Enduring Hope sees opportunities not opposition
Enduring Hope sees brothers not burdens
Enduring Hope sees witness not work
Enduring Hope sees salvation not suffering
Enduring Hope sees presence not parting
Have you ever gone travelling in a foreign country where you knew no one, knew none of the customs, didn’t know the language, and didn’t understand the currency? There are few experiences in life quite like it. You can really get bamboozled pretty easily.
In the fall of 2008, to celebrate her approaching 90th birthday, my mother took our entire family on a cruise of the Mediterranean. In 10 days we visited Barcelona, Spain; Messina, Italy; Malta; Thessalonica, or as it is known today, Thessaloniki, Greece; and Istanbul, Turkey. We had been in Istanbul once before when mom flew us all there to celebrate her 80th birthday. Maybe we’ll go back again if she lives to be 100.
We only had a day and an evening to spend in Istanbul, and here’s where our tale begins. Because we’d been there before, we all imagined we knew the city pretty well, which of course we didn’t. Jama and I had shopping for an authentic Turkish rug on our list of things to do, and we vaguely remembered stopping at a rug shop in the area near Hagia Sophia, the largest church building in Istanbul.
Just before noon I was trying to get directions and ran into a young man who told me his uncle ran a rug shop not too many block from the plaza in front of the church. Tim and I actually ended up spending much of the afternoon with him, and he took us around and showed us many of the sites. That evening he invited us to come to the shop. We took him out to dinner across from the rug shop and then went to look at the rugs. Remarkably, his uncle remembered my mother from the last visit! He even remembered where in America she came from and the fact that her family were Armenians. He remembered serving us tea on the last visit and even what kind of rug she had purchased.
Mom was tickled pink! We were laughing and enjoying this gregarious Turkish rug salesman immensely. After a bit, he took Jama and me upstairs to see some rugs. In the end we purchased two very nice carpets that we now proudly display on our floors in the wintertime. We haggled, as you’re supposed to do, until we arrived at what we thought might be a fair price.
The minute we all left the shop, rugs in tow, Mom turned to me and said, “I wish you hadn’t bought those rugs. You were probably taken for a ride.”
Now I was really puzzled, and more than a little concerned. I felt like I had just been exposed as the stupid American in Turkey that I really was. I asked her why she said that. Her reply was pretty heart-dropping. “Because, I knew from dinner that young man wasn’t really the shop-owner’s nephew. He was pretty slick. He had spent the entire day with you, and dinner with all of us, finding out details he then fed to his “uncle” so he would “remember” us. He knew we’d think we’d been in his shop before because we wanted to believe it.
Every time I walk on those two carpets, I ask myself how much they were really worth and whether they were actually made in China. Mom was right. I had been under a romantic spell. There we were in Istanbul. The scene was perfect. The dinner was perfect. Everything I had hoped would happen happened that day. I so wish she had never told me what I’m sure was true. We were taken, and all my hopes were dashed.
Pray with me for a moment before we get into the Word itself.
If you were with us last week you know we began to look deeply at Paul’s first letter to the believers in Thessalonica. This is a great letter because Paul doesn’t have a beef with these people. Instead, Paul is writing to strengthen their faith and to encourage them. If you want to sum up the whole letter using one verse, memorize 1 Thessalonians 1:3-4. “We 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 and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you.” And there’s our outline for the letter.
We’ll spend five weeks total looking at it, and yet we’ll really only scratch the surface. The things Paul has to say to these dear people are the foundation of a wonderful way of looking at your life in Christ and the life of our church. We began last week with Thankful Prayer; this week we’re looking at Enduring Hope, then Working Faith, Laboring Love, and finally Lasting Peace.
Thankful Prayer, Enduring Hope, Working Faith, Laboring Love, Lasting Peace.
Opportunities, not opposition
Hope is one of the most fragile of human feelings. It can rise in your heart suddenly and fall just as quickly. Anyone who has ever sat with a desperately ill person understands the transiency of hope. Hope is the stock and trade of pastors and evangelists. We really don’t know when we sit down to share the gospel with a person or a group whether the Holy Spirit has been at work in their heart in such a way that they will be prepared to receive the ministry of Christ. So we look for signs to gauge our hope by. Did they seem interested in the Scripture you shared? Were they affected by the story you told? Do they seem to understand who Christ is and what he is telling them?
Anyone who has ever been pastor of a church cringes as they read verses 1 and 2, because they know the feeling of having great hope in the investment you make in a church and then discovering the people are sinners, just like you. Paul opens this chapter of his letter, in some ways he is opening the body of the letter after a long introduction, by saying, “You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure.”
This kind of self-defense; of justifying one’s self to bolster your resume ought to have a name, it happens so often in the church. The worst of it is that pastors are most often not really sure whether the failure was on their part or on the part of the congregation they were trying to serve, or if it was some weird spiritual chemistry that God was working out and there’s no blame to be assigned. All they know is that they went into a season of ministry with great hope, only to find their plans in ruins weeks or months or years later. But the spiritual gift of pastor comes with a decidedly glass-half-full nature to it that makes the men and women who serve as pastors like those balloon clowns they used to sell as children’s toys. No matter how hard you punched the clown, it would always rise back up with a smile on its face.
For Paul, the evidence can’t have been good. Before he came to Thessalonica, Paul had been in Philippi. In this remarkably candid assessment of what happened there, Paul tells the Thessalonians he had suffered and been insulted there. People had accused him of all sorts of things, including that he was a heretic, preaching an erroneous gospel, a false gospel, a self-serving gospel. They even accused him of trying to trick them into giving to his cause through flattery and impure motives.
Like a lot of pastors and especially church planters today, Paul had had a time of it in Philippi, and was probably glad to leave. There was no further reason to hope that these people would ever receive the message of Christ. Their actions were in direct opposition to the gospel. And when Paul limped into Thessalonica, somehow the story of what had happened in Philippi had followed him there. It is only about 100 miles from Philippi to Thessalonica. Vindictive people who have an axe to grind are perfectly capable of sending an envoy on ahead in order to keep the next place safe from a “dangerous preacher” like Paul. And so when he began to preach to the people of Thessalonica, it was in the face of what he calls “strong opposition.”
In his letter to Philippi, written 10 years after 1 Thessalonians, Paul says this: “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.” (Philippians 1:15-17 ESV) Is he remembering what had happened years ago? Is he bitter about the experience, as you might expect?
No. You see, enduring hope sees opportunities, not opposition. As I said, Paul wrote the letter to the Thessalonians in the fall of 52 AD. That’s about twenty years after the resurrection of Christ, and ten years before he wrote to the church at Philippi. Paul had learned, in the earliest days of the gospel, that sometimes you have to let a stew simmer before it is ready. And most cooks will tell you the best stews are the ones you cooked a few days ago. About the third time you reheat the stew you no longer have to hope the meat will be tender. You know it will be tender, and flavorful, and that it will have thoroughly mixed with all those good vegetables in the sauce. Call it soup if you want to. But the best stew is the one that’s had time to really become something.
When Paul writes to Philippi, he says this at the end of chapter four: “You Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.” (Philippians 4:14-16 ESV)
Have we missed something? Is Paul quite in touch with reality? Has he forgotten what happened back there in the early 50s? No. He hasn’t forgotten it. But Paul knew the truth that God is at work in all the experiences of life. He knew that the slanderers who had treated him badly in Philippi didn’t represent the whole of what happened there. He knew that even in the midst of great turmoil, God was building a church that would endure. And he remembered the gifts they sent on to Thessalonica, not the unkind words that somehow had slipped out of the mouth of the guy who brought the gift. That is how, ten years later, in 62 AD Paul was able to write Philippians 4:1, “Finally, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.” (Philippians 4:1 ESV)
Enduring hope isn’t out of touch with reality. But enduring hope is very much in touch with Jesus. Enduring hope understands that the work of salvation takes time and one size doesn’t fit all and that people can only do in the moment what they have the light to do. That’s how Jesus could say as he hung on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for the don’t know what they’re doing.” That’s how Jesus could stand at his trial and watch as Peter denied even knowing him, and still entrust the birth of the church to a man like that. Enduring hope sees opportunities not opposition.
Did you have hopes for this church that have gone unrealized year after year? When you had a good idea, did someone squash it before you even got to really even tell them why it excited you? Church, if you want enduring hope see what Jesus sees. Don’t focus on the opposition your endured. Focus on the opportunities that lie ahead.
Brothers, not burdens
Just so you don’t think that Paul was being a Pollyanna and just putting the best face on a bad situation, he goes on to discuss some realities of what he had to do in order to counteract the very real opposition he faced when he got to Thessalonica, what he had to do in order to win the opportunities. He says, beginning at verse 6, “We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else. As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.
9 Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.”
Remember the accusation someone had brought over from Philippi? “Paul is greedy. He just wants to sponge off your good will. He’s after your money.” The way most of us would have reacted to that kind of talk would have been to lash out at it, to defend ourselves. But that’s not the way of Christ. When he was slandered, the gospel account says, “he opened not his mouth.” Jesus never retaliated. He never defended his actions or his message. He never held a grudge. He never jockeyed for position in order to come out on top. He said, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
So Paul used a different tactic with the Thessalonians. In the face of all that opposition, he loved them. Any of you who have been parents, especially you who have been the mother of a teenager understand the feeling of having the child you gave birth to stand in front of you and maliciously say, “I hate you!” No matter how many times they say that your mother’s heart inside of you cries out, “I love you!”
The natural thing to do when your child rebels like that would be to guard your own heart carefully so you won’t get hurt again. But what does Paul say? “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.” In the face of opposition it is easy to see what a drain, what a burden people can be sometimes. But enduring hope sees brothers not burdens.
After the resurrection the Apostle Thomas refused to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Instead of arguing the point intellectually with him, Jesus very tenderly held out his hand and said, “touch the scars from the nails and see that it is me.” And when he encountered Peter, who had denied him as we said before, Jesus never brought up the denial. Instead he served Peter. He cooked him breakfast and then took a walk with him. On the walk he simply and tenderly asked, “Peter, do you love me?” Jesus could have enduring hope in these guys because he chose to see them as brothers, not as burdens. You and I find the most elegant ways of denying and betraying Jesus day after day in our own lives. And every time we approach the table to share in Communion with him he calls us friends and invites us to sit and dine with him and know the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread.
Look around you, church. What do you see in the pew next to you? Do you see the person who promised they’d help you on a project and then, when the time came they flaked out on you? Do you see someone who broke trust with you when you shared something sensitive? Do you see someone who threw you under a bus to save their own position? If you want enduring hope, look again and see them the way Jesus sees them. They are your brothers and sisters. They are brothers, not burdens.
Witnesses not workers
But let’s face it. There is a lot of work in being a church together. This isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. There are always projects to be involved in; dinners to plan and serve; meetings to prepare for; missions to go out on; teams to be created; shut-ins to be visited. If you fully engage in the life of the church the sheer volume of what needs to be done can really begin to get you down. You can find yourself one day on your knees in the parking lot with a paint brush retracing white lines you painted ten years ago and asking yourself what possible connection this has with the gospel.
But any parent gets this. And Paul uses the picture of the way a father teaches a trade to his children to demonstrate it: “10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. 13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.”
It isn’t easy to teach your kid how to fix an engine or hammer a nail or set up a shop or repair something around the house. The way you do it is to make witnesses out of your children, not workers. A good parent takes their kids along with them when they go to do the things they do. When I became a homeowner I had never fixed a tempermental furnace or a leaky faucet. But I had seen my dad do it a hundred times. I didn’t know how to sand a table top and refinish it. But I had stood there and witnessed Dad do it so many times that when I had a table I needed to repair years after he died, I went and picked up his clamps, the ones he left sitting there in his shop for me to find, and I got myself a bottle of Elmer’s Wood Glue, because that’s the kind Dad always had on the shelf. Somehow I knew how it was done because Dad had taken me along with him as a witness. He had never asked me to be a worker. He knew I wasn’t interested and it would have just been frustrating to him and to me if he had made me do it. Did Dad know I’d be handy around the house? I think that even though I never exhibited any aptitude in that direction -- I was a musician, not a carpenter – I think he had enduring hope that I would be. That’s why he left his tools sitting there when he got too old and too infirm to use them himself.
Enduring hope sees witnesses not workers. Church, do you want to see this place really come alive? Then don’t expect people to work here. And don’t be offended or grouse when they don’t show up to help out with the project you’re working on. Serve in the hope that they will pick up the cue. More is caught than taught. Revel in being a servant yourself. They will notice. They are not workers. They are witnesses. Show them Jesus in you. Let them see you serving because you see how Jesus served. Enduring hope sees witnesses, not workers.
Salvation not suffering
In all that Paul suffered, in all the opposition he faced he was not alone. In verse 14 he writes, “For you, brothers, became imitators of God's churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews,15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.”
Great. Like sons of a father they had become imitators of believers who had gone before them. And they had suffered for it. As I said at the beginning in church life, in the Christian life, sometimes suffering is just a given. People will misunderstand why you live as you do. Other people will simply look at your life as a believer and for whatever reason they will hate you for being what you are. Sometimes you will suffer direct persecution. Most of the time you’ll simply suffer indirect opposition. But none of it matters if the goal is to see men and women come to know the Lord Jesus. If it is a choice between you suffering and them coming to a saving faith, salvation trumps suffering every time. No, it isn’t natural to place yourself in a position where you can be hurt. But Jesus did. Paul writes in Romans 5, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8 ESV) The whole story of the gospel is the story of serving sinners in order that they may be saved. Why should you and I expect anything less than what we see Jesus doing?
Romans 5 begins by saying, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5 ESV)
So church, spend yourself in the right cause. If you must suffer, suffer in such a way that what people see is Jesus in you. People will be saved because you took your cue from the Savior. Don’t suffer to preserve your position or your church or your pride. See what Jesus sees: Enduring hope sees salvation, not suffering.
Presence not parting
Finally, remember that you’re not doing any of this alone. “17 But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.18 For we wanted to come to you–certainly I, Paul, did, again and again–but Satan stopped us.19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.”
One of the greatest comforts Paul had was knowing that these people stood with him in the opportunities, they stood with him as brothers, not as burdens, they stood with him as witnesses to Christ, they stood with him as ambassadors of salvation.
What produces enduring hope? The writer to the Hebrews says it right, “fixing your eyes on Jesus,” and doing it in the presence of a great cloud of witnesses. “what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.”
Church, if you want enduring hope, do these two things: learn to see what you are doing the way Jesus sees it, and then do it along with others who also see the same thing. You may not always have these brothers and sisters right there with you, but their presence will be with you. And you’ll experience the joy of knowing that they are out there, doing the same thing you are. Enduring hope sees presence, not parting.