Barely Listening, Rev. Kinsey
“Upon first read,” notes New Testament Professor Carla Works, (Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.) “the short imperative phrases in [Paul’s 1st Letter to the] Thessalonians sound like the instructions that I might rehearse for my kids before dropping them off at a friend’s house, ‘Always be respectful. Listen closely. Pick up after yourself. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Call me if you need anything. In fact, just call me period.’ The list goes on. Most of the time those words are not even heard,” the professor says, “because my children know them by heart. They have heard them repeatedly.” But, she says, “Doing them is another matter!” And Professor Works concludes: “I suspect that many of us read Paul’s list of final exhortations in a similar way -- barely listening.”
Ok, that’s a challenge I can’t refuse! Let’s take another listen: “Rejoice always,” says Paul; “pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; … 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.”
This is the ending, the conclusion, of what is, probably Paul’s first and earliest letter of them all, that we have in the New Testament. And because Paul’s letters are earlier by a generation, than the four gospels and other New Testament writings, it makes this the earliest writing, period, and the closest to the historical Jesus.
In the middle of these seven ‘imperative phrases,’ as Professor Works calls them, these exhortations, or good news declarations, Paul says, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Our attitude and our actions are to be patterned after Christ Jesus, who is the embodiment of God’s will in the world, for us. The joy, the unceasing prayer, giving thanks, honoring the prophets, testing everything, and abstaining from evil, all stem from the one who lived and died as God’s son. And in his rising, our hope for new life is also grounded and assured. And this gives us reason to rejoice, and do all the rest, because we live in the new age of Christ’s coming, and hopeful anticipation of God’s realm, fully revealed.
The church in Thessalonica, in northern Greece, was made up of converts from polytheism. They worshiped many gods in the pantheon of Greco-Roman culture before hearing the Word of God, from this self-proclaimed zealous Jew and follower of Jesus, Paul of Tarsus, a fellow Roman citizen. All of them, Paul included, grew up in this empire of Julius Caesar, who had considered himself divine, and his heir, Emperor Octavian, who was hailed as, son of god. And so, for the fledgling church in Thessalonica, the capital city of Macedonia, Greece, and these new followers of Jesus, who professed him, as ‘king’ and ‘Son of God’ – they were technically committing treason, which Paul noted, drew ‘persecution,’ in some cases, at the hands of the authorities. And Paul made special note, already in chapter 1, that their witness, “turning to God from idols,” as he says, “to serve a living and true God,” (Thess. 1:9), is an example that believers for the whole rest of the district, and beyond, were admiring, and taking courage from.
In our gospel reading, “witnessing,” was John the Baptist’s primary role as well, which is why his story is recalled today in Advent. John’s witness is first of all, telling the truth, that he, himself, is not the light, nor the Messiah. But 2) his witness is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” as Isaiah proclaimed, “make straight the way of the Lord.” And thirdly, his witness is that “one who is coming after me,” is the Messiah, the one who will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit, and not just water, and that he, John, “is not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of Jesus’ sandal!”
None of the religious authorities wanted to hear this, or wanted to believe him! Yet John testified none-the-less! John insisted, because, these were not normal times either! And the truth had to be told, when God was calling you to stand up to the false appearances, like who is the true Messiah and Son of God!
And so, the observation that Professor Works made about her kids in relation to Paul’s letter, was, I’m not sure if my kids are even listening to my admonitions when I drop them off for a play-date. But witness to them is none-the-less what’s called for! Teaching them how to act is a full time job as parent. She gives them the same pitch every time, and they know them by heart, even as they roll their eyes to hear them repeated, one more time. But, as mom knows, the hard thing is actually doing them! The same thing goes for Paul’s church in Thessalonica. They’ve heard all the admonitions before. And we know this because they pop up in all of Paul’s letters, and in the gospels. We know them by heart, but doing them is hard.
But that’s Paul’s witness exactly! He doesn’t tell us to rejoice in all things because it’s easy. But because it’s important as followers of Jesus. He doesn’t tell us to abstain from every form of evil, and not to repay anyone evil for evil –– because that’s easy, but because it’s important, as followers of Jesus.
Another way to say this is: Following Jesus is not just about professing faith, but about living it too.
This week I can’t help but think the most blatant example of repaying others with evil, is the so-called Tax Reform bill. Folks, this is an attack on the very best values of our society, based, as St. Paul says, on testing everything, holding fast to what is (the common) good; and abstaining from every form of evil.
I think it needs to be called out, that the basis of this reckless bill – cutting taxes for the already very wealthy, at the expense of social programs that enliven working families – is that those pushing the bill are sold on the idea that working families and the poor deserve! what they have. This notion that the 99% of us are “just spending every darn penny we have, whether it’s on booze, or women, or movies,” as Senator Grassley from Iowa has said, has permeated a majority of our representatives in Washington.
I’m sorry, but this is not any witness that I can recognize, as a witness to the teachings of Jesus the Messiah! Or as the prophet Isaiah said in our first reading, “I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” The scriptures stand up for something quite different!
Or as the Rev. Dr. William Barber said in an open letter to Congress, “the country’s poor and disenfranchised, along with moral leaders and people of conscience nationwide, call on you to stop the gross act of violence these bills would commit against our nation’s most vulnerable to serve its richest and most powerful… Our nation’s soul is at stake.”
19Do not quench the Spirit,” said Paul; 20“Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.”
We all know the admonitions and good news declarations by heart. Yet doing them is not easy. But following Jesus is all about doing, and living out our faith, with joy and without returning evil for evil.
On this Third Sunday of Advent, let us prepare for the coming of the Messiah, the humble Savior born in a manger, by witnessing to who Jesus truly is – and truly witnessing to the light of the world.
Let us be that light – for our children, and in the face of all those who would try to put our light out – “holding fast to what is good; and abstaining from every form of evil!” This is our unceasing prayer!