1 Thess. 5:16-24
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May 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. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
John 1: 6-8, 19-28
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’
And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
A couple of months back one of the members of Rhythm of God, our monthly drumming service, brought along a friend who was staying with her but who lived some distance away. She joined in and really enjoyed this way of praying, and after the service, as is our usual practice, we adjourned to the Bell. She and I struck up a conversation and after a while she asked me if I used to live in Welwyn Garden City.
I said that yes, that was where I was brought up. ‘And did you go to Crusaders?’ was her next question. (Crusaders was a non-denominational youth group in the days before political correctness changed the name). I replied that I did, and then she asked me if I remembered her, and after a few moments the penny dropped.
She was three or four years younger than me so as teenagers we hadn’t quite moved in the same social circles, but yes, I definitely remembered her, particularly the way in which she spoke which, strangely enough, had changed very little in the intervening twenty seven years since we last saw each other. But for both of us, that was more or less the only thing that hadn’t changed.
She had had an amazing life so far, doing things I would never have had the courage to do, and she was now married with children. As a teenager I don’t think I would have imagined the kind of life she would go on to have, but it was so nice to catch up and so she came back to the vicarage and we dug out my old photos from that era and compared notes.
I guess that all in all we probably spent two hours catching up that evening, and even then we barely scratched the surface. It would all have been so very different if, instead of allowing the vagaries of chance to bring us back in contact, we had stayed in touch throughout. I would know, for instance, the name of her children and her husband. I’d know how the Lord had called her from one place to another.
I’d have been able to rejoice with her in the joyful times and pray for her in the darker times, but none of that had happened simply because we hadn’t kept in touch. Quite simply we weren’t in tune with each other’s lives.
Now on the other hand I have some friends who I’ve had for years and who I still see very regularly. I know them and they know me. When we’re together they barely need to ask how I am, nor I them because our very demeanor gives us away, such is the depth of our knowledge of each other.
I might wish to ask what had happened to buoy up their spirits, or what had taken place to make them downcast, but as to how they actually are, by and large it’s written all over them simply because I know them, much as they know me and can always see how I’m feeling even before a word has been spoken.
And that brings us to our reading from 1 Thessalonians. Now those opening words are ones that I might wish to take issue with St. Paul over. We might wish to make the excuse for him that this was the first ever letter he wrote, which we think it was, and maybe he hadn’t seen enough life as a Christian to have got the wisdom of suffering, but I don’t think that’s true. So when he says, ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ I think we should take him seriously, provided we understand the whole of the message and don’t just think of this as an isolated verse. You see if we were to take it on its own it would be an unjust, unfair and impossible command.
The only part of it I can imagine being remotely something I could comprehend is to pray without ceasing. I’m not for a moment suggesting that I do, although in fits and starts I feel like I’m being drawn in that general direction. But to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances, well that’s an impossible and unfair thing for any Christian leader to command. Life’s just not like that.
As I’ve sat with friends going through divorces, or at the bedside of a dying loved one, how could I possibly tell them to rejoice or to give thanks? It would be unethical to that, although I have been exposed to Christians who have done precisely that and caused untold psychospiritual damage by demanding people try to be happy in the midst of abject misery.
But what if there is something deeper there? What if we were to think of those two apparent commands to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances to actually be the two ends of a perfectly balanced see saw that pivots on the command to pray without ceasing? Or what if we were to imagine that to pray without ceasing is the engine that pulls the other two along with it?
Praying continually is the one spiritual discipline that has the potential to change absolutely every other aspect of our lives and the reason for that is that is that it keeps us in touch with the One with whom we are communicating, contrary to what I had done by not seeing this old friend for twenty seven years. When we see friends regularly, we sense things about them that we simply don’t sense in people we haven’t seen for a long while.
The same thing is true of prayer. Now when I say we should think about praying without ceasing, what I don’t mean is that we should keep up a continuous internal dialogue with the Holy Spirit. What I mean is that we should practice a sense of awareness of God’s presence, of being mindful that he is alongside us and within us.
The more time we spend learning the discipline of becoming mindfully aware of God and our place within the Spirit and the Spirit within us, the more we are in touch with God and in tune with what’s going on around us and how the Lord feels about it. That, in turn, leads to a steadily deeper knowledge and awareness of God continually at work in the world around us and in the lives of the people with whom we share our time.
I should add that it is important to compare our experiences back with scripture because we’re complicated beings and it is easy for us to be misled by our feelings whereas scripture contains a far more complete revelation of God’s nature than any one of us on our own can know.
A classic opening line from many forms of traditional prayer is, ‘Open our lips’, to which everyone responds with something like, ‘And our mouths shall show forth thy praise’. But I’ve found in recent times that I also want to pray, ‘Open my eyes to see you at work. Open my ears to hear what you’re doing. Open my spirit to perceive you surrounding me and within me.’
And slowly, almost imperceptibly, I sense the Holy Spirit beginning to answer my prayer. I do not for a minute think that I am anywhere near being able to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances. I wear my heart on my sleeve to those who have got to know me, so there’s no point in me saying anything that might suggest I can rejoice always, because you all know that’s not true.
But in my years as a believer I’ve met and observed others who do seem to spend an awful lot of their time simply aware of God’s presence, and from that I think I can perceive where St. Paul was coming from, that with just the first glimmerings in my own life, and I mean the first, I can imagine that if someone becomes so wholly aware of God’s presence surrounding them the whole time, of not being continually distracted by that tv show or this whatever, then there would be space to rejoice in that sense of closeness.
And this, I believe is what St. Paul was actually driving at. We cannot force people to be rejoicing at all times and in all circumstances; that would be unethical. But, if we follow his command to pray at all times, to be aware of God alongside us in every aspect of life, then I believe it will reframe our experiences and shed new light on the paths we should tread.
Mindful awareness of the presence of God, in combination with holy scripture, helps us continually to discern how the Lord feels with respect to any given situation and this must surely be better at shaping us than the model of prayer where we occasionally talk to God and are continually trying to catch-up, as with an old friend we’ve not seen for a while.
All of which directs us to the Gospel reading and the person of John the Baptist. John, as he is portrayed by the Gospel writers, is a prophet who truly seems to be aware of his mission, his calling. I imagine that through living as an undistracted hermit in the desert, being in God’s presence by day and by night, he found a sureness of vision that we would find difficult to grasp.
If someone asked you about what God was calling you to do, do you think that your likely response would consist of a lot of ums and arrs? Or would you feel able to respond confidently? John, it seems, was so aware of his calling, through the prophetic life of prayer that would have been his, that when asked why he was baptising he was able to quote old testament prophecy with the words:
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord”’
How many of us might feel we could claim that? Yet John lived his life as a prophet who was in tune with God and so sensed what God was saying to him.
So today we have a call to pray. Not just in the morning or before bed, but to learn the discipline of becoming aware of God being present in every aspect of our lives. Out of that awareness may flow rejoicing because we will perceive the world differently. But for sure we will have a greater sense of what God is doing around us, and what he wishes to do with us, and within us. Amen.