Lord’s Day Message, October 16, 2011
Thankful Prayer – 1 Thessalonians 1
We’re beginning a five-week series that is both a wonderful and somewhat daunting task. One of the limitations of preaching from the Lectionary is that you don’t get the luxury of moving slowly through a single book of the Bible and giving the church the chance to digest it in small bites. And that is my favorite way of looking at the Bible. This book is full of beautiful sweeping narrative of history and biography. It contains poetry and prose that can make a reader cry, and stories of the lives of men and women that will make you laugh over and over. It also contains a group of letters written to the church as it was spreading throughout the Roman Empire in the latter half of the first century.
These letters were written by The Apostle Peter, by James the half-brother of Jesus, by a man named John who may have been the disciple Jesus loved and knew best, and by a man who was born just about the same time Jesus was born. We know him as The Apostle Paul, but he was born outside of Israel, in a town in coastal southern Turkey that had a Jewish enclave. For most of his early life he was known as Saul of Tarsus. He studied under one of the greatest rabbis of his day, a man named Gamaliel. He was a philosopher and was climbing the ranks politically as well, having become a citizen of Rome and a citizen of Israel by the time he was 30 – no small feat in a culture where Jews were not widely accepted.
Over the next five weeks we’re going to be looking as deeply as time will permit at one of the letters Paul during his ministry. Paul was either in Corinth or Athens in the fall of 52 AD when his young protégé Timothy joined him there after a preaching tour he had been on. Timothy brought word to Paul of how the church as doing in the region of Macedonia, and the two of them decided at some point to write a letter of encouragement to the church in Thessalonica, a coastal city and renowned deep water port on the west coast of Greece.
If this is the first time you’ve ever had the chance to look deeply at one of the Letters of Paul, I would encourage you to read each section we look at several times during the week as we move through this very personal correspondence. If you have a computer and email I will be sending you chunks of 1 Thessalonians early in the week so you know where we’re headed.
So you will know the outline of the book, I’ve broken it down into five sections that hit the five major themes Paul shares with this church. As with all of Paul’s correspondence, the letter is about Jesus. But just as would happen if you or I wrote a believing friend a letter of encouragement, this is Paul sharing the very real ways in which Christ is working in his life and theirs to bring about the praise of his glory. This week we’ll be looking at Thankful Prayer. The next four weeks we’ll talk about Enduring Hope, Working Faith, Laboring Love, and finally Lasting Peace.
So find 1 Thessalonians in your Bible, and as you do, won’t you pray with me for our time together looking at this letter?
Our Father, open your Word to us and teach us to love the things you love, to know you more deeply, to find Christ in each phrase and line. But more than that, cause us to find Christ in the lives you will be unlocking for us through these weeks. And if you would, Father, by the ministry of your Holy Spirit, let the miracle of salvation in Christ be made real to many for the first time because we were here, and because you taught us. Amen.
Now, if you have the letter in front of you, here’s the first piece the way the New International Version translates it from the original Greek Paul wrote it in:
1 Paul, Silas and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace and peace to you.
2 We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. 3 We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
Thankful Prayer is a great place to start any correspondence. You know, people don’t do this much any more. Because of the advent of the Internet, you don’t find people writing a long letter to a person or group of people, and you certainly don’t see people taking the time and effort to be encouraging. Most of our electronic correspondence is so many 1s and 0s written in such haste that we never learn to organize our thoughts on paper. If you ever look at the correspondence of George Washington, you’ll see that he thought out his letters so carefully that every line was exactly the same length as every other line, no matter how many words were in each line. Leave it to an engineer to be that meticulous.
Paul has a habit in his letters of opening with a brief mention of what he’s been praying for the person or group he’s writing to, but only in 1 Thessalonians and Ephesians does he devote an entire paragraph to it.
Thankful Prayer begins with thankful people
What we want to see first is that Thankful Prayer begins with thankful people. That may sound obvious, but one of the problems of the Internet age is that we’ve gradually become a cynical people who tend to spout off about what’s on our mind in very ungracious ways, and we use the immediacy of the electronic media to do it.
But look at how the letter opens. Earlier I asked you to write on an encouragement card the names of two people you know well who have been an encouragement to your faith and whose faith has been an encouragement to you. Now take that card and add your name to it.
What you now have in front of you is exactly how the letter begins. Paul was thinking about thankful prayer, and as he began to put pen to paper he looked across the table at two men who had encouraged him greatly in his faith and whom he had encouraged as well. Given the rest of the first paragraph, I have to believe that Paul wrote the three names and paused.
There they were: three names on a blank piece of paper. But these names have meaning and experience attached to them. When Paul wrote to Timothy fifteen years later he said this, “I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.” (2 Timothy 1:3-4 ESV)
These men had been through a lot together already. They were working day and night to bring the message of Christ, the life of Christ, and the light of Christ to the whole Empire. They had risked family and fortune to do it. They had faced danger and persecution together. They had traveled together and endured long separations from each other as well, praying daily for each other as one by one they established churches wherever they went.
So I have to believe that Paul wrote his name and the other two names on the paper and paused and looked at the two men at the table with him and that a flood of memories came back to him during that long, moving pause. And just as happens to me when I look at the two names on my Encouragement Card, I think Paul had to take a deep breath and sighed a sigh of thanksgiving for these two who were his partners in the Gospel.
After he sighed, Paul put pen to paper again and added one more name. He writes, “To the church of the Thessalonians…,” and if you had had a hand as Paul and Silas and Timothy had, in establishing a church in the faith, no matter how long or short the experience, you’d put the pen down again and perhaps be overcome with emotion, for now the card in front of you has not only your name and those of your two friends, it also has the names of person after person and experience after experience. The card has the wonder of things only God could have done on it. The card has great high moments and deep moments of pain on it. The card if now filled with thanksgiving as it fills with the names of men and women whose lives Christ has formed for his own and how he has used you to encourage them and how they have encouraged you.
Thankful Prayer begins with God
Now, if it seemed obvious that thankful prayer should begin with thankful people, we also have to remember that thankful prayer really begins with God. Paul says, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.” That is to say that all that reverie about the relationships that had been built as the church was formed, all the emotion Paul undoubtedly experienced as he thought about these dear people was because of something God had done. More specifically, it was because Christ was in the people of the church at Thessalonica. Look at your card again. Whether what you see when you look at the card is three people who have encouraged one another in Christ or whether you see hundreds of people whose lives Christ has interwoven over the years, look deeply at the card. And while the names will not disappear, you will begin to see Jesus in all of them.
Thankful Prayer begins with Grace and Peace
Every one of the experiences you had with the people represented on that card, no matter how exhilarating or how difficult, because Jesus was in them, each of them was an experience of grace and peace. You’re probably saying, “but I remember some of those experiences were very painful. We had struggles with each other and sometimes hurt each other.
How is that grace and peace? It is because whether you were aware of it or not, Jesus was in the struggles. Jesus was even there when you sinned against one another. Jesus was there when you gossiped about one another and regretted it later. Jesus was there when you judged a brother or sister, and he shed a tear even if you didn’t. Jesus was there when you found it necessary to leave each other because you couldn’t live at peace with each other. But you see, what he was doing in all of those experiences is he was teaching you. In Christ you are not the same today as you were yesterday. He is teaching you right now, and he will continue to use every day of a believer’s life to mold you more and more into his own image. You have not arrived, but he is giving grace every day by the joys, the sorrows, the frustrations and the victories of life that you are becoming more and more like him.
Thankful Prayer begins with thankful people who are experiencing grace and learning the peace that comes from being in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. It won’t always look like growth. Life in Christ isn’t like going to the drive-thru at McDonald’s. You don’t get the results instantly. Life in Christ is more like a long wonderful evening at table with good friends. There are all kinds of great things on the table, and in the end even the brussel sprouts are memorable because they were enjoyed in community.
Thankful Prayer begins with continuing prayer
Because the nature of God’s grace and peace is that it unfolds slowly and it unfolds in community, thankful prayer is always continuing prayer. In verse 2 it says, “2 We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers.” The longer you are in relationship with people as believers whose lives are living testimonies with yours to God’s grace and peace, the more often their face will pop up in your mind’s eye and you’ll find yourself remembering them with thanksgiving.
In the next sentence, beginning with verse 3, Paul lays out both the outline for this whole letter and the content of what he’s been praying for the church in Thessalonica. If there is one key verse to take away from our study of the letter, it is this one: memorize verses 3 and 4 and you’ll forever have the outline of 1 Thessalonians in your head.
“We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you.”
Thankful Prayer begins with Continuing Prayer
We don’t have time right now to unpack these two really condensed sentences, and in many ways we will be doing nothing else for the next five weeks. For now, just remember that the content of continuing prayer is nearly always that you are remembering before God working faith, laboring love, and enduring hope, as evidenced in the lives of people chosen by God. When you begin to pray this way, the effect is that you become more thankful to God. You are drawn more and more to the deep things of Christ. Soren Kierkegaard said, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”
Thankful Prayer begins with Gospel Narrative
It is important that we know what it is that Paul is remembering when he prays for this believing community. The story of any community is the narrative of God working in and among his people. Sit for an hour with any of the saints who have been part of Poquonock Community Church over the course of their life and you’ll begin to hear the stories, the rich tales of God’s working here. The funny thing is they’ll probably start by telling you about church suppers and tag sales, about couple’s club and about game nights. That’s because it was the shared experiences around those tables and at those events that gave this congregation the fabric it need to be able to endure the tornados, physical and emotional, when they hit.
Those simple things are gospel narrative often far more than all the preaching that could be collected in a book.
Paul says the gospel came with words and with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. Listen carefully to one another when you are together. There are gospel moments at church fairs and over the grill making food for men’s breakfast. There are gospel moments at craft group and in the church office. All you have to do is listen for what Jesus is saying to you through the people you are with.
All you have to do is be willing, when the person you are with speaks of their pain or their joy or their passion for something to make the connection and speak the word of Christ back to them. We need to be a people who are listening to one another. When someone comes, as someone did this week, with a passion to find a way to get food to people in need, we should all be saying to them, “that idea: that is Jesus walking. How can we help you make that happen?” All too often, churches hear that narrative and squash it by saying, “we can’t get involved in that right now. We’ve got too much on our plate, and besides, it might end up costing the church money we don’t have.”
Church: listen for words of power. Listen for deep conviction. Listen for the Holy Spirit in what people are saying to you. When you hear that, encourage it. Praise the ideas God puts in people’s minds and hearts. Even if they don’t seem practical to you. Realize that the vast majority of times they’re not asking you to get the whole church behind an idea. They just want to hold the idea that God gave them up and hear a word of encouragement so that the Holy Spirit can take them to the next step.
Look at what happens when you encourage the work the Holy Spirit is doing in others. Starting at the second half of verse 5, see how the ministry of the Spirit is released though encouraging words and thankful prayer: “You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers.”
Because they were encouraged this way, the ministry of Christ was communicated as Paul lived among them (notice it wasn’t anything astounding. It was simply HOW Paul lived). The ministry of Christ was also continued through imitation (of Paul & the Lord), it was confirmed in suffering and with joy, and ultimately, It was franchised in other places and it went out so that these dear believers became a model to all the believers.
Thankful Prayer begins with a good report
The final way thankful prayer begins is with what I call the boomerang principle. The more thankful I am for what God has been doing in a person I have come to love in Christ, the more I end up telling the gospel narrative of their life to others until one day I find myself in a situation where someone I told has told someone else who told someone else who tells me! Look at the end of the paragraph:
The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
Your faith went everywhere! And now I have the blessing of hearing about your faith from people I meet. The first thing they’re saying is what Christ did in us and how we were received in Thessalonica. They’re also talking about YOU – the Thessalonians – and how you turned to God. Finally, and most important, as we saw back at the beginning of the letter, they are talking about Jesus who rescues us.
Look at the card in your hand just one more time. Oh thankful people! Listen to one another. Build gospel narrative as a community together. And then watch as your faith gets talked about until one day you find yourself in some coffee shop somewhere and see if your name hasn’t appeared on someone else’s card and now the fellow randomly sitting at the counter with you starts talking about the person whose faith changed a life, and you realize they’re talking about what Christ did in you.