Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
A few months ago when Jason first told me he was likely going to be taking a position at another church in the summer, I had several thoughts. One of them was this: For the five and a half years I’d been a pastor here, I never gave much thought to attendance and giving numbers; I always figured it was only half my fault if they were low.
I’m being a bit silly, but it’s true. The announcement that he was leaving allowed all sorts of fears to bubble to the surface. Perhaps you have some fears about Jason leaving too. But over the last few months since the announcement, I’ve been encouraged to see how connected people are to this church and excited many still are about going forward.
Before we dive into the sermon, I’m going to take about 10 minutes to share some updates about where things are headed for our church, which means the sermon will be shorter than normal. Everything I say this morning, I’ll probably say again next week so as to not miss people coming and going as we move toward our congregational meeting on July 21.
I met a few first-time visitors last week, and I’m sure there are some again this week, so I don’t want to assume we’re all starting from the same place of knowing what’s going on. So whether you’ve been here for a long time or a short time, I hope this update will help.
Last week was Pastor Jason’s last week. I saw him a few times during the week, and he mentioned how loved and cared for he felt by this church as we celebrated what God has done through him over his seven years of ministry.
Let me back up a bit, though. When Jason first called me on the phone to ask that I consider coming to Community, I said no. The newly planted roots at my current church needed to keep going deeper, not be yanked up. And if God was going to move us, he was going to have to be the one to pull them up.
And God did. Slowly. But what got me to move here was not—and I mean no offense by this—Harrisburg generally or Community Church specifically. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Harrisburg or Community; it was just that I had no real context for them. My family was in the Midwest, not the East, and I’d never visited your church before. I believed I could come to love both, and I have.
What got me to move here was a vision for pastoring that stressed teamwork—preaching that was not about this guy or that guy but about Jesus. When I moved to Tucson to pastor in a church, which is where I was before coming here, I didn’t really know teamwork was so important to me. And I don’t want to go into the reasons why, but our teaching team there wasn’t working out, and it hadn’t been for a year or more when Jason called.
So, here was this church called Community that I didn’t know much about, but a friend I had known 15 years who is a gifted pastor was asking me to consider coming to be a part of a copastor team. And not only that, but the whole elder board was a team. They actually called themselves “pastor hyphen elders” so that people would know that the elder board wasn’t just a traditional decision-making board but that they actually pastored. They were a team of shepherds. And I thought, Woah, that’s neat.
Now, for the last five years the outworking of this biblical principle of teamwork has been our copastor model. Jason and I were both the senior teaching pastors. He was the senior pastor. I was the senior pastor. We were co-senior pastors.
With Jason’s transition, now I’m the senior or lead pastor of this church, which in a sense I already was, though it’s certainly different now.
Our pastor-elder team has had a lot of conversations about what it would mean to continue to go forward in a copastor model. To be candid, I would still like it if we could. But I’m not sure we’ll be able to do it because you can’t just copastor with anyone. You must have unity and friendship and comradery and a prior ministry context with the other person, which Jason and I had with each other. It’s way too much authority to share with someone you don’t know.
As I’ve thought about things, I’m not sure I know a right fit for a copastor. There are several who would make a great copastor but, it seems, they are not in a place where it is right to move. And that’s okay. Additionally, when I became the copastor, I was not being compared to anyone. I’m sure people compared me to Jason, but I wasn’t compared to a former copastor because there wasn’t one. If a new copastor came now, it could work, but it would be more difficult because there is not a blank slate.
All that to say, it’s likely we won’t be able to have the outworking of partnership in a copastor model. But I am passionate that we continue to pursue a culture of partnership for lots of reasons. For starters, it’s why I moved here. But not only because that’s what I want, also because I think partnership is biblical. We are studying 1 & 2 Thessalonians this summer, which we’ll get to in a moment. If I asked you who wrote these letters, and you said Paul, you’d only be partly correct. Three men are named as the authors of each letter, even if Paul did most of the writing. Partnership is biblical.
And from a practical standpoint, a culture of leadership based in partnership will help keep me and the church healthy. I may not be your favorite pastor—I’m not my own favorite pastor— but I can tell you having me here after five years of partnership makes our church a lot more healthy than if our church had been built primarily around one leader who left. And we’re also healthy right now because the pastor-elder board is healthy; there is a pastoring partnership among us.
So what does all this mean practically? It’s my hope to anchor the preaching ministry of our church as we go forward, which for now will mean preaching probably 2–3 times a month, maybe 35–40 times a year.
Also, we’ve said this the last few weeks, but I’ll say it again. The elders have presented the desire that our church members affirm Ben Bechtel as a pastor-elder in our congregational meeting on July 21. Ben has been here for almost four years. He’s done a fantastic job as our director of youth and music ministry. He’s also getting his pastor’s degree from a wonderful seminary in Philadelphia. The plan is for him to take on more teaching among adults here at the church, including more preaching, so rather than preaching 3 times a year, something like 12. He’ll also be in adult Sunday school classes more and several other ministries with adults. That means his roles with music and youth will likely change. He can’t keep doing both of these and add everything else. We’re working out those details now, as any changes for his role and my role will have implications for who we might hire next and what roles the person will have. Nothing is going to change quickly with youth and music, though. For the rest of the summer and on into the winter, Ben will continue doing both. The only change is that you’ll see both of us preaching more regularly than before.
Finally, I want to invite you to join with us in prayer. Every Tuesday in July from 12 to 1 pm in the church café we’ll be praying about the transitions and the health of our church. I’m going to skip lunch to fast and pray. No one else is obligated to do that, but I’ll mention that in case you’d like to consider it. In the biblical context, fasting means setting aside food so that each twinge of hunger becomes reminder to pray like this: “Lord, I’m hungry right now, but more than being hungry for food, I’m hungry—we’re hungry—to see our church move forward in a way that brings you honor and serves your gospel purposes in our lives and the lives of this church.” Whether you fast or not, whether you come to the café or not, we’d love for you to join us in prayer every Tuesday the rest of July from 12–1.
Speaking of prayer, the day Jason told me he was leaving, that morning I had been praying in the office for our church. I was praying that something more would be accomplished at our church than what could be accomplished through mere human effort. I was praying that God would so work among us that no one could take credit for it. That was my prayer then. And it’s still my prayer now.
And that might be the longest non-sermon intro I’ve ever given or will give again—until I give it again next week.
We’ve had a few breaks from our sermon series, but now we go back for the rest of the summer. Please follow along with me as I read from 1 Thessalonians 2:17–3:5, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher. The passage spans the chapter break, but the verses fit together.
2:17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.
3:1 Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, 3 that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 4 For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. 5 For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.
I’ve hardly mentioned this in church before, but some of you know I enjoy writing. This spring I had a book published to help men struggle, not with pornography, but against pornography. Don’t worry, we’re not talking about that topic this morning. I mention it because in writing the book, I tried to get someone to write the foreword. At first the person said he probably could. But then he was traveling the world, like all the time. I kept seeing it on Instagram. And on top of that, though he is a professional, full-time writer, he had severe issues with his wrists that prevented him from writing much. And here I was emailing him periodically asking him to not only read a book but write a foreword, which, in the end, he wasn’t able to do. He did end up writing a nice endorsement, though.
But to be honest, the entire time I felt like I was annoying him. He never said that I was annoying him. And he never really even hinted that I was. But I was afraid that I had. And then when the book was published, I sent him a copy saying thank you for the help, but I didn’t hear anything back, which to me confirmed that, of course, I had annoyed him. But then weeks later he put something out on his site from my book and just did it again on Friday that made me think, “Oh, he really did like the book, and I didn’t just actually guilt him into writing something nice.”
My little story might not be something you’ve experienced before, but in principle, all of us can end up doing the same thing. We have just a few details of a situation, and we make up a story to fit the details, and so often the details are a projection of our fears or the least charitable view of the situation, so, perhaps, not just that someone is busy but that they don’t like us.
What does that have to do with anything about Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica? A lot actually. Thessalonica was a large port city and the capital of Macedonia. It’s in the country of Greece today. Think of Thessalonica like Boston or Baltimore, modern port cities.
Paul had been with them. Paul had instructed them in the gospel, the good news of the life and death and resurrection and second coming of Jesus. Paul saw the changes that knowing Jesus made in their lives. Now Paul was absent from them. Perhaps Paul had even told them that he wanted to revisit them, but as we read before and I’ll read again in a moment, he was unable to visit them; he was prevented from doing so.
So what story were the Thessalonians thinking made the most sense? Well, obviously, the story that connects the data is that Paul doesn’t love us. And maybe God doesn’t love us. That’s what was going through their minds. It’s difficult to be away from the ones we love, isn’t it?
I titled the sermon, “Friends, How Goes the War?” because these believers are Paul’s comrades; they are his friends, and he really does want to know how they are doing.
At this point, let’s go back through the passage very briefly to show you where I’m getting all of this.
I. Orphaned, vv. 17–18
Look with me again at vv. 17–18.
17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us.
That phrase, “torn away” is the word for orphaned. In chapter 2, we read of Paul speaking of this church in parental language. He says that he was tender with them, like a nursing mother (v. 7). And he also says he was like a father, encouraging and exhorting them (v. 11).
I just used the metaphor of fellow soldiers in war: Friends, how goes the war? But what about a parent sending their child off into war. You raised the child, you love the child, and now huge segments of time go by, and you don’t hear anything. That’s hard. In a few months, some of you will take a son or daughter off to college, and you’ll have these fears. Paul says he has those for this church. And not only did he want to come, but we are told that Satan had prevented him from doing so. We’ll get into that a bit more next week.
II. Parental Pride, vv. 19–20
Look with me at vv. 19–20.
19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.
Here we see Paul’s parental pride on display again. When I say parental pride, you might think of those bumper stickers about having a son or daughter on the school honor roll. And then there are the spinoff bumper stickers that say my student can beat up your honor roll student. It’s all very Christian.
I don’t think the pride he is talking about is a bad kind of pride or boasting. Paul mentions he will do his boasting in the presence of the Lord at his coming. If Paul’s boasting were a bad kind of pride and boasting, you certainly wouldn’t want to be doing it in the presence of the Lord at his second coming. But what Paul loved about them, was what God had done among them by the power of the gospel. Therefore, Paul’s boasting in these believers and his glorying in them, was in a deeper way a boasting and glorying in God. God was the one who had done a work among them. And taking joy in them was taking joy in God.
For Paul to feel this way he must have intentionally chosen to overlook their sins and immaturity. Oh, he hates their sin or any sin, just like God does. In a few weeks we’ll see the places in the letter that he calls us to holiness and purity. But in the presence of God he chooses to love what God loves about them, which is the way the gospel was changing them. In other words, he loved this church, not because they were perfect—no church is. He loved this church because God loved it.
Maybe I could just pause here to ask what you think of Community Church? Some of you are new, and you’re just getting used to us. I’m not mainly talking to you. I’m talking to people who have been here a year or two and especially those of you who are members. Do you begrudgingly come to gather with God’s people each week mostly seeing our shortcomings, or do you choose to focus on what a wonderful thing it is that the gospel is among us changing lives? Paul’s not just saying what he’s saying because it’s true. It is true. He does care about them. But he’s also modeling how Christians should feel toward other Christians, specifically Christians in local churches.
III. Sacrificial Sending, vv. 1–2
Let me read vv. 1–2 again.
1 Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith,
Paul cared so much about them that he sent Timothy, his co-laborer to check in on them. You can read about this in the book of Acts. Apparently, being left alone in Athens proved to be very challenging. Paul needed Timothy’s help, but he also needed to hear how his spiritual children were carrying on in the faith.
I want to point out one specific phrase in this section. Notice it says, “God’s coworker.” Timothy was Paul’s coworker, but what Paul wrote was that Timothy was God’s coworker. Think of how elevated of a title that is! An ordinary, sinful man, who was changed by the gospel was now doing the best he could to honor the Lord in gospel ministry, and he is called not simply a coworker with Paul, but with God. Amazing. As you serve the Lord here at Community, you’re not simply on the finance team or an usher or a nursey worker or running the sound board or playing the bass guitar, you’re partnering with God. Amazing.
In the English Standard Version Study Bible, one author writes,
God’s coworker. A remarkably lofty title. Paul seems to be highlighting Timothy’s credentials to offset any negative sentiment on the part of the Thessalonians at Paul’s sending his junior associate to them instead of coming himself. (Colin Nicholl, ESV Study Bible, 1 Thessalonians 3:2)
I read that this week and loved it. How contemporary is this? Seriously. As we move forward as a church, we have to fight this. I don’t want to say I’m the Apostle Paul, but it’s worth mentioning that if this church expects me to be everywhere and do everything, I will—for about 6 months or maybe a year, then I’ll fall over and die. The call of God on this church to follow God and love God and serve God is way too big of a calling for a handful of people to do. You need to be saying right now in your heart, “Lord, help me to appreciate the ministry I receive from everyone at this church whether it’s from the senior pastor or not.” And you need to be saying, “Lord, help me to do ministry in this church whether I’m an official leader or not.” Help me to receive ministry to everyone and help me to share ministry with everyone. That’s what Christians do.
IV. Destined for Affliction, vv. 3–5
Finally, let me read vv. 3–5.
. . . to establish and exhort you in your faith, 3 that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 4 For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. 5 For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.
For Paul and the other Apostles, when they labored among a group of people so that they would know the gospel, they also told them that when they become Christians, they should expect suffering and affliction. Discipleship 101 teaches that following Jesus means suffering. Paul even says we were destined for this. And he speaks of how he “kept telling it beforehand,” meaning it was something he said often. No one should be hoodwinked about this. There’s no bait and switch. Christianity shouldn’t be marketed as simply a way to have your best life now. Yes, Christianity offers a life of deep joy and glory and wonder and meaning and purpose because to be in a relationship with the God of the universe can’t be boring. But it can be difficult.
I suppose we could say that a person is never really ready to suffer. But it’s also true you can be unprepared. You’re never really ready to get married or have children. But you can be unprepared for marriage and children. Do you see what I mean? One of the things we’re doing as we gather to sing songs of praise and study the character and the works of God is preparing to suffer well. We sang the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” for this reason: “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; / His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure.” We sing songs like this to help us suffer well, knowing Satan’s defeat is fixed. Singing that song is designed—among other things—to help you suffer well.
Perhaps this should become our new marketing campaign, right? “Come to Community Church, where we prepare you to suffer well.”
That won’t become our new marketing campaign. It is a theme, however, never too far from my mind as I’m preparing sermons. I hope over time to present Jesus to you in such a way that Jesus is seen as so desirable and so powerful and so gracious and so glorious that when the affliction comes, we won’t be unprepared. We might not be ready-ready, because you’re never ready, but I don’t want us to be unprepared.
It’s common for TV shows to end with cliff hangers, those moments of rising tension left unresolved until the next episode. That’s how this passage ends. At great cost, Paul sends Timothy to see how the church is doing. But at the end of verse 5, we don’t know what Timothy found when he got there. Were they still following the Lord? Had the oppression of Satan rendered Paul’s ministry in vain? Was it all a waste? Did the church give up on Paul thinking he no longer cared for them? You’ll have to come back next week to see.