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1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
A sermon Preached by Alex McNeill
VA Medical Center Durham, NC
December 2, 2018

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13: How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
Now may our God and Jesus direct our way to you. And may God 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 at the coming of Jesus with all his saints

Hope is a Blessing 

I am the older brother of two siblings. My birthday is in November, and though my younger brother and sister were born three years apart, their birthdays are in the same week of June. As a kid I thought it to be the height of unfairness that everybody seemed to get a birthday celebration in the same week of June, and here I was left out when November felt an awfully long way away. Every year as their birthdays approached in June, I remember hoping so earnestly that as they opened their presents that I would get one too. I remember begging my mom for weeks one year to have a present to open when we celebrated their birthdays. Though my parents didn’t have a lot of money to spare for a child whose birthday was still nearly six months away, that year and for a few years afterward my parents also gave me a small gift to open that week in June. 

If you’d asked me then to define hope, I probably would have said that hope is what our heart earnestly desires for fulfillment. I hoped and hoped for a present at my siblings’ birthdays so I wouldn’t feel left out. The gift I longed for was really the recognition that I still mattered to my parents, even as I shared so much of their attention with my younger siblings. However, if my parents weren’t able to give me what I hoped for, would that mean I was hopeless?

Today is the first day of Advent, the start the four weeks leading up to Christmas, a season of waiting and expectation before Jesus’ birth. In the Advent season we journey alongside the prophets proclaiming the coming Messiah, we sit with Mary as she learns she is expecting a child called Immanuel, we’ll walk with Mary and Joseph and the donkey as they journey to Bethlehem, and watch as the shepherds hear angels and magi follow a star. Each Sunday of Advent we light a candle to help us reflect on a different Christian theme to help us on that journey. This Sunday we light the first Advent candle which symbolizes Hope. What does hope mean in the context of our faith? I believe Paul has something to teach us about hope in his letter to the Thessalonian community.  Paul has something to teach us about hope when times are tough.

At first read, this letter to the Thessalonians sounds downright cheery. Paul is effusively praising the community for their steadfastness, and sharing that is is praying earnestly that he will get to be with the community again. What may not be clear just in this section of the letter is that Paul and the Thessalonian community each had been having a hard time. When Paul first visited and helped start the community in Thessalonica, he was driven out of the city. Since then he had spent time in jail, and was anxious that the Thessalonian community was struggling. Since he wasn’t able to get back into the city, he sent Timothy to check on them, and when Timothy reported that the community was thriving in the face of challenges and opposition, Paul wrote this letter to bolster and strengthen the Thessalonian community so that they might survive. Paul’s hopes for this community are offered like a prayer in this text, a blessing for the community to hold on to when things are tough. 

When I was younger, my understanding and definition of hope was that it was like a wish rooted in desire for something. If what you desire doesn’t come true, does that mean you are hopeless? Do you believe that? I don’t. I believe we need hope the most when we recognize that things are out of our hands, out of our control. Paul may have written this letter to the Thessalonians while in jail. He certainly wrote it when he could not physically get to the community, confined to where he was, he set forth a blessing, a hope for the community to prevail against persecution. Paul wasn’t hoping for the community to thrive so that it would make him look good, but rather, he wanted the community to stay united in their worship of God. To me, the difference between a hope and a wish is that a wish is something focused for yourself, while hope is rooted in love for another person, a community, a nation, or the whole world. 

Paul’s deepest hope for the Thessalonian community is that they would “abound in love for one another, and for all” Loving each other, helps them love all. The Greek word Paul uses for love in this text is “agape.” Of the three words for love used by the Greeks, agape was the highest form. The author Paulo Coelho wrote “agape is total love, the love that devours those that experience it. Whoever knows and experiences Agape sees that nothing else in this world is of any importance, only loving. This was the love that Jesus felt for humanity, and it was so great that it shook the stars and changed the course of human history… when we love and believe in something from the bottom of our soul, we feel stronger than the world, and we are imbued with a serenity that comes from the certainty that nothing can conquer our faith.” For Paul, hope is rooted in agape, love for all. Are there places in our lives where we have this kind of hope? Hope for our loved ones? Hope for our neighbors? Hope for the world? 

A few years after I stopped receiving presents at my siblings’ birthdays, my sister was diagnosed with cancer. She was 8 years old. Right after she was diagnosed with leukemia, our family was introduced to a group that had formed for families of kids with cancer. We went to summer camp together, and got together every Christmas for a big celebration. I prayed and hoped my sister’s cancer would be cured, but meeting other 8 year olds, 3 year olds, 15 year olds who had cancer, my hope grew bigger. I hoped for an end to cancer, I hoped that the kids I met had good caretakers, got to experience joy amid their suffering, felt loved by their community. It’s hard to keep hope to yourself when you experience agape. My sister survived and her treatment program was part of a big research project to help improve care for other young cancer patients. My hope is that her experience helped lessen the suffering of other kids, and that one day it might lead to a cure. It’s a big hope, and I may never see it fulfilled. 

In Advent, we are reminded that we are to hope for something that is not immediately present to us. We hope and wait for Christ to come again knowing that it may not happen in our lifetimes. In the meantime we try to be Christ like, to live as Jesus lived, to love as Jesus loves. When life makes us feel like nothing is going right, hope can feel like it is slipping away, like it isn’t ours to hold. We light the Advent candle today as a reminder that hope is here for us. The flame of the candle burns bright against darkening days helping us to remember to find hope rooted in love. 

When Paul wrote this letter, he may have been feeling a bit hopeless, like it was going to be impossible for him to get back to the community of Thessalonians. He offered the community a prayer and a blessing as a way to be with them and share his love for them. He extended his love outward to community and invited the community to do the same. It seems like the Thessalonian community cherished this letter and kept it safe, since the letter became part of our Biblical canon. Perhaps Paul’s words acted like a balm and a blessing to the community in their time of need. Our hopes for one another and for the world can be a blessing too. As we move into the rest of this week, the theme of hope continues. Who might we share a blessing with this week? Our words, our hopes, and our love just might be the life-saving grace someone else needs to hear. 

Amen.

God of our life,
there are days when the burdens we carry
chafe our shoulders and weigh us down;
when the road seems dreary and endless,
the skies gray and threatening;
when our lives have no music in them,
and our hearts are lonely,
and our souls have lost their courage.
Flood our path with light,
turn our eyes to where the skies are full of promise;
tune our hearts to brave music;
give us a sense of comradeship
with the saints and heroes of every age;
quicken our spirits
that we may be able to encourage 
the souls of all who journey with us
on the road of life,
to your honor and glory
–attributed to Augustine

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