Yesterday’s sermon had everything to do with New Testament dictation and bible translation.
By New Testament dictation, I mean the fact that the letters of Paul were not so much written as they were spoken. And as Paul spoke them aloud, his faithful scribes then wrote them down. So they key to understanding and applying I Thessalonians 5:17 (more on that below) has less to do with interpreting the words Paul as it does with hearing the tone in his voice when he spoke them.
In a sense, how we live out I Thessalonians 5:17 has to do with the expression on Paul’s face during the dictation process.
And for the message, I relied on the New American Standard’s translation of I Thessalonians 5:17: Pray without ceasing. That’s how I learned it, that’s how U2 even quotes it in a song, and I just like it better than the NIV’s Pray continually.
So we dug into Pray without ceasing and in the end concluded our time together by giving away blue wrist bands with those words inscribed on them.
You know what phrase most of us hated to hear at mealtime when we were kids? EAT YOUR VEGETABLES! Always said with a scowl! My worst was spinach, followed closely by yellow squash, which is a bit ironic since I like both of them now. But I remember being forced to eat both of them – the theory being that if something was that good for you it must taste bad to you. It was something to be endured; never to be enjoyed. You heard it, I heard it, a lot of you are hearing it right now: EAT YOUR VEGETABLES.
And of course what was the great contrast to that? HAVE SOME DESSERT! Said no with a snarl but with a smile! As an unexpected treat. My favorite in the day was pumpkin pie, which is again ironic since I DON’T like it these days. But your mom or your dad or both, feeling in a good mood, you’ve behaved well and things worked out for them on the job and they turn and say, HAVE SOME DESSERT! You’re like, wha-what?! No conditions?! Nope! (AV series of cakes, pies, ice creams). Yeah, your approach to all this is governed not only by taste (AV: Chocolate > Spinach) but by the tenor of the offer: no scowl, all smile. Not a command. A kindness.
Well, you’re grateful for the little trip down culinary memory lane, I know, but I guide you on that trip because I realize that for years I have been reading and quoting one verse from Scripture all wrong. And I haven’t been misreading the words or misinterpreting the meaning, necessarily; what I’ve been doing is mis-seeing the expression on Paul’s face when he said it. Not heard the tone in his voice when he dictated it. I’ve seen a scowl when I should have seen a smile. I’ve heard a command when I should have listened to a kindness.
And here it is: I Thess 5:17 and pray without ceasing. And all these years I’ve been hearing it and reading it like EAT YOUR VEGETABLES! Grit your teeth, endure this thing you could never enjoy, since it’s ultimately good FOR you it must be unpleasant TO you, and JUST. KEEP. PRAYING. And honestly, when I hear it, like you I feel like, “Another one?! Another command, Lord? Haven’t I been doing pretty good at keeping all those other ones without you piling one more on me?!?!” One more thing that doesn’t come naturally or easily, one more thing that makes God sound like an angry dad at the dinner table. And so of course, I haven’t much paused to see what it means because the tone in which I’ve heard it is so wrong. Pray without ceasing.
But what if . . . it’s not a command but a kindness? What if it’s not a duty but a delight? Not a burden but a blessing? What if when you take just a little bit of context into account praying without ceasing is a lot less an obligation and a lot more a celebration? Because look at 5:16 – Rejoice always – which doesn’t mean force an attitude of joy on your gloomy spirit but instead take time to notice and to give voice to the blessings and favor you got. You see that direction in Paul, you understand what he really, truly believed about prayer, and you realize that Pray Without Ceasing was NEVER uttered (or written) with an EAT YOUR VEGETABLES! scowl but instead delivered with a HOW ABOUT SOME DESSERT glee!
It’s not an obligation; it’s an opportunity! Paul says it with joy, delivers it with a smile, it really is a command that is truly, genuinely, an act of kindness. Pray without ceasing? Well yeah! And pass the chocolate ice cream while you are at it.
You know why it gets me? Because if we DON’T pray without ceasing . . . have you considered the alternative? Know what we’d do? Complain without ceasing. I remember a kid in our NJ Youth Group came to life one time when he uttered this comment: “I can always find something to complain about.” Yes! He could! And some of you realize those words could have very easily come out of your mouth. That you are an expert at seeing what’s wrong, at verbalizing how you are displeased, and the soundtrack of your life is one of unending complaint. You complain about your parents, your job, your boss, your kids, your church . . . your preacher! And you realize in this very instant that all that complaining has led to zero solving and has gotten you precisely nowhere.
Or others of you, if you don’t pray without ceasing, you realize you will Compare Without Ceasing. Why is that person better looking? Why does he have better hair? Why does she have better posture? Why is he higher paid? Why does she have a better husband? And worst of all . . . why does he have a bigger church? Nine times out of ten when we compare without ceasing we come out on the losing end!
And then I know that for a lot of you, if you don’t pray without ceasing, you worry without ceasing. What about my job? My kids? ISIS? The stock market? That lump underneath my arm?
See, you’re GONNA do something without ceasing – and I guarantee you praying is the best alternative AND the more you do that, the less you do all those self-destructive things I just mentioned. Every other thing you do without ceasing is a descent into the self; prayer is an ascent into the heavenlies, into your design. Because pray without ceasing is NOT EAT YOUR VEGETABLES; it’s HAVE SOME DESSERT!
Let me tell you something else praying without ceasing isn’t. It’s not a call to 24/7 prayer – there’s even a place in CLT called 24/7 Prayer and THEY’RE NOT OPEN 24/7!!! Seven, yes. 24, no. This is not a call to have prayer be all you do. It is instead this gracious invitation to be a person of daily, persistent, unending prayer. Even when prayer is not answered or not delayed.
A good friend of mine once told me in great faith that when he prays over something, he gives it to God and moves on. He figures God has a really good memory and God doesn’t need to hear from him on the same subject again and again. He has enough faith to give it to God and then not worry. Perfect logic. Great insight. Something I can totally buy into. Except Jesus. Except Jesus who tells a story in Luke 18 (we’ve assigned it for reading this week) where the heroine of the story is a woman who keeps pestering a judge til she gets what she is entitled to. Why does Jesus tell that story? So that we should always pray and not give up (18:1). Oh yeah! Logic be . . . darned! Jesus says, Paul says to keep praying even when answers are elusive, delayed, or extremely frustrating.
And I think Jesus says 18:1 and Paul says pray without ceasing not so much because God needs reminders but because we do. Not because God is forgetful but because we are. We need those kind of reminders to daily, continually, place our lives and this mismanaged world in God’s hands. It’s like the woman who felt guilty for praying that her tomatoes would grow. No, I said, Don’t be guilty! Keep doing it! You are acknowledging that God is in control of even the dirt! It is a privilege that he gives us to relinquish control to him daily. Ask your friendly recovering alcoholic if they consider it an honor or a burden to begin each day with I am powerless. PRAY WITHOUT CEASING!
Maybe you’ve heard of the two pastors wives who were repairing holes in their husband’s pants. (OK, this is clearly quite old and obviously is NOT about Julie.) One wife says to the other, “Oh, the church is in such turmoil. People don’t respect my husband’s leadership or teaching & they’re always mad at each other.” And then she went right back to knitting up a hole in the backside of the pants. The other woman replied, “I’m so sorry. We’ve been so blessed. The church is strong and alive, and for whatever reason the Spirit keeps us altogether.” And then she went back to knitting up a hole . . . in the knees of the pants. Yep, for whatever reason. We know the reason. Invitation offered and accepted to pray without ceasing. Just like eating dessert! See, as someone has said, you can do more than pray after you pray but you can never do more than pray until you’ve prayed. PRAY WITHOUT CEASING!
And Lord, I’ve seen what this is about. Early on in ministry, I had a little custom where on Saturday night I would place my hands over my sermon prep and pray an anointing on what would get said in the a.m. And then one night, out of the blue but clear as a bell, came the words: Don’t ever preach without praying like that. Whoa! So I wrote that down, put it on my desk and have never forgotten it. So I still pray that same way. That’s praying w/o ceasing. Sometimes it’s the only time I pray on Saturday. See how it’s 7 and not 24? PRAY WITHOUT CEASING!
And again, the context of 5:17 is so interesting. Look at 5:14-15:
14 We urge you, brethren, admonish the [a]unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.
You know why you’re gonna need to pray consistently, unendingly, persistently? Because you’re gonna have to deal with people who are difficult, divisive, and defeated. Anyone have those folks in your life? And the only way you can offer them anything helpful at all . . . is if you pray without ceasing. And the most interesting thing to realize is that . . . YOU may be that difficult person in someone else’s life! We read vv 14-15 and think of ppl but rarely have the self-awareness to realize other people think of us!
I guess that’s why I love Arthur Reeder so much (AV). From Monroe. Early on in my tenure there, he became committed to the idea that he needed to pray for his pastor. That would be me. No doubt, in part, because I fit I Th 5:14-15! But you know what? We still talk on the phone on occasion (and his g-daughter is a high impact volunteer here!). And how does he conclude every talk? Two ways: 1. Love you Tal and 2. I pray for you every day. Every. Day.
That’s praying without ceasing. Not as a chore. As a joy. Not as a command. As a kindness. And I get the blessing. How about you?