I Thessalonians 3:9-13
“Wait Until Then”
November 29, 2009 - First Sunday in Advent
Our daughter Susan comes home December 14. We can’t wait for her to arrive and do some wonderful cooking and baking. But we would be happy just to have her home as long as we get to see her and hug her and spend some time with her.
Six months ago, we were anxiously awaiting our opportunity to go see Susan where she lives now in Toronto. We were counting down the days till we got on the plane, like children counting off the days until Christmas, praying God would bring the time quickly. We love her that much. Just thinking about her brings us joy.
Our text from I Thessalonians 3 opens this morning with Paul’s joy in thinking about his friends in the church at Thessalonica. Verses 9 and 10 tell how he kneels in prayer in God’s presence, earnestly praying night and day for the time when he will be able to visit and see that congregation again.
We talk to Susan almost every week by e-mail and Skype, but there was none of that in the first century. In Athens, Paul was separated from his friends in the north of Greece by only a few hundred miles, but that was a huge distance then. He was seeing Christians in the churches he planted fall away from or distort their faith, as happened in Corinth, and he was especially worried about the Thessalonians, but he had heard no news from them. Some of his converts had turned against him, and that was bothering him as well, just as you and I might wonder if a relative or friend we haven’t heard from in awhile has some resentment or issue with us.
At the beginning of this chapter we learn that Paul finally decided to stay in Athens by himself and send off his helper Timothy to check on what was happening up north. Our text is based on Timothy’s return with a good report that the Thessalonians were standing fast and still held Paul in warm esteem. Verse 9 is his relief and thanksgiving to God at that news.
Yet Paul still wants to see them with his own eyes, hear their voices with his own ears, break bread with them around the Lord’s Table, and continue to instruct and guide them in person. Writing letters and sending messengers is fine, but being there would be so much better.
My wife Beth teaches on-line classes now. Sitting in front her computer, she gets to know and instruct and grade papers for students she may never meet in person. It works. Beth is an excellent communicator and can get her points across and help students even without face to face interaction. She has had several notes from her “virtual” students thanking her for a good class. Yet she still longs for the classroom, for the sights and sounds of students waving their hands and asking questions, for the chance to look a young man or woman in the eye and gauge whether they’re getting it or not.
Verse 10 is saying that Paul wants to look his Thessalonian students in the eye and discover whatever it is they are lacking or missing in their faith. He wants to be there in person to offer whatever help or instruction or encouragement is needed to build them up into the saints that he believes so strongly they will be in the Lord.
Like you and I wait for opportunities to be with those we love, Paul was waiting for his opportunity to be there in Thessalonica. He’s praying for it. “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again…” and in verse 11, “May our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you.”
Paul was waiting, waiting and praying in earnest for that journey to the north, but as he says at the end of chapter 2, “Satan blocked our way.” We have no way to know for sure what he meant by that. It may have been the illness or disability he calls a “thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan,” in II Corinthians 12. Whatever it was, it prevented the journey. The road was blocked. Paul could not go where he most wanted to go.
As you and I enter Advent, we also wait earnestly, praying for any number of things. Yes, some of us are earnestly praying for children to come home or for chances to visit old friends. Some are praying for jobs. Some are waiting to hear what the doctor says and praying for healing. Some are looking toward a move into a new home. Some are waiting to get married. Some are ready to finish high school or college and start their lives while some are waiting to come to the end of life and rest a little. Some are waiting for a baby to be born while others are waiting for the right time to have a baby. We’re waiting and praying for the economy to get better and for the Ducks to win this week and go to the Rose Bowl.
We do a lot of that waiting and praying anxiously and earnestly, just like Paul waiting for his chance to get to Thessalonica. And sometimes the road seems blocked for us as well. Dozens of applications, but no job. Days and days of medication and treatment, but we don’t feel better. Months on market, but the house hasn’t sold. We wait and we may start to wonder where God is in all our waiting. Does He hear the prayers? Does He feel our anxiety? What’s He up to? That’s why Paul moves on to verses 12 and 13.
Paul saw his waiting in a larger context. His blocked hopes for a journey up the Grecian coast were only a small part of a larger hope. As he waited to see his friends, he was waiting with them to see Christ come back. His immediate and unfulfilled hope was subsumed and taken up in a greater hope for his Lord’s return.
You probably know about what’s called a “story arc” in a television series. This Friday night I am eagerly anticipating the final episode of “Monk.” Each week for several years I’ve sat for an hour and waited to see how Monk would solve that show’s case. But all through the series has run the thread of the one mystery Monk has not solved, the mystery of who murdered his beloved wife Trudy with a car bomb. That one unsolved case has arced over and permeated every episode since the beginning.
Every week we wait to hear our quirky detective say, “Here’s what happened,” and then explain that show’s case using all the little clues that only Monk could see. Yet right along with the character, every viewer has been waiting for the day when Monk holds up his hand for attention and says, “Here’s what happened… to Trudy.” All the little waits and expectations of each show will be taken up and fulfilled in that last, complete resolution.
On a grand and unimaginable scale, that’s what waiting for our Lord is like. His return is like the cosmic story arc that runs through and arcs over all our little stories, all our smaller hopes and dreams, all the lesser waits we endure, no matter how long they seem at the time. Waiting for the doctor, waiting for the job, waiting for the one who doesn’t come home—it will all make sense, it will all be resolved, it will all be fulfilled and made right and made good… when He comes.
That’s what Paul understood so well as he waited, there alone in the strange and hostile city of Athens, for Timothy to come back and tell him about their friends in Thessalonica. That’s what he was feeling as the time seemed to drag on before he could himself head that way. He knew that what he was waiting for at the moment was only a tiny episode in the great over-arcing story of the series. And so even as he suffered with “intense longing” to visit that church, he understood how that suffering fit into and would be fulfilled by something bigger.
Paul’s concern turns from his own need to be with the Thessalonians to a concern that they would be with him in a deeper and stronger way. He wanted them to join him in waiting not just for a happy meeting as he stepped off a ship in the port of their city or walked up the road to knock on their door. He wanted their company in the greater journey toward the day of the Lord.
The subject, then, of verses 12 and 13 is no longer focused on Paul, but on the manner in which both he and his readers will wait for the Big Day. It’s no longer about how Paul will live through waiting there in Athens. It’s about how they all will live through the days until Jesus comes back.
How to wait for the Lord is the subject of both this text and our Gospel reading today. In Luke 21, verse 34, Jesus warns us against bad ways to wait for him, with hearts “weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life.” Our Lord knew us so well. We get distracted. We get bored. We get tired of all the waiting. The series in which He stars is getting way too long, and the episodes often aren’t all that exciting. Sometimes they are downright painful.
Jesus told us to keep watching His series, to watch for the end, but it would be so easy to quit watching and just hit the channel button on the remote of life. Give up faith and turn to entertainment. Give up service and sacrifice and switch to power and pleasure. Give up love and settle for lust. But Christ says, “Don’t turn that dial. Keep watching.”
It’s so easy to put all our waiting energy into the wrong things. My nephew and his girlfriend went out shopping early on Black Friday and came back with stories of finding people already at Walmart who had camped in the store all night with their purchases by their sides. People were lined up everywhere waiting to buy television sets and toys, jeans and laptops, games and housewares. So much waiting for so little significance. Why not join Paul? Why not watch and wait for the truly big day, bigger than Black Friday, bigger than Cyber Monday, bigger than any sale Target or Macy’s can create.
Still, in the epistle today, Paul is not so much in the warning mode. He doesn’t tell us what not to turn to. Instead he very simply asks us to stay tuned to the right channels. There are just two: love and holiness.
Verse 12 says, “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.” Love makes waiting so much easier, so much better, even when its hard.
I’ve started the book that will be our December book of the month, the sequel Marilynne Robinson wrote to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead. It’s entitled Home and is set in the same little town in Iowa. In this book a father, a retired pastor, is waiting for his wayward son to come home. He’s waited twenty years. As he’s waited he’s grown old. So his daughter Glory has come home to take care of him and help him wait.
Part of the story is Glory wondering if there is any point to her life. She has a Master’s degree, but she’s left her teaching career. She’s come home after a long, failed engagement. Here she is single, living in the house she grew up in, taking care of her aging father. She’s waiting for something as well, but she has no idea what it is. Yet the love she demonstrates by cleaning and cooking and helping her father dress helps him wait. When her brother finally comes home her love begins to help him discover what his messed up life is about. Glory’s care and love makes all the waiting better, easier, even a bit joyful.
You and I are called to a love that helps each other wait, that helps the world wait. Some of the people we see on our streets are waiting for homes they will never find in this life. They may wait for years and years and never be inside a room they can call their own or lie down in beds that will be theirs for more than a night or two. It will only be when Jesus comes back that some will find the “place prepared” for them that He promised. It’s a long, cold wait. Yet some love from us can make the waiting easier. A warm spot on the coldest nights can help them wait.
Through love, we help each other wait as well. Your love has helped those waiting for jobs, those waiting for babies to be born, and those waiting for health to return. You’ve loved those who are waiting to graduate and those waiting to die. You’ve loved and cared and made the waiting better until Jesus returns.
Still there are those temptations and distractions lurking as we wait. It’s easier to go shopping than to patiently save money for some good cause. It’s tempting to go find somebody new to love rather than wait out and work through a troubled relationship. It’s so simple to be distracted by entertainment instead of signing up as a volunteer. That’s why Paul calls not only for love, but for holiness. Verse 13 says, “May God strengthen your hearts so that you may be blameless and holy…” He’s praying for strength to wait well, strength to wait without giving up, without giving in to the evils of this world.
Love and holiness. Paul prays for them. He doesn’t ask us to work at them, or to try harder to be more loving or more holy. He prayed for the Thessalonians and he prayed for us to be given those gifts. Love and holiness come to us through Jesus Christ. Even as we wait for Him, He gives us the strength be loving and holy. That’s what we pray for.
So the Church has made the season before Christmas a school for waiting. That’s the reason for changing the colors, and for not putting up all the Christmas decorations here in our sanctuary the day after Thanksgiving. It’s the reason we’re not singing Christmas carols or setting out the beautiful poinsettias we already have. We’re learning to wait, and in our waiting to focus on what matters most in our Lord’s coming. It’s not decorations. It’s not beautiful music. It’s not even the gifts we bring to the Lord and to others. It’s His gifts to us that we learn to receive in Advent, gifts of love and holiness.
And there’s one more gift of this season. As Christians we anticipate and long for Christmas because it speaks so much to us of a truth that Paul says twice in the same words in this text. In verse 9 he speaks of all his joy thinking about the Thessalonians “in the presence of our God.” Then in verse 13 his prayer is that they will be blameless and holy “in the presence of our God and Father…”
As Paul waits longingly to see his friends, he’s waiting in God’s presence. Then he puts his waiting into the perspective of the grand story arc named at the end of verse 13, “when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones,” recognizing that what we’re waiting for is a deeper and better and complete realization of where we already are. We wait in God’s presence for God’s presence. By coming into the world in Jesus Christ God is with us. By promising to return in Jesus Christ, God will be with us forever. We’re waiting to enjoy what we already have in part, the sweet, beautiful, satisfying presence of God.
When we talk to Susan via Skype over the Internet, she now has a web camera, a gift we took her this summer. It was really a gift for us, because now we get to see her smiling face in those long-distance conversations, to feel a little bit more of her presence as we talk. We praise God for Skype.
Yet that sometimes jerky, sometimes pixilated little image of our daughter in a box on a computer screen is a far cry from what we expect when her plane arrives in a couple weeks. It’s a joy to converse electronically and feel a bit of her presence, but when she actually gets here, is truly present, that joy will be so, so much better.
God is with us. That’s what Christmas means. Our Lord was born into this world, lived and died and rose again, and through the Holy Spirit, He is with us. The love and holiness He brings make our lives better, bring us joy now. But we are waiting, waiting for Him to be really and completely with us, when He comes again. Then the joy will be full. Yes, wait for Christmas, wait for all those happy and holy days we expect and hope and pray for in the meantime. But more than all those, wait for that Day, wait for Jesus to come. Wait until then. Wait until then.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj