Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 (Advent 1, Series C)
Advent is the church’s entrance once again into the holy rhythm of Christ’s life. The bride who longed to see her Bridegroom come in glory, now longs anew to see Him come in humility, gently, even swaddled up in a manger. Luther’s Advent preaching is highly recommended reading for this season of the church year. Luther, more than perhaps anyone, sets out in his Advent preaching all of the tension of the biblical revelation between now and not yet, simul iustus et peccator, dead but alive, birth and death, true God and true man, God almighty and God of all mercy, etc. I would also recommend as preparation to the season reading Dante’s Paradiso, Canto VII.19-120, if you have forgotten it or not had time to study it before. Here’s a link:
There Dante works out a great deal of theology from the incarnation, as Luther would, and sees our entire salvation wrapped up in the incarnation. He writes:
“Now fix your eyes on the profundity
of the Eternal Counsel; heed, as closely
as you are able to, my reasoning” (7.94-96).
The mystery of God’s love is made known in the incarnation of His Son and yet God reveals Himself by hiding, by concealing Himself in flesh and blood to raise up fallen humanity. This mystery inspires our highest worship. Dante calls this rescue of humanity in Christ “a magnificent process” (7.113), one that in our Advent preaching we should keep before the eyes of all who wait for His appearing.
Like Jude’s text from last week, we are blessed by another blessing. I cannot imagine on a Sunday such as Advent 1 preaching on this text alone, but maybe St. Paul’s blessing is just what your people need to hear. More likely, you will want to incorporate Paul’s message into your overall sermon. The blessing at the end fits well if you allow the Final Judgment message to overflow into Advent. The Epistle fits more specifically with the Last Sunday of the Church Year and Christ’s Final Advent. As we see in the last section of the blessing in verse 13, ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ μετὰ πάντων τῶν ἁγίων αὐτοῦ, this clearly refers to Christ’s Second Coming. The theological connection would be to the Luke 21 Gospel rather than Luke 19:28-40, which is the classic Gospel account and theme for Advent 1 in the historic one-year lectionary (see Luther’s Postil Sermons).
In verses 9-10, Paul is overflowing with joy: “For what thanksgiving can we offer God concerning you, for all the joy with which we overflow with joy (ἐπὶ πάσῃ τῇ χαρᾷ ᾗ χαίρομεν) before God because of you…?” On the one hand, Paul can hardly express in his intercessory prayers to God the joy that he has for the saints in Thessalonica. But on the other hand, he is aware of, “the shortcomings of your faith,” and therefore wants to come see them in person. This does not seem to be a judgment of their lack of personal faith, but a matter-of-fact observation of their knowledge of the full revelation of Christ. John Calvin is quite right when he says at this verse, “From this also it appears how necessary it is for us to give careful attention to doctrine, for teachers were not appointed merely with the view of leading men, in the course of a single day or month, to the faith of Christ, but for the purpose of perfecting the faith which has been begun” (Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 22). These words are written especially for pastors, so they might imitate St. Paul and be diligent in discharging their office, not growing weary of teaching the Catechism and articles of the Christian faith. New programs of outreach and stewardship cannot and must not replace the preaching and teaching of the Holy Gospel; of which all Christians in this life are deficient and wanting. As one of my beloved professors at the seminary was wont to say, “You can never know this stuff well enough.” So, don’t grow weary!
Paul then launches into a beautiful Gospel blessing. The blessing introduces the section in chapter 4 that speaks of our sanctification as God’s will for us (4:3). In this Sunday’s context, it is helpful to see the advent of Christ in Jerusalem, His advent in Bethlehem, and, finally, His advent on the Last Day all as acts of God’s mercy to sanctify us wholly. Each is a part of His perfect plan for our salvation.
If you preach on this text, there is room here to ask the question: How does God establish our hearts blameless in holiness before Himself? He does so by coming to dwell among us in Bethlehem. He does so by coming to Jerusalem to fulfill all righteousness for us in His death and resurrection. He does so by coming to us daily in His Word and, whenever possible, in His own body and blood until He comes on the Last Day and finds us blameless in Him. You may notice in this context that Paul connects our sanctification and abounding in love directly to His apostolic ministry; which is not his ministry, but the Holy Spirit’s ministry in the, “church, his own creation,” as we sing (LSB #954:3). Certainly, it is not the actions of love that make the Thessalonians holy, nor Paul’s affection. Rather, it is God working through Paul and all His called and ordained ministers who causes the increase of love in our hearts by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Word and Sacraments are intimately tied to the increase of our love for one another. Through these, as through means, God creates faith and leads us into the new life of love. The love of God is, or is promised to be, shown through the office of the ministry. That is why we take articles IV, V, and VI Augsburg Confession and Apology all together. This blessing stands at the start of the Church Year to accompany us to its end when Christ comes again and all that is left is His love (1 Corinthians 13).
CSL Scholar-Chapel Sermon by Dr. Joel Biermann of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis on I Thessalonians 3:9-13.