Monday, December 10, 2012

Sermon for 02 December 2012, First Sunday in Advent C

The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.
1 Thessalonians 3:9:13
Thessalonian Faithfulness
First Sunday in Advent, 02 December 2012
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming

To the church, in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:  Grace and peace to you. Amen.
Paul, Silas and Timothy shared these words of apostolic greeting with the church in Thessalonica, the original recipients of this letter, First Corinthians 3:9-13. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?
Paul’s opening statement is wonderful for its focus. He expresses his appreciation for what he sees in the lives of the Thessalonians by giving thanks to God. He doesn’t merely say Thank You, but says I thank God for you. Amazing! What could cause such joy? Thessalonian Faithfulness.
Consider these thoughts from the first chapter: For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
In spite of severe suffering, they became a model to all believers, including us. And they shared in the same kind of persecution as Jesus and Paul himself, described in chapter two: 14 For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last!
Those who persecute the faithful face the wrath of God, as evidenced by these two passages. Risking that wrath, the persecutors drove Paul and co. away from Thessalonica. Paul’s words continue: 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.
Catechism classes hadn’t completed. Adult instruction wasn’t over. None of the new members was officially confirmed, we might say. Yet what does Timothy report to Paul and the others about what is going on in Thessalonica?
Chapter three says: Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.
But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you— for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.
These Thessalonians learned well how to stand firm. Seeing such a strong witness of the faith in the face of opposition is impressive. It can also make us feel inadequate. We wonder if we truly have enough faith, as if it were a cookie jar that we need to keep filled up ourselves. Do I have enough faith?  One can never get a correct answer if we start with the wrong question. And “Do I have enough faith?” is definitely the wrong question.
Ask instead, “Do I have a Savior?” Answering “Yes” is a confession and expression of faith. Faith doesn’t talk about itself. It points to the Savior and confesses Him. He is the one who has done the action already, obedient and faithful for your sakes. It was He who granted you faith as a Gift, working through the Holy Spirit. One could use a baseball analogy. The Holy Spirit grants us faith as a gift, in this analogy, a baseball glove. With that faith, we receive all the other gifts of God as if that baseball glove were catching the ball. God provides us the means to receive His many gifts of life, salvation, forgiveness, and peace. All are gifts to you, by grace, through faith. We, too, can have the gift of Thessalonian Faithfulness.
The Thessalonians had these gifts of God, yet Paul wished to return.
11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you…
Persecution had forced them away, as we heard earlier. St. Paul describes in  chapter two what else was hindering their return. 17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.
I can identify with St. Paul. You are my glory and joy. It does my heart good so see so many of you here each Sunday and every special service, Thanksgiving Eve, Advent Evening Prayer, or otherwise. My prayer for you is the same as St. Paul’s in verse twelve: 11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you…
Here we see the feet of faith. Faith at work, in other words. We know we are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone. Faith without works is dead, we learn from St. James. Paul would certainly agree. The love God has given us in Christ shines forth from the Christian as an Advent candle shines for all to see—a witness to Christ. We love because He first loved us. And so the Advent joy spreads throughout the world as a witness to Christ, just as the witness of the Thessalonians spread throughout Macedonia and Achaia.
Paul’s prayer and my prayer continues: 11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
This is incredibly consistent with our Lord’s prayer for us that we would watch for when He comes. This text teaches that He will come with all His holy ones. Who are these holy ones? Since Scripture interprets Scripture, we look to other uses of this text in the Bible. The most clear passage is: Matthew 25:31: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.
This is consistent with the Old Testament use of the term holy ones. The Lord will return in glory with all his holy angels. And it is for this that we await as well.
In this Epistle lesson, Paul exclaims that he does not know how to give God thanks in return for the message Timothy has brought him about these Thessalonians. While Paul was praying that he might go and continue to teach them the faith, God had already preserved them in the midst of persecution through the teaching that they had already been given. Paul’s joy shows that God carries His people through tough times through the Word. God works through His Word even in the face of limited circumstances. God continues to work through His Word using His Holy Spirit. We have these same promises.
God cares through His people. Paul is evidence of God’s care for the Thessalonians and us. Apostles and pastors like St. Paul put a human face on the loving concern of God. In a similar but deeper way, that is the concern and love for us we see on Jesus’ face as He hangs on the cross. Jesus the God-Man prays that God would forgive us. And for Jesus’ sake, He does.
Paul continues to keep the Thessalonians in mind as he prays that God would enable him to come to them and enable them to continue to love in the midst of persecution so that they will be blameless in their service before God at the second coming of Christ.
And that is what we await as well. Here in this week’s Epistle, we see an incredible example of these Thessalonian saints waiting and watching in prayer, in the midst of persecution. Persecution has been with us since Jesus left, otherwise known as tribulations, challenges to our faith in the form of words or deeds.
As we continue into this season called Advent, we see a dual focus. We prepare alongside the people of old for the first coming of Jesus on Christmas. His birth, His sharing our flesh to be our Savior, His Incarnation. For us however, these events have already taken place. We continue to examine and ponder them every year so that Jesus’ work may always be on our hearts and minds—so that His name will always be on our lips in praise and thanksgiving.
Advent also has a second focus. The beginning of the church year is incredibly similar to the end of the church year—what we’ve been pondering the last month or so—the second coming. As we celebrate Jesus’ first Coming, we are always on guard for His Second Coming, and we remain faithfully watching and waiting, no matter what time of year it is.
Bulletin Back: Today we light the first candle of our Advent wreath. Its light flickers in the darkness to remind us what the Lord said through Jeremiah: “The days are coming . . . when I will fulfill the promise.” He keeps His promises. He who came as a babe long ago, He who comes still in Word and Sacrament, will appear as our salvation on the Last Day: “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:13).
God bless you with Thessalonian Faithfulness this Advent season. Amen.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.