Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
December 17th, 2017
1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
“Sing With Joy”
Listen to these words, writer by the Apostle Paul to a struggling small church. This letter is contained in First Thessalonians, chapter five, verses 16 thru 24.
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil. 23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
May we allow our hearts to be opened to these encouraging words from this Apostle named Paul.
“Sing with Joy”
When I first moved to Florida in February of 1994 I was not yet ordained and needed a church to worship in as I sought out God’s call to ministry in this region. I remember the churches we visited quite well. As this is a true story, I shall not mention which churches we visited, as they are still vibrant and flourishing. The first church we visited was quite large and prominently situated in a very affluent section of the town it was located in. The parking lot was jammed, as it was ‘like today’ just a bit before Christmas. After finding a parking place, and hiking back up the embankment to the church, we entered the first door we found. It was a side door. As we entered there were many people hustling about. No one spoke to us; they were however talking to each other as they hurried along. Finally, we found the door to the back of the sanctuary. Again, there were people everywhere, but no one stopped or spoke to us. I noticed a table with a handful of bulletins and helped myself. The church was filling up quickly. We found a pew where we could sit. As the service progressed it was quite impressive. A large choir with several musicians playing music. A music director leading the choir. After the service was over, we finally found our way through the crowd and left. No one had even spoken to us. We never went back, it just didn’t feel right!
The next Sunday, we went to a small church that was meeting in an old converted bank building. The parking lot was well marked, the sign said sanctuary this way and an arrow pointed us in the right direction. By the time we got to the door, three or four people had spoken to us. As we entered in, we were greeted and asked to sign a guest book. As folks continued to talk with us they learned I was fresh out of seminary and awaiting ordination and we were looking for a church. Someone went and found the pastor. Nice fellow, we became good friends and he and I worked together until I was called to my first parish. Now the choir, there were maybe seven or eight. The part time organist/choir director was older than my mother, but she was a nice lady. I have no real memory of the music, but when we all sang together, the folks around me were singing their hearts out. You could feel their devotion and love of God pour forth from them. The fellowship was warm and genuine. I think they thought it was Christmas and the love of God simply poured out from their hearts. In that spirit, we joined with that community until I was called to serve a church. It was one of the most enjoyable fellowships I can remember being a part of.
Churches, of our tradition, enhance their times of worship with a wide range of hymns and praise music. It is widely believed that music can uplift the spirit and enhance times of worship. There are a variety of beliefs surrounding how this is to be done. There are churches whom have large choirs, with two or three paid vocalists who take the lead in singing the many levels of voices within the choir. Our sister church in Vero Beach is such a church. It boasts of eighty or more members in their choir, during this season of Advent, and they will most likely have a full ensemble accompany the choir on Christmas. With the aid of their two, full time musicians and accompanying staff they have the ability to put forth a tremendous musical program. Then there are churches, that can barely scrap together enough resources to pay a part time staff to pull together a music program and work with a smaller choir. Many of these churches put forth an amazing effort and an awe-inspiring music ministry!
This is a small church – with a minimal cash flow. It is amazing how much does get done, with the little that you do have. I think we can all be proud of the music ministry of this our church. I have watched you as a congregation for a long time; this is my fifth Advent season here with you. Most of you, not all, but most of you get emotionally involved in worshipping God, and hearing the Word of God; and the music ministry most certainly inspires you. If you are one of the few that are not feeling uplifted during times of worship, consider reexamining what it is you expect of a worship service. Some churches believe music and the sermon time is meant to entertain you the congregation. This just is not what worship is all about. Worship is about praising God, through prayer, through the reading of scripture and by raising our voices “to” God, and “for” God’s ears in song. This tradition dates back to the time of Jesus, when the reading of psalms was part of their worship rituals, and often they were put to music, to enhance their times of raising their voices in ‘praise’ to God!
If you truly want to leave here, renewed, refreshed in the Spirit and inspired by the teachings of God, then open your hearts wider than your critical inner ear! The Apostle Paul tells us: “Do not quench the Spirit.” If we pick apart all that we hear… we shall not satisfy that ‘need’, the need we have to be nourished… during times of worship. Rather, we must allow our spirits to be ‘open’ to that of God’s all inspiring Spirit! Paul goes on to tell us even more about how we are to live. “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good;” If we do not first open our hearts we shall never ‘taste’ the freshness of God’s abundant love. Nor shall we feel the Spirit which is clearly here in this place, every Sunday, every Sunday as we gather in fellowship to bask in the fullness of God’s grace and mercy… during these our times of worship! Lastly, on this thought, Paul admonishes us to “abstain from every form of evil.” /1 Thessalonians 5:19-22/ Surely, it would be evil, if we did not fully support the efforts of those whom put their hearts and souls into our music ministry… during these our times of worship!
Perhaps it was the setting that caused the Apostle Paul to be so inspiring in this writing today. “Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman providence of Macedonia, it was important for its location, on both sea and land. The Apostle Paul founded the church there shortly after he left Philippi. Paul’s letter to this church, a congregation devoted to its faith, was a letter of encouragement during a time of struggle.” /The New Oxford Annotated Bible, page 291NT/ We are also a small and struggling church. Yet, the core of our fellowship is devoted to the faith; faith that has made the impossible possible; faith that continues to flourish and surprise the “Doubting Thomas’s” on the periphery, the outside edge and boundary of our fellowship. Take a moment, bask in the knowledge that you have done very well, and you can take pride in your steadfast faithfulness! Surely the God of Advent hope, will continue to bring you peace and joy! Our Moderator told us today what a generous crowd you are! God sees what you are doing! God shall remember your generosity! There is a fiber of deep love that runs in the veins of this congregation. Let us lift this up on such a Sunday as this! Our Advent wreath now burns the candles of Hope, Peace and today… Joy! Joy ought to fill our hearts knowing that God loves us so much that he came to us in a child named Jesus! This is what this season is all about. It is about our being reminded of whom we worship and why we worship!
“Once again, on this Third Sunday of Advent, we have an appeal, now from Paul, to a community of faith about the way it is to live in the world.” /Dirk G Lange/ Do you still remember what the Apostle said? Were you truly listening while his words were read aloud? “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/ An early writing which helps explain and interpret our scripture, called ‘Matthew Henry’s Commentary’ speaks to this point. “Believers often hinder their growth in grace, by not giving themselves up to the spiritual affections raised in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.” You will never know what you are missing until you earnestly try this! Try listening with your heart. Allow your spirit to mix with the spirit of the moment. Look to the heart of the matter. ‘The rough exterior of a shell is meant to keep the evil from entering in. Only the diligent, and the gentle yet strong will and spirit of the believer… will look inside and find the nectar of the scrumptious clam, that gem which is contained within.’ /Pastor Tim Woodard/
“This is truly a time to rejoice, pray, and give thanks for the great gift of God’s Word made flesh who came to dwell among us and who will surely come again.” /Lucy Lind Hogan/ Theologians have been reminding us of this thought for a long, long time! Back when I was first looking for a place to worship, my spirit was untouched by the eloquent and superbly adorned worship center of the larger church. Why? Am, I tone deaf and unable to see beauty when I am, in its presence. No, the music was superb the adornment of the sanctuary was wonderful, yet, there was something missing that day. Christ was not born in a golden crib adorned with silk. No, Christ was born in a lowly stall, out behind an Inn which refused his parents a clean bed; neither did they offer fresh linens for the child’s birth or any of the other luxuries the Inn keeper gave his wealthier guests! No, Christ’s birth was done in a very humble setting. The beauty and splendor of our celebrations in the ‘Twenty-First Century’ celebrate our joy, not our full appreciation of the humility Christ’s family displayed for all to see! The small congregation, was way more-humble than the first church I visited here in Florida. Somehow, in their simpler musical program that day, I knew it in my heart, my spirit felt more at home. The presence of Christ’s Spirit, the feeling of Christian warmth permeated and filled the worship center. I could feel it; those folks knew the God of love, the peace of knowing Christ, and the joy leapt from my heart and hope flourished and overflowed within me! We were seeking the light of Christ and we found it in that beautiful, yet humble space.
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” /1 Thessalonians 5:23-24/