It was Friday afternoon. I took Rebekah out to B & Q to buy some Christmas decorations.
Well, it was only supposed to be one extra decoration four our pint-sized manse
but Daddy being a big softie came back with four.
Having chosen the decorations we headed to the electrical
aisle, where I needed to buy a four-way surge-protected adapter plug. Rebekah
saw a B & Q employee in the aisle there, and in her usual shy and retiring
manner (not) she waltzed up to him and said, ‘What’s your name?’
‘Graham,’ he said. He asked her name and then said, ‘What do
you want Father Christmas to bring you?’
‘There are lots of Father Christmases,’ she replied, taking
the wind out of his – and my – sails. How does a three-and-a-half year old know
But Graham persisted with his question and thankfully
Rebekah came out with some of the ideas we have planted in her head – she wants
anything connected with the TV show ‘Big Cook Little Cook’
(phew, that’s what her Auntie Sandie is buying her) or some craft materials
But what if each of us were asked what presents we wanted
from God? I’m sure we could come up with a list. Better health, more money, a
different job, a new house, someone to love – I wonder what you would ask for?
I guess biblically our minds might go to the story of God
asking Solomon what gift he wanted, and how he chose wisdom over wealth.
But our reading from 1 Thessalonians poses the question in a
particular context. Paul selects the gifts he thinks his readers most need from
God. And they need them, not for Christmas, but in preparation for the Second Coming, which theme we
traditionally mark today, on the First Sunday in Advent. I shall take verses 12
and 13 as a text:
And may the Lord make you increase and
abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.
And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless
before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
‘May the Lord make you increase’ (verse 12). Increase is
something we know all about at Christmas – increase in possessions, increase in
waistline, and increase in debt. But we can safely assume Paul does not mean
anything like this for the Thessalonian Christians.
Yet it is much harder to determine what Paul does mean by
desiring ‘increase’ for the Thessalonians. He might mean numerical increase. Certainly he wanted to see the Gospel spread –
he devoted his life to that cause and it would be fitting in the light of the
Second Coming to pray for that. If Christ is going to return we want as many
people as possible to find faith in him. And it is a worthy prayer for us to
pray, too. However much we may feel we are struggling and that we have an
elderly age profile this ‘present request’ attunes our vision to God’s desires.
But the increase may not be numerical, it may be spiritual.
Paul uses similar language in 2
Thessalonians 1:3, where the increase he speaks of is growing faith. Would God not be pleased with us
requesting that as a present, too? Being bolder in his name; taking more risks
in the name of Jesus; greater trust and more belief. What a contrast to what
often passes for church: playing it safe; doing what we’ve always done;
choosing not to do something because we are far more concerned not to offend
someone than to obey Jesus. Yes, that sounds like just the sort of desire from
our hearts that would thrill our God.
And it makes huge sense in the light of his coming. For how
many of us are like the man in the parable who buried his talent rather than
risked it? We are a nation of people who often when saying ‘Goodbye’ use the
expression ‘Take care’. We’re so busy ‘taking care’ in a health-and-safety
world so obsessed with risk assessments that we probably consider it too risky
to get out of bed in the morning. Listen to its manifestation in church life:
‘We mustn’t do that – we’ll offend so-and-so’. ‘What if it goes wrong?’ ‘We’ve
tried that before and it didn’t work.’ ‘But we’ve always done it this way.’
Isn’t it time to seek an increase of faith before God takes our one-talent
Just let us be sure of one thing. We might find ourselves
feeling like the young bird forced from the comfort of the nest by its parent,
plummeting at first towards the earth. But God is teaching us to fly.
But there is another sense in which Paul prays for
‘increase’ and it is linked to the second item on his ‘present list’ for the
To read the whole of verse 12:
‘And may the Lord make you increase and
abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.’
The increase is related to abounding in love. And Paul has a
sense of this elsewhere in his writings. In 2 Corinthians 6:11-13 he asks
his readers to open wide their hearts to him and his colleagues, just as they
have opened their hearts wide to them.
Greater love would be a fine gift for the coming of Christ. We
are heading for a kingdom where love, not violence, rules. Love is not only
wise and true now, it kits us out for God’s future. And Paul says you can never
have too much. He longs for the Thessalonians to ‘abound in love for one another and for all’.
Therefore this is a request for all of us. How many of us
love to the uttermost? How many of us love with mixed motives? How many of us
love when it is easy or comfortable but not when life tightens around us?
But Paul calls for a twofold expression of this love:
firstly for ‘one another’ and secondly for ‘all’. Are we growing, first of all,
in our love for one another? Positively there are some encouraging examples. I
have heard people say that one of the first things they experienced at this
church was the pastoral care. I frequently visit someone who is sick and learn
that not only has the pastoral visitor called, so too have quite a few other
church friends. That has to be a sign of love, and it is very encouraging.
But at the same time we are a church where other evidence
shows where we need to grow in love. There are the divisions between different
families; the unfortunate comments; the cheap scorn poured on other people’s
ideas; and regular sniping and complaining from some quarters. As a church we
have plenty of room for growing in love for one another.
Yet if we have much challenge in the area of love for one
another, we equally can’t remain inward-looking. Paul also longs that we
‘abound in love … for all’. And that has a number of applications. Some months
ago I said that the test of a church was whether the community would notice if
it closed. In what sense would our community notice? It would notice that
certain activities no longer took place here, but might they more likely be
those conducted by outside hirers than the church herself? I wonder whether you
remember me telling the story of getting a bus from Broomfield Hospital
and asking for the fare to the bus stop outside here. The driver didn’t know
the Methodist church. How might we have greater impact showing the love of God
in the village?
And let us remember that showing that love is not only about
social action, it is about sharing our faith with a prayerful view to others
responding. The moment I use the word ‘all’ as a Methodist I think of the
Wesleyan emphasis on salvation for all. I think of Charles Wesley writing, ‘For
all, for all, my Saviour died’. An increase in our love for all will manifest
itself both in deeds of love and in the opening of our lips to speak lovingly
of Christ. Many of us are fearful to talk about our faith. The cure is not
fundamentally to learn techniques of ‘witnessing’ but to pray for more
knowledge of his love that will overflow from us to others.
Finally, verse 13:
And may he so strengthen your hearts in
holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of
our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Just as God’s coming kingdom is characterised by love, so
also it is characterised by holiness. To desire a holy, blameless life is a
fitting present request in the light of Christ’s coming.
But too often we conceive of holiness as keeping to a list
of dos and don’ts. Here are the rules – either from the Bible or sometimes a
baptism of our cultural expectations. And when we make this mistake things go
wrong. Either people are hypocrites, maintaining an outward stance whilst
secretly doing the opposite, or people long to keep the rules but have not
resolved an inner struggle. The hypocrites are effectively saying, ‘Don’t do as
I do, do as I say,’ and the strugglers cannot make theory and practice match
up, even though they want to.
So Paul is wise here not to describe holiness simply as a
series of outward actions, although it will lead to that and in the next chapter will give a
list of what holiness looks like in practice. No: Paul recognises that holiness
begins in the heart: ‘may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness,’ he says.
The ‘heart’ here is not our emotions, as we commonly use the analogy, but the
core of our being:
The heart is not only the seat of the
understanding and will, but the place where the hidden motives of life and
conduct take shape.
[F F Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians,
The gift of holiness operates fundamentally at the level of
our hidden motives. This is the wider teaching of the Bible, too. The Psalmist
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
lead me in the way everlasting.
Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount equates murder with anger and adultery with lust. It’s the
same theme: true holiness begins in those secret parts of our lives that no-one
sees, even our nearest and dearest. Holiness is not in the first instance about
asking God to help us behave better; it is about inviting him into our dark
places, the parts of our lives we wouldn’t admit to others about and sometimes
barely admit to ourselves they exist.
If you’re like me you may find this scary: God examining our
inner motives and dark places. But notice Paul has a positive take on this:
‘may he so strengthen your hearts in
holiness’. God does not want to weaken us or tear us apart. He wants to
strengthen us. That is the gift. And if we are honest, even if only secretly
within ourselves, are we not aware of our weaknesses and failures in the area
or our secret motives? So Lord, come and purify my motives and my intentions.
Transformation, then, is dependent upon what goes on in our
inner lives. It is the work of God within us. But how do we invite him? An
American Christian leadership consultant called Ron Martoia was asked the
question about how to cultivate the inner life in a busy world in a
conversation published on Friday. Here is part of what Martoia said:
is “how do you find time” it is simply a matter of what you deem most
Jesus with regularity walked past immense need
to manage well the rhythm of “with” time and “alone” time, or activity and
quiet. Most of us in church leadership are pathological in our need to be busy
so we can ignore the deeper more important issues of inner space cultivation.
He may speak to church leaders, but the issue is the same
for all of us. The hidden silent times with God are the formation times for the
outer life. There is no substitute. There is no quick fix. It’s a matter of
Tony Campolo, the great American Christian leader, once said
I’ve no idea when Jesus is coming back.
I’m on the Welcoming Committee, not the Planning Committee.
[Stephen Gaukroger and Nick Mercer, Double
Cream, p 160.]
What better way would we equip ourselves for our place on
the Welcoming Committee than by asking for the gifts of increased faith,
greater love for one another and for all, and a deeper holiness that starts in
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