Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 29, 2015
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 Commentary
Comments and Observations
We would never guess that this reading is an Advent text, until we come to the last words of verse 13, where the coming (Greek, parousia) of the Lord Jesus is mentioned. Before that word, everything is very commonplace. Paul is writing about everyday life, particularly about the love he has for the Thessalonians. What we have in our text is an exchange of affection between a pastor and his beloved church that is almost embarrassing. Whenever we study the New Testament epistles, we are reading someone else’s mail. But this feels a bit like voyeurism because Paul is so forthright in his expression of love for the Thessalonian Christians.
The mention of the Parousia puts all of that affection in a bright eschatological light. When we notice that Paul ends every chapter in I Thessalonians with mention of Christ’s second coming, it’s like he is saying that we must live every chapter of our lives in the light of that great and glorious day. And that reminds us that Advent is not just an early celebration of Christmas, as so many of my former parishioners thought. (“Why don’t we sing more Christmas carols in Advent?”) Rather, Advent is a time of preparation for Christ’s coming—yes, his first, but also, and perhaps even more, his second. So the season of Advent is not a time of high festivities; we’re not yet celebrating “The Holidays.” It is a time of sober reflection aimed at growing in holiness; we should treat the days of Advent as “holy days.” At least that seems to be the message of this very quotidian passage from I Thessalonians.
As I said a moment ago, our reading is almost embarrassingly personal. After a very brief ministry in Thessalonica, Paul was forced to leave. He’s been gone for several months now and he has been worried about his newly born church. Will they stray from the faith they have so recently embraced? Will they forget about Paul himself, “out of sight, out of mind?” So says Paul, “I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might be useless.” (Verse 5) To check up on them, Paul sends Timothy for a little informal church visiting. Timothy returns with the glad tidings that all is well in the little infant church. Not only is their faith intact, but they remember with Paul with genuine fondness. Paul is so excited that he feels as though he has been given a new lease on life. “”For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” (Verse 8) He doesn’t know how to express his thanks enough, as he prays fervently and constantly for them (verses 9 and 10).
All of this personal correspondence can serve as a reminder to our churches that Advent is about the ordinary affairs of our lives. In the midst of life’s loves and loses, Jesus comes to judge and to save. We seldom think of his coming as we live with family and friends, dealing with absence and heartache, reunion and joy in human relationships. This text gives us the opportunity to connect the tangled relationships of our lives to the coming of Christ, both his first and, especially, his second.
For many people, Advent is a time for special ceremonies or disciplines, like Advent wreaths or Advent devotionals. Here Paul gives us some very practical Advent projects in his three wishes or prayers in verses 11-13, each one initiated in the NIV by “may”– “may our God…, may the Lord…, may he….” It’s hard to be definite about whether these are merely wishes or actual prayers. It is definitely true that we cannot do these three things in our own strength, so there’s a sense in which these are prayers asking God to help us. But they aren’t exactly addressed to God. Maybe we can think of them as blessings. Here are three wishes or prayers or blessings that should shape our Advent observance.
“Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you.” Clearly, this refers to Paul’s desire to rejoin his friends physically. “Satan stopped us” from coming to you, says 2:18, using a military word describing how one army would block the road to keep the other army from passing through. Paul and his colleagues couldn’t remove the obstacles, so he knows that their re-union will depend on the intervention of the Father and the Son.
Without bending the meaning of the text, we could apply this to the relationships in our congregation. The Holidays are often a time of great stress and disappointment as we are reminded of the blocked relationships in our lives. Satan has stopped us from getting past old memories and hurts and grudges and resentments. Our relationships have become rough and crooked. In the light of Christ’s coming, Advent should be a time to ask God to “clear the way” for us to come back together with those from whom we have become distanced. Before Christ comes in his Parousia, let us ask him to come into our relationships and “make the crooked straight and the rough places plain.” Heaven knows that we can’t do that by ourselves, so “may our God….”
In the NIV translation verses 12 and 13 seem to contain two separate wishes/prayers, but they are in reality one long sentence. Verse 12 expresses Paul’s wish/prayer that “the Lord [will] make your love increase and overflow, for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.” We live in an age when Jesus’ prediction in Matthew 24:12 seems to have been fulfilled. In the last days, “because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” Think of the cold blooded murders perpetrated by ISIS and the cold hearted response of some Eastern European countries to the flood of refugees from ISIS. We can multiply examples from our own country and our own lives.
In a loveless world, how can we grow in love? Paul knows. In the light of Christ’s return, ask Jesus to make our love increase. Rather than focusing on presents and parties, let us focus on the fact that we will appear “in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes….” Ken Follett has written a trilogy that covers the history of the 20th Century. The second volume focuses on events around and in the Second World War. It is entitled Winter of the World. Before Jesus comes in winter (Mark 13:18), let us use this season of Advent to focus on loving each other and everyone else, even as God loved us in Christ’s first coming.
As I said above, verse 13 is a continuation of verse 12, not a separate wish/prayer. The sense is, may Jesus increase our love in order that he may strengthen our hearts, so that we may be holy and blameless in the presence of God at the Parousia. The point of that long wish/prayer is that Jesus will make us completely holy, so that we can stand in God’s presence when Jesus comes back.
There is much in that sentence that calls for comment. First, the word “strengthen” was used in classical Greek to refer to putting a buttress on an existing building to strengthen it. As our hearts are attacked by “the world, the flesh and the Devil,” we need to be buttressed so we will not fall.
Second, notice that holiness is the focus of this wish/prayer. It is very important that we be holy, because we will one day be “in the presence of our God and Father.” This reminds us of those sobering words of Hebrews 12:14: “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” While we should be careful not to turn such admonitions into a kind of legalistic works righteousness, they remind us that holiness matters to God. Jesus died to save us from sin, so that we would not only be declared righteous (justification), but also become holy (sanctification).
Third, Paul asks that our love will increase so that we will be holy. What is the connection between love and holiness? Could it be that love is the essence of holiness? In my tradition, holiness was often interpreted as being separate from the world, which made sense given that God’s holiness is first of all his “otherness.” He is the “Wholly Other.” But in my tradition, that often meant nothing more than not participating in worldly amusements, such as drinking, dancing, card playing and theater attendance. While there was some good wisdom in the call to be careful about getting entangled in sinful pursuits, holiness in the Bible doesn’t seem to be described primarily in those terms. Rather, holiness is loving the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. So, of course, Paul prays that we should increase in love so that we might be holy, because the essence of holiness is precisely love.
In the light of Christ’s coming, let us turn the days of Advent into holy days, days in which we focus not only on enjoying the worldly holidays, but also and primarily on growing in love and holiness. Our Lord Jesus is coming with all his holy ones, says verse 13. That might mean his holy angels, but it certainly means the saints who have died and gone to be with Jesus (cf. I Thess. 4:13-18). When Jesus returns he “will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in him.” During this holiday season, we feel more keenly the loss of loved ones, lamenting “that empty place at the table,” and looking forward to that day when we are re-united with our dearly departed. Let’s use this season of Advent to focus on holy living, so that we won’t feel out of place when Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
We spend our lives living by faith, not by sight. But Paul’s reference to being “in the presence of God our Father at the Parousia of our Lord Jesus” reminds us that one day our faith will be rewarded with sight. That reminded me of a scene from a fantasy novel entitled Winter’s Tale by Mark Helperin. Set in a Manhattan that beggars the imagination, it features a cast of fascinating characters. Among them is a star struck couple who live in the same apartment building, but have never met. They learn of each other’s existence by tapping on the wall that separates their bedrooms. After a while they work out a code by which they can communicate with each other, sight unseen. However unlikely it may seem, they fall in love. He is convinced that she is the most beautiful woman in the world, even though he has never seen her.
Finally, they decide that it is time to meet face to face on the roof of their building. He arrives first and waits with trembling hands and bated breath. Then her hand appears on the iron ladder leading to the roof, followed by her other hand, then the top of her head. She swings the rest of her body up onto the roof, and he exclaims, “I knew it. I knew you would be beautiful. And my God, you are.” That will be our exclamation when at last Jesus appears. “I knew it. I knew you would be beautiful. And my Lord, and my God, you are.”
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