Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 28, 2021
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 Commentary
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson speaks about waiting during an Advent season that’s largely devoted to waiting. However, it addresses the kind of waiting that runs largely counter to our culture (and at least some of the Church’s) waiting.
1 Thessalonians 3 doesn’t describe, after all, how to wait for our celebration of Christ’s first coming. The Spirit uses it, instead, to draw our attention to Christ’s second coming. Our text’s Paul, Silas and Timothy are clearly thinking about the time “when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones” (13). And while they don’t actually use the word “waiting” in it, they’re clearly interested in how the Thessalonian Christians can and should await Jesus’ return.
There’s good reason for talk about what we sometimes call active waiting, that is doing things that are meaningful while we wait, particularly in regard to awaiting Christ’s second coming. Jesus himself spends a great deal of time, especially near the end of his earthly ministry, talking about just how his adopted siblings should actively wait for him to come back. He invites us to especially do things like stay watchfully and expectantly ready for that return.
But what’s striking, among other things, about this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is its complete lack of calls to actively wait for Christ’s return. After all, verses 11-13’s verbs are third person singular ones. Verses 9-10’s verbs are in the first person plural form and refer to the apostles’ prayerfully pleading with God to reunite them with their Thessalonian siblings in Christ. None of our text’s verbs are second person plural ones that would signal what the apostles want Thessalonica’s Christians to do while they wait.
In fact, the clear weight of 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 verbs is third person singular verbs that refer to the work of God. It offers no explicit guidance on just how God’s beloved people should wait for Jesus’ coming “with all his holy ones” (13). This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson speaks, instead, almost strictly about what God longs to do in and for Philippi’s Christians as they await Christ’s return.
In one sense, however, that makes that wait even more challenging. Waiting all by itself can be challenging enough. Waiting without doing anything while we wait can be even harder. Doing things while we await something or someone at least arguably makes the time feel like it’s going faster. Think of how, for example, cleaning one’s house or reading a good book to children can make waiters’ time feel like its “speeding up” as it were.
Furthermore, the apostles’ repeated use of third person singular rather than second person plural verbs runs counter to Christians’ relentless search for what they should do (or do better). It’s a somewhat misguided search into which some proclaimers feed with our repeated “should,” “must,” and “ought” messages. We easily feed our hearers’ hunger for something to do by presenting lessons and sermons about “5 Steps to Being a Better Parent,” or “3 Steps to Stop Harming the Creation.”
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson the apostles offer no three or five-step program for those who await Christ’s return. They don’t, for example, present “5 Characteristics of Good Waiters.” Paul, Silas, and Timothy don’t even tell their readers to, for example, “Strengthen” their “hearts so that” they “may be pure and holy.”
The apostles, instead, describe the content of their prayers for God to do God’s work in the lives of those who wait for Jesus to come with all his holy angels. They write, “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow” (12) and “May [God] strengthen your hearts” (13).
Here is a great and amazing grace: God does for God’s adopted sons and daughters what we naturally can’t and, in fact, don’t want to do for ourselves. God doesn’t just grace us with the gift of eternal life that faithfully waits for Christ to return. God also graciously strengthens the loving response to God’s grace that is the life of discipleship.
Perhaps the apostles’ stress God’s role in increasing our love because they understand that people naturally mix up love with all sorts of its counterfeits like lust, emotion, and attraction. The love which God increases in God’s dearly beloved people is also unconditional in contrast with the conditional forms of love that we so easily offer both God and our neighbors.
Philippians’ authors pray that God will make love’s greatest of all gifts both “increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else” (12). In fact, it’s almost as if they write, “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 …”
In fact, the growth of love for which Paul, Silas, and Timothy pray extends not just to their brothers and sisters in Christ. It even covers what verse 12 calls “everyone else.” They, after all, long for God to so fill their readers with love that it spills over the bounds of their families and circles of friends and onto all of their neighbors that presumably include those who have made themselves their enemies. The apostles beg God to equip God’s adopted children to love not just those who love and like us, but also the “great everyone” with whom we share God’s world.
Here too is a great grace. After all, while Jesus calls his adopted siblings 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. So the apostles begs God to empower God’s adopted children to actively love those we don’t love or like, to equip us choose to work and pray for both their well-being and them.
Yet Jesus’ friends don’t wait for his return completely passively. While we wait, we join the apostles in begging God to make our love increase and overflow, as well as strengthen our hearts. Christians in some ways quite simply pray for God to make us more and more like our adopted big Brother, Jesus Christ.
However, Christians who wait for Jesus to come with all his holy angels also plead with God to show us the holes in our love, blamelessness, and holiness. We let the Holy Spirit actively open us to God’s renewal of our whole persons, and then fill in the holes in our love with the Spirit’s filling and sealing power.
Few examples of the kind of love with which Paul begs God to fill our text’s Thessalonians were more expansive than Louis Zamperini’s. The Holy Spirit so increased his love that it overflowed onto the least likely of all its recipients.
In her outstanding book, Unbroken, Laura Hildebrand describes how Japanese soldiers captured and sent Zamperini to a prisoner of war camp. Corporal Mutsuhiro Wantanabe, among the most sadistic of all Japanese prisoner of war commandants, oversaw that prison. The one whom POW’s called “The Bird” took special pleasure in killing prisoners only after torturing them slowly and for a long time.
Zamperini suffered horribly not just before, but also after his release from the prison camp. 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 his former tormentor: “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 them 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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