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1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Of the four scripture texts for the Third Sunday of Advent, which theme is Joy, and in which we are repeatedly called to rejoice, as in “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy,” (Psalm 126:3) and "I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God," (Isaiah 61:10) and "Rejoice always," (I Thessalonians 5:16), it probably isn't inevitable that those of us in the Wesleyan tradition would choose to preach from the text which calls for our entire sanctification, as in "Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely..." (1 Thess. 5:23, NASB). However, since this is the only time this text is read in the three-year cycle of readings, perhaps we should give it some consideration as our primary preaching point. Just a thought.

 

And perhaps we should preach about the possibility of being made holy "through and through" (NIV) on the third Sunday of Advent precisely because on this Sunday we are being called to joyfully look forward to the fulfillment of God's purposes. In Psalm 126, it was joy for the restoration of Israel. In Isaiah 61, it was joy for the promise of the redemption of Israel that would replace despair with praise and joy with sorrow. Indeed, the advent season may provide an opportunity for a much-needed corrective concerning some popular misunderstandings of being sanctified "wholly." (RSV)

 

So the Apostle Paul was concluding his letter to this beloved church, which was confused and anxious about the second advent of the Lord. These specific verses were instruction as to how to live in an uncertain world while waiting for the return of their Lord. For that reason, this instruction is always relevant.

 

To start, they were to rejoice always, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances, as this was the will of God. For the record, this is how John Wesley summed up Christian Perfection. From Wesley's notes on this passage, he wrote: "This is Christian Perfection. Further than this we cannot go; and we need not stop short of it." Of course, the only way possible for God's people to fulfill this clearly explicated will of God is if we have an unwavering trust in the goodness of God for us, and a confident hope in His purposes being realized in us. In other words, rejoicing always, praying continually, and giving thanks in all circumstances (note: not for all circumstances) is possible only through faith. These particular verses could serve as an important  corrective for those of us who are inclined to define holiness in certain prescribed behaviors. It is also an important corrective for those of us who are inclined to rejoice, and pray, and give thanks contingent on favorable circumstances. This is a call to trust in the promises and character of God.

 

They are then told to allow the Spirit to work among them, and to be carefully receptive to the word of the Lord. They were told to cling to whatever was good and reject every evil in whatever form it presented itself. (The word "eidous," translated in the KJV as "appearance," unfortunately, led to a separatist ethic, especially when holiness was defined behaviorally.) This was not a warning to avoid all those who were not holy; this was a warning to be conscious of all of the insidious ways that evil manifests itself in our own lives.

 

Just in case the Thessalonians thought these specific instructions were to be somehow realized by their own discipline or hard work, the Apostle Paul provided them the subsequent promise. Contrary to how this particular verse has been oftentimes preached or understood, this text is not a call for complete consecration. This text is a prayer and a promise. Being sanctified entirely, wholly, through and through, was not their work. No, it was the God of peace who would accomplish in them what He promised was possible, which was make them fully, completely, entirely, wholly, holy! It was God who would empower and enable the rejoicing, the continuous praying, and the giving thanks in all circumstances.

 

And just in case the Thessalonians thought these specific instructions impossible to be realized, the Apostle Paul promised that the Lord was fully able to do it (1 Thessalonians 5:24). It must be noted that this subsequent promise, that the Lord would be faithful, and that He would do it, presumes that they had not yet been so realized in these believers. Thus, what the Apostle Paul was calling them to was to believe in the possibility of being entirely sanctified, based on the faithful goodness of God. Entire sanctification was an eschatological hope, whose realization was made more likely prior precisely because of the call to faith in God.

 

So what if we preached this text as a promise to be believed, instead of as a requirement for acceptance? What if we preached this text as a call to faith, instead of a call to commitment? What if we preached this text as a specific promise to every believer that they could anticipate, in their person and being, the joy, and fellowship, and gratitude that will be theirs when the kingdom is fully realized?

 

So the first sentence of a message from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, to followers of Jesus who attend church on the third Sunday of Advent, which theme is joy, could be, "Let me tell you what God is doing in your life! So let's rejoice; let's pray, and let us be thankful!