Joy with the Calories
Historically the Third Sunday in Advent celebrates joy. That's the significance of the pink Advent candle. The Introit was "Rejoice in the Lord greatly." The Collect prayed to "lighten our darkness." Joy is a major theme in the secular holiday too. Splenda sweetener advertises "The joy of the season without all the calories." I say you can only have Advent joy with the calories.
There's no joy in artificial sweeteners, and that's what you're using if you hear "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances" as advice, suggestions, and not divine commands. These are imperatives. God doesn't give you a choice about joy, prayer, or being thankful. Moreover, these are present imperatives. Your policy must be to be a person of joy, prayer, and thanks. And if that's not enough, the adverbs in Greek proceed the commands for emphasis: always you must rejoice;' unceasingly you must pray;' in all things you must give thanks.'
You're sweetening your life with the saccharine sentimentality of the world's holiday if you think there is a time and place for joy, prayer, thanks. No, God Almighty commands you at every time, in everyplace, in every circumstance your policy is to be one of joy, prayer, and thanks.
However, an imperative doesn't imply you can do what is commanded, and it doesn't empower the person it's spoken to. It merely states what the speaker wants done. Without a doubt God commands you to always rejoice, to continuously pray, to always give thanks. And I can certainly command you to fly, to walk on water, to lift a car, but my commands no more enable you than God's do. And if you think otherwise, you're hearing this text as a recipe. For a good Christmas: take one-part rejoicing, one-part prayer, and one-part thanks and viola you have it.
Any joy, prayer, or thanks you yourself generate can only be artificial. Like the kid you command to say his table prayer and he bows and bobs back up faster than a fishing cork. Or you command him by asking in a serious tone, "Did you say, thank you'"? What he mutters in response are the words, but they are artificial. An artificial is what you'll get if you treat the second paragraph of the text also like a recipe.
To mix one batch of joy: don't quench the Spirit; don't treat prophesies with contempt; test everything; hold on to the good and avoid evil. Easy-peasy, right? Again, these are all commands, not choices or suggestions. The first 2 say stop doing them. That means you are quenching the Spirit's fire; now you must stop it. You are despising God's prophesies; now you must quit it. The next two are more policy imperatives. You must make it your policy to test everything and to hold fast to the good. The last one is a slightly different imperative and means for your own sake make it your ever-present policy to avoid all evil.
If we hear this rightly, as law, we won't see a recipe. We'll see we are quenching the Christmas Spirit found in the prophesies of God by despising them. That also means you are not quenching the true Spirit of Christmas when you're fed up by the crowds shopping; the smarmy ads on TV; or the liberals making it the holiday for the homeless.
No, you're dousing the Christmas Spirit when rather than expecting God the Son to take on flesh and blood to save this world from sin, you expect a God who will heal all the Tiny Tim's of the world. You're putting out the Spirit's Yule Log when you expect a Christ who will rule visibly before the world ends rather than One who will be smitten, stricken and afflicted on earth till this earth ends. You're despising the prophesies when you won't accept the truth that His Body, the holy Christian Church, bears the same cross, the same despising, the same lowliness that He did when He walked this earth.
You're putting out the Spirit in your life by being Eeyore. Woe is you. Things are so bad for Christ and His Church. It's like Jesus never prophesied, "This world will hate you; in this world you will have tribulation. Your name will be cast out by all men as evil." Because you despise those words, none of the Spirit's heat warms your tepid soul.
The last 3 imperatives expose how you further extinguish the Spirit by not being like "America's Test Kitchen" where recipes are tested till they taste great. The imperative isn't just "test everything", but you must test everything before you approve it. The only standard for testing things of the Spirit is the Word of God, the prophesies of God. If the Christmas spirit you've got doesn't jibe with these, you've got the wrong spirit. If your Christmas Spirit is in accordance with God's Word, you've got the right one. You must hold Him fast and you must abstain from every kind of evil.
Don't mix the true Christmas Spirit that brings the Christ who lived the life you cannot with the Christmas spirit that says if you're a kinder, more giving person this time of year, you can have joy. Don't mix the Spirit of Christ who brings you the Christ who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried to pay for your sins with the Christmas spirit that says you can feel better about yourself if you give this, do that, or sacrifice this. Hold fast the Spirit of Christmas that is in the Words of God, the Water of God, and the Body and Blood of God. Run like your hair is on fire from the Christmas spirit that comes from the positive things you do for others or the good cheer you have about yourself.
There's no real, lasting joy in your Christmas if you use the artificial sweeteners in ads, specials, stores. In fact, there is only joy for you where your Jesus does the cooking. Our text makes a decisive turn toward Jesus in the last paragraph, but you didn't hear it in the insert. It leaves out the conjunction which signals a change in direction. We're heading into the pure Gospel where God Himself does the cooking and He does it all with the high calorie Body and Blood, life and death of His Son Jesus.
Although it may sound like I'm the spirit of Christmas future pointing you to your grave, it is Gospel when I say, look, look at the ingredients Chef Jesus uses. His perfect life lived in a fallen world and therefore bumped, bruised, and beaten at every turn. Jesus cooks with the ingredients of His bruised body, His innocent suffering and death, and His holy precious blood. Only those with the real Christmas Spirit say, "Yum!"
But the direction change doesn't seem helpful because not only does the insert leave out the now', but', or and', it starts with may.' And in English a may' indicates the world's Christmas spirit. It's "May your days be merry and bright, And may all your Christmases be white." "May" means to us hopefully, could be, maybe.' In Greek the words sanctify' and be kept' are optatives. That means from Paul's point of view which is the Spirit's point of view, these two things must certainly happen.
Optatives describe the mood' of the speaker. The "He will do it" indicates that God will do it. This is pure promise. God Himself, the God of peace will sanctify you and keep you blameless through all the twisting turns of your life. He is faithful. He cannot break a promise. He cannot fail to do what He called you to Himself in order to do for you: to save you, to sanctify you, to keep you.
Aren't you eating this up? This is a high calorie Christmas dish chockfull of the Spirit of Christmas because it's dense with the Word of God. And I haven't even gotten to the part where the Spirit promises that God will sanctify you "through and through" so that you are blameless on Judgment Day. Pause here before taking the next bite. "Blameless"? Really? This is another adverb. It describes how you will stand before the Judge on the Last Day, and see how the Spirit of Christ, which is the Spirit of Christmas, details the extent of your blamelessness: It's in the spirit and the soul and the body of you. The definite articles, the the's' emphasize each one and the ands' in between tell us to pause over each.
Think of how you have failed to do things in the Spirit of Christ; how you have been a malignant nay-saying, Eeyore moaning, despairing spirit bringing down others not with God's Law but your ugly spirit. Think how your soul has been stained by thoughts no one else knows or would even dare suspect you have. Think of how you have defiled your body doing things you blush even now to remember. Well, the blood Jesus shed on the cross cleanses you from all this. His blood which you drink from that Cup is like those wonder products on TV. Just one swipe and the tarnish, rust, and dirt are gone. The blood of Christ that you take in your body wipes clean not only your body but soul and spirit too.
The phrase translated "through and through" also conveys the extent the God of peace in the name of the Prince of Peace will sanctify and keep you. Through and through' is a good translation of two words very similar but of different flavors. They both have the word "whole" but the second part is different. One draws attention to the person as a whole and the other to the several parts that make up a person. In a military G.I. inspection, they inspect the whole solider and then every single part of him to the bottom of his shoes to the lint in his pocket. Remember last week I said we turn down the Gospel by saying, "I'm good."? This week the Spirit says, "You're good." There's nothing about you or any part of you that the Law, the Devil, others, or you can find blameworthy. "You're good," says the Spirit of Christmas.
Eat this with your spirit, your soul, your body and rejoice. Don't be like the people in Nehemiah's day. They heard the Law and no more. So guilty of sin were they that they stood in the pouring rain motionless. But the Law is not God's final Word. He told them, "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." God's joy is to forgive your sins in Jesus' name. Not only your strength but your joy comes from this high calorie truth. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Advent (20171217); I Thessalonians 5: 16-24