Rejoice in Community

Sermon for Sunday, December 14th, 2014 ||  Advent 3B || Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thes.5: 16-24; John 1: 6-8, 19-28 ||  The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…Do not quench the Spirit.

These are among the last words of the very oldest text in the New Testament: Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica. It’s older than any of the four gospels, older than any of the other “epistles” (or letters) Paul wrote to any of the other Christian communities of his day. This is the first written record we have from the early Christian church.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…Do not quench the Spirit.

This, Paul tells us, is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, it is made possible.

Remember that Paul was writing not to an individual, not to a single person like you or me, but to an entire community of people still known as “followers of the Way.” (The term “Christian” wouldn’t even be used for another 30 or 40 years.) It’s the whole community of Christ followers at Thessalonica –and now the whole community at St. Stephen’s, Cohasset—that Paul is exhorting to rejoice, to pray, and to give thanks. Because of course none of us could do so always, without ceasing, or in all circumstances, by ourselves. As the old adage goes, “There’s no such thing as a solo Christian.” We need each other. We need each other in order to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks in all circumstances. Paul has given us the essential ingredients for keeping the Spirit alive and growing; for without joy, prayer, and gratitude, the Spirit’s fire is quenched. It will die of negligence, if nothing else.

So how do we rejoice, and pray and give thanks to God—especially when some of us might not feel up to it? Let’s start by going back to our first reading, the one from the prophet Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn…to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning…

Isaiah was prophesying to a community of people returning from the Babylonian exile, a people demoralized with despair and disappointment, struggling with self-blame and severe hardship, burdened by the impossible weight of loss and grief. A people who believed God had cast them into exile as divine punishment for their sin. Surely the Spirit had been quenched in this community.

Then into this darkness came God’s word of promise through Isaiah—who was anointed by God, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, “to ‘gospel’ these defeated folk back to power and constructive action.”

God called Isaiah to proclaim the good news—the good news of God’s promise for a transformed future: a future of reconciliation and restoration, of freedom and security, a future in which the people would bathe in the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and be adorned with a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. Through Isaiah, God gave his people hope. The good news Isaiah proclaimed was good news in which they could rejoice, about which they could pray, and for which they could offer thanksgiving.

Of course as Christians, we recognize in this passage from Isaiah the same passage that Jesus read in the temple at the beginning of his ministry—but with one significant change. You may remember how after reading from Isaiah’s scroll, Jesus handed it to the attendant and sat down—and scripture tells us every eye in the place was fixed on Him.

Well, all eyes were fixed on him not simply because he was an eloquent reader, but because Jesus had taken the audacious liberty of actually changing the words of Holy Scripture—removing that troublesome line about the day of God’s vengeance, and proclaiming instead that, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy was news to rejoice about, indeed. It was the good news that for the powers of darkness, all bets were about to be off because the Divine Light had broken into our world and would never, ever, leave us alone. Fear was about to be de-fanged, hatred would soon succumb to love, despair would be destroyed by hope, and death would be vanquished by eternal life.

Two thousand years later, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in the person of Jesus means that God’s promise of a transformed future is well underway. It means it’s happening now, has been gradually unfolding since the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ— and that we have a part to play in it—you, and me, and our beloved St. Stephen’s community. We’re not just passive bystanders in the unfolding fulfillment of God’s promise; we’ve been anointed by our baptisms to be active participants in it’s coming to fruition. We are to proclaim the good news, to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks in all circumstances–with each other, for each other, and on behalf of each other.

On behalf of each other is important. Because at various times in our journey, each of us will be demoralized by despair and disappointment. Some of us may struggle with self-blame or hardship. Certainly all of us will know the impossible weight of loss and grief. And when we do, as a community of Christ-followers, we will be glad that there’s no such thing as a solo Christian.

Because when your soul is too weary to rejoice, we’ll be right here, in this church, rejoicing for you as we praise God in our common worship. When your heart is too broken to pray, we’ll be here praying for you as we offer God our common prayers. And when you’re too numb to be thankful, we’ll be here giving thanks for you, as we share in our common meal of Christ’s body and blood.

This is what it means to be church. This is how we rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances: as a community…as followers of the Way…as a people who need each other, and are bound one to another in the Spirit. That Spirit will not be quenched. So rejoice, indeed! And in the words of Paul, “…may your spirit, and soul, and body, be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Because] the one who calls you is faithful.” Amen.




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