Luke 1:45b-55, I Thessalonians 5:16-24, December 14,2014

Rejoice always.

Pray without ceasing.

Give thanks in all circumstances.

Our epistle lesson gives us a very tall order this morning. Even on the day of this season of waiting in the darkness, when we get to sample a little of the joy that we are anticipating at Christmas, it is odd that we are commanded to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all circumstances.

Can joy be commanded? Can joy be required? I often wonder about this. In confirmation recently we talked about the three parables in the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel—the shepherd celebrates when he rescues the one sheep in his flock of 100 that had strayed; the woman celebrated when she found the one coin out of 10 that she had lost. The father made his whole family celebrate when his disrespectful, irresponsible son returned home. You know the story: the older son, the one who had stayed home and been obedient, was angry that his father had thrown a huge party when the good-for-nothing younger son returned. But the father said, “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Sometimes, joy is commanded. Still it seems odd. I think of joy as being a spontaneous thing, a reaction to something unexpected, or to a gift that is surprising. When those things come my way, I rejoice without being ordered to!

OK, let’s take a look at “pray without ceasing.” Sometimes people ask me if the Bible really means this. I think it does, but I also think that we need to give ourselves a very, very broad latitude when it comes to defining what prayer is. It cannot only be with eyes closed, hands folded and heads bowed. I believe it’s possible to integrate prayer into lot of our daily activities. I find that I pray when I’m doing something repetitive, like working out on the Nordic track and doing the dishes. Sometimes when I cannot sleep at night I remember the names and situations that have recently gone down the prayer chain. Sometimes I find that I am even praying as I am awakening in the morning. I cannot think of any task that cannot be done prayerfully. Maybe a modern way to imagine this command is to stay connected at all times. To remember, and live in the knowledge that you are loved by God, and to wear that knowledge, that identity, like a warm, comfortable sweatshirt.

But this last commandment of these three is really a challenge: give thanks in all circumstances. First, let me tell you what I think this does not mean. Here in the Midwest people often say, “It could be worse,” and this is widely considered to be an encouraging and helpful thing to say. When I drop a pan of tuna casserole on the kitchen floor, I am supposed to draw comfort, for example, from the fact that it could be worse—I dropped it on linoleum, not shag carpeting. The thing is, it can always be worse. Imagining a situation that could be worse does not make the current situation any more pleasant, even Jesus said “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” [Matthew 6:34]  This does not mean to be thankful that things are not worse.

For these marching orders to make sense, if they are to guide us as we seek to follow Jesus, I think it’s essential for us to realize that we are reading someone else’s mail. Paul wrote these words to some of the first people to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ. He felt great affection for them and drew great support and encouragement from them. When he heard that they were struggling because of persecution from outsiders and squabbles among the faithful, he wrote to them to encourage them and to strengthen their faith. Repeatedly he reminded them of his earlier visit to them. How quickly they embraced his teaching, how warmly they welcomed him and his colleagues. He reminded them of the happy times they had shared together. Over and over he starts his sentences with “You know…” He reminds them of who they are. And just before he starts to conclude this letter, he tells them this: “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ…” I’ll repeat that, slowly, let the words sink in: “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Give thanks in all circumstances because of God's deep love for you--don't ever forget that!

This is the season when we’re counting down to Christmas, when we’re recognizing in the increasing darkness that God demonstrates amazing, powerful, life-giving love to all people in sending his son as a precious, vulnerable baby. And this fact, this good news of great joy for all peoples turns the world upside down.

The gospel lesson this morning is the song that Mary sings right after she understands and accepts God's plan for her and her baby. The words of her song are so familiar that I didn’t notice something about them that is a little odd, I think. She praises God for choosing to be merciful to lowly people and for overthrowing and bringing down the rich and the powerful. In her humility she realizes that God’s love makes her like royalty. And, I believe that’s the take away for all of us from this song that Mary sings. The humble are exalted, and, as someone told me last week, one of the good things about being humble is you’re rarely disappointed.

But here’s the thing that I just noticed as I was rereading this passage this week: It’s in the past tense!

[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

She was singing these words before her son was even born. God had been at work showing strength and mercy to Israel, remembering to be merciful and doing mighty works.

And God was then at work doing something even more powerful, more world-changing, more surprising, sending the long-awaiting Messiah to the world as a humble baby. And that little baby, whose birth we are spending this season awaiting, shows the depth of God’s for all people, that we are not here to be targets of wrath but to live in salvation through Jesus Christ. That’s what we’re getting ready to celebrate, and that’s the reason we’re lighting the pink candle today. We can’t hold all the joy until Christmas. Taste some of it today. And every day. Amen.