Preaching 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 poses an odd problem for preachers. What starts out as Paul's conversation with the Thessalonians about prayer (vv. 9-10) turns into his address to God in prayer (vv. 11-13). So just who is Paul's letter written for? We preachers need to know. After all, you can't deliver a message unless you know the addressee. But perhaps preachers can exploit this problem in a productive way homiletically. After all, the very fact that Paul writes letters presupposes the problem of presence and absence. Paul writes his letter in order to minimize distance between him and the Thessalonians, to overcome his absence from them. Doubtless, a struggling congregation would desire Paul's presence, especially if, as our exegete points out, the church is being hassled by its neighbors. So if we know this problem of presence vs. absence goes to the heart of Paul's letter to the Thessalonians and Paul's prayer to God, perhaps it can also fuel our preaching. Consequently, try envisioning a five-move sermon structure like the following:
Look, we Christians crave being present with each other. So when apart, we pray to be reunited again. But remember this: when we pray, we place our desires within God's will. And what's God's will?: that our fellowship love be spread around to all. This way we'll be ready for God's big reunion day!
Move 1 begins by establishing our craving for presence. Consider how much time we Christians spend fellowshipping! We gather once a week for Sunday services, rubbing shoulders with other folks in the pews. During the week we hold committee meetings--though God knows they rarely start on time, given our proclivity to turn every church business occasion into coffee fellowship. And what's practically the great sacrament of American church life?: the potluck dinner! What's more, as Advent begins what do we await but family holiday gatherings? At Christmas Eve services long-dispersed parents and siblings reassemble. The holiday season is like a big family reunion for churchfolk. Clearly, we crave each other's company.
Move 2 builds on the first by placing our desire for reunion in prayer. Just think of how often we pray during Advent for traveling mercies! Snow begins to fly, or ice pelts the highway asphalt, and our knees hit the floor in prayer. There's a one-woman play set in England's industrial north. In it the actress portrays the anguish of a woman keeping watch outside a collapsed coal mine. As you watch you hear her trying to keep other women's spirits up as they wait outside the mine together. As news arrives that few of the men trapped below have survived, you watch the actress drop to her knees on stage. With the others, awaiting the news about which coalminers survived, the woman sings:
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home!
As you watch the woman, and hear the hymn you begin to notice: her prayer has become your prayer. For we, too, know what it's like to pray for reunion.
In move 3, however, we realize that prayer means placing our desires within God's will. Didn't Jesus teach us to pray: "Thy will be done?" Sure, sometimes we imagine our prayers are catalog mail-orders sent to some cosmic Sears & Roebuck. Yet when we pray, we don't address a Christmas Santa Claus, but a God of mercy and justice whose ways are not our ways. Even prayers which are answered directly may surprise us when placed within God's will. Back in 1988 on George Bush's inauguration day, the President-elect looked dour before his swearing-in. One commentator noted: "George Bush looks like a man who got what he prayed for." Indeed. For we offer our prayers within the will of An Other: God.
With move 4 we flesh out God's will by pointing to God's boundless love in Christ. Here preachers can draw pictures, vignettes of Jesus' life, dramatizing the extraordinary love Jesus showed not just for his own, but for all. There's the crowd gathering at the manger: livestock, shepherds, angels, Mary and Joseph--a couple wise people up the road. In the center lies the little Christ child, a sign of God's love. Around him gathers all creatures great and small. Can you see it? God's will is revealed to be love for us and for all. Other scenes from Christ's life will add to this move's power: Jesus eating with sinners, the crucifixion, etc. Images from Christ's life demonstrate that God's will means drawing the circle of love a little wider than kith and kin and like-minded churchfolk. Remember Paul's prayer: love is not just to abound for one another, but "for all."
In the final move we see our prayers for reunion transformed in God's promised future. Recall: Paul prays that God "strengthen [our] hearts in holiness that [we] may be blameless...at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints." We may hanker after family reunions with loved-ones; God's eschatological desire is for a reunion of cosmic proportions. Remember watching the final scene in the movie Places in the Heart? We see communion elements pass among the pews at a little Texas church. But in this final scene the communicants are not who we expect. Sure, there's all the characters who survived the tough times chronicled in the film. Their presence at communion is hardly surprising. But then communion elements are also passed to a white man who'd died earlier in the film. And who does he hand the bread and wine to?: the Black man who'd been lynched for accidently killing him in the railyard! The scene is startling, yet enlarges our vision. God's end-time plan is for a real humdinger of a reunion--one wider than our families and tight-knit congregations. With such good news about Christ's coming reunion, we, too, can get ready this Advent season by loving all with the wideness of God's love--today.
David Schnasa Jacobsen