Sermon: Words to Pray By.
“And the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ.” [2 Thessalonians 3:4]
I do not know how many of you listen to Public Radio or specifically NPR, but there is a game show called “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” to which I listen. The comedians can be pretty funny, and the lines quite clever.
Anyway, there was one episode where they were going through travel books produced by other countries for people, and specifically business people, to use in the United States. The contestant had to pick out which statement really appeared in one of these books. And some of the statements were quite telling.
A Japanese book said that Americans are not to be believed. We will say something like, “Let’s get together,” or “Let’s have dinner,” but we really don’t mean it. The book said that this was nothing more than a pleasantry in the U.S. and not a real statement of intent. The book cautioned that Japanese businessmen should not expect the invitation to be forthcoming. They were not to be insulted or hurt by the fact that nothing would come of it, nor were they to wait around expecting such an event.
Sometimes I think we Americans transfer this same sensibility to some of the statements in the Bible. Specifically, I am fearful that we gloss over the closing statements in our Epistles, thinking it was some sort of pleasantry that really doesn’t mean a great deal in the long run – sort of a kin to “Have a nice day.” But these statements DO mean something. They were and ARE powerful statements of faith. And in our Epistle from Saint Paul to the Thessalonians, we have such a statement:
“Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you: And that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men: for all men have not faith. But the Lord is faithful, who shall establish you, and keep you from evil. And we have confidence in the Lord touching you, that ye both do and will do the things which we command you. And the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ.”
This is not just a pleasantry; this is not just flowery language. This is a request for prayer. And it is a request that everyone pray for some very specific things. However, this passage is also an example of how the King James Version, although beautifully written, may give the wrong sense to a passage. Let us look at the New King James Version’s translation of this same passage:
Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified, just as it is with you, and that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men; for not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful, who will establish you and guard you from the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord concerning you, both that you do and will do the things we command you. Now may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the patience of Christ.
The first thing Saint Paul asks the Thessalonians to pray for is the spread of the Gospel. And what is more, Saint Paul is asking that these words that we speak or read be “glorified.” This is a prayer that ALL Christians need to embrace.
Many modern churches have a problem with the notion that we are to spread the Gospel. They see it as judgmental and not intellectual. They see it as a throw-back to imperialism. And it is, to them, an abhorrent statement that Christians have THE answer. And this is, of course, because they themselves don’t believe it IS the answer. So, they do not pray for the Gospel’s spread.
Yet, we Christians DO believe that the Gospel is THE answer. We believe that God came to earth as a man specifically to give us THE answer. And now it is OUR duty to spread it.
As an aside, have you ever thought about why Christ came to Judea? Have you ever thought that it seems like a remote place to have God appear as Man to give this great message of hope and love? Well, if you ever have, you need to look back into history. Actually, at this time, Judea was a crossroad between East and West. Although we remember Saint Paul’s great mission to the West, we forget how Saint Thomas brought the Gospel to the East, and how the Gospel was spread as far as Afghanistan and India.
But the second part of this requested prayer is that these words be glorified. This is so important. I fear that many an evangelist believes in their heart that they are the ones spreading the Gospel, that their great eloquence or their style brings about the conversion of the person in the audience. However, this is NOT true. It is the words, themselves. It is the utterance that the Holy Spirit gives us, and it is God glorifying these words so that the listener suddenly understands that they ARE the word of God. Whenever we pray for the spread of the Gospel, we need also to pray that these words be glorified so that others know that they are, indeed, the word of God.
The second thing that Saint Paul asks the Thessalonians to pray for is that they be delivered from wicked men. These wicked men are people who seek the destruction of Christianity, in general, and Christians, in specific.
Although we are very fortunate in that we do not live in a country like Iraq where Catholic priests and Christians people are being murdered and Christian churches are being bombed, we do face our own form of persecution. It may be as subtle as a comment which reveals the person’s assessment that you have to be an idiot to believe in Christ, or it may be as blatant as not getting a job because you are a Christian.
But there is something extremely important that Saint Paul makes clear and that we tend to forget:
But the Lord is faithful, who will establish you and guard you from the evil one.
As Christians we know that every Christian MUST be prepared to be martyred for the faith, but we must also realize that the “evil one,” though “Prince of this world,” does NOT have the power he claims to have. God is the one who is King, and He is faithful. God loves us, and therefore will guard us and establish us. So, let us give the devil his dues, but let us NOT give in to the notion that he is as powerful as or MORE powerful than God!
The final part of the prayer is the most beautiful part, and I do not want any one of us to miss it by thinking it is just a pleasantry:
“And the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ.”
Saint Paul prays for the Thessalonians’ hearts to be directed into the love of God. What a beautiful and simple prayer! When our hearts dwell in God’s love, everything makes sense. All the ills of this world disappear, and all the burdens and crosses that we have to bear become lighter. It is a prayer that every Christian should pray for themselves and for others.
Then we have a statement which is translated in a somewhat misleading way. “And into the patient waiting for Christ” is not an accurate translation. It should be, “and into the patience of Christ.” We all must learn patience. We have to be patient that the persecution will end; and we have to be patient that Christ will come again. Finally, we have to be patient that we will be raised from the dead as is clear in both our Old Testament and our Gospel lesson for today.
There is a song we sing before sermons which has a wonderful sentiment when it comes to prayer. It is called “Prayer Is the Soul’s Sincere Desire”, Hymn Number 419, and its last two stanzas are poignant:
Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
The Christian’s native air,
His watchword at the gates of death;
He enters heaven with prayer.
O thou by whom we come to God,
The Life, the Truth, the Way,
The path of prayer thyself hast trod:
Lord, teach us how to pray.
So, let us all take to heart what Saint Paul writes. Let us adopt this prayer as our own. Let us pray for the spread of the Gospel; let us pray for the words of the Gospel to be glorified; let us pray that the Lord guard us and protect us; let us pray that the Lord give us the patience of Christ; and let us pray that the Lord direct ALL our hearts into the love of God.