got bone cancer.” To be honest, I wasn’t sure myself when I first heard him say it. It sounded kind of jarring to me at first, as it may have to you when I told you what he said. I’m used to people expressing fear or lament or even anger – all of which are perfectly normal and even biblical responses to such things. So why did he make this shocking proclamation?
Roscoe wasn’t rejoicing that he had bone cancer. He was rejoicing in spite of the fact that he had it. “Hallelujah” literally means “Praise to God” in Hebrew. Roscoe wasn’t praising God because he had bone cancer, he was praising God that he had God in the midst of his bone cancer! He had something that was bigger than the cancer, even bigger than the prospect of death. And so he could rejoice, he could give praise to God – not because of his diagnosis, but in spite of it.
“Rejoice always,” St. Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonika. “Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will in Christ Jesus for you.” St. Paul is writing to a group of Christians who are facing all kinds of hardship. These are mostly Gentile Christians living in the capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia. Neither their neighbors nor the authorities took too kindly to their new faith in the Christos, the Christ. Many of these Christians were harassed. Some had their property seized. Some were barred from practicing their trades. Others were shunned by their own families. Some faced violence and even death. And not only that, but some of their church members were dying, which sparked some serious theological questions and spiritual angst for many of them. This is the context in which St. Paul is writing to them. It is in this setting that he exhorts them, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will in Christ Jesus for you.”
How can they rejoice in the midst of all that? Is this some cruel joke from Paul? Some impossible demand? No! They can rejoice because they have a God who is bigger than every difficulty they face. They can rejoice because Christ has come and is coming again. They can rejoice because God is at work in them even in the midst of all they’re dealing with. In fact, it is God himself who will lead them to rejoice. As Paul writes, “May the God of peace 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.” And so while it is indeed an exhortation to rejoice always, it is an exhortation that is ultimately fulfilled by Christ himself as his Spirit stirs our hearts to rejoice.
We have a lot in common with the Christians in Thessalonika. While we are not anywhere near the persecutions our ancestors in faith experienced and I don’t want to encourage a victim mentality, the reality is that there is a growing hostility to Christianity and to Christians in our culture today. Christian faith, or lack thereof, is sometimes a source of tension or even division within families. In our own time people have been prevented from pursuing their livelihoods because they have been cancelled by the culture. The pandemic has caused its own host of problems. Unemployment records were broken again this week. As a nation we had a grim new record of the highest number of COVID deaths in a single day. More and more people are sounding the alarm about pandemic-related problems of mental health crises, suicide, bankruptcy, domestic violence, and divorce. Even if none of that has touched you personally, it is hard not to feel anxiety and angst about what is happening. And with all of that going on, there are still the daily struggles people have been dealing with for millennia: relationship problems, financial problems, health problems.
“Rejoice always.” Really Paul?
It is normal and human to be afraid from time to time. It is okay, within certain parameters, to be angry – the prophets were! It is okay to lament – the writers of the psalms certainly do! It is okay to weep – Jesus did.
But never forget that you have reason to rejoice. For you have a God who is bigger than every problem you face. You have a God who has come to you in Jesus Christ to forgiven your sins and call you to a new, abundant life, and he is coming again to finish the job, to make all things new! You have a God who is even now sanctifying you entirely, so that your spirit and soul and body will be kept sound and blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Even when the ache and the anxiety of life in this broken world is all the way down in your bones, you have reason to rejoice. You too will find yourself blurting out an unexpected “Hallelujah,” for the one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church