1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Yea B, Advent 3
One of the things I have enjoyed about being the parent of a toddler is imagining all of the things that he might become. When he jumped off the couch and landed on his feet I thought, he is going to be a famous gymnast. When he said his first full sentence, I decided he was most certainly going to be a Rhodes Scholar. When he played something on the piano that kind of sounded like something resembling a song, I reminded myself to look up when Mozart started playing the piano because there was a chance that Joshua could be a savant. It’s fun thinking of all of these possibilities. At some point, he might tell me he hates the piano and I will cross “next Mozart” off the list. But right now, he could be anything.
I remember a time when I was absolutely convinced I would be a senator. There was no doubt in my mind that I could accomplish whatever I wanted. And I hope that most of us have some memory like that, a time when anything was possible. While I was thinking about all of this, I tried to remember the moment when I realized that not everything was possible…or that some or many of my dreams would not be realized. I don’t think it was any one moment. It was just a jumble of realizations, some of them painful, some of them enlightening. I think part of what forms us, what makes us who we are is how we deal with the failures and rejections in life.
It’s like we are born with a flame. At first there is a flicker/a spark. It grows and provides light and a little heat. Then a couple of things can happen.
1. It continues to burn, but goes through different phases. Sometimes it flickers and seems like it is about to extinguish. Sometimes it grows so big it seems like it will burn the whole place down. It never dies, but sometimes it may seem like it will.
2. Or it could be a flame that stays sheltered. It is steady and unchanging, but can only grow so much.
3. Or, it is a flame that rises to a certain height and then appears to be smothered, until all you see is embers.
We are these flames. Either we experience success and failure and keep burning through it all. Or, we stay safe and controlled, not taking much risk. Or we burn and then something or someone quenches our fire. The flame ends in ash. The dream dies. The Spirit is quenched.
That line from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians captured me when I was initially reading these texts. I keep coming back to it, “Do not quench the Spirit.” Paul was talking to new Christians. This letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest books in the New Testament. It was written before the Gospels, less than 20 years after Jesus ascended to heaven. As you came imagine, there was a great deal of fervor in the new community. There was passion for Jesus and all that he had taught. They believed in this new movement despite the fear of persecution. They knew that they could be stoned for worshipping Jesus. This fledgling Christian community was surrounded by people who thought this Jesus thing was just a passing fad, another little cult that would end with that generation.
In addition to this fervor and passion, these new Christians experienced doubt and fear as well. They had expected that Jesus would return in their lifetime. As people in their community died, they got worried. What happened if Jesus didn’t come back? Even Paul had expected Jesus to come back in his lifetime. Thus as the years went by and Jesus did not return, the fervor and the passion that had carried these new Christians wavered. It was a scary place to be….this in-between place. Despite the fear and the doubt, they held on. Paul continued to support them and reassure them. They lived in hopeful expectation. But the longer they waited the less hopeful they were.
While we cannot be sure what was happening, it is evident from this letter that Paul was concerned for them. Otherwise he would not have felt that he had to remind them not to quench the Spirit. We assume that Paul was talking about the Holy Spirit, but I think it was more than that—at least more than how we perceive as the Holy Spirit. For most of us, we see the Holy Spirit as something outside of us. On our good days we see it as something that may inspire and guide us. Other days, we forget about the Holy Spirit entirely.
But let’s assume for a minute that for the early Christians, the Holy Spirit was part of them. It was the flame that I spoke of in the beginning of my sermon. It was the flame that drove them through life. When it was quenched, when it was extinguished, then everything was quenched. Without it, they were walking in the dark with no light to guide them. Therefore, it was critical that the Holy Spirit not be quenched.
While we tend to relegate the Holy Spirit to Pentecost and ordinations, the Holy Spirit is part of us. It is no coincidence that there is a preponderance of candles in churches. They are not just for aesthetic purposes. The flames serve as reminders of the presence of the Holy Spirit. They also represent the light of Christ. The Holy Spirit is what sustains that light within each of us. We do not have to worry when Jesus will come again, because we have this guiding light at all times. We have a light that not only shines outwardly, but one that burns within each of us.
Here is the thing about the light of Christ or the flame of the Spirit. No matter how hard we try to quench it, we can’t. We can cover it up. We can try to hide it. We can ignore it. But we cannot extinguish it. Despite that, wouldn’t it be better if we fanned the flames instead of quenching them? Wouldn’t it be better if we tended to the flame in each one of us and one another?
Much of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is about how to be a Christian community. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…” All of our hopes and dreams might not be realized. Some of us, many of us, will have moments when the flame within us will feel more like ash than flame…which is why we have one another to fan the flames. We are here to be inspired and to inspire. After Christmas, we will move the Advent wreaths back into our closets or attics, but that doesn’t mean that the light is gone; it just comes in different forms. When the darkness seems like it will overcome us, try to imagine the light within you. If that is too hard, find a candle to remind you that there is always light—the Spirit cannot be quenched.