1 Thessalonians 5.16-18
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
My son has a penchant for exaggeration.
(He probably gets it from his Father)
We decided to get him a Lego Star Wars Advent calendar in which, every day, he gets to open a new (tiny) lego set that he gets to build after consuming his breakfast. The first week of December resulted in a miniature Razorcrest (from The Mandalorian), Poe Dameron wearing a BB-8 holiday sweater, and many more.
And this morning, after scarfing down his pancakes, he ripped through the package and put together a red Sith Trooper in 7.5 seconds and triumphantly declared, “This is the best Advent ever!” while grinning from ear to ear.
When was the last time you felt truly joyful?
It’s a worthy question for Christian reflection, particularly in a time such as ours – a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the familiar no longer a possible reality.
“Rejoice always!” So Paul implores the church in Thessalonica. Notably, Paul’s call to joy is not a suggestion not merely an opportunity for contemplation, it is a command.
But how can we rejoice (always) when it feels like there’s nothing to rejoice about?
Joy, as we often speak about it, is a feeling. Like my son with his legos, it is a moment of bliss or happiness that leads to some sort of physical reaction like him smiling so much his mouth started to hurt.
But joy, properly understood, is also an expression, a kind of communication. However, it is not simply telling others that you are happy – it is a telling that is also an invitation to share in the telling.
Joy, to put it another way, is meant to be infectious.
At her best, the church is a people who invite each other to rejoice together. It’s why the covenants of marriage and baptism and not for the people getting married or baptized alone – they are a promise made by the community for the community.
We, that is the church, rejoice always, we pray constantly, and we give thanks in all circumstances. Interestingly, for Paul, joy comes first. Unless we are filled with joy we cannot pray and unless we pray we cannot give thanks.
Now, there’s (of course) a potential for a horrendous reading of this command in which Christians, “stay on the sunny side” despite all evidence of the contrary through their lives – like the meme of the dog drinking coffee in a house on fire saying “this is fine.” Rejoicing always, in that way (which is to say: improperly), can be used as the means by which we reject responsibility for others and even for ourselves.
Remember, however, Jesus did not ignore the truth and the brokenness of life – he wept for Lazarus, he turned the tables in the temple, and he was even afraid in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Christians are a people commanded to rejoice not in spite of the world, but simply because we know how the story ends. We can rejoice because we have found what was lost, ourselves.
Our joy is in the cross – a sign to us and to all that God chose to suffer for the sake of the world.
The strange new world of the Bible reveals God’s strange and confounding love for us in spite of us – we open up the pages to discover that God had joy in being one with us and that God took on all the consequences of being one of us; God incarnated love in the person of Jesus Christ for a people not good at loving in the first.
Our joy is inherently Adventen because it holds two seemingly-opposed things together at once – like the already but not yet, the once and future king, the cross and the empty tomb.
Joy, Christian joy, is the joy of knowing what awaits us even in death. And that joy gives us the strength to pray without ceasing and the courage to give thanks for a gift we simply do not deserve.
We have a joy to express and to share because God is coming again, bursting onto the scene like our favorite uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other with no other hope in the world other than to party (read: rejoice) forever and ever.
This is the Good News.