The wait for Christ’s return has been a long one, but the things Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about how we are to wait remain true.
In our epistle lesson, Paul writes
For they themselves report… how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.1 Thessalonians 1:9-10
The Thessalonians were waiting for Jesus, much as you and I are, however, unlike us, they didn’t have generations of waiting behind them. They were waiting for Jesus to come back with the kind of anticipation that you and I have as we wait for an end to this pandemic or at least for an opportunity to worship together again. Anticipation like that is not a joyful anticipation, like waiting for Christmas. Instead, it teeters on the brink of disappointment, like waiting for an invitation to the prom or a loved one to return home on an icy night.
Paul did not want them or us to be disappointed by the length of this wait and he wrote to them that he was pleased by the fact that they were waiting and that while they were waiting, they were being faithful to the true and living God.
They had only recently become believers in Christ. Paul had stopped in Thessalonica and had been teaching about Jesus and about true righteousness. To the Jews, Paul preached that Jesus was the Christ that they had expected for so long. He told them how the Christ had come to save them from the condemnation that would result from their inability to keep the law of God. Because of their disobedience, God could not judge them righteous on the basis of the law. Their only hope was to trust that God would account them righteous because of their faith in Jesus and the forgiveness he won for them by sacrificing his life upon the cross.
The Gentiles would have heard that their idols were figments of human imagination who would be unable to save them on the day when the God who made the earth and heavens judged all mankind. Their gods were fake and so were their good deeds. Neither would save them in the day of judgment.
But Paul didn’t get to stay in Thessalonica very long. A mob of Jews and Gentiles formed and came after him. They wanted to silence him because he and his friends were turning their whole world upside down. Paul wasn’t at the home of his host when the mob came for him, but he quickly moved on to the next town. Still the new believers continued having to deal with opposition to their new faith and with the persecution that came with it.
As you can imagine, life wasn’t easy for the Thessalonian Christians. Is it any wonder that they were looking forward to Christ’s return? They were waiting with anticipation for Jesus to return in glory to judge the peoples of the earth. On that day, they would receive the promised reward that God offers to all who believe the message concerning Jesus, his Son, and afterward all their troubles would cease. God would save them from the people who were opposing them and the things that they were suffering. You and I look forward to Christ’s return for an end to the normal everyday suffering that we experience along with the rest of the world. They were looking for that, but also for vindication before their enemies and the end of the persecution they were experiencing.
And so, they waited. But as they waited, they continued to serve God openly.
They served him by gathering in their homes to worship. While Paul had been with them, they had come together often to learn from the scriptures and to listen to him as he showed what the law and the prophets had to say about Christ and his work. They listened as he urged them to faith and as he guided them to live in a manner that would please a holy and righteous God. They were baptized into the name of the triune God and received Christ’s body and blood as they shared bread and wine and remembered his sacrifice upon the cross. They sang psalms and hymns and offered prayers to their God and savior.
But their service to God was not limited to gathering for worship. In this chapter, Paul praises them because they were also continuing to share the word with other people in their community and beyond. They did so, even though such sharing could and did result in further persecution. They weren’t ashamed of the Gospel, nor would they be silenced. Paul writes,
Not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere.1 Thessalonians 1:8
Paul applauds their witness and tells them that they have been an example to other churches in the regions of Macedonia and Achaia, that is throughout modern Greece. They had not only heard and believed Paul’s words; they had followed his example.
Because of that, the Holy Spirit was working powerfully in them and through them; so that, even while they were being persecuted, they experienced the joy Paul and the other apostles had as they saw people converted and lives changed for the better. The Gospel continued to advance because of what the Thessalonians said and did. May God grant us to know that joy as well.
Is it any wonder that Paul began this letter by giving thanks to God for them? He wrote,
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.1 Thessalonians 1:2-3
Their faith given them confidence in the work of Christ and God’s love for them enabling them to serve the living God. Their love had led them to work for the salvation of others. And their hope for the promised eternal reward had enabled them to persevere despite suffering and persecution.
For them, Christ’s return and the judgment he would bring would be a time of joy that triumphed over fear. Though for unbelievers it would be a day of darkness and terror, for the persecuted saints it would be a day of vindication. Their suffering would be over. Persecution would be a thing of the past. They would shout to their accusers “See, the things we told you are true.” And Christ would reward them for their work and their endurance.
You and I share their faith, so let us encourage one another as we worship the only true God. We hold the same love in our hearts and are empowered by the same Spirit; therefore, let us speak to others about Christ. We have the same hope and also anticipate our Lord’s return; therefore, let us endure the sufferings and the trials that will come. Let us speak and worship and serve without fear as we await our Lord’s return. Amen.