II Thessalonians 2:13-17
Whenever the Apostle Paul issues a thanksgiving to one of the churches in his charge, it is a thanksgiving that is always genuine and always from the heart. Only once, in all of his letters to churches, does Paul omit a thanksgiving. And that occurs, or does not occur, as the case may be, in his letter to the churches in the province of Galatia. The churches in Galatia had gone so far afield in their misguided ministries that the Apostle Paul could not bring himself to offer thanksgiving to God for them. In fact, at one point in his letter to them, he expresses astonishment that they have so quickly deserted the truth of the Gospel.
But here, in his second letter to the churches in Thessalonica, he issues not one, but two thanksgivings. And in both cases, he feels compelled by God to do so. The first thanksgiving occurs in chapter one, beginning at verse three, and it goes like this: “We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as it is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.”
That’s quite an accolade. In a hostile environment, the Christians in Thessalonica were growing in their love for one another, and their faith in Jesus Christ was increasing abundantly. Paul even tells them that he boasts about them to the other churches. They are a shining example of what a Christian church should be in a hostile environment, and Paul gives thanks to God for them with a full heart. That’s a great place for a church to be. A church that is growing in faith and in love is a healthy church.
And this morning, I feel compelled by God to give thanks to God for all of you. We are in our 200th year as a congregation of Jesus Christ in this community. Two hundred years ago, a group of Christians here in Thomaston, responded to God’s call to found a church. With prayer and with obedience and faith, and with a genuine commitment to the Gospel, those folks set forth on an adventure of love that has brought us to this place today. For 200 years, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been proclaimed continuously in this community, and those of us here this morning are all a part of this grand tradition. And this morning, I’m grateful to God for the way that he has sustained and maintained and provided for and blessed our congregation. And this morning I am especially grateful for everyone who worked tirelessly to make our 200th anniversary such a grand celebration. With faith, and with hope and with love, and with a renewed commitment to the truth of the Gospel, we can expect God to continue to bless our congregation until Jesus comes again.
I am also grateful this morning for all of those who willingly worked so hard to host the annual meeting of the American Baptist Churches of Maine. By all accounts, this was one of the most God honoring conventions in most people’s memories. The Holy Spirit was certainly present in our midst. On Friday morning, as I led the singing, I looked out on that packed congregation as we sang “How Great Thou Art,” and I noticed that many people had to stop singing because they were crying. How good it is to have the whole family together to sing the praises of God! And on Friday evening at the banquet, when the choir finished singing, they received a very nearly spontaneous standing ovation. That standing ovation was motivated by the music, but it was given in praise of God. Thanks be to God for the way that he has always blessed this congregation with a heart for good music. Thanks be to God for those who have responded with willing hearts to glorify God with that music.
Oftentimes though, when the Apostle Paul issues a thanksgiving to a church, and when he says “I give thanks to God for you,” it is to encourage them to move up to the next level of faithfulness and obedience. And that’s exactly what he does in his second thanksgiving to the church in Thessalonica.
Paul says, “But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit, and through belief in the truth.” In his first thanksgiving, Paul mentioned their growing faith in God and their growing love for one another, but now he’s urging them to move ahead in their ministry. He calls them the “first fruits of salvation.” “First fruits” is a marvelous Old Testament word, and Paul uses it unashamedly. First fruits is just what it sounds like. It is the first, small part of a crop that ripens. And it belonged to God. When the crop began to ripen, the people brought the first fruits to God as an offering. With that first fruits offering, came faith and certain hope that the rest of the crop would ripen into full maturity, and that there would be much more to come. It was a promise from God. If you give me the first things, God says, the rest will follow.
But when Paul says that we are the first fruits of salvation, he has something even more profound in mind. Yes, we belong to God…that’s abundantly clear. But we are also the promise of much more to come. We are saved. We have responded to the good news of the Gospel. But there are many others out there who have not yet responded. We are the first fruits. With our increasing faith, and our growing love for one another, and as we move out and forward into the hostile environment in which we live, more and more people will respond to the truth of the Gospel. But this, of course does not happen all by itself. It didn’t happen that way in Thessalonica, and it won’t in Thomaston either. And so Paul encourages the folks in Thessalonica to rediscover their purpose as children of God. And that is to proclaim Christ to others as Paul proclaimed Christ to them.
So, do we go out into the streets and start preaching at the tops of our voices? Probably not. Our culture doesn’t tolerate that kind of thing any more and it would probably do more damage than good. But we all have friends and family, people that we love, and people who love us. We all know people with whom we have already developed a trust relationship. Some of those folks, as good as they are, are weary with this world, and weary of it. We’ve got rest and hope and relief from all of that weariness. And if in coming here they discover the joy of salvation, we’ve done the work to which we’ve been called. And in that, God will be glorified.
So how do we do all of that? Well, we start with where I began this sermon. With a thanksgiving. We’re thankful for what God has done in our lives. That’s the first step. We’re thankful for a 200 year tradition of being the voice of Jesus Christ in this community. We’re thankful for the blessings that God has given to us as a congregation, particularly those of hard and willing workers. And we’re thankful for a fantastic blessing when it comes to music.
And out of our offerings of thanksgiving, we can be encouraged to invite others to experience the wonder of thanksgiving with us. If our friends won’t listen to Jesus, tell them about the choir, or the dedicated workers here, or about the peaceful and restful flow of our worship services. People are world weary. The Holy Spirit is putting into their minds that there really must be something more in store than this broken old world. We have the answer to that, we’ve just got to start sharing it.
Finally, there’s the wonderful benediction in verses 16 and 17. Sometimes we need comfort, too. The world wearies us, too. And when we get weary, we lose hope and we lose strength. Paul understood this. Even folks who are growing abundantly in their faith, and increasing in their love for one another need a word of benediction now and then. And so here it is, straight from the heart of the Apostle Paul: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” Amen? Amen.