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Advent Series III -What gifts are under your tree? (1 Thess 5:16-18)

Scripture: I Thessalonians 5:16-18 “What gifts are under your tree?”

Dear Christian Friends: May the peace and joy of Christ be with you today and throughout this season.

I Thessalonians 5:16 is an incredible verse: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

What St. Paul is telling us here that God’s will for our lives is for us to be filled with joy and gratitude. For most of the world, and even for us as Christians, it is easy for our joy in life to be tied to the material blessings we enjoy. When I get that special gift for Christmas: then I’m filled with joy. When my favorite team wins the championship: then I’m filled with joy. When I can pay all my bills and have enough left over for vacations and entertainment: then I’m filled with joy. If I’m healthy: then I’m filled with joy. The problem with joy that is centered in material things, is that joy is fleeting. We won’t always be healthy, we won’t always win, we don’t always have enough to get by comfortably. You will never be able to rejoice always, if your joy is based on material possessions or material pleasures. The only way to be able to “rejoice always” is to center our joy in our relationship with God. So immediately following the encouragement to” rejoice always”, is the command: pray without ceasing. In order to truly rejoice always, stay focused on what is the source of joy: God. So pray without ceasing. Now here is where we have to be careful. It is all too easy for prayer to focus solely upon asking God for material things. When the focus of our prayers are on material things, our prayer life will not increase our joy. Once again, when we get the things we want, we will be happy, and when we don’t get the things we want we’ll be sad or angry with God. We’ve all experienced times in our lives when we have prayed for God to give us something we need: God, heal me or my loved one. God, help me find a job. God, help me find someone to love. As we focus upon “getting” things in prayer, our joy will come and go depending upon whether we get what we want. To pray without ceasing is to strive to live each day with a greater awareness of God’s love and grace. In a world of suffering, sin, and death, the deeper spiritual reality is God’s unending love. In Romans 8 Paul proclaims: Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Yes, suffering, persecution, hunger, sickness are present realities, but through faith those things don’t have to separate us from the spiritual truth of God’s love for us and all of humanity. It is through the process of constant prayer and meditation and reflection on God’s love for us that we can rejoice always; that we can be assured nothing can separate us from God’s love. That passage so vividly reminds us that joy is not dependent on the world around us, joy is based upon our faith and trust in God’s love for us, and for his promise of eternal salvation. When those things are the focus of our life, we can rejoice always. And yet, it is a constant challenge. That’s why we are encouraged to pray without ceasing. Keep focusing upon God, keep claiming his promises of forgiveness and grace, keep looking to God as your loving Savior, keep talking to God in prayer, and your joy will increase. One of the reasons I so love our labyrinth walks is they provide me with an opportunity to set everything else aside and just walk and reflect on the goodness and grace of God. I know I need those times to quietly focus on nothing but God and his grace. Our passage goes on to say, Give thanks in all circumstances. To do that, we must have faith that God is somehow working for our good in the midst of all the sin and evil of this world. We don’t thank God for all things. We never thank God for the evils that exist in this world and that we or others may have to endure. To thank God for everything within this fallen world would be heresy. We don’t thank God for war, greed, hatred, violence and the like. Those things are evil. We thank God in all circumstances. We thank God that despite the evils we must endure: his love lasts forever. We thank God that although we will all die, we need not fear death, because God has promised us eternal life. Paul wrote these words to the church in Thessalonica. They were waiting for Jesus to return and establish his kingdom in power. Many were puzzled because they thought Jesus was going to return immediately after his resurrection and establish his kingdom here on earth. They were already experiencing persecution, some of their members had died, and things weren’t the way they were supposed to be. Paul encouraged them with the assurance that Jesus would indeed return, and the day would come when they would be with Jesus in his eternal kingdom. Paul tells them, while they wait: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances. We think of giving gifts at this time of the year. Imagine if joy, prayer, and a thankful heart were presents that you could wrap and put under the tree. In fact, I’ve decided that’s what I’m going to do this Christmas. In addition to the ”things” that are wrapped and put under the tree, I’m going to wrap 3 presents, and in one I’m going to put the joy ornament we’ve passed out to you today. I’m going to include the passage from Romans and a word of encouragement that the gift of joy comes through faith in God’s love. I’m going to include a gift of prayer, and that I have prayed for that person this Christmas season that they may live with the peace of God, and I will include a gift of thanksgiving, as the key to enjoying all of life. Many of you know, that passage in I Thessalonians 5:16-18 has become an important part of my spirituality. I set an alarm on my phone to go off at 5:16p.m. each day. When the alarm goes off, I stop and give thanks to God for his presence in my life, and the blessings I enjoy that come from him. It is a simple but powerful way to daily remember to be thankful, and to stop and specifically thank God for a blessing that I enjoy. We wrote our Christmas letter this week, and I had forgotten that last year at this time I was waiting for results from my prostate biopsy. All indications were that I had cancer, but the results came back negative. Even though I have been fighting a lingering cold, I once again was thankful for the health I have been blessed to have. Yet, even if I would have had cancer, I would be thankful for a God who promises to be with me through all the struggles of this world. I would be thankful for a God who promises that when that time does come when my life ends, I don’t have to fear death. And if I don’t have to fear death, I don’t have to fear the illnesses that might come my way. You see, that key to happiness is not only being thankful for all the physical blessings we enjoy in this life, but being more thankful for the God who is behind them. We can be thankful for a God who created a good earth for us to enjoy, despite its fallen nature. We can be thankful for the God who promises to be with us always. We can be thankful for the God who encourages us to cast all our cares upon him. We can be thankful for the God who has prepared a place for us in heaven. When we hear the Scripture for today, it is only possible to truly rejoice and live thankful lives, because we have faith in a good and gracious God who loves us, forgiveness us, and promises us eternal life with him in heaven. This Christmas, may you have the gifts of joy, prayer and thanksgiving, under your tree, and in your life. AMEN

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