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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon


15th December 2002

Fr David Shepherd

Advent 3 (1 Thessalonians 5.16-24)

Think back to your childhood; what pictures come to mind. The chances are that amongst those firmly rooted in your unconscious memory will be some illustrating a bible story. If you see it once more the memory comes flooding back. It is not just true of pictures but of stories and music too.

As most of us grew up in the pre-television era those images will be relatively few but powerfully defining.

Today we are bombarded with a multiplicity of images and ideas. I wonder what, if any, images our children or grandchildren will retain in their old age. No longer is there a commonly held belief system based on the Bible. Instead we live in a fragmented society in which Christians can feel confused and threatened.

Actually this situation mirrors the early church. Today's epistle, St. Paul's first to the Thessalonians, was written to a church very much in a cultural melting pot, in a ferment of ideas and experiences. Thessalonica was a major port and trading centre, in our terms very multicultural. The new church might well have gone under amidst all the completing claims for truth.

What is interesting about the letter is that it is the oldest piece of Christian writing we have. It was Paul's reply to Timothy' s description of Christian life in Thessalonica. It was written about 50 AD, less than 20 years after the death & resurrection of Jesus that are so much a feature of it. Today's section is very much a piece of counter-cultural writing and thus we can learn much from it.

Paul gives us three marks of the church.

  1. 'Rejoice always.' The Christian community is marked by joy. Joy is a graced quality that comes from within. It comes through reflection on the cross of Christ and through hope based on the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Thus it is based on realism. It is different from happiness. Happiness is to do with chance, luck and fate. The root of happiness lies in the old English word 'hap'. (Think of words like 'haphazard'). Happiness comes from without and is at the mercy of events. Even in adversity, joy, a gift of the Spirit comes bubbling up. Thus, as St. Paul tells us we can 'rejoice always'. We may not always feel like it but the common Christian experience is that joyfulness follows the prayer.
  2. 'Pray without ceasing'. Prayer is the second great mark of the church, coming out of our rejoicing. It is about being totally open before God, bringing to him all our needs and concerns, from the global to the very personal. Here at St. Matthew's no doubt we pray without ceasing but maybe we need to think more about our focus. In our prayers without ceasing as a Christian community we need to bring the particular to our heavenly Father. As I heard one of the more the evangelical curates in our deanery say, 'general prayers receive general answers'. So if we desire new people, someone to do a particular job, guidance with a special project, then we should ask. This should be especially true in our public intercession. If we are fearful for our future then we should say so. Such prayer will be answered. Prayer leads into the next mark of the church.
  3. 'Give thanks in all circumstances'. In a society that demand rights, but forgets its duty to God and neighbour, this is radical indeed. It is also, as St. Paul says, 'the will of God in Christ Jesus for you'. Thankfulness follows quite naturally in the Christian procession that Paul has described. After rejoicing, after the discovery of God at work in our intercession, comes thankfulness for all that God is and gives to us, for his 'inestimable love' as the 'General Thanksgiving' puts it. Indeed that beautiful prayer is a good place to begin if we wish to be thankful. Through its generality we will be given the grace to be thankful in the particular circumstances of our lives. (If you don't know where to find it seem afterwards)

St. Paul tells the Thessalonians neither to 'quench the Spirit' nor to 'despise the prophets'. His words are good foil to such a temptation and an encouragement to us. Having urged us to rejoice, to pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all things he ends with a prayer to the one who 'is faithful and will do all this.'

We can hear his prayer for ourselves.

'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.' <\i>

Amen.

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Last updated 14/12/2002 23:00:00 Author: Fr David Shepherd