The Epistle reading for the first week of Advent seems whittled down for my taste. I would prefer it take a bigger bite and include the earlier material in chapter 3 about afflictions, because the theme of afflictions matches the other readings as all the travail leading up to the Day of the Lord and the coming of the Son of Man will be filled with afflictions. It will get worse before it gets better.
But instead we have these encouraging words. Maybe the lectionary thinks we need some encouragement after the harsher materials from Zechariah and Luke.
“For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith.” 1 Thessalonians 3:9-10
How can I thank God enough for you? I got it–I will pray night and day for the opportunity to come fix what it is that you clearly don’t understand yet. Okay, I admit that is a little harsh, but I’ve been reading Paul for so long that I feel like I understand his sarcasm. He is writing 1 Thessalonians because they have questions about things they should have already understood. He clearly perceives they are lacking some finer points of discipleship or theology (v. 10) and he needs to come fix it. For the record, they still didn’t quite get it, which is why we have . . . 2 Thessalonians.
The concept, though, that people who earnestly follow the Lord and try to do and be right, yet have something lacking is intriguing. Paul hints at the same thing in the Roman church (Romans 1:11) and there is no end of problems in Corinth. Here in this time of advent, maybe we should consider–is something lacking in our own faith?
- Perhaps our personal faith is lacking. What I mean is, we could devote ourselves to learning more. Stop relying on whatever the pastor is leading and read books on your own, listen to podcasts, do some study. Learn. Fill in the gaps. This personal lacking might be practice as well. Perhaps you don’t pray as often as you should, or at least don’t pray ‘earnestly’ as Paul mentions. Only an arrogant fool would say ‘There is nothing lacking in my spiritual life–I’m a perfect 10.’
- It could be something is lacking in our local church. Maybe your church is a sweet fellowship, but it doesn’t lift a finger to help solve the problem of clean drinking water in Africa and could not care less about child sex-trafficking. Flip it around, maybe your church is great at reaching children and young families, but terrible at discipling older adults. Maybe your work is to address what is lacking in your congregation.
- There is no way anything is lacking in Western Christianity, though. We have our act together perfectly. #sarcasm.
From this desire to fix a problem, Paul turns to benediction. In fact, this benediction could be crafted and worked very nicely as the spoken benediction to finish a worship service.
“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, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13
Having read the benediction, we see Paul’s desire for the Thessalonians and we see how it fits the familiar pattern. As much as Paul wants to fix their theology and fill in the gaps, the things that really matter in our daily living are:
- Love. Paul is quite specific when he says love for one another and ‘for all.’ I take this to mean all people. Love within the church fellowship is important, but love for neighbor, love for stranger, love for enemy, love for the confused, love for the addicted, the immigrant at the border, the extremist Muslim in Malaysia, and even Tom Brady.
- Holiness. The curious thing about holiness is Paul doesn’t mention their behaviors when he describes this, but instead their hearts. Remember, Jesus told us that it is what comes out of our hearts (Matthew 15:18) that defiles a person. If we are not holy the root is not behaviors. The root is the heart. In the end, we do what we want to do.
The apex of this benediction is the eventual coming of Jesus, which is a major theme of 1 Thessalonians and it is what I am preaching about this Sunday.