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.
It’s the third Sunday of Advent and it’s time to light the Joy Candle. That’s the rose-colored one. This reading is fitting for this Sunday, if for no other reason that the word rejoice is present in it. We hear the word from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which is also by most estimates the earliest Pauline letter. That would make it the oldest document in the New Testament. In this reading, Paul brings the letter to the Thessalonian congregation to a close. The lectionary cuts things off a bit early (there are another four verses to go), but we get the idea. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all things.” Again, these words make for a reading fit for Gaudete Sunday as we light the Joy candle.
As I write this reflection on the reading from the Epistles for the Third Sunday of Advent, the world is anything but joyful. We’re beginning the tenth month of this COVID-inspired exile that continues to surge, at least in the Northern Hemisphere as we head into the winter months. So where is the reason for joy? There is a reason for hope, of course. We just have to survive the next few months before a vaccine is readily available for the bulk of the population. In the meantime, we’re tired and lonely and frustrated and anxious. We might even be a bit fearful. If the pandemic weren’t enough to take make us all Grinches, we’re also dealing with political turmoil in the United States. An election has been held and the votes counted. We know who won, at least if you accept the certification of votes by the states. Unfortunately, a large swath of the population hasn’t accepted the results, at least when it comes to the presidential results. So, perhaps it’s a bit premature or maybe naïve to talk about joy, even if the season is supposed to be filled with joy.
All of the above may be true, but Paul won’t let us off the hook. Remember he doesn’t tell us to rejoice only when things are going well or when it feels good. No, he tells us to rejoice always. I will confess that I find this a hard directive to live into. Nevertheless, the directive is there for us to ponder. Now, Paul doesn’t just tell us to rejoice, he also calls on us to pray unceasingly (and by that Paul isn’t suggesting that we all go off into the mountains and spend every waking hour on our knees talking to God). When Paul talks about praying unceasingly, he’s encouraging us to live with God in our hearts always. In this, we will find joy. Then Paul adds gratitude to the list. As William Brosend notes, the focus here is on wholeness. This is, Brosend suggests “at the foundation of Paul’s understanding of the Good Life.” He adds: “The shape of the Christian life is not contoured in measured apportionment—one part work to one part prayer, or some other recipe for spiritual fulfillment—but in unreserved and all-consuming self-giving” [Feasting on the Word, p. 64]. Thus, joy, prayer, and gratitude all go together as a sign of wholeness.
That sounds like a good place to stop, but Paul isn’t finished. He has a lot on his mind as he brings this letter to a close. What we’ve heard so far might suffice for the third Sunday of Advent that is focused on Joy, but Paul has practical concerns to deal with before he seals the letter. He wants to address the role of the Spirit in the community. Paul tells the Thessalonians not to quench the Spirit or despise the words of the prophets in their midst. We moderns tend to think in institutional terms when it comes to church. We have our constitutions and by-laws. We have governing boards. Everything is done decently and in order (at least if we follow the rules). As for the Spirit, well, what does the Spirit have to do with church? In these early days of the church, the Spirit was moving and that led to the prophetic. While Paul was open to the work of the Spirit, and even encouraged prophetic ministry. He understood the need for boundaries. This word may concern a problem in the community. There is a sense that under the guise of prophecy some may have confused the congregation concerning the coming Parousia (the return of Christ) so that many in the church were suspicious of those claiming to speak for God. That’s understandable. Paul doesn’t want to quench the Spirit, but he understands the challenge posed by rogue prophets. So, he encourages the congregation to test what they were hearing. Only embrace what is good and stay away from what is evil. If we turn to 1 Corinthians, we find guidance there concerning the proper place of prophetic ministry within the church. He even gives guidance to how women who are gifted in this way should comport themselves, which I find intriguing since a few chapters later Paul tells women not to speak. So, which is it? (1 Cor. 11:5). Nevertheless, he tells the Corinthian church that the purpose of prophecy is to build up, encourage, and console (1 Cor.14:3). Therefore, they should listen to the prophets with great discernment. In fact, some of them should pray to receive the gift of discernment. The point here, in the Corinthian letter, is guidance for orderly worship (1 Cor.14:26-33). Paul gives this word of guidance in the Thessalonian letter because he knew that not everyone claiming to have a word from God was a true prophet. After all, there were plenty of false prophets making the rounds, as we can see not only in the Corinthian letter but also in 2 Peter and 1 John.
Although not directly related to the word about prophecy, the encouragement to test what we hear speaks to concerns of the moment in our world. We are living at a time that has come to be known as a “post-truth” era. Both religious and political leaders spout “alternative truth” as if it is fact. With the expansion of
24-hour news channels and social media, we are bombarded by messages, all claiming to represent truth, but often it is nothing more than rumor, innuendo, or speculation. So, how do we know what is true and what is not? This might not be the kind of topic that is welcome on Joy Sunday in the season of Advent, but it is timely, nonetheless. It is therefore important that we heed this word to us, that we hold fast to what is good and resist evil, wherever we encounter it.
All of this is couched in a larger conversation about the future. The message Paul has preached to this community suggests that Jesus would be returning soon to inaugurate the second Advent. It’s possible that the false prophets have been upsetting the people with claims that contradict what Paul has been teaching. We know that some in the community were worried about whether those who died before the Parousia would be included in the great gathering up of the people at Jesus’ return. Paul had given them assurances that the dead in Christ would rise first (1 Thess. 4:13-18). In these concluding verses, Paul reaffirms that premise, encouraging them to remain faithful, because the “God of peace” would sanctify them, making them holy and therefore be blameless when Jesus returned.
This is the word of joy we hear on this third Sunday of Advent. Rejoice, pray, give thanks, because this is the will of God for us. It is worth remembering that when Paul writes these words he addresses not just individuals, but a community. It is in the community that we can stand for what is right and resist evil so that we might rejoice in the Lord always! We can also rejoice in the knowledge that “the one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” That is a message that is deeply rooted in the biblical story. God’s steadfast love will endure forever! There is joy in that word.