November 29, 2015

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

“Strengthened By Love”

I like the way Ralph Milton shares the background to today’s scripture reading from 1 Thessalonians in the Lectionary Story Bible: Paul liked to tell people about his friend Jesus. He liked to tell them how much God loved them, and how to live in God’s way.

Paul and his two friends, Silvanus and Timothy, went to visit people who lived in a city with a very big name. Thessalonica. They stayed there for a long time telling people stories of Jesus and showing them how to live – how to be kind and gentle with each other.

Some of the people of Thessalonica said, “We could become a church. We could come together to pray and sing. We could do things together to help others. There are people in our city who don’t have enough to eat and who don’t have a place to live. We could help them.”

Paul and his friends were very happy when the people decided to become a church. “Now you can teach each other more about God, and about how to live in God’s way,” he said. “Now Silvanus and Timothy and I can go to other places to tell people about God’s love.”

Many days after they had left, Silvanus said to Paul, “I miss the people of Thessalonica. They were kind and gentle people. I think they will become a good, strong church together.”

“That’s what our friend Timothy said when he came and told us about the church in Thessalonica,” said Paul. “I think I’ll send them a letter to tell them that. And maybe in my letter I can say some things that will help them grow together.”

And that is exactly what Paul did. Biblical scholars believe that the letter to the Christian Church at Thessalonica was probably the earliest of all the letters that are now gathered together in our New Testament. And the letter that once provided guidance and encouragement to a community of Christians in the early 50’s of the first century AD, contains wisdom and grace for us as well.

Now, some of Paul’s letters to the early Christian Churches were written to Churches that were struggling. The letter to the Corinthian Church, for example, (one of my favourite New Testament letters) was written to a Church that was wounded by divisions, struggling with disagreements, and in serious danger of completely falling apart.

In those cases, Paul wrote with serious counsel and often a healthy dose of rebuke. He delivered his message with a strong reminder about God’s forgiveness and grace, along with an encouragement that the gift of the Holy Spirit would help them to amend their lives and live as God’s faithful people in the midst of the challenges of their time.

But in this case, Paul and his co-workers write to the Christian community at Thessalonica simply to express their great joy and thanksgiving for their Christian friends. They have heard that things are going well with the Thessalonians.

I can imagine that Timothy has reported to Paul that these new Christians have deep faith. They are meeting together. Worshipping together. Sharing resources with one another. Caring for the poor and needy among them and in their community. And they are telling the good news about Jesus to each other, to their children, and to others in their community.

The translation of today’s passage in the Common English Bible puts it nicely. Listen again to these words of encouragement and prayer from the Apostle, and imagine them written to us and to our church today: “How can we thank God enough for you, given all the joy we have because of you before our God? Night and day, we pray more than ever to see all of you in person and to complete whatever you still need for your faith. Now may our God and Father himself guide us on our way back to you.

“May the Lord cause you to increase and enrich your love for each other and for everyone in the same way as we also love you. May the love cause your hearts to be strengthened, to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his people. Amen.”

As I was reflecting on this passage this week, it was the prayer for more love that stood out to me. Certainly, Paul was not telling the Thessalonians that they were doing a bad job at loving one another, and yet he prayed that God would cause them to increase and enrich their love for each other and for everyone. And that is my prayer for our church also.

In this Season of Advent, we are invited to enlarge our hearts and to love one another even more deeply and fully, with more commitment and generosity. It is not just a time for enjoying seasonal celebrations, but a time to pause and think of those who need our love and encouragement right now.

We might express our love through thoughtful Christmas cards, through visits or calls to people we know who are lonely, or struggling, or needing encouragement. We might do this for people in our church community, or people in our circles of friendship. And we will do it for others that we do not even know through our Advent Appeal gifts, our giving to “Gifts of Change” projects, and through other charitable gifts we might make in this season.

My prayer for our congregation is that God may increase and enrich our love for each other and for all. As some of us gathered yesterday to learn about how we can be involved in sponsoring a refugee family from Syria, I prayed that God would help us to extend our love, care, time, and resources to a family-yet-unknown seeking refuge from war, terror, hunger, and homelessness. And after that meeting, I have great hope that we will be able to do so.

The Gospel text from Luke this morning is one of those apocalyptic passages – a scripture reading about the end times when Jesus will return and everything will finally be made right, and God’s reign will be complete.

We often get texts like this one at the beginning of the Season of Advent. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, we also think about how we are preparing for Christ’s coming again. As we wait to mark his coming into the world as a tiny child, we acknowledge the fact that we are still waiting for the day when he will come again – “coming on the clouds with power and great splendour,” as our text says today.

A couple of weeks ago in our Sunday Morning Bible Study, we looked at a similar passage from Mark’s Gospel about how Jesus will come again and some of the signs of his coming. We began to talk about and discuss our expectations for Jesus’ return and what signs there might be to give us an inkling that the time is coming soon. We thought about all the crazy things happening in our world today… from conflict, war, and acts of terror, to increasing numbers of weather-related disasters in so many parts of the world.

But very quickly, some of our wise Bible study members pointed out that we shouldn’t be trying to predict when the end of the world might come. Over the centuries, Christians and others have often tried to predict the end of the world, and they’ve always been wrong. We also remembered Jesus telling his disciples that even he didn’t know when the time would come and that it was a waste of our time to try to figure it out.

Instead, we began to pay attention to what Jesus would have us do in the meantime… in this time before the Reign of God is made complete. Luke’s Gospel tells us what we should be doing (and not doing):

“Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life… Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Clearly, Jesus is telling us to stay focussed. And that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? It is easy to get distracted by the stress and anxiety of our daily lives. It is tempting to get caught up in the constant pull of entertainment and pleasure, and to lose ourselves in the rush of our fast-paced society and all its conveniences and wonders.

Advent is a good time to re-focus our attention and our priorities. It is a good time to make intentional choices about how we will spend our time and our resources. Can we refuse to be caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season? Can we choose to slow down, to spend time drawing close to God, looking for God’s guidance in our lives, and selecting some opportunities to love one another and all people more deeply and fully in this season and into the future?

I suppose that hearing today’s Gospel passage might bring some anxiety of its own. That part about staying alert at all times, and praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen… That part sounds a bit scary. And it raises the question of how we could possibly be prepared for Christ’s coming again.

The good news is that we don’t need to worry. We don’t have to wonder and stress about when the time will come. Neither do we need to concern ourselves with whether we are good enough or holy enough to survive the whole ordeal. God’s grace and goodness are enough for us, and our job in the meantime, as Christian people is just to work on loving each other and loving everyone as deeply and fully as we can.

Let me return to Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonian Christians and for us: “May the Lord cause you to increase and enrich your love for each other and for everyone in the same way as we also love you. May the love cause your hearts to be strengthened, to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his people.”

It’s the love that is going to strengthen us. It’s the love that is going to make us holy. It’s the love that is going to get us ready for that day when Christ comes again to make the Reign of God complete.

Let me put it this way… Giving a gift to the Advent Appeal, and going to visit a lonely person, and making a call or sending a card to encourage someone, and spending time with a friend who is grieving, or a relative who is ill, or a neighbour who is in hospital, or a stranger who is in danger… All these acts of love… when we engage in them, when we focus on them, when we make them the purpose of our lives… are making us into the holy people God made us to be. They are strengthening our hearts and making us holy. They are preparing us for Christ’s coming again, whenever that day may come.

And there’s even more good news for us today. It’s not all about the love that we are called to enact. The gift of being God’s people, God’s Church, and living in Christian community is that we are blessed with receiving love also… the love of our sisters and brothers in Christ, and God’s very own love – expressed to us so perfectly in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper this morning, may we know and experience the depth of God’s love for us once again. And may the love we receive, and share, and give, and multiply, strengthen our hearts until we are blameless in holiness before our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his people. Amen.