Turn, Serve, Wait
by Jack Wald | February 10th, 2019

I Thessalonians 1:6-10

Whenever I begin preaching from a book of the Bible I approach it with apprehension. I have read I Thessalonians many times over the years, but I wondered what it would be like to preach from it. And then, as it always happens, I fall in love with the book and am delighted at the truths that are uncovered. I am finding these sermons helpful and illuminating. I hope you are profiting as well.

The opening four verses of I Thessalonians tell us that:
The church is a community which lives in relationship with God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
The church is a community which is distinguished by faith, hope and love that is expressed in practical, tangible ways
The church is a community which is loved and chosen by God

We covered this in the first two sermons of our series from I Thessalonians. Last week we made the transition from the characteristics of the church to the gospel: how it comes to us, how we receive it, and how we send it out. Last Sunday we talked about how the gospel comes to us.

Paul writes that the gospel came “not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.” This morning we will look at the next two aspects of the gospel: how the Thessalonians received it and how they sent it out.

How did the Thessalonians receive the gospel that was brought to them? Paul writes in verse 6
You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

The members of the church in Thessalonica imitated Paul, Silas, and Timothy.

When I was a new follower of Jesus, I was part of a university group in Boston called Park Street Seekers. There were about six hundred of us and there was a humorous observation about the way the leadership of the group dressed. As I remember it, the men wore brown corduroy three-piece suits and the women wore scarves.

I was among the leaders of the group, as was Annie, and I don’t remember this being a conscious decision, just that when we bought clothes, we bought clothes like the ones other leaders in the group wore.

People imitate the leaders they follow. It may be they buy a Bible like the one their leader uses. It may be they begin using the same vocabulary their leader uses. It may be they copy the style of their leader when they teach or preach. We learn to pray in the way our leaders pray. We imitate our leaders.

But when Paul writes that the Thessalonians in the church imitated Paul, Silas, and Timothy and the Lord, what does he mean? Did they begin to dress like Paul? Did they adopt his style of preaching and teaching? Was there a sudden interest in being a tentmaker as Paul was?

This may have happened. But Paul is talking about something much more significant. Paul also writes that they imitated “the Lord.” In what way did they imitate both Paul and the Lord? The Thessalonians never met Jesus. How could they imitate him? There may have been sayings of Jesus that were circulating among the communities of followers of Jesus, but the four gospels were not yet written. So how did they imitate Jesus?

What Paul is talking about is how the Thessalonians imitated Paul and the Lord in the way they persevered through the suffering that they endured.

We are very aware of the suffering of Jesus. Our Good Friday service each year during Holy Week focuses on the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. The gospels are dominated by the account of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. One third of Matthew, one third of Mark, one quarter of Luke, and nearly half of John focus on the last week of the life of Jesus. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the night he was arrested, he prayed with great intensity. (Matthew 26:36–39)
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Luke adds this detail: (Luke 22:44)
And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

This is the first lesson that comes out of the passage for today. We are to imitate Jesus and Paul in their perseverance through difficult circumstances.

Jesus persevered. When the pressure came he prayed, he agonized, but he did not walk away from what he knew was the will of his father in heaven.

Paul persevered. He held on to faith in Jesus through disappointment, hardships, and severe persecution. I talked about this last week. His experience with Jesus was so alive and so present he was able to persevere through horrendous suffering.

And the Thessalonians followed the example of Jesus and Paul and persevered through the severe persecution that greeted their new faith as followers of Jesus.

When we find ourselves in difficult situations we need to follow the example of Jesus and Paul. The writer of Hebrews wrote to Jewish followers of Jesus who were suffering under intense persecution. Since the persecution of Jews was less severe, they reasoned they could back away from following Jesus and still be Jewish worshipers of God. The writer of Hebrews exhorted them. He wrote of the heros of the Jewish faith and then concluded, (Hebrews 12:1–2)
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Paul calls us to imitate Jesus and to imitate himself. For the joy set before us, we can endure the difficulties and suffering that comes our way.

What is the joy set before us? We know we are the beloved daughters and sons of God. We know we are heading to the eternal kingdom of Jesus. Knowing this, we persevere through whatever the world hurls at us.

This does not mean our suffering will not be intense. It does not mean we will not agonize. It does not mean we will never doubt. But we will stubbornly hold on to faith with a deep internal joy that will not be quenched by our suffering.

At one point in the ministry of Jesus many of his followers left him. Jesus asked his closest disciples, (John 6:67–68)
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

We hold on to Jesus because there is no other good option.

There are many reasons Christians walk away from faith. It may be they are offended by other Christians and don’t want to be part of them. It may be that they feel God has disappointed them, not answering their prayers, not sparing them from suffering. It may be they could not resist temptation and walked off the path of following Jesus and forgot how to get back. It could be that they have doubts and have difficulty living with faith and doubt. One of them has to go and they choose to let go of faith. It could be rebellion and they want to be free to do whatever they want to do. It could be they go through a long period of dryness in their spiritual life and gradually drift away.

There are many reasons people walk away from Jesus. We need to imitate Paul and hold on to Jesus regardless of how difficult life becomes.

Holding on to faith is not just sheer dogged endurance. It is not merely a stubborn following of Jesus. Paul writes:
for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit

It is a living faith that holds on to Jesus. It is a faith that produces joy because we know that our true life, our eternal life, is permanent and that the suffering of this life is only temporary. It will pass. Sometimes that faith may be just a thread, but we hang on to the thread if that is all there is.

In 2010 the Moroccan government abruptly deported the “parents” of the children of the Village of Hope. For the previous ten years I had made many visits. I was there when the first children were taken in, just a couple days after they were born. I visited about eighteen times a year. RIC used to make five bus trips a year to Ain Leuh to help with the construction of new homes, gardens, and play spaces for the children. I was chairman of the board of VOH.

The children and “parents” were a major part of my life, so when on Monday, March 8 I received word the police and military had arrived to take the “parents” to the airport in Casablanca and escort them out of the country, I was devastated. The “parents” had just seven hours to say goodbye to their children and pack a few things. The children were crying and calling out for their parents to stay. They clung to their parents and had to be pulled away from their parents by the police. It was absolutely horrible.

I lost my ability to trust in God. If God allowed this to happen, how could I trust him for anything else. The next day Elliot and I drove to Tangiers to talk to a student who was having difficulty and when we stopped for lunch, I could not pray. I could not put my trust in God who had allowed such a terrible thing to happen.

I was angry. I prayed angry prayers. I was grieving. Annie and the Associate Pastor at the time were nervous about what I would say, but I resolved I was going to keep preaching through my anger, tears, and pain. I held on to faith in God by a thread but the thread was enough and God brought healing over time.

At the end of 2010 I wrote a newsletter to people who support me in my ministry and four or five people commented that it seemed I had grown in faith. I responded by telling them that if I had grown in faith, it was not intentional. All I did was hang on to Jesus with my anger, my bitterness, my doubts – and when we hold on to Jesus in difficult times, that is when our faith grows.

The Holy Spirit worked in my life, kept me connected, returned to me the joy that allowed me to love God, trust God, and hope for his kingdom where children are not taken abruptly away from their parents.

Whatever has happened in your life, whatever is happening now in your life, whatever will happen in your life in the future, imitate Paul and hold on to faith in Jesus who will bring you safely through all the events of this world and into his kingdom.

News of this new church in Thessalonica spread throughout the Mediterranean. When Paul, Silas, and Timothy spoke or wrote to other churches, they shared what was happening in the new church in Thessalonica. They shared how this new church was standing up under the severe persecution they were facing. Other churches were encouraged to hear of a new community of followers of Jesus in the important city of Thessalonica.

So Paul writes,
7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the 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 coming wrath.

The church in Thessalonica put the light of Jesus they had received on a hill where it could shine out into the world. Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 5:14–16)
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

When the gospel comes and is welcomed, a church is started and it is the privilege of this new church to lift up the light of Christ and pass on to others what it has received.

What was the message they broadcast?
They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the 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 coming wrath.

Paul writes that they turned, they served, and they waited.

They turned from idols. The Hebrew word for repentance is shuv which means turn. It is not a slight deviation, it is a 180? turn. Repentance is a turning away from evil and a turning toward good. We have been walking away from God and now we turn and begin to walk toward God. To shuv is not just philosophical, it is very practical. We turn away from destructive behavior and replace it with positive behavior.

Most of us have not come from a background where we have statues we worship, but idolatry takes many forms. Idolatry is much more complex and much more subtle than praying in front of a statue. Idolatry is the worship of someone or something other than God. Pleasure, wealth, success can be idols we worship. We can make an idol out of something that is good. I mentioned last week that we can make the spiritual gifts we have been given into idols when we focus on the gifts rather than God who gives them. Family and friends can become idols when they become more important to us than our relationship with Jesus.

I had an uncle who became a follower of Jesus during WWII in the Pacific theater when he met some missionaries living there. He wanted to return after the war to work with them. But when he got home to the US his wife gave him an ultimatum: “Choose Jesus or choose me. You cannot have us both.” He choose his wife.

God alone is to be worshiped. When we place anything else, good or bad, on the altar and make that the most important thing in our life, we are engaging in idolatry.

The Thessalonians turned from worship of idols to serving the living and true God. Repentance, turning, is always turning from something that pulls us away from God and replacing it with thoughts and behavior that draw us toward God.

The energy and passion Saul had in persecuting the church was replaced by directing his energy and passion to taking the gospel to the Gentile world.

In thinking about myself at the time I became a follower of Jesus, I can see that I was completely preoccupied with self. But as I began to follow Jesus my attention shifted. I increasingly became concerned with what God wanted from my life. This is what led me to change my course from studying medicine to going to seminary. What God wanted me to do was more important than what I wanted to do. I turned from serving Jack to serving God.

Those early days of turning and following Jesus were dramatic but that process has continued over the years. I still have to repent when it becomes clear that my following of Jesus and serving him is becoming less important than wanting what the world has to offer.

I have a niece who writes me with theological questions and this past week she asked me about the abundant archeological evidence that the Israelites worshiped Asherah. Asherah was the mother goddess in Semetic cultures and was viewed as the queen consort, the wife of various gods who were kings. This included the Hebrew God, Yahweh. In their idolatry, Israelites worshiped Asherah as the wife of God who had brought them from Egypt to Canaan.

Idolatry was the primary thorn in God’s side. Abraham came from a polytheistic culture and in God’s interactions with Abraham, he taught him that there were not many gods; he was the one true God. Then in the four hundred years that Israel lived in Egypt, the descendants of Abraham picked up the worship of the many Egyptian gods. Through miraculous signs God tried to draw them to worship him alone, but when Moses spent too much time on Mt. Sinai and they feared he would not return, they asked Aaron to make a golden calf so they could worship a god.

When Israel crossed over the Jordan into Canaan, despite strong warnings, they adopted the local religions and worshiped the gods Baal and Asherah. The prophets spoke against this idolatry over and over and over again and finally this led to the conquering of the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The Jews were taken into captivity and all this was God’s judgment against them for their idolatry.

God wants us to worship him, to serve him, and he will not tolerate any idolatry. God will not take second place in our lives. God repeatedly told Israel, (Exodus 34:14)
Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

When we turn and begin to follow Jesus, it seems good but then comes temptation. Then comes the drive to be successful, to earn a lot of money and enjoy the “good life”, to become well known and respected in your profession, to have exceptional children, to be a respected pillar of a community. These and a hundred other things pull us away from our devotion to God, placing him in second or third place in our lives.

This is a struggle we face all life long. We continually have to turn and make God first in our lives.

The Thessalonian church turned and then served the living and true God. What is God doing in the world? What is the work of God in the world? God is a loving and just God. How is God working to make people aware of his love and to bring justice into a world of injustice? How can I work with Jesus to share his love? How can I work with Jesus to bring justice?

There are many, many ways to do this. If only pastors worked to build God’s kingdom, the church would be in a very sorry state. The point is that the focus for every follower of Jesus is no longer on how I can build my kingdom, but how can I help to build God’s kingdom. Our goal should not be to build our reputation, it should be to serve the church with my gifts. There are pastors who work to build their own earthly kingdom. They build the church to make their own empire wealthier and more glorious. God’s judgment awaits them.

We are called by God to be welcomed in his kingdom and then, as his beloved sons and daughters, building his kingdom, working for his kingdom, advancing his kingdom, becomes our goal. If this is not our goal, then we have to see what form of idolatry we are engaged in.

The church turns, serves and then waits.

They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the 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 coming wrath.

What does waiting imply? If we are waiting, then there is something that is going to happen but will not happen right away. I have to wait for it to happen. If it is something good that will happen, it is very difficult to wait.

If I am 17 and the age at which I can get a driver’s license is 18, I wait for my birthday so I can drive. I turn 17 and then think, 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days and then I can drive. I wait and wait and it seems to take forever. But every day, as I wait, the day comes closer.

What is the church waiting for? We wait for the return of Jesus, the Second Coming of Jesus. Before Jesus ascended into heaven he promised us he would return. He spoke a lot about his return and for the past two thousand years people have tried to figure out when and how he will return. They predict specific dates for his return, despite Jesus saying (Mark 13:32)
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

When Jesus will return and what it will be like when he returns will be a surprise. The best minds in Israel studied the scriptures to see when the Messiah would come and they were wrong. I am convinced that all those who are so confidently predicting what will happen when Jesus returns will be wrong as well. Our focus in waiting is not to figure out when he will return. That is a guaranteed waste of time. Our focus is to be prepared for his return. We wait, and in our waiting we prepare ourselves to meet Jesus when he returns.

Turn, serve, wait.

The Appalachian Trail extends from Springer Mountain in the southern US state of Georgia to Mount Katahdin in the northeastern state of Maine. It is 2,200 miles long (3,500 km) and it has been one of my dreams that I would hike the length of the trail someday. Living in Morocco for the past nineteen years has made that a dream that will not be fulfilled, but I have hiked on small portions of the trail.

When my daughters were teenagers we hiked a portion of the trail in New Hampshire in the northeast of the US. This is a beautiful location. Along the trail there are huts where you can spend the night. They have bunks for you to sleep in and serve a big breakfast and a big supper so there is not really a need to eat any lunch despite all the exercise of hiking all day.

I thought about this because when Annie wrote her book on marriage, Walk With Me: Pilgrim’s Progress for Married Couples, she talked about the couple in the story stopping at huts along the way. In her allegorical story, these huts were churches.h

So as Paul presents a view of what a church is in his I Thessalonians letter, I thought about how hiking the Appalachian Trail and staying in these huts illustrate some of what he writes.

When through-hikers, those who are hiking the whole trail, meet they form an immediate community. They share the same goal, the same destination. They are committed to hiking from Springer Mountain all the way to Mount Katahdin. They come from many different backgrounds. They have many different careers. But with all these differences, they have a common goal which brings them together.

If someone is discouraged and thinking about stopping, they listen, empathize, and share their own experience and wisdom. They encourage each other to persevere. They want each person to make it to the end. If there are injuries, they talk about how to keep on and allow their body to heal at the same time. What keeps them going through difficult days? They are determined to finish the hike and claim the prize that awaits them on Mount Katahdin.

When they come to the huts, they are delighted to find shelter inside. For most of the trail they have been sleeping in tents and a hut with a bed and mattress and blanket is a luxury. They are grateful. They do not complain about what is served for breakfast or supper. They are delighted to have a hot meal.

They are not distracted by the beautiful views. They are not distracted by the ease and comfort of sleeping in a nice hut with good meals. They know where they are going and are determined to get there.

As nice as the hut is, the hut is not the goal. The hut is not their final resting place. The hut is a way station to help passing hikers. The trail continues on past the hut, all the way to Mount Katahdin.

We are all hikers on a journey. We are making our way to our final destination.

I have been on this journey much longer than most of you. I wish I knew thirty or forty years ago what I know now, but wisdom comes to us with time and experience. It does not seem to want to be rushed.

RIC is a way station on your path through life as you head to your final destination where you will receive your prize, eternal life with Jesus. People come and go far too frequently and far too often at RIC, but this high rate of transition helps us see the truth that even for those who are members of one church in one community all their lives, their church is only a way station on the way to their final destination.

RIC, as a way station on the way to heaven, may not be exactly what you would like it to be, but be grateful for a hut where you can be fed and encouraged on your path to your final destination. Do what you can to make this hut a place where people can be encouraged in their walk with Jesus.

Never take your eyes off your final destination. Make this the most important goal of your life. As important as your work may be, it is not as important as you think it is. John wrote what I consider to be a summary of the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: (1 John 2:17 The Message)
The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.

Turn from anything that threatens to make God less than number one in your life. Serve the church here in Morocco with your gifts, your time, your resources. Wait with your brothers and sisters for the return of Jesus. As you wait, prepare yourselves for his return that could come at any second. As you wait, lift up the name of Jesus and allow the light of Jesus to shine in the life of our community.

Keep walking, keep your eyes on the prize, walk with others who will support and encourage you to keep walking, persevere and you will receive your reward.