October 9, 2005

Why We Need Each Other: Encouragement
1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

Eeyore remains perhaps my favorite character in A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Eeyore, as you perhaps recall, is a soft-spoken and cuddly blue-gray donkey whose facial expressions invite any viewer to hug him. Eeyore’s countenance, however, is almost always gloomy, in part because his tail keeps falling off and his house keeps falling down. Among the many memorable lines attributed to this pessimistic donkey are these:
“If it is a good morning, which I doubt….” “One can’t complain. I have friends. Someone spoke to me only yesterday.” and “Thanks for noticing me.” In spite of his neighbors repeated attempts to cheer him up, Eeyore remains a quiet and discouraged sort of fellow.

We all can, needless to say, relate to Eeyore at one level or another. Whether journeying through a slushy day or an overcast month or year, we all struggle with despair and discouragement from time to time. Out of curiosity, I typed in a series of words on Yahoo, just to see how many strikes appeared. “Despair.” 23,000,000 strikes. “Grief.” 36,700,000 strikes. “Fear.” 206,000,000 strikes. Clearly, people are thinking and writing about such concerns. And if they are thinking and writing about despair, grief, and fear, then you can be certain that many people are also experiencing them. We need each other, my brothers and sisters, because life brings with it various painful situations and troubling questions. Our tails fall off. Our houses fall down. We need the encouragement that the community of faith can provide.

1 Thessalonians is, by and large, a letter of encouragement. Nowhere in the letter is this more evident than here in 4:13-5:11, where Paul thoughtfully addresses two particular but related issues that are deeply troubling to the Christians in Thessalonica. The first issue, discussed in 4:13-18, is largely experiential in nature. These Thessalonian believers are dealing with grief because they can’t quite match their firsthand experience with their theology. They had clearly expected Jesus to return again in their lifetime, and they had not had the time as of yet to reflect with great care about his apparent delay. In the meantime, some among their number, including parents, spouses, and perhaps even children, had died. What will become of them? Will those who die in Christ miss out on the promises? Do they forfeit their share of God’s eternal kingdom?

The second issue, considered in 5:1-11, is somewhat more theoretical in nature. In the Old Testament, the prophets spoke with some regularity of the so-called “Day of the Lord,” a day when God would break into history and bring with him the new, heavenly age. The New Testament writers continue this theme but attach to it the return of Christ. Needless to say, virtually every Christian in the 1st century was a bit anxious as to when, and perhaps by now even if, this would occur. Conflicting theories appeared, not so unlike some of the rather bizarre end-times teachings that continue to capture the imaginations of many present-day Christians. The people are worried and tense—their theological questions are getting the best of them.

Such struggles are, of course, not unfamiliar to many of us. We may very well grow discouraged over such things as not making the football team, losing our hair, or the cancellation of our favorite TV show. But many of us also know the deeper pain and discouragement associated with the perplexities of life. We may phrase the issues differently than our 1st century brothers and sisters, but the pain and grief are no less real. We, like them, wrestle with connecting what we believe with what we experience. We, too, have trouble from time to time reconciling what we see going on around us—near and far—with what we hope to be true about both God and the Bible.

We struggle with questions growing out of our own, firsthand experience. What happens to us when we die? What becomes of our loved ones, particularly those who, after years and years of faithful praying, refuse to follow Christ? How are we to understand the love of God in the face of cancer, Alzheimer’s, car accidents, and unemployment? What does it mean to be a Christian—a true follower of Jesus—when my actual experience—my day-to-day life—is so unsettling and painful?

In the same way, we often wrestle with difficult, more theoretical questions that cloud our minds and threaten our faith. How are we to think about Christ’s return, particularly now that 2,000 years have passed? Will he ever come back? In what meaningful way can we even begin to think about the goodness of God in a world beset by violence, poverty, corruption, and overwhelming catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina? And what are we to make of the church today, which so often appears to be indifferent, irrelevant and even immoral at times? These are difficult questions—what Chaim Potok refers to as “4:00 in the morning questions.” The more we think about them, the more discouraged we sometimes become.

Paul, here in 1 Thessalonians, gives us advice by both example and exhortation. By example, he attempts compassionately to help his readers reconstruct the way they are currently thinking about such matters. In 4:13-18, he assures the believers in Thessalonica that God’s promises are equally true for all Christians, whether physically dead or alive. “The dead will rise,” he proclaims, and everyone who is in Christ will be with the Lord forever. In 5:1-11, he likewise teaches his readers that the precise time of the Lord’s return is in fact unknowable. “What we do know,” Paul continues, is that Christ will certainly come again and we must all be prepared. By example, Paul helps his audience to rethink these various issues and, in so doing, set aside unnecessary fears and grief.

Paul, however, does not stop with his own instruction. Instead, he ends each of these two sections with essentially the same exhortation: “Therefore encourage one another with these words and build up each other….” Paul, in other words, teaches the church, but he then leaves it up to the community to practice the age-old ministry of encouragement. And what does this ministry look like? What does it involve?

Throughout the Bible, the ministry of encouragement is prevalent. Whether people are saddened by loss, disheartened by pain, overwhelmed by uncertainty, or nearly paralyzed by doubt, comfort lies within their reach. Such comfort comes, first and foremost, from God himself. He is the great comforter: “When the cares of my heart are many,” the Psalmist cried, “the consolations of the Lord cheer my soul” (94:19). But this same God longs for us to act like him, and in so doing we practice the ministry of encouragement as well. “Comfort, O comfort my people,” God announced through the prophet Isaiah thousands of years ago (40:1). Now, Paul instructs the Thessalonian Christians—and us—to do the same thing.

When we think of offering encouragement, we typically think in terms of kind words and expressions of affirmation. We say “well done” to an aspiring musician, “you can do it” to an improving student, and “good work” to a room-cleaning son or daughter. Such expressions, whether verbal or in writing, are often very meaningful, and I am thankful for the various well-timed notes that some of you send me from time to time. Don’t stop encouraging each other in this way. If you feel prompted by the Holy Spirit, and even if you don’t, express words of encouragement to one another whenever possible.

It is important to note, however, that what Paul has in mind here in 1 Thessalonians 4:18 and 5:11 goes well beyond such expressions of encouragement. Paul uses an active verb here that literally means “to call someone to yourself.” In extending encouragement, we in fact welcome people into the depths of our hearts and share the burden of their heavy load. In this sense, to encourage is to comfort. Paul likewise suggests that, rather than being an occasional activity, the ministry of encouragement must be ongoing—a regular characteristic of the very life of the church.

If we take seriously the call to encourage one another, we will begin by inviting people to ourselves, just like God does. We will, in other words, learn to be genuinely present with each other, particularly during times of sorrow and grief. We too often grope for just the right words to say and the correct things to do, hoping to solve the other person’s problems and heal their wounds. In reality, words often get in the way, and at times even cause more pain than they relieve. The ministry of encouragement begins with a sense of presence—visiting with people, quietly offering them bread and wine (Jer. 16:5-7), listening to the cries of their hearts, and inviting them to rest by our side.

Second, the ministry of encouragement involves helping people to reconstruct their perspectives and outlook. In the same way that Paul helped the believers in Thessalonica to rethink the issues that they were troubled by, so can we—individually and corporately—help each other to do the same. I remember reading a book with Deb when I was still in seminary. In the book, entitled At Least We Were Married, Terry Thomas vividly recounts the development of his relationship with Nancy Groover. They appeared to be the perfect couple—both served with para-church organizations—and they dated God’s way. They talked together, prayed together, and committed themselves to do whatever God called them to do. Finally, their wedding day came, and Terry and Nancy became man and wife at the Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia.

Soon after their wedding reception, however, Terry and Nancy were hit head-on by an out-of-control vehicle as they headed south on Interstate 75. Nancy was killed instantly, sitting in the front seat with a bouquet of flowers resting in her lap. I just couldn’t believe it! I cried and cried as Deb—my own young bride—and I read. How could a couple play so carefully by God’s “rules,” only to suffer such a tragedy just hours after their wedding? I can hardly explain my response—I can still feel it today. How could God allow it? I didn’t go to class for a week, and I lost the desire to prepare for the ministry. Why bother? I wondered, if God is no more dependable than that.

Eventually, my mentor, Dr. John Oswalt—some of you might remember that he preached at my installation service here—invited me to sit with him. After pouring out my heart, he gently began to reorient my perspective. I recall so clearly how he encouraged me to discern between the process and the end. We so often evaluate the good of something solely on the basis of the end result, he told me, and in the process we dismiss the value of the journey. In my case, I had come to believe that Terry and Nancy’s wonderful courtship would be truly important only if they then enjoyed 50 years of marriage together. With her sudden death, all of the beauty of their courtship, their prayers, and their walks on the beach somehow lost their meaning. Graciously, John reminded me of the wonder of the journey itself. Nothing could remove the joy that Terry and Nancy had shared. Their courtship was special, in and of itself. As I listened to John, I found myself asking the Lord for the ongoing grace to live in the present—to celebrate the now. John encouraged me by helping me to reconstruct my perspective.

And finally, the ministry of encouragement seeks to help people look again to Jesus. Throughout the Bible, encouragement and true comfort comes through a fresh recognition of God’s saving work in the past, his presence with us in the now, and the ultimate assurance that he gives us concerning the future. So often, our despair and grief grow out of our preoccupation with the concerns of this world and our subsequent inability to see beyond or above them. True encouragement comes, not from flippant comments or cute clichés, but from lifting our eyes to the Lord. “Remember what I have done in the past,” he regularly reminds his people. “I will be with you in the days to come,” he continues. If God is truly the ultimate source of our comfort, then we practice the ministry of encouragement when we gently and lovingly point people back to him.

We need each other, my friends. Life throws us any number of curves. Our tails fall off, and our houses fall down. We despair and grow weary, don’t we? Thank God for the community of faith. Thank God for other people who invite us to sit down beside them. For people who help us reorient our thinking. For people who point us once again to Jesus and his unfailing promises. Thank God for the ministry of encouragement. May it always present among all of us here at the Grantham Church.