Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, August 20, 2018
Search this site.View the site map.

Living Out the Watchful Life

John 1:6-8 and 19-28 and 1st Thessalonians 5:16-24

 Throughout this season of Advent, we have been focusing on the theme of watchfulness and readiness for Christ’s return.  Now it’s easy for me to say, “Be ready.  Be ready if Christ returns today or if you go to meet him tomorrow.”  But practically speaking, what are the things we do to be watchful?  What’s the difference between a watchful lifestyle and one that is not?  

 1st Thessalonians 5 gives us some ideas.  This whole first letter to the Thessalonian church deals extensively with Christ’s return.  Chapter five begins with a reminder that while his return will be unexpected by the world, it shouldn’t be unexpected by us.  We know he’s coming, so we should be alert, sober, and live as children of the light.  

 In that context, we find these words:  Be joyful always.  Be prayerful always.  Be thankful always.  It’s not the adjectives that bother us in those verses.  We’re okay with the idea of being joyful, thankful, and prayerful.  It’s the adverb that bothers us:  Always.  It just doesn’t make sense to think in terms of being always joyful, always praying, and always giving thanks.  How can we be like that all the time?

 Now these are three separate commands, they are also strongly linked together.  It’s impossible to be joyful all the time if we are not also prayerful.  And it’s impossible to be prayerful without also being thankful.    

 First, joy. The New Testament has numerous instructions to be joyful.  In Matthew 5, Jesus tells us that even when we are persecuted, we should be joyful because we know that God has a great reward waiting for us in heaven.  In Acts 5, we see the apostles putting that into practice, rejoicing as they are leaving the Jewish high court, where they have just been flogged.  In Acts 16, we see Paul and Silas singing in prison.  And in Philippians 4, Paul echoes his words here by saying that we should always be full of joy in the Lord.  

 Now everyone experiences joy from time to time in their lives.  But the peculiar thing about Christian joy is that it does not depend on circumstances.  It is a “settled” joy.  It’s the kind of joy that can only come about if we have the kind of faith that allows us to see the end of the story.  If we can see and know that Christ has overcome, and know that we have a secure future in him, only then can we have a “settled” joy. 

Constant joy is impossible, if it depends on the conditions of our lives.  But constant joy is possible, even inevitable, if we have the assurance of God’s love and salvation.

 Next Paul reminds us to pray constantly.  At the very least this means that prayer can’t simply be something that we only practice in times of corporate worship or private devotion.  Prayer must permeate our lives.  We talked a few weeks ago about David, and how David saw God at work everywhere, and he prayed about everything he saw.  

 If Christian joy is a settled joy, then we can also say that Christian prayer is a settled attitude of dependence on God.  We pray constantly because we acknowledge that we can’t do it all on our own.  We need God each step of the way in our lives.  Prayer is never our last resort, but always our first choice.

 And finally, we should be thankful in all circumstances.  Some people think that should read “be thankful for all circumstances.”  A settled attitude of thankfulness means that we recognize that God is always for us.  He is working all things together for our ultimate benefit.  So we can see that, regardless of circumstances, God is always at work and we can trust that he is acting for our good.  Only in this kind of condition can we thank God at all times.  If we think that God is not always for us, then it’s easy to see why we would not always be thankful. 

 Is it hard to be thankful at all times?  Yes, most certainly.  It means that we have to look past the bad things to see the good.  But there is always good in our lives, because God is always in our lives.  I came across this quote that I thought was good for what it means to be thankful at all times:  If we turn our eyes toward the sun, then the shadows are always behind us.  But if we turn our backs to the sun, the shadows are always in front of us.  It means we must make a choice to focus our gaze on the goodness of God in the midst of the evils of life.

 So we have these three:  Be joyful always, prayerful always, thankful always.  What’s behind all of them is a life filled with God and filled with worship.  There is a faith here that is able to trust that there are depths that we cannot see, but we trust that God is still sovereign and still at work for our ultimate good.  If our hearts are not right with God in these things, then we can’t hope to see him at work in our lives in other ways.

 Next, we remain watchful by testing everything, holding onto the good and rejecting the bad.  We should not quench the work of the Holy Spirit.  The image there is

that of extinguishing flames, which is appropriate because of the connection between the Holy Spirit and fire.  

 The best guess of Bible scholars is that there had been some in Thessalonika who had been led astray by false prophecy.  As 1st Corinthians 12 reminds us, not all prophecy comes from God’s Spirit.  So it seems that the church may have responded to false prophecy by putting an end to all prophecy; the classic throwing out the baby with the bathwater approach.  

 As Christians, we are not to accept blindly everything that supposedly comes from God.  Instead, we are to test everything that is said to come from God.  We have to hold prophecy up against legitimate sources of authority. If someone says, “I have a word from the Lord,” then we have to test it and see if it is legitimate.  And in this sense, we have an advantage that the Thessalonians didn’t have.  We have the Scriptures.  And we have 2000 years of Christian tradition, both of which are valuable tools for testing the truth of prophecy.  And we also have the community of believers, which is where “a word from God” is to be tested.  God reveals his will through the whole Body of Christ, so when we are uncertain about something, rather than trying to figure it all out ourselves, we should get others involved in the process of spiritual discernment.

 And finally, we stay watchful by guarding against all the ways in which we might be led astray.  Paul reminds us to guard our body, soul, and spirit.  In the Greek mind, those were the three parts of the human being, the body, the soul or mind, and the spirit, the part of us that connects to God.  Jews generally held to the idea that humans are a unified whole of body and spirit, but here Paul seems to adopt the Greek attitude about human nature. I think the reason he does that is because he is emphasizing that there are so many ways we can be led astray.  We can be led astray by sins of the flesh, by sins of the mind, and by sins of the spirit.  

 We must be careful to guard ourselves against falling away.  Temptations are inevitable, but our response to temptation is not.  The watchful Christian is the one who flees away from temptations.  Every day we are assaulted by opportunities to turn away from God.  Only by diligence can we stay faithful to God. 

Verse of the Day...