Sermon begins at the 4:51 mark after the music
Lay Reader = Psalm 1
1Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; 2but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. 3They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. 4The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. 5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 6for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
We are starting a new series looking at Paul’s two letters to the church in Thessalonica. Chronologically, these were among the very first letters he sent to a church he had helped start. The other letters from Paul that we have in the New Testament were written at a later stage in his ministry.
But even here we see that people are starting to have doubts. When they started to believe in Jesus, they thought he would come again very, very soon. By the time Paul writes these letters, about twenty years have passed since Jesus died and rose again. Some of the earliest converts to Christianity who were in their middle years have reached the twilight of their lives or even died.
So Paul writes these letters to reassure the faithful about their ultimate, eternal hope in Jesus’ eventual return. And he also reminds them about our responsibility to live in a Christ-like manner while we await the fulfillment of our ultimate hope. These two letters are really a road map that can be used in our faith today, tomorrow, and forever.
Thessalonica was a very important city. It was the capital of Roman Macedonia. It was situated on some very important trade routes on land and sea. It’s actually still a thriving city today.
Paul established this church during his second missionary journey, but the local Jewish community attacked him and drove him out. The church still thrived in his absence. Paul sent his protege Timothy to continue his work with the predominantly Gentile church in Thessalonica, and Paul sent this first letter after he received Timothy’s report about the church community.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
1Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
2We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
Well you know what they say: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I know several people who do small and medium scale electronics work. And in the electronics world, you know you’ve made something noteworthy once the market gets flooded with cheap imitations coming out of Shenzen, China. Of course, that’s also when you have to worry about being forced out of business by the imitators, but it’s definitely a sign of respect when people imitate your design.
I decided to imitate a basketball player’s unique form while shooting. Dirk Nowitzky was one of the best shooters in the NBA, and I tended to shoot from the same parts of the floor so I tried imitating his form. That year a video game actually used motion capture to get the actual motion of several players, and Nowitzky was one they captured. So I went into the video game and watched the animations of his jump shot from every angle imaginable. Then I went outside and tried to imitate it perfectly. And it worked! I greatly improved my jump shot that summer! I still feel like I have a kind of bond with Nowitzky after spending that much time watching him. I’m sure he feels the same bond.
Paul writes this about the church in Thessalonica: “you became IMITATORS of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”
There’s a lot of imitating going on. First, they imitated Paul and Silas and Timothy, their leaders in the faith. Then they learned to imitate Jesus directly. And because of that, other churches started imitating them. That’s pretty high praise!
Now, we have to be careful about imitating people. I mean, if someone said I’m like Steve Jobs, are they referring to his creativity and leadership? Or are they calling me a jerk? Or if someone says you’re a little Napoleon, are they complimenting you on your command of French armies? Or are they saying you’re being controlling and bossy? We can imitate other people too much and get their bad parts.
But is anyone ever going to accuse you of being too much like Jesus? Is that a thing? If you imitate Jesus perfectly, is anyone going to be mad at you for some aspect of your character? I’ve never heard of anyone being “too much like Jesus.” Have you? I have been yelled at during basketball for being too honest, but I’ve never been yelled at for being too much like Jesus.
If you’re ever going to choose someone to imitate, let it be Jesus. You can’t get too much of that. And Paul says the Thessalonians were good imitators of Jesus. Specifically, he highlights three ways they were imitating Christ. This triad would eventually be used by Paul in his other letters to quickly summarize the Christian life.
So here it is. If you want to imitate Jesus, Paul summarizes your task in just three simple steps. Are you ready? Just three things – that’s all! How hard could they be, right?
Paul commends their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Those three things are the markers of a Christ-like life.
Pastor Gary Demarest shared that his family loved to do off-trail hiking and camping. They got in the habit of marking their own trails over the years by stacking three stones on top of each other. Whenever they weren’t sure of their location, they would search for the nearest stack of stones from past years. When they saw those three stones, they knew where they were and they knew where they were going.
Faith, hope, and love are like those trail markers. The path our life should take isn’t always easy to discern. There isn’t a maintained trail for our lives. It’s easy to get lost. It’s easy to lose track of where we are. It’s easy to lose track of where we’re going. But wherever we find faith, hope, and love, we know we are in the presence of Christ and we know we are heading closer to Christ.
But this is very curious phrasing. In his later letters, Paul just says “faith, hope, and love.” Maybe you remember 1 Corinthians 13 – “faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”
But here, the first time he mentions these three markers of a Christ-like life, he expands a bit. So why does he say WORK of faith? Why does he say LABOR of love? Why does he say STEADFASTNESS of hope?
Work of Faith
Let’s start with “work of faith.” I saw a study a few years ago that examined where people placed their faith during an emergency. For the study, the researchers had a group of people in a room, and they set off the fire alarm. When people got into the hall, there were clearly-marked exit signs directing people to the stairs and out of the building. But they also placed a robot in the hall. And the robot flashed and told the people to follow it to safety. And it proceeded to head in the opposite direction of the exit signs.
Fascinating, right? Would you place your faith in the evacuation robot, or the exit signs? I’ve built robots, so I know my answer. I’m following the exit signs! Those are checked by fire departments! Most robot code isn’t checked by anybody! But most people placed their faith in the robot who was actually leading them the wrong way.
Faith isn’t always easy. Many times, it’s “work.” Many times we have competing claims. Many times our faith in Jesus might lead us in one direction, while so many other voices are telling us to go the opposite direction.
Archbishop William Temple once said that for many of us, life is like a department store in which someone went in during the night and mixed up all the price tags. Too many of us are paying very high prices for things of little lasting value. The “work of faith” is trusting God on what the price tags should be. The “work of faith” is trusting Jesus when he tells you something is important and something else is unimportant.
Our faith takes a lot of work. Jesus says a lot of things that go against the grain. Remember the Beatitudes from Matthew 5? Listen to these and think about how many of them would be reinforced by the Super Bowl commercials in a few weeks.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. “
The majority of what Jesus said and did went against the grain of what “normal” people did and said. And that’s still true today. The “work of faith” is trusting Jesus that his way is better than the “normal” way. Where do you still need to “work” on your faith?
Labor of Love
Then we get to “labor of love.” That sounds strange, doesn’t it? Love isn’t laborious, is it? As I tell my premarital counseling couples, once you love each other, everything will just be smooth sailing for the rest of your marriage! No?
Of course not! Love takes just as much work as our faith! At times, it will even feel laborious. To return what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, he said, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Enduring all things? That’s laborious! Bearing all things? That’s laborious! Hoping through all things? That’s laborious! Love is patient? That sounds laborious, but I’ve never had enough patience to find out.
Jesus raised the ante and told us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” That definitely sounds laborious!
Just to remind you, this is a specific kind of love that Jesus and Paul are talking about. They’re not saying that you are supposed to have romantic feelings for everyone you meet. That would be creepy. This kind of love means wanting the best for someone else and being willing to do something about it. It’s based on choice. It’s based on choosing to value someone else no matter what. It’s not based on emotion.
Have you ever been to a family reunion? There are usually some family members you are looking forward to seeing. And there are usually some family members you are…less than enthusiastic about seeing. After worship today, I want you to go home and write a list ranking your extended family from “most enthusiastic to see again” to “least enthusiastic to see again.” And then I want you to send that to everyone in your family. Does that sound like a good idea?
Please, please don’t do that! That would be cruel, right? In your head, you probably have a hierarchy kind of like that. But when the family reunion comes, what do you do? If you’re being loving that day, you’ll talk to everyone – even if they’re in your “I’d rather avoid them” bucket. Why? You’re choosing to value them because they’re in your family. That’s a labor of love.
That image of a positive, fun family reunion where everyone is in this together? That’s the image that keeps coming to mind when I think about the future of this church. It’s not easy for people of every age to relate to each other, but when we choose to labor in love with each other it creates something special.
When I was growing up, I certainly had fun playing with my cousins who were close to my age. But those memories kind of run together in my memory. But do you know my earliest memory of being introduced to computers? Sitting on my grandfather’s lap as he showed me some of the early versions of computer games. That was a spark across the generations. It was special.
I still have vivid memories of going to my great grandmother’s house where she would make an entire room full of food just for five of us. And even after eating so much food it was spilling out of your ears, she would always tell you, “Aw, you didn’t each much!” I should make the Mamaw’s Kitchen Anti-Dieting App. Just ask it “Mamaw, have I eaten enough today?” And it’ll tell you, “Aw, you didn’t each much!” I’d be a millionaire tomorrow. That was a spark across the generations. It was special.
When our labors of love cross the barriers that typically separate us? It’s special. That’s what I see when I gaze into the future of this church. Exceptional, special love for one another across the barriers of age or stage or place or even the barriers of politics and theology. That wouldn’t be easy. It would take laborious love. But that would be special. And I think we’re up for it. I hope you do, too.
Steadfastness of Hope
Finally we get to “steadfastness of hope.” I really like this one, because there are a lot of different kinds of hope. Misplaced or false hope can be the most damaging to others and ourselves.
Lloyd Christmas was smitten at his first sight of Mary Swanson. When she left her suitcase in the airport, he retrieved it and journeyed across the country to return it her in hopes of seeing her again. He finally caught up to her and asked her what the chances are of the two of them having a relationship.
She replied, “Not good.” “You mean…like…1 in a 100?” “More like…1 in a million.” “So you’re telling me there’s a chance! Yeah!” Turns out she was already married. And inside the briefcase was the ransom money to free her abducted husband. I’m not going to tell you which very serious work of cinema that came from, but some of you know where I got that. Lloyd had false, ridiculous hope!
Steadfastness of hope is very different. The word steadfast isn’t a typical word, but what does it conjure in your mind? “Steadfast” doesn’t make me think of someone ridiculous like Lloyd Christmas – I picture someone solid and reliable. “Steadfast” doesn’t make me think of passive waiting – I picture a blacksmith steadfastly shaping the tool with his hammer. There’s constant, measured action contained within the word “steadfast.”
So when we are steadfast in our hope in Jesus, it isn’t ridiculous, and it isn’t passive, but it isn’t frenzied either. It’s persistent, measured, secure, focused on what matters.
Steadfast hope in Jesus doesn’t imagine that everything will turn out just the way we want it. That would be Lloyd Christmas’ ridiculous hope. That would be false. Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonians to praise their steadfast hope in the midst of struggles.
Steadfast hope in Jesus knows that even when we struggle, even when things seem lost, we will be OK because our ultimate hope is in Jesus. Steadfast hope keeps plugging away at any situation in life knowing that the outcome doesn’t determine our today, tomorrow, or forever. That’s in Jesus’ hands no matter how this situation turns out. How steadfast are you? How secure are you in Jesus?
Sisters and brothers, we are encouraged to imitate Christ. You can’t get too much of that good thing. We know we’re imitating Jesus when we persist in faith even when it takes work. We know we’re imitating Jesus when we demonstrate love even when it’s laborious. We know we’re imitating Jesus when we are secure in our hope in Jesus while we keep plugging away at whatever situation life throws at us. How might you imitate Jesus this week? After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Amen.