God’s Story, Our Story: Sharing the Verbs

Preaching: Lindsay Small
Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

Several years old our then 5-year-old son Micah discovered his very first Mad Lib on the back of a cereal box. He was asked for his favorite cartoon character, body part, animal sound, piece of clothing and number.

We filled in the answers into the blank spaces in the story below and I read the story out loud. He was young enough so that lines like…”All I could do was ‘Moo’ made him belly laugh with joy.

A few days later I saw an entire book of Mad Lib’s while checking out at the grocery store…my mind immediately conjured up evening after evening of good, clean, unplugged fun…nothing but Mad Lib’s for days! This is going to be great as I gleefully scanned the book and put it in my bag.

That night when I took out the book, he wasn’t as enthusiastic as I thought he would be…nevertheless I made him sit down with me anyway…(I was determined that this was going to be fun whether he liked it or not!).

The book was a little more tricky than the cereal box… I asked him for a noun, and he said, “What’s a noun?” Next came the adjective…the verb…and right around the time I was explaining the ‘ly’ endings of ADVERBS, Micah said, “Mom, can I play on the computer?”

I was ___________ BLANK frustrated…Fill in the adverb of your choice.

Four years, 6 ½ Harry Potter books, and two Mad Lib books later…and I don’t need to explain to him what a verb is anymore.

But this little parental good intention gone awry was on my mind this week as I read through our scripture text for this morning…

You see, Paul doesn’t need an explanation of what a verb is either… given the sheer NUMBER of verbs in this mornings scripture…he is WELL AWARE of this particular part of speech…and fills in most of the blanks with them!

This summer, we are making our way through New Testament epistles…surveying the themes and message of these beautiful letters by taking a look at 1, 2, and sometimes 3 books at a time. Phew!

And this morning…we’ll take a look at 1 and 2 Thessalonians.

And to do that, I’d like you to pretend they are in Mad Lib form, and we’ve just brought them home from the grocery store…anxious to crack them open.

Nothing like good, clean, unplugged Bible Mad Lib fun!

Let’s look at the verbs in particular. Now if we were to fill in every verb in both books, we’d be here until Wednesday…so instead I’d like to narrow our focus and consider two verbs:

-One of each in each book…

Why verbs in particular? I’m so glad you asked…

It’s because, as my favorite preacher Anna Carter Florence says, “We share the verbs. The nouns are different. But the verbs are the same.”

The folks in the Bible, and for this morning’s purposes…people that made up the church in Thessolonica…

  • We don’t know what their houses looked like, their jobs, their cooking utensils…And even if we have evidence and archiaological digs to point us to a general notion…we still don’t share these things. Time has simply changed too much.
  • But we know that they walked, they talked, they ate…and we do too!
  • We know that they feared, they worried, they hoped…and we do too!

We share the verbs…they are the same in both of our Mad Lib books…

So we turn to our Thessalonian Mad Lib book…and to the introduction…which would probably sound something like this…

Even though they are only one number apart, 1 and 2 Thessalonians are very different. Their message and emphasis are at times worlds apart.

It’s almost as if they are meant for 2 different churches. But the truth is that something has occurred between 1 and 2 that intensifies and changes Paul’s tone as he writes the second letter.

The church itself has not changed location, but the location itself has changed.

First Thessalonians is all about UPBUILDING. It is written after Timothy comes back from a visit and gives Paul a glowing report of all that he has seen.

It is early in the life of this new fledgling church. Paul wrote this letter around 51 AD, the earliest letter on record.  Scholars say that if you lined up the books of the New Testament in the order they were written…First Thessalonians would come first…before Matthew!

We know that Paul has been there at some point, and then sent Timothy…and after Tim’s glowing report…Paul is pleased as punch (the noun, not the verb)

1. His letter has one over-arching verb: Encourage

Paul is encouraged and he writes to tell them to do the same.

He reminds them of the faith, hope, and love…that all come from God.

They are not alone in this infant church…God is with them, calling them, forming them, encouraging them.

The first two chapters is an ode to their awesomeness…’Be Encouraged.’

Paul writes in chapter 3, verse 13, “May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God…”

And Paul makes a turn towards the end of the book into his usual imperative-filled finale…

He tells them to be not just be encouraged…but to do the encouraging themselves,

In the passage that Lisa read this morning, “Encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone…”

And just because he’s on a roll…he gives a threefold encouragement benediction:

  • Rejoice Always
  • Pray Continually
  • Give Thanks in all circumstances.

This is 1 Thessalonians: Encouragement so that we may encourage.

If this book was a Mad Lib…you could use this word in almost every blank.

Now, turning to our next Mad Lib, 2 Thessalonians, we quickly notice that the tone is different.

Paul is brief…to the point. The air around this book is heavy and thick.

Something has happened. As readers 2,000 years later, we are left with only limited information and speculation. And we really don’t know for sure how much time has gone by between the two letters…

But we do know that the church is being persecuted.

Pressures from the Roman government, the Jewish Authorities, and the heretics inside the church are causing confusion and pain.

In the very early verses Paul names the persecution that they are experiencing. Gone is the joy from the first book…Paul is serious and grave as he writes.

And so our verb for 2 Thessalonians is very different but no less important:

2. Stand firm in the faith

A verb so important it needs two words…

Chapter 2, verse 15, “15So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.”

What follows is not the waterfall of happy imperatives like ‘rejoice’ or ‘give thanks.’

Instead, the verbs are

 “Keep away…”

“Settle down”

and “Never tire…”

The persecution in the church had grown so bad that some believed that they Day of the Lord had already come…some had quit their vocations and refused to operate within society…they were idle and causing major disruptions among the believers…

And then there were those who were so captivated by the Lord’s return that they spent all their time speculating about it

Paul says ‘No.’ Cut it out. Stand firm in what I taught you.

This is the verb they are to fill in.

Stand firm…in your present situation. Do not daydream your day away by filling in your own verbs…do not answer the persecution you are feeling by filling in the blanks for yourself.

When we feel uneasy about our present situation, we have a tendency to want to be as certain as possible about things totally outside our control.

Our curiosity fades and our declarative statements grow louder and more frequent.

When we feel threatened…we look for certainty to console us. We try to fill in as many spaces as possible…

Paul is asking them to stand firm amidst uncertainty…a difficult thing for all of us. But our call none the less…

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As I looked around this past week…I saw the air in America as think and heavy…I saw a lot of blank spaces. Usually proceeding the words, “Why?” “How?” and “How Long?”

We don’t like blank spaces. We want to fill in our own verbs…our own nouns…we want to make meaning of events that are so incredibly sad and troubling.

I found myself falling into the same trap. I want to say something. I want to say that all-meaningful thing that will make it all better.

I paced my mind…searching for that perfect phrase that would be one part comfort and another part challenge. A few sentences I could offer to fill in the huge blank that has lingered after the events of this past week.

But I’ve got nothing. I don’t know what to say. It’s still blank.

I heard a story this week of a woman who had gone to Downtown Dallas to sit at the end of the police tape line…A reporter came up to her and asked her what she was doing. She answered, “I don’t know.” “I don’t know what to think, what to feel, what to do. I just had to be here.”

In a day and age when people rush to post and fill in the blanks…I was relieved.

“I don’t know. I just had to be here.”

It may seem like an easy way out, saying “I don’t know.”

But I believe the real easy way out is: “I give up.”

I think Paul would agree that collective helplessness is not the answer.

There is great courage in saying “I don’t know” while at the same time being present.

As the church, we need to be present. It doesn’t mean that we have the answers…but it does mean that we will not retreat from the world when situations seem overwhelming and helpless. It means that we will not declare certainties on events that we are told not to predict.

Bishop Yvette Flunder calls us to this. She says,

Today I am calling on my Christian family to STOP hiding in predictable "last days" rhetoric to avoid getting involved in "these days".

Stop leaving the peace process up to God alone, while abdicating your responsibility.

God is calling you...Pray AND act!

I think Paul would have liked those verbs. Pray and act.

God is calling us to THESE DAYS…to be present…to encourage…to stand firm…to pray and to act.

Paul reminded the church that there was a lot they didn’t know…namely when the persecution would stop and when Christ would come again…

There are many wondering the same thing all around the world today…

But he told them what he did know: Be Encouraged. Stand Firm.

-Pray –Rejoice –Give Thanks –Love

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Despite the sheer volume of them, Paul chose his verbs carefully. I would venture to guess that he didn’t write his letters as Mad Libs.

And really, neither should we.

A life of discipleship means relying on God and not ourselves for our next verb.

This is the blessing and burden of following Christ. We don’t get to choose our verbs… they have been chosen for us.

  • Encourage one another…
  • Stand firm in the faith…

Share these verbs with the Thessalonians, and share these verbs with one another…

I want to close this morning with a prayer from St. Francis…

May this be our prayer, our call…our answer…

"Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love;

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life."[5]

Fellowship Church