Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 2:17 - 3:13 Walking Worthy in Afflictions

The bing-bong announcement comes over the loudspeaker in the shopping centre: ‘Could the parents of little Jimmy Jones please make their way to the security desk’. Wee Jimmy has wandered off, got separated from his mum and dad, and is now in floods of tears. (Or, as happened a friend of mine, they went into the toilet and their whole family hid on them coming out - and thought they had been abandoned!). The pain of separation might be particularly acute as a young child. But anyone can know that sense of separation, that loneliness. The day or week or longer in bed sick when everyone else has gone out. The empty nest syndrome when children leave home.

Back in Genesis 2, when God had made Adam, God said that it is not good for the man to be alone. We were made as social beings, made for interaction and partnership, reflecting the God who is Trinity, with the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet here, in the opening part of today’s reading, Paul is experiencing that sense of separation. He had spent just three weeks in Thessalonica, preaching the gospel and planting the church before he was driven out of town by the Jewish opposition.

Having moved on to Berea, Athens and then Corinth, he was worried about his new Christians. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen how he became so attached to the Thessalonians - being like a nursing mother and a father to them. Look at verse 17. He speaks of the separation in these words: ‘we were made orphans by being separated from you.’ The pain of being separated from his fellow Christians is like losing both parents.

Paul is showing that it is not good for us to be alone - especially in our Christian walk. To be cut off from fellow believers is a painful reality - something the housebound mention regularly. They wish that they could join with us, if only they were able to. They echo those words of Paul in 17-18. Longing, great eagerness, wanting to come, to see you face to face. Yet even with his desire, he finds his way blocked. Satan blocked him from returning.

Have we felt this pain of separation from other Christians? Perhaps it comes on a Sunday we don’t make it to church - it doesn’t really feel like a Sunday! Or an extended period of illness when we weren’t able to be with other believers. Or we miss the singing and voice of someone who always sat beside us or behind us. Perhaps we can gain a greater understanding for those who wish they were here, but now feel cut off, lonely and separated.

It got so bad for Paul, separated from the Thessalonians, that he could bear it no longer. He thought it was better to be without Timothy for a while, so that he could send Timothy to be with them. You see, Paul recognised the spiritual dangers of the pain of separation. We see them at the start of chapter 3. Verse 3 shows that they could have been shaken by these persecutions.

These were new Christians, facing opposition, and on top of all that, they were separated from the only Christians they knew. To give you a picture of their position, think of the three little pigs - living in the house of straw or the house of sticks, when the big bad wolf comes and blows your house down... Paul had promised that persecution would come, but it’s another thing to actually experience it in practice. They had watched as the persecution drove Paul out of town. They were facing the same opposition themselves. Would their house be blown down, shaken?

Timothy was sent to (2) strengthen and encourage you... and also (5) to find out about your faith. Paul’s great fear was that all his labour was a waste of time. So Timothy leaves, and Paul waits. Was it all in vain? As we wait for the answer, let’s consider who we, like Timothy, can go to, to bring strength and encouragement. Is there a neighbour we can look in on, and share a wee something from the sermon with? Or read the Bible with? Or keep informed?

The wait was finally over, and as soon as Timothy returns, Paul writes this letter. You see, the report is good - their faith and love continues! They too long to see Paul and the others again. They are continuing to believe, even in those difficult circumstances, through the pain of separation, because they found strength in the partnership demonstrated by Timothy. His visit and return sparks a firework display of thankfulness and praise, with mutual encouragement and strength and joy.

Paul has been encouraged in his distress and persecution (7), just as the Thessalonians were as well. The strength of partnership blesses and benefits everyone. That’s something I find in visits and pastoral work - when you think you’re there to bless someone else, often you find yourself being blessed even more, as you see someone’s faith grow, or hear them pray. Paul puts it this way in verse 8: ‘For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord.’

What are the encouragements we’ve found from being with and standing with other Christians? The cup of tea after church is a great way of getting to know one another, but could we take it a bit deeper - and talk about faith as well as the weather or the football? Ask someone to pray for you - and watch as God answers those prayers. Perhaps you’ve had an answer to prayer - share that encouragement with someone else, it’ll encourage them in their prayers!

Paul is seeking to overcome the pain of separation, so he prayers night and day most earnestly that he may see them face to face. But then in the closing verses of ch 3 he tells them what he prays. And this prayer sums up the whole letter. The first two bits round up what we’ve seen so far. ‘Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.’

If Satan has blocked our way (2:18), then they ask the Father and the Son to remove the roadblocks. He prays that (just as we’ve seen today) he will be able to see them again. But more than that, he prays that their love will be like his love. You can’t doubt Paul’s love for them - his nursing mother, father-like, orphaned love for them. He prays that they will love like this, for one another and for all. We’ve seen these things already in the letter.

But the last part of the prayer points us forward. Here’s what we’re coming to now. ‘And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.’

The Christian life can often bring these times of separation. We’re isolated for various reasons, but the partnership of the church gives us strength for the road. Paul lifts our eyes from the here and now and points us to the end. One day we won’t be on our own. One day we’ll know the fullness of joy, when Jesus comes with all his saints, when we are gathered with Jesus.

Between this day and that, Paul prays that we will be strengthened in holiness, to be one of the saints, God’s holy people. Now that sounds very churchy, but as we’ll see, it’s very practical, and very down to earth - about living in purity, in hope, and in every day life. The pain of separation may be real, with all its spiritual dangers. But God has given us the strength of partnership, as we come together, face to face, to encourage one another, to build one another up, and also as we pray for one another. Let’s pray now.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 31st May 2015.

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