Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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A Watchful Life

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

This is one of those sections of Paul’s letters called “parenesis.” It’s kind of the last minute thoughts. It’s a collection of short, rapid-fire statements. He’s trying to get in some last words before he wraps things up. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a common thread here. 1 Thessalonians deals extensively with the return of Christ and the Day of the Lord. Chapter 5 has a lot to say about being watchful for his return. So I think all this advice falls under the category of “What does a watchful life look like?”

First, there are three constant characteristics of a watchful Christian life: Joy, prayer, and gratitude. It’s the “constant” part that makes this difficult. It’s not hard to be joyful from time to time. Not hard to pray sometimes. Not hard to be grateful sometimes. But all the time? That’s a little more difficult. It’s easy to be anything for short periods and hard to be anything all the time.

Joy is not just happiness. Happiness is something that comes and goes based off of present circumstances. When things are good, we’re happy. When things are bad, we’re unhappy. But joy is a settled confidence in our future circumstances. It’s a settled confidence that the end of the story is good. There’s a Christian song that plays on the radio stations I listen to from time to time, and there’s a line in the song, “And the story isn’t over if the story isn’t good.” That’s the sense of joy. Things might not be good right now, but we know how the story ends. We are confident that in the end, God will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more mourning, crying, or pain. That’s the sense of joy. Our hope is in an eternal salvation, not in good things in this present life. You won’t find a “prosperity gospel” in my preaching. I am not going to tell you, as some will, that if you “just have enough faith” that God will give you good health and abundant wealth and everything you ever wanted. This life may be very difficult for you, but this life is not the source of our joy or confidence.

We pray constantly. Prayer is vital to our relationship with God. Prayer is us talking to God and listening for God. You can’t have a good relationship without communication. God is always with us, so we should be always praying. We shouldn’t think of prayer as something that we set aside five or ten minutes of the day to do. That’s not wrong; it’s just insufficient. If you’re married, think about that relationship. It’s not wrong to set aside ten minutes a day to talk with your spouse. But it sure would be weird if that was the only time you spent talking with him or her, right? Then why would we do that in our relationship with God?

And we should be grateful, giving thanks to God in all circumstances. This doesn’t mean that all circumstances are good. They most certainly are not. But we

know that God works in all circumstances for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes. To be grateful at all times, we must live with the awareness that we have received more than we deserve. We need eyes to see all the ways in which we have been blessed rather than eyes that focus on the bad things in life.

These are someone else’s thoughts about this passage, but I want to share them with you. What Paul is describing here is a life of worship. Prayer, gratitude, and joy are essential acts of worship. These things should be done because we live a life of worship, not because of the present circumstances we find ourselves in. In order to move into a life of worship, we must move into a place where godly truth fills our thoughts, the kinds of truth that defy present circumstances. We must move into a place where “I had a bad day” or “Things didn’t go as I planned” are replaced with, “God is still God. Jesus still loves me. My hope is secure in him. And I’m never alone in the midst of life’s struggles.”

I got to be honest and say, “I’m not there, yet.” But it’s where I want to be. It’s where I’m trying to go in life.

Paul moves on, and says, “Don’t stifle, or more literally, quench the Spirit.” I think quench is a better translation because it makes that connection between water and fire, which is used as a picture of the Spirit. This means that we are attentive to what God is doing. We’re not trying to suppress what God is doing in our lives.

When I was about 20 years old, I was talking with a young woman I was working with who had a back problem. Suddenly I felt this compulsion that I should lay hands on her and pray for this problem to be healed. And then my brain said, “That’s just stupid. What are you talking about?” So I didn’t do it. And I’m convinced that I was suppressing the Spirit. God gave me a message and I squished it down and ignored it.

“Don’t scoff at prophecies.” Prophecies are messages from God. Now we shouldn’t just accept them thoughtlessly. We are supposed to test everything. We should hold a message up and see if it aligns with God’s word. But we shouldn’t scoff at a word from God. We should think of preaching as a prophetic word. You shouldn’t just accept what I have to say. You should test it. Does it align with God’s word? If it does, accept it. If it doesn’t, don’t. But I do hope you won’t scoff at it, meaning just reject it outright.

And finally, we should “hold onto everything good and keep away from every kind of evil.” In other words, we need a discerning spirit. We need to be able to look at a word, a thought, an idea, an action, and decide if it is good or bad.

Our world is terribly confusing. And it just seems to be getting more confusing. There is some good in it, but there’s also an awful lot of evil. How are we at discerning between the two? Do we recognize the character of things? What kind of a foothold do we allow evil things in our lives? When we think about the media and the entertainment that we consume, how often do we allow something that really isn’t good in our lives with the thought that, “Well, a little bit won’t hurt me?”

Back in September, I had to take a mandatory training for pastors about “boundaries in a digital world.” Like all mandatory trainings, I can assure you that it was just fantastic. There was a great deal of attention paid to the subject of pornography. In a digital world, it has become so much easier and more anonymous to view pornography. Hopefully, I don’t have to say this, but in case I do, pornography is evil. It is destructive both to people and relationships.

But the character of pornography is that it begins with things that are “just outside” the bounds. And then it becomes a progressive addiction, requiring more and more in order to have the same effect. As Paul says, “Keep away from every kind of evil.” As in, we should stay well away from evil rather than letting “just a little bit” in to see how we hold up under it. Many a Christ-follower has been ruined by “letting just a little bit” in. Keep away from evil is a necessary instruction for us to live a watchful life.

So this is the character of the watchful life. It is a life of worship, filled with joy, gratitude and prayer. It is a life of being attentive to and responsive to the work of God’s Spirit. It is a life of hearing messages from God and confirming with God’s word that they are genuine. And it is life devoted to seeking out the good and avoiding evil. If we consistently live a life like that, then we don’t have to worry about when the Lord returns or when we go to meet him.

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