This sermon is on the text 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13.
My first reaction to Paul’s writing today was to worry about being blameless until Jesus comes back. He gives a pretty heavy expectation here: “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. 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 with all his saints.” The early church, and especially the church in Thessalonica, is waiting and ready and concerned about Jesus coming back. The early church held a deep anticipation and urgency that we usually no longer have; we struggle to regain. Many faithful generations have come and go, and the urgency has probably kinda worn off for most of us. But today, we begin Advent, a time to reflect on Christ returning and God’s promises fulfilled, and Paul reminds us what we’re supposed to be doing while we wait. We wait with hope and we wait with work to do. The kingdom of God is already breaking in – love, holiness.
Which is why I read this and think….How am I to be blameless? Is that what I’m supposed to be doing as I wait? As I live my life. Be blameless. Until Christ comes again.
And then I notice that Paul doesn’t actually give them an order or a prescription for what they are to do and how they are to be. This is a prayer. Not a command like “Increase and abound in love. Be blameless.” But a prayer: “May the Lord make you abound in love” and “may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness.”
As I read this, I thought of my ordination. My ordination was a whirlwind, so much that flew by, but one moment in particular stood out. All the clergy laid hands on me and the Bishop prayed and I remember one line just knocking me over. “Make her a faithful pastor, patient teacher, and wise counselor.”
All I could do was whisper, “Yes, Lord.”
Because I knew, I knew in that moment that without the Lord, without God making me and molding me, I will not be a faithful pastor. Without the Lord, I will not be a patient teacher and a wise counselor.
Make her. Make me.
Now truth be told – I am probably usually feeling somewhat assured that everything is cool and I will totally be faithful and patient and wise….and in the moments when I am not feeling assured about that at all….well…then I’m probably more likely to just try harder. I try to reassure myself that I can make myself blameless. Even if I don’t say that out loud to myself, I am acting like it. God, it’s okay. I got this. I’m three months in and I am totally all over this “faithful pastor” thing.
There’s nothing like the prayerful hands of others and the words “make her” uttered over you to realize the full weight of what God is requiring and to know that on your own, you are simply not up to the task. Reality check.
Have you found this to be true for you? One minute you are sure that you are doing the right Christian thing at all times, loving everybody, being holy, at the very least you are a moral person…most of the time, you know, at least not like some of those other people….and the next….the next you are faced with someone you simply can’t muster up love for. Or suddenly you are burnt out….after having tried so hard to keep it going and keep it together and let no one see the cracks. Or you are bowled over by your own guilt or your own fear, overwhelmed by the feeling that yeah, you know you can’t do this.….so how are you going to even try. Or perhaps someone simply prays and you are knocked over and all you can do is whisper, “Yes, Lord.”
You and I are simply not up to the task of what God requires of us. Loving all people, giving away what we have, crossing boundaries and barriers, losing our life as we know it and taking up our cross, living our lives out of hope and not fear.
And this is why we need Paul’s prayer. This is our prayer. Make us.
Lord, if you don’t do it…..how can I be blameless?
Lord, if you don’t increase my love, how will I love all people?
Lord, if you don’t direct my way, how will I go?
Lord, if you don’t strengthen my heart, how will I be more holy?
Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who, along with her family, was sent to a concentration camp during WWII for hiding Jews in her home. Her sister died in the camp. After the war, Corrie traveled and spoke to many groups about her experiences and her faith, and at one of these events, a man came up to her whom she immediately recognized as one of the guards at her camp. She could tell he didn’t recognize her, but she knew him. And when he came up to her, he told her that he had been a guard, but that he’d become a Christian, and although he knew God forgave him, he asked, “will you forgive me too?” and he reached out his hand. I will read her own words describing her reaction:
“And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do [….]
“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. […] ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.”
Corrie’s prayer – “help!” – is our prayer. Without the Lord, we are unable to meet the tasks ahead of us, the work he has given us, love the people he has called us to love, step out of our comfort zones and into scary territory…..but with God, empowered by the Holy Spirit,when we mechanically take that first step (whatever small step we can see before us) and cry “Help, Lord!” we find that God is faithful and will make us over. Forgive where we could not. Love where we could not. Be faithful and patient and wise where we could not.
Today, in the waiting and the living, take whatever first step you see in front of you. Take that first mechanical risky step and cry, “Help!” and God is faithful. Grace shines through. Grace shines through all the cracks, holding us together as a community of people who don’t have it all together and are definitely not blameless, who will let it all hang out and cry, “Lord, make us!” And the Lord makes us. The Lord makes us abound in love and strengthens our hearts.