Sunday, December 14, 2014

Set Apart

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Advent is a season of anticipation. 

It recalls the centuries when God’s people anticipated the birth of the Messiah, the Christ, God’s Anointed One. 

In Advent, we also anticipate the coming of Christmas day. (Especially if you're about six or seven years old.)

But more than anything, Advent is a season in which we remind ourselves that we need to live each day in eager anticipation of Jesus’ return. 

One of the most ancient liturgical confessions of the Church is simply: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

Over the past two Sundays, the first two Sundays in Advent, we’ve talked about how to anticipate, how to wait, for the return of Jesus, how to get ready to meet Jesus, either at the ends of our own earthly lives or at the end of this world, when He will, as we confess each Sunday, “judge the living and the dead.” We’ve talked about preparing through daily repentance and daily renewal through the forgiveness God gives to those who trust in Christ as their only God and King.

But in today’s second lesson, the apostle Paul gives us a different way of looking at how to anticipate the coming of Jesus. It’s one I like a lot and it can all be summarized by a single word: sanctification

The word sanctification is rooted in a Latin word, sanctus, which means holy. The part of the traditional liturgy in which we sing, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God power and might, heaven and earth are full of Your glory…” is called the sanctus. 

The word holy means set apart, special, different. It could even be translated as weird, odd, not like other things.

This book is called the Holy Bible or Holy Book, because out of all the books in the world, this one is set apart. It is the Word of God. No other book can make that claim. 

Holy Baptism is set apart and different from any other baptism, including John the Baptist’s baptism, because Holy Baptism is set apart, the only baptism in which God’s Holy Spirit comes to live in the baptized. 

Holy Communion is unlike any other meal in which people have community with each other because in Holy Communion, we have communion with God, we receive the very body and blood of Jesus, and through it, God's forgiveness and life pulsing within us. 

Now, we’ve mentioned before what the Bible scholars call inclusios or inclusions. An important theme of a particular section of Scripture is underscored when a particular word or idea appears at its beginning and at its conclusion. That signals the reader that everything in between those two markers is about a single idea. These bookends form what they call “inclusions.” 

Pull out a sanctuary Bible, please, and turn to page 825 and then look at 1 Thessalonians 4:3. We’re not going to look at the whole verse right now, just the pertinent start of it. It says, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified…” 

Now, turn the page and look at a line that comes almost at the end of our second lesson for this morning, to chapter 5, verses 23. It says, in part, “May the God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through…”” 

So, the theme of this section of Paul’s first century letter to the Christians in the city of Thessalonica, including today’s second lesson is let God set you apart

Give God access to your heart, mind, and will so that He can make you over in Christ’s image. 

That’s God’s will for our lives, to make us more like the One Who died and rose to set us free from sin and death, set us free to be the people God had in mind when He formed us in our mothers’ wombs. 

We’re not supposed to look, act, sound like, or be like the rest of the world. We’re supposed to be set apart, different. 

In 1 Peter 2:11, we’re told, “ foreigners and exiles...abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” 

And in Romans 12:1-2, we’re told: “ view of God’s mercy...offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

It turns out that being open to the process by which God sets us apart from the world and makes us over into Christ’s image is precisely the way we prepare to meet Jesus

But what does that process look like? 

Please take a look at our lesson, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 (page 826 in the sanctuary Bibles). Paul writes: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 

Can you imagine anything harder than fulfilling the three imperatives that Paul gives in this one verse? 

"Rejoice always"? 

Even when the gift I’ve been unable to find at the first five stores also isn’t at the sixth? 

Even when my child is in the intensive care unit, his life hanging in the balance? 

Even when I’ve lost my wife or my husband? 

I think that we react in this way often because we don’t understand the difference between joy and happiness. (I know this is hard for me to remember!) 

Happiness is about the things that happen to us: We laugh at a joke, win the lottery, meet a friend. 

Joy is that deep in the bone sense of contentment that comes from knowing that because Jesus Christ died and rose and still lives and because I believe in Him, I have the forgiveness of my sins and life with God forever. 

Happiness happens to us because of our circumstances; joy is ours in spite of our circumstances. 

Joy can’t be taken from us even when we’re unhappy. (I have often found that an important truth to hold onto.)

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, for example, Paul talks about the difference between the grief of those who follow Christ and those who don’t: Those without Christ grieve with no hope; those who trust in Christ still grieve. It would be unnatural not to. But they have an eternity of hope. They have joy.

Back in our lesson, Paul says, to “pray continually.” (Some translations put it, "pray without ceasing.") 

I’d guess that in my years as a pastor, this is the passage about which I've gotten the second greatest number of questions. “‘Pray continually’ or ‘Pray without ceasing,’” someone will ask. “How on earth am I supposed to do that? Don’t I have other things to do in life?” 

Yes, you do. 

And so did Jesus. 

And it’s from Him that we can learn what this means. 

Jesus had intense times when He went off by Himself to pray, of course. 

He also prayed publicly with other people. 

But Jesus was also in continual fellowship with God the Father. In John 5:19, Jesus says of Himself, “...Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

Jesus remained prayerfully connected to God the Father all through His day. And if Jesus needed to pray constantly like this, how much more do we need to do the same thing? 

Trying to live the Christian life without the power God gives to us through prayer in Jesus’ Name is like trying to drive our cars without gas in the tank. It doesn’t work. 

The prayerless person simply isn’t prepared for the inevitable tough times of this life...or for the coming of Jesus. 

I once saw evangelist Billy Graham on a late night talk show. He amazed the host by saying that the whole time he was being interviewed, he was praying, asking God to help him say the right thing, to glorify God even in this interchange. That’s praying continually, even while hard at work.

Give thanks in all circumstances.” This passage has been the subject of maybe the greatest number of questions I've gotten as a pastor. 

It’s important to note that Paul says to pray in all circumstances, not for all circumstances. Not all circumstances that come into our lives are blessings, you know. Evil things come from the devil, the world, and our sinful selves. Jesus makes clear that all disease is ultimately attributable to the devil. But even in the midst of life's difficulties, even horrors, we have reason to be thankful to a God Who understands us and has conquered for all eternity our enemies, sin and death.

An elderly man, deeply shaken by the death of his wife, told me that every night, amid tears of grief, he fell to his knees and thanked God for the years they’d had together and for the hope of eternity through Jesus Christ that they’d shared. Even in sadness, he was thankful and had God’s peace, what Paul calls elsewhere in the New Testament, a “peace which surpasses all understanding.”

Starting at verse 19 of our lesson, Paul continues: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all;hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.” 

We live in a cynical time, a time too, in which people doubt the notion that there are any hard and fast truths. So, when people--even Christian people--hear others speaking in the Name of Jesus, claiming that what they say has the backing of God’s Word in Scripture, we tend to be cynical. We tend toward skepticism in the face of witnesses for Christ who display what one Bible scholar identifies as the key characteristics of John the Baptist: “public, certain, and humble.”

Part of our skepticism may be that we don’t know God’s Word well enough to know what “prophecies” spoken in Christ’s Name are true or false. 

A knowledge of God’s Word is just as important as prayer in helping us get through our days, living in hope, or anticipating the coming of Jesus. 

In fact, if prayer is conversation with God, reading and digesting God’s Word is essential to prayer. 

Our words of prayer to God are mere responses to the Word from God. 

We respond to its call to repent, to believe, to trust, to live in the assurance of His love, grace, and provision, to call on God and be saved, and to call on God in every time of need. 

When we know God’s Word, we grow up, no longer, in the words of Ephesians 4:14, “...infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” This is one reason why I hope that you’ll join the journey through the Bible in 2015.

Paul’s words for this morning end in a prayer. Verse 23: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” 

May God grant these things to us as well. 

As we submit to God, allowing Him to set us apart and sanctify us, worship with His people, soak in His Word, thank Him in all circumstances, pray continually, and receive His body and blood, may you and I be ready to truly celebrate Christmas, be ready to meet our Lord face to face, be ready to face life and death and eternity. Amen

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