A Sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, CT December 18, 2022
First Reading: I Thessalonians 5:12-22
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 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.
Gospel Reading: Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
One of the oldest books in the New Testament is our first reading today – the first letter to the Thessalonians was almost certainly written within twenty or thirty years of the first Easter. It was written to an early Christian community in what’s now the Greek city of Thessalonika (or Thessalonica) where Paul had been working. He’d moved on, probably to Corinth, in Turkey, and was writing back to the folks he knew well.
We know that most early Christians were working class, sometimes poor, often slaves – with the occasional wealthier person. They were people for whom the world did not work well. When Paul urges them to give thanks in all things, he’s not talking to people who always have enough for everyone. He’s talking to people who are wholly dependent on the good will of others for their work.
When we read Paul’s injunction to “give thanks in all circumstance”, know that he’s not one of those “every day in every way I am getting better and better” people. He knows that life is often hard, frequently challenging, and sometimes really painful.
And yet, he calls on the Thessalonians – and by extension – us, to give thanks on all occasions.
It’s the painful truth that bad things happen today just as they did for the Thessalonians. We still lose our jobs. Our parents get COVID. Each of us faces health issues – if not now, well, just wait. I’m not going to recite a long list of the bad things that can happen – it’s depressing. But not reciting the list doesn’t mean I don’t know they exist. I do and so do you. Sometimes life is just plain awful.
And yet, Paul calls us to “give thanks in all circumstances”. How can we possibly do that?
I think the answer is in our second reading this morning.
I think we all know that one of the unwritten truths of the Christmas story is that it’s the story of two people who are facing a pile of trouble. Mary’s going to have a baby; Joseph knows he’s not the father. Matthew portrays Joseph as a kind man, in that while he’s going to break things off with Mary he intends to do so with a minimum of public shame. But he is going to step away from the idea of raising another man’s child as his own first-born.
And then the angel comes and tells him not to be afraid, to go ahead and accept this child, to take Mary as his wife. Between Joseph’s story here in Matthew, and Mary’s story in Luke, we hear clearly the story of two people who are resolved to follow God’s lead, and who intend to live as faithfully as they can. She will have the child; he will give the child a name and raise him as a son.
It’s not just that the parents make the best of things; it is that the child changes the world by his presence, through his teachings. It is those teachings, that changed world to which Paul points. This, he teaches, is why we can give thanks in all circumstances.
We can give thanks because – in the midst of the worst the world throws at us – we have hope. I may struggle, but we are together. When my world collapses, there is a community to stand with me. When our community struggles, there is a world to reach out.
And the presence of this world is not simply a community of comfort. We are also a community of action. We do not simply feed the hungry; we work to eliminate the causes of hunger. We reach out to end racism; we welcome the stranger and re-create community so that all are welcome. This, then, is why Paul calls on us to give thanks.
Listen, we’re not going to be able to always do it. Sometimes we’re too tired, sometimes it’s just all too much. God understands that kind of exhaustion. That’s why we keep an eye on one another – so we can hold each other, hold our neighbors up. So this is not a call to work ourselves to death; it is a call to be community.
Paul is calling on us to be “glass half-full people”, to make our focus what can happen, not what can’t. Let’s be clear; our world is filled with people who are ready to say things are terrible or you haven’t done enough. But that’s not what Paul is calling us to do or be. We are the people who believe the best of others. We help those who are down; we take the disasters of our world and figure out how to do better. This is what Jesus was born to teach us.
Every person matters.
We live hope.
We love our world.
Hear Paul’s words again, this time from the Message translation:
“Get along among yourselves, each of you doing your part. . . . Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet.
“Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves you don’t snap at each other. Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out.Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens.
“This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.
“May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!”
© 2022, Virginia H. Child