Have you ever taken a gander at a scientific journal or a highbrow academic magazine— you know, the kind that uses intimidating fancy words and really smart people get published in, where they write about really confusing subject matter that has no relevance to anyone or anything?
If so, then you know that to the average Joe such articles and publications can often sound like technical nonsense. Sure, it’s written in English, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t flying directly over our head. But here’s the funny thing: Sometimes those articles are actually pure, nonsensical gibberish.
Researchers uncovered some 120 papers published in highly credible scientific journals have turned out to be the product of “automated word generators”.
The computer programs that craft the phony articles simply throw fancy words together in quasi-coherent sentences, producing full-length articles with titles like, “Simulating Flip-Flop Gates Using Peer-to-Peer Methodologies.”
No one is clear as to why someone would submit a gibberish article for publication. Maybe he or she simply wanted a quick way to pad their résumé and raise their professional stock—knowing no one would actually read such nonsense.
And it’s not clear how such an article passed peer review. Maybe the scientists charged with screening such articles aren’t all that different from the rest of us, and they, too, are easily intimidated by fancy words and immediately assume it will make sense to someone smarter.
But let’s be honest. For many, the Bible is just like one of those scientific journals. It too can sound as though it were thrown together by an “automated word generator”. Even for the more mature follower of Jesus it’s easy to flip through the Scriptures and find chapters so dense with words or so strange to modern ears, that one’s eyes glaze over and minds wander.
Sometimes even the Bible can sound like gibberish. Ever read the instructions for building the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus 36 and 37? How about the Laws of Leviticus?
Likewise, what about some of the jargon we throw around in our Christian communities? Has anyone ever figured out what a “hedge of protection” actually is? Does it have anything to do with “travelling mercies?” If you approach someone at work and ask them, out of the blue, how his “walk” has been lately, he’ll look at you sideways and tell you, “I don’t walk, I’m part of a carpool.”
A lot of the language we throw around in Christian circles can sound like total nonsense, especially to the uninitiated—and it is actually a barrier to drawing people in.
That’s why it’s so refreshing when we come upon a section of Scripture that clearly and simply lays out God’s truth and God’s directive for our lives. 1 Thessalonians 5 is just such a text. This is a gibberish-free zone. Here, Paul explains how followers of Christ are to live out their faith. He puts a simple, yet powerful, phrase at the center of it all: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” It’s so simple it’s disarming.
Now, while this is clear, we are human beings. And even with such a clear directive, we still have the uncanny ability to muddy things up—especially us preachers. We can take something that’s perfectly clear in the Bible and in no time flat, sprinkle a little mumbo-jumbo, insert a few hundred extra words, cite a book only a seminarian ever bought, and have a simple text reading like scientific gibberish.
But even the “wind-baggiest” of wind bag preachers has a hard time messing with Paul’s words here. Which means, the Apostle Pau’s “gibberish free” words are an opportunity to embrace and then share some very basic, yet powerful, truths about the one who comes to us at Christmas.
Now some of you are thinking—“Rejoice, pray, give thanks!” Got it! Great! Amen. Let’s go home. Not so fast. We need to drill down a little bit.
Let’s start with the call to “rejoice always.”
Although this is clear and simple, the word “rejoice” is not one we hear outside of a Christian or religious context. Perhaps another way to say “rejoice always” is to say that Christians can, because of Jesus, “choose joy.”
Every day, we have opportunities before us to choose the posture of our heart in response to the actions of others and the events in the world.
Will we choose bitterness? Will we choose jealousy? Will we choose greed? Will we choose worry? Will we choose joy?
The follower of Jesus Christ acknowledges this menu of à la carte choices, and when choosing, he or she aims, time and again, to grab the same entre: joy. That’s what Paul is saying—choose joy.
Even in the midst of challenge, struggle, disappointment, worry, we can choose to choose joy. And we can do so because we know that Christ has come to us and given us the assurance that in him and through him there is new and renewed life, there is reconciliation, there is the opportunity to go a better way, there is chance to forgive and be forgiven.
Because of Jesus, who comes to us again and again—but most especially during Advent and Christmas—there is hope, peace, joy, and love.
That alone can help us choose joy.
So what about prayer? Is it even possible to pray continually as Paul urges?
Paul’s words here speak more to our attitude as Christians than anything else.
It’s important to recognize we are in the presence of God each moment of every day. It’s like the spouse or best friend you have had in your life for years. Sometimes you chat for hours, other times it’s quiet between you. But no matter what, they are there right beside you.
So what if we lived with this same kind of awareness, that God is beside us, at all times, and, as a result, can be called upon at any given moment? That’s what Paul is talking about.
In the Eastern Church there is an ancient Christian practice called a “breath prayer.” The idea is very simple. To help one live out a life of constant prayer, calling upon the Lord and recognizing God’s enduring presence, Christians are encouraged to find a short, simple phrase that can be vocalized, softly, with every exhale.
For example, one might choose the phrase, “Lord, give me courage” for a particularly difficult season in life. And then, as often as possible, one would mouth those words with every exhale, choosing to believe that God hears and responds.
The last imperative from Paul might be the most difficult of all. It’s one thing to give thanks. It’s another to give thanks no matter the circumstance. How is that even possible? Is Paul saying, in contrast to Ecclesiastes, that there’s never a time to mourn or complain? Well, no, of course not.
Paul is saying this: Even when there’s reason to complain or weep, there’s still reason to give thanks. Paul’s not saying the job of the Christian is to ignore pain and sorrow, but to give thanks to God even within the pain and sorrow.
Here’s the thing… we tend to focus only on “big” reasons to be thankful: when a baby is born, when a promotion comes, or when we’re healed of a disease. But scripture encourages us to start small with our gratitude. And why? Because there’s always a small blessing to lay hold of. Always.
Try it. What if, as you list off your blessings, you started with the most mundane and overlooked of life’s gifts? What if you started really small?
Have you ever given thanks for eyelashes or nose hair? Think about what they do.
What about that first sip of coffee in the morning? Isn’t that the best?
What about the smell of pizza, or the feeling of a brand new pair of socks?
Do you give thanks for a cool drink of water?
The key to a life of gratitude is not that you always have some big thing for which to praise God—sometimes you don’t. The key to a life of gratitude is giving thanks for the small things you never run out of, and then working your way up the list as far as you can. That’s what Paul is talking about.
Have you ever wanted to know what God’s will was for your life? Have you ever wondered what God wants you to be doing with your time— what God considers to be at the core of a faithful, Christian life?
These are big questions, right? And yet here God is, through the words of Paul, giving us a very simple answer: rejoice, pray and give thanks. No gibberish. Just straight talk words to live by.
Joy. Prayer. Gratitude. The birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ has defeated the powers of sin and evil, and set us free to pursue some very simple things.
Which makes one wonder—why is it we make the Christian life so complicated? How is it that we can take some of the simplest ideas of Scripture and muddy them up, making them sound like gibberish, that ultimately turns people away?
Simple, straight talk is always better than gibberish.
So may we strive to live simply with joy, prayer, and gratitude.
Choose joy, talk to God and give thanks… for eyelashes. Amen.