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1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Good advice is good advice, no matter the label you put on it: positive psychology, self-help, proverbs, wisdom tradition or hacks. None of us seems to be so confident that we do not have an occasional question about how we should respond to challenging situations. Slate’s Dear Prudence has replaced the syndicated Dear Abby and her twin sister Ann Landers, and the questions keep coming. In this sense, Christians are no different than anyone else at any time in history. We were created to live in community, in fellowship, in consultation with others—all the more so in times of change.

The Thessalonians were changing as they learned to follow Christ. They were deeply beloved by Paul and he uses the images of family connections to establish his voice among them. It is his parental affection that motivates this letter, especially its closing. He longs for them to live in a trajectory toward their ultimate goal: The Day of the Lord. He doesn’t want their uncertainty about the details to derail them from the daily journey toward their ultimate destination, and he doesn’t want them to minimize the significance of each and every day. His advice to them takes nothing from the mystery and minimizes nothing about the daily grind. It elaborates on the Kingdom of God in the present in the context of the Kingdom of God to come.

So how are we to understand Paul’s pithy proverbs amidst the complications of our pandemic problems? It is important that we understand his advice to be at the forest level, big enough to hold each and every tree, including those you and I are facing in our various representations of 2020.

Rejoice always-life has a rhythm: rising and falling, birth and death, coming and going, holding and releasing, and to everything there is a season (Ecc. 3). Which is not to say that what we are living is “normal.” For us, it is anything but life as usual. But our experience within human history is not unique, either. We fight the curse of sin and death, spiritually and physically, over and over again. And we are challenged to keep a sense of balance between what is seen and unseen, what is present and what is yet to come. Paul has earlier addressed death and its relationship to resurrection because he knows this is on their minds as they try to comprehend the Day of the Lord (4:13-18). In the midst of the fullness of life, we are a tangle of complicated emotion: in mourning, there are vital memories; in conflict there is the release of resolution; in disability there are moments of amazement; in pain there is the soothing presence of angels who sometimes wear facemasks. I know this because a little boy who lost his ability to use his legs this week testified, “When I pray I feel the angels around me.” This is reason to rejoice—because God’s messengers are around us and we are not alone, even when we are having trouble feeling God ourselves. Sometimes we find the joy in ourselves, and sometimes we find it buried in the stories of others, but we find ourselves stirred to rejoicing. Paul wants us to be attentive and hold on to joy, though it may be bittersweet at times.

Pray without ceasing-God is not distant. When we suffer God is near to bear the pain with us (Isaiah 53). When we are confused, God promises wisdom to move forward (James 1). When we are tempted God will provide a way out (1 Cor. 10:13). When we are conflicted, Christ is not our way to peace, but IS our peace (Eph. 2:14). And so we keep the lines of communication open from our side by sharing our thoughts, whatever they may be, with God, to receive compassion and mercy and to be able to give it.

Give thanks in all circumstances-Gratitude is self-healing. Research tells us that gratitude changes our brains, no matter how low we go.[i] It releases us from getting stuck in our own downward spiral. The scientific verification of our need to say Thank You only reinforces the beautiful way God designed for us to be interdependent in our experience of life.

We might see those three pieces of advice leading us to focus inward toward a wellspring of joy, focus upward toward our awareness of God at all times, and focus outward toward goodness that is given to us through no effort of our own.

To not quench the Spirit presumes a radical openness to God’s grace and activity in its many forms. It also presumes that the movement of the Spirit is discernable and requires attention. This is the counterpoint to Paul’s message to Timothy to “fan into flame” the gift of God, not of fear but of power, of love, and of self-control (2Timothy 1). We are not powerless, though we are to be humble and hardworking (v.14) for we are no longer slaves to sin, nor to our own habits of mind (Rom. 12:2). Instead, we are to test what others would have us believe, what they tell us about the future. Paul encourages critical thinking and caution in what we retain—and in what we reject. This Christian life is not about getting on the bandwagon, about falling into logical fallacies, or getting caught up in name-calling. We are to act with sound mind and sober judgement, testing everything, and clinging to what is good— all of us, even the pessimists and realists. This is not positive thinking on steroids, but it is encouragement to be fixed upon what is ultimately noble, right, pure, and even lovely (Phil. 4:8) with disciplined intentionality.

In short, we are to be sanctified wholly—set apart from the natural, devastating effects of sin on our hearts, our souls, our minds. And while our bodies cannot escape the mortality sin wrought upon us, we are promised that these vessels will be resurrected in the Day of the Lord, toward which Paul admonishes us set our course. In that there is hope, though we walk through dark shadows.

But it would be a grave mistake to believe that we can accomplish this healthy and fearless lifestyle by our own determination. While we grow through exercising our cooperation, Paul makes it clear that God, in God’s own faithfulness, will cause the growth to happen.

It would also be a grave mistake to call out Paul’s admonishments in isolation to shame each other or to encourage band-aid responses to deep wounds in our lives or to respond to poisonous daily experiences. Advent calls us to consider the fullness of humanity of Christ, who shows us a life that was afflicted as we are, was fully sympathetic with our condition, who fought against injustice in all its ugly expressions and who also walks with us to enable a healthy life lived according to the call of God even when the world may seem to be falling apart around us. We are given wholeness in order to bring healing to those around us and expand the reach of the light of Christ.

There are no shortcuts in the journey toward Christlikeness, though there are short phrases in Scripture like those found here to help us keep the main things the main things as we walk towards a more and more fully revealed Kingdom of God. As you came, Lord Jesus, come now and teach us how to live on earth as we look toward Heaven.

[i] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain

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