Message “Overflowing Love” 1 Thessalonians 3:10 - 4:10
Have you ever anticipated a very difficult meeting? You run the imaginary conversation through your head again and again, trying to anticipate every argument, every objection, every insult; every worst-case scenario you can imagine -- and the plus side is you get some real personal clarity on the topic, even if you never mutter a single word of what you have rehearsed in your heart.
Then you get to the meeting, and the difficult topic isn’t difficult at all. Much to your surprise, and in spite of all the rumors and imaginations, everyone is actually expressing positively the same direction you are thinking… and the meeting is better than you could possibly have imagined; and you are almost disappointed that all that obsessive worry “speech rehearsal” was a waste of your time and energy.
Let me remind us of where we have come. Paul is on his second missionary journey and his team had gone to Thessalonica where he preached Christ in the synagogues. Some Jews and many Gentiles believed the message and a church was founded. Others in the city did not like that, and stirred up a mob to literally eliminate the team. The new church blessed Paul and his team on their way out of town while they themselves got hauled before the city officials. They were released, but clearly it was, and would continue to be, a tense situation. Paul and his team traveled on to Berea, but angry Thessalonians followed them, and they were again forced to move on – this time to Athens. It was from here that Paul is so concerned about the Thessalonians that he sent his close, young friend and trainee, Timothy back to them to see how they are and to encourage them to stand firm against the negative forces in the city. Paul’s team moved on to Corinth where they continued their mission work but also anxiously awaited Timothy’s return and report. You could hear in last week’s text the worst-case fears bubbling up in Paul’s words. He begins a letter to tell them how eager he is to come back to them so he can supply what is lacking in their faith. (1 Thessalonians 3:10-11) and persuade them against every argument, objection, and insult – to turn them back again to God and his instruction. He assumes, at least it sounds like it as you read the text, he assumes that they have given in to the pressure of the opposition in the city, and gone back to their sinful ways. But now Timothy arrives, and Paul learns the Thessalonians have neither turned on him nor failed Christ. They are remaining strong in the faith and loving and longing for Paul and his team and Christ as much as ever. Paul is thrilled and overjoyed! But he was in the middle of this letter – and he had this speech all prepared and running through his head – and even though it kind of doesn’t apply because everyone is on the same page and moving positively forward in the same direction – he still wants to get it out.
So, today’s text cycles around and repeats something like this: (Scoldingly commanding:) “You need to do this…!!!” (Joyfully celebrating:) “And you are doing it!!!” (Then sheepishly trying to justify the need to command them to do what they are already doing:) “Just do it more and more.” He keeps circling back to his same (seemingly irrelevant for them) arguments that he had practiced over and over in his head. Key phrases of the text are in the box while I read the entire text of 1 Thessalonians 3:10-4:10
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 [to] 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. 4:1 As for other matters, brothers and sisters, [scoldingly:] we instructed you how to live in order to please God, [joyfully:] as in fact you are living. [sheepishly:] Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. 2 For you know what instructions [instructions that as it turns out were not needful to give again because they were still following them] we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. 3 It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but (to live a holy life). 8 Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, [Can you hear what he has written as his “rehearsed” argument to persuade people with an opposing point of view – an argument that turned out as not necessary, but saying it anyway?] as speaking to persuade people he thought had turned and rejected what he had taught them the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit. 9 Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. 10 And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, (NIV)
What Paul is hoping for is their spiritual maturity, an ability to be so solidly established in God’s love that they will have the spiritual and moral strength to continue growing and fulfilling God’s will, placing their very lives in God’s hands for his service, and modeling what it means to live as a disciple, a follower of Jesus Christ, no matter what pressures they (or we) may face.
Paul was delighted to hear that their faith wasn’t lacking, but was holding in the face of adversity. Paul was not referring to faith as a set of abstract doctrinal concepts. He was talking about proudly naming Christ as our lord and leader and living as fully they could -- the way Christ modeled life to be lived.
A long time ago, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks offered Chicago sports talk radio host David Kaplan 100,000 dollars to officially change his name, for one year, to Dallas Maverick. After much pressure from listeners (saying he’d be crazy not to accept the money), he declined, saying “If I accepted, it meant I’d do anything for money. I didn’t like that. My name is my birthright, I want to preserve my integrity and credibility.”
* Blameless / Holy
The name "Christian" is the adopted birth-right of every follower of Jesus. We have a responsibility to live every day without compromise, in a way that brings honor to that name. Sheri Shepherd said the last thing we want to hear from others observing our life is, "You are a Christian? Really?”
No, we want to think, speak, and act in a way that doesn’t make people feel shocked when they find out we are Christian, and I read Paul’s instructions on how to please God. On the other hand, sometimes we are too harsh on ourselves and others. Ken Langley illustrates how we fall into that trap.
He and his wife were at an airport and were worried they would not get on an overbooked flight. Then they got called to the check-in desk. The agent said it was their lucky day. To get them on the plane they were going to bump them up to first class. They were pampered with good food, hot coffee, and plenty of elbow room. Then he and his wife started playing a game – trying to guess who else didn't belong in first class based on their uncouth actions.
It is too easy to let a game become a pre-judgment that sticks. Apply the story. We see people who don't seem to represent Christianity well -- who tempt us to feel embarrassed and/or cause us to feel superior. But the truth is, we don't belong here anymore than they do. We are no better or worse than anyone else. Our acceptance by God is based solely on his loving grace. We are all at different levels of growth in different areas of our spiritual life. And just because we happen to see what we think is a quirk or a weak spot or a blind spot in someone else, that doesn’t give us license to treat it like an open wound that we need to salt with even more pain.
A quarrelsome couple sat in front of a fireplace. Sleeping peaceably on either side of the hearth were two cats. The husband said, “Why can't we live in peace with each other like that?" The wife, "Tie the tails of those cats together and fling them over a clothesline, and see what happens"… It is too easy to judge and fight rather than rest together in peace.
But Paul was overjoyed because the Thessalonians were not embarrassed by or feeling superior to Paul. Their holiness was not holier-than-thou-ness, their sincere, longing love for each other and for everyone was growing and well known.
Loving people means we are pulling for each other. It doesn’t necessarily mean we agree with all choices, words, or actions, but it means that we choose to accept and love them anyway – just as God chose to accept and love us – even when we were outright sinners.
Paul was elated to know the Thessalonians still loved him like he loved them. He said it gave him life (See 1 Thess 3:8) to know they were pulling for each other even as both he and they struggled in their circumstances.
I used to have a monthly meeting with someone who would prepare a list of everything that was wrong with me, the church, and the other church leaders. I can tell you that it is not life giving, it does not motivate me to do better -- it sucks the life out of you; and makes you feel like your efforts are in useless. But when you discover that what you do makes a real difference, it energizes everything you do.
Larry Crabb is a popular speaker and Christian psychologist. But as a boy, he stuttered. Worse yet, he attended a church where it was customary that young men participate in the communion services by praying out loud. Feeling the pressure of expectation, the stood to pray. In a terribly confused prayer, he recalls "thanking the Father for hanging on the cross and praising Christ for triumphantly bringing the Spirit from the grave."
When he finished, humiliated, he vowed that he would never again speak or pray out loud. And not wanting to be confronted by the elders correcting his theology, he made a beeline for the exit as soon as worship ended. But he wasn’t fast enough. Crabb braced himself as Jim Dunbar caught up with him, "Larry, there's one thing I want you to know. Whatever you do for the Lord, I'm behind you one thousand percent."
Crabb wrote later, "Even as I write these words, my eyes fill with tears. I have yet to tell that story to an audience without at least mildly choking. Jim Dunbar’s timely words had power. They reached deep into my being. They were life words." [Pause]
Even when the disciples were faithless, blameworthy, and loveless condemners, Jesus had every confidence that with his love, support, and sending of the Spirit – that someday they would develop, even in the midst of trials and temptations; the ability to be faithful, blameless and filled with accepting love. Even on the night he knew one would betray him, and the rest would desert him; he offered them his life -- to establish a new covenant with them, and with us; and in this covenant act, he promises his forgiveness, his love and confidence in us, but mostly his eternal presence with us, and us with him.
Now as we leave, let us go with the assurance that God grace and power always goes with us and guides us toward his light. As his children, then; hold high the light of Christ -- be a beacon of hope to those around you -- that all may be drawn to him. Amen.
May the Lord enable you to live:
* with overflowing love
* blameless and holy lives
* in order to please God
Developing spiritual maturity in:
* faith, holiness, and love