To Serve and To Wait
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. 2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9 For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
Seven months ago we were in the car on our way back from a quick trip to North Alabama, when we got word that it might be wise to make some adjustments to worship that coming Sunday. It was a Thursday, and I remember on the ride home starting to make notes as Nick and I talked about making sure there was enough hand sanitizer at the doors. Was it OK to still have Sunday School? Sure! We thought.
By Sunday, as you may remember, things had escalated. We were set up in the chapel with a makeshift camera and sound system.
When we held our first virtual session meeting it seemed almost laughable - who’s ever heard of a church meeting happening on Zoom. At that meeting, one of the many questions that came up was, “What if we are still doing this at Easter?” I remember that thought seeming kind of extreme and thinking, “Let’s just cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Well we came to it. And a million bridges since of disappointment, grief, hope - only to be disappointed again. We’ve had to sacrifice a lot of the things we love and looked forward to in the last seven months.
I think each of us has had certain defining moments or decisions along the way and for me one of those moments was when we made the decision to change our church Zoom account from a month-to-month to an annual subscription — one of those little things that struck me because it pointed to the reality that we really don’t know when this will all be over.
So now more than ever, we understand what it was like to be a member of the church in Thessalonica. Only they weren’t waiting for the end to a pandemic, they were waiting for the return of Jesus Christ. Like us, back in the spring, they woke up expectantly every morning thinking, “Today could be the day!”
Maybe it will happen - maybe we’ll get the good news we’ve been waiting for!
Of course, if Jesus was coming at any moment, many of them felt like conventional things like a job or savings or longterm investments were meaningless. Why become tied down to this life when new life could come at any moment — why pay the annual subscription fee if tomorrow Christ might come again?
Instead, they found themselves waiting a lot longer than they anticipated. And as they watched others go about their lives, holding jobs, taking office, gaining power in the emperor’s system of economics and politics, at times they couldn’t help but wonder if maybe they’d gotten it wrong. And it became harder and harder to wait for the God who had said Christ would come again, but never really gave a clear timeline.
Meanwhile, they faced quite a bit of scrutiny for their choices. While they understood their waiting to be an act of faith — don’t buy the annual subscription, don’t worry about the 401k or the emperor’s tax bill or stockpiling after the harvest. Christ will come again, right? Right? At first others laughed at them. And then their critics began to grow frustrated. And then angry. Why would these Christians not admit they were wrong? Jesus was nowhere to be found. Why wouldn’t they just go to the temple and worship the emperor like everyone else and make some money so they could pay their taxes? It wasn’t long before that frustration turned to anger turned to flat out persecution of the ones who waited for Jesus.
If I am being perfectly honest with you, I’ve had a few moments in the last seven months where doubt has crept in. I imagine all of us have had these moments of wondering if we are doing the right thing and mine have gone something like this:
- Talking to other local pastors of various denominations, for months our conversations were something like, “Are y’all opening back up? Y’all doing in person? What about outside? What about youth group? What about meetings? What about pastoral care visits?”
- Then you talk to your colleagues in the presbytery: “Y’all met in your parking lot? We barely have a parking lot. Y’all did drive through communion? What’s your budget looking like? Are you doing virtual VBS? How did you have a congregational meeting? Have you done a baptism?”
And then the worries: Are people tired of waiting? Should we go back to in person? Does everyone feel disconnected? Are they going to want to come back when this is over? When will this be over?
Sometimes, in our anxiety, we can convince ourselves that there are only two options before us: passive waiting or doing things the way we have always done them. For the Thessalonians, at first the options looked like choosing between complete disengagement from the world or idolatrous empire worship. Until a man named Paul came along and demonstrated for them what it looked like to actively wait for Christ to come again.
A lot of times when we think about Paul’s missionary journey we might imagine him as a street preacher, rolling into town and posting fliers for tent revivals. But that was definitely not the case in Thessalonica.
Instead, Paul showed up in town and he got a job. Scholars believe it was probably something involving manual labor. And it was as people came in and out of his shop that he would share his faith with them. He’d talk to people who were doing ordinary things: shopping, running errands, getting things fixed. He needed supplies for his work and he and his friends needed food to eat and clothes to wear so he would, in fact, charge money for his services. He was not disengaged from the world, he was in the world, but in a unique way.
As he interacted with customers and neighbors, he showed them that passive waiting was not the only option for Christians as they anticipated the day Christ would come again. He pointed them to ways that God’s Holy Spirit was with them, right there, calling them to find meaning in their days and help the people around them who were struggling as a witness to the love of Jesus Christ.
So, as Paul says in his letter, the Thessalonians became imitators of Paul and of Jesus - by not trying to escape the world but by engaging it in a different way than they had before. They cautiously took jobs, that earned them money, but then they were intentional about how they used that money, making sure that their offering was used to serve God and the ones Christ had called, “the least of these”. They built homes and then they welcomed one another into those homes (which is something you can safely do when you’re not living in the midst of a pandemic). They bought food and then they blessed it and shared it with one another, mindful of where all their blessings had come from and giving thanks to the God who provided for their needs.
Because things have looked so different in the last seven months, a few times I have had to remind myself that we are actively waiting for the day we can safely gather again in our sanctuary. Just as we are and have always been actively waiting for the day when Christ will come again.
For our congregation, active waiting has meant going above and beyond the pledges we made to our mission partners this year - meaning not only are we fulfilling our giving commitments to Presbyterian Community Ministry, East Alabama Food Bank, Auburn Daycare, Alabama Prison Birth Project, and several other organizations - we are finding additional funds and ways to give added support to many of these organizations through our endowment fund, special offerings, our drive thru food drive next weekend, and more opportunities to come.
We’ve had more requests for emergency assistance than I can remember in any other year, and thanks to our pastors’ discretionary fund we have been able, on multiple occasions, to help individuals keep a roof over their heads.
We’ve had members volunteer in both official and unofficial capacities to regularly call and check on members, deliver groceries, send cards, prepare meals, pick up medicines, run errands. We’ve found new ways to gather for bible studies, broadcast our service on the radio so that members who have been homebound for years can now worship at 11am on Sunday.
Our Zoom subscription is getting a workout - and in addition to the necessary meetings to keep us on track, Sunday School classes are gathering to study God’s Word, and two new Bible studies have formed that might never have come to be had we not been pushed to find a way to actively wait upon whatever it is that will come next.
None of this has played out exactly how we’d hoped it would. We’ve dealt with frustration and disappointment a lot. But we’re still here, and on the other side of this I believe our church will be renewed and strengthened. More creative, more grounded in what truly matters, and grateful for things we might have once taken for granted.
"We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers,” Paul says to the church in Thessalonica, “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”.
God’s love endures in our waiting.
The pledges of time, talent, and money each one of us makes to our church for the coming year may be the most important one we ever make. Because it is truly an act of faith. Just as we do not know when Christ will come again, we do not know when we will next be able to greet one another inside the sanctuary walls with hugs and smiles not covered up by masks.
But we can hope.
And we can engage in the world in a way that offers witness to Jesus, by taking what resources we have right now and offering them to the work of active waiting: studying God’s word, reaching out to our church family, and serving those who come to us asking for help with basic needs.
When it became clear that we would be worshipping remotely for Easter this year, and the reality of disappointment threatened to overwhelm, a colleague of ours in the presbytery said: “The day we are all back together in our sanctuaries - that will be our Easter.”
Like the Thessalonians, right now we can’t rely on a calendar to tell us when Easter is coming. But we can wait, and serve, and rely on God’s Spirit to give us hope.