The problem with being in the middle space, is that you are by definition not something and not the other either. Being in the middle space is hard to define without referring to other things.
If you are physically in-between two places, that is defined by not being at the beginning and not being at the end either. If you are the color yellow, you are defined by not as bright as the sun, and not as deep as mustard. If you are an oval, you are not round and not a rectangle! If you are warm, you are not boiling and not freezing. During our prayer of confession our silence ended when Jessica started playing. In my notes to her I said she should feel free to allow whatever time she wanted – longer than a moment but shorter than a nap. If I were always in the middle, I would get tired of being defined by what I am not.
First Thessalonians is most likely the earliest Christian writing that we have. As was mentioned last week when we were talking about the gospel of Mark, the authors of these earliest Christian writings were primarily concerned with helping believers maintain their faith in Jesus even though he had not returned as promised. The Thessalonians were in the middle space. And incidentally, so are we. These writers like Paul, were concerned about how the early church would be maintained in the face of all of the stress and anxiety and temptation that was all around in those in-between times.
The stress and anxiety were from the turmoil of the first century world, and recent leadership vacuums that had been left. The temptation they faced was the temptation to discard all that they had known and felt during their early days of faith and count Jesus as just another of the prophets that had let them down. The temptation to return to the life before Jesus and the life that was all around them was strong. Why should they wait for this new thing? Why should they retain the faith of this most recent “here-today-gone-tomorrow” prophet? The mundane day to day work that needed doing was enough.
In this letter, Paul wanted first of all to allay some fears that the young gatherings of the faithful had. Many were questioning whether loved ones who were already dead would be able to have God's glory also. Chapter 4 addresses that concern, and yes, those who were already dead would share in God's glory. Secondly, Paul wanted to remind them to live their lives in wakefulness – we read a lot of this during the season that the modern church calls Advent. Third, the concern of the text for today, Paul has suggestions for how they are to live in the meantime.
It is in the midst of this third concern, how to live in the between time, where we find today's text. Having given instructions about how to treat their leaders, and how to treat one another, Paul now focuses on their worship life.
Paul, famous for turning things on their head by previously unseen logic, explains that when you worship you pray, and when you worship you rejoice; therefore, if you are praying you must be worshipping and if you are rejoicing you must be worshipping. Therefore, you must rejoice and pray all the time so that you are worshipping all the time. Worshipping all the time is the “will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Paul is not saying “give thanks in all circumstances because this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” This is important. How many people do we know who have stayed in frozen submission in harmful circumstances frantically trying to obey God by giving thanks for even these circumstances because this is the will of God for them?
“Give thanks in all circumstances” isn't the beginning of the sentence. Giving thanks in all circumstances is what you are doing if you are constantly praying and constantly rejoicing – that is worship. And worship – that is the will of Christ Jesus for you.
The first century audience was not called Christians, and their gatherings weren't called church. Many of the gatherings were secret because of the political turmoil that would result if people knew you were a follower of Jesus. So the idea of “worship” meaning to go to a certain place, the same place, as a large group, at the same time at the same interval, would have been foreign to them. It may have been more possible for the Thessalonians unencumbered with modern day meanings of “to worship” to actually pray without ceasing, rejoice always, and worship in everything they do because they didn't have a time and place designated to do worship things.
This pandemic has given us plenty of opportunities to worship in new ways. New to us. Maybe these are just the old ways, for others. If this pandemic had happened without technology the way it is, how would we have found ways to worship? We might have found ourselves in much the same position as the Thessalonians. We would have only gathered in small groups. We couldn't have house churches as they did at first because we wouldn't be inside anyone's home. We could have park churches, or driveway churches. Or patio churches. This pandemic leads us to ask what is worship? Where is worship? This has been such an opening for us to find worship in other things that we do, and have an open mind and imagination about how free we are to rejoice anytime and anywhere.
It has been a great joy to maintain the version of worship on Sunday's that we have. The building and the worship space are comforting to see at least until we can all gather inside; the gathering and chatter before church is much smaller! Andre Previn was once asked what the favorite part of going to a concert was and he said he really loved the chaos of the musicians gathering on stage, chatting, warming up, bumping music stands, sliding chair, and the little quips of big solos being practiced beforehand. And then hearing all of that turn into one tuning note, and everyone beginning to be as one. The pre-church chaos and laughter and occasional burst of a large guffaw and the choirs rehearsing is greatly missed. The five to seven of us do what we can, but we are not a multitude! And the smell of coffee! I miss that too! All that, is missed by meeting via technology alone. When Paul talks about giving thanks in those circumstances, it seems unfair. And yet, within all the new things that are going on think of the new things that have come. We can give thanks that those who are not physically nearby can still experience worship with us, at the same time, and comment at the same time. Our zoom coffee hour has been a way for all who are there to hear everyone else as we share our latest haircut fiascos or celebrations, our craziest kitchen gadgets, and the latest news, and I always give thanks after that time. The Wednesday prayer time at 6:30 has become a nice casual worship time, the classes have become a nice gathering for thoughtful conversation. And I know that someone out there is enjoying our Saturday morning stories. I give thanks too for the unknown audiences who are coming to learn about Bethany. The things outside the building like the little library, our luminaries coming up soon, our outdoor services earlier this year have been new ways to rejoice. While I wouldn't give thanks for our circumstances, I certainly can give thanks for the circumstances as they are because we are able to be together, we are creative, we are safe, and we are growing together. I think this is what Paul means by giving thanks in all circumstances. We have certainly not quenched the Spirit! Although we too are in a middle space of life during these unknown times, neither are we interested in being defined by what we are not! Rather, look at all that we are!
What we are. And what we are becoming! What are we becoming?
We have all heard often that in order for something new to happen, something old or former needs to stop. Sometimes that's a time or physical space consideration. Sometimes death and life are phases like a seed or a butterfly and one part needs to die in order for the other part to happen. Psalm 126 though brings us another way to look at old and new or before and after and what happens in the middle of things.
Now here's where I'm going to get really excited about something and not be able to explain it well enough for you to get excited too.
To help me, I'm going to read the story that got me started:
Talitha Arnold tells the following story: “For ten years, the American Southwest experienced a devastating drought. Centuries-old piñon trees that covered the hills throughout northern New Mexico became susceptible to bark beetles and died by the thousands. Once green landscapes turned grey with dead trees. For longtime residents, it felt like a death in the family. Then one summer, it rained. Within days, fields of wildflowers sprang up. People could not believe their eyes. Every patch of ground was covered with yellow cow-pen daisies, purple asters, and other flowers not seen in a century. But the rain alone was not the reason for the riot of color. The needles of the dead pinions provided mulch and nutrients needed by long-dormant sees. The trees would never be restored, but their death gave birth to new beauty as far as the eye could see.”1
Those of you who have gardens can understand this. What excited me was the grand scale of the scene. Added to that was the fact that the old trees were not in any way scientifically related to the genus or species of the wildflowers. This wasn't just death of a seed creating the next phase of life for that same seed. Or the same caterpillar turning itself into its next phase as a butterfly. But something completely new was created only because something else needed to die. Not to make space or not because time was limited. Death happened and something completely new came out of it. Completely new, not something related to the old.
Death has brought the very thing that leads to new life.
That isn't suffering that leads to a better person because it builds character. That's not something happening to us and teaching us a lesson and now we are different.
The new thing could not have come without the death having happened. Something died and in that process created the very substance required in order for the new thing waiting to become. That substance could only be created by that thing dying.
That middle space, there inbetween the thing dying and the new thing living is where the great mystery is. That place is where God works the hardest. That middle place is where you and I have zero control or say in what God is about.
Do you realize how freeing it is to let go of having to control what comes next? We may or may not have anything to do with maintaining the piñon trees, and we can take care to not trample the wildflowers. But we don't have anything to do with what happened in the middle. The very thing that has come from death, that mystery that comes with death and loss and letting go, is the only way to birth the new life ahead.
We can make that a metaphor. We can equate this kind of birth with the very real birth of a very real human, come into the world the same way you and I did.
When the psalmist wants watercourses in the Negeb (which means “dry”) the psalmist is asking for torrents; not just streams in the desert.
When the psalmist describes joy, they don't mean rejoicing or mirth, they include feelings of abundance and expectation – joy like a loud cry, maybe that huge guffaw we're missing in the crowds noise before our services.
The sorrow described is the kind of sorrow that only comes laden with tears.
Advent sorrows might include missing a person who is no longer here; a way of life that is no longer; a relationship that is broken.
Commentator writes “Such sorrow can separate us from God, particularly if we confuse Advent's true joy with our culture's teaching about happiness and prosperity.”
The joy in this psalm is an honest joy. The seeds of which are watered with tears of the true reality of sorrow.
Most of all, this psalm points to that mysterious place in the middle; that place after the sorrow begins but before the joy, where God works the hardest. God will transform the very substance of that middle place so that those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy.
Let us pray,
1Feasting on the Word preaching series, Year B, Vol. 1; Talitha Arnold, p. 60
"The Mysterious Middle"
Reverend Debra McGuire
December 13, 2020