2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5

This is our next to last lesson in the two letters to the Thessalonians.  Paul has finished correcting some of the rumors that had been flying around the church about the end times and all of the speculation which was unhealthy and unhelpful. He has told them how thankful he is for them and how they are to stand firm and hold on to the teachings he passed on to them. Then, he underscores that by saying not only does he want to encourage them himself but he is asking that God the Father and Christ himself will encourage their hearts. Their encouragement is so much better than even the most well-intentioned we can muster up.

I love the word encouragement. You remember that Barnabas, one of the leaders in the early church was called the Son of Encouragement. It was Barnabas who discovered Paul and brought him to the attention of the church. It was Barnabas who risked his own reputation by endorsing Paul. It was Barnabas who accompanied Paul on those first journeys and it was Barnabas who finally split with Paul over the failure of John Mark to live up to Paul’s expectations and demands. We know that Barnabas stayed with John Mark in spite of his failure and took him with him to Cyprus where Barnabas was killed. Still, years later it was the early encouragement of Barnabas, the mentorship of Peter and the forgiveness of Paul that turned John Mark into one of the leaders of the Church. There is no telling the power of encouragement in our lives.

All through Scripture we read about the importance of encouragement. It is sometimes translated as comfort and that is why the Holy Spirit is the one who is both the Comforter and the Encourager.  Look at how comfort is used in the Old Testament:

When the Lord tells Moses that he will not enter the Canaan he says to him, “You shall not enter it but your assistant, Joshua son of Nun, will enter it. Encourage him, because he will lead Israel to inherit it.” That must have been a genuine test of character for Moses. The one thing that had driven him for so many years was now denied him but he was to encourage Joshua in spite of that. Even in his own deep discouragement he was to find a way to encourage Joshua. Encouragement is a discipline – not just a pat on the back.

In Psalms 10, David describes how the Lord encourages us. “You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry..” 

Encouragement often means resisting the urge to talk and quietly listening. Sometimes there are no right words but there are right silences. There is the right listening. We think we need words to speak courage into the heart of someone who is afflicted but we don’t. We need to wait and listen.

In 2 Timothy 4:2 Paul tells young Timothy, “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.  We don’t normally connect encouragement with rebuke but there are times when encouragement requires telling the truth in love. Not to do so is to simply allow someone to continue to drift in the wrong direction. Rebuke does not mean scold. It means to help a person correct course. So, sometimes words are needed but then sometimes it is just example that will work. There are virtues that are obvious and meant to be. Not because we flaunt them but because we cannot hide them.  In fact, it would be false modesty to hide them. Just as the public display of bad character corrupts a community, the public display of good character and virtue leads to health and strength.  Remember that Paul tells Timothy that he is to lead by example and in such a way that people can see his progress. Virtue need not be a secret. In fact, the visibility of people with character is one of our chief ways of combatting the corrosive effects of people with no character.

In Hebrews 3:13 the author writes, “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” We are to find ways to encourage others – sometimes with words, sometimes with listening, sometimes with course correcting – but not only do people need encouragement but we need to be in the habit of doing it often. We are to look for opportunities. As I said earlier, we can never know the power of a gesture of encouragement because people are constantly being lied to by sin. And as C.S. Lewis says, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,.” It’s not a slap on the back or a “go get ‘em, Tiger” but the knowledge that there is light in the darkness and truth in the midst of lies.

And then Paul says he prays that the love of God and Christ will strengthen us in every good word and deed. The word here for strengthen is sterizei. It means to make constant, to stabilize and to establish. In other words, it is about consistency but not about incapable of adapting. It is a particular kind of strength.

Look at Deuteronomy 3:28.  Again, Moses is told to not only encourage Joshua but to strengthen him. Leaders need more than encouragement. They need strength. We all know that leaders are confronted all the time with conflicting choices. Voices shouting out totally opposite demands. Influencers and peddlers who want their own way and people who misinterpret everything they do. Leaders need to have stability and be established in what they believe and value.

Look at Nehemiah 6 and the challenges of Nehemiah in rebuilding the city and responding to the rumors promoted by Sanballat. “I sent him the reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will be too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.” But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”  I love that because leaders and builders are surrounded by rumors and lies that are meant to throw them off their course and discourage them. 

Isaiah writes about the Lord strengthening the feeble hands and steadying the knees that give way; “say to those with fearful hearts, be strong and do not fear.” It is a gift when someone wants to strengthen the work of your hands.

I may have told you this before but let me read you about a time when someone strengthened my hands in the work I was called to do.

Every Sunday – every day – is colorful in Africa but that day was especially so. Robes, headdresses, suits and ties were brilliant everywhere and on everyone. Had we not been so far from home on Easter morning it would have been perfect. But we were not really a part of it. We were driving through all of it on a bus and everyone was quiet and preoccupied with the beauty of the people, the hills, the road, and the morning itself.

All morning I had been considering what a friend had described as “losing the plot line of his life.” That might have described what I was feeling as we bounced along between mountains and streams. It was not desperation or even restlessness. It was a sense of wondering how to describe – to myself and others – what my work was. It had been my once-a-decade exercise.

If you know anything about my work you know it is pretty amorphous. I’ve used the metaphor of being a quilt maker at times. I put pieces together and try to find the patterns between people, resources, ideas, and opportunities. It is satisfying – just difficult to explain.

It was especially so that morning for some reason. I wanted to either find a new metaphor or between Kisumu and Kijabe get a clearer sense of the value of my work.

The bus pulled into a filling station for gas and we all jumped off for drinks and a stretch. I went into the little store to look around and wait to get started again. 

Grabbing a soft drink and going up to the counter to pay I was distracted and thinking about Easter morning and my own conversation with myself. As I reached out to pay the woman at the register held my hand for longer than necessary. She looked me straight in the eye and said “Bless the work of your hands, my brother.”

Tears welled up and I was just barely able to thank her without telling her why. She had been the messenger that morning. That is what I was missing. It wasn’t the definition or a new metaphor. It was the blessing of the work of my hands – whatever that might be. I have never wondered since what I was meant to do.

I say all this because there might be someone reading this who is having the same experience. It may not be on a bus in Kenya on Easter but you are wondering what you are doing and whether or not you too have lost the plot line of your life. I would just like to say to you “Bless the work of your hands, my friend.” 

In Hebrews, the writer uses the same word but this time not for hands but for arms. “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.” When do we need strong  arms? Remember the story of Moses and the Amalekites?

So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.’

We need strong arms when we are responsible for people and when we are holding  up the load of leadership. That is why God strengthens not only our hands and the work of our hands but our arms as well. That is why sometimes we need to be Aaron and Hur to help hold up the arms of those responsible for leadership. No one can do all of it by themselves. Sometimes we need to let others hold up our arms.

Finally, there is strength needed in every good deed and word. Good words and deeds do not come to us naturally. They are often act of the will. We would rather not or even say something that is discouraging and that is why Paul in Romans tells us not to grow weary in doing good. How many times do we say to ourselves, “What difference does it make, anyway?” That’s not ours to decide, is it? Remember what we said last week? Every good deed, good word, choosing truth over a lie is filling a sand bag against the flood. And that is all we are called to do. We are not called to fix everything but we are called to not be weary in doing good.I like what Dallas Jenkins, the producer of The Chosen, has said, “We are not commanded to feed the five thousand – just to hand over the fish and loaves.”

What technology did Paul have to spread the message compared to what we have now? Virtually nothing. The earliest Gospel spread by people talking to others and Christians forming small communities of believers. The word spread by example and by the evidence of these new lives. The word became flesh. It was not simply a broadcast but the good news became good lives that created a different way of life from those around them. Yes, they were persecuted but they were also respected for their character and integrity. There was nothing like them in the pagan world. No one had ever seen people like this before.

Rodney Stark is a sociologist of religion who has written a number of books on the spread of Christianity in the earliest centuries of the church.  Here is what he says:

Networks of family and friends play a huge role in conversion. People developed strong attachments and relationships. Whole families became Christians and that spread to other family members.

Another role was played by social crises, brought in the wake of disastrous plagues or in the common chaos of urban life. During the early centuries of Christian growth, a series of natural disasters (including earthquakes and epidemics) disrupted the Roman Empire.“Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen upon humanity, and it projected a hopeful, even enthusiastic, portrait of the future” These explanations helped Christians cope with the disasters, which in turn helped Christians survive at higher rates than pagans.

Another factor in the rise of early Christianity centers on the role of women in the early church. Because of Christianity’s prohibition of infanticide and abortion, Christian families were more likely to raise up daughters in the faith. High rates of intermarriage between Christian women and pagan men brought about “secondary” conversions to Christianity, not to mention the likelihood of children being brought up in the church.

It must have been slow because it was basically one person telling another but it was durable because it was rooted in the relationships between people. It traveled and spread through the trade routes and the Roman roads – as did Paul. It adapted and persevered in spite of persecution, going underground, being outlawed and constant hardship. It was hundreds of years before it became accepted as a legitimate religion and then almost a hundred more years before it became the official religion of the Empire.

More than anything else, Christians simply persevered. They outlasted everyone else. If they took to heart one single thing Paul charged them with it was this. May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance. It was invisible but impossible to defeat.

There are virtues that are not obvious but cannot be hidden.  This is the virtue that perseveres even when it is invisible. Do you remember the line from “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Atticus Finch?  “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” It does not need recognition to survive. It does not need to win every time to survive.  It is the virtue that will outlast all opposition. Scripture, as we have mentioned before, uses the word hupomone for this kind of virtue.  It is the virtue that persists or literally “that which remains” when everything else has been eroded away. That is what a batholith is, isn’t it?  It is an igneous rock that remains when everything around it has eroded away. These are the often unnoticed, covered up, hidden, and still remaining virtues that are only revealed when everything else has fallen away.  These are the virtues that no society can do without over time because they form the very structure that holds up everything else.

That was the DNA of Paul and the early church. They simply outlasted everyone else. The true Gospel will prevail and that should give us heart and strength.

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