A sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 & John 1:6-8, 19-28 by Nathan Nettleton
As you will have noticed by now, there is a great deal of emphasis during this season of Advent on the idea of preparing. We open our worship with the words “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Alison’s sermon last week asked the question “What are we preparing for?”, and she challenged us to recognise that we are not just preparing to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of a cute baby, but that we are preparing to be part of a world made new, made just, and made whole. And tonight we again heard the Bible readings calling us to think about how we prepare and get ready for what is coming. We heard John the Baptiser calling us to “Make straight the way of the Lord,” and the Apostle Paul talking about our “spirit and soul and body being kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We’ve also recently heard parables from Jesus talking about the judgement of the sheep and the goats, and about making sure we are prepared and not caught out with empty lamps when the bridegroom arrives or with our feet up on the boss’s desk when he returns without warning. Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. Make sure you are ready. Don’t be caught unprepared. Prepare. Prepare.
But of course, exactly what that call to prepare means in practical terms for us depends a lot on what and who it is we are preparing for. As Alison said last week, there is a big difference between preparing to commemorate a past event and preparing to welcome a radical change in the future. Another thing that makes a big difference is whose arrival you think you are preparing for. If the Queen of England was visiting Australia and you were chosen to be the representative Australian who first greeted her on behalf of the nation as she stepped off the plane, you would be extremely anxious and meticulous about your preparations. You would hang on every word from the protocol experts and you would wear whatever you were told, and carefully rehearse every carefully chosen word so that you got it all perfect when the Queen appeared. Or if you had been charged with some offence and were being hauled before a judge for trial and sentencing, you would probably pay very careful attention to what your lawyer told you about how to address the judge and how to behave in the court. There is a lot hanging on whether or not you get it right, and you want to do whatever you can to tilt the odds in your favour. Or if you were preparing for a job interview for a job you really really wanted, or if you were preparing for a first date with someone you were besotted with and desperately wanted to impress, you’d be anxious and meticulous in your preparations. And part of what makes you so anxious in these circumstances is that you don’t really know this person you are seeking to impress. You don’t know enough about what they like, what they want, what they are looking for. You don’t know whether they are going to like you.
But if you are preparing to go to the airport to meet your visiting grandmother who adores you and is always totally delighted to see you, your preparations will be a lot less anxious and fastidious. Still quite excited perhaps, but with a whole lot less stress. Or if you are preparing to pick your kids up after school and you know that they are going to be jumping into your arms and bursting to tell you all the news of the day, you are not going to spend an hour anxiously going over the correct protocols for arriving at the school gate. Instead you’ll just grab your hat and go. When you know that someone is going to be overjoyed to see you and is not going to be the least bit fussed about what you are wearing or whether you know how to curtsey properly, preparing to meet them is easy and enjoyable. It is all anticipation and no fear.
So that tell us a lot about why so many people are fearful when they think about the coming appearance of our Lord. They are imaging an encounter with one who is unknown, demanding, and perhaps unpredictable. They are imagining an encounter with one with whom they will have to be very careful lest they be judged unworthy and terminated on the spot. Perhaps they are not thinking that differently to how John the Baptiser was thinking. “I am not worthy to untie his sandals.” I am not worthy. I am not worthy. And the strange thing about this is that it indicates that we imagine that Jesus will somehow be a very different kind of person from the Jesus we have already met and known. Because one thing that was pretty consistent about Jesus was that even people who often found themselves feeling unworthy in public instead found themselves feeling thoroughly liked and safe and accepted whenever they were in his company. And folks, Jesus is not at all two-faced. The Jesus we saw then is the same Jesus whose coming we await now. The Jesus who will come as judge is the same warm and non-judgemental Jesus who said “Neither do I condemn you” to a humiliated woman who the whole town had been ready to stone to death if he had not stood in their way.
If you were facing the courts on some charge, and your favourite uncle who had known you and loved you since you were a child just happened to be the judge, you’d be feeling a lot more comfortable about the likely outcome. But of course, in the law courts, he would have to rule himself out of sitting on your case and you’d be taking your chances with an unknown judge. But when you face Jesus as your judge, it will be a lot like having that favourite uncle as judge. And he won’t have to rule himself out, because his warm feelings for you will not be any different from his warm feelings for anyone else he sits in judgment on. We will all be facing a judge who has known us and doted on us since we were kids and who is eager to welcome us into the fullness of life and love.
But if that is true, why do so many of these passages in the Bible that talk about preparing for the coming of the Lord talk about making straight paths and not being caught napping? And why do so many of them include various rules for getting ready? They sure begin to sound like some of those etiquette guidelines that you’d be brushing up on if you had to meet the queen. The reading we heard tonight from Paul’s correspondence with the Thessalonians was a case in point. In the lead up to its statement about being sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord, it said, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets. Test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” It is easy to hear that as being back in the category of anxious preparations for facing a harsh and demanding judge. But I wonder…
You see, not all rules are about a desperate need to avoid mistakes. And becoming good is not just about continuing to meticulously comply with a bunch of rules. Let me illustrate. As most of you know, I have a fascination with learning other languages, and with the process of learning other languages. One of the things that is interesting about learning another language is the role of rules in learning. Despite the fact that my mother was an English teacher, I knew almost nothing about the rules of grammar until I began trying to learn another language. But my lack of knowledge of the rules didn’t mean I wasn’t any good at communicating in English. I probably have a better than average ability to express myself clearly and creatively in English. Being fluent in a language does not depend on a knowledge of the rules. Most of us don’t know much about the rules in our first language. When I ask Rita questions about the rules of Chinese grammar, she often doesn’t know the answer until she thinks about it for a while. Because she didn’t learn Chinese by learning rules. She just learned to speak it as she grew up, and she didn’t learn much about grammar rules until she began learning English. And so she probably knows the rules of English grammar better than I do.
So the point of learning grammar rules has very little to do with perfect fluency. In fact, the closer you get to fluency in a new language, the less you think about the rules. Fluency is what happens when you no longer need to think at all about the rules. They have just become automatic. And the reason that it is so hard to read things like poetry and high literature in a second language is that the writers are so fluent that they can bend and break all the rules. The very best expressions of the language are barely bound by the rules at all. The purpose of the rules is to get you through an early stage where you have to think your way through how to say something, because it is not yet the least bit natural to you.
But there is another interesting thing about the way that the rules of grammar can function when you are learning a new language. As useful as they can be, too much focus on the rules can completely paralyse you and inhibit your ability to communicate in the new language at all. If you focus on trying to get everything exactly right according to the rules, you will actually drastically reduce your ability to communicate. Let me give you an example. The Chinese language doesn’t use either definite or indefinite articles, so if you want to say “I am a doctor” in Chinese, you just say “I am doctor”. You have probably heard Chinese people say that sort of thing at times, because when they just translate from Chinese in their heads, that’s how it comes out. But the thing is, if someone says to you “I am doctor”, although you will recognise that their grammar wasn’t perfect, you will have no trouble understanding what they mean. D for grammar, but A+ for effective communication. But if, instead of saying “I am doctor”, they stand there thinking, “I am … now, I think I need to use an article in English. Which one is it, the definite or the indefinite? I think it is the indefinite. So that would be, what? O yeah, that would be ‘a’. A doctor.” And they haven’t even opened their mouth yet. So even though they might eventually manage to construct a grammatically perfect sentence, so far absolutely no communication has taken place at all. And there is no point in scoring F- for communication in the pursuit of that A+ for grammar.
So I reckon that the sorts of rules or instructions that Paul gives us in this letter to the Thessalonians are actually a lot more like the rules of grammar than the rules of the road or of the crime act. So when Paul says “Rejoice always”, it is not as though there is a hawk-eyed judge watching who is going to haul you before the bench and say, “You are charged with failing to rejoice for six minutes from 4:22 pm on Thursday of last week, and we are seeking the death penalty.” And when he says, “Do not quench the Spirit”, it is not as though Jesus is going to reject you because when you were really tired and depressed last Monday, you got entirely out of step with the Spirit for an hour or so.
Instead, these are a lot more like the rules of grammar. They are given to us because of a recognition that fluent Christlikeness does not come naturally to us. It is not our mother tongue, our native way of being. What comes naturally to us is to despise those who hate us, to strike back when we are struck, to curse those who curse us, to pray only when we are in need, and to give thanks only when we are getting what we want. So Jesus and the apostles give us some rules of grammar to get us started on the road towards fluency in the new life we are learning. “Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets. Test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”
If you were going to move to Indonesia next year, and were intending to live there for the rest of your life, I’d guarantee that you’d be preparing yourself by working hard on learning to speak Indonesian, and you’d be discovering a bunch of grammar rules that you never knew about before. But you’d be treating those rules as a guide to learning, not as a matter of life and death. You wouldn’t be thinking that the Indonesian grammar police would be seeking the death penalty for you if you ever make a mistake with their language. Your aim would be simply to be able to get communicating so that you could get by, make friends, and fit in.
So what we are preparing for is actually a lot like that. We are not moving to another place, but a new kingdom, a new culture, is coming here. We are preparing for it to emerge fully in the world we presently live in, and we know that when it does, it will have a new language, a language of love and forgiveness and grace. So we are learning that language now, and these ‘rules of grammar’ are helping us learn, helping us prepare. Don’t get hung up on them, and overthink them, or they will paralyse you and you will be so busy avoiding mistakes that you will stop relating completely and not become fluent in the language of grace at all. Enjoy them. Learn from them. Relax into them. And allow them to begin to come naturally as you begin to lean into the new culture that is coming. Jesus is not the kind of judge who is looking for reasons to condemn you and exclude you. But he is hoping that when he shows up, you’ll be able to communicate, albeit still with a few grammar glitches and broken sentences. He is hoping you’ll be able to fit in and get by in the language of the coming kingdom.
There is no need to live your life in fear of some upcoming trial where you will have to anxiously defend yourself lest you be cast into eternal punishment. But there is every reason to prepare yourself for the coming new world so that you will be, if not fluent, at least able to get by in the language of love and grace. Actually though, Spanish speakers express the idea of “getting by” in a language by saying “I can defend myself” in the language. So if you think that Jesus is urging you to be ready to defend yourself when he arrives, you may be right after all, but he is probably speaking Spanish!