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Sermon Ideas For 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 Part 1

Not all advents are welcome. From Thanksgiving to Christmas families gather, but many do not enjoy times of unsullied light and laughter so typical of TV commercials. 'Tis the season not only of loving and giving, but also of facing secrets unspoken, wishes unfulfilled, and conflicts unresolved. Many approach the holidays with resistance as well as rejoicing.

The same holds true for the observance of Advent in the church. Not only do we anticipate Christ's coming with joy. We may also dread the prospect of his judgment. To the Corinthians, toward whom Paul was feeling less than affectionate, he wrote, "If I come again, I will not be lenient" (2 Cor 13:2). Christ's coming calls us to account for our sins, and we may want to respond by saying, "There's no room," or "Go away, for I am a sinner."

Paul did not anticipate an advent to be dreaded, however. His mood is one of thanksgiving and joy. During Advent we reflect on the incarnation. God has spoken to us in many fragmentary ways, but "in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son" (Heb 1:2). What is true in an ultimate sense in the Christ, that in him we see God, is true also to a lesser degree in every human being. The comings and goings of the holidays are the traffic of truth made flesh. For us judgment has a name and a face, a bony finger jabbing our chest. Love is one particular smiling mouth and twinkling eye.

With shopping, packaging, addressing, mailing, decorating, scheduling, we prepare for, and perhaps defend against, Christmas and the potential intimacy with God, others, and self to which the holy days invite us. Perhaps Paul's thankfulness and joy flowed from willingness to give of himself, and to receive the self-giving of the Thessalonians.

Two other great theological themes run through this passage. Paul calls the believers to holiness arising from love. Many of us experience love and holiness, not as a both/and, but as an either/or. Those who emphasize holiness may exalt law and fall victim to the self-righteousness of the Inquisitor. Those who highlight love may slide down the slippery slope to anything goes.

Holiness began among ancient peoples as morally neutral. The holy pertained to the realm of the divine, but could include the sacred prostitute and the herem, the ban of holy war by means of which ancient tribes justified genocide as divine command. Infused with the moral precepts of the eighth-century prophets, however, the holy began to include the purity and love with which we associate it today. By the first century Jesus taught love of God, neighbor and self as the great commandments, and Paul wrote that "love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom 13:10).

Paul's priorities may be instructive. He speaks first of love, then of holiness. If God's love flows through us to others, then God's holiness molds us into God's image. Holiness is love's refusal to do wrong at the expense of self or other. Love is the source from which genuine holiness springs.

As I write, I cannot help but reflect on my own experience of last week, in which these abstractions became incarnate. I flew from Richmond, Virginia, to El Paso, Texas, to move my father into a nursing home. Age 82, afflicted with Parkinson's disease in its last stages, Dad is a man of great faith and great failings.

My sister and I found his house in chaos. We immediately arranged 24-hour nursing care, and attended to all the details required for a change of this magnitude. We were haunted by the sins of the past, and hounded by the conflicts of the present.

Sitting at the kitchen table, where I sat as a boy, I confronted my father with the realities that hemmed us in. He agreed to move to a nursing home three blocks from the house where he was reared, and a mile from his 90-year-old sister. Then, abruptly he asked, "When's your plane?" Not all advents are welcome.

After our first visit to the small private facility, Dad had taken the single step from his wheelchair to the front seat of the car. A gentleman greeted me. "You wouldn't be Lev Hamilton's son?" he asked. He was recuperating from surgery at the nursing home. My father and he had preached together in Mexico thirty years ago.

"I am," I replied. "Would you like to speak to him? He's sitting right there in the car." Warmly, joyfully, they renewed acquaintance.

Thursday Dad moved. While my sister returned to his house to gather a few of his possessions, he and I filled out forms, one of them concerning his decisions about medical care, should he be unable to communicate his wishes. I sat with my arm around his shoulders much of the day.

Friday, on my return flight with twenty minutes in Dallas and thirty minutes in Atlanta, I rushed to make connections. I had a graduation address to write, but instead I read a mystery novel. My wife was waiting at the gate with her billion-dollar smile, her one and only hug. I wondered if the next time I see Dad alive will be when we meet "blameless before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints." John Hamilton