Prepare the Way - Praise
Topic: Biblical Verse: 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24
The Third Sunday in Advent
December 13, 2020
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
“Prepare the Way: Praise”
These days before Christmas are flying by all too fast, and the season of Advent is now more than half over. In the midst of this penitential season that calls us to repentance, today is a call to praise. Today is the Third Sunday in Advent, sometimes called by its Latin name, Gaudete Sunday, which means “rejoice.” This is the first word in today’s Epistle lesson as we hear from Paul the apostle: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Our 4-part Advent preaching series, “Prepare the Way,” continues today. We’ve looked at Ponder and Pray, and today we look at Praise. Based on that Epistle lesson, the message for today is entitled, “Prepare the Way: Praise.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
To praise something or someone often leads to rejoicing, if not on our part, then on the part of the one whom we are praising. To receive a promotion at work, that’s cause for praise. To get results back from a medical test that give good news, that’s cause for praise. To celebrate a special milestone in life, that’s cause for praise. These situations are all obvious reasons to praise and thank the Lord. But Paul tells us to rejoice always, which is much harder to do. What about when circumstances in life do not go our way? What about situations that not only try our patience, but grieve our hearts? What about times of loss and loneliness, which many are feeling now in the midst of pandemic, especially as we head toward Christmas? Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul would have us understand that praise and rejoicing for the child of God goes beyond external things. We look to things that are not seen as we walk by faith; as we wait and watch for the coming of Christ. This is not foolish naiveté or some pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by kind of outlook. Paul is quite clear on this: “This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18b). If our praising and rejoicing is only about external things, how are we any different than the rest of the world? If external circumstances go against us, does our praising and rejoicing come to a screeching halt?
Those words rejoice and praise both come up in today’s Old Testament lesson from the prophet Isaiah: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61:10-11). There it is – the cause for real rejoicing; real praise. It comes from outside us; it comes from God and what he has done. And what exactly is it that God has done? He has removed the filthy rags of our sin, disobedience, and rebellion that we’ve tried to cover over and pretty up. It doesn’t work. We have to come before the Lord in all our need. It is the Lord alone who has clothed us with the garments of salvation. He has covered us with the robe of righteousness that comes to us through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross for us all. That imagery of a bride and groom dressed in their wedding finery is an apt image for what God has done for us. As they prepare to be married, there is careful preparation that both bride and groom take in getting ready for their big day. There is rejoicing and praise as people come together to share in the joy of a wedding. When God’s people come together, both in person and virtually as we are doing now, there is rejoicing and praise as God himself comes to us in his Word and Sacraments. But that pales in comparison with the rejoicing and praise that is yet to be when Christ our Bridegroom will come again on that great and final day to take his bride, the Church, to be with him forever. That is what we are now waiting for with eager expectation, not just in Advent but every day.
Today we get a foretaste of Christmas joy with this call to praise. The Gospel lesson appointed for today (John 1:6-8, 19-28) includes a portion of the Gospel lesson that is appointed for worship on Christmas Day. Again today, like last Sunday, we hear about John the Baptist: “There was a man from God whose name was John. He came as a witness, to be witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light” (John 1:6-8). For many, this particular time of year with ever-decreasing daylight is a real struggle. This, coupled together with COVID-19 concerns, can leave us feeling not joyful, but joyless. Even with the beautiful decorations and twinkling lights, there can be this underlying sense of uneasiness and emptiness. With these things in mind, I invite you to join us for a special virtual worship service, “When Christmas Hurts,” on Thursday, December 17 at 7:00PM (EST). “When Christmas Hurts” acknowledges the reality of grief and loss in life, felt especially this year with the pandemic. Join us on Facebook Live as we bring our needs to Jesus. Let us take our cue from John the Baptist, who understood that his role was simply to prepare the way for the One who is the Light of the world (John 8:12), and that is Jesus. He is “the light [which] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Even in our darkest moments, when praise and rejoicing seem hard to come by, let us fix our eyes on Jesus, who is Emmanuel, God-with-us (Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 7:14). God-with-us not only when we are feeling strong and confident, but also when we are feeling weak and uncertain. In Jesus, who is Emmanuel, God-with-us and God-for-us (Romans 8:31), there is cause for praise and rejoicing at all times and in all places. At all times and in all places, but especially now in these days leading up to Christmas, let us, like John, bear witness about the light. And because of our witness about the light, people may well ask us, as John the Baptist was asked in his day: “Who are you?... What do you say about yourself?” (John 1:22). Like John, we have to confess that we are not worthy to stoop down and untie the sandals of Jesus. We can only point others to him who loves us and laid down his life for us. By the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, may our words, our actions, and our whole life become a living witness to Jesus. That will prepare the way with praise for his coming.
May the Lord who has begun this good work among us, bring it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen (Revelation 22:20).