November 29, 2015
Luke paints a pretty dismal scene this morning. Distress among the nations… People fainting from fear and foreboding of what has come upon the world. These days we might think this is a pretty good description of what is happening right now in our world. Could Luke have been writing about us? It certainly feels that way when we look around. Violence seems to be shaking communities everywhere. Syria, Paris, Beirut, Bagdad, Chicago, Colorado Springs. Innocent people everywhere are being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite our best efforts to control the chaos, we seem to come up short every time.
It’s not surprising in the face of this uncertainty and fear that we might start to focus solely on our safety, on trying to protect whatever we can even if it means we have to batten down the hatches so tightly that not even the good stuff can find it’s way in.
With this in mind, I am especially thankful for the wisdom of the lectionary, for the ways that our texts this morning compliment each other. Because on one hand we have a gospel passage that reminds us that we live in an uncertain and dangerous world. Reminds us that we are waiting for Christ to return to bring restoration and peace. And on the other hand, we have this beautiful benediction. These verses in 1 Thessalonians 3 are Paul’s blessing to a struggling congregation, to a group of people who are scared and worried about their future. Paul says, “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way. May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all. May he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus.”
For three chapters preceding these verses Paul talks about their mutual love for one another, for brothers and sisters in Christ, but now he is raising the bar, upping the ante. He is telling them to widen their circle, to take the love that they share for those in their family and extend it far beyond to all people, to everyone.
I didn’t know this before preparing for this sermon, but most scholars believe that 1 Thessalonians was Paul’s very first letter. So I think that it must be significant that Paul begins his writing ministry by praying these words to these Christians: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.”
I am sure that if we had the chance to talk with the Thessalonian congregation we could compare a lot of notes with them. They, too, were living in an uncertain time. They were waiting with fervent hope for Christ’s return and yet they were also forced to live in a world that wasn’t very kind to followers of Jesus. They were scared for their lives, afraid what the Jews or Romans might do to them if they were discovered. And, yet, despite the danger, Paul gives them a charge to go out into the hostile world, abound in love for one another and for all. It would not be an easy task… for them or for us.
Over the past few weeks, I have found myself confused about how God calls me to respond as a follower of Jesus, to violence, to refugees, but really what underlies these things is this: how am I supposed to respond to uncertainty. It feels like there is a lot of it going around, in this hospital, in foreign policy, in our personal lives, everywhere. If there is one thing we know, it’s that we can’t predict what our life is going to look like tomorrow. There are so many question marks. We wonder whether or not we will be ok? If the illness that we are fighting will get the best of us. If our job or our retirement will be enough to live on. If somebody will be there with us in our deepest moments of need?
Through the uncertainty, Paul’s prayer rings with assurance. He reminds of the way that God has promised to be there for us, working in our lives. For as much as Paul’s words compel us to go out into the world abounding in love, we are also reminded that we only go with God’s help. It is God, the Father himself, our Lord Jesus who directs our path, who makes a way for us. So often it feels like we are the ones responsible for forging our own way, and we forget that God is already there, leading us to the still waters. With God, we become more than we were on our own.
So, this brings me back to my question. How are we to respond to what is going on in our world, to the violence and fear and all the question marks? Last Sunday, I was invited to a silent vigil for peace over at the University of Incarnate Word. The email invite said, “All are invited to a Candle Light Silent Vigil for those suffering from violence, the families and the countries, the victims and perpetrators, ourselves and all the others.”
We gathered at dusk, holding candles. From somewhere in the crowd, there was light and it slowly swept through the crowd. Once our candles were lit we started walking in a circle around the Peace Pole. If you have never seen a Peace Pole, it might be worth a visit to Incarnate Word. Over 180,000 Peace Poles have been planted in places all over the world by different communities who wanted a way to respond to the carnage of WWII. Printed on each of them in multiple languages is the prayer, “May Peace prevail on earth.”
We walked round and round and round in silence, the tiny lights leading our way through the dark. There were so many different people there, Jewish families from Temple Bethel, Muslim families from all over San Antonio, pastors and clergy and students, a group of people who wanted to do something in the face of uncertainty.
At one point, the wind picked up and some of the candles were blown out. And I watched as people turned to each other and held out their candles to share their light so that no one had to walk alone without a flame. As we walked, our hearts joining together and as we lit each other’s candles when they were blown out, I thought, “This is what it means to be increased, to abound in love for all.” When we see someone’s candle has been blown out, we share our light. As we share and are shared with, the light only increases.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. We begin our journey in darkness, with a reminder of distress among the nations, with people fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the earth. Yet, we are given an opportunity as people of faith to respond to this darkness. All around the world today churches are lighting the first candle of Advent, the one that stands for hope. Hope comes first. It is the beginning. Hope makes room for more.
Like the Thessalonians, we are waiting for the coming of Christ. As we wait, may we remember, no matter what darkness comes, that we have been called to share Christ’s light in the world. And, may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way. May the Lord make us increase and abound in love for one another and for all. May God so strengthen our hearts in holiness now and forevermore. Amen.