Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Careful with the Candles"

Message preached December 11, 2011
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Order of Worship

(mp3 audio file)

            Letís take an informal poll this morning. How many of you, when you attend a Christmas Eve candle-lighting service - here or at some other church - get nervous when the light starts passing throughout the congregation? More specifically, when the candles of children are lit and they now have this potential fire-starting flame within their possession? Anyone? Fire Marshals have nightmares about such scenarios, which is why in some communities they are banned.

            Of course, neither the Fire Marshal, nor the insurance company, knows little Joey who now holds the candle before his wide and mischievous eyes. Maybe thatís why Aunt Martha over in the next pew is so nervous. She knows Joey. So do his Mom and Dad, who will breathe a sigh of relief once the service is over. Often the awesome mystery of the moment is lost on parents, who know too much. Instead of "Silent night, holy night," they sing, "Joey, be careful with your candle."

            Such admonitions are important. When you have fire in your hands, you need to take care - whether it be the flame of a Christmas Eve candle or the spark of the Holy Spirit. I wonder if, at times, the angels arenít themselves a tad nervous when the light of Christ is passed into our hands. Not just on Christmas Eve, mind you, but every day. In the message we bear, in the power upon which we depend, we have received fire, my friends. The flame has been entrusted to us.

            Careful with the candles. Isnít that the basic point of the scripture we have just heard? Itís an admonition, a caution, words intended to get us to stop and think, to pay attention to what we are doing. Of course, how many of us really appreciated the concern of our elders when we were of younger years?
                         "Be careful, son."
                        "I am being careful, Dad! Donít you trust me?"

            I wonder how those who originally received these words from the apostle Paul heard them. As the folks in that church in Thessalonika listened to this letter to them being read, did they respond, "that makes a lot of sense, we should do that," or was their reaction more like, "We are being careful, Paul! Donít you trust us?" More to the point, what is our response to these words today? How will we receive them?

            "Rejoice always," Paul wrote. If that isnít a "duh!" statement, I donít know what is. "Joy" is part of the fire we have received. "Joy" has been entrusted into our hands. This candle is burning. It lights the darkness around us. Of course, we know that "joy" is not merely a matter of "happiness." If it were, there are plenty of occasions when being happy is just not in the cards. I doubt that the phrase "Donít worry, be happy," for instance, was on the lips of the early Christians as they were being persecuted, many following in Christís footsteps quite literally as they were themselves crucified. "Joy" runs much deeper than "happiness."

            You know, maybe instead of wishing people a "Merry" Christmas, we should be bringing out this "joy" word much more. After all, in the story according to Lukeís gospel, the angel of the Lord didnít sing to the shepherds, "have yourselves a merry little Christmas." Do you remember what was really said? "Do not be afraid; for see -- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people..." (2:10). "Joy to the world," we sing, "the Lord has come." Have you noticed that, in our hymnal, the song I just quoted is not located in the "Jesusí birth" section? Itís listed under "Proclaiming the Kingdom." Thatís because the words to this hymn are not just intended for this particular season of the year. Heaven and nature, and you and I, need to sing of this "joy" year round. "Rejoice always," Paul wrote.

            Of course, there are many times when those words are hard to sing. Our response to Paulís admonition may not so much be, "donít you trust me?," but rather, "how can I sing the Lordís song in a foreign land?" How can we rejoice in the middle of grief? How can we rejoice when the drums of war are beating? How can we rejoice when the economy is tanking? How can we rejoice when weíve made a mess of our lives? I wonít ask for a show of hands, but I do wonder if there are some among us who find this admonition to "rejoice always" to be a burden. We donít feel all that joyful.

            And yet, heavenís "joy" turns up in some of the most unexpected places. I just mentioned the angels and shepherds on that first Christmas. The word of joy from the lips of Godís messenger followed what? The encouragement not to be afraid. It was a moment of fear. When we encounter that which we donít understand, something which overwhelms us, we become afraid. To those fear-filled shepherds came a word of joy. Lest we think too romantically of the situation to which that word of joy pointed, remember that Mary and Joseph were in a precarious position, giving birth away from home and family, forced by the government to travel at a most inopportune time. Would you want your daughter to go into labor in a barn, your newborn grandson to be laid in a cattle trough? Was it a joyful moment? Surprisingly, yes.

            Joy surprises us. Happiness is somewhat predictable, but not joy - which canít be bought or sold. It canít be conjured up no matter how hard we try. It simply graces us in the most unexpected times and ways. In the original language of the New Testament, the word for "joy" - "chara" - is intimately connected to the word for "grace" - "charis." We are graced with the joy of heaven, even in a dark valley. Even there we can walk by the light of this candle. "Rejoice always," Paul wrote, keep that candle burning.

            Speaking of candles, tradition has it that the candle for the third Sunday of Advent on the Advent wreath should be pink. Why? Because pink stands for ďjoy.Ē Why is the color pink any more joyful than other parts of Godís rainbow? When I look up the colors of the Christian year in a textbook, there is no mention of pink whatsoever (The Services of the Christian Year, Robert Webber, ed., Star Song, 1994, p.95). Googling the Internet brings forth this this nugget: ďThe third candle for the Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally Pink or Rose, and symbolizes Joy at the Advent of the Christ.Ē Okay, but why ďpink?Ē Is it because Godís people are still hoping for a girl? (humor thanks to Patricia E. de Jong). It seems to me that when itís dark you canít tell what color the candle is. Whatís more important may be that this ďJoyĒ remains burning in our lives.

            "Rejoice always," Paul wrote, "pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances..." In other words, donít let those candles go out. That doesnít mean spend every moment down on your knees in pious prayer. It just means "keep the light burning." As if to underscore this, Paul next added, "do not quench the Spirit."

            "Silent night, holy night" ... "Joey, be careful with your candle." How easy it can be to extinguish the light in someone. They arenít careful enough with it. They make us nervous. We know them too well. We are acquainted with that look of mischief in their eyes.

            I recall something I learned long ago at camp. We often think that the best future leaders are the ones who always behave, who never cause a problem, who are perfect gentle men or women. That may not be so. I discovered that sometimes the campers with that glint of mischief, the ones who could raise a little cain, grew up to become strong leaders in the church. By the way, we have no better authority on this than the apostle Paul himself who, in his own words, was the "foremost," the "greatest," the "chief" of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Yet, where would the church be without the leadership of this man who at one point was its greatest troublemaker?

            "Donít quench the Spirit," he wrote to the believers in Thessalonika. If we look a few verses before he wrote those words, we find an encouragement for the folks in that church to "respect those who labor among you" (5:12). I wonder if these people had a bad habit of undermining those they called into leadership. When you know someone, their good points alongside their bad, itís easy to think the worst of them. Familiarity can breed contempt... "Joey, be careful with your candle. Youíre playing with fire. Someone is going to get hurt. Just blow it out!"

            How easy it is to quench the Spirit. Instead, as Paul wrote, "esteem them very highly ... be at peace among yourselves ... encourage ... help the weak ... be patient ... donít repay evil for evil, but seek to do good ... rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances ... Do not quench the Spirit" (5:13-19). We need to be careful with the candles, not so much because of our fear of what can happen if the flame is handled improperly, but because we can blow out the light. Iím just as much in danger of doing this as any of you.

            Of course, I know that Paul went on to say "hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil." He didnít write that Godís people should uncritically accept everything that comes their way. Just because a light is burning with great intensity doesnít mean that itís lit like God wants it to be lit. "Test everything," Paul wrote in relation to those who seek to speak for God. He didnít, however, share at this point what that test should be. Was it, as he wrote to the folks in Corinth, that "no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ĎLet Jesus be cursedand no one can say ĎJesus is Lordí except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3). Maybe. Even so, he still encouraged the people in the church of Thessalonika not to "despise the words" of those in that fellowship who sought to speak what they discerned God was saying to them. Be careful with the candles, he said. Make sure you donít blow them out.

            Thatís something to remember as we approach this time of gift giving. Iím not talking, however, about presents under the tree. Iím talking about the light of Christ we each hold, the unique gifts with which each person in Christ has been endowed through the Holy Spirit. On Christmas Eve, when we pass that light symbolically from person to person, let it shine as we sing, then blow it out and go our way - keep the flame burning within. Joy, prayer, gratitude - the fruit and gifts youíve received from the Spirit - donít let this go out within you. Furthermore, donít blow out anyone elseís light. Be care-full with the candles.

            Now, I know an appropriate song to sing at this point in our worship might be, "This little light of mine." However, thatís not the one we chose. Instead, weíve got an Advent hymn - "Bless'd be the God of Israel," #174. Letís stand and sing.

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see 1 Thessalonians.

©2011, revised from 2002 Peter L. Haynes

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