Model Care - 1 Thessalonians 2:17 - 3:5

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 11th March 2001.

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It was a touching scene, enough to make the most hardened cynic weep. ‘Hello, my name is Yoshi. I’m five years old, and I’m your Grandson.' An elderly woman hugs him, and smiles at the young man and woman who are with him. She coos at the baby in the woman’s arms. One great big family reunion perhaps?

Well, no it isn’t.

The four visitors are in fact actors, paid to play the part of a family for an elderly couple whose own children have moved away or who are far to busy to visit them anymore. It’s called ‘Rent - a - Family’, and is proving big business in Japan. The market is made up of elderly couples who are so lonely that they’re willing to rent a family for an evening of fake reminiscing and pretend conviviality. Japanese sociologists say that demand for rented families is a result of a culture addicted to work. Many Japanese put in something between 60 - 80 hours a week. But that has created an emotional vacuum one which some are so desperate to fill that they will pay by the hour for mock family time. Sad isn't it? And who can deny that our society is heading in the same direction?

But you know the one place where people should not be starved of love is the church, that is the place where love should flow free and easy, for as we saw in the very first verse of chapter 1 of 1 Thessalonians, this church, literally, ‘group’ of people are ‘in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’, that is they inhabit an environment in which they are constantly bathed in Trinitarian love, that love which has unceasingly been generated between the Father and the Son by the Holy Spirit from all eternity.

And tonight we are going to be looking at the way this love works itself out in the life of one Christian, the apostle Paul and as we do so we shall see what true Christ - like love involves in practice. And I want us to look at this passage under three headings - the concern of love, the conflict of love and the cost of love.

First of all, the concern of love. There is the story of a young cub local newspaper reporter who was given the assignment of interviewing a couple who had just celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. So he turned up on their doorstep and was warmly ushered in to the living room where he met the couple sitting hand in hand. And so he took out his note pad, asked them a few for a few details, when did they marry, at which church, did they have any children and so on. Then feeling rather bold, he turned to the old man and said, ‘Sir, fifty years is a long time, in all that period was there any point when you considered divorce.' The old man paused, and with a loving twinkle in his eye, he shook his head and said, ‘No, divorce never, murder - yes! but never divorce.' The point is true love always involves passion, never indifference, that intense commitment to a person come what may. Our problem in living in the 21st century is that we have trivialised the word love. It has become little more than a romantic vapour of emotions, a sentimental measles which people catch and then recover from. So people fall in love and they just as easily fall out of love. That is not the nature of divine love which we see here arising from the heart of this apostle. Just take a look at v 17 - 18 a ‘But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you.' Paul uses the address ‘brothers’ more frequently in the Thessalonian letters in those to any other church. A few weeks ago we saw how Paul described himself as being tender like a mother to them, being guiding like a Father to them, he is also like a brother to brothers with them, the bond is that close. Here he uses a very strong word to describe his separation from this church - v17 ‘we were torn away from you.' It could be better translated, ‘we were like orphaned children taken from you.' I am sure that you have seen some of those moving newsreels of the evacuee children during the Second World War. It was thought that because there was liable to be wholesale bombing, and possibly gas attacks on some of our major cities, young children should be sent away to more secure places in the country or in some cases as far away as Canada. And it is heartbreaking to see children of five or six years of age in some cases being forcibly taken away from their weeping mothers, with little tags around their necks, clutching their teddy bears and boarded onto a train. Just imagine how those children felt. Well, that is how Paul felt. You can be sure that a single day or even hour did not go by without those children thinking and praying for mothers and longing to see their faces again and feel heir embrace. Well, there wasn’t an hour or day which went by without Paul thinking and praying for these Christians who might have been out of sight but not out of mind. That is why he so wanted to see them. He loved them.

And you can tell how deeply he loved them by what he says in v 19 ‘For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and our crown.' Do you realise what he is saying? Paul is telling these believers that the coming of the Lord Jesus will be robbed of something, if they are not there too; it would be less a matter of hope, joy and glory, if Paul thought they weren’t going to be there already. It would be like a groom turning up to his wedding only to find the bride is missing. He is so attached to these young believers that he is emotionally bound up in their eternal welfare and they his, for he longs to present them as trophies of Christ’s redeeming love - the crown in which he will glory, standing in utter amazement as they shine in the splendour of heaven - that is the destiny Paul has in view for them.

Now let us stop and ask: is that the way we feel towards our brothers and sisters in the church - with such depth and such care? Those of you who have special responsibilities in pastoral care - the homegroup leader, the Sunday school teacher, those who meet for one - to - one Bible study, the older students who have a responsibility to set an example to younger students - is it your passion to see those whom Jesus has entrusted to you make it to heaven? For Paul, caring for younger Christians was no mere perfunctory duty it was a positive delight. Sure some of them were probably awkward and a bit odd, others would have been fantastic company, but those are not considerations for Paul as he opens his heart, they are family and so he cares. Love is always concerned.

But you can be sure of this, where true love is in action, there will always be a conflict of love in that Christian love will find itself in the midst of a spiritual conflict. Did you notice that in v18? ‘For we wanted to come to you - certainly I Paul did, again and again - but Satan stopped us.' It is the activity of Satan which is the cause of the fear lurking at the back of his mind as we see in v5 ‘I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.' When it says, ‘Satan stopped us.', it is like when we say we were ‘stopped in our tracks.' ‘Here I am’ says Paul, ‘The bags are packed, the taxi has been ordered, but do you think I can get out of the house? Satan has stopped me in my tracks.'

Now let me say that we need to get Satan into his biblical perspective. In my opinion there is far too much talk of Satan in Christian conversation today and a total distortion of spiritual warfare imagery which has little to do with the Bible and more to do with fanciful thinking. In Paul’s letters, Satan is mentioned by name only nine times. Compare that to the hundred’s of times he mentions the Lord Jesus Christ. If you really want to upset Satan then focus on Jesus, he hates it.

But we must also remember the Biblical perspective on the power of Satan. he is not a totally free agent, he is a creature under the sovereign rule of the Creator as are all his creatures. He can only do what God will permit him to do and no more. Read the book of Job or the Book of Revelation and they will confirm that. He is like a roaring animal attached to a chain, and God determines the length of that chain. He is not a second god. We do not believe in Star Wars with the dark side of the force being equal and opposite to the light side of the force and who knows who will win? We are Christians who worship the Almighty, sovereign God. So while Satan, whose name means adversary, opponent, ‘witness for the prosecution’ if you like, will try and thwart God’s purposes and upset his people, God will outmanoeuvre him every time and use even his attempts as an ultimate means of blessing for his people and the work of the Gospel. And I think we can see that here.

Paul talks of his meeting up with the Thessalonians as having been ‘hindered’ by Satan. How? Well, we are not quite sure. It may have been that the local town authorities issued a ban, preventing them from returning, but since Timothy manages to get there eventually, that seems to me unlikely. It could have been that through illness, Paul was laid up sick and so couldn't make the journey, we don’t really know. So what was Paul’s concern? Well, in 3: 3 Paul is bothered that no one should be unsettled by ‘these trials’, which is the same word he uses in v 4 when he speaks of being ‘persecuted’ - ‘thlipsis.' This could be simply translated as ‘afflictions.' It may have been outright persecution by the ruling or religious authorities. It may have been the basic difficulties all Christians have, wrestling with doubt, false teaching, just keeping on being faithful in a world which is essentially hostile or a combination of both. Paul warned them as much as we see in v3 ‘You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you that we would be afflicted. And it turned out that way, as you well know.'

This is the stuff of all Christians, those young in the faith and those who have been at it a few years, Satan will try and unsettle you. This is the way the Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, puts it when writing to a newly converted Christian: ‘ Supposing a man’s reason once decides that the weight of the evidence is for the truth of the Christian faith. I can tell that man what is going to happen to him in the next few weeks. There will be a moment when there is bad news, or he is in trouble, or is living among a lot of people who do not believe it, and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief.' So what is one to do? This is what Lewis goes on to say, ‘Now faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of our change in moods.' Are you a young believer? Are you finding things difficult at the moment? Well, that is not a surprise. It is a sign that you do belong to Christ and the devil doesn’t like it very much, if that is any comfort.

But Paul is worried, and you may be too, that somehow these afflictions would so unsettle their faith, being used by ‘the tempter’ that their faith might eventually flounder - with the result that all his hard work amounts to nothing. Now while Paul’s anxiety may well be understandable, after all we feel what we feel, and that is what Paul is expressing here - anxiety, nonetheless as it was to transpire, it was without foundation, they were doing quite well actually. In fact with hindsight it may be possible to judge that in God’s hand it was a good thing that Paul couldn’t get back. God used Satan’s testing not to undermine the faith of these young believers but to strengthen it, and as it happened strengthened Paul’s faith too. With Paul being absent they were able to have a much richer experience of discovering what it was to live as independent believers, living by themselves with God, learning to trust in him, apostle or no apostle, discovering that God was well able to look after his church. And maybe Paul had to learn that lesson afresh - why not he was human too. You know it must be so frustrating being Satan, because God always outsmarts him. We can begin to attempt to guess why the Lord directed him to put up a road block, so that Paul could learn, so that the Thessalonians cod learn and we can learn that our spiritual welfare rests in the hands of God.

Sometimes I think we can be too overprotective of Christians for their own good. There is such a thing as ‘hothouse Christians.' What happens is this, some get converted, maybe at University, where there are lots of other Christians around, they go to their meetings, have great times of fellowship, steadily withdraw from the non - Christian scene and everything is so easy. Sure they have exam crises as does everyone else from time to time. But they are nurtured in a spiritual hothouse. And because they are not exposed to difficulty, maybe going out doing door to door evangelism, talking in the bar, being put on the spot with their non - Christian colleagues and with everything is more or less done for them, like hot house plants they struggle when placed out in the cold - the real world of work. No, as with our own children, so it is with spiritual children we should wish enough opposition to make them strong, enough insults to make them choose and enough hard decisions to make them see that following Jesus involves a cost - a cost eminently worth it, but a cost nonetheless.

And Paul himself was willing to pay such a price in the cost of love: 3: 1 - 3a ‘So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the Gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith.' Notice what Paul does in response to Satan’s blockade. He takes very practical steps to ensure that they get a good Bible teacher in Timothy. He doesn’t call for a special prayer meeting to release the city of Thessalonica from angelic powers. He sends a gospel worker. And he does so at great personal cost. for in sending Timothy away it meant him being left alone in Athens. The ‘we’ in v 1 is generally agreed to be like a royal ‘we.' He was willing to go it alone in a terribly pagan culture if it meant that these dear Christians will have their faith strengthened. Isn’t that impressive? God’s answer to Satan’s afflictions, his attempts to undermine our faith is to provide Timothy’s - people who are ready and willing to build up believers in Gospel ministry. Can I ask: are you ready to be a Timothy? Going out of your way to share the Gospel with others? Are you making use of the Timothy’s you do have - and we have plenty here at St John’s. If you are struggling a bit, then get along to those groups where you will be strengthened as God’s Word is taught. The devil would love you to be so busy that you neglect Bible ministry - that way he can erode your faith and sap your strength slowly. God’s way is to strengthen you by feeding you and testing you, so that your faith is shown to be real and lasting - as he did here.

A love that cares, a love that will draw spiritual conflict and a love that costs - that is the love we see embodied in this great apostle Paul, and that is a love which God wants to cultivate in people like you and me. Let’s pray.

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