Today's message is kind of a combo package—recognizing the holiday of Thanksgiving while celebrating the start of Advent. It has always been a source of frustration for me that Advent gospel readings are always “apocalyptic”; dark, fearful, scary-- depicting end times. And it is arranged this way so that we get a sense of preparing for the future-- preparing for the final appearance of Jesus even as we prepare for the celebration of his first coming on Christmas.
But today, I want to focus on the epistle that Jayne read. A bit of background first. Our bible study group has spent months studying the book of Acts. In Acts 17, Paul was released from the jail in Philippi where he had converted the jail-keeper and baptized him and his family. But he was sent away by the Roman magistrate and went to the city of Thessalonica along with Timothy and Silas. On reaching Thessalonica, Paul and Silas preached in the Jewish synagogue on three consecutive Sabbaths. But some of the Jews became jealous and caused a riot. Paul and his helper Silas were forced to escape from Thessalonica under the cover of night. Two cities, two churches started by Paul and two sets of authorities who sent Paul away before he wanted to leave.
We know Paul wrote letters to the churches in these cities. Today's letter to the Thessalonians was written to encourage the community of believers that was established in Paul's short time there.
We just celebrated Thanksgiving. Did you make time to give thanks to God for the blessings in your life? Paul wrote of his thanks and we are going to do that today, we will try to make a very specific list of things for which we are thankful. We are going to write down our ABC's of thanksgiving as a congregation. As we consider Paul's thankfulness for the congregation at Thessalonica, I want to consider the importance of our fellowship here in Litchfield. The main point of Paul's thankfulness is the community of faith. From J. R. Daniel Kirk “For those of us who have been deeply schooled in the pursuit of a 'personal relationship with Christ,' New Testament depictions of our radical interdependence on one another can come as a shock. The biblical writers insist that our experience of God is so wedded to our experience of other followers of Jesus that, however personal our relationship may be, it could never be considered private or even individualistic.” Especially Paul expresses his thanks for the Thessalonians fellowship but in many places points out how the community of faith is so interrelated, so connected, that it is as if we are a single entity. And so we, along with Paul, give thanks for this church, this family of faith. *I've asked the boys to hand out these recipe cards and each has a letter of the alphabet. Whatever letter you receive, please write something that begins with that letter for which you are thankful. Ideally, it will be something that is common to us, something that is a part of the church or our faith fellowship. But it can be more individualized than that. Now I will pause as you consider for what in particular we can give our communal thanks to God.
Our passage closes with Paul praying for that church in Thessalonica. He prayed first that God would direct his (Paul's) path back to them. He goes on to pray for ever- increasing love for one another—their fellowship. But he doesn't stop with just the family and friends, he prays that love increases for all-- fulfilling the great commandment. And finally he prays for strengthened hearts. In the view of biblical writers, the heart was seen as the spiritual part of us where our emotions and desires dwell. We could say the heart is representative of our mind, emotions and will. Not only does he pray for strength of heart but for holiness.
And so this letter from Paul looks back, sees the good things the church has done, but also looks forward in his prayers for them going forward. As we give thanks for the blessings we recognize today, we are to look forward. Advent calls us to look forward. Many of the readings over the next four weeks look ahead to Jesus coming again to initiate the new heaven and the new earth; Jesus coming in victory and in judgment.
But in our day to day lives, the looking forward is to December 25th, Christmas Day. Stores have been advertising for it since before Halloween. Of all things, CBS showed Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer last Monday night! We can't miss the world celebrating Christmas. But we can miss the heart of Christmas: Emmanuel, God with us. God with us, personally, but for Paul critically, with us in community. We can bring each other the joy of the season; sharing our lives, working together, traveling together, eating together, praying together.
The ongoing faith of this community of faith and the Church universal testifies to God's faithfulness; testifies to the joy that is ours despite our outside circumstances. Joy in Jesus is the focus of the season and it is the greatest reason to give our thanks.
I will now have the boys collect the postcards and we will offer our prayer of specific, alphabet-focused thanks. And as we finish the prayer, we will sing a hymn of Thanksgiving, giving thanks to God who reigns in highest heaven, to Father and to Son and Spirit thanks are given... the God who was, and is, and shall be evermore. We look back, we pause in the present, and we look forward offering all praise and thanks to God.
Hymn: Now Thank We All Our God 555 PH