Sermon starts at the 4:15 mark after the music
Lay Reader = 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:5
17As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. 18For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20Yes, you are our glory and joy!
3Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens; 2and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, 3so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions. Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for. 4In fact, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution; so it turned out, as you know. 5For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain.
We are continuing our series looking at Paul’s two letters to the church in Thessalonica. Last week we heard how the Thessalonians were pleasing to God by giving God the respect and honor he deserves. And we heard how we can be ready for a spiritual conversation, because today might be the one and only day that your friend, co-worker, neighbor, or family member wants to ask you something faith related.
This week we are looking at what made the Thessalonians truly special to Paul. Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians are sometimes called the Epistles of Friendship, because his comments about the people in this church are some of the highest examples of friendship in all of Scripture. What made them so special to Paul?
1 Thessalonians 3:6-13
6But Timothy has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us—just as we long to see you. 7For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith. 8For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord. 9How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And 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.
It was a good time to be in the printing business. My dad’s family had sold their Pepsi bottling plant, so my dad was looking for a new career. Our neighbor owned a major printing company in Austin, and he asked my dad to help. Around this time, a certain product was becoming popular. You may have heard of it. It’s called, “the personal computer.”
And there was this company that made those “personal computers.” Maybe you’ve heard of them, too. International Business Machines – IBM? And as their computer empire expanded, they needed to print up manuals that showed people how to use these computers. They needed lots of manuals very quickly.
So my dad helped our neighbor expand rapidly enough to fulfill that demand for paper computer manuals. But a funny thing happened. Shortly after our neighbor’s printing company invested in new, enormously expensive machines, IBM and the other computer manufacturers had an idea. “Instead of printing out these giant manuals and giving them away with every computer, why don’t we just make the manual a digital file that’s already loaded on the computer?”
Almost overnight, the massive demand for printed computer manuals fell off a cliff. And those shiny, new, expensive printing machines sat idle. Chasing that printing contract with IBM actually led the printing business to close down. It was a fun, profitable ride while it lasted. But when it stopped, they couldn’t exist without it anymore.
It was fulfilling…for a little while. But it didn’t last. Every fan of a sports team knows this feeling. One minute you’re on a roll, and it feels like you’re going to dominate for YEARS! And then…POOF! It’s all gone.
This was one of the reasons I left my job as a computer programmer. There were interesting problems, but once they were solved we went back to monotonous bug fixes. And at the end of the day it just didn’t feel fulfilling that I solved a problem that allowed Frito’s chips and Shiner Bock beer to be a little more profitable through machine vision and industrial automation.
I was briefly fulfilled by solving the technical problems, but I didn’t derive any lasting fulfillment once the problems were solved. But since I became a pastor, I discovered that churches are an endless source of new problems to solve! Don’t worry, I’m not talking about you. But that person a couple of pews over…
It’s interesting to see what has lasting value to Paul in our text today. In our first text he said, “what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!” These people have lasting value.
Then he said why thought they were worth Timothy’s time. “we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith.” It was worth sending Timothy away, because the strengthening of their faith and the encouragement they would receive from him would have lasting value.
In our second text today, Paul said, “For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord.” He derived a sense of purpose from the firmness of the faith of the Thessalonians. Their success was his success. They had lasting value in Paul’s eyes. Their growth as people was worth his time and energy – even his suffering. They, as people, were worth it.
For me, I am most proud of the times when I have helped someone grow as a person. Most of those examples are from ministry. I can point to a handful of people who had an epiphany during a small group or Bible study, and their life was never the same. I can point to the students I mentored in leadership. I can point to the many interns I’ve had over the years, some of whom found their life purpose during our time together.
But I can also point to the work I did helping a lawyer automate his business so he could spend more time with his family. I’m proud of that, too. The software was interesting while I was solving the problem, but knowing that he was able to spend more time investing in his family and his marriage? That’s lasting value.
Where can you find lasting value in your life? At work, is there someone who could benefit from your time? If you’re in a group here at the church, is there anyone who could benefit from you inviting them to coffee or lunch or maybe even a regular meeting time? In your family, is there anyone who could use more of your 1-on-1 time? Where can you find lasting value in your life? As Paul shows us, people are worth it. People are special. Things usually are not.
Another thing that is special in our text today? Prayer. But not just any kind of prayer. Did you hear Paul’s prayer at the end? Listen to this again.
“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.”
So let’s recap. Paul prayed to be able to return to Thessalonica to be with them. Paul prayed that they would abound in love for one another and for all. Paul prayed that they would be holy and blameless before God. Paul even prayed for Jesus to come again soon!
Those are very bold prayers! And they are very specific prayers. They aren’t generic. Paul’s prayers are like the opposite of a fortune cookie. Fortune cookies are so generic they could apply to almost anyone. Paul’s prayers were so specific, anyone could tell whether they happened or not. Paul did not hedge his prayer. He prayed boldly and specifically!
By contrast, have you noticed how the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become a meaningless cliché in our society today? In some cases, people take it as an insult. If you’ve ever read online comments – which I don’t recommend as a general rule, by the way – but if you’ve ever read online comments after a tragedy you’ve seen this exchange. Someone inevitably posts “thoughts and prayers” or the emoji-equivalent. And then someone inevitably responds to them, “Why don’t you actually do something about it?!?”
So telling someone “I’m praying for you” can actually make them dismiss you and think you don’t care! Generic, general prayers are often dismissed as worthless in our society today.
But Paul didn’t pray generically. He prayed very specifically. I like to ask people, “How can I pray for you specifically right now?” Because I don’t know what they actually hope will happen. Some people in the hospital want me to pray for them to get back home quickly. Other people want me to pray for everything to be fixed no matter how long it takes. Other people are lonely and want me to pray for their family to come visit. Those are very different prayers – they’re specific.
I had lunch with a church member last week, and we talked about the difference between generic and specific prayers. He told me that he generally gets brushed off when he tells someone he’s praying for them and that prayer makes a difference. They interpret that as the generic, “thoughts and prayers” meme.
But he told me his prayer practice, and it’s far, far, far from generic. He spends between an hour and two hours a day praying for people and situations by name – specifically. I suggested that the next time he tells someone he’s praying for them he could lean into that. Maybe tell them, “You know, I take an hour or two every day to pray for people very intentionally. I’m going to pray for you tomorrow morning. Is there anything specific you want me to pray?”
If they’re brushing him off because they don’t think prayer matters, telling them that prayer makes a difference won’t change their mind. But maybe he could say, “You know, I’ve prayed for people who had less than one percent chance of living, and they’re alive today. Even the doctors call them miracles. It doesn’t happen every time, but I’ve seen it happen through prayer. Can I pray for you?” That’s way more specific!
The next time you’re praying for someone, I encourage you to follow Paul’s lead and pray specifically! If you don’t know what to pray, ask them! If you have a specific prayer request, put it on one of our blue prayer request cards in the pew rack in front of you and our staff and prayer ministry will pray for you very specifically! Generic prayer is usually brushed off. But specific prayer is special.
Bigger Than Self
And one of those specific prayers that Paul mentioned is very interesting. “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” Paul didn’t pray only for them to be loving within the church. He prayed for them to increase and abound in love for all.
At my previous church, we organized annual all church serve days. We painted rooms for nonprofits. We sorted food for the food bank. For those who couldn’t do much heavy lifting, we wrote encouraging letters and put together care packages for college students and military families. My group usually went to one of the elementary schools and weeded and mulched the playground for them.
This achieved several things. At the time, I was in charge of the small group ministry. And I told the small group leaders that the greatest problem they faced wasn’t which study to use next. Their greatest challenge would be keeping the group from just sitting around and looking at their belly buttons. Navel gazing. When people in a group just sit around thinking about themselves, the group becomes like stagnant water. Moving water is life-giving and refreshing. Stagnant water is detrimental to your health. A group that only looks inward starts to decay.
So serve day was useful for everyone because it gave them a reason to stop looking at their belly buttons and actually show love and concern and care for someone else. It got people to think beyond the church and to actually engage the local community.
But the best results were when those navel-gazing small groups decided to all serve together at a site. When groups served together, they carried their serve day experience with them throughout the year. Their small groups became living, moving water all year thanks to this one day of showing “love for one another and for all.” It set the table for an entire year of serving together after serve day. Their groups improved dramatically when they served others in the community together.
So perhaps you are already demonstrating love for people in your group. Perhaps you are already demonstrating love for friends and family. But have you been demonstrating love “for all” as Paul says? Jesus told us to “go” and make disciples. He told us to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. He “sent” his disciples out two by two. He didn’t tell us to sit around and wait for people to come to us. He sent us out to the world. When the groups in Bethlehem did that together, they became special.
Sisters and brothers, the church in Thessalonica was special to Paul. Paul saw their success in faith as his own success. They brought lasting fulfillment. Paul prayed for them very specifically, not generically. He loved them and yearned for very specific things for them. And they were special because they demonstrated love for one another and for all in their community. How special do you want to be? How special do you want this church to be? Amen.