Sunday, December 02, 2018

Advent I

1 Thessalonians 3
9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. 12 May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 13 May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.


Hands up if you have handwritten a letter.
Hands up if you have handwritten a letter in the last six months.
Hands up if your last handwritten letter was sent by text message instead.
Hands up if you long for the era of the handwritten letter but can’t bring yourself to actually write one.

While you are lost in longing, I want to remind you of some of the perils associated with the handwritten letter, relieving you—perhaps—of some of the anxiety you feel. There was a lot of steps involved: pen, paper, envelope, stamp, brisk walk, postbox, double checking the post box (admit it, we all do it) and all the uncertainty that comes with giving over your labour of love to Canada Post.

Or the hidden peril. Are you sending a card, or a postcard, or are you writing on paper? White or ivory? Paper or cotton? Fountain or ballpoint (I think you know the answer), and don’t even get me started on the envelope. In other words, if you’re writing on lined paper and using that old return envelope you saved, you might want to rethink the whole thing. Do you know their email?

Or the other hidden peril, in the actual act of writing. Pen and paper do not come with auto-correct. So you have to know how to spell. You have to consider how it looks on the page—no one likes untidy margins. And you need to know what you’re going to say, because there is no backspace key. Once you’re deep into a sentence there is no turning back—you can’t derail a train of thought without making a mess.

Yet even as I describe the somewhat facetious perils, I admire this who persist in writing notes. Yesterday, as numerous people described their relationship to the late president George H.W. Bush, they also mentioned some kind note he sent, and the fact that the note was now framed and displayed with pride and gratitude. So write that letter, even if all you have is some yellow newsprint paper with the gummy bits at the top.

I share all this because if there is a patron saint of letter writers, I sure hope it’s St. Paul. His letters make up a quarter of the New Testament, and taken together provide much of the framework for the Christian church. He was prolific, and attentive, and set a high bar for anyone who sits down to write something to promote the faith. But sometimes, we see peril. I want to reread the first line of our lesson today, and remind you what happens when you write in pen.

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?

This is when the kids say ‘awkward.’ I’m sure it sounds better in the original Greek. What we learn in a single awkward sentence is that unpolished Paul is authentic Paul, and that writing to the Thessalonians—widely considered his first letter—is an act of love.

There is a whole other sermon about writing a love letter, but for today we can rest in the knowledge that Paul loves the church in Thessalonica. And why wouldn’t he? He founded the church, along with his companions, but their stay was short-lived. He had quick success in the synagogue, among some gentiles, and as noted in Acts 17, among some prominent women of the town. But others were angry, seeing Paul and the others as a threat to the peace, so them stirred up a mob and claimed that Jesus—long dead— was trying to steal the throne of Caesar.

They were run out of town, not for the first time and certainly not the last, but there was something about his time there that prompted Paul to write. The clue, of course, is in our passage: “Night and day” Paul says, “we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.” How do we read this? On one hand we might think he has heard something or learned something about the Thessalonians and how they are conducting themselves, but I think we’re reading regret. Paul and his companions were run out of town, and whatever lesson plan they had, whatever expression of the Gospel they had mapped out was interrupted and remained incomplete, lacking in their faith.

So, filled with regret, and recognizing that time and paper are in short supply, he tries to distill his message into something that they can take in and share, something that will make up for the hasty departure and the unfinished business of making disciples. But before he can continue, he prays that God in Jesus clears the way for them to return. And then he tells them two things, first:

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.

The church is founded on love. Yes, there was conflict at the beginning of the story of the First Church of Thessalonica, but now the church must make sure that everyone in town knows ‘they are Christians by their love,’ both within the congregation and outside the walls, whatever walls they had. Amazing that 2,000 years on, this is still the mark of a faithful church: loving one another within the walls and finding ways to make this love known beyond them.

And don’t want my words to go to your head, but Friday night was an excellent example of welcoming friends and neighbours in and showing them the power of love. One of our guests came to me gushing about the spirit in this place, and I could only smile and agree.

So Paul expresses some regret, and some love, and then he completes the circle:

May [the Lord] strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Basically this is every Advent sermon in a single verse. We have four Sundays to prepare, one short season to strengthen ourselves, to become blameless and holy in the presence of the Living God and trust in the promise that Christ will come again. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

But there is more to this season than resisting well-loved carols with every ounce of strength we have (and fail every time, of course). There is more to this season of becoming, this season of the Not-Yet, this season when we ‘make a straight path for him,’ and prepare the way of the Lord.

The More of the season takes us back to Thessalonica and the near-riot that began in the marketplace and threatened to spread throughout the city. It happened like this: The mob was searching for Paul and his companions, going house to house, then gave up and made for the town square:

“These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here,” they shouted, “and some have welcomed them into their homes. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil.

This might be the moment to draw a fine line between factual and truthful. So let’s look at the facts of the case. Paul and his companions don’t have the means, motive or opportunity to replace Caesar and install King Jesus on his throne. It’s just not factual. Jesus was and is with the Most High, busy interceding for us, not preparing to take over some shiny palace on the Palatine Hill or any other hill for that matter.

But here is where we cross into truthful. In truth, Jesus was plotting to overthrow Caesar, both in the age when the most powerful man in the world was wandering around in purple, and in the age to come. This was a revolution, lead by revolutionaries from that day down to today. And while it wasn’t factual, King Jesus encamped outside the walls of Rome, it was certainly truthful, plotting to enter our hearts, becoming Lord of All, and eventually returning to show all the world the glory of his name.

And that brings us to today. This double celebration, preparing for God to enter our world in a new way, and preparing for Christ to return, begins in the season of purple, a wink at where this is headed. Kings and rulers can try to feel comfortable on their thrones and in their palaces, riding on Rome One or Marine One, but our hearts belong to another ruler, ever coming and already here, seeming far off but always near. Soon he will don the purple, and take his place as Lord of All. Amen.