1 Thessalonians 5:12-22
(2nd Sunday of Advent)
This morning, our sermon text is Paul’s final instructions to the Christians in Thessaloniki. They were a church who, in one sentence, were always worried about the future. What’s Paul’s last word to them? An instruction to hold in high regard those who work hard in God’s kingdom—and to “warn those who are idle and disruptive.” He continues, “encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” Then he continues, “Rejoice always!” Paul’s last instructions to a worried church are to find JOY in one another and in God.
But here’s the thing about Joy: you can’t force it! You can make yourself smile, but you can’tmake yourself be happy. It might be easy to talk about Joy, but why don’t we do it? Why aren’t we joyful all the time?
Introduction: Barriers to Joy
In my work, I get to talk with all kinds of people—young and old, people with seemingly easy lives (situations) and those with difficult ones. I get to know people from different ethnic groups and with different abilities. And so I can tell you both from personal experience and from almost ten years of ministry that our situation never present an insurmountable barrier to joy. Joy can be found in any situation! That doesn’t mean that it always is; but let me give you a few examples.
Consider people with disabilities. A person with disabilities has to reckon with his or her limitations on a regular basis. They need to ask for help more than some others of us. But you only need to to go a Friendship group meeting on Thursday nights to see that those people know the joy of Jesus Christ! It’s not just that they are happy or sing loudly when they know and love the song; you can see that they love one another deeply and are comfortable with each other. They love to make room for one another and the joy in that room and in their lives is palpable and real.
Take another example: I visited with Peter and Nelleke Smit this week; Peter has been living at Carewest for 12 years and has had health problems for over 40 years! When I asked Nelleke about their difficult situation, she said, “I just don’t know any different!” Then, when I asked her if she had a favourite Bible verse, she suggested we read Philippians 4:4, which says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! …The Lord is near.” Peter and Nelleke shared deep and meaningful joys during their lives together and I could clearly see and their love, just sitting in the room with them.
Joy is an internal reality that can be found regardless of our circumstance. So why aren’t we joyful all the time? If it’s not because of external situation, it is because of internal realities. And this week I felt God leading time to focus on those internal realities: particularly on SHAME and REGRET.
For two thirds of the world who live in collectivist cultures; shame is your bad social standing, given to you by others. This affects every area of your life, including your self-worth as a person. Shame means that you are a problem; you are less than; you are not welcome in one specific situation or maybe even in general. You might have shame because of what you did, what your family member did, or because of something that was done to you. Either way, your shame weighs you down because it separates you from the lifeblood of the community. When you live with this shame, joy feels difficult, if not impossible.
For the remaining third of the world who live in individualistic cultures; shame is your internal feeling of lack of self-worth. Again, because of what you have done or what was done to you, you sense that you are not worthy of love or admiration or value. This also is a deep-rooted feeling within you that goes beyond explanation and cannot be simply solved or even addressed. When you live with this shame, joy feels difficult, if not impossible.
Regret, of course, is connected to shame. Regret is about the past: the things that, again, we have done or left undone. The things that were done to us or the things that we longed for that were never given to us or afforded us.
Experiences of shame and past regrets—negative emotions and experiences— MASSIVELY influence our HOPE for the future (last week); but they also destroy our JOY in the present. It’s important to note that both Shame and Regret are non-redemptive. In other words, shame and regret will never lead to healing or wholeness. They must be addressed, forgiven, or covered over. This is because Shame and Regret are a part of the sin of our world; the sinfulness of our world. They are themselves perversions of God’s good creation. In other words, shame and regret are a part of our sin nature. And sin is a cancer. Sin does not create new things, but twists and sours and damages God’s good creation(s). Furthermore, shame and regret form a vicious cycle—they build on themselves and drag us further and further down into a vicious cycle of damage: Sin damages us psychologically. Sin damages us socially and culturally. Sin even damages us genetically (disease, predisposition toward violence, etc)
So what are we to do against all this? As it’s Advent, let us look back to the coming of Jesus.
When Christ was here, people experienced the same troubles that we do. But Jesus showed people many examples of the coming kingdom of God! He provided physical healing—healing blind people; helping lame people to walk. Jesus offered relationship healing—helping his disciples to get along, mending hatred between Samaritans and Jews. Jesus offered spiritual and psychological healing—he drove out demons and invited prostitutes and tax collectors to be known and loved by him and his family. And Jesus offered forgiveness—both to particular individuals, and, on the cross, to all people! Jesus knew (knows) how we are damaged by sin and he provided God’s healing in all kinds of areas. Do you ever wonder why people were drawn to Jesus? Maybe you wish Jesus would come back or that someonewould do those same kind of miracles today—maybe even in your own life! It seems like your only hope—because, somehow, when he was with them, Jesus filled people’s lives with joy! People could taste KOG life then in their ordinary lives! This is how joy always begins! It begins with a gift. Sometimes, among people, joy begins with a gift that we give; but when it comes to our relationship with God, joy always begins as a gift we receive!
Those of us who have lived in or experienced collectivist cultures can help the rest of our congregation here, because we know something that others do not. We know that a gift—any gift—is always an offer of a deeper relationship. Giving and receiving isn’t a momentary thing, nor is it a social obligation. Giving a gift is an invitation to pursue deeper relationship.
At the beginning of our relationship with God (and with anyone!) we begin to be joyful because of the things God has done for us, the gifts he gives us. But as we grow deeper in relationship, we begin to value the person for more than what they give. In fact, if we had the gift without the person, we could not be joyful! Imagine that you had to pick between the gifts under the Christmas tree or your loved ones around the Christmas tree—you could have only one. Only a child would choose to have the gifts and not the loved ones. Why? Because a child is immature and values the gift more than the giver. As we mature in relationships with others and as we grow deeper in our life with God, we learn that the relationship which produced gifts that brought joy—that very relationship is itself the thing that produces the joy! We need good things from others and from God, but the completion of joy is loving the other person fully for who they are, not what they do. This is God’s clear love for us—not what we do for him, but because of who we are (and often despite what we do). This is the deepest kind of love and the greatest kind of joy!
We Find Joy Coming Home to God
Paul gently and graciously offers out the joy of God to hurting people:
23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.
To paraphrase: May God sanctify you inside and out (make you holy, special, set apart).
May your Spirit, Soul, and Body (in other words, all of you) be kept blameless.
The one who calls you is faithful and HE will do it. The only question that remains is whether you will do it. Nowhere in scripture, nor in our experiences, does the action (or inaction) of God lead us to question his character. That does not mean that we cannot, should not, or do not question God’s character! When we live in shame and regret, we question everything and everyone! But Paul simply means that questioning God’s character has not stood up over time. Paul says that God is faithful and will do it. Paul says this based on God’s work in history.
The Christmas story is about God entering into the Shame and regret of his people. Israel, who had once been great among the nations, but now were least. They were crushed under Rome’s thumb. But more than that, God came for all people and all nations—not just for one. Coming just to lift up one person (on top of others) just redistributes shame. It creates new regrets; only for different people. This is why River Park welcomes everyone to worship God and know him—because Jesus welcomed everyone to know the joy of God’s love and God’s family. When we create barriers—either between people or in our own hearts, shame increases. But Jesus came to break down barriers—and the Spirit is still here to do that too!
The Reformer Martin Luther says that this time of year we celebrate the “triple advent” of our Lord: we celebrate his arrival in the manger; we anticipate his coming in glory; we experience his presence in our hearts. Why is this so important? Because God brought joy to our spiritual ancestors. God will bring lasting joy to all people when he comes again; and God even cares enough about me and about you to bring joy to our hearts today. But How?
Simply, God serves us. He does not give us everything we want or ask or beg for, just like a loving parent does not say “yes” to all of their child’s demands. But he knows you perfectly and so he gives you what he knows is best, even as we all remain living in a broken and hurting world. When we receive a gift from God, we are invited into deeper relationship with Him. And when we receive a gift from God, we look up from our own needs (even if momentarily) and have our hearts opened to share with others. When we get to know others and begin to give them what they need, God’s joy will be completed in us and our joy will increase.
I said above that shame and regret are not redemptive. They are cancerous and form a vicious cycle—they build on themselves and drag us further and further down. They begin with an originating incident but then build. Joy works exactly the same way—but in the opposite direction. Joy is God’s solution to shame and regret. Joy begins with some initial gift, and that gift is an invitation into deeper relationship! As that relationship grows, joy grows! Joy becomes circular and a new vector of growth and healing—God shows us how choosing to serve and to give leads to joy; and joy leads to more serving, which leads to more joy!
Just as Jesus lived with his disciples; God lives with us. God is our HOME. If we’re coming home and we find God sitting in our living room, we’re coming home to joy. We can find that joy with others. WE can literally invite others into our home and they will experience the joy of Christ with us when Christ is with us in our home. This is why Paul says, “make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” (Php 2:2). Make my joy complete by serving each other!
God’s joy begins big and perfectly. Our joy begins small and imperfectly. Immaturely. God’s complete and perfect joy is based in who we are. With a fuller joy, we can more fully understand, love, and serve others. Then we receive more joy from others in return!
We Find Joy Coming Home to Others
Christian Barrigar, in a recent book, defines agape-love this way: ‘It is precisely in the servanthood, suffering, and death of Jesus that we see God’s definitive account of what constitutes agape-love, namely, self-giving—specifically self-giving to God, and self-giving for the well-being of others, including strangers and enemies.” [Freedom All the Way Up: God and the Meaning of Life in a Scientific Age. 21]
This is the surprising thing about Christian joy—that we can only find it when we give ourselves away. Furthermore, the more we give ourselves away, the more we find it! Nelleke finds joy when she gives her life every day to serving her husband. People with disabilities find joy when they serve one another; likewise, friends and mentors find joy when they serve people with disabilities through Friendship Ministry. Joy is not situational. Joy is relational.
Think for a moment of all of the joy you have robbed yourself of—looking for happiness in your situation, when meanwhile there were people all around you, looking for joy and waiting for you to initiate, even if they didn’t know it. This is the case of the first Christmas—people looking for hope, for joy, for love, and for peace. They knew what they were hoping for—a Messiah. A deliverer. Someone to save them from all of their troubles. But they didn’t know that they were looking for Jesus until he was born; until he appeared to them—until God took the first step.
There’s a tired old story about a man whose house is flooded so badly that he has to crawl out his window and is stuck up on his roof. On his roof, he prays: “God please save me!” After only a few minutes, he hears a message over a loudspeaker a bit away: “If you are stuck, call out for help! We’re coming!” The man thinks to himself, I don’t need to bother them; God will save me.” Hours later, a military helicopter spots the man and comes to rescue him from the roof. He tells them, “No thanks, I’ll stay! God will save me.” Finally, night falls, it’s dark and cold and he’s still wet! As if by a miracle, a neighbour comes by with a massive flashlight in a canoe. “Please, let me give you need a ride!” He says. “No thanks,” the man says, “God will save me.”
The man dies that night. He gets to heaven and he asks God, “why didn’t you save me?” And God looks at him and says: I sent that announcement, I sent the military, and I sent your neighbour! You refused to be saved!”
It is the joy of God’s people to serve one another and to be served by one another. Why is this true? Because God has already served us. God has sent us messages, he has sent us protection, he has given us neighbours. He has given us, the church, to one another. What’s more, God even sometimes does miraculously answer our requests and needs. But here’s where we end today: God has already sent Jesus, his son, to serve humanity. Now he is sending you! And he is sending Christ in you. And Christ is faithful. He will do it!
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