Written by Pastor Ed
You Were Not Left Behind
September 7, 2014
I & II Thessalonians
Garrison Keillor tells the story of Florian and Myrtle Krepsbach, an elderly couple from Lake Wobegon, who decide to take a trip to the city to visit a clinic. Myrtle thinks she has a health problem and all the local doctors keep telling her she’s just fine, so they venture off to the city, driving down the inter-state which Florian is not used to driving on. They get into an argument about whether he would really miss her if this illness proved fatal or whether he was just waiting for her to die so he could be free to livea wild and carefree life.
They pull into a truck stop (the title of the story if you want to look for it) for some coffee and a piece of pie, and then when they get back in the car he decides he needs to use the washroom, and while he’s gone, she decides she needs to go as well, and then he climbs back in the car, checks his side mirror and pulls out onto the highway, thinking all the time about how he really would miss her if she were gone, and trying to think of how he would tell her that, only to discover when he finally turns to tell her, that she isn’t there. He’s left her at the truck stop!
I don’t know if you’ve ever been left somewhere, or felt abandoned. I recall a family of seven children relating how one Sunday they arrived home from church only to discover that they had left one of the kids behind. I’m sure all of us have at one time or another felt that pit in the stomach of thinking we’d been left, even if it was only momentarily until we spotted someone familiar. Am I thatinsignificant that someone would abandon me?
Individuals can feel that, and so can congregations. I’ve consulted with congregations who have felt abandoned by their pastor, either because of clergy misconduct, or as in one case, because of conflict where the pastor simply packed up his office and delivered a letter to his elders that he was quitting, as of that day. For a congregation it feels as though the pastor didn’t care about them at all, only about their own needs or wants. We know, whether it’s an individual, especially an infant, or a congregation that those feelings of abandonment have long lasting effects.
I suspect the church at Thessalonica was feeling some sense of abandonment from a number of sources, and they were in many ways infants in the faith. We heard the story from Acts 17 of how Paul, Timothy and Silas had come to Thessalonica preaching the gospel.
Thessalonica, as with some of the other cities we have talked about from Paul’s letters was a major city, the capital of the region on a major Roman road. Unlike some of the other cities to which Paul wrote, Thessalonica is still a major city, now known as Salonika, on the southern coast of Greece. It is strategically placed on a major harbor and was home to many tradespeople, merchants, and sailors. It seems there were a substantial number of Jews living there so there was a synagogue which was also attended by quite a few Greeks as well.
It was these “devout Greeks” that most readily accepted this new teaching of Paul and formed the nucleus of the fledgling church. And then after a short time, Paul, Silas and Timothy were forced to leave. What would happen to this small group? Would they survive and maintain their faith or not? Would they feel abandoned and simply revert back to their old ways?
Those questions concerned Paul enough that he sent Timothy back to check on them several weeks later and upon Timothy’s return, Paul wrote several letters to the church at Thessalonica to encourage them. Most scholars think these two letters were written perhaps only a few weeks apart, and are probably the earliest writing we have from the New Testament church, usually dated around 50 AD, less than 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
That there were bad feelings between the Jews and these new Christians is not surprising, since just the year before the Emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome for creating a turmoil because of one “Christus”. So there was concern on the Roman world’s part about the Jews, and on the Jewish leader’s part about this new sect of Christians that were giving them a bad name.
These letters are not heavy on theology, that would develop later as the church wrestled with theological questions, but rather they are personal letters to a church that Paul cares deeply about and wants to encourage. In essence they say, “Hang in there, you are not abandoned by me, by your brothers and sisters in the faith, and certainly not by God.
Even though Paul has moved on to other places, he was clearly concerned about the ongoing life of the church at Thessalonica. It’s a concern that most church planters and pastors feel for the congregations they have served. I am always interested in what is happening with former congregations I have served and try to keep up with at least some news from there, of course being careful not to become involved since that would not be good for them or me.
Paul shows his concern, and lets the church know he hasn’t abandoned them, not only by sending Timothy back to check on them, but by writing these letters of encouragement, recalling his work among them and thanking God for their faith and for the way they had received him. Over and over Paul gives thanks for the church, for their faith, and for their ongoing faithfulness.
Secondly Paul reminds the church that they are not alone. They are part of a community of churches all struggling together. In fact, Paul says that the church at Thessalonica is an example that other churches are following. At a time when they might be feeling down, Paul reminds them that others are in the same situation and even looking to them for help. And Paul asks for their help as well, asking that they would continue to pray for him.
Knowing that others are experiencing similar situations is generally helpful. In my work as a Conference minister I discovered that most congregations think that their problems are unique to themselves. Only they are experiencing aging, or financial difficulties, or whatever, when in fact most problems in congregations are common to many, while often times solutions are unique!
And finally Paul assures the young church that they have not been abandoned by God. When Jesus had ascended into heaven the man who appeared said that he would return again in like manner. Jesus himself had talked about a return, and the early church had an expectation that such a return was imminent, at any time. But it hadn’t happened yet, even though al l the signs seemed to be present.
Not only that, but some believers had died. What would happen to them at Christ’s return? Some people it seems were arguing that Christ had already returned, in which case, why weren’t things better? Others had seemingly decided that if Christ was surely coming soon, they would just sit back and wait –why bother working or doing anything. We’ve seen that stance taken by other groups over the years as well. Those who decided to just take it easy prompted one of Paul’s perhaps most quoted statements, “Those that don’t work, don’t eat!”
But the concern was real. Had God abandoned them, or at least those who had already died. And again Paul assures them that they have not been left behind. We don’t know, Paul says, when Christ will return. It hasn’t happened yet, that we know, because it will happen in such a way that everyone will know. And as for those who have already died, they haven’t been abandoned either, but in fact will be raised first.
So the word for now is, be faithful and understand that God is among you. If you are faithful and expectant, if you have responded to that call of God upon your life, then Jesus will be among you and will gather you together with all the faithful on that last day. Not only that, but Jesus will come to you even now as you gather together. So encourage each other with these words.
Every congregation experiences times when they feel low, when things aren’t going well. At times like that, we can turn to Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians and be reminded that we have not been left alone. That we have church leaders both near and far who care about us. That we are part of a broader fellowship of congregations who are on the same path we are on and can support us and encourage us. And we are never abandoned by God. In a later letter, to the Romans, Paul would put that into those eloquent words we often hear quoted, that neither life, nor death, nor anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
As with the Thessalonians, we are called to continue in our life of faith. To grow in faith and in our daily living together, so that if someone were to check on us, the report would be a glowing one, encouraging to our former leaders and strengthening to other congregations. Christ does come among us, and will come again. May the lord find us faithful on that day.
Paul closes his first letter with a series of short admonitions, a summary of what he said in the letter. He writes:
12 But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[c] to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13 esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, beloved,[d] to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets,[e] 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.
23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound[f] and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.