Speaker: Helen Jenkinson
I don’t know about you, but I hate doing sport. Remember Tristan a few weeks ago spoke about his 2 PE teachers? One being kind and the other not? Well I think my fear of team games especially stems from the fact that both my PE teachers seemed sadistic to my teenage self.
But about once every four years I become a massive arm chair sports fan. I love watching the Olympics. I find myself completely engrossed in some obscure sport at 11pm because there’s a chance a Brit might win a medal! And when we win gold, don’t you feel a sense of shared pride when they stand on the top podium, the union jack is raised and the national anthem is sung?
One sport I have watched at the Olympics is triathlon. Has anyone ever took part in one? It’s a grueling race consisting of a swim, followed by a bike ride, followed by a run. It’s not for the faint hearted! We have two Brits who are really good at this event. Jonny and Alistair Brownlee and I have watched them compete (from the comfort of my arm chair!).
One day when I was watching something extraordinary happened, and we’re going to watch it now. The context is that it’s the world championships. Jonny is heading for the finish line. He’s more or less on the final straight. His brother, Alistair is in second and the South African competitor is in third. Let’s see what happens
Isn’t that amazing? Doesn’t it make your heart beat quicker and stir something up inside you? (maybe the oxytocin that Tristan also talked about the other week?) Also did you notice that the poor South African was celebrating his win and no one was looking at him- all eyes were fixed on the brothers!
So why am I going on about triathlon this Sunday morning? Because what we’ve just watched perfectly encapsulates the One Another we’re going to look at today. Encourage one another.
The Greek word for encourage is PARAKALEO. Para: to the side of. Kaleo: To call, to call by the side.
Isn’t that exactly what we saw in the clip of the Brownlee brothers? One coming alongside the other. And so to think more deeply about Encourage one another we’re going to look at the context in which Paul exhorts the Thessalonian church to do just that.
Paul is writing to the Christians at Thessalonica, after he and Silas had started a church there. You can read about how that happened in Acts 17:1-9. Thessalonica was a really diverse city with Jews and Greeks co-existing in the same place. But as Paul and Silas brought the gospel to them it produced a very negative reaction from some Jews who hated their teaching. And these Jews stirred things up by accusing them of a civil disturbance, resulting in them hot footing it quite quickly out of Thessalonica, leaving a very young church.
Paul’s pastoral heart is really concerned that he had had to leave such a young church without the teaching that they would require to go on in their Christian lives so he tries to get back to see them. However, circumstances prevent him from doing this so he sends his trusted Son in the faith, Timothy, to encourage them and see how they were getting on. To his delight, Timothy reports that they were standing firm, even amidst all the persecution they were facing. Their lives were exhibiting the fruit of the spirit and the gospel was advancing in their area. Fantastic! However, they did have some questions for Paul which they asked Timothy to pass on. What would happen to believers who died before Christ’s return and when was he coming back? What Paul says next is in response to that
In this passage Paul encourages the Thessalonians to encourage each other in 3 ways. Firstly:
1. ENCOURAGE EACH OTHER IN OUR SURE AND CERTAIN HOPE
Look at verse 13. In pagan culture, death, or 'sleep' as Paul terms it, was associated with an utter lack of hope. So it was understandable that they would be worried about members of their church who had died. A typical inscription on a grave at that time read: 'I was not. I became. I am not. I care not.' The pagan world assumed that you lived and then you died and were no more.
Doesn’t that sound familiar to the culture that we live in today? But what does Paul say? Look at verse 14- 17. If you are a Christian this morning we have a sure and certain hope that after our earthly bodies die, we shall live again. Not just life as we’ve known it, but life with Jesus. What could be better than that?
Paul goes on to explain what will happen when Christ returns. Believers who have died will rise first, followed by those still alive. Those who have died will definitely NOT be at a disadvantage. Verse 17 talks about meeting the Lord in the air. When he talks about ‘meeting’ the Lord, Paul’s readers would know that he was referring to the practice of an important dignitary being met by the inhabitants of a city who would come out and welcome then with fanfare and celebration, then accompany them into the city.
Paul is saying that those who are alive, together with those who have died, will herald the Lord’s return. What a day that will be!
The whole point of what Paul is saying is not to give a timetable of end times events but to say to the Thessalonians, 'this is what your future looks like. You, and those who have gone before you have this sure and certain hope because of your faith in Jesus. Encourage each other by reminding each other of what will come.'
As I’ve studied and thought about this passage, I‘ve been asking myself the questions I’m going to ask you. Are our lives grounded in this sure and certain hope? Or are we so focused on the here and now? Do we say we are grateful that our eternal future is secure but live more like those without hope? I was not. I became. I am not. I care not. And are our conversations with others grounded in this sure and certain hope, reminding them that we WILL spend eternity in the presence of Jesus?
We are called to come alongside each other because we can so easily forget. We need each other to remind us what our hope is. Do you know someone who is struggling? Encourage them with this sure and certain hope.
In the clip we watched, Jonny Brownlee was exhausted. He had lost his way. He couldn’t go on. But his brother Alistair had the finish line in sight, he carried his brother because he was focused on the reward that his brother would receive. Which brings us to the next thing that Paul wants the Thessalonians to encourage each other with:
2. ENCOURAGE EACH OTHER TO VIEW OUR LIVES WITH AN ETERNAL PERSPECTIVE
When we are focused on the fact that we have a sure and certain hope we view the circumstances of our lives in a new way. It’s like going from black and white to colour!
Do you remember the TV series Pot Black? For those too young, it was a snooker competition with the biggest snooker stars of the day playing each other each week for the trophy. We used to love this show but growing up we had a black and white TV. Snooker balls are obviously coloured. So there we’d be trying to gauge the shade of grey to work out which ball Ray Reardon or Cliff Thorburn was trying to pot. But then came the time when we got a colour TV. Oh my! Suddenly everything was clearer. It completely changed our outlook on the game.
I think that’s what viewing our lives with an eternal perspective does. Suddenly we see things a lot clearer. Our joy increases as we view our lives in the context of our eternal hope.
Let’s see what Paul says about it in this passage. Verse 13: We don’t want you to grieve like people who have no hope.
Firstly, let’s think about what Paul is NOT saying. Paul is NOT saying that grief is wrong. He is NOT saying that when our loved ones die we should just shrug our shoulders and get on with life. Grief is normal and healthy. Losing a loved one deprives us of their company. Their presence in our lives. Paul is not saying that our grief is wrong but that it should be different to those who don’t have the eternal hope that we have.
One of my heroes, Billy Graham said this, 'Some day you will hear or read that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe it! I shall be more alive than I am now. I will have just changed my address. I will be in the presence of God.'
In view of this sure and certain hope, shouldn’t the way we view things of this life change? The personal issues we have? What we spend our time or our money on? What we give our attention to? The voices we listen to? The situations or people that stress us out? Not to disregard them but to view them with an eternal perspective. Will we be stressing about them when we arise to meet Jesus in the air?
If the answer is 'no' then, although we need to be mindful of them, we should probably be less focused on them and not let them take over all our thinking.
Another thing to think about is how risk taking are we on behalf of the gospel or in our ministries? Is our reluctance or hesitancy to speak good news to people being ‘wise’ or is it really sometimes risk averse?
In Mark 8: 35 Jesus says this: 'Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it.'
The early Christians understood this. In 165 AD and 251 AD there were epidemics in the Roman Empire with a quarter to a third of the population dying. Most people flocked to the countryside in fear, but Christians stayed to minister to the sick. This had a massive impact on society.
This is what the emperor Julian, who hated Christians apparently said, 'I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans (Christians) observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence. The impious Galileans support not only their poor but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.'
This was someone who hated Christians, but couldn’t deny the impact they were having on their communities. Historians attribute this move on behalf of Christians to be the key factor of the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.
Think of some more modern day examples: Desmond Tutu campaigning for the abolition of apartheid in South Africa; Mother Teresa ministering to the poor of Calcutta.
You might think, “Well, these are exceptional people”, but let’s take it even further.
NHS staff treating people with covid. Ukrainian Christians praying in a bomb shelter.
These people view their lives with an eternal perspective. Whoever wants to save his life will lose it. Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
Did you notice that at the end of the race we watched earlier Alistair Brownlee pushed his brother over the line before himself? He showed his love for his brother in practical ways. He wasn’t there looking on from the safety of the finish line, shouting his support, but he got stuck in. Coming alongside his brother just when he needed him most. When his strength had completely gone.
How can we encourage each other in our ministries? It’s so easy to get bogged down. How can we encourage each other to look up and ahead to get and eternal perspective?
So we are encouraged to encourage each other with our sure and certain hope. We are to encourage each other to view our lives with an eternal perspective.
And lastly we are to:
3. ENCOURAGE EACH OTHER TO BE ALERT AND DISCIPLINED
Let’s read chapter 5 verses 1-11.
Since Bible times there has been much speculation about when Jesus will return. People have tried to predict when that will be and have failed spectacularly! Paul here is not trying to give hints as to when it will happen, but to reassure the Thessalonians (and us) that it will and that it needs to change the way we live. We need to be alert and disciplined.
Look at verse 2 and 3. If you’ve ever been burgled or mugged it comes as a shock doesn’t it? We don’t say, “I think I’m going to get burgled or mugged today!” And it’s that same element of shock or surprise that Paul says will come over people.
The world’s view is that there’s nothing to worry about. The Romans called it 'Pax et securitas', 'Peace and safety'. But just like it’s inevitable that a heavily pregnant woman goes into labour, so will be the fact that Christ will return. Being in Christ is the only way to know Pax et Securitas. Peace and safety. So we are to live with eternity’s values on show.
Look at verse 8. We are to encourage one another to be spiritually alert, not spiritually asleep. I don’t know about you, but often I spiritually ‘nod off’ and find myself dozing, not being alert to what God is trying to say to me. My spiritual eyes are closed to what he is doing.
So, like in Ephesians 6, Paul uses the image of a soldier to emphasise the fact that we need to be spiritually alert and awake. If a Roman soldier fell asleep on duty it could result in a death sentence. It’s still a really serious offence if a soldier falls asleep although now it results in a court martial. Why? Because falling asleep puts you and your fellow soldiers at risk.
The parallels should be obvious to us. When we spiritually ‘doze off’ we are putting ourselves at risk because we stop listening to the still small voice of the spirit in our lives. But we also put one another at risk because we become less effective in coming alongside each other. We ignore the promptings of the spirit to really engage with people on a deeper level than “How are you? Fine thanks”. We ignore the urge to pray for them. To lift them up before the Lord. To intercede. Or our prayers become what WE think God should do in their lives and not necessarily what is on God’s agenda.
Paul encourages the Thessalonians (and us) to put on the spiritual armour of faith, love and hope. The breast plate protects the heart so we do not lose heart when difficulties come. Hope is like a helmet that protects the mind so we know that we are saved and we have a glorious inheritance. But Paul says we need to be self-controlled to put these pieces of armour on. Why? Because we so easily spiritually doze off! How can we encourage each other to be alert and self- controlled?
Proverbs 27:17, 'As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.'
Do you have a person who you can be spiritually honest with? Who you respect enough to give them permission to warn you when you’re spiritually dozing off? Could you be that to someone else? Could you arrange to meet with someone for coffee and get beyond the ‘how are you, I’m fine’ level of chat? To speak God’s truth into their lives and let them do the same for you?
Paul ends in verse 11 with a building term: 'So encourage and build each other up, just as you are already doing.'
The word build (oikodemeo) was a term used in the construction of buildings. Being married to a builder for quite a few years now, I know that a building can’t be created by a single action. It takes time. It’s an ongoing process that takes effort and a lot of blood. Sweat and tears. We need to engage in the ongoing process of building each other up. The ongoing process of seeking to promote the spiritual development of each other. So let’s be a church that encourages one another to trust in our sure and certain hope and to view our life’s priorities with an eternal perspective. As iron sharpens iron, let’s encourage each other to stay spiritually alert and disciplined.