When the wedding couple stands before the altar of God and before their friends and family, it is almost always a heart-warming and smile-worthy sight. Two people, joined together for life – in love for life. But there is always the question in the background – will it really be that way? If so, what will keep them together? You who have been long-married; you who can watch the news and read statistics; you who have friends and family and familiarity with failed marriages — what’s going to make it work and keep it heart-warming and smiley? Surely you could each make lists of advice. There are things from which you’d warn them. Other things you’d expressly forbid. Different ones you’d encourage. But wouldn’t you say that there really is only one thing that keeps a marriage going? Generally, it’s both parties’ promise of faithfulness and an evident commitment to keep that promise. Every other thing you could bring, every other thing you could add, they’re all just pieces of those two things: the stuff husband and wife do to be faithful to one another.
It might seem difficult in faith life at times to be faithful, but our role as the bride of Christ is just as simple. In Advent we’re looking through the lense of Jesus’ Christmas coming to the end of things when he comes again. We’re waiting, longing to enjoy the wedding feast with Jesus our bridegroom. But how will things turn out for the good?
Today, as St. Paul encourages God’s church in Thessalonica long ago, hear that God will keep us forever true.
Always living our faith (vv.16-18)
Practically how will it work? Just like in an earthly marriage so in our marriage of faith: “faithfulness” actually means specific things. “Faithfulness” as God’s people and readiness for the End means always living our faith. As Paul commended it to the Thessalonians in v.18: doing “God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Always living our faith means doing what God wants you to do, with the knowledge that you are people who are his by faith in Christ Jesus. What specific things will we always do in our lives? There are many, of course, but Paul focuses on three: 1) be joyful; 2) pray continually; 3) give thanks in all circumstances.
Perhaps “always joyful” seems impossible? Of course, because in our sinful experience we know there are lots of things to be sad about. There are sad circumstances, difficult decisions, unfortunate happenings. And there are our own failures, worries, doubts, fears… And perhaps there is the worry that shows up in our movies and stories – that we won’t get to be our authentic selves – we’ll have to fake happy and pretend things are good and this will be faith… This isn’t what Paul means. The word he uses for joy is the same one that is used for greeting in his language. Maybe that’s a functional way to think about it. Joy always is simply greeting every moment as a person in Christ Jesus. People in Christ Jesus have sorrows and fears (read the psalms!) but they know and trust that they are loved by God – and that joy pervades everything, rides beneath everything, it’s the unseen thing they trust in even when there’s lots to be sad about. I am God’s chosen person in Christ – and that fills me with joy!
Naturally, people who have that kind of joy will want to express it. Paul says, “pray without ceasing.” Does he mean that we purchase a prayer rug and take up residence in little pagodas on a mountain? Nope. But he does mean that people “in Christ Jesus” can live every moment in the confidence that they can count on God’s love. Which means, as he’s said, he wants to hear from you. Paul uses a word for general prayer – doing your praying / expressing your connection to the God who loves you – including supplication for somebody else in their need, or requests for your own particular needs or fears, or thanksgiving for things he’s done… Paul’s saying that being true to God, being joyfilled and doing God’s will, includes relying on him in prayer all the time.
And that will help you to “give thanks in everything”. Perhaps not for the troubles that your eyes can see, but for the confidence that God will use all the things we see in a positive way for us who are in Christ Jesus.
As you always live your faith in these ways God has commanded, God will keep you true.
Always in the Word (vv.19-22)
Of course, there’s the potential in those sorts of endeavors – the things we do – to begin to focus on ourselves and to lose sight of what’s important. That’s why we need to be always in the Word. Paul mentions it in negative ways: “Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire; don’t treat prophecies with contempt.” In Thessalonica God seemed to be granting prophecies right in their worship services. God doesn’t generally seem to be granting those in the same way these days. Instead, he’s given us his prophecies and his promises in his Word. And he reasons with us when we doubt that they’re worthwhile: “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”
God keeps us faithful when we make use of this powerful Word to know about his promised Savior and to trust in him. In this Word we find encouragement for our discouragement. When we fear that we’ve been unfaithful or know that we have been, here we find the one who has been entirely faithful – our Savior – no one is worthy of him. And yet, in him we find the good news we need – we find delight and rejoicing that we are forgiven of sins and worthy to stand with God.
We say of this one, “Come, Lord Jesus, with your good news…” And he will. But he also does here: in his mighty Word where his Spirit is at fiery work. And when he works on our hearts and lights the fire of faith there, then we who are God’s people in Christ Jesus have the power and ability to rightly use that Word. We test and approve the things that are good. When St. Paul commended prophecy to his churches, the measure for which prophecies were good was: if they agreed with God’s Word and brought “edification” (building up of people’s faith and God’s church), “exhortation” (encouragement for life in this sinful world), and “consolation” (comfort as we walk together through it). Consider – doesn’t this also work for every other thing in life? Isn’t God’s Word eminently practical for knowing and doing what is God’s will? Can we not measure the content we watch on the internet or the silver screen, or the company we engage, or the activities we pursue, or the things we desire, according to these words – and ask ourselves, “Does this thing build up God’s people?” “Does this thing bring encouragement to me to be God’s person in the world?” “Does this thing help comfort those around me?” And on that basis then, can’t we cling to what is good and toss out or run away from what is bad? Certainly we can. This God calls us to do.
As you are always in the Word in these ways God has commanded, God will keep you true.
Always trusting him (vv.23-24)
Here’s the final thing, though. You won’t be. I haven’t been. I haven’t been always living my faith. You haven’t always loved the Word. So this final encouragement from Paul we need more than anything else.
In a marriage, when you talk about faithfulness, it’s really all or nothing, isn’t it? Of course, we are sinners and we fail one another and we exercise Christ’s forgiveness with one another. But you’d like to say with confidence, “My spouse is totally faithful to me – there’s not one little part of life they reserve for themselves – there’s not one little bit of things they hide – fully and completely we’re for one another.” Tell me that Paul’s blessed wish isn’t everything you’d want in order to be faithful to God?
“May the God of peace…” | the one who has set sinful you at peace with him by the selfless sacrifice of his Son – the one whose dealings with you are not angry and fearful but kind and generous…
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely…” | May that God do the work himself that you are concerned about each day – that of making and keeping as his holy people you and I who have won no gold-medals for holiness ourselves – and not in parts or just for parts of your lives but entirely and completely – you, made to be saints of God, righteous and holy in his sight…
Indeed, by this kind of gracious working, “May your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved… | May his gracious working be specific to you – your person, your spirit, in soul and body – every single part of who you are – may this God keep you, treasure you, guard you in such a way that nothing can take you…
Preserved like this “blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” | So that you are ready for it, until that time when it happens that Jesus returns, may this God so protect and keep you that you aren’t wealthy necessarily, or well-liked by the world necessarily, but having everything that’s necessary to stand in the judgment: blameless – without sin, holy and perfect – to confidently stand in his sight.
And “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.“ | From beginning to end, God will be at work. For he called you by his good news in Jesus Christ to be people filled with joy and reliant on him and thankful for his grace and mercy. He preserves you by his Spirit’s fiery work through his Word. He sanctifies you in the same and promises to keep you true to the end. You will be faithful because he is faithful. He can do anything.
Put your trust in him always. In his Word, center your life always. With joyful, thankful prayer, live your faith every day. And God himself will keep you true. Amen.