A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on June 19, 2011.
1 Thessalonians 5:11-24
Lord, we commit to your special care those families where there is only one parent. Help the mother or father who is bringing up children to find in you the resources and wisdom that they need. Speak to the hearts and minds of loving friends and neighbors the need to give support and to help provide anything that is lacking. Teach us all that you are a loving parent to us, ready to give, and ready to provide when we come to the end of ourselves. Father, we also pray for all who are joined in a second marriage. Give them love, perseverance, and faith as they try to fill the role of partner and parent. Save them from remorse or jealously or resentment. Help them to build up a new sense of belonging. May each one deal fairly and lovingly with all the situations that crop up in everyday life. Give them hope, faith, love, and good success in building new, strong family bonds. Father, we pray for all children whose lives have been shattered through their family being broken, whether broken by selfishness, by death, by cruelty, by desertion or other things. Give peace to each one. Heal any wounds that have been made and give each one a sense of your fatherly love and care that they may grow strong and straight in their emotions and able to form good and loving relationships in their own time. Please, Lord, bless all the children who don’t have a father or a mother and those who may have no family at all. You know what they feel and how much love they need. Father, you love us all. Give more love than ever to these children now. Heal their hurts and ease their pain. In the name of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
There is trouble and sorrow enough in the world, without making it on purpose.
–William Dean Howells
Perhaps one of the most common words we use when we pray would be the word bless. It is hard to pray for almost anyone without, at some point, in the prayer using the word bless. Children, even if they learn a memorized prayer when they are small, will typically say and bless my family, bless my teacher, bless my pets, bless my friends. At some point, they will revert to saying bless.
When we pray for one another, we will often introduce praying for someone in particular, with bless. Bless my father. Then we will continue the idea a little bit and say, Bless my father. Give him strength as he goes undergoes chemotherapy. That is not true for me, but that is the kind of thing we will say. We will say, Bless my co-worker. Give her patience as she undergoes surgery. Give her strength as she goes through a divorce. We will introduce with bless and then we start to carry it out just a little bit.
When we pray for ourselves we say, Lord bless me. Give me wisdom for the decision that I face. Give me courage for the trial that is ahead. Bless me. Almost always when we pray, at some point, what we will ask God to do for us or for someone else is bless us.
I think one of the reasons why we use this word so often is that we live in an age of un-blessing. It is a graceless age, an age in which there seems to be every kind of rage possible.
One example is road rage. You are sitting at a traffic light. There is a car stopped in front of you. The light turns green, and you wait very patiently. You sit at this traffic light every day. You know how long it is going to stay green, and when you are about five seconds from realizing you are going to miss the light, you try to politely tap the horn. The person speaks to you through their rearview mirror. They are looking at you and saying things that you cannot hear but you understand very well. Or, you are the first car at the traffic light. The light turns green, and you cannot even get your foot off the brake and onto the gas before they are sitting on the horn. You look up, and now they are talking back at you through the rearview mirror. Once again, you understand very clearly what they say. It is a graceless age. There is not much patience with anybody.
You get engaged and go to work. Someone will say, “Let me see your ring.” But there is somebody who will say, “I hope it turns out better for you than it did for me.” Or someone else will say, “Well, just you wait. You will find out what it’s all about. Just you wait.”
You are expecting, and everyone is nice, but someone will say to you, “I wouldn’t want to be raising a child today. I wouldn’t want to be raising a child in this world.”
In some places in culture, a child who excels is put down. “Who do you think you are? Do you think you are smarter than everybody else?” Those who teach, can tell you about children who pull their heads back in and duck down and don’t want anyone to know that they are as smart as they are.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have a child who excels. The child comes home and has made a 96 on a test, and the parent says, “Why didn’t you make 100?” They both carry the burden of discouragement but it just has a different shape on each back. They are both unblessed. One unblessed because he excels, one unblessed because he doesn’t excel enough. Is it any wonder why we pray, Lord, bless my family? Bless these people that I love. Bless members of the church. Bless me. We live in an unblessed age, and I think we all crave blessing.
I have a brother-in-law who is a minister and he is opinionated, and he thinks I am opinionated. Several years ago, we were getting ready to have a family meal and someone said, “Will you say the blessing?” He said, “You can’t say the blessing. Only God can bless it. You can ask for blessing.” So we had a theological discussion before dinner about whether or not you can say the blessing or ask the blessing.
Personally, I think we can say words that bless. We can bless people. Each and every one of us today has experienced, at some point, blessing, words that were said to us that somehow lifted our lives. Listen to what Paul says to the Thessalonians. “Therefore, encourage one another, and build each other up as indeed you are doing. Esteem them highly in your love for their work. Be at peace among yourselves. We urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers but encourage the faint hearted. Help the weak. Be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give in all circumstances.” The whole passage is about lifting and encouraging one another. Can you hear that?
Paul has written to the Thessalonians. As in most of his letters, he has gone through all the theological part in the beginning, but when he gets to the part of the book where he talks about how to live like Christ and how to live with one another as a church family, he says, “Encourage each other.” Then he gives all of these examples about how we can lift each other up with our hearts and with our words.
The New Testament is filled with it. Jesus encourages people all the time. Zacheus, the wee little man up in the tree, thought Jesus would not want anything to do with him. Jesus encourages him and says, “God wants to be near you.”
The woman is caught in adultery and brought out in front of everybody for her shame. Jesus challenges everyone else for their sin. When she looks up and there is no one there to accuse her, she realizes she is forgiven and her heart is lifted.
It is everywhere. Barnabas was one of the two first missionaries. The other one was Paul. Barnabas’ name means son of encouragement. In 1 Thessalonians 5 when Paul is trying to talk to the church about how they can reflect Christ’s spirit in the world, he says something as simple as encourage each other.
It is amazing how long it has been now, but several years ago, there was a popular bumper sticker that said, Honk If You Love Jesus. There have been any number of honk bumper stickers since then. Honk If You Love Square Dancing. Honk If You Love Georgia Football. One of my favorites is, Honk If You Love Peace and Quiet. Honk If You Want to See My Smith & Wesson.
In nature, geese have the ability to encourage each other. Someone gave me a book once and the title was, Why Geese Fly Further Than Eagles. Eagles are, typically, by themselves or perhaps in pairs. They stay in a fairly central location, but geese can fly hundreds of miles and they fly by sharing the load. They shift in the V. One moves to the front, and another one moves back. All of the geese encourage each other with the honking. They are saying, You can do it. Don’t stop. Keep on. If geese can do it, why can’t we?
You are probably saying to yourself, This is a pretty simple message. Where did this message come from? Why a message on encouragement? We all know grandparents go to T-ball games. You always encourage your grandchildren. Who would say a negative word in a situation like that? But the truth is a lot of people who think of themselves as positive people will sometimes come out with things in unforeseen, unplanned moments where whatever is in you is going to come out by surprise. It is not always encouraging. We have all been victims of this. We have all said things that we wish we could take back. We said it was constructive criticism, but once we said it and we saw the look on the person’s face, we knew it was constructive to us but destructive to the heart of the person who received it.
We live in an age that is filled with so much cynicism. Just like in my earlier example about marriage or children, “You just wait. You have no idea what you are in for.” This certainly does not build a person up.
I learned something about sarcasm this past week that I should have seen before, but it is a combination of two words that mean to tear the flesh. Have you ever been the butt of sarcasm? It does. It just rips your heart out, doesn’t it? I think sometimes we are too insecure to offer truly a word of blessing so we try to hide it with sarcasm which almost totally nullifies whatever it was we were trying to say.
We all want to be funny. Everybody wants to be somebody who gets a laugh from other people, and cynicism and sarcasm are two of the easiest ways to get a laugh. We would rather get a laugh sometimes than be the person who offers a true word of encouragement to say, You can do it. Something as simple as this in an unblessed age is a reflection of the spirit of Jesus Christ and can serve as a witness to God’s love when we encourage one another.
I have often talked about collecting quotations. A quotation that has been in my file since the 1980’s is the quotation that is the meditation text for today. There is enough sorrow and sadness in life without making any more on purpose. There is enough chemotherapy, there is enough job loss, and there are enough miscarriages, without adding to the pain of life by saying things to one another that hurt. There are enough of those things anyway that we all need a blessing. We all need encouragement, not just the planned one when our child trots across home plate after hitting a home run. Of course, we are all going to be encouraging then. It should become the heart and soul of who we are so that it reflects the nature of Jesus Christ in us. People will learn that when they are around us, they know they are going to get a good word.
Can we covenant together that if we love Christ we will encourage one another? Can we say that we will push back the darkness of the un-blessing, that we will hold back the tide of cynicism and sarcasm, and speak the words that lift one another in faith? The world needs this. We need it, and it can be a witness to the saving love of God through Jesus Christ.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.