Monday, December 15, 2014

Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "The Will of God"

Grace to you and peace. Amen. As our preparation for Jesus’ coming is marked by repentance—symbolized by the color purple in Advent—it is also marked by joy. On this third Sunday of Advent, it’s traditional to light the pink candle, which reminds us of joy—just as today’s epistle reading from 1 Thessalonians begins with “Rejoice always!” Joy at the celebration of Christ’s birth; joy at Christ’s continual gifts and presence among us; and joy at the anticipation of Jesus’ return in glory. A major theme of the letter to the Thessalonians, and especially the last two chapters, is how we prepare for the second coming of Jesus. The reading ends with a blessing that we be kept blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. So let’s reflect more deeply on how Paul calls us to prepare for Jesus’ coming.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Had you ever reflected on the thought that God’s will for you in Christ Jesus was for your life to be joyful, prayerful, and thankful to God? Had you thought of God’s will in those terms? More often we tend to think of God’s will for our lives as being a certain mysterious checklist of who to marry, where to live, what job or career to pursue, and maybe even a much more specific set of details about our life. And we fret over trying to figure out which decision is supposedly God’s will for our life, and making sure not to mess it up. Of course it’s a very good practice to pray over and seek God’s guidance when making big decisions in life—but we should recognize that God gives us a great deal of freedom in our pursuits in life. Living within God’s will is much more about obeying His commands and trusting in Jesus, the Son of God, with joy, prayer, and thanksgiving, than it is about discerning a special step-by-step pattern of instructions, as if our life were some invisible maze.
A couple of other key Scriptures speak about God’s will for us: just a chapter earlier, in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, it says that “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles, who do not know God”. Here we learn that God’s will is our sanctification—for God to bring about His holiness in our lives for His purposes. And specifically this sanctification includes leading lives of sexual purity and self-control, so as not to sin against ourselves or others. In John 6:40, Jesus also speaks of God’s will, saying, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” God’s will is that we would believe in Jesus and have eternal life in Him. From just these three passages, we find the will of God for us is surprisingly simple, and even somewhat generic. God desires us to believe in Jesus, to lead a sanctified and self-controlled life according to His commandments, and that our life be joyful, prayerful, and thankful to God.
Provided that we’re trusting in Jesus and living inside the boundaries of God’s Law, there’s a remarkable freedom to use and discover your God given talents for innumerable God-pleasing endeavors. There are broad possibilities to explore for your life, within God’s will. Consider why God has given some people artistic talents, others skills in math or science, or music, or communication and writing, or inventiveness and design, or any number of other talents. They may be natural talents or simply need to be developed, learned, practiced, and perfected like any other ability. He has given us great freedom to use our lives to glorify Him, as we live according to His commandments, and God has a purpose for all that He has given you.
But how does our life take on this shape of constant rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving? After all, our joy may often seem in short supply—perhaps for some, this is even especially true around the holidays. Loneliness, busy-ness, or stress might all conspire to steal our joy. And our attention to prayer at any given time may hardly seem to be described as “without ceasing.” Even when we put our minds to prayer, we often find ourselves interrupted or distracted. And thanksgiving in all circumstances? There are undoubtedly many times when we’ve wrongly felt as though we had nothing to be thankful for. If these things describe you—do you feel like God’s will is hopelessly out of your reach? If these are commands for you to achieve—powered under your own steam—it might seem so.
But skip ahead for a moment to the end of the reading, and read the closing verses. 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24 “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” Who is it that performs this sanctifying work in you? Is it your own spiritual “do-it-yourself” project, like I mentioned last week? A frustrating do-it-yourself project where you always have the wrong tools or don’t have the supplies you need, are never making your deadlines or are constantly disappointed by the quality of your work? If you hear these verses that way, no wonder it would sound hopelessly out of reach. But no, this is not your self-improvement project—it is God’s work. The God of peace. And the God of peace has the “tools” the “supplies” and His own timeline to finish your sanctification completely. His peace that surpasses all understanding pours down on us constantly, through the forgiveness of our sins, assuring all who repent and turn to Jesus Christ, that He has made us right with God through His death on the cross.
God is preparing your whole spirit, soul, and body to be kept blameless for Jesus’ Christ’s coming. His goal is your total sanctification, and the deadline, the day of completion, is Jesus’ Christ coming, when you will be raised with a glorious, perfected body, free from sin, by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Though your experience of sanctification may often seem like forward and then backward progress; like the ups and downs of life; or even like repeatedly starting over on square one—God has His timeline for completion, God is able to correct the mistakes you’ve made, and God is going to bring it to perfect completion, according to His standards. That means with nothing half-finished or left undone, but a life remade entirely in the image of Jesus Christ. The restoration of the goodness and wholeness of His original creation. He is the One who is going to deliver you to that day in Jesus Christ—hear those blessed words again: He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.
Along the way God certainly doesn’t want to encounter our willful resistance. Though it’s a given that our sinful nature is warring against the new spiritual nature in us (Rom. 7), God doesn’t want us to grieve the Holy Spirit within us. We heard in the reading, this admonition: “Do not quench the Spirit, Do not despise prophecies,  but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” This short list of admonitions could be a whole other sermon by itself. To “quench” means to “put out”, extinguish, or eliminate. How would we “quench the Holy Spirit?” By constantly ignoring His work within us, by willfully identifying with the “old self”, living contrary to God’s will, rather than identifying with the new self that you have put on in Christ Jesus. God gives us His Holy Spirit so that we can do the very opposite, to put off the old self and put on the new. When He calls us to His will—it is to a life of purity—a life of sanctification, where He sets about the repair work, the forgiving, and the shaping of our will, so that it seeks His holy desires, and lives joyfully, prayerfully, and thankfully in His grace.
Do not despise prophecies. We often get hung up on the idea of prophecies only referring to some sort of prediction of the future. And while the Biblical term certain includes this, it has a much wider meaning. In 1 Corinthians 14:3, Paul says “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” Now this can certainly happen in a sermon, where God’s Word is spoken for our building up, encouragement, and comfort. Here we might remember Luther’s explanation of the 3rd commandment—that we ought not “despise preaching and God’s Word.” But prophecy is not merely the sermon; it can happen when any Christian applies the Word of God to our present time or circumstances. When a Christian speaks a word of God that builds up, encourages, or comforts their fellow brothers and sisters, they are prophesying. They’re speaking God’s Truth to our life. Men and women in the Bible, Old and New Testament, were given the gift of prophecy, and used it to build up God’s people. But always, as we receive these prophecies, we’re reminded also to test them against God’s Word. If something is contrary to, or goes beyond God’s Word, we should avoid it—but hold fast to what is good. God’s Word—spoken to us by a brother or sister in Christ—tested and genuine, should not be despised, but recognized as the work of the Holy Spirit in that person.
Abstain from every form of evil. We should never think that some forms of evil are harmless to “dabble in.” Any sin can become a wedge for the devil to try to pry us apart from the new nature in us. Any sin can become his foothold or toehold to climb into our life and wreak some havoc. So avoid any kind of evil. Be watchful and resist the devil and temptation.
It’s fitting again to return to the closing thought of our reading. That “the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus shed His blood on the cross so that we could be at peace with God, and He is coming again one day to see through to completion this process of sanctification that He has begun in you. The Holy Spirit is the deposit, the down payment, or the guarantee that the work has begun in earnest. Have confidence in God that He is going to bring it to full completion. Repent of your sins and joyfully follow His calling. And with constant joy, prayer, and thanksgiving to God, meditate on God’s promise for your life: “He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving are themes that run all through the letter of 1 Thessalonians. In what kind of circumstances did Paul commend them to these things? 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:1, 9; 3:3-10. When is it hardest to give thanks? Job 1:21. Who is the source of true joy? How do we pray without ceasing? What are you thankful for?
  2. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul says that this rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving are God’s will for us in Christ Jesus. What else does Scripture teach is God’s will for us? 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; Matthew 18:14; John 6:38-40.
  3. Paul urges us not to quench the Spirit. What does this mean? Ephesians 4:30; 1 Corinthians 6:18-20. What is the Holy Spirit’s work within us?
  4. “Prophecy” is a broader term than just speaking about the future. How does Paul describe the gift of prophecy? 1 Corinthians 14:3-5. How do everyday Christians “prophesy?” All prophecy or teaching of God’s Word must always be _____? 1 Thessalonians 5:21a; 1 John 4:1-6.
  5. We are to “abstain” or keep away from every form of evil. What are the small or great temptations to evil that you face personally? To whom do we turn to resist them? Ephesians 6:10-11; 1 Peter 5:8-9.
  6. To be sanctified or made holy is whose work? 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24; Philippians 2:12-13. What great comfort is there in knowing that God is the One who completes our salvation and sanctification? What does His great power accomplish in our lives?
  7. How do all these instructions make us ready for Jesus’ coming?

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