The First Sunday of Advent November 30, 2008
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, 15-22
567, 572, 574, 54
But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing…See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.
Dear Fellow Recipients of God’s unlimited generosity:
These are the very words of God. They are thus, in and of themselves, precious gifts that we all too often take for granted. Let it not be so among us today. To help prepare our hearts for the study of these words, and to remind us of their divine origin, we pray: “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
I sometimes wonder if it would be a blessing or a curse to be able to experience an existence unmarred by any sin, just for a moment—a glimpse, as it were, of Heaven. Obviously, it would be an experience that would give you hope and comfort. Experiencing Heaven, even for just a moment, would undoubtedly help to sustain you through life’s hard times.
Yet, it is also undoubtedly true that such an experience would leave you in a very difficult position for a variety of reasons. For example, who wouldn’t yearn—after experiencing the perfection of the life to come—to have this life ended so that the next would begin? Beyond even that, how thoroughly depressing not only to have to leave such a place, but to suddenly and unmistakably be able to see this present existence for the shabby, disgusting, superficial mess that it really is…and yet still have to live here. It would be like visiting some magnificent, lavish palace after living in a garbage-strewn mud hut for the first 50 years of your life and then suddenly having to leave the luxury behind and return to the squalor.
There is another element that would probably be both good and bad. How disheartening, on the one hand, to recognize just how far removed every single one of our thoughts and actions is from the perfection the Law demands. Could you imagine how hard it would suddenly become to try to “clean up our act” once we recognize the extent of the filth of all that we think, say, and do? How could you ever remain motivated to sweep the floor once you realize that you are living in the county landfill?
On the other hand, knowing our sinful condition should drive us ever closer to our Savior-God. How blessed, how fortunate we are that God did not send his Son as an enabler, or as a good example. We didn’t need a coach, we needed a Savior which, thanks be to God, is exactly what we got.
The fact that every one of our thoughts and actions falls short of perfection is not news to us. Neither does such information serve to discourage or prevent the ongoing struggle in the life of the Christian to walk, moment-by-moment, in harmony with God’s will. In fact, what a strange thought that truly is since the New Man in the Christian knows no other way. The New Man doesn’t regard past failures as a reason to retreat. He recognizes only the ongoing desire to advance and do better.
Which brings us to this day and our desire not only to continue celebrating Thanksgiving with a pure heart, but as we enter the Advent season to make thankfulness a way of life rather than an isolated event. We desire, in other words, pure thanksgiving—giving thanks in a manner that is altogether pleasing to our Lord—at least to the extent that such a thing is humanly possible.
The problem is that to celebrate rightly we always seem to have to temper our joy with dire warnings. What does that mean? It means that we never seem to be comfortable in celebrating the birth of our Lord Jesus without also pointing out all of the different perversions that now taint that great event. It means that we seldom celebrate Easter without roasting the Easter Bunny, never celebrate Communion without pointing out the inherent dangers of communing in an unworthy manner, and never seem to be comfortable around Christians who do not share our confession unless we clarify our position on fellowship and quote Romans 16:17. In short, we do not seem to be content to celebrate much of anything unless we also bring everyone’s attention to some perversion or danger that we need to “acknowledge with great sobriety and avoid at all costs.”
Our celebration on this day is yet another example. I’m not sure that we’ve ever celebrated Thanksgiving by doing nothing but offer our thanks to our God for anything and everything that He has given to us and done for us. Always we seem to feel the need to point out how shallow the world’s celebration is, or how dangerous it is to give thanks out of fear, or as some sort of insurance policy ensuring that God will not take away what He has given us if we thank Him for it. Always there is the admonition toward focusing our giving of thanks on the greatest of God’s gifts—our salvation in Jesus Christ and to thereby downplay our thankfulness for material things. In fact the transition right from Thanksgiving to Advent makes this tendency very natural.
Is this good or bad? Is it right or wrong in the eyes of our God that we approach nearly everything that we do with sobriety and caution—especially given the fact that we have been warned by our God that Satan continually stalks us as a lion stalks its prey? The answer is both “yes” and “no,” and it is that which we examine this morning on the basis of our text.
When you read the entire text a second time with this particular question in mind, one cannot help but be struck by the fact that the inspired writers never fail to sound their warnings. This is true even in the midst of some of the most beautiful calls for thanksgiving and gratitude in the Scriptures.
The first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, for example, is a perfect example. Nowhere in Scripture will you find a better or more heartfelt example of joy and thanksgiving than what we there read from the pen of the great Apostle. Listen to these selected verses from Colossians 1:
“We give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of your love for all the saints; because of the hope which is laid up for you in heaven…giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.” But then note well the warning that follows: “And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight—if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.” Again, words of joy and thanksgiving: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Followed again by words of caution and warning: “Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily.” The same pattern continues in the second chapter—words of joy and thanksgiving: “As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving,” followed by sober warnings: “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:6-8).
We find the same mixture of sobriety and joyful thanksgiving in our text for today. There we are warned, on the one hand, about drunkenness, revelry, falling away in the last days, and the like. Then, in the next breath, we read: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” [vv.16-18]
From this we are to learn that this is and will forever be indicative of the life of a Christian and the fitting composition or components of godly thanksgiving. Surely, no one can give thanks to God like a Christian gives thanks, reveling in the goodness of God in this life and in the greater goodness of God in the life to come. Yet, who better than the Christian to recognize the danger that exists all around and within us. Who better than the Christian to understand that there really is never a good time to completely relax our guard, or to yield to the temptations of our sinful flesh? Ours will always be a walk of uninhibited, ongoing thanksgiving, mixed with sobriety and caution.
The bottom line for us, whenever we examine our own hearts as we give thanks to our God, is the recognition that our gratitude should rightly be free of all guilt, all superstition, and all greed. We pray that our merciful God would give us hearts that recognize and appreciate all that He has already done for us—spiritually, mentally, physically, and emotionally—and that we maintain, at all times, a spirit of pure gratitude, contentment, and sobriety. Our God is worthy. Therefore, with confidence in His promises going forward and with pure simplicity and sincerity of heart, on this day we take a look backward at the countless blessings of our God and say simply: “Thank you Lord.” We do this without reservation, without hesitation. We also look forward with the same joy and confidence and say again: “Thank you Lord!”
So then, dear Christian, be about your life of thanksgiving. Let the joy of your salvation fill your heart. Let the building up of God’s Kingdom be the work of your hands, and let the spreading of the reason for your thanksgiving and the season of Advent be the occupation of your voice. Now thank we all our God, with our hearts and with our hands and with our voices! So also we give thanks and praise to our Savior God—in good times and in bad—as we walk circumspectly through this vale of tears. Amen.
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