Pray Without Ceasing: Sermon from 12-31-17

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1 THESSALONIANS 5:16-18 (ESV)

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

 

WELCOME AND OVERVIEW

Let me bid you an early happy New Year. We made it to the end of 2017. For some of us, it was a wonderful year. For others, maybe your hardest year yet. For others still, it was just another year—no big deal.

  • We mark the passage of time. It can seem arbitrary, giving so much weight to the difference between December 31st and January 1st, as opposed to, say, August 10th and 11th, but we mark the passage of time because we know our lives matter.

Today’s passage, from which I will be preaching this morning, is a reminder that our lives matter. That they have value.

  • Three simple commands—rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks—are not just one-time instructions. They are ways to live, disciplines to practice. And why? The last bit of the passage tells us: this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
  • Think about the implications of that statement for a second. God wants something from your life. There is such a thing as “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
  • This means God is more interested in you than you might imagine. These three commands—rejoice, pray, give thanks—speak to the sort of life we were made to have with God.

This morning, we’ll unpack these short verses bit by bit, beginning with why they matter.

 

MASTERY BEGETS JOY

There is an art to the Christian life, and any artist will tell you learning a craft takes practice. There must’ve been some terrible Rembrandts. The Dutch renaissance painter, who’s own peers called “The Master”, had to have drawn some ugly stick figures only his mother could love.

  • Surely YoYo Ma’s bow screeched across his cello causing his father to cover his ears. Surely there was a time when young LeBron couldn’t shoot. Art takes time. Any artist will tell you.
  • But they will also tell you mastery begets joy. The better you get at something, the more you enjoy it.
  • Let me show you a painting I imagine Rembrandt had a lot of fun creating.

 

This painting is called “Jesus Presented in the Temple.” Rembrandt painted this one in 1631, when he was just 25 years old.

  • This painting depicts Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus at the temple—which Dr. Lim preached on just a couple weeks ago.
  • If you went The Hague to see this masterpiece in person, you’d notice there are over 50 people in the frame. The architecture dazzles. Elaborate columns and arches rise from a slab stone floor. Elegant steps act as risers revealing the many, varied faces. The use of light and dark would become Rembrandt’s hallmark style. The holy family watches as Simeon blesses the Christ child, who is actually a source of light in the scene.
  • Young Rembrandt here is showing what he can do. He is flexing, kissing his artistic bicep, and winking at us, the viewers.

You know Rembrandt didn’t go from stick figures to this without practice. He had to learn what makes for good composition. He had to study light, shadow, the weight of lines, vanishing point, human form. He had to drill on the fundamentals until they were second nature.

  • I would submit to you that this is a good analogy for living the Christian life. A child can embrace the simplest board-book basics of the gospel and offer stick-figure prayers, but living the Christian life is an art we spend our entire lives learning.

Today’s Biblical commands—to rejoice, pray, and give thanks—are forms of art. They’re not just to be done. They are to be practiced.

  • Here’s a promise. Mastery begets joy. If you practice them regularly, you will develop in the craft.

 

SCRIPTURE FIGHTS FOR OUR HEARTS

Before we unpack rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks, let’s give these commands a category. These commands (I keep using that word, “command.” In our age of “Nobody tells me what to do” individualism, that word may set you on edge. But if we are to take the Bible seriously at all, we must acknowledge that it is filled with commands for how to live if we are to claim the name of God.) are about the inner life of the believer.

  • Every one of us has an inner life—that place where our true character resides. It is where we are most unfiltered, most honest with ourselves about our joys and sorrows, our hopes and pains, our anger. One way many of us respond to pain and struggle is by calcifying our hearts. We shut down in the inner life those places where we feel susceptible to failure and pain.
  • When we do this, we leave little room for joy, prayer, and thanksgiving, which are also part of our inner lives.

Why bring this up? The Christian life is all about the inner life. (This, by the way, is an excellent synopsis of the Gospel—God is after your heart—not mere behavior.) The external things we do as Christians are to spring from an inner affection for God, not as substitutes for that affection. Consider these examples from Scripture.

  • In Mt 23:27, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, some of the finest rule-keepers around, saying, “you’re like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”
  • 1 Sam 16:17 says, “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

God is after your heart. As we enter 2018, write that down in a place where you will see it every day: “God is after my heart.” Rehearse it.

  • Today’s verses aren’t instruction to help Christians better ourselves. These verses are about God fighting for our hearts.
  • We put up certain checkpoints in the heart, vowing never again to let life hurt us. These checkpoints are fear-based and man-centered protective measures. Reactions to a small world.
  • Today’s Scripture call us to live in a bigger world—one where God is at the center. And we’re given counsel for how to live in it. That counsel is: rejoice, pray, give thanks.
  • Let’s take a quick look at each of the three before bringing this discussion full-circle by taking a look at another Rembrandt.

 

REJOICE ALWAYS

The command is simple, but perhaps a bit perplexing. We all have things in our lives that seem to draw the exact opposite response. We think of our struggles, sorrows, and those things that didn’t pan out. Is this command realistic? If so, what does it mean to “rejoice always?”

  • Christian joy is a fruit of the Spirit. It is not anchored in what is happening to me. It is anchored in what has happened for me. The joy is not that things are going okay right now. The joy is that things shall be okay forever. Not just okay, but glorious.
  • One great gift of this command is that it calls for perspective without dismissing pain. It calls us to put our pain in perspective. What cause do I have for joy? Resurrection. What has the power to nullify that joy? Christians don’t anchor our joy in situations. We anchor our joy in what Christ has done.
  • This command is not only realistic, it is logical. If my hope rests in knowing Christ has defeated death and has reconciled me to my Creator, I always have cause for joy. I am never destitute. I can look at my deepest pains in light of the cross and acknowledge the brokenness in this world and in me.

Please don’t hear me trying to shame you if your struggle to live in joy. I have seasons in my own life when it seems next to impossible to muster any. I battle with depression, and I know many of you do too.

  • Lament is a necessary skill in the art of rejoicing.
  • When God tells us to rejoice in all situations because Christ has defeated death, it’s a mercy when we’re left to express our inconsolable sorrow and voice our defeats in the context of so great a victory. This itself is an art—the art of lament.
  • When we lament—when we express our sorrow and try to put it to words, we often find comfort awaits us in the form of an applicable Scripture, or the patience of a friend, or clarity. Lament is a skill that is part of the practice of rejoicing.

 

PRAY WITHOUT CEASING

The verb here is a “customary present”—an ongoing regularity. Pray regularly and don’t stop praying regularly. It also is directional—“pray to…” This command describes an action and a posture—to always be in a posture of leaning in to the reality of the nearness of God.

What is prayer? Libraries have been written on the subject, and the constraints of time limit us here—but let me offer a few basics.

  • Prayer, of course, is when we talk to God. Most formal prayers in Scripture include these 5 elements: an address, a description of a situation, confession of sin or need, request, praise.
  • Not all prayers are formal. Some are quick, in the moment responses. Others are put down in writing, during a time set aside just for prayer and the study of Scripture. Many ways.
  • Prayer recognizes God is aware of what we’re thinking and experiencing. Prayer doesn’t invite God’s presence, or cause it. It acknowledges his presence whether or not we sense it.
  • God knows our every passing thought—prayer is directing every thought in a Godward way. An ongoing conversation.

Prayer is not a negotiation with God, but rather a surrendering to His will. Sometimes God gives us what we ask for. Sometimes he doesn’t. Why pray, some may ask, when God doesn’t seem to answer?

  • C.S. Lewis helps us with this clarifying point: “Prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course he will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them.”
  • Prayer is not something we do in order to get a response. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “prayer, in many ways, is the supreme expression of our faith in God.” We pray to know him.

What is prayer for? It is bring us into the presence of God in an intentional, relational way. This is why we practice the art of prayer. And the more we practice, the better we’ll become at it. This is one of the great rewards of following Jesus over the course of time—we develop skills for communing with him, like Rembrandt with his canvas.

 

GIVE THANKS IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES

Gratitude is a mark of the Christian life. The word is “eucharisteo”, the same word we use for communion—a joyful thanksgiving for grace.

  • G.K. Chesterton said, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.”
  • We have much to be thankful for and One to be thankful to. And what are we to do with our gratitude? Express it.

 

THIS IS THE WILL OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS FOR YOU

What is Paul referring to when he write, “this is the will of God in Christ” for us? That we would be rejoicing, praying, thankful people. He’s saying it is the will of God that these would mark our inner lives.

  • Why does this matter? To look good in front of others?
  • No, these are ways we practice the art of intimacy with God. By focusing on joy, praying regularly, and giving thanks, we tune our minds to fix on him and our hearts to rest in him.

What is the end game here? Let’s go back to Rembrandt again to close.

  • This is a painting Rembrandt did the year he died. He was 63. It is of Simeon holding Jesus in the temple, the same scene as the one we looked at earlier, which he painted as a 25 year old. What do you notice about it? Let’s compare the two, because I think looking at these two paintings side by side helps us put a fine point on what the will of God is for us when we give our lives to practicing the art of rejoicing, prayer, and gratitude.

  • One is elaborate, the other so simple. One features more than two dozen people, the other only three—Simeon, Jesus, and Mary. One shows off everything the young artist can do. The other has a focused restraint.

Why are they so different? Because the artist has grown. The 25 year old Rembrandt did not know the sorrow or struggle he would face. When he imagined the scene of Jesus being presented in the temple, he saw the ornate beauty of the building, the faces of those looking on, the trick with the light. But there is no intimacy in the image.

  • But the older artist has gone through bankruptcy. He has buried a wife and children. He has risen to fame and seen it all come crashing down. He doesn’t seem to want to show us the scene when Simeon held Jesus. He seems to want to hold Jesus.

The goal of today’s text is not to move us from stick-people prayers to elaborate masterpieces of eloquence. The goal of practicing these spiritual disciplines is to move up beyond not only the stick figures, but also beyond the showing off—to the place of intimacy and familiarity with our Lord. It is to move not from crude to eloquent, but from unfamiliar to intimate. This is why we practice spiritual disciplines.

Do you wonder what God’s will is for your life? Today’s text tells you.

  • This is the will of God for you: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. Practice these fundamentals.
  • May this coming year be a year filled with practicing the art of living in a relationship with Jesus. And may he move us from unfamiliarity and from boasting in ourselves to intimacy with him.
Russ Ramsey
Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.

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