Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
As many of you know, before I was called into ministry my plan was to be a history teacher. In fact, I graduated college with a degree in secondary education and I was fully licensed to teach history. It was my experience in college that people who wanted to be high school teachers by and large fell into two different groups. The first group are people who really wanted to be coaches. Often it was sports coaches, but not always. Coaches were people who wanted to be teachers so that they could lead others to greatness. The other group, the group that I was very much part of, were people who wanted to be Mr. Keating; teachers who inspired others to reach for greatness. If that reference does not trigger anything for you, Mr. Keating is the eccentric teacher played by Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poet Society. I might be wrong about this, but I am willing to be that every good teacher out there has secretly dreamed of having their students stand up on their desk and say “O captain, my captain.” I tried to find a clip to show, but it was too hard, there are too many good ones, and out of the context of the whole the clips do not quite stand to show how Mr. Keating motivated the student. For those of you who have not viewed the movie in years or have never seen the movie, Mr. Keating is an English teacher at a prestigious East coast boarding school. This is the kind of preparatory school that kids are sent to before being admitted to Ivy League school and then going on to be successful lawyers, doctors, or something else prestigious. The students the movie focuses on, are students that have already had their life planned out for them by their parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives. Mr. Keating is beginning his first year of teaching in the movie and he brings an unconventional education style. He challenges the students to not accept the mundane but to be extraordinary. He pushes the students not to muddle through life to embrace life and live it to the fullest. He inspired the students to carpe diem, seize the day. Throughout the movie this is primarily shown through how he teaches poetry. At one point in the movie Keating teaches, “We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
If you have never seen the movie, I will not spoil it for you. Mr. Keating inspires the boys to challenge their assumptions on life. In short he inspired them to test everything and hold on to what is good. The title of the movie derives from the fact that the group of main characters begin meeting secretly at night to “suck the marrow out of life” and further explore the passion that lays buried in poetry, and they call themselves the Dead Poets Society. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Most men live their lives in quiet desperation.” The movie is all about how the students tried to break free of that. Thoreau’s quote rings true, most people today still live a life of quiet desperation. Poetry is well and good, but even Shakespeare as a superior. What we need to live life and to live it abundantly is not just poetry, we need the Bible. All scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness according to 1 Timothy 3:16, but scripture is also useful for centering us love, joy, compassion, faithfulness, and hope; things worth living for. I submit what we need today is a Dead Apostle’s Society.
This morning’s short but powerful scripture certainly challenges us to break out of a life of quiet desperation in two major ways. First, it reminds us to rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances. If we are not careful, if we are not mindful of it, life can become mundane. We can get worn down by the everyday. Often we call it getting stuck in a rut, but it is worse than that isn’t it? If we are not mindful, we can slip into a pattern where we stop living life, and simply exist through life. Everything seems muted, lacking color. The things that once brought joy and happiness are just another thing to schedule. Instead of viewing each and every day as a precious gift from God full of possibility, wonder, and life we view each day as just another day; a day full of work, chores, and something else that always needs to be done. The worst part is that we can fall into this lifeless pattern without even realizing it. Here is an easy test to see where you are at: Close your eyes and think of Christmas eve. What did you think of? Did you think of a holy sanctuary lit by candles filled with the sweet melody of Silent Night? Did you think of the giddy expectation and joy that can only come from children ready to open presents? Or did you think of a laundry list of stuff and chores that you have to get done between now and then?
When life wears us down, this scripture is a reminder of a cure for what ails us. Rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances. When we pray, we are in contact, connection with God. God-the creator of all things, the revealer of the deepest truths, and the originator of all beauty. That God listens to us, communicates with us-if that does not fill you with wonder and awe then I fear you might be dead. We have so much to rejoice for and we have so much to be thankful for. Each and every one of use can complain if we want to, but if we are being honest for every complaint we have there are at least ten thing we can be thankful about. When we look at the world through the lens of rejoicing and thanksgiving we see things differently. No longer will things seem mundane and grayed out, but life, color will pop. The ordinary will seem extraordinary when we just take a moment to think that God created it, that God knows about it, and that we can give thanks because God is active in our world. When we wake up ready to rejoice, pray, and give thanks then every day is no longer just another day. It is now a day full of wonder, full of expectation, as we seek God in it. It’s funny how that works. We can go through a day and easily see no evidence of God in it, but it is as if the divine is hidden just of sight. If we take just a moment to look deeper, to seek God with our whole spirit, soul, and body then we see God’s handiwork, God’s wonders, and God’s love seemingly everywhere we look. We stop living a mundane life, a life of quiet desperation, but instead life a life of joyful expectation and abundant life.
The second major way that this scripture challenges us to test everything and hold on to what is good. We can do this in three ways. In Dead Poet’s society, the boys started reading poetry as a way to discover a deeper way to live. First, we need to do the same thing with scripture. If we want to live a deeper, fuller, more abundant life then we cannot muddle through life, we have to claim it. We do that by testing everything, and holding onto the good. It cannot be stated plainly enough, everything we know about God comes from the Bible. What God is like, what Jesus taught, how God wants us to live all of it is in the Bible. George Gallup, head of the Gallup research group once wrote, “Americans revere the Bible-but by and large they do not read it.” Gallup has some frightful statistics to back this up. Fewer than half of all adults can name all four gospels and 60% of all Americans cannot name five of the Ten Commandments. Of Christians, the majority cannot name more than three of Jesus’ twelve disciples. In order to test everything and know what is good, we have to have a baseline. There has to be something that we are testing against, and for Christians that something is the Bible. If we want to live, faithful, God centered lives then we have to read the bible, there is no way around it.
Hebrews 4:12 states “For the word of God is alive and active”. In youth ministry, a common comment that I heard from teenagers was they did not feel like God ever actually spoke to them. I would always respond by asking, “How regularly do you read the bible?” The Bible is alive and active, it is the divinely inspired word of God that speaks to us today. I am often amazed at how I can read a passage of scripture that I have read dozens of times before yet still find new insights, new ways that it points my heart and soul closer to God.
Yes, there are parts of the Bible that can be confusing, there are parts of the Bible that can even be a bit boring. You can still do it though. There are so many resources available to us. We are blessed beyond measure to live in a place where we can read the bible freely and there are numerous translations, so finding one that works for us is not an issue. There are tons of resources available. There are reading plans that break the bible up into small sections, and make reading it all in a year manageable. We are also fortunate here to have Sunday school classes and a midweek Bible study that we can be part of to better learn it. If we do not want to be resigned to a life of quiet desperation, if we want to have a faith that is vibrant and active, then we have to be grounded in the Holy Scriptures.
The second way that we can test everything and hold onto the good, is to make faith the lens through which we view and understand the world. 20th century theologian Karl Barth is often attributed with the idea of reading with the newspaper in one hand and the bible in the other. Barth was also quick to emphasize that we interpret the newspaper through the Bible. When we test everything and hold onto the good, we test all aspects of our lives. Our faith should not be just one segment of our life, but it should be the center, it should be the element that colors how we think and do everything else. This means that we do not look for scripture to justify what we already believe, but rather we allow what we believe to be influenced and changed by what we read in the scriptures. We should evaluate our media choices: the movies we watch, the books we read, and even the news we listen to. We should ask how does this bring me closer or further from the truths contained in scripture? How is this good or how is this evil? From this, based on my understanding of scripture, what do I hold onto? Asking these kinds of questions forces us to engage our lives more fully, we do not just passively consume whatever is thrown at our minds, hearts, and souls but we filter it through our faith. We test everything and hold onto the good.
The final way that we test everything and we hold onto the good, is that we ask questions. To have a strong and vibrant faith, we have to explore it, to know it, to find what makes it worth having in the first place. We have to be curious. Asking questions of our faith is not the same as doubting. Doubt is when we ask questions, already assuming the answer is negative. Curiosity is when we ask questions because we are filled with wonder. For example, five years ago I really was not a Star Trek fan. At that time though, the Star Trek reboot came out and I loved it, and now I am a Star Trek fan. I have watched hours of shows, read books, and more. While, you have not done this with Star Trek, you have probably done this with something. When we discover something we like, we invest in it, we explore it because we are curious, and we learn. All of us have something like that in our lives, but why do we never apply that same curiosity, that same passion to know something thoroughly to our faith? We need to test everything and hold onto the good. That includes our faith. Our faith should be and God certainly is able to stand up to the hardest questions and toughest scrutiny. We may not always find the answers we want, and sometimes we will not find answers at all. That is OK to, because we discover the mystery, we come in awe that God is bigger than us, and that God’s ways are not our ways. That can be frustrating, but as we ask questions and test may we learn to be Ok with the mystery. After all, a God that our limited and finite minds can understand completely, would not be much of a god at all.
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test everything, hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who call you is faithful, and he will do it.” With the reading of this scripture, I call the first meeting of the Dead Apostle’s society to order. This Advent may we not just muddle through it all, but may we seize the season. May we approach the coming of Christ with great expectation and wonder. May we rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks, and test everything. May we hold on to that which is good and ONLY that which is good. In doing so may we leave the ordinary, the mundane, the life of quiet desperation behind. Instead may we claim and may we live the eternal and abundant life promised by Christ Jesus our Lord.