Advent 3B Lectionary: 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil. 23May 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. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Rejoice always? Pray without ceasing? Give thanks in all circumstances? Are you kidding? In this time of sickness and death and divisiveness and, well, just darkness, how in the world are we expected to rejoice, pray, and give thanks each and every moment? I mean, even if things WERE going all hunky-dory, we don’t have time to do that. There are things to do. There are people to see, gifts to buy, gifts to wrap, places to go (well, maybe not…you know, Covid and all), and we still need to find time for ourselves to think, maybe read this blog, or whatever our life requires. So when we read this passage, we are a little bewildered. Because we are used to looking at how to do something. We want to know the easiest, cheapest, most energy-efficient, or most fulfilling way to accomplish things. And, most of all, we want to be assured that we’re doing it the right way, that we’re on the right path.
But as much as we desire a “how to” booklet for our lives, that’s not what this is. (Honestly, that’s not really what the Bible is at all!) Paul was not laying down rules. I don’t think he ever envisioned us living body-bent and knee-bowed 24/7. I mean, how do we respond to that call to be a Kingdom-builder if we’re praying all the time? No, Paul was not calling us to a life spent in prayer; Paul was calling us to a prayerful life, a life that is sacred, hallowed, a life lived in the unquenchable Spirit of God. It has nothing to do with logging prayer hours. I mean, that’s helpful, even necessary. But this is about perspective, about seeing everything that is your life as hallowed and holy, seeing all you are and all you have and all this is as of God, as prayer. Olga Savin says that “[the Scriptures] tell us that ceaseless prayer in pursuit of God and communion with [God] is not simply life’s meaning or goal, the one thing worth living for, but it is life itself.” And a life lived the way it is called to be lived is the very will of God. It is prayer.
As I said, I don’t think the Scriptures are meant to be “how to’s”; maybe instead they’re meant to shape us into those who can find the “ahhhs” in life. Let me explain. Think about all those diverse characters in the Scriptures. Abram and Sarai were just living their best retirement life. And suddenly God has a new plan to make them the patriarchal couple of a “multitude of nations”. And Abraham went toward the “ahhh”. Moses was pretty much minding his own business and then ran across this burning bush. Now, really, wouldn’t you either avoid a bushfire or try to put it out? But Moses saw something else and said “ahhh” and his whole life changed. And those prophets? The prophets tried desperately for generations to get the people to pay attention, to make them understand that the Lord was indeed coming, that things were about to change. They marched this line of people straight through history, warning of something big and dark and ominous when God would step into the world. Truthfully, that happened. But it was very quiet, almost a whisper, as the Light again pushed through the darkness. If you didn’t have your life honed in on that, you would have missed it. In fact, God had to sort of announce it to make sure people were paying attention. And, if you noticed it, you couldn’t help but say “ahhh”.
Praying without ceasing, living a prayerful life, is about paying attention. It is about looking at the pathway that you walk and noticing those things that make you say “ahhh”. And then, it’s about turning toward them. Maybe that means that you get off the well-worn path that is comfortable beneath your feet. Maybe that means that you veer off in a direction you do not know, a way that you did not plan to go, a way that will change your life forever. Ahhh….
Praying without ceasing is also about not limiting yourself as to what you think prayer is. You know those times when you have no words? That’s a prayer. The times when words seem to spill out of your life uncontrollably is a prayer. The times when grief consumes you and you feel as if you cannot function is a prayer. The times when laughter overtakes you in the middle of an otherwise-serene (and perhaps embarrassing) moment is a prayer. Every menial task is a prayer. Every walk is a prayer. Every drive is a prayer. Every time you log on to your computer is a prayer. Every time you cook or wash dishes or empty the dishwasher (I hate emptying the dishwasher!) is a prayer. Every time you hug someone or touch someone or connect with them on Zoom is a prayer. Your life is a prayer. That is what Advent shows us. Advent wakes us up to the coming of God into the world and asks us to prepare. But Advent also wakes us up to our own lives, prepares us to see what we’ve been missing and perhaps to notice a different way and to pray, to always pray. Look around. All you see, all you hear, all you are. It’s all prayer. Ahhh-men.
Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair. (G.K. Chesterton)
Grace and Peace,