The Common Good Collective team had the esteemed pleasure of spending time with Walter Brueggemann this week. We will be sharing this conversation with you soon, but in the meantime here is another contemplative sermon on how to stay connected to the true spirit of Christmas.
It is not easy now to let Christmas be a singular moment of faith and life. On the one hand, commercialism even before Thanksgiving detracts from the moment of birthed newness. On the other hand, the demands of COVID-19 make every day seem like the next one and the last one, and we don’t easily recognize “why this day is different from all other days.”
On both counts, the church’s attentive focus on the decisive moment of Christmas is a summons that requires some energy.
In the epistle reading for the day, Paul invites the congregation to order its life so that it may “be kept sound” (undamaged, undiminished) for the parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul has no doubt that ordinary time will be deeply disrupted, and we do not want to miss out on that disruption. Our season of overblown commercialism will be disrupted; the despairing sameness of the virus will be disrupted. In the verses before our reading, Paul issues pastoral imperatives for readiness:
- Respect pastoral leaders and esteem them (vv. 12-13);
- Be at peace among yourselves (v. 13);
- Be patient (v. 14); and
- Seek to do good … to all (v. 15).
Nothing here about gift-giving, or shopping, or decorations, or sending cards, or pageants! Just neighborliness that enhances human dignity and wellbeing! That is, for Paul, the requirement for Christmas preparation (for the Parousia!), for the moment of His coming. Paul anticipates that those in his pastoral charge should put some energy into preparation.
That is, of course, a very different energy from the kind that leaves many of us mostly exhausted by Christmas day.
Paul writes to the congregation at Thessalonica on the assumption that his readers are knowledgeable about faith and are clued in for the time. I can identify three facets of this assumption on Paul’s part.
First, Paul expects his readers in the church to know what to do. He issues three expectations to them, each of which is surely counter-cultural:
1. Always rejoice!
Joy is a core theme for Paul, but it is not to be confused with our commercialized exuberance at Christmas. Nor is it “Christmas joy” that comes in a bottle. Rather Christmas joy, for Christians, is a deep, glad confidence that God’s good will for the world will outrun all of our troubles and tribulations. This is not a Pollyanna denial; Paul is able and willing to look trouble squarely in the face. But he always regards the troubles of the world as penultimate, because beyond such vexations are the capacity and readiness of God to work a newness that is not a reshuffle of what is old. Thus Christmas joy is based in the long game of God’s rule over all evil, including the ultimate evil of death. For that reason, Christmas joy has Easter on its horizon. This is the same Paul who later on will write: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God … not even death” (Romans 8:38-39)!
2. Always pray … without stopping!
For Paul, prayer is neither an occasional pious act nor an exercise in “thoughts and prayers.” It is, rather, an act whereby the world is held up to God in all its neediness in the confidence that the God addressed in our prayers has the capacity for a transformative response. The reason for not “ceasing to pray” is that the world and all of its creatures are penultimate and are finally dependent upon the good gifts of the creator God for life and for wellbeing. Thus, constant prayer is a way in which our lives are regularly and confidently addressed back to the God who gives life.
3. Always give thanks!
“Thanks” is a ready acknowledgement that we are on the receiving end of life from the God who gives more than we can ask or imagine. Thanks is the creaturely counterpart to God’s incessant and bottomless generosity. It is the ready affirmation that we do not possess anything that is not a gift to us (see I Corinthians 4:7). Thanks is a glad acknowledgement that we live by unmerited grace, by undeserved generosity, by inexplicable gift. Thanks is not a calculating bookkeeping enterprise, but an overflow of awed recognition that we are the beneficiaries of God’s life-assuring gifts.
It is worth considering these three acts in light of our conventional Christmas practice:
- This is an invitation to joy that may discipline Christmas fatigue;
- This is an invitation to pray that is an antidote to our busyness;
- This is an invitation to thank that may counter our excessive programmed management of our resources.
We know what to do!
Second, Paul invites his readers to know what to receive. Everybody, not just children, looks forward to getting gifts at Christmas. It is very nice to be on the receiving end of gifts. It is also a vexation sometimes to know what to give. Paul counters all of that with an awareness that what is being given to us by the creator God is “the Spirit” (v. 19). For starters, the Spirit is the breath of life that we, moment by moment, inhale as a free gift, even in the midst of the deepest smog and pollution. The spirit is the surge of vitality from the creator God that we cannot muster for ourselves, so that we are not, cannot be, and need not be self-starters. In context, the Spirit is the surge of courage that may come upon Christian congregations in their worship and obedience, a force from God that tilts toward newness and that is effectively transformative in the life of the congregation.
Evidence of the work of the Spirit was, among other things, found in the presence of prophets who spoke outside all conventionality, inviting new thought, new vision, and new possibility. Evidently, there were those who resisted such surges of newness as too unsettling and too demanding.
In response to such resistance, Paul issues two pastoral imperatives. First, do not quench! Do not try to stifle the gift of newness that comes from the wind of God, but be open to that newness.
Second, test such surges of newness to make sure that they cohere with the primary claims of the gospel.
The image that emerges in Thessalonica is a Christian congregation that is not worn and haggard by “Christmas preparation,” but that is in a receptive posture for newness that is the gift of God. Such a newness of course shakes and shatters our old comfort zones, but that is how it is with God’s transformative capacity. Members of this congregation likely were not into shopping for Christmas gifts. They could, however, be discerning where the gift of God’s newness was intruding into their lives in ways that both transformed and challenged.
Third, Paul invites his readers to know what time it is.
In our commercialism of Christmas, we notice that in most shopping venues there is no clock. Commercialism wants to banish time, make all time timeless in self-forgetting indulgence. To the contrary, Christians know what time it is. It is time for the parousia, the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul readily utilizes the rhetoric of apocalyptic in order to witness to the coming of Jesus. That rhetoric, however, is drawn close to the dailyness of lived reality when we consider how Jesus “came” in the “coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 23). The “coming” we celebrate is in the dramatic scene of Bethlehem with the wondrous cast of angels and shepherds, and Caesar lingering much too close at hand. But of course Paul does not seem to know the tale from Bethlehem. What he knows, rather, is the myriad of stories that circulated in the early church that variously were about a leper healed, a blind man seeing, a lame man walking, a dead man raised to new life … one at a time. The true “apocalyptic” of the earliest memory concerns transformed lives that constituted the routing of the kingdom of evil and death in specific, quite concrete cases.
Very much of our commercialized Christmas observance, reiterated by the busy preoccupation of the church, has lost sight of the dangerous and transformative power that defines “the coming.” The familiar beauty of the Christmas pageant no doubt has its place. But the true “coming” that is to be celebrated is the astonishing capacity of God to restore to life the lost dimensions of our creaturely capacity.
We now live in a world where the kingdom of death is surging — in the virus, in the failed economy that breeds starvation for many, in our ready embrace of brutality, and in the surge of anti-neighborly, fearful greed. This is the truth that is right in front of us. It is not, however, the whole truth. It is not the truth entrusted to us. The truth entrusted to us is that there is a “coming one” who in actual bodily ways rescues from the power of death.
That, of course, is our cause for celebration. In order to celebrate well we must know,
- What to do: rejoice, pray, thank;
- What to receive: the spirit;
- What time it is; it is the very edge of the coming.
The diminishment of Christmas among us or its distortion in too busy fatigue is obvious to all of us. This means that in our more-or-less post-Christian culture, I suppose, that there are many folk, inside the church as well as outside the church, who have little notion about the invitation or the summons of Christmas. Thus it is the pastoral task of the church to teach ways to keep Christmas faithfully. This is not to harp against commercialism because that is too easy. And anyway, that train has left the station. Our accent is not on what not to do, but on what to do. We will only do what we know. And because of this paragraph from Paul we know a great deal:
We know what to do;
We know what to receive;
We know what time it is.
Paul finishes this paragraph with a mighty assurance:
The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this (v. 24)!
God calls us to this moment of in-breaking. God is faithful. God will do “this,” that is, God will bring newness in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our work is to watch for the in-breaking of that newness. That newness happens here and there, now and then when the frontiers of evil and death are pushed back, when the advances of deathliness are repelled. Our Christmas celebration will be most rich and wondrous when we are kept “sound and blameless” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).