1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil. 23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Have you started watching Christmas movies? We have a tradition in our house of watching a series of Christmas movies throughout the month of December.
I’ll admit, though, we’re a bit late to it this year. You might think with quarantine that we might have jumped right into it, but, I guess, in a wonderful way, we’ve found ourselves outside a bit more, working, catching up with friends or family by phone or video chat, enjoying the last bits of sunlight, and sitting by the fire a bit more in the evenings.
Just the other night, though, we finally got around to watching one of our favorite Christmas movies – The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. It’s from the early 80s, if you’re not familiar with it, and was especially popular on the East Coast. The book, which the film is based on, was written by Barbara Robinson, who based the story on a little town that happened to be near to where I grew up in Pennsylvania, on the main line that comes out west of Philadelphia. These days, the movie can be found for free on Youtube, if you’re interested. It’s quaint, sweet, and funny – about a mid-sized main line church and how its annual Christmas tradition goes a bit haywire.
In it, there’s a girl named Alice, who always plays Mary in the Christmas Pageant. On the outside, Alice appears prim, proper, perfectly together, and serene. But, underneath, when things don’t go her way, it becomes clear that she also can be very stubborn, mean-spirited, gossipy, and legalistic. At one point, a gritty, tomgirl, named Imogen, bully’s Alice into stepping aside so that Imogen can play Mary. In response, Alice starts keeping a notebook full of every instance where Imogen or her siblings step out of line at church so that she can show them to the Rev. Hopkins and the Ladies’ Aid Society, with the hopes that Imogen and her siblings will be kept from ever participating in the pageant again. Alice is sure she knows what is right and best for the church.
Imogen and her siblings indeed are a force to reckon with, as the movie displays in many ways, and many people throughout the story make it clear that they are sure those kids will thoroughly ruin their beloved church tradition. Because there ends up being so much gossip about it, at one point, the Rev. Hopkins even recommends canceling the pageant all together.
I couldn’t help thinking about this lighthearted story as I prepared for my sermon today. As I considered our two passages for us this morning, one phrase in particular kept lingering with me.
What does the Apostle Paul mean when he exhorts us to not quench the Spirit? That is how our New Revised Standard Version translates it. Other translations have verse 19 reading, “Do not extinguish the Spirit” or “Do not try to stop what the Spirit is doing.” Do not try to stop what the Spirit is doing. That’s big. How could we possibly get in the way of God’s Holy Spirit? Do we… try… at times? It’s important for us to consider. Paul says, do not try to stop what the Spirit is doing.
But, as we all know, even if we don’t want to get in the way of the Spirit, it also can be hard to tell what the Spirit is doing, which way the Spirit is going. How do we know for sure, whether we are indeed abiding with the Spirit in the direction the Spirit is going? For example, is the Spirit leading Imogen, in the movie, or is the Spirit leading Alice? Right now, the Session is in the midst of a discernment process, prayerfully considering how and where the Spirit is leading First Pres in this season. In order to make sure we’re not getting in the way of Spirit – whether at church or in our own personal lives – especially when it seems that our own desires may feel thwarted, or our own sense of what is right or what is the best way forward when we may be encountering road blocks, the Apostle Paul lays out a map for us here to help us discern the best way to proceed.
Paul says here that it is God, the God of peace, who is in a continual long-term process of sanctifying us – of refining us – of helping us become holy, entirely, so that our whole selves, mind, body, and spirit, may be blameless before God. That is the work that God is about, that is what we join in when we claim our baptism, that is the path we are intended to be on. A path of sanctification, of renewal, of holiness with God.
Do you feel like you are in a refining or sanctifying process right now? Do you feel like God is not quite done with you yet, and is continuing to help you learn and grow and become more of what God intended you to be? Do you feel that the church is in a refining process? I have a colleague who likes to say that one sign of the sanctification process is that it does not feel good. It’s a process of recognizing where you have mistepped, how you have gone the wrong way at times, how you may have caused harm, seeking forgiveness and going in a different direction. It is not easy, but it is good. And Paul says, cling to that goodness.
God certainly takes the long-view when it comes to refining and sanctifying. An evolutionary process, over millions of years, centuries, through generations, and throughout a lifetime. Indeed, anyone who sets about a process of redemption by first becoming a baby is not in any rush.
At Christmas time, especially, we are reminded of the extraordinary and inconceivable act our Trinitarian God took to temper their own being to such an extent as to become a baby. God’s own tremendous wildness, as Creator and Spirit, who once brooded over the tumult of the sea and gave the earth its order – humbled God’s own self into the form of a baby boy, a baby boy in need, of food, shelter, love, warmth, and play. God humbled God’s own self to be born to a first-time mother and father who were poor and far from home. It is good for us to remember that just like every first-time parent or first-time babysitter, Mary and Joseph also barely knew what they were doing and had to figure it all out together and with the help of their family and neighbors.
I like to remember that when I think about church Christmas pageants or Tableaus. Some churches, like Alice’s, can spend so much time trying to a precise image right, of what they imagine a holy birth to be, trying to make it seem as if everyone had it all together, that there was nothing hard about it, and they knew what they were doing. But that is not what is described in the Bible. In fact, at one point, in the movie, another little girl comments with distain on how Imogen and her brother, who are playing Mary and Joseph, look so disheveled that she feels like they look like “refugees.” Her father stops her and reminds her of how Mary and Joseph were refugees, and that’s probably how they actually looked so many years ago – cold, hungry, and dirty.
This year, we’ll be celebrating our Christmas Eve differently. Though we won’t be in the Sanctuary this year, we can still recall fondly the orchestra or horns, the organ and choir, the sermon, and, of course, the children and youth playing their parts in the Tableau. Every year, such a beautiful mixture of beauty, art, Scripture, and playfulness. For those of us who have been a part of many of these, now, we likely could share countless stories of, shall we say, how untamable joy, has at times broken into our otherwise well-structured plans for the evening.
For instance, do you recall when the Martinich family, who lit the Advent candle for us this morning, played the Holy Family with Preslee as baby Jesus? It still stands out as one of my favorites. The congregation was invited to sing Silent Night, if I recall. And as we solemnly sang, darling Preslee became enamored with the choir. She wriggled her way up as high as she could onto Michelle’s shoulder, babbling away for all to hear at the crowd singing behind her. What a beautiful image of the baby Jesus, filled with joyful curiosity. Hardly silent at all. Instead, supremely delighted by a vibrant congregational host.
And we allowed this sweet baby to lead us in making room within the confines of our lyrics for a joyous moment – the playfulness, the singing, the music, the worship. What a robust blessing!
Can you imagine, how it might have played out if Chris, Michelle, or any one of us, had tried to stop Preslee’s pleasure in the choir, or tried to stop our own pleasure in seeing her unbridled joy? Tried to extinguish that delightful spirit in our midst?
Over the years, as Erik and I have considered how best to test everything, as Paul says, how best to discern how the Spirit of God is leading, whether what we are seeing and hearing, whether the interruptions we are encountering, truly are of the Spirit, we have come to use the Fruit of the Holy Spirit as a guide, holding up the circumstances around us against the Fruit as a way of understanding where God is at work.
If you are not familiar with the Fruit of the Holy Spirit, you can find these described in Galatians 5. And you can use them to discern, is what is happening here loving, is it joyful, is it peaceful, is it patient, is it kind, is it good, is it gentle, is it faithful, is it tempered? If they are not happening, then the Bible says, this is an area for mission – this is a place where the Good News of Jesus Christ is needed. If the Fruit is there, then, as Paul says, cling to it! Lean into it. Encourage it. Embrace it. Cultivate it all the more.
In this season of Advent, especially now in this time of quarantine and COVID restrictions, what better time to learn and embrace the Fruit of the Spirit in our lives? In these last two weeks of waiting, might we consider what it would mean to wait in the Fruit – to wait in love, to wait in joy, to wait in peace, and so forth.
Have you ever considered how there are many different manners in which to spend time waiting? How you can wait, peacefully, or distractedly, for instance, or even anxiously, or depressed? How do you find yourself waiting these days?
I admit, before this season of Advent, I had not spent too much time considering the different ways in which one can wait. But we have been reading a new book for Advent that has been introducing me to the many forms of waiting that goes on in nature every year. The book is Gayle Boss’ All Creation Waits. In it, each day of December, Boss masterfully describes how an animal spends the winter months. Some hibernate, of course. Some, like a baby, are full of constant activity, as they maintain reserves, keep warm, and make it through the changing seasons.
And, then, Boss, tells us, there are others that do things entirely differently than either hibernating or keeping busy.
Like the tree frog. Boss describes how the tree frog goes through a process in the winter of preparing itself to freeze. Not to die, but to freeze. “In late fall,” she says, “when temperatures after dark first dropped below freezing, [the tree frog] felt the chill seep in and snake through his body, every atom of him stunned. Whatever was moist tended toward ice… He took fewer and fewer breaths, and then… Woke, gulping, in the next day’s warmer daylight…” She explains how he would do this night and day routine for weeks, until one day he would not wake. He would stay ice, until the air eventually warmed again. Then, he would resume his day and night routine of warming and freezing, until a warm day comes “in spring when the ice goes out – of the ponds, [and] of his blood – and [it] does [not] return. Then with dozens of other wood frogs he’ll hop to the pond,” Boss says, “and send up a thrilling chorus: Death, we’ve robbed you of your ruin, we’ve taken you in.”
We have taken you in. What an extraordinary response to threat or fear. What a different kind of power than how the world so often characterizes power. Instead, the tree frog says, I will slow myself down, take you in, because I know I am not lost in you, death. The warmth will come again. Just like the author of Lamentations says, Great is Your Faithfulness oh God, who brings about new mercies every morning.
We know that the tree frog is only one example of the power of God in nature. God’s power in nature can be robust as well. We know that the mountains can quake. We know the seas can roar. We know the lands can be scorched. And whether in the face of death or the face of the tremendous wildness of God’s Spirit, God tells us, be still, like the tree frog, and know God.
How do we know God, in the midst of overwhelming uncertainty? Paul tells us, we can do so by talking with God continually. All the time. That’s how you will know God and know God’s Spirit. And, in all your circumstances, Paul say, find something for which to be thankful.
Holidays – Holy Days – both in the Church and in our Country – help us to do this. They help us, throughout each year, no matter what kind of year it has been – even if we’re in the middle of a pandemic – to, at the very least, go through the rhythms, the motions of reminding ourselves of what is important.
This past Thanksgiving, we spent the week before getting ready to express gratitude. We set this jar out in the kitchen and invited family members, including my sister who closed the bubble with us, to write messages of gratitude throughout the week that we would then read aloud on Thanksgiving. What is fun for us, too, is that, though this might not seem like much of a jar, over the years, this jar has been filled with a lot of forms of joy and gratitude for us. It has held prized fish. It has held prized corks from special bottles of wine shared with family and friends. During years we spent in England, in New Jersey, in Florida, and then in Illinois, if we enjoyed a bottle on a special occasion with friends or family, we would write the date of the occasion and a key word on the cork and save it in this jar. Then, at the end of our time in each of those places of serving different churches and working through grad school, we created cork boards. Every now and then, we pull them out, and look at the map on the back which describes the celebration that each cork represents. Weddings, ordinations, births, and so many other meaningful events.
This year, the jar held our expressions of gratitude, which we passed around and read to one another throughout our Thanksgiving meal.
The Bible says that we, each one of us, is like a jar of clay that God the Potter has made. What are you filling your jar with these days, and how is what you are filling yourself with helping you to wait? As we’ve learned this morning, the Apostle Paul encourages you to fill yourself with joy, with prayer, and with gratitude. And that this is God’s will for you. Not a specific job, or a specific place to live, or a specific relationship to have, or a specific charity to be a part of. But instead, you are called as a Christian to a certain way of being in the world that remains consistent through widely ranging circumstances. The will of God for you – in all of your circumstances – and the will of God for this church community in all its circumstances – is to rejoice, to talk with God constantly, and to be thankful in all times. We are to cling to God’s Spirit, as God goes about the redemptive work of sanctifying us and God’s Church for God’s own glory.
May it be so.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.