1 Thessalonians 3:9–13 (NRSV)
9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
How can we thank God enough…What a wonderful statement to ring in the season of advent and to close out the week of Thanksgiving. How can we thank God enough for you? How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? When was the last time you considered the shear joy that the fellowship of Christ has brought you?
These were the things that I have considered as I went through the past week. It has been difficult to think on these things to stay thankful because the world outside these wall so often distracts from that mindset. Especially when one has to go to work a few minutes after eating a feast dedicated to thankfulness, and try to manage a crowd that is focused of getting good deals. But I was challenged this week to consider these things.
I personally am thankful for this community. I have expressed often how blessed I have been to have been part of this community as a broken young man looking for an excuse to turn his back on God, only to be faced with a community that embraced me as a person and not judging me for my past. I am thankful for this community because you all reflected the love of Christ and encouraged me to strive for something greater. And even more you trusted me enough to allow me to marry one of your own. It is a weird thought I know.
When I examine my spiritual journey to Christ, and what has lead me to be the man I am today, this Meeting is very important. I almost understand what Paul means when he says that he thanks God for joy because of a church.
But then he goes on to say that he is in constant prayer, earnestly seeking to return to this same church that has brought him such joy, so that he might assist in restoring what is lacking in their faith. Does anyone else feel like they might be experiencing spiritual whiplash? This church that brought Paul joy, great joy, to the degree that words cannot be expressed to honor the gratitude that he feels, is also a source of a great burden.
Spiritual whiplash, the very dichotomy of church, the very people that bring joy also bring frustration. It is similar to the dichotomy of Thanksgiving in our culture, we celebrate a feast where we give thanks for all we have and then before digestion even has a chance to start we jump right into the frenzy to obtain more. If we were to examine that for a moment it is really enough to bring tears to our eyes. Moving from selflessness into selfishness in a matter of moments, maybe not individually but culturally. It brings to reality the very statement the Prophet Isaiah spoke after his vison of God, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
What is lacking what have the people that brought Paul such joy lost that has caused such a burden that has him yearning to return? Love. Love that flows from the very throne of God, the love that takes no account of individualism and just flows out to others. These people that brought joy to Paul, seemed to have slid back into previous lifestyles.
I say this because if we were to read deeper into this letter we would find that in the very next chapter Paul begins to speak about fornication, lustful passions, and exploitation. These are activities that do not foster love, but are focused on self gratification. They do not promote the building of a community but actually encourage the destruction of relationships.
But Paul does not look at them as a lost cause, he sees them as having great potential. This church, the community to which this letter was written is Thessalonica, which is a city in Macedonia, part of Greece. This is the very community Paul spoke about having a vision to go, and in that vision the yearned for him to come to teach them about the ways of Christ, and to share the Gospel.
Paul writes to them, urging them to return to the place where they let God direct their paths. Saying, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” Increase and abound in love for one another and for all. Let that statement slowly flow over you. The idea of increase so often is twisted in our contemporary culture. We interpret increase with the idea of profit and personal gain, this is far from what is being said. It is quite literally an increase an over flowing abundance but the abundance is not to be internalized but it should flow out.
Paul is urging them to consider the life and lifestyle of Christ, whose advent we celebrate and anticipate during this season of the year. Christ came from heaven to be born of a virgin, He came to live a full human life from an embryo to adulthood, to show us and empower us to live in relationship with God. Jesus taught us a rhythm of life that revolved around worship, prayer, and service to others which is an image of the increase and abounding love that Paul is urging the people in Thessalonica to embrace. It is in worship that we are encouraged to receive and are filled with the spirit of God. It is in prayer where we allow that living water to saturate our being and it is in service to others that the outflowing or increase happens.
Why did Jesus come? Why will he come again? Why does he delay? It is because of love. It is because God so loves the world that he gave his son. He gave the ultimate gift. He gave not to condemn but to redeem, not to judge but to restore. Not to shame but to encourage a different path. A path that is not focused on individualism but on the kingdom of God.
I began by speaking of the joy that this community has brought me. I experienced the increase and flowing love from God through a community that sought God. I came here not really knowing what might happen, and I did not really expect what I found. The increase and abounding love this community shared flooded my very being, leaving no question in my mind that I must embrace the calling that was in my heart. A calling I was not yet willing to embrace because I did not understand it. You all sent me out and you brought be back. The question is why? The only answer I can come up with in my mind is to remind you of the love that God has showered on this community, the love that was once shared and the love that God wants us to share again. The love that brought healing to a broken man, and gave encouragement to overcome the past and embrace the future. The love that was saturated in grace and forgiveness.
I look out at the community our Meeting serves and I see people all around us that are hurting, I see even within our walls a dryness, and a hardness. Why did you bring me? Why did you bring someone that has such a great love for you to this place? Increase and abound in the love of one another and for all, just as I abound in love for you. Seek the Lord and his will, let him direct and strengthen our lives so that we can be a blessing to others.
John 18:33–37 (NRSV)
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
As we head into the holiday season, we begin by remembering the things of which we give thanks. This is one of the greatest traditions in all of America, and is a tradition that is really unique to our culture. When I was in Ukraine and the students I worked with were curious about our culture, the most common question after how much money I had was, “What is Thanksgiving?” How would you answer that question? We say that it is a religious holiday, but has never been a day universally recognized by the greater church body. That being said it does have a spiritual dimensions to it. If we practice it properly we slow down our lives and reflect on things that have true meaning in our lives. Oddly enough the secular and religious communities seem to consider the same things as important on that day, because it is the busiest period of time for travel. And people travel to meet with family and friends. I want us to consider Thanksgiving, as we reflect on this passage today. The activities that we participate in and why it is that we do those things.
I said that the universal church does not necessarily consider this holiday to be one of their liturgical holy days, but that does not mean that the roots do not have spiritual meaning. The first thanksgiving, the one we learned about in grade school, is a day that the pilgrims celebrated the harvest with the indigenous people of America. The reason they celebrated the harvest was because they were puritans, and the puritans were a group of people that attempted to conform all of life around scripture. They were deeply devoted people, and they only celebrated holidays that were listed in scripture. And the holiday that they were celebrating was a form of the Feast of Booths. This particular holiday in ancient days was a feast that lasted seven days, seven because when God commands a celebration He intends that we really celebrate. But this holiday was to remind the people of their exodus and wanderings, how they lived in tents and shared all that they had because all they had was a direct gift from God. As they moved away from the exodus this festival became one of great importance, they were commanded to leave their house for a week, set up camps, and to share the fruits of their harvest. It was a festival that celebrated the end of the growing cycle, and the abundance that was given to them. During this festival all people were considered equal all were wanderers in the world and if someone wandered to your tent they were treated as a guest and were asked to join in your feast. The first thanksgiving was an attempt at recreating this festive atmosphere where we are mindful that all that we have is a blessing from God and it is not to be hoarded but shared.
Today we read a passage that does not seem too festive. Most of us would not choose to read a passage about a trial that would eventually lead to an execution as something to highlight a time to be thankful, but this is actually a beautiful passage. I will be honest, it has been hard for me to focus on one central theme because as I have studied the passage left me sitting in awe. I have found myself reading and then caught up in the words, unable to move forward because the Spirit of God urged me to just consider what is being said more fully. It has been a week filled with reflection.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks to opens the conversation. This is a loaded question, because no matter how Jesus would answer it consequences would follow. Is he the king? Pilate is not asking if he is a rebel wishing to start a revolution, but he is honestly asking if Jesus is the hereditary king or ordained ruler of the Jewish people. The answer that Jesus gives is actually quite intriguing, “Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me?” This is intriguing because it causes Pilate and everyone else that reads this passage to reconsider what was being said. Did Pilate consider Jesus the King of the Jews? Did he come to his own conclusion about the personality before him? Did the political power structure truly believe that Jesus was a threat to their status, or was this simply a case of jealousy by people attempting to maintain some semblance of power? By answering Pilate in this manner Jesus causes his questioner to contemplate not only his politics but also the actions of the man before him. He had to actually look at Jesus’ life and lifestyle, the way He lived and consider why Jesus did what he was doing. For the questioner there is no easy answer. Is He the king?
Pilate does not want to actually consider this, it challenges everything he knows in the world. Jesus did not act like anyone else he knew, he did not seek power yet He stood there accused. So Pilate says, “How should I know I’m not a Jew. But why have your own leaders sent you here?”
This is where this passage gets me. Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” This single verse is what caused me to stop and think for the past week. Words like fight, from, world, kingdom, and followers all seemed to lunge toward me leapt from the page and implant themselves into my mind. I realized I never really understood what was being spoken.
Imagine yourself in the conversation. Jesus is telling you these words. “My kingdom, what I find most important is not what you think. If it was I would have armed agents keeping me from being arrested. This is not about a debate or a championship bout, the things you spend your day investing in. What I find most important is not territory, power, or fame. I am interested in life.”
This is why this passage struck me as beautiful. It is a testimony of peace and freedom, but not because it has been liberated but because it is released. So often we think of our faith in Christ as a battle between good and evil, a war between what is right and wrong, but in our fights we can become distracted. Jesus says if my kingdom was the same as yours my followers would fight. The word fight used here is to describe a contest between athletes in an arena or a debate within a forum. These are the things that are important to the world. Connected to a “fight” in this sense of the word is fame, fortune, entertainment, and power. The idea of convincing people that you or your ideas are the most important or that you are the champion. It speaks of numbers, votes, status, and wealth everything that the world deems as being symbols of status and worth in a society. Jesus is saying if that is what I wanted you could not have touched me, but that is not at all what is important. What is important is much deeper.
What then is his kingdom? If he is not interested in the fight, or the debate what is important? This is the heart of the feast of Thanksgiving. The feast of Booths and the day of thanksgiving revolves around everything Jesus came to bring us. A life of abundance, a life filled with joys of companionship. We gather in the dining rooms on a holiday for no other reason than to enjoy the company of other. We visit with the people that we do not have to fight with to be seen as acceptable.
In my family Thanksgiving was probably the most important holiday of the year. As I am speaking here today my family is making their way from Texas, Colorado, and all across Kansas to meet together in a small town in the middle of nowhere. My family has a wide range of political views, they have various careers, and differing ideas on religious practice (though predominately Quaker). But when it comes to family all those differences fall away. My salary is of no concern, my job only matters if it brings joy, and politics might make interesting conversation but they do not really care. The important thing is that we are there together. If we cannot be together someone will pick up a phone and everyone will yell their greetings. We eat, we laugh, we enjoy a game, and we sing. Everyone gives something and no one leaves without a deep sense of belonging.
His kingdom is not from the world. His kingdom is from something deeper, a place that connects us together in ways that go beyond the superficial. His kingdom is life. His kingdom revolves around our relationships with each other and with God. It removes all the things our society deems important. Everyone sits together equal, sharing what we have to encourage and bless those around us.
Pilate listens to Jesus as He basically told him that everything he stands for is pointless, and Pilate ask, “So you are a king?” Pilate missed the point. He acknowledge that Jesus had something great, that there was something that gave Jesus power over the people but he did not quite understand what the use of that power was for. He did not get it because he is a man from the world instead of a man dedicated to life. Jesus responds again saying that he came for one reason, to testify to the truth, and that everyone that belongs to truth hears his voice.
As I sat this week contemplating this passage, it occurred to me that often I am just like Pilate. I miss the point and I enter into the fights of the world. I engage in debates trying to convince those around me that my way of thinking is the right way and if they disagree they are wrong. I spend my time chasing after the things that hold value in society, a job title and the influence that that can bring as well as the income. That is why it struck me so hard. I toil and struggle wondering if I am a success or a failure, and all I really need is right here around me. It is in the screams of joy I hear when I walk through the door. It is in the songs of praise I lift up on a Sunday morning. It is in the shared meals that I have with friends and family every day of the week. The most important things are not the achievements or the gains but it is the things shared. It is the shared life and the holy rhythm that Jesus taught us a life of worship, prayer, and service. The life of loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. That is why Jesus came, he came to save us from the emptiness of the world so that we could know the truth of life. Life with Him and each other.
As we enter into this time of Holy Expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends, let us reflect of the truth that Jesus brought us. Let us consider the life he wishes to give us, and let us be released to live the truth of Thanksgiving.
11 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” 13 and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,”
17 he also adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
A Call to Persevere
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
It is on days like today that it is hard to be true to the faith that I profess. On days like today I, with the rest of the world cry out to God wondering why awful things happen. Days like today I want to walk down to the nearest recruiting station and sign up to join a fight, I want to teach someone some sort of lesson and rid the world of all the wrong. To see and hear about bombings and shootings in Lebanon, France, and Iraq rips my heart out. To look at the world and realize that it could be very soon that we see the next war to end all wars. I find it odd that that term was one that was used for a war that was fought one hundred years ago. A war and the men and women, the families that were dramatically affected are remembered every year on the eleventh of November. We call it Veteran’s day but it began as a day to remember the ending of the First World War. Yet as we remember the true cost of war the horrors of violence continue to play out before our eyes. This past week we remembered the cost of war, and this week we remember that war remains.
This is a cycle that continues throughout history. A cycle of power hungry people seeking to bend others to their wills. A cycle of history that continuously repeats because so often we are controlled by pride, greed, and lusts failing to open our eyes to the humanity of those around us. Instead we see only means to an end, enemies to conquer, potential profit centers, and political supporters. We claim to remember the cost of war, we give platitudes of peace but do we really seek it?
The letter to the Hebrews was written just prior to possibly the most devastating event of Jewish history. It was written just prior to the final bout of the Jewish War. This war was not just a war that was fought in a forgotten corner of the Roman Empire but it was a war that shook the world. Many scholars have connected the battle in Palestine with the removal of Roman forces from Britain. This war changed the very courses of history yet many even remember it happened. It was a war that was fought for independence, religious freedom, nationalism, and cultural identity. It was a war waged by humanity in the name of God, and the result of this war sent the people that followed the God of Abraham into a cultural tailspin. It destroyed the temple and with it disconnected the people from the mercy of God.
War is not of God. Wars are fought because of humanities inability to live at peace. Wars are fought because of petty jealousies and contempt have gotten out of hand. They begin not with nations but with individuals. Cain was jealous of Abel so Cain removed the one that cause his discomfort. Cain, according to scripture, went on to develop the first city, the first civilization, the first empire, and violence was used to protect his legacy.
At the dawn of this war that ripped the Jewish people from the land of promise, a new era was beginning to emerge. An era that began with a rabbi that walked among the disenfranchised people that were forgotten by those in the seats of power. It began because a rabbi began to change the focus of the teachings of the prophets and the law to focus on the people instead of the nation. This rabbi questioned the status quo, began to personalize the religious practices, and caused people to consider the heart of the law instead of the letter. This teacher introduced people to a God that cared for them.
This was not anything new really. It had been taught throughout the ages, it was taught by the prophets of old prior to the exile of Judah. It was taught by the great law giver Moses. Yet people were distracted. Their minds were focused on things around them instead of God, they were focused on their own selfish gains instead of the humanity of those that lived next door.
The writer of Hebrews remembers the prophet Jerimiah and he quotes, “I will put the law in their hearts and I will write them on their minds.” This new era that was ushered in by Jesus, the era we call the new covenant, is one that is based on relationship instead of sacrifice. It is an era where we can each be directly connected with the Spirit of God and not have to rely on a priest to intercede for us apart from God himself. Consider this quote for a moment. What does it really mean to have the law in our hearts and written on our minds?
To have the law in our hearts goes well beyond knowing scripture. It is becoming the embodiment of scripture to the world around us. Living the scripture out to the fullest extent, taking it to heart means that it becomes the very essence of who we are. If we were to take the law “do not steal” to heart let that become the very essence of who we are as a person, what changes? The very idea of theft sickens us, the possibility of potentially taking what is not ours and defrauding someone of their own possessions becomes unthinkable. If we were to live by this concept every aspect of our lives would be moved from our own personal gains and entitlement and would focus instead of mutual benefit. The heart of the law condemning theft is building relationships, respecting others, and mutual profit.
Think about the other laws, do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not bear false witness, each if they are taken to heart, if they are lived instead of followed takes us to a completely different place. Respecting the individual instead of considering them a means to an end, honoring others by seeking truth instead of building ourselves up on falsehoods. Recognizing that every individual no matter who they are or what they believe should live and we should honor and protect their lives.
Do we allow God to place the law into our hearts? Are we allowing His Spirit to saturate our being to the point that His ways become the very essence of who we are? This is why my heart grieves today. I grieve because I can see in my own life that I have failed in so many ways to take the laws of God to heart. I grieve because somewhere along the line the people that are claiming Christ have failed to provoke one another to love and good deeds. And if the people that have encouraged me to come to faith can fail, where does that leave me?
Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” As a leader of a group of people that were mistreated and often hated for no other reason than the color of their skin they had every right within the laws of man to rise up and fight against the oppression. But they instead took a different approach. I did not live through that era in history. I know that that time was not filled with peace I know that it was not an easy path for any that lived through that period of history but I also know that it made a difference. It can be summed up in a simple statement, “we cannot give what we do not have.” Hate breeds hate, violence breed violence, war breeds war just as hope breeds hope, respect breeds respect, encouragement breeds encouragement.
Provoke one another to love and good deeds. The writer of Hebrews is saying the same thing as Martin Luther King. The only way to change the course of history is to stop or change the cycle you are perpetuating. We need to actively pursue the very things we are hoping for in Christ. We need to become the embodiment of the law. Have it become the essence of who we are and what we hope for. Actively pursue without neglect, it cannot be passive but can only be lived.
Today we each face a challenge. It is a challenge that we have faced many times before at many different junctions on our pathway through life. Will we provoke those around us to love or will we continue the cycle of hate. Will we recognize the humanity of those around us or will we live life pointing fingers at others that have slighted our egos? Will we be instruments of war or peace?
I do not care about converting people to an institution of religion. I do not care about changing people’s political stances. But I care about people, I care about life, I care about the future that my children will inherit and the children of those around me. Will it be a world one step closer to the kingdom of Christ? Will it be a world that is willing to forgive and reconcile or will it be a world that holds onto the sins against them? Will we as a church provoke love and good deeds, will we encourage each other closer to God through Christ, or will we teach the ways of the world?
As we enter this time of open worship and communion as friends. Consider again what it means to have the law written in our hearts and on our minds. Consider what that means today and what it means as we train up the next generation. Consider. Will we as individuals, and as a community become people of God? A people who are loving God, embracing his Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others? Consider just what that might mean and are we willing to sacrifice our lives to allow that type of kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven?