There was a time when children in Sunday school were given homework. In those days, the memory verse was as common as video clips are today. In those days, little Sally knew that on Sunday morning Ms Beulah might look at her over the rim of her reading glasses, and say, with a rare combination of warmth and authority, “Sally, would you share with us the verse you learned this week?” Little Sally would be forever grateful to her friend Charlie who had shared with her, just as they were walking down the steps to Sunday school, the secret that had been passed down through generations of young Bible scholars: “John 11:35 – Jesus wept.” The shortest verse in all of Scripture – short enough to memorize on Sunday morning in the hallway on your way to class. Ms Beulah was a kind and wise teacher, and she praised those young disciples every time one of them, usually with great relief in his or her voice, recited the verse. She praised them because she wanted the children to remember when they were sad that Jesus knew their sadness and wept with them. There were days when Ms Beulah’s heart was heavy with sorrow and all she could do was cry – and she was grateful that God not only knew the burden weighing on her heart, but cried with her. But Ms Beulah also made sure to tell her young charges a little known secret of Bible scholarship. “Children, the shortest verse in all of Scripture is not John 11:35, short as it is.” She certainly had Charlie’s attention. “Repeat after me,” she said. “First Thessalonians – 5:16 – Rejoice always.” And then Ms Beulah told them stories about the Apostle Paul:
“The Apostle loved the Lord, and he wanted the whole world to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. The Apostle was a serious man; he thought long and hard before he spoke or wrote – and he spoke and wrote a lot! But he was also a man whose heart was full of joy. Many times he was thrown in jail because some people didn’t like what he said about God’s love for all people. But he would sit in his cell and sing, and every time the guards opened the door to look what was going on, he smiled at them. God had given him a joy that was bigger than anything else in the world. One time, on his way to another country far away, he was in a shipwreck. He barely made it to shore, he had lost all his luggage, he was alone, he had no idea where he was, but when the locals found him, he was walking down the beach, singing and praising God. Paul was a man of great joy because he knew God. He knew that God loved the world, and that God would bring to a glorious end all that Jesus had done. Paul knew and remembered that nothing in the whole universe would ever be greater or stronger than God’s love. That’s why he taught us, ‘Rejoice always’ – 1 Thessalonians 5:16.”
Ms Beulah was a good Sunday school teacher. Generations of young disciples learned from her how faith in Jesus Christ nurtures a joy that resides deep in our lives, deep enough to sustain us in days when the world gives us little reason to smile.
Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances.
Paul was not just good at avoiding the bad news. He was not one of these annoyingly happy Christians who wear their faith on their t-shirts, but want to have little to do with the world God loves. He listened attentively to visitors who told him about conflicts within the young mission churches and about hostilities believers had to face from neighbors and local authorities, and yet he taught,
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.
Paul’s joy didn’t depend on circumstances. Earlier in his letter to the Thessalonians, he wrote,
“We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy! How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?”
Paul sang because in cities stretching from Jerusalem and Antioch to Ephesus, all the way to Macedonia and into Achaia, men and women heard the good news of Jesus Christ and responded with the work of faith, the labor of love, and steadfastness of hope in God’s saving purposes. Paul rejoiced and taught the churches to rejoice because every faint spirit refreshed by the gospel is a life renewed by grace and reclaimed for the kingdom of God. His joy was rooted in the promise and the coming of God’s reign. He rejoiced because in his soul he knew that the One who calls us is faithful.
I asked Ms Beulah why it is so difficult for so many of us to tap into that deep current of joy that runs through the life of faith. She looked at me over the rim of her reading glasses and said, “I don’t really know, but I think it’s because we are afraid to trust God. We are prisoners of our own fear.” I thought about that a lot these past few weeks. We are afraid to trust God. We are prisoners of our own fear.
I’ve been reading about addiction these past few weeks. Hard to read stories about families passing on abuse, generation to generation, helplessly, trapped in prisons of pain and fear. And I read deeply moving stories about the miracle of hope and the journey toward healing that begins when a survivor discovers, “I am not alone.”
Many of us have been discussing these past few weeks the legacy of slavery and racism in this country, and how it’s like a wound we pass on from generation to generation, a prison that seems designed to keep us each trapped in our own cells of pain, prejudice, and fear. But then hundreds in this city, and thousands across the nation come together to protest against the ways the curse corrupts our criminal justice system, and to state publicly that they are no longer willing to accept the status quo as the best we can do.
On Thursday night I went to Riverbend prison to celebrate with a group of men their graduation from SALT – Schools for Alternative Learning and Transformation. The men gave testimony about the joy of talking with each other about things that matter and being listened to and heard; they talked about the joy of discovery and how their time together had transformed them, individually and as a group, unlike anything they had ever experienced in a class room.
Our prisons are places where the painful histories of family abuse and addiction and the reality of racism intersect and overlap in unique ways, but even there, behind bars and tall fences topped with concertina wire, even there, liberty is being proclaimed to the captives and release to the prisoners. To the degree that community is possible even behind those walls, liberation happens, healing occurs, and life is restored.
We heard again this morning the strong, beautiful words from the prophet Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
The prophet spoke these exuberant Advent words of promise and hope when Jerusalem was in ruins; the temple had not been rebuilt; the streets were empty, as were the markets; the towns of Judah were devastated by poverty. The return of the exiles from Babylon had been a powerful experience. They felt like those whom God had brought out of Egypt, to a new beginning in the land of promise. But when they saw the city, their hope and joy gave way to tears of sorrow and despair. And Isaiah sang,
I will rejoice, rejoice, rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
Isaiah sang like bridegroom and bride on their wedding day, filled with joy, full of happy expectation and confidence concerning all the newness about to happen. He sang amid the ruins the song of Zion, the exuberant song of salvation, of Jerusalem rebuilt, the ruined cities repaired, and the former devastations raised up – and you know people asked him, “How can this be?” Isaiah’s answer was remarkably similar to Paul’s: The Lord is faithful. The promise is greater than the circumstances.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
We bear the wounds of abuse, and God cries with us. The legacy of slavery is perpetuated among us and by us in ways we do not fully understand, and God keeps vigil with us. The good word of God’s faithfulness is for us who mourn, whose spirits are faint and whose hearts are broken; and the good word is against the fears that paralyze us and the idols that hold us in thrall, we don’t know how. And so we sing. We sing with Isaiah, with Jesus and Paul and Ms Beulah, we sing of the gardener who has sown the earth with righteousness. We praise the Lord God whose Spirit is upon us, who has anointed us and sent us to bring good news to each other, to bind up each other’s wounded hearts, to proclaim liberty and release, to comfort, build up, raise up, and repair until we are what we really are: the planting of the Lord, to display the glory of God.
 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3; 2:19f.; 3:9