Rejoice! Pray! Give Thanks!

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Isaiah 61:1-3
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8

In an article for “The Clergy Journal,” Ronald H. Love told a story about Ethel Bovey of Martinsburg, West Virginia. She had an experience one Christmas season that can enrich our spiritual preparation during this Holy time. She was turning out all the lights and extinguishing all the candles in her home, getting ready to retire for the night. Thinking she had completed the job when she switched off the hall light, she turned and looked back. Expecting the room to be dark, she was surprised to see the room illumined by a soft glow. She had forgotten to turn off one light…the tiny bulb inside the manger in the stable scene on her mantle.

Ethel stood there, thinking how she had always taken the trouble to turn it on and to turn it off again, but could hardly even see it when all the lights on the tree and those in the room were on. Now, she admired how that one tiny bulb lit up the entire room.

The incident became a kind of modern parable for Ethel. We are often distracted by the glitz and dazzle, as well as the necessities of life, and fail to see, or perhaps to stop and look for the guiding light of Jesus. It is an especially appropriate parable when we realize that in our darkest moments, the light, which is always there, begins to shine the brightest.

John the Baptizer is not one of the characters placed in our manger scenes. He would have been only a baby at the time of the Lord’s birth. But, if we were to make a scene, from some assumed moment after the Lord’s birth when Mary and her cousin Elizabeth were together, would we put a light in John’s crib as well as in Jesus’? According to this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, that would be thoroughly inappropriate: “He himself (John) was not the light. He came only as a witness to the light.”

United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., once said, “The secret of my success is that at an early age I discovered I was not God.” That was also the secret of John’s success, but he hardly kept it a secret. His testimony was consistent: “I am not the Christ…I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’… But among you stands One you do not know. He is the One who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

When Queen Victoria lay dying, a member of the royal household wondered if she would be happy in heaven. Edward, the Prince of Wales, is reported to have said: “I don’t know. She will have to walk behind the angels and she won’t like that.”

Are we willing to walk behind the angels and to say with John the Baptizer that we are not even worthy to be the lowliest of servants at the feet of Jesus? John’s humility is a powerful contrast to the uppity attitude of the priests, Levites and Pharisees who question him in Sunday’s Gospel lesson. They want to know who he is and by what authority he speaks and acts. They ask if he is someone of note–the Messiah, Elijah or “the prophet” (an anticipated successor to Moses). Answering each case specifically, John said he was none of these. The haughty attitude of the questioners is revealed when they imply that, if he is none of these and, therefore, no one of importance, what earthly good is his baptism and preaching?

Many scholars suggest that Sunday’s Epistle lesson is a summary statement of the entire First Letter to the Thessalonians. It opens with three imperatives, but Paul clearly sees them not as a set of requirements, but as possibilities with the power of God’s Spirit. He says, “Rejoice always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Confirmation students and other young people might find fault with Paul saying we should do one thing “always” and something else “continually.” I can hear them now, saying, “If we are always rejoicing, we can’t also be continually praying or giving thanks.” Some would joke: “When are we supposed to eat, or go to the bathroom?”

It is obvious that Paul is talking about developing an air of prayer and an attitude of gratitude. He urges us to let the Spirit fill us with the joy of our salvation, so much so that it runs over and pours out in a rejoicing, praying and thanking attitude and life. It becomes clear that Paul sees this way of living to be something quite different from, and far more fulfilling than the narrow religious activity that was so prevalent in his day and remains in our own.

We do not rejoice only on cue, like little dogs trained to bark in time with music. We do not pray only on certain days and at certain times, or when the pastor intones the magical words, “Let us pray.” We do not give thanks simply because it is the fourth Thursday in November and the President of the United States declared we should do so.

Far from being required religious activities, these fruits of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives give a special ring to our thoughts, melody to our voices and rhythm to our steps. When spirits of rejoicing, praying and thanksgiving are present, the imps of carping, quibbling and bragging are absent. There is no such thing as a joyful crab or a prayerful braggart. Thankfulness requires humility and precludes both extremes of egocentricity–self-abasement and self-aggrandizement.

John the Baptizer openly confessed what he was not–not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet. But he also joyfully acknowledged what he was–a voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” There is an aridity of good news, a dearth of joy and an abundance of sorrow and evil in our day. In this desert, voices of rejoicing and thanksgiving are desperately needed.

We need voices like John’s–intruding, disrupting, but ultimately joy-eliciting prophetic voices. We need voices to remind us that God Almighty has come to repossess this world and all its inhabitants, enthralled as they might be with idols and lost in sin and death.

It is one thing to be aware of evil. It is another to be obsessed with it. Malevolence has become so common in television and movie making, to say nothing of every newspaper and newscast, that we are becoming numb to it, if not accepting of it. Voices of rejoicing, prayer and thanksgiving are too-long silent. Let us raise them! Let’s delete the negatives that lurk in our own hearts and minds, waiting to jump to our lips, and fill our lips and lives with the love of God and the joy of the Lord! Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you!

Like the tiny bulb in Ethel Bovey’s crèche, the Light is there and it is sufficient to fill our thoughts and lives, homes and communities–especially if, one by one, we start shutting off the distractions that surround it and us. The darkness of the world sought to overcome and snuff out Jesus’ light from the moment He came. Just as the religious leaders–the very people who should have known–could not figure out or accept who John was, so they could not understand or accept Jesus.

They did everything they could to confuse and renounce His teaching, and eventually resorted to murder in order to extinguish His Light. But that Light could not be held and hidden in a grave. It burst out in resurrected brilliance and it continues to shine both on and through you and me and all who believe. Can you see it? Can your neighbor? Can you hear the voice of rejoicing and thanksgiving? Can anyone else?

The priests, Levites and Pharisees had literally dogmatized God. They had overly understood, flattened and reduced Him to their own size until, when He came into their midst, they couldn’t recognize Him. Perhaps we, too, are unaware and ignorant of the One right within our midst–One, as John says, we do not know. It is Advent–time to abandon conditioned expectations and conventional categories– time to watch and get ready for the One we do not know, but Who knows us and loves us with an everlasting love. “Rejoice always! Pray continually! Give thanks in all circumstances!”

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