"Be joyful always." That’s what the Holy Spirit inspired the apostle Paul to tell us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16. Now, if you’re looking for a verse of the Bible to memorize, that is one of the easiest, right alongside the classic "Jesus wept." Actually, did you know there is a shorter verse in the NIV translation? Job 3:2 is just "He said." But I digress. I was saying that "Be joyful always" is a real easy thing to say, and almost as easy to memorize… but how hard is it to do?
Are you joyful always? It’s tough to be joyful when there are more bills than income. It’s tough to be joyful when there are more "to dos" than "dones." It’s tough to be joyful when your life is an old-timey country western song (to be sung with the compulsory twang): "It’s time for the Country Western Song, the kind where everything goes wrong. My truck blew up; my woman left my side, and my favorite dog Sparky’s gone and died." We might laugh at it now, but it’s not so easy in the middle of any of those things.
How on earth are we supposed to be joyful always? Especially when you throw in things like shame, guilt and our mistakes we have to live with. Joyful? Are you kidding me? But God’s word to us for today stands there unfazed: "Be joyful always."
OK, we’d better dig deeper. You know God doesn’t leave us hanging. He always gives us the power to do just what it is he tells us to do, so let’s look at the context of that impossible command and see how "with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
Look at how he makes it possible here in I Thessalonians 5:12-17. This invitation to be joyful is in a list of a bunch of commands. And all of these things work together to make joy a reality. He starts with a command to respect your spiritual leaders — not to trust in them for your salvation — but respect them and their work: "Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other." OK, so taking my pastor’s advice is probably a good thing, right?
Then he goes on: "And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone." So not only are we to receive guidance and strength from our pastors — but he also tell us to be there for each other. As we grow together with our fellow worshippers (which means reading this column isn’t enough for being "joyful always"), encouraging, helping, being patient with each other leads to more and more joy. Think of the light at the end of the tunnel you see when you are in a bad spot, but you have someone who understands, someone who has been there, helping you.
But it doesn’t always work out like that, does it? Sometimes you may not get along so well with those other people at church — or maybe you’ve had bad experiences with those "sinners" at church so you don’t want to go back. Look at the Spirit’s next words in this recipe for joy: "Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else." It’s not about getting even or what someone else has done to you. If you want joy — don’t get even, be kind. The only thing holding a grudge against those who have wronged you, or haven’t been the "church people" you thought they should be, accomplishes is to rob you of your joy.
The very next words are "Be joyful always." And then he gets to the very heart of how that happens: "Pray continually." Throw all of that garbage you have against others on God so your joy isn’t blocked by grudges. And then comes the reason: "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus."
Did you catch it? "In Christ Jesus." Because Jesus has taken the pain our grudges want to see afflicted on someone…because Jesus has paid the death penalty God’s justice demanded for our mistakes… because we are living in the peace of the forgiveness he won and the certain hope of an eternity of perfection with our God and Savior — you can be joyful… always. Through his work, you have the power to do all those things in this to-do list from Paul. Through Jesus’ power, you are God’s children. So just do it. Be joyful always. In Christ, Amen.
The Rev. Jonathan Scharf is pastor of Abiding Grace Lutheran Church in Covington. Full sermons and more information can be found at www.abidinggrace.com.