Lord, help us to hear you. Quiet our hearts, open our ears, and move in us by your Spirit to trust you and walk in your ways. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Welcome on this first Sunday of Christmas. If you are new to Bethel, we are really glad you are here. I invite you all to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5, beginning in verse 12. 1 Thessalonians is in the New Testament – Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28. Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Beloved, pray for us.
Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God
This is the end of the First Letter of Paul to the church in Thessalonica. If you are new to Bethel, we have been listening to this letter throughout the season of Advent. 1 Thessalonians is filled with anticipation for the return of Jesus Christ and we set that anticipation alongside our longing for Christmas and the joy and good news of the first coming of Christ in the manger. But this morning, we finish this beautiful, inspired letter. This letter ends the same way that many of the letters in the New Testament end – with a series of concluding instructions on how to live in light of everything that the letter has been teaching. There is so much here and I struggled this week to find how to unpack it all for you. But I decided that this morning we will narrow our focus to just one verse – verse 14 – and reflect on this: “What would it look like for a church to be/do all these things?”
1. Admonish the idlers
Verse 14: And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and be patient with all of them. What would it look like if the church actually lived out what the Spirit instructs us here?
The first thing we are called to do is ‘admonish the idlers’
The word translated ‘admonish’ has the sense of using your words to try to turn someone else away from something that is wrong and lay on their heart what is good. It is a form of correction. To ‘admonish’ someone involves naming something wrong in order to point them toward something good. Part of what a healthy, thriving church looks like is that it is a place where admonishment can happen. If we look back at verse 12, we see that this responsibility to turn others from the wrong and place the good on their hearts is the particular responsibility of those placed in charge of the congregation – the pastor and elders. It is our responsibility, charged by God, to be doing this work. But we also see that, in verse 14, this task is also given to all the church. And we urge you, beloved – literally ‘brothers’ as in the whole congregation of the church – to admonish the idlers. While this is the work of elders and pastors, it is all our work together.
Some of you are already thinking that these instructions have started off on a low note. You’ve known those people who seem to enjoy pointing out what is wrong with others. You’ve seen those people who always find something wrong, who always nitpick, who are never content and always complaining. You might be thinking that this is what I mean by saying ‘admonishing’ and ‘correcting’ and you might be thinking, “A healthy church needs more of this?! That’s a hard pass from me.”
If that is what you hear when Paul says, and we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, I have good news for you. True Christian admonishment, the kind Paul is talking about here in this passage, is not about that bitter, discontent spirit that invents faults, starts fires, or enjoys discord or conflict. The church has seen plenty of that and needs no more of it. True Christian admonishment is really about helping one another grow deeper in Christ. It involves the pointing out of faults and the holding forth of good, but the purpose is that we help each other make progress in our faith. At Bethel, our mission is Sharing Christ in Community. Along with that mission, we have vision that we believe is the way that God is calling us to do this work of Sharing Christ in Community. It has three aspects: Worshipping the Savior, Welcoming the Stranger, and Growing in Christ Together. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers is fundamentally about Growing in Christ Together.
Let’s imagine a scenario where this is not happening. You go to the doctor for your regular checkups and the doctor never says anything is wrong. Let’s say she always tells you that you are doing great, you are healthy, there is nothing you need to change. No doubt you would feel very good emotionally right up until you get hospitalized after a heart attack. Your diet, lack of exercise, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol finally caught up to you. All these things that were ticking time bombs on your health and could have been addressed in different ways. Your doctor visits you in the hospital and you ask why they never said anything if they knew how dangerous the way you were living was for your health. She says, “I knew, but I didn’t want to make you feel bad. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
What might your response be? First, you might think this person should not be a doctor. It is a doctor’s responsibility to tell you when your health is off-track and to tell you now. If they know that there is a problem and they simply don’t tell you, then they are shirking their duty and you are paying the price for it. So you might first think, “Do your job or let someone else do it so I don’t find myself back in the hospital again or worse.”
Second, you might think that you would have rather had a short, difficult conversation a few years ago that be sitting in the hospital. Sure, it might not have been fun to hear that I should probably actually play basketball instead of just playing NBA Live 19 in my basement on my PS4. That might be an awkward conversation, but it certainly would have been better than this.
True Christian admonishment functions in a similar way. It is the act of love – hear that again – act of love whereby we name what is wrong so that we can hold forth what is good. It is like a doctor addressing your health or the school teacher assessing your work. The goal is not pointing out where you are wrong, but that you would then turn to what is good and right. A healthy, thriving church is a place where we will see this happen, both from the pastors and elders, but also between one another.
And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers. The people Paul places before us as most needing admonishment are the idlers. This could refer to people who are not working and could. There are hints earlier in the letter that some in the community were using the fact that Jesus is coming back as an excuse not to do any work. In that case, the dangers of idleness and the good of faithful work should be held forth for them. But I think there is also a deeper meaning to this. Idlers are also those who are not making progress in their Christian faith. An idler is also someone whose walk with God has stalled out. It is these people in particular who need the work of admonishment, the naming of the wrong and holding forth of the good.
But before we begin to think, “I am glad that the person next to me came this morning, because that idler needs to hear this message,” we should recognize that this is a danger for all of us. That is why the work of helping each other grow in Christ together is given to the whole church. It is a particular responsibility of the elders and ministers, but we should each be loving, admonishing, and supporting one another as we grow in Christ together.
So this is the first aspect of a healthy church that we find in 1 Thessalonians 5:14. A healthy church admonishes the idlers. It is a place where we care about each other enough to say when our life is moving away from God in dangerous ways and to call each other to follow Christ.
Here is the second:
2. Encourage the fainthearted
And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted. The word translated ‘encourage’ is the image of someone coming close to your side in order to speak to you in a friendly and loving way. It is a word of love, friendship, and comfort. We talked a few moments ago that a healthy church is a place where admonishment can happen, but a healthy church is also a place filled with encouragement for the fainthearted.
For those struggling under discouragement, whose faith seems small and doubts seem large, for those who feel ready to give up, to check out, to walk away, the church should be a place filled with encouragement. It should be a place where when we feel ready to faint, a friend comes close to our side, puts an arm around us, and walks with us.
Encourage the fainthearted means that the discouraged should never walk alone in the church, the struggling should never feel isolated, the doubting should never be less. What would it look like if Bethel was a place where we encouraged the fainthearted? What would it look like if we were a place where the weary and burdened found rest – rest in Jesus Christ?
For the encouragement that should fill the church is not the encouragement of bland platitudes. It is the comfort and encouragement that is rooted in Jesus Christ. Christ was born for you. Christ suffered for you. Christ died for you. Christ rose for you. Christ ascended for you. Christ will come again for you. It is the comfort rooted in who Jesus is for us and what he has done for us. It is a firm and sure comfort that leads us to comfort and encourage one another with the comfort and encouragement we have found in Jesus Christ.
So first, a healthy church that is waiting for Jesus will be a church where admonishment happens for the sake of our Growing in Christ Together. But second, it will also be a place filled with encouragement, where we draw near and walk alongside those who are weary and struggling.
But there is a third instruction here in verse 14:
3. Help the weak
And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak. The word translated ‘help’ is the picture of holding on to someone. The weak are those most likely to fall or fall away. The weak are those whose body and soul, whose faith and life are not strong, but fragile. Far too often, they are the ones who slip through the cracks, who slip and no one seems to notice until they are simply gone.
But a healthy church will be a place where we hold on to one another, where we do not idolize the strong, but care for the weak. It is a place where we follow the way of Jesus, who chose to be born in weakness, who took on meekness, who constantly reached out in healing and love to the weak and lowly, who said “blessed are the poor in spirit,” who took the path down, down, down to the cross – the church is a place where, because we belong to the Savior who walked the path of weakness, we too can walk that path and embrace the weak. A healthy church is a place where the weak are helped, where they are held.
A church that is like that will be a weird and wonderful place. In a world increasingly enamored with the powerful, the beautiful, and the wealthy, a church that helps and embraces the weak will become an increasingly weird place. A church where housing vulnerable teens are a priority, where single moms matter, where children no matter what home looks like can find a home here, will be an increasingly weird and wonderful place. A church where being neurologically atypical makes you a blessing not a burden, where what boat you came on or whether you came on a boat at all does not define whether you are a brother or sister, where 8 and 88 year olds sing praise together will become an increasingly weird and wonderful place.
And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak. What a vision for the church! As those who have been called by Christ out of darkness and futility into light and purpose, as those who have been raised up in Christ when we were weary and heavy-laden, who were rescued and embraced by Christ when we were weak, the church is to be a place that lives this out in the world.
But there is one more instruction we find here in verse 14:
4. Be patient with all of them.
And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and be patient with all of them. The last thing Paul gives us in this quick burst of instruction is the call to patience.
Becoming this, doing this, living this out – admonishment, encouragement, help – will not be quick. It will not be like flipping a switch, but like the slow growth from spring through summer into fall in time for the harvest. Patience is required because there are no short cuts in the church. There is no simple four-step formula to become mature and healthy by tomorrow. It is a lifetime of listening again and again to the good news and the good instruction of God in his Word. It is a lifetime of again and again seeking to follow Christ whoever he leads. It is a lifetime of daily acts of admonishing, encouraging, and helping – and receiving all these as well.
Patience is needed because the journey is long. But patience is also needed because people are difficult. Including you are me. I sometimes say that everything becomes more complicated once there are people involved. You are not always easy to deal with and neither am I. You don’t always like admonishment and neither do I. You don’t always receive encouragement or accept help, but neither do I. So we need patience with one another.
God’s dealings with the church in Christ, which sets our lives in light of his coming again, calls for us to live as a church filled with mutual correction, encouragement, and help that is guided by patience. Patience is not the same as simple endurance, nor is it a form of indulgence. Instead, it is a fruit of the Spirit, a spiritual force, the drives us beyond friendliness and love into long-suffering for each other.
There was a lot in our passage this morning that we could have spent months working through. But as we close our time in 1 Thessalonians, we looked specifically at verse 14 and wondered what it would look like for a church to truly live in light of Jesus coming again. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and be patient with all of them.
This is a beautiful and challenging vision for the church, for us here at Bethel. But I want to leave you with this promise from verse 24: The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. God is faithful. This calling for the church is large, but God is not done with his church. He is shaping her, shaping his bride in anticipation of his coming, and he is faithful. He will do this. So as you work and strive to admonish, encourage, help, and be patient, trust in the faithful of God who always holds his church in his hands.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.