Encouragement (Comfort) and Hope
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
From the apostle Paul to the Sea Island Presbyterian Church in Beaufort, SC: Brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions you have been taught by word of mouth or by our letter, and may Jesus Christ and Abba Father, who loves us and through grace gives us eternal encouragement and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen you in every good work and word.
All of us hit rough and uneven places in life. We can feel forgotten and neglected, wounded and taunted, drained of hope. In times like these, we lift our hearts and echo the petition of the Psalmist who prayed: Why are you cast down, O my soul? In times of discouragement and hopelessness, the Bible declares that the Lord God is our hope and also our help especially in times of need and care. (Psalm 42.5 ff.)
A storm batters the Philippines. The nuclear issue is not resolved with Iran. Drug cartels reap violence in Mexico and the United States. Closer to home, some of us worry about what tomorrow might bring and what the future holds. Life and the human condition can appear so unstable. And the Bible says that the Christian cannot live without encouragement and hope.
This past Thursday, my grandson Keeler and granddaughter Leila hitched a ride home with me after dismissal from their Day School classes. I thought it would be a nice treat if their grandfather made a swing through McDonald’s for a few hamburgers and chicken nuggets which I did to their great delight.
When we arrived home, Leila quickly found her place at the table while Keeler climbed into the chair where I usually sit. I was in the kitchen preparing their drinks when I noticed out of the corner of my eye Keeler taking the place mat left from breakfast. Instead of wrapping or folding it up, he grabbed and shook the place mat dumping all the crumbs on the floor. As we gather here this morning, may the Holy Spirit shake us that we might remember the Lord all our days.
In the Keeler home, the dining room with table and chairs may very well be the most important space in the entire house for this is where Kay, the family matriarch, and I sit down with family and friends to break bread and share stories. It is at the table, more than anywhere else, that we enjoy the blessing of belonging and the grace of family as we share affirmations of love and friendship, talk about joys and concerns, laugh and cry. The simple gesture of Keeler shaking crumbs from the table reminded me of all the times we have gathered in a tight circle and started our meal with a simple word of grace asking the Lord to bless the bread, to forgive us for any wrongdoing, and to bind us together in the redeeming friendship of Jesus Christ. This is one of the most important rituals and traditions honored by my family, the tradition of inviting Jesus Christ as a guest to our table for it is here where we in the words of Paul experience the grace of encouragement and hope because our lives are knit together in love.
In the New Testament lesson for this morning, the apostle Paul speaks a word about standing firm and holding fast to the traditions that have been taught and received by way of the apostolic witness. The more time I invest in parish ministry, the more I appreciate and respect the traditions of the early church as they adhered to the teaching of the apostles, as they broke bread together in the spirit of Christian community, as they prayed together for themselves and others, as they enjoyed friendship and fellowship with one another. I am unaware of a better tradition, the tradition of finding myself in the company of friends in order to worship the Lord, to learn and grow with neighbors in the grace of Jesus Christ, to enjoy fellowship with the Holy Spirit, and share with the community and world around me a good work and kind words that are grounded and rooted in the name of Jesus Christ and his gospel.
Paul wrote during a time in which the early church was forming and reforming under great pressure from the outside. The violent power of Rome worked against the faithful witness of the church in addition to pagans and unbelievers who felt threatened by this new way of life. The early Christians were often misunderstood and vulnerable to horrific acts of human cruelty. They battled feelings of fear, and temptations to escape this suffering existence, but they did not bend and they did not yield. Instead, in the midst of internal and external conflict, the early Christians accepted the message of Paul that Jesus Christ and Abba Father loved them and through grace offered encouragement and hope. It worked. The church survived and grew.
Our situations in life and personal circumstances may differ from those of our ancient sisters and brothers in Thessalonica, but like them we still live in the need of encouragement and hope that we find and understand in the person of Jesus Christ. It is tragic that a group of Sadducees felt so compelled to test Jesus, to make sure his theology conformed to theirs, that they missed the invitation to follow him. They refused to trust his message, and they were unwilling to commit their lives to his cause and the Jesus way. (Hans Kung, On Being a Christian)
There is not a day that goes by where I do not contemplate what it means to be a Christian. As I do, the life and work of Dietrich Bonheoffer continues to influence my faith and practice. As the Nazi regime consumed Germany, Bonheoffer took a stand against the forces of evil. He not only taught discipleship he lived it to the very end. In his own words Bonheoffer said that discipleship is nothing else than (being bound) to Jesus Christ alone, completely breaking through every program, every set of laws. No other significance is possible, since Jesus is the only significance. Besides Jesus, nothing has any significance. He alone matters. (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 49) As the Gestapo stalked Bonhoeffer, Jesus Christ always remained his encouragement and hope.
A danger we face as Christians is our inattention to the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. For some of us life is so good that our devotion to Christ can ebb and we become spiritually lethargic. For others, there is that proverbial speed bump that disrupts life and we become confused and hopeless. Suddenly other people and things find places of significance. Jesus walks with and beside us, but we focus on other things around us and the once meaningful relationship with Jesus becomes remote. When we are confronted by evil and trouble comes, we desperately seek comfort but find it elusive. May we be so bound to Jesus that we are always able to stand firm in his encouragement and hope.
Last Thursday, after Keeler had shaken his place mat and swept away the crumbs from the table, he looked at me and offered the gift of a precious smile. By way of a child, I stood there remembering that a long, long time ago, God spoke through a prophet by the name of Haggai. And God said to the people, “I am preparing to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land, and I am preparing to shake the nations in order that they give full attention to me knowing that everything in the world is mine.” (Haggai 2)
The Christian faith is about more than answering thought-provoking theological questions like those posed to Jesus by the Sadducees. In a most fundamental way, faith is about knowing the living God and offering him a smile as we accept Jesus intervening in our lives and saving us. May the Holy Spirit shake us this morning and gently wipe away any crumbs of despair or hopelessness, and may we always find our encouragement and hope in the Lord Jesus. Amen.