Adam J. Copeland
First Presbyterian Hallock, Minn.
Nov 29, 2009
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Talk about a full day marking many things. This Sunday we celebrate the first Sunday of the church year which is also the first Sunday of the season we call Advent. Advent means “coming,” and today we begin our preparation for Christ’s coming at Christmas.
Today also marks the Sunday closest to Thanksgiving, when we gathered as a nation to loosen our belts and watch football…and also remember the many people and things in our lives for which to be thankful.
Today is also the first Sunday in the official holiday shopping season. Added to that, later we have a Commissioning service and Family Advent Night. As if that’s not enough, the Vikings plays the Bears at 3:15 and there’s an all new Desperate Housewives on ABC tonight.
But believe it or not, we gather today less to anticipate Desperate Housewives, than to look through the lens of scripture on all that today brings and listen for God’s word to us.
In their letter the Thessalonians, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy emphasize two main ideas. The four verses before us today are a sort of a summary of those two points: (1) you’re doing really well, and we thank God for that, (2) let’s make it even better. The writers sort of sound like my high school chorus teacher who always said, “Good better best, never rest until your good is your better and your better is your best.”
Sound like a message for today? Well if we’re thinking about today as the first Sunday of the new church year — the first sunday of Advent — then Paul and his buddies’ hit the nail on the head. After all, at New Year’s we look back at the previous year, and we look forward to the next. So on this first sunday of the new year, let’s give that a try.
When they opened up the letter the Thessalonias read, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” That’s pretty high praise. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy are getting at a deep gratitude, an overflowing attitude of thankfulness. It’s not the inward-looking kind of thankfulness — thank you God for making me so awesome, or thank you God for the good I’m doing — but a thankfulness focused on others. “How can we thank God enough for you…” they write. The writers give thanks for God working in the lives of others.
Hopefully, this week of Thanksgiving, you’ve already taken some time to mark your thanks for the blessings in your life. That’s an important and positive practice — to be thankful for your gifts. If you haven’t done so, at the next meal you have with someone, before you eat, trying going around the table and inviting everyone to say what they are thankful for. It’s a healthy and important practice for us all, and especially for us Christians who can direct our thankfulness to God.
But at their Thanksgiving dinner, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy don’t sit around the turkey and say how God has blessed them, they say they’re thankful for what God is doing outside their small circle, even in Thessolonica.
This year, I’m thankful for what God is doing all the way down south at a small church in Tennessee. The congregation had lost contact with the surrounding community so, last high school football season, they started hosting a Fifth Quarter event at the church with pizza and games (and no drinking) for anyone from the high school who wanted to attend. It turned into a huge success; some Fridays they had nearly a hundred students show up. I’m thankful for their Christian witness in that small Tennessee town.
It’s a good practice, as Paul shows, to consider and express our gratitude for things going on beyond our immediate sphere. That’s something we can easily forget, even at Thanksgiving. But we don’t have to totally skip over the things near us. So, I wonder, what are you thankful for in this community? I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for.
I’m thankful you had a relatively short stint without a called pastor last year. I’m thankful you stayed a strong congregation while searching. I’m thankful God has now called us together. And I’m thankful for the welcome Megan and I have received. I’m also thankful for the overall openness and attitude of discernment in the congregation, that it’s a place with a strong history and eager to build upon that foundation as well. And I’d love to hear how you all are thankful for the past church year, and I bet we’d all find out some interesting things if we shared with each other.
But New Year’s celebrations aren’t only about looking on the past with grateful eyes, but about looking forward too. Remember all those New Year’s resolutions you made eleven months ago? Or maybe you’d rather not remember all of them because you didn’t quite keep them? Maybe we can treat this new church year in similar ways. Looking back with thankfulness, but also looking forward to a grand year ahead.
After thanking God for the great things going on in Thessolonica, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy write, “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 God 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.”
They don’t just look back with thanks, they look forward with anticipation. May the Lord make you increase and abound in love….and be prepared for the return of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
What do you hope this next church year will bring you, this congregation, and the world? What new resolutions would you like to make?
So often resolutions are about self-improvement or aesthetic goals. But Paul isn’t writing about any 10 Steps for Success program. He’s definitely not writing about weight loss or physical fitness (not that these are bad resolutions, mind you). Rather Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy stay much broader and more challenging. May the Lord make you increase and abound in love. Resolving to increase love? Abound in more love? Geez, that’s a resolution that’s a bit tricky to measure, don’t you think?
Increase and abound in love. What are they thinking? Love isn’t just something you can increase on a whim. I have a friend who has low iron level so her doctor told her to eat more leafy vegetables, especially spinach, and that should take care of it. Love isn’t like that, there’s no love additive you can buy at Cenex to make your love increase. So if we resolve to increase and abound in love, what are we to do?
C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity has a great suggestion. He writes, “Do not waste your time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor, act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.” C.S. Lewis seems to think love follows loving actions; we increase and abound in love by acting in loving ways.
Ultimately, the love Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy speak of isn’t love for its own sake, but love grounded in the love of Jesus Christ. That’s, ultimately, where our love stems from — and on this first sunday of Advent that love comes with an extra helping of hope. For it’s not our love alone that’s going to save us. It’s not our love alone that will right this world and set us free. It’s not our love that can do anything by itself.
On this first sunday of the church year, we look forward to the love that God will bring at Christmas, for in Christ there is hope for the new year. In Christ we are promised love, peace, and justice over all the earth.
I used to think of Advent as only about anticipating Christmas day. I spent four sundays hoping to celebrate the beauty of Christmas again, hoping to celebrate the amazing fact that God came to earth in a little baby, born for us. And when we reached the 25th I could sing Christmas carols and open presents and celebrate Christ’s birth. That is what Advent is about, but it’s only part of what we look forward to in the new year.
Advent hope is also about the hope beyond Christmas and the incarnation — Advent hope that Christ is coming again, once and for all, to make all things new. Hope that Christ is coming to do away with pain and hunger and climate change and war. Christ is coming again.
So on this first sunday of the new church year, let’s resolve to increase and abound in love, but also to collectively hope for that day when love incarnate returns again. On that ultimate day, Black Friday sales, Desperate Housewives, and Vikings games will all fade away, for love will be born again forever. Amen.