Thomas J Parlette
“As long as it takes”
1st Thessalonians 3: 9-13
12/2/18, First Advent
Words come and go in our modern vocabulary. Certain words and phrases have their day in the sun for awhile and then they fall out of use and out of style. For instance, nobody says “groovy” anymore, unless they’re being ironic or maybe a little sarcastic. “Hey Man” and “Dude” have fallen by the wayside as well. And thankfully, nobody refers to pizza as “Za” anymore, something that always made me cringe. I’m not sorry to hear any of those words go out of style.
But there are other words on the decline that I’m very concerned about. In the October 24th issue of The Christian Science Monitor, it was noted that words like “love” and “kindness” and “patience” are being used less and less in American life. That is very troubling situation – whether you are religious or not. The Executive Director of the American Humanist Association was quoted as saying, “Seeing the numbers go down for words live love, gentleness and kindness… is equally concerning to humanists as it is for religious folks.”(1)
I thought about that this week as I sat with this passage from Thessalonians for today. Paul, and his ministry team of Silvanus and Timothy are very concerned about this little church in Thessalonica. Part of the fear was that some faithful words were in danger of falling out of the community’s vocabulary – words like “thanks”, and “love” and “holiness” – all words that feature prominently in this, the oldest piece of scripture in our New Testament.
According to Abraham Malherde’s commentary on Thessalonians, in the year 49 – 16 years after the resurrection of Christ, Paul travelled to Thessalonica to proclaim the Gospel. A group of day laborers heard and received his message, and from those humble beginnings a church was formed.(2)
Paul and his team were worried about this fledgling church – especially given that they were located in a very cosmopolitan city with many other options for worship and sacrifice, and they were under persecution from other groups in town. Paul wondered, was the leadership in Thessalonica strong enough? Were the practices of faith deeply embedded enough? Would the center hold? Finally, Timothy is sent to check on them, and Timothy returns with the good news that the faith community in Thessalonica is thriving. Hence Paul’s words of thanksgiving, “How can we thank God enough for you…”
After offering a prayer that God would “direct our way back to you,” Paul offers a prayer that goes right to the heart of Christian identity and community, and right to the heart of Advent itself. “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all. May God so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before God at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”
On this first Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of hope. Here, Paul expresses what we hope for – we hope to grow in love, for one another and for all, and we hope and long for the day when Christ will return.
Advent is a time for re-focusing our priorities around this idea of increasing and abounding in love, thus reaffirming H. Richard Niebuhr’s assertion that “the purpose of the church is the increase of the love of God and neighbor.”(3) As we noted last week, Advent is the beginning of a new liturgical year, a new church year. IU was reading this week about how the Jewish community celebrates the beginning of a new religious year, usually in September, with Rosh Hashanah. The Rosh Hashanah greeting is translated as “May you be inscribed for a good year.” The emphasis is on having a good, rather than a happy year. Purposeful, sober reflection is required. Rosh Hashanah, like our season of Advent, is not about “don’t worry, be happy.” Advent is rather a recommitment, as a new year unfolds, to live toward the good, the just, and the true(4) – “to abound in love for one another and for all,” as Paul says.
Advent is also a time for preparation – preparing ourselves for the coming of God’s Kingdom. This was a big concern for the Thessalonians because they thought that Jesus was coming back soon. And now, some of their community had died, and they were beginning to wonder – when is Jesus coming back? How long are we supposed to keep preparing?
Many of us wonder about that still. That’s why it’s so tempting to skip all the waiting and preparing and go right to celebrating the birth of Jesus. But as Abraham Smith points out in The Interpreter’s Bible, “Paul preached with certainty about the second coming’s power to unite the people of God”.(5) Waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ, while challenging at times, has the power to unite the Church. It’s a spiritual discipline that strengthens our hearts in holiness, as Paul says. Paul urges us to consider who we are at our best – people who are forever turning the world upside down – and to attend to what is yet lacking in our faith. Churches at their best are joyful, faithful, generous, and profound announcements, even embodiments, of what the realm of God looks like up close. And yet, sometimes it’s difficult to live in a state of expectancy, always waiting, preparing and anticipating. With the Thessalonians, we ask “How long?” “How long are we supposed to wait?” Paul and his team answer – as long as it takes.
A number of years ago, Marj Carpenter, a beloved moderator of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, went on a somewhat controversial visit to sister churches in eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall, the defining symbol of the cold war, had recently come down, and she and her entourage made plans to visit a particular parish in a remote mountainous area and worship with them.
Weather conditions were icy and harsh. Diplomatic relations were just as icy and strained – there was not a great deal of enthusiasm for this visit.
The Moderator’s plane arrived much later than scheduled, getting through customs took longer than expected, and then there was the weather. At best, her arrival in this mountain community would be delayed far later than envisioned. But Marj, with her strong missional heart, was not deterred. The group soldiered on, braving the treacherous drive up into the mountains, as the snow fell all around them.
When the group arrived in the town, far later than scheduled, there was no certainty that anyone would still be at the church. Someone in town gave them directions to the church and they drove around in the dark and the snow. As they neared the area of the church, they noticed up ahead a long line of lights; and as they drew nearer, they beheld, one after another, the members of that church – each of them bundled up against the cold and holding a candle. One light pointed them to another – hundreds of lights – and they followed the light for the rest of the journey right to the front door of the church.
When the moderator met the host pastor, she asked him through an interpreter: “How long were you planning to wait out here in the dark and the cold?”
And he replied, “Until you came.”(6)
They were prepared to wait as long as it takes.
Paul’s prayers for the Thessalonians remind us that we live in the in-between time. Christ has indeed come and brought us the gift of transformed life – abundant life now and the promise of life eternal – yet the transformation is not complete. Both we and the whole creation long to see God’s promises fulfilled.
We yearn for justice that rolls down like mighty waters.
We hope that one day the wolf will lie down with the lamb and swords will become plowshares.
We long for the day when mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
We already know what God’s future looks like, and in beloved community with one another, we experience the firstfruits.(7) Because all that will be is not quite yet, we need to be strengthened so that we may walk in the light of God’s hope, for as long as it takes.
Come – let us nourish ourselves for the journey at the table this morning.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. Christian Century, November 21st, 2018, p.8.
2. James H. Evans Jr., Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, p.14.
3. Philip E. Campbell, Ibid… p.16.
4. Ibid… p.16.
5. Ibid… p.16.
6. Theodore J. Wardlaw, Connections, Westminster John Knox Press, 2018, p.11.
7. Cynthia Campbell, Ibid… p. 9.