It’s a wonderful day and I’m really honored to be preaching on the first Sunday of the New Year it’s a great joy. I have a great text for us today—1 Thessalonians 1:2-6—and it’s a great encouragement text in the New Testament. As a matter of fact did you know the very first book of the New Testament is 1 Thessalonians? So here we have the first sentences of Saint Paul in letters that he wrote to the churches in the first century Christian church.
In this text Paul gives thanks for a group of ordinary people who lived in Thessaloniki. He is thankful for this people, and in this letter he thanks them for their faith. We find in this letter the four great words of the Christian’s relationship with Jesus Christ. Paul thanks them for their faith, their love, their hope, and their joy. These are key words to Saint Paul, he uses them a lot and he thanks the Thessalonians for those words, for those great ingredients of their own journey with Christ.
But Paul is a teacher too, so he not only thanks God for their faith, their love, their hope, and their joy but he adds a word to each one as a teacher and helps us really understand what those words mean.
(Read 1 Thessalonians 1:2-6)
Work of Faith
The Greek word for “work” is erg, it’s a word that’s come to our scientific vocabulary, because erg is a unit of energy. The work of faith, it’s basic because we would have no faith at all without the work of God. As Carl Barton loves to say, “The word and the work are inseparable in Jesus Christ.” You cannot separate what Jesus says, that’s why he cannot be treated just as a teacher. You cannot take away what Jesus says from what he did. Therefore, erg means an event that happens because of something and the work of Jesus Christ happened at the cross. This work happened when he defeated Satan and he defeated death and he absorbed human sins all in that great incredible work moment.
There would be no faith without that work, so Paul says your work of faith because also this is second thing to understand about faith. Faith first of all is a decision that we make. Maybe we start reading the New Testament or reading the Gospel records, maybe we’re in a small Bible study group, that’s where it happened for me. You met Jesus in the New Testament, you met him in Mathew, Mark, Luke, John. You met him by anticipation in the Old Testament. But the important thing is you met him and he won your respect, so that you came to respect him that’s a few inches away from faith. Then you decide to find, take his promises and words and you decide to make an event of it in your life, to trust it to put your weight down upon it.
Saint Paul uses this word work decisively in the Philippian letter. In the Philippian letter he has a great song it’s called the Philippian song where he tells about how Christ died on our behalf. Though he is equal of God, he humiliated himself, came to the cross, and died at the cross, and then the guardians highly exalted him, and given him a name above every name, that at the name of Christ every knee should bow. Did you know the next sentence after that song is this, “as you’ve always obeyed … continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” You have salvation from this great work of Christ make an event of it, work it out! Paul goes on to say, “… for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” So that’s the sentence that follows that marvelous great song. Erg the same word work it out, make an event of it, act it out in your life, for God is at work in you to do and fulfill his good decision. So God works and you work. So Paul teaches about faith, in the form of wonderful tribute to these Thessalonians. He is saying “Notice your work of faith, you have made an event of what you’ve trust, you believe in what he said, now you put your weight down on it.”
Labor of Love
Now it’s interesting because that sounds almost like the same word, but it’s not it’s a different word. The word for “labor” is used always in the New Testament to refer to heavy work or sweaty work. It’s a very earthy word. As a matter of fact our Lord uses it in one of his most famous promises “Come into me all you that labor.” Jesus uses that word twice to signify those who are over worked or heavy laden. Then he invites us to take his yolk upon with us.
It’s interesting that Paul decides to attach that word to love. Love is heavy lifting. Love is hard work. It’s a decision you make because you’ve experienced God’s love, because beloved let us love one another, because we’ve been loved by Jesus Christ.
Our Lord makes it very vivid for us in a parable in Luke 10. A young lawyer comes up to him and says “Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus said to him “What is written in the law how do you read it?” The lawyer got the right answer he said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart with you soul with strength with your mind and your neighbor as yourself.” So then the lawyer said to him the first Jesus said “You have given the right answer now do this you’ll live.” But wanting to justify himself he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” That’s a huge tribal question as you know it’s bothering everybody in the world today “Who is my neighbor, who should I pay attention to? Who should I care about, who is my neighbor that I’m supposed to love?”
At that point Jesus tells his most famous parable, a parable about a man that went down between Jerusalem and Jericho and he fell among robbers, they beat him, they strip him naked, and they left him half dead on the side of the road and then a priest and a Levi came by and they pass by and they don’t have any more part to play in story, they missed out. But there’s a third man, a Samaritan, comes and then our Lords says the Samaritan went to the man but it’s before he said he went to him he said he had compassion for him. Now that is one of the strongest of the love words in the New Testament. It’s the Greek word splegamoth the root comes from “gut,” it comes from your bowel from who you are of what you feel. This Samaritan had compassion, he felt love. Notice it’s earthy, it’s practical, it’s from his body, he felt love for this man. Not just that, he felt this love from his inside and then he went and he helped him. He put olive oil on him he put wine on him, a little bit of first aid. But it’s risky because maybe the robbers are still around. Then he lifts him to his own donkey and brings him to an inn. The Samaritan says, “Take care of him, I’ll be back in another day or so if I owe anything I’ll pay you then” and then he leaves, that’s it. That’s love.
Endurance of Hope
This is one of my very favorite words. I first heard it from a great friend give a talk and this is what she said, “The word that means the most to me is uppomano, to hang in there.” This word means stay under, hold on, don’t give up, endure. That is the New Testament word for endurance. Paul uses it many times. He love this word uppomano. It’s not triumphant, it’s very earthy, but it’s conveys the idea of hanging on, surviving, staying put, it’s a faithful presence in the midst of the world.
That’s the word that Saint Paul uses here now, you have the uppomano of hope. He combines it with hope. Hope hangs in there, hope stays, hope doesn’t run away it holds on with you. Hope does more than that too, it’s also optimistic. David Baron Harper had a wonderful line he put in his letters and papers. He talked about hope as the view from underneath, which is uppomano. Then he gave the other side of hope, he said its wiser to be pessimistic, it’s a way of avoiding disappointment and ridicule but the essence of optimism is not the view of the present but is inspiration for life and hope when others give in. He goes on to talk about this the optimism that a will for the future should never be despised, even if its proved wrong hundred times, it is health and vitality and the sick man has no business to impute it. Then he goes on to say, “Some people think that there is unbiased hope for any better future, they think that the meaning of the present events is chaos and disorder and catastrophe, and therefore resignation is the surrender of all responsibility for future generations. But it may lead to the day of judgement dawning tomorrow and in that case Barn Harper says ‘Then we’ll gladly stop working for a better future but not before.’” And that’s his definition of hope, hope is uppomano, it’s hanging in there but hope is also hoping for a better future.
I love The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan, and in Pilgrim’s Progress we have these amazing characters that are made allegorical. We need a character name Mr. Faithful unfortunately he dies, because he is burned at the stake, because this was written during the time when people were burned at the stake. So for his faith he died but there are other characters that are with Pilgrim after that and one of them is Hopeful.
Hopeful is with pilgrim and they were at Vanity Fair together and they move on to the king’s highway and they have a raging river they have to get through so they became very exhausted. Then they find a meadow where they can fall asleep, and they fall asleep. When they wake up they discover they’re on the grounds of Giant Despair, they had no right to fall asleep there. So he takes them captive and puts them in his dungeon. This is one of the most marvelous parts of Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian and Hopeful are put in the dungeon and then they’re beaten by this Giant Despair. By the way his wife’s name is Diffidence, how do you like that? She’s the one who tells him to advise the two pilgrims that they should do away with their lives because they’ll never get out of here. It’s an interesting portrayal of depression that is given by John Bunyan.
So here’s Hopeful and Christian in the castle of Giant Despair, in his dungeon and the giant tries to beat them with a cudgel. But then one problem, he begins to have fits and gets weak in the middle of beating them so he doesn’t quite finish em’ off, but he does this three times he beats them and he says “The next time I’m gonna really finish you off so you should like my wife says you should do way with yourselves because you’ll never get out of here.” Hopeful plays an interesting role with Christian, Hopeful encourages Christian to stay there and hope that maybe the giant will lose his energy finally an they’ll get out, or the giant will forget something and they’ll be able to sneak out. So Hopeful and Christians hang in there and at one point when Christian wonders if he should do way himself, Christian hears from hopeful “Oh no! You can’t do that, that’s against the law of God you’re not allowed to kill yourself that is against God’s law so don’t do that don’t do that.” So Christian decides not to do that.
Then in the middle of the night after four days in the dungeon Christian wakes up “What a fool I am I have a key in my bosom called promise.” You see that Giant had searched them, but he didn’t search them well enough. “I have a key around my neck called promise that I’m sure will open any door.” At that point Hopeful plays another role, Hopeful says “Good! Try it out see if it’ll work!” See that’s the optimism of Baron Harper “try it out see if it’ll work!” I love this part of the endurance progress they go to the first door in the middle of the night now and they use the key and the door opens easily and they go to the second gate and it opens easily. Then they come to the third door and John Bunyan puts this way “And that lock went damnable hard, yet the key did open it but when it opened it made such a screeching sound that it woke up the giant, and his wife said ‘You better go after them.’” The Giant goes after them and guess what he has one of his fits and loses strength and they got out.
Despair is not as powerful as it says it is and that’s what John Bunyan is teaching us. Hopeful plays the double role of one hanging in there with Christian and cautioning Christian from doing anything foolish and then when he finds that key it’s hopeful who says “Go for it. Let’s try to get those doors open.” That’s hope.
The Suprise of Joy
The fourth word is in spite of affliction. The Greek word is flexes. It can be translated as intense pressure. In spite of intense pressure you receive the word of the Lord with joy. Joy, that’s an amazing word. Joy the word chara in Greek is literally the word surprise. But it’s used positively when it is translated joy.
C.S. Lewis when he the told his story of his life he titled it Surprised by Joy, which is a play on words. And Lewis was a philologist so he knew that it’s surprised by surprise. I was surprised joy showed up, I didn’t expect it, I never expected it to show up. That’s what Saint Paul puts as the fourth great word of the Christian walk:
-The Work of Faith
-The Labor of Love
-The Endurance of Hope
-The Surprise of Joy.
J.R.R. Tolkien helped me more than anybody else to understand this when he was explaining really the happy ending of the great Lord of the Rings. Return of the King, the last of that trilogy is probably one of the greatest books I ever read in my life. And Tolkien is explaining the joy, he says, “The surprise of joy is not escapist, is not fugitive, it is miraculous grace. It’s the sudden joyous turn.” And that’s the title I gave for today’s sermon, “The Sudden Joyous Turn.”
Tolkien goes on to say, “It does not deny the existence of sorrow or failure, the possibility of those is necessary for joy to be the joy of deliverance, but it can give to a child or a man who hears it when the turn comes the joyous turn it causes that man or child to catch his breath it gives him a beat and a lifting of the heart as joy.”
Paul saw the joy in his life and he shares it with the Thessalonians. They had it even in the midst of a riot that occurred in Thessaloniki, there was a sort of sudden turn of joy when something turned out better that they expected. It’s the happy ending. As Tolkien said, “The surprise of joy is not escapist, is not fugitive, it is miraculous grace the sudden joyous turn.” You know the work of faith is great because you have to do something with your faith and not just believe something.
Do you know from this very pulpit a number of years ago I taught you all how to downhill ski? I said skiing is very simple because there’s only three rules to remember and if you follow the three rules you can do downhill skiing. Here are the three simple rules in skiing.
The first rule is you have to face down the hill, not across the hill. Second rule is you have to have enough speed to execute the turn. The third rule is the most important rule, you must put your weight on the downhill ski, not the uphill ski. If your weight is on the uphill ski you’ll have those terrible falls. You want to go down the mountain and you want to put your weight on the downhill ski, which means your uphill ski is going be lighter and that’s how you turn.
So that’s skiing, three simple steps. There’s only one problem, all three rules are contrary to our instincts. Your instinct says to stay close to the mountain, your instinct is to go slow, your instinct is to go across the hill not go down the hill. If you put your weight on the downhill ski then you can turn and then switch the downhill ski and you can turn again. But notice what happens, what you had to do was you had to trust the truth, the truth of the ski instructor. You had to trust the truth of the physics of skiing and that physics means weight has to be on the downhill ski, and so you trust that and put you weight on it.
That’s the work of faith, the erg of faith. Remember what Paul says, “Because of your salvation work it out, put your weight down on the salvation you have from Jesus Christ for God is at work in your life.” God is at work in your life, you work by putting your weight down.
I became a Christian that way when I was at a retreat during my time at UC Berkeley. Doctor Robert Boyd Munger was my beloved pastor at Berkeley. He put it this way, “When on the basis of what you know about Jesus Christ you’re willing to trust in his trust worthiness, then you’re ready to become a Christian, then you’re ready to put your weight down on the truth.” The truth is you’re not right to be the lord of your life. I realize today there’s a lot of us that believe we need to be lords of our life and we don’t need anyone to tamper with that we need to be. We are the ones who make all the decisions for our life and we need that. The truth is, it’s better to trust in the faithfulness and the truth of Jesus Christ, and trust in his rein in your life. But it’s a little bit counter intuitive to trust him, to put our weight on the downhill ski, do it, a little speed , do it, face down the hill rather than across the hill, do it.
Then you know what happens, and I love the way Tolkien puts it, “This joy that happens is not escapist, is not fugitive, it’s miraculous grace, it’s a sudden joyous turn.” When you trust the Lord and then you get the joy. Isn’t it interesting that according to Paul joy comes fourth? First the work of faith, then the labor of love, then the uppomano of hope, and finally the sudden turn of joy. When you put it all together it works.
Earl Palmer is a writer and speaker for Earl Palmer Ministries, and author of Mastering the New Testament: 1, 2, 3 John and Revelation (W Publishing Group).