Paul certainly had lofty ideals for the Christian Church. At the beginning of his first letter to Thessalonica’s Christians, he describes the Church as a community loved and chosen by God. That community, the apostle adds, draws its life from God and lives that life with faith, love and hope.
When Paul concludes this letter with some words about the community that is the church, he primarily compares her to a family. This family’s members, he writes, recognize and treat each other like sisters and brothers.
After all, if, for Jesus’ sake, God is our heavenly Father, then our fellow believers are our sisters and brothers in Christ. So Jesus’ followers not only belong to “the day,” we also belong, in a real sense, to each other.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul describes his vision for worship. While that may not be obvious, biblical scholars like John Stott and R.P. Martin are quite adamant that these verses describe worship.
First, says the apostle, Christian worship is always “joyful.” That doesn’t mean that it’s always “happy-clappy,” as my Dutch Christian friend likes to say. Sometimes, in fact, worship is somber or even stern. Meaningful worship never simply ignores the various emotions we bring here on Sunday.
However, worship is still always characterized by the deep-seated glad celebration of God’s faithful goodness that no circumstance can shake. Every worship service should be a celebration of what God has done and given us through Christ.
Christians who live under the triple thunder clouds of a global pandemic, racial injustice and political turmoil may find that difficult to envision during Advent, 2020. We, after all, live in a world that is decidedly unhappy. Joy may feel in shorter supply than hand sanitizer and toilet paper right now.
That’s a reason why Paul’s call to joyful worship is so appropriate and needed. Worship recognizes the deep uncertainty and pain that marks not only our world, but also many Christian worshipers. But it also reminds us that God is faithful, in spite of our circumstances. If we doubt that, we need look little further than what God did in sending God’s Son Jesus to heal all of our brokenness.
Christian worship is also, however, marked, according to verse 17, by prayer. We pray for people and their concerns, not only on Sunday, but also throughout the week. In worship Christians pray for members of our churches, those both nearby and faraway. We also pray for the leaders, faithfulness, unity and mission of God’s church throughout the world.
In worship, however, Jesus’ followers pray too for the nations, their leaders and governments, as well as their freedom and justice. We also pray for missions, perhaps especially among people and in places resistant to gospel. God’s beloved children worship pray, too, for peace and environmental stewardship throughout the world. We also pray for people who are poor, oppressed, hungry, homeless and sick.
I personally am indebted to one worship scholar whose advice shapes my own public prayers in worship. While I don’t remember his or her name, I remember the “template” he or she established for public prayers. That scholar says those who lead prayers in worship might be well-served to remember to pray for God’s local and global church, as well as our local and global neighbors.
However, Paul also notes that Christian worship services are also characterized, in the third place, by the thankfulness to which verse 18 refers. Certainly God’s adopted sons and daughters give thanks to God for God’s countless material and spiritual blessings. As part of our weekly celebration of Christ’s resurrection, we celebrate and thank God for God’s gracious gift to our world and us of Jesus Christ.
Of course, Jesus’ followers don’t thank God for all circumstances, even though we know that God always turns them for our good. Instead, in worship Christians can and should thank God in all circumstances, whatever happens.
Yet Christians may not always feel like praising, praying or giving God thanks in worship. Our circumstances may not encourage such gratitude. Yet we always praise, pray and thank God in our worship. For this is, as Paul writes in verse 18, “God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
It’s not God’s will for God’s dearly beloved people, however, just because God deserves our thanks. Thanksgiving is also part of God’s loving will for us because it’s among the things for which God created us. Christians are at our best when we’re thanking God for all of God’s countless blessings.
In the fourth place, as Paul implies in verses 20-22, we also listen to God’s Word in worship. After all, we don’t, as he notes, in verse 20, “treat prophecies with contempt.” Instead of rejecting them out of hand, God’s beloved people listen to God’s messages and messengers.
We hear God’s message, of course, primarily in the Bible. So the Scriptures, whether as part of our call to worship, confession, assurance, prayer or Bible reading, are central in Christian worship. However, God has also given some brothers and sisters in Christ insight into the Bible itself or its meaning for our world today. God’s adopted children might call this a prophetic gift. Paul implies that we must treat the messages they bring with respect, not contempt.
However, we don’t just blindly accept the messages modern “prophets” bring us from the Scriptures. Jesus’ followers always, as Paul says in verse 21, “test” them. We carefully and prayerfully evaluate messages to see whether they conform to the Bible.
However, God’s dearly beloved people can also apply other “tests” to prophets’ messages. Do they acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Son of God sent into the world to save us from our sins? Do modern prophets’ teachings affirm the centrality of our salvation by grace that we receive through faith? Do their messages build up and benefit the church?
Once, by God’s Spirits, those messages have passed the test, it’s good for us to “hold onto the good” and “avoid every kind of evil,” as Paul writes in verses 22-23. By God’s grace, Christians apply messages that are good to our lives and reject those which are evil.
As those who proclaim 1 Thessalonians 5 consider what Paul says here about public worship, we begin to understand why at least some Reformed Christians refer to worship as a kind of “dialogue.” In worship, after all, God speaks to God’s adopted children in God’s Word and we respond to God with our praise, prayer and thanksgiving. John Stott writes “in every well-constructed worship service the pendulum should swing rhythmically between God addressing the people through Scripture and his people responding to him in confession, faith, adoration or prayer.”
Yet in both worship’s listening and responding, we always acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s sovereignty and freedom. Christians don’t, as Paul writes in verse 19, “put out the Spirit’s fire.” Here the apostle seems to be saying, “Let the Holy Spirit speak to you through his Word. Don’t put out his fire by rejecting his voice.” But Paul also seems to be saying, “Let the Spirit move you to respond to God in praise, prayer and thanksgiving.”
In verse 18 Paul calls worshipers to “give thanks in all circumstances.” However, as Lewis Smedes (A Pretty Good Person, Harper & Row: San Francisco, etc.) points out, it can be hard to give thanks on command. He tells of one Thanksgiving when he learned that it doesn’t always do much good to know that we ought to be thankful.
That year Smedes’ single mother couldn’t afford to buy even a chicken for their Thanksgiving dinner. So she announced that the Smedes were going to share a delicious and more affordable pot roast for Thanksgiving dinner.
Smedes, however, remembers taking the news badly. He, after all, knew that his friends would brag about how much turkey they’d eaten on Thanksgiving Day. He also knew that they’d grill him about how much he’d eaten. Smedes would then have to admit that his family had eaten pot roast.
“Pot roast?” he imagined his buddies sneering. “On Thanksgiving? What kind of nutty family do you have?” In his neighborhood, Smedes reflects, “If a kid’s mother was too poor to buy a holiday chicken, his status was under a cloud.”
Smedes pouted so much that late in the afternoon before Thanksgiving Day, his mom trudged the half-mile to a local butcher shop. There she bought a hen and lugged it home by its scrawny neck. She then dumped it on the kitchen table with a, “There, we’re going to have chicken tomorrow.”
Smedes’ sober-mined older sister turned to him accusingly: “See what you went and made her do? I hope you’re grateful.” In other words, “I hope you feel rotten.” Smedes says while that he did feel rotten, he didn’t feel very grateful.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 13, 2020
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 Commentary