HOPE Abounds

Nov 28, 2021

Sermon 11-28-21
First Sunday in Advent
Text: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     Advent begins today; how can that be? Kirby and Danny are affirming their baptisms today – or being confirmed. How can that be? In both cases my question refers to the passage of time, and the amazing reality that Thanksgiving is over and these young men, who I baptized as babies, are exactly that … young men.
     Time is an interesting concept; it usually flies by, but sometimes not, especially when waiting for an anticipated event is involved, which is the case in both of today’s readings. They refer to waiting for the second coming, or Advent, of Jesus. That’s a topic that is not of particular focus in Lutheran circles, and when it is, our emphasis usually on “active waiting”, that is, what we should do while we wait, which includes being watchful and expectantly ready due to living faithfully.
     However, the passage we read from 1 Thessalonians comes at “the wait” in a different way, which we’ll get to in a moment. First, though, let’s remind ourselves about this two-part letter which is quite possibly the oldest writing we have from the early church.
     The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christian church he started in Thessalonica, which is in northern Greece. In the first century in was a trade center where people honored Julius Caesar as God. It’s likely, then, that followers of Jesus experienced persecution for their faith.
      Paul wanted to return to Thessalonica, since he and his co-workers had been forced to leave during their previous visit. He is concerned that “something is lacking” in their faith. And, yet, his attitude is overwhelming gratitude for them.
     It’s interesting to note what, in this passage, he tells them to do while they wait for Jesus to return. Did you notice? The answer is, not much, BECAUSE it’s not about what they are to do at all, but about what God can and will do. Paul prays that God direct his and his coworkers’ way back to Thessalonica. He asks that the Lord cause their love to increase and abound, not only for one another, but for all. And, Paul requests that God touch the hearts of Christians there, strengthening them in holiness in preparation for the coming of Jesus.
     It’s all about God’s action, about what God will do for the Thessalonian Christians. There is no five-step program of what to do while awaiting Christ’s return. This is an example of grace. As commentator Doug Bratt points out, “Here is a great and amazing grace: God does for God’s adopted sons and daughters what we naturally can’t and, in fact, don’t want to do for ourselves. God doesn’t just grace us with the gift of eternal life that faithfully waits for Christ’s return. God also graciously strengthens the loving response to God’s grace that is the life of discipleship.” (1)
     Take, for example, the request that Paul makes related to love, that the Thessalonian believers would “increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” The sense of this is that God will make love grow and grow and grow in the Christian’s life, so that it fills the person and then overflows to impact the lives not only of family, friends and neighbors, but also those who they view as opponents or even enemies.
     Quoting Doug Bratt again, “Here too is a great grace. After all, while Jesus calls his adopted siblings to love and pray for our enemies, we do not naturally love them. When we’re honest with each other, most of us have to admit we’re not even sure we want to love our enemies. So, the apostle begs God to empower God’s children to actively love those we don’t love or like, to equip us to choose to work and pray for both their well-being and them.”
     In summary, we are asking to be more and more like Jesus. And, that we would let the Holy Spirit open us to God’s renewal and fill in the holes in our love with the Spirit’s filling and sealing power. (2)
     We all know, I think, that this process does not come easily, especially when the world around us is so filled with division, violence and suffering. My attention has been drawn this week, as I’m sure is the case for many of you, to the terrible event in suburban Milwaukee in which a man drove an SUV into a Christmas parade, seemingly with the intent of striking marchers and spectators, and refusing to stop. Six people have died and more than 60 were injured.
     This is one of those times when the randomness of the world, and the destructiveness of an individual’s choices, angers and confuses us. It’s a situation in which I can definitively say this was not God’s plan, there was no higher reason for it and the way that God is at work in it is through the people who responded to the crisis and are supporting those who were injured or are grieving.
     But, to love someone who would do such a thing? That not only is impossible but is asking too much of us. (And that’s your pastor speaking.) And yet, YET … that is what we called to do, or at least strive to do, be open to doing. So, we begin by praying for the one we cannot love, which is, in itself, not an easy thing to do. Having received grace, we offer grace.
     All of this is why I told Kirby and Daniel that affirming one’s faith is an on-going process. It’s not a graduation from church, but is actually stepping into the fray, so to speak, and developing a mature faith. Nearly everyone here, I would guess, could tell Kirby and Danny that while we strive to believe, sometimes we struggle; while we strive to follow the example of Jesus, we often fall short. The important thing is that we acknowledge what trips us up and lean into God’s grace, which is always available to forgive and strengthen us.
     The theme on this first Sunday in Advent is HOPE, which is what keeps us going in the midst of what the Gospel lesson describes as “fear and foreboding”. There are many “signs” around us that our world is not what God intended it to be; they all remind us that “the end” (of our imperfect world) is yet to come and point to the great and glorious day of Jesus’ return. In the midst of it, we are bold to “stand up and raise our heads” because we are being strengthened each day by God’s grace. It’s a life-long process that Kirby and Danny are saying “yes” to today. For them, and us all, hope abounds. AMEN  
(1) Sermon Commentary for Nov. 28, 2021, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 by Doug Bratt, www.cepreaching.org
(2) Same as #1