Jesus says, "You must be perfect, as my heavenly Father is perfect."
The Ten Commandments say, "You shall not covet your neighbor's goods."
Impossible in a world of advertising.
The Sermon on the Mount warns us, "that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire."
Avoid being angry?
Never look at someone and say, "you fool"?
Impossible for those who live in Royal Oak and survived the Dream Cruise.
But among all the impossible exhortations of the Bible, one of the most striking is Paul's command here in 1 Thessalonians: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances."
Do you remember the first time you read those words, "pray without ceasing?"
I remember a feeling of being overwhelmed.
How could a person possibly pray without ceasing?
How can you pray without ceasing if you have to go to work?
To the bathroom?
Does this verse mean you should rejoice when your car breaks down?
Give thanks when you hear about atrocities committed by a foreign dictator on the evening news?
Should you be praying when your dog dies?
Or when you receive a diagnosis that you have six months to live and then will die a terrible and painful death?
How can we be praying at all these moments?
I think I filed it away as impossible and never really thought about it.
Kind of like, well, thank goodness there's grace and I don't have to live up to that one.
But we know what the angel told Mary: with God, all things are possible.
And that includes praying without ceasing.
So today, I'm going to attempt to spell out three things praying without ceasing tells us not to do,
And three things that praying without ceasing does tell us to do.
What does praying without ceasing not tell us to do?
#1: Praying without ceasing means we don't have to pray at specified times.
That is, many religions prescribe times for prayer.
Muslims must pray five times a day; the community is called to prayer.
The Jewish tradition was to pray three times a day.
Monasteries, too, keep a schedule of prayer.
Yet these words of Paul tell us that praying five times a day, or three, or seven,
Is both too much and too little.
The way of Jesus is not the way of rules.
The way of Jesus is the way of the Spirit.
It reminds me of how Jesus expands the definition of adultery to include all lust,
And the definition of murder to include anger.
It's not about the letter of the law, it's about the spirit.
The point is not that we pray five times a day, it's that we pray at any time and every time.
#2: Praying without ceasing means we do not have to pray in a specific posture.
Some people close their eyes to pray, or bow their heads, or fold their hands, to eliminate distractions that can take us away from prayer.
Some people like to kneel to pray to demonstrate their humility to God.
But if we are to pray without ceasing,
And also do the work to which God has called us,
And enjoy the life to which God has called us,
This means that we should pray with our eyes open and our hands at work,
We should pray standing, sitting, and lying down,
Running, walking, and swimming.
We should pray in the grocery store and at the movies,
In restaurants and at the bank,
At our places of work and our places of rest.
If we are to pray without ceasing, our prayer must be flexible.
Which brings us to the third point:
#3: Praying without ceasing means we do not have to pray verbally.
If we were praying out loud everywhere we went,
This would be an even noisier world.
By telling us to pray without ceasing, Paul is challenging the Thessalonians,
As God challenges us,
To expand the definition of prayer,
From a verbal communication to a spiritual communion.
Francis of Assisi said, "Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words."
Prayer is similar.
Running, knitting, mowing the lawn, washing dishes,
Serving in the warming shelter,
Teaching a child,
Helping an elderly person to walk…
If it is done in communion with God, it is prayer.
Charles Spurgeon put it this way:
"Loving is praying. If I seek in prayer the good of my fellow creature, and then go and try to promote it, I am practically praying for his good in my actions. If I seek, as I should do, God's glory above everything, then if all my actions are meant to tend to God's glory, I am continuing to pray, though I may not be praying with my thoughts or with my lips. Oh, that our whole life might be a prayer. It can be. There can be a praying without ceasing before the Lord, though there be many pausings in what the most of men would call prayer. Pray then without ceasing, my brother. Let thy whole life be praying."
So praying without ceasing means prayer need not be at any particular time, in any particular position, and prayer need not be verbal.
What does praying without ceasing mean?
#1: Make it a habit.
If prayer can be weeding the garden or reading a book,
Doesn't that mean everything is prayer?
Isn't there an argument that playing Candy Crush or taking a cigarette break could be a prayer?
I don't deny the possibility,
But as you see, interpreting daily activities as prayer is dangerous.
Augustine said, "when we are not adoring God, we sin."
Anytime we are not focused on God, we are vulnerable to sin.
Ask yourself, when I'm playing golf or watching TV, am I adoring God or not?
Because the world constantly tempts us to turn our focus away from God, we need to set aside specific times to return our focus to God in prayer.
Whether this is an hour every morning, or one minute ten times a day,
Praying without ceasing means making a habit of prayer.
And don't say, I'm too busy.
Spurgeon writes, "God can multiply our ability to make use of time. If we give the Lord his due, we shall have enough for all necessary purposes. In this matter seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Your other engagements will run smoothly if you do not forget your engagement with God."
Martin Luther once said, "I have so much to do to-day that I shall never get through it with less than three hours' prayer."
Praying without ceasing means prayer must be a priority in our lives.
#2: Rejoice always.
Praying without ceasing means constant communion with God.
And the essence of communion with God is joy.
Joy is different from happiness.
Happiness is a fleeting emotional state of contentedness.
Joy is a deep-seated, overwhelming awe at the miracle of life.
When we pray without ceasing, we have constant joy, because we are constantly praising and thanking God.
Praying without ceasing means having a different attitude: an attitude of gratitude.
Look at where Paul lodges this exhortation to pray without ceasing:
It is between two other commands, rejoice always, and give thanks in all circumstances.
We can accomplish all three commands: rejoice, pray, and give thanks,
When we cease to look at life through our own eyes and seek to see things as God sees them.
For example, your car breaks down.
Looking through our own eyes brings frustration, anger, and despair.
Looking at the same situation through God's eyes, we would approach the same situation with a sense of peace, and calm.
We might immediately give thanks that we are still physically safe,
And then chuckle a bit thinking how the day got a bit more complicated than expected.
Rejoice, pray, and give thanks.
It all happens naturally when we enter into a greater communion with the Holy Spirit.
And so we come to #3: Invite God into everyday life.
Praying without ceasing means we must experience God's presence in the dailyness of life.
Paul J. Griffith, a Roman Catholic scholar, writes that our problem is that we compartmentalize life.
"There is the work compartment, the personal life compartment, and the religion compartment, to name just three, and the walls that separate them are thickly impervious.
God does not want to be shut up into a little compartment on Sunday morning,
Dusted off at mealtimes for grace,
Tucked away in a dusty Bible on a shelf.
God wants a part of the rest of the calendar, the rest of the conversation,
God wants to be in the middle of the refridgerator and the top of the pile of papers on the counter.
God wants to be in the middle of life,
Of our ordinary, daily life.
That's why God entered into the middle of our life,
Into the ordinary, daily life of a Jewish carpenter.
Through Jesus, God made all of life, and all of death, a prayer.
There was prayer in Christ's birthing, and living,
And even on the cross, he prayed.
God made the ordinary holy.
And God will make your ordinary life holy too.
Accept Christ into your to-do list,
Into your calendar,
Onto your refrigerator door.
Become aware of how God is already trying to be a part of all your doings,
And accept him in.
Acknowledge that he's already present there.
Pray without ceasing.
Because is there a single facet of your life that could not use a little more prayer?
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.