In common with the other epistles in Advent Paul is here concerned with the demand for faithful living. It is apparent that there are two ways to live. One according to the ways of the world and one according to the gospel
In Paul’s first ever letter that he wrote he is unequivocal in his instructions.
Here the demands are direct, no ifs and no buts. The assumption is that the things Paul says will be a state of affairs that suffuses our entire lives and is not reserved for Sunday mornings.
“Rejoice always” he says. Rejoice about what? Rejoice that God has made himself known to us and revealed his love and forgiveness and through Christ wants us in a personal relationship with him – for ever, which is eternal life. In John 17 Jesus says “Now this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” So If you know and accept Christ you have the eternal life of the Father. Our lives have meaning and purpose and we are instruments of God in the world. That is special and is something to rejoice about is it not?
This is the light that John the Baptist was testifying to in the gospel reading.
Paul then says “Pray without ceasing”. Well we can’t spend every minute of every day on our knees in a church so what can he mean by that? This points to an existence that is permanently oriented towards God, our life becomes a prayer, an existence that sees and recognises the presence of God in every situation of our lives. If prayer is an ongoing relationship, an ongoing conversation with God then prayer is not simply us talking it is us listening and trying to discern God in the everyday things of our life. .
The next instruction is "Give thanks in all circumstances". This is probably the most problematic one of all especially if you are pain, or faced with unemployment, or bereavement or any other terrible circumstance. There, I would suggest that even while you will not feel able to give thanks for those particular sets of circumstances, you may still be able to give thanks for other aspects of your life or for the knowledge of God's saving love for you even in the midst of your pain.
And as someone who has been down to the depths of anguish, as many of you have been also, in hindsight we can acknowledge that out of the darkness light eventually did shine. You can come through these things a changed person with a depth of insight that you couldn’t have acquired any other way. That is not to say that God engineered these situations, but He can use them regardless.
“Do not quench the Spirit” and “do not despise the words of prophets” are related in my mind. The Spirit can be quenched so remaining open and listening as well as talking in our prayers for the prompting of the Spirit is vital. We should also listen to those people who say they have interpreted the word of God or been given special insight. Listen but don’t just blindly accept what they say. Test what they say in the arena of your personal circumstances, in the light of scripture and in discussions with other Christians. We need to be wise and discerning. As Jesus said elsewhere we need to be as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents
Then right at the end in Verses 23 and 24 Paul asks that God may "sanctify us". "Holiness" is a scary word for many of us, as I wrote during the week and it conjures up images of monks and nuns or extremely strict versions of Christianity. Whilst Holiness does actually infer "separation" in the context of what Paul has already said it describes this new orientation of our life taking root and growing and tells us not to be yoked to materialism and the powers and addictions of this world. There are two ways to live, one in darkness and one in the light.