First Thessalonians is the oldest document in the New Testament. It is the earliest of Paul’s Letters, written around the middle of the first century—less than two decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus—and almost two decades before Mark’s Gospel was written. So this letter gives us a glimpse into the earliest years of what life was like in for our earliest Christian forebears.
In the opening words of this short epistle, Paul writes:
“We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before God your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope…” (I Thessalonians 1:2-3)
Faith, hope, and love—the very same words that Paul will famously unpack in a later letter to a conflicted congregation in Corinth. Paul and the believers in Thessalonica thought that the end of the world was coming soon (and very soon)—that Christ’s return as king of kings and lord of lords was imminent. So this short letter is dealing with questions about how the community can “keep alert” and stay ready for that day. (That is why it makes such good Advent reading.) How to do that? By waking up to a life of faith, hope, and love.
Those early Christians were a people of expectation who were waiting for Christ to return and to establish the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. They were waiting for God’s peaceable kingdom—that day when lion and lamb would play together and you no longer had to worry about your child being bitten by a poisonous asp. A day when they would no longer hurt or destroy on all of God’s holy mountain; a day when swords would be beaten into plowshares.
So this was the primary theological question those early Christians wrestled with: how to live as a people who were prepared, a people of expectation.
Advent is not Lent. Both are seasons of preparation. But preparing for a birth is very different from preparing for a death. It is true that there is a somber part of Advent and some overlap. This is our second week in a row with John the Baptist, who is all about repentance—which is definitely a key theme in Lent as well.
But as we light those candles on that wreath, one at a time, we remember that they are associated with words like hope and peace and joy and love. If we make Advent too much like Lent we will miss the boat. Advent is about anticipation. It’s like people who are expecting a child have to get the nursery ready and go to birthing classes. Unlike Lent, we sing our alleluias all the way through Advent. Like John the Baptist we are called to help prepare the way and make the paths straight. Next weekend we will join Mary in saying “yes, Lord, let it be with me according to your word" as we prepare a place within ourselves for the Christ-child to be born.
At the beginning of chapter five of First Thessalonians, Paul writes:
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, you do not need to have anything written to you…for you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (I Thessalonians 5:1-2)
Paul being Paul, of course, he does have a bit more to say. But this is important: it’s not to put the fear of God into them. That is sometimes how we hear the preachers on television and in some other places talking about the end of human history: as fire and brimstone, as threat. You better repent or you will be left behind! You better accept Jesus or you’ll end up on the naughty list and not the nice one! But that is not where Paul goes with this. Instead, he offers a word of encouragement. Because you are children of the day, be sure to act like it! Since you are children of light, make sure you walk the walk! And then these words:
· respect one another
· esteem one another
· be at peace with one another
· admonish the idlers
· encourage the fainthearted and help the weak
· be patient with everyone
· don’t repay evil with evil; instead, respond to evil by doing good!
Those words are in turn followed by the verses we heard today, verses 16-24 of the fifth chapter of First Thessalonians:
· rejoice always
· pray without ceasing
· give thanks in all circumstances
· do not quench the Spirit
· do not despise the words of prophets
· test everything
· hold fast to what is good
These words are like a mission statement for a parish that is not only in the midst of Advent, but that is trying to be faithful to Christ 52 weeks a year, with God’s help. It’s how we are called to live “in the meantime.” If we keep respecting one another and esteeming one another and are at peace and if we rejoice always and pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances, we will be ready. Do not quench the Spirit! Hold fast to what is good!
On this day we light the third candle in our wreaths: the rose candle. This third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday – from the Latin word that means “rejoice.” This reading from the earliest decades of the Church’s life goes with the theme of this day as we light this rose candle of joy. This season is about joy—it’s not something we have to wait until Christmas to talk about, or to experience. If we try to do Advent without joy we miss the point. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
But if Advent is not Lent, we do well to remember that it’s not Christmas either. We need to resist letting the dominant culture set the agenda. I think that is the big counter-cultural message of this season is for us to stay focused on what really matters. True joy takes us way deeper than instant gratification. The reason for this season is about way more than whether the clerk in the mall says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”
Advent gives us a chance in the midst of a crazy month to reflect on what it means to be the Church and why it matters not only for our sake, but for the sake of this broken world. It gives us an opportunity to ask: how can we be a more joyful, prayerful, Eucharistic, spirit-filled, prophetic, tested community in the midst of so much fluff? How can we keep growing into the full stature of Christ?
If we keep doing these things—rejoicing, praying, giving thanks—then we will be ready enough to receive the gift that is Christmas.