When I first became pastor of our church in October of 2004, I remember the excitement and energy in preaching, teaching and getting to know all of you here at UBC. There was much about ministry to comprehend and lots of unique opportunities God provided to teach me about worship and Christian service. The church's loyalty and love were quickly apparent as we began our ministry together, and I valued the support when area pastors and I prepared our first Community Thanksgiving Service at Bethania Moravian Church that Thanksgiving Eve night in November of that same year.
It was not long after our Thanksgiving service that Pastor Wayne Byerly (pastor at that time) invited me to preach at Bethania Moravian's Watch Night Service on New Year's Eve, a service that was held just before midnight, reminding all those in attendance that Jesus would return to earth at a time when we'd least expect it. We were, and are, called to "watch" for the Lord's return (which could be any moment!). This service is highlighted by the preacher's sermon beginning about 11:45pm and intentionally getting interrupted by the church band. The pastor will then stop, wherever he/she is in the sermon, gather notes and Bible, and head out of the pulpit and back to the pew. So, looking for any opportunity to preach, I accepted Wayne's invitation and began preaching at 11:45pm. When the band played at midnight, I gathered my notes and Bible and walked out of the pulpit (I remember many of you were there, disappointed I could not finish my sermon and invited me to share this sermon the following Sunday. I obliged!). The Watch Night Service was unique and meaningful, and even surprising! But that night of surprise was also made special by the sharing of "watch words" (scriptures) for the entire congregation. Watch words were passed out randomly to those in attendance, and people were encouraged to let that particular scripture become their spiritual theme for the new year. I still remember my Bible verse watch word for 2005: "Be imitators of God, therefore as dearly loved children" (Eph. 5:1). What a superb truth to observe in the new year!
At UBC, we are on the threshold of a new year. And while 2020 brought some incredible challenges, we welcome 2021 and look forward to all that God has in store for us as his children, loving and serving one another and the community God has placed before us. How will we reach out, safely, to our neighbors and schools? How will we be the hands and feet of Jesus through our giving, using our spiritual gifts to build up the body and spread the Good News of a welcoming Kingdom which heals, restores, saves and reconciles? What will it mean to love God and love others as we follow Christ during the pandemic in the new year? Oh, what joy God has in store for us all as he protects us and provides for us! Therefore, what if we considered claiming our own watch word for 2021?
A watch word, by definition, is a "word or phrase expressing a person's or group's core aim or belief." While we focus on Christ's Word through scripture throughout each year, I'd like us to focus on the following verses for the entire new year as one complete watch word phrase. I'd like to challenge our church for 2021 to embrace and live out the following watch word from our Bibles:
"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thess. 5:16-18, NRSV).
Do we want to know God's will for us each day, regardless of the circumstances that surround us? What lessons did Jesus' life teach us about how to rejoice, pray and give thanks in the midst of stress, struggle and strife? How is God using the lessons you learned in 2020 to prepare you for a year of rejoicing, prayer and gratitude in 2021?
- Are you praising God for who Jesus is, especially when you're uncomfortable? Sometimes we are quick to praise God for the moments when he makes our lives more comfortable. However, God did not call us into a life of comfort, but into a life of suffering on behalf of others. God is worthy of praise and honor and worship, not just when life is free of difficulty but especially in the midst of it! We are to rejoice in the Lord always--after all, since God is with us and for us, who can be against us (Rom. 8:31)?
- Are you living your life as an unending prayer? We often think about praying when we sit down to a meal, or when we are seated in our pews, or when an emergency prompts us to call on the God who is able to help us. However, what if in 2021 you lived your life as ceaseless prayer? What I mean is this: consider living your life on behalf of others as your faith completely depends on God for all of your needs. You certainly aren't required to close your eyes when you pray--just praise, confess, and supplicate in the way you love God, yourself and others. After all, this is the Great Commandment, and perhaps to live life as a prayer is to embody these very words of Jesus: "‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22:37-40, NRSV).
- Are you thanking God for moments when you feel the burdens are too heavy and your patience is running thin? The NIV translation says that we are to "...give thanks under all circumstances..." When we think about it this way, not only must we give thanks to God in all circumstances, we must give thanks to God when we are under all circumstances. Last year taught us that though the burden was heavy, God still carried it for us--and he will do the same in 2021 and beyond: "Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens" (Ps. 68:19, NIV).
Following Jesus, once he's saved us and become our personal King, is not an option; rather, it's a mandate: Be joyful, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances! This new year can be the start of the life that is truly life, Jesus Christ, living out his will in you, in me, and in our entire congregation. Everything else in our church--our budgets, our property, and our ministries will all fall in place if we are faithful to fulfill God's individual and collective calling to rejoice and pray incessantly while thanking God for Jesus' presence and power in our lives. We are called to live this way because it is God's will for us. God's saved people are those who've experienced the reconciling, justice-driven power of the Kingdom, those people who don't ignore the tough realities of life but face it with joy, prayer and thanksgiving. We are not called to view life through the lens of a Pollyanna; however, we are called to let God change our attitudes and perspectives in order that we might reflect the true heart of Christ Jesus in all that we say and do. 1 Thess. 5:16-18 compel us to do just that!
Will you make 1 Thess. 5:16-18 your watch word for the new year? We need to be reminded that God is actively involved in our lives, seeking to share his light and love with others. God desires that we learn of our Redeeming Lord in worship, listen to this Spirit and seek to be Jesus' mouthpiece in a world which wants to turn a deaf ear to God. Time is precious, and 2021 must be a year in which UBC shows the world that, pandemic or no pandemic, we WILL rejoice, pray and give thanks--without ceasing!
Whattya say, dear family, are you ready to bear much fruit in the new year, showing our community, state and world that we are God's own disciples? Are you with me, friends? Let's plant ourselves in the fertile soil of God's love in Christ, trust in his nurturing of our roots, and believe that the peace that passes all understanding will guard our hearts as we embody God's will to rejoice, pray and give thanks...without giving any thought to stopping!
Amen and amen!
Looking forward to rejoicing, praying and giving thanks with you in 2021,