Have you had enough of Thanksgiving? I pray your celebration, whatever it was, was enjoyable and fulfilling and not too overfilling. But what if I said, “Let’s do it again this Thursday!” Would you agree that when Thanksgiving is done, sometimes you’re glad? I mean, the meal is sometimes huge – which means lots of dishes. And there are lots of people – which means conversation, lots of it – and sometimes contrived smiling and crowded conditions. And there is that cultural shopping phenomenon called Black Friday – which means lots of stress and the real fear that you could be crushed under a crowd rushing to find the hottest toy at Wal-Mart. Thanksgiving can be so much sometimes that you get to the end and say, “Enough! No more thanksgiving for another year!”
Maybe that Thanksgiving just past is right now also your most memorable connection now to the idea of being home. Sometimes the “being home” experiences we know are of the kind that make us say, “That’s enough!” But in Advent at Christ the Lord, we’d like to think about being at home in a different way. We want to be home as we prepare for Christmas – at home among the people of God, specifically our brothers and sisters in Christ here. We’ll kick it off by looking at St. Paul’s feeling about the Thessalonian congregation and say with Paul that you can’t give thanks enough.
And it’s because of the joy God’s people bring. You can see this joy in Paul – when in ch.3 he’s saying how much he longed to see these people; how their faith, growing and strong, “keeps [Paul] alive”; how Paul’s been praying about them literally so much that he’s lost track; praying that he could arrive even to answer their misunderstandings about God, to deal with the sins with which they struggled. Almost as though the thought of being home with the Thessalonians brought Paul such joy that he longed for it, broken as it could be; so much joy that he couldn’t give thanks to God enough.
That ought to tell us something about this joy. Often we think of joy as the kind of thing we get when things go our way, when people are great, when we have a good time – what we ought to experience at home. But what we actually experience in life could have us looking very cynically on being home anywhere – even at church. And it might then seem that Paul’s reactions to joy are a little too much. Maybe we too see what people are lacking around us here, but we say, “How horrible! What weakness! They haven’t supported me! Why should I prop them up?” We might think about praying too, but maybe as a lot of time for people who lack so much. Or we might simply think: for what we’ve received from these, we’ve thanked enough.
I wonder whether like that we sometimes forget what kind of joy we’re really after… Paul’s talking about, “all the joy we have in the presence of our God”. That’s receiving something from God’s people that would make you stand in the presence of almighty God and not be afraid but instead be grinning from ear to ear. What would do that? That kind of joy happens for instance, when God’s people know each other’s weaknesses, consider one another in everything they do, and love God’s Word – that is, live according to his spirit – “in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” Jesus too pictures joy with the angels in heaven rejoicing – not over turkey or great conversation or how many likes their most recent Facebook post has – but “over one sinner who repents.” And, repentant sinners rejoice just like Jesus and Paul talk: they’re “filled with…joy,” because by faith they “are receiving the salvation of [their] souls.”
In this world we have so many signs that we are not right with God and signs that judgment from God is coming. And in our homes and even in our church, there are signs of our sins – and they make life sad. The writer of Hebrews urges us instead to “fix our eyes on Jesus…who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame.” Jesus is the sign of true joy: he made it his joy to suffer for our sins instead of enjoying what was already his by rights. True joy is in knowing that we have in Jesus “the Lord Our Righteousness” – everything God demands he freely gives to us and we joyfully receive by faith. Think about it this way – Paul’s modeling for us an abundant thanks to God for what God’s people give us: not gifts, not attention, but the knowledge that they will stand with us in God’s presence because they have a righteous Lord who makes them righteous too. For that kind of joy, we could never give thanks enough.
But don’t forget why that is – God’s people also share in something that makes them at home together. One of the kitschiest little phrases about home is this one: “Home is where the heart is.” There are a few ways you could parse that, but for now let’s use this: Home is the place where you feel loved and most comfortable. That is to say, there are many things about home for which you might give thanks, but the kind of home and people that make you gush over with thanks and joy are the kind that truly love you.
Listen again to what Paul wants God to grant the Thessalonians: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.” Paul knew all about love. He showed it to the Thessalonians by encouraging them in God’s grace and by wanting to come back and continue to do so for their benefit. But Paul could only do that because he knew that: Paul himself once was “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor” but the grace of God was “more than abundant, with the faith and the love which are found in Christ Jesus.” God’s undeserved love for Paul in Christ was so much that it covered over his sins and overflowed and pooled around Paul. Because Paul knew love, he shared love. And we can never give thanks enough that God’s people do just that, in fact, it’s what makes us at home here.
God’s people don’t just identify with Christ, they share the undeserved love they have received in Jesus Christ. Paul prayed, and we do too, that God would keep filling us up with his love, covering over our own sins, spilling into our lives, pooling around us everywhere. The intended audience is “for each other” in the family of God and for everyone else too. That’s a lot of love for a lot of people. Helpful in doing that then is the purpose. In vv.12-13 it sounds like two wishes from Paul – “may God do this” and “may God do that” – but really it’s one purpose. It says, literally, “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else…for the strengthening of your hearts”. The purpose of God’s love, overflowing in our lives in love for all the people around us – is to give support and strength to the faith-lives around us. Like if you plant a garden with tomatoes, you’ll supply some kind of support so that they can grow big and healthy. So also with our brothers and sisters here. Our love for them is meant to be of the kind that props them up, that helps them grow, that makes them strong. Paul’s has modeled it already for us: like how there’s no better regular and ready word of encouragement from you for your brothers and sisters than the Word of God and our shared confidence in Jesus Christ for forgiveness and peace; or like when you recognize what is lacking in the faith of a family member here (some sin, some misunderstanding) and you encourage them letting your love cover things over (your kindness, your gentleness, your self-control) by dealing gently with them until you can determine how to firm up this weakness; or like when you pray for those around you – pray for our congregation generally, for your friends specifically, for the new people you meet – pray that their faiths be strengthened, that their lives abound in love, that they know you love them and Jesus loves them. As God’s people share their love, God’s people feel at home.
And even so, maybe you’d still not be ready for another Thanksgiving this Thursday. But that’s okay. The kind of love and joy the family of God receive and freely give is what makes us at home for Christmas or any other time. Here we’re made ready for Jesus’ coming. Paul said our shared love and joy is meant to keep us blameless and holy – that is, ready – living and loving according to God’s will by faith in the forgiveness Jesus Christ provides. Ready for standing in God’s presence when Jesus comes back with all the saints of heaven. Belonging in this family of God assures that even if we belong nowhere else we’ll belong with all of Jesus’ family one day – free from sin, free from fear, in perfect joy. And you can’t give thanks enough for something like that.