Advent 1 Midweek Service
December 6, 2000
Thessalonians 3: 9-13
In this passage we find the first of two intercessory prayers in the letter (the other begins in 5:23). Obviously Paul is praying for the specific needs and concerns of a unique congregation dealing with specific problems. Because the prayer is so thoroughly rooted in its particular historical circumstances, it is not possible for us simply to repeat after him the words of his prayer (in contrast to the Lord's Prayer, which was given as a model prayer). However, let me not leave you with the impression that the words of the Lord's Prayer are simply to be repeated without thought. The Lord's Prayer unite us as a church. It is the family prayer of the church. In it we acknowledge God, as our Father, thus making us His children. Paul though, wants us to give attention to the pattern of his prayer and its underlying theological themes. Let us not confuse Paul's words with a rigid mold into which our prayers must be poured, for our prayers must be situated in and specific to our time just as Paul's were to his. It does mean, however, that his prayer can serve as a guide after which we might pattern our prayer life.
With respect to its underlying theology, Paul's prayer reminds us of how everything centers around the reality of God. Every time Paul prayed to God, it was an acknowledgment of God's priority over everything else, a remembering that it is "in Him that we live and move and have our being." (Acts 17: 28) In this respect, prayer becomes a means of bringing our vision and desires into line with God's will (rather than visa versa).
In our church, just as in churches of old, we come together on common ground. Our prayers unite us as a people. There is a church in Seoul, South Korea that has recently set all kinds of attendance marks. People have literally flocked to this church to find out its secret. They want to grab hold of that certain something, that same growth inspiring element that seemingly this church has found. Without going into vast detail let me say there are many disagreeable items about this church that one can point to, however, the pastor of this church has said something noteworthy, "We teach the people to pray!" However, their prayer life appears confused at best. For these members are praying for a religious revival, a spiritual awakening, an experience. Contrast that notion with the idea of why we are here this evening. We entered church as beggars, seeking to encounter Christ. There is good news to share with you, our church is a church of salvation, where we come not only looking for Christ, but finding Him. We find Him in baptism, we find Him in the Word, and we find Him at His table. We find His body hung on the cross. This is where we come face to face with the real presence of Christ. This is what Paul was after in this particular passage.
Whether our prayer is intercessory or petitionary, in which we ask God to grant our requests for others and ourselves; the very act of asking "reminds the believer that God is the source of all that is good, and that human beings are utterly dependent and stand in need of everything. We can do nothing without the good favor of God's grace. That grace that took Jesus from the tomb and awakened the world to His glorious resurrection. We are dead to sin. Without Christ's obedience on the cross, we are dead.
Paul's letters are full of his fervent intercessions and petitions for others and for himself. But even as he makes his requests known to God, he recognizes that it is God who is at work in him "to will and act according to his good purpose." (Phil. 2:13)
With respect to the pattern of Paul's prayer, two points stand out, one related to content and one to chronology or time. In terms of content, note that Paul grounds his petitions in thanksgiving, which amounts to both praise and acknowledgment of God as the one ultimately responsible for the blessings and growth the Thessalonians had experienced. Moreover, there is an interesting contrast in his actual petitions. His requests for the Thessalonians (3:12-13) are that they might experience spiritual growth.
Spiritual growth is an interesting topic nowadays. The world tells us to be glamorous, to have zeal and enthusiasm in all that we do. There is a saying that where Christ has built a church, Satan has built a chapel. Satan disguises his chapel to imitate Christ's church. Luther called Satan a monkey, for he knew that just as chimps in a zoo many times will imitate those outside the bars, so to does Satan try to imitate our Christian walk, leading us to believe that what we are doing will certainly be acceptable in God's eye. Satan will lead us into a sinful heap and leave us despondent.
CNN, CBS, ABC, or NBC, if they had covered the Apostolic Council of 49 AD chances are they would have folded their tents and gone home early. There was no social concern to cover, no outbreak of war pending. Yet, these men met in this counsel to fight for something which guns and all the battles of time could not win. They fought for the power of the gospel. These men were literally turning the world upside down with the gospel. The very gospel was at stake, this same gospel was at stake in Paul's day, and it is at stake today.
Paul also prayed that he might be able to minister to the people of Thessalonica (3: 10-11). That is, his prayer, like his behavior described in 2:1-3:5, is primarily other-directed. That is not to say that Paul never prayed for his own concerns, for we know that he did (2 Cor. 12:7-10). It is however, striking that in this letter, even in his prayers for himself, he models the concern for others that he will encourage the Thessalonians to practice (4:9-12).
In terms of chronology or time, we find the same "past-present-future" pattern that turns up elsewhere in the letter (4:13-18 and 5:8-11). That is, Paul rejoices and gives thanks for what God has done in the past (3:9); he prays for God to continue to act in the present (3:10-13a); and he prays for the present in light of what God will do in the future (3:13b). Once again he reminds us that the present is profoundly shaped by what God has done and will do.
And what has God done for us lately? We are transfigured people, changed every time we enter this holy sanctuary. When we confess the Apostle Creed what do we say, we do not say, "I see one holy Christian church, we say, I believe..." That's faith. It is that same faith that Paul spoke of. Many of Jesus' neighbors might be surprised to see Him as their judge. They may only have known Him as the carpenter's son who helped build their house. This faith, is called the invisible mark of the church. We can't see it, we can't lay hold of it, only Christ knows where to find it. This faith resides in our hearts.
Seeking the visible seems to be more appealing to humans. After all, we are visual people. The visible marks of the church are known as the means of grace. These are marks that we can lay hold of, we can employ all of our senses to identify these marks. Hearing His Word, partaking of His Sacraments. That is where we can actually come face to face with Christ.
A story from the Judean hillside where the angels came to proclaim the Christ to the shepherds certainly gives us the visible marks as well. If the angels had told the shepherds to go find their king, on their own, they might have gone to the temple, to Rome, to the universities. Instead, they gave them directions. Look for a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Two marks, swaddling clothes and a manger. That is what they were to look for. We to, this Advent Season look for those same visual cues. It is my prayer, as it was Paul's, and has been throughout the ages, that we would all come to that manger bedside. In Christ name we pray. AMEN!
Robert W. Armao