Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 2, 2018
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 Commentary
This first Sunday in the season of Advent liturgically marks the beginning of a season of waiting. Not just of waiting to celebrate Jesus’ first coming. Advent is also the season in which God’s adopted sons and daughters at least try to concentrate on waiting for Jesus’ second coming.
We’ve had 2,000 years of practice at that waiting. Yet practice at waiting for Jesus to come back hasn’t yet made perfect. Some Christians, in fact, have at least figuratively spent two millennia trying to figure out just when, how and for whom Jesus will come back.
Paul at least hints that the Thessalonians to whom he writes this week’s Lectionary text struggle with some of the same issues. Yet he’s startlingly generous with his praise for them as they await Jesus’ return. In fact, Paul speaks in glowing terms about the Thessalonians’ “faith and love.”
So throughout much of this week’s Epistolary Lesson the Thessalonians sound like the kind of people preachers and teachers would want to fill our churches … until we get to the end of verse 10. There Paul writes, “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.”
It almost makes modern church leaders want to say, “Oh come on! You can’t be serious. You’ve just spent all that time praising the Thessalonians’ love and faith. Yet now you suggest their faith is somehow ‘lacking’? You should see what we have to deal with every week!”
The Greek word for that word “lacking” hints at something that needs to be restored or completed. When fishermen’s nets had holes or people’s bones were broken, they were literally “lacking.” Those who repaired those breaks were literally said to “supply what is lacking.” So verse 10 suggests that there are holes and breaks in the Thessalonians’ response to God’s grace.
When I read about the Thessalonians’ “lack,” I think of one of the most decadent inventions of all time: the chocolate waterfall machine. Such machines pour out their chocolatey goodness over things like fruit and marshmallows. They’re made up of a kind of “tower of bowls.” When the liquid chocolate fills the top bowl, it cascades down to a lower bowl that, when filled, overflows onto yet another bowl below it.
If we were to compare the Thessalonians to a chocolate waterfall machine, Paul would be saying they only have enough of the chocolate that is faith to fill the top bowl. Their faith is stuck in its top bowl. They don’t seem to have enough faith to overflow onto other bowls.
Those who preach and teach 1 Thessalonians 3 will want to look for ways to join its author in complimenting their hearers. They’ll want to look for specific examples of faith and faithfulness they’ve observed in them. If they can do so honestly, those who proclaim this Lesson may even want to say their feelings for their hearers are a lot like Paul’s for the Thessalonians.
Yet Paul at least invites those who proclaim as well as hear 1 Thessalonians 3 to also ask if our faith is still somehow “lacking.” If we just have enough faith to fill part of us. If we need someone to supply what is lacking in our faith, to top it off so that it may overflow onto the bowl that is our neighbor.
Of course, we naturally assume there isn’t much “lacking” in us. In his novel, An Innocent Millionaire, Steven Vizinczey describes a Mafia hit man named Baglione. He doesn’t see himself as a “killer.” After all, he reasons, of all the people he could have killed, he killed only nine and spared hundreds. Baglione considers himself a “man of extraordinary restraint.”
Yet it isn’t just contract killers who deceive themselves. Self-deception is, after all, one of the evil one’s most powerful but insidious tools. It’s far easier to recognize where our neighbors’ faith is “lacking” than where our own does.
So while those who proclaim 1 Thessalonians 3 wait for “our Lord Jesus” to come “with all his holy ones,” we might contemplate just what’s lacking in the faith of our churches and us. With the Spirit and the Scriptures’ help, we might ask God to identify for us where our faithful obedience isn’t quite full to the top.
Yet the Spirit doesn’t just help us identify the flaws in our Christian lives. That same Spirit also helps us to grow in our Christian faith and practice. The Spirit doesn’t just point out that our chocolate waterfall bowl isn’t quite full of faith. The Holy Spirit also helps us overflow with the “chocolatey goodness” that is love.
Paul doesn’t, after all, tell the Thessalonians to increase their love so that it overflows. Nor does he tell them, “Strengthen your hearts so that you may be pure and holy …” He recognizes that not even the holiest people can do those things by themselves. So the apostle writes, ““May the Lord make your love increase and overflow (12) … May [God] strengthen your hearts” (13).
Here is great grace: God does for God’s beloved people what we can’t do for ourselves. God doesn’t just give us the gift of eternal life. God also strengthens the loving response to God’s grace that is our Christian life.
When Paul talks about such love, he’s talking about more than an emotion or attraction. Love is also the Holy Spirit-fueled choice to do things like pray and work for a neighbor’s well-being. Paul prays that God will make that greatest of all gifts both “increase” and “overflow.”
In fact, it’s almost as if he says, “May God make your love grow and grow and grow.” The biblical scholar Eugene Peterson’s Message paraphrases this as, “May the Master pour on the love so it fills your lives and splashes over …”
Yet Paul doesn’t, as our culture would expect, long for us to love ourselves more and more. He probably recognizes that few of us naturally need God’s help to desire what’s best for ourselves. No, Paul wants our love to overflow like a chocolate waterfall machine onto each other.
Of course, we’re not surprised to hear that God wants to increase the Thessalonians’ love for their brothers and sisters in Christ. But Paul may surprise us when he adds: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else …” After all, it’s a plea for God to increase the Thessalonians’ love for their neighbors who are outside their circles of family members and friends.
In doing so, the apostle recognizes that God doesn’t just empower God’s people to love for the people who already love us. God doesn’t even equip us to love just the people we like and who like us. God invites Jesus’ followers to what a colleague calls a “bigger love.” God empowers us with a love that stretches to the great “everyone” out there.
Paul begs God to pour so much love into us that it overflows on to “everyone else” who’s not part of our community. He even prays that God will so fill God’s adopted sons and daughters with love that it overflows onto strangers and even our enemies.
That too is a great grace. After all, while Jesus too calls us to love and pray for our enemies, we don’t naturally love them. When we’re honest with each other, most of us have to admit we’re not even sure we want to love our enemies. Yet the Holy Spirit doesn’t just want to equip God’s adopted children with a desire to love our enemies. The Spirit also empowers us to actually love them, to choose to long and pray for both their well-being and them.
Few examples of the kind of love about which Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 3 were more expansive than Louis Zamperini’s. The Holy Spirit so filled him with love that it overflowed onto the least likely of all recipients. Laura Hildenbrand describes part of it in her outstanding book, Unbroken.
Japanese soldiers captured and sent Zamperini to a prisoner of war camp. There he fell under the command of Corporal Mutsuhiro Wantanabe, among the most sadistic of all Japanese prisoner of war commandants. The one whom POW’s called “The Bird” took special pleasure in killing prisoners only after torturing them slowly and for a long time.
After his release from the prison camp, Zamperini suffered greatly. He probably endured what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Zamperini was obsessed with returning to Japan to hunt down and murder “The Bird.”
Eventually Zamperini did return to Japan, but not to kill Wantanabe. He described why in a letter to him: “As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare. It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as it was the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with a vengeance…
“The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love has replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, ‘Forgive your enemies and pray for them.’
“I returned to Japan in 1952 and was graciously allowed to address all the Japanese war criminals at Sugamo Prison … I asked then about you, and was told that you probably had committed Hara Kiri, which I was sad to hear. At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope that you had also become a Christian.”
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