First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Advent 3

William Loader

Advent 3: 11 December  1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

I cannot help but read the immediate context - at least from verse 12 - and when I do, I recall one of those delightful typos which can occur when busy people prepare orders of worship. I remember some years ago seeing as part of a liturgy of ordination the words of 1 Thess 5:14-15. Instead of ‘warn the idle’ the spell check had allowed: ‘warn the idol’ and so it was!

The preceding words also give some ‘bite’ to 16-25, which can sound rather general. They deal with attitudes towards leadership, especially how they are to be supported (including upkeep; 12-13). Living for peace is central (13) - and does not mean avoiding conflict or trying to be ‘nice and Christian’ (Paul shows this is not the case). It means engaging and confronting as well as comforting (14). It means abandoning revenge (right through to responses to Sept 11! 15) and seeking to a source of good and goodness to all (not just to ‘us’ - also to ‘them’; 15). That’s plenty to go by before we even reach verse 16!

 Such is the context of joy (16). So it is not being high. It is not the antithesis to pain and suffering. It is not an antidote to the cross or Gethsemane, but an attitude which finds life there and finds nurture and rest in feeding on brokenness and a poured out life.  

Nor is 16 speaking about endless prayers, lives filled with liturgical mutterings, or thoughts and conversations punctuated with ‘dearest Lord Jesus’. It is more to do with connectedness. Elsewhere Paul speaks of walking in the Spirit. It is about sharing the life of God, who might, as it were, constantly interrupt our words and ask for us for a hand to do something here and there. There is a spirituality which holds together deepest dimensions of individual personal faith and awareness of God’s presence with the sense that one is surfing onto new shores and running to catch up to a God who is out there drawing us out rather than sucking us in or up. Some people see the religious life as responding to God as a kind of vacuum cleaner where the goal is withdrawal and oneness with the divine - away from it all. Paul usually has the hose on the other end: God’s love is poured out and the intimacy of the Spirit births an expansiveness. God  chose not to take up the whole space in the beginning, but made space for others to be and for a flow of love. Prayer is about the ebb and flow of that tide. Part of that movement is, indeed, giving thanks.

 Moving from the metaphor of the flowing Spirit to the Spirit of fire, we hear the encouragement not to quench the flame. That includes running with the challenges which the prophets and interpreters bring. There are plenty of them today - inside and outside the church. Paul’s common sense and engagement in critical theology shows when he cautions us to test what we hear. Not all inspiration and inspired prophecy is going to bring good. The problem of ‘false prophets’ is ancient. Many New Testament writers felt the need to encourage their hearers to be more critical (eg. 1 John 4:1-4). In an age where statistics are the measure of success (and Jesus automatically fails), impressive preachers (and ‘inspired’ politicians) have many more techniques and media available to them to sway opinion. In some sense one of the distinctive features of the community of Jesus needs to be its ‘ungullibility’, its critical edge. Evil does, indeed, take many forms as Paul says (22) and many of its forms are overtly religious, even Christian, as surely our Christian history has taught us. How wonderful that Paul’s final words are a blessing in which ‘wholeness’ is the guiding theme!

Gospel: Advent 3: 11 December John 1:6-8,19-28

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