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Model prayer - 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 18th March 2001.

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Some people will, it seems, do anything for the cause of true love. In May last year, Stella Young, a 44 year old manager of a branch of the Citizen's Advice Bureau was hurled from a medieval catapult by her boyfriend, Richard Wicks. She duly flew 120 feet above a field in Somerset at a speed of 50 miles an hour towards a safety net. There was, however, no happy landing. She bounced on the net and was immediately propelled out of it again and fell thirty feet to the ground, causing serious injury. Her boyfriend seemed pretty unruffled: "Stella was petrified before she took off and she hit the ground like a sack of spuds. She'll make a full recovery but she has made it quite clear she won't be doing it again." Mr Wicks said that the accident would not halt his plans to develop the catapult for commercial use. He revealed he had a good idea about improving the design. He commented: "We need a bigger net."

Well tonight we are looking at a passage which shows a model of true love at work. But this love is not the sort of love to fling your beloved across a muddy field at fifty miles an hour. This love is the sort of love which toils and worries and weeps and rejoices. And this model is the apostle Paul himself. If you've been with us over the last few weeks in the evening services, you'll know that we have been studying this letter of Paul's to the Thessalonians, a small church in northern Greece. And we have discovered some amazing things already about these Christians and about their spiritual father, Paul. Paul had only been able to spend a few weeks with these people before he was run out of town by Jews who were trying to persecute him and his friends. Paul was forced south and was desperately worried about these young converts of his. They themselves were under pressure from the Jews and they were being told that Paul was a charlatan, someone who came to get what he could out of his victims, and then when the heat was turned up, fled in cowardice. So Paul was worried whether they had survived as Christians and whether they were still talking to him after his forced departure. And so when Paul couldn't bear it any longer, he sent his young helper Timothy to find out what was going on. And Timothy's reply was better than Paul could ever have imagined. It was terrific news. They were standing firm in their faith and they missed Paul greatly.

And in this passage before us tonight, Paul gives his response to this terrific news that Timothy brought. And perhaps more than any other passage in Paul's writings, this passage shows Paul's loving heart for the people he worked for. Few other places reveal Paul's heart so clearly. And as we study it together tonight, we'll find ourselves challenged as to our own love for others, and how it is demonstrated. And perhaps most challenging of all, one of the best ways Paul showed his love was to pray. For Paul is a model of true love. And we'll see three things in this passage:

1) True Love is Committed Love (vv 6-8)

2) True Love is Thankful Love (v 9)

3) True Love is Prayerful Love (vv 10-13)

1) True Love is Committed Love (vv 6-8)

So first, then, true love is committed love. Now Paul begins in these verses to explain the news that Timothy brought back. First, verse 6, Timothy has brought back good news about their faith and love. And notice the two-fold mark of the authentic Christian here- faith and love. That is faith or trust in Jesus and his saving work and love for others. So real faith is worked out in practical love. Paul was therefore delighted that they were genuine Christians and they were proving it. And he's already rejoiced in chapter one over their faith, love and hope. But the second piece of news is in the second half of verse 6: "Timothy has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we long to see you." Do you remember how Paul was worried how the Thessalonians would take to him when he was forced to do a runner? Well here is brilliant news! They still like him. They have fond memories of him and they want to see him again. What better news could Paul have wanted from Timothy?

And what was his reaction? Verse 7: "Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith." The great apostle himself had been encouraged by their faith. Paul himself was in trouble, and it was great for him to hear that these converts were standing firm. And even more striking is his reaction in verse 8: "For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord." This verse more than any reveals Paul's committed love for these people. For Paul was so bound up with these people that it was as if he had had new life breathed into him hearing of their firm faith. He was so committed that the thought that they were not standing firm would have been like a living death. What they did affected him deeply. His very life was bound up with them, so committed was he to his people.

I think the only human relationship that has any parallel is of a parent's feelings for a child. A parent loves his child so much that every up and down of that child's life is felt by the parent. The highs are wonderful highs for the parent. And the painful lows are painful lows for the parent too. I remember once when I was a teenager I was out with friends on a Saturday night. And I completely lost track of time. And at one point I looked down at my watch to discover that it was 3:30am. I was four hours late! Well at that point I leapt on my bike and started to cycle home. And about halfway, I discovered my mother driving round Cambridge city centre looking for me. She was not happy! But such was her love that until she knew was OK, there was no rest for her.

And that is what Paul felt for these young Christians. He was spiritual father to them. In fact, John Stott, writing on these verses, says that the pastoral ministry, in other words caring for other people spiritually, is a parental ministry. The apostle John says something similar in his third letter: "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth." And that sort of attitude shows you truly love people. You have to be committed to have that sort of reaction. For Paul's life and mood to be so affected by the ups and downs of others showed that he really loved them. And we need to ask, what excites us about other Christians. What news really thrills us? Do we rejoice at the spiritual growth of others, or is it a bit of a boring topic? What really excited him was that they were still Christians and were growing. That was the most important thing, and it thrilled Paul.

And for those of us who have other Christians under our care, maybe with Sunday school or a Homegroup or students, could you say the same for yourself? Do you feel their ups and downs, would you feel desperately sad if they weren't standing firm. Would you be elated to hear news of growth as Christians? Well the things we get excited by show our priorities. If we truly love people then we'll be most concerned for their spiritual health. We'll be fully committed, like Paul, to seeing them through to maturity in the faith. John Stott who had just mentioned says that one of the most influential men in his life was a man called Eric Nash. Mr Nash led John Stott to Christ. The story itself is very remarkable. And yet what is perhaps just as staggering is the commitment shown by Nash to John Stott after he became a Christian. Nash took the trouble to visit Stott at boarding school, and most impressive of all to write to him. He wrote every week for five years. And these letters were not chatty or shallow. Each of them were mini talks encouraging Stott to grow as a Christian and giving him practical advice on how to live the Christian life. Such was Bash's commitment to John Stott. And only years later did John Stott discover that Nash prayed for him every day. That is committed love. And Eric Nash was following Paul's model. And true love is always committed love.

2) True Love is Thankful Love (v 9)

But then secondly true love is thankful love. Thankfulness in Paul's letters is very common. And again, in this respect, Paul shows how God centred he truly is. Have a look at verse 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." Now notice where the thanks goes. It goes to God. Paul is thanking God for the joy Paul and his friends have been given because of the Thessalonians' faith. Isn't that extraordinary? Now how would you have phrased it? Perhaps, something like, I thank you that you have given me joy before the Lord." But not Paul. Why did he phrase it this way? Well quite simply because in the same breath he has given God his rightful glory, and he has encouraged the Thessalonians. It was God who was at work in the Thessalonians lives to keep them on track, and so Paul praises God for them. But he also tells the Thessalonians that he is praising God for them so that they might be encouraged. So God gets the glory and they get the encouragement, and are also humbled and forced to remember that God is the ultimate giver of all things.

Let me make it more clear by the use of two caricatures. Some people, and I'm not thinking of anyone here, spend their whole lives extravagantly encouraging others, thinking it's their job in life. "Oh, I've never met anyone who ushered me to my seat with such slickness," they say. "The way you arranged those flowers shows that there is something positively divine in the craftsmanship." And sometimes you meet people like that. The other extreme is to deny anyone any thanks at all, because they'll get it at the last day in heaven. "The golden handshake of God should be enough, so just get on with the job won't you?" Well both those extremes are unbiblical, but Paul treads the middle biblical path. He praises God for his work in the Thessalonians lives, but then tells the Thessalonians he's done it. And that is the biblical way of thankfulness. God gets his due glory and the people are encouraged.

And once again, Paul in this thankfulness shows himself to be the model of love. He thanks God and is thrilled in God's presence because he really loves. How many of us would show such joy and thankfulness in this way about news of friends standing firm? And of course thankfulness is so healthy. Few things are better for the soul that giving God thanks for all his good gifts. It shows our hearts are fixed on the giver of all good gifts, as opposed to our wants and lacks. And in fact not being thankful can have devastating effects. There is a horrific downward spiral in Romans 1 which begins with not giving God his due thanks for all his good gifts to us in creation. Thanklessness then leads to bad thinking, which leads to hard hearts which leads to ungodly practise which leads to hell. It may be a long road, but it all starts so easily, failure to give God thanks. So why not start making a habit of thanking God this week. Maybe thank God for something someone has done, and then tell them. Thank God for his work in someone's life, and then tell them you've thanked God. Thankfulness is like spiritual aspirin. It clears the head and gets things in perspective. And it also shows our love for others. If we love people, we'll thank God for his work in their lives. True love is thankful love.

3) True Love is Prayerful Love (vv 10-13)

But then lastly, true love is prayerful love, and I want to spend the rest of our time on this prayer that Paul prays in verses 10-13. And the lesson is very simple: If we love people, we will pray for people. And if we pray for people, we will pray with God's agenda for people. And that will mean not simply praying God bless so and so, but rather praying specific things which we know are in accordance with God's will for Christians. Let's see what Paul prayed. And he prayed for three requests.

a) First, he prayed for renewed contact. Verse 10: "Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith." And verse 11: "May our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus Christ clear the way to come to you." Now notice Paul's commitment to prayer in these verses. He says he prayed night and day for them. Now I don't take that as an exaggeration. I believe he really did pray night and day. Not all the time, but he set aside times of prayer to pray for the Thessalonians night and day. He was constant and thorough in his prayers for them. This was earnest prayer. That in itself is a challenge isn't it? Clearly Paul saw prayer as something very important. And notice too that this hope to go back to the Thessalonians was not out of idle curiosity to see how they were and share a bit of gossip. Rather he wanted to supply what was lacking in their faith. The word Paul uses here to mean 'supply what is lacking' literally means to mend or fill in the gaps. Mark uses the word in his gospel to describe the disciples mending nets. It wasn't that their faith was deficient, or that they weren't saved, rather that there was more they needed to be taught. This letter would serve as one way of teaching them, but Paul wanted to go personally as well. They were standing firm but still lacking some knowledge. And of course it is a reminder that none of us can ever say we have made it in the Christian life. The moment those words pass our lips, then we should be very aware that we have a long way to go. And Paul was praying that God would allow him to see them for this important purpose.

b) Secondly, Paul prayed for increased love. Now already Paul has said that he is delighted with their faith and love They are standing firm in their Christian lives, but for Paul it means that he must pray all the more that they will continue to do so. And love is one of the key ingredients to growth as a Christian. See what he says in verse 12: "May the Lord make your love to increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you." Now what is striking is that Paul asks God to make their love increase, whereas in the previous verse Paul asks that he would have an opportunity to increase their knowledge. Knowledge is something that a human teacher can impart. Love is something only God can increase. It is a supernatural work in our hearts. Loving others goes against our natural desire to love ourselves. And Paul is praying that love would increase in this small church. And this love is to be directed not just within the walls of the church but outside as well. That's what he means when he says "and for everyone else." And so Paul prays that this love would increase and overflow. Their love for one another and outsiders is to be so great that it bubbles over in selfless giving. It is like a beautiful blossom tree which we are beginning to see again, blossoming all over its many branches.

Now why does Paul pray for increased love? Surely other things were more important? Surely he should be praying for an increased boldness for evangelism or a better attitude to giving or a hundred and one other things? But of course, if a church genuinely loves one another and those outside the church, then the effect will be mind blowing. Evangelism will happen anyway, giving will increase because the members will long for others to come to know Christ. A church which is supernaturally loving one another will be a powerful force for the gospel in its area.

The effect of God's supernatural work of love in a man's heart is powerfully illustrated by a true story from a Japanese concentration camp in 1943. In 1942, the camp was a sea of mud and filth, the scene of brutal labour and grim treatment by the prison guards. There was hardly any food and every man fought for himself to get just a scrap of food. Twelve months later, the ground of the camp was cleared and clean. The bamboo slats had been debugged, green boughs had been used to roof the huts, and on Christmas morning 2000 men were at worship. What had happened? During the year a prisoner had shared his last crumb of food with another man who was also in desperate need. Then he had died. Among his belongings they found a Bible. Some who witnessed this ultimate act of love couldn't help wondering if the secret of that willingness to love in such circumstances was in this book. One by one the prisoners read that Bible and one by one their lives were changed. In a period of less than twelve months there was a spiritual and moral revolution in that camp. And it was started by one man's selfless love for another.

That's why Paul prayed that for this church. He knew how powerful and effective God's love in people's lives could be. Well do you pray that for others, your friends and family? Do you pray that for yourself? Do you pray that for St. John's? Begin to pray it consistently and persistently. And see how God answers that prayer over the months and years ahead.

c) Thirdly, Paul prayed for strengthened hearts. Verse 13: "May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when he comes with all his holy ones." Paul is praying here with a long term perspective. He is asking that these Christians have strong hearts to stand firm and be godly until the end of history when they will meet God face to face when Jesus comes again. He is praying that they will be strengthened for the long haul. There is a sense in which we are blameless and holy already. God looks on us and sees people washed clean through Jesus' death on the cross. And yet there is much work to be done still. We continue to sin and disobey. One day sin will be fully and finally wiped from us, so that we will be blameless and holy in reality as well. Sin will not have a grasp over us any more. And yet that day is still in the future. For the present we need God's strength to press on in holiness, growing more like Christ each day. And of course we have a great incentive to do so don't we. For we know that one day Jesus will return will his holy ones, his angels and that will be a great day. And we will need to be ready. And that's why Paul prays. He wants none of this church to fail. So he prays for God's strength.

Now let me ask, when was the last time you prayed such a prayer for yourself and other Christian friends. Paul prays specifically that they would grow in love and be strengthened for the battle ahead. And this prayer springs from his great love for them. Love led to prayer. It was the best way to show his love for them. And the great thing about this prayer is that Paul knew that God would love to answer this prayer. God's will is that his people be made more like Jesus. Paul prayed in line with God's will. And the more we do that, the more we will see God use our prayers for his purposes. True love is prayerful love.

Well how do you compare to the apostle Paul? I guess there can be no comparison! And yet he stands as a model for us of someone who truly loved his people, who loved other Christians, and longed for the best for them. His love was a committed love, his love was a thankful love and his love was a prayerful love. May our love for others reflect these qualities more and more.

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