Sunday Services: 9:00am & 10:45am

Friends, How Goes the War? (Part 2 of 2)

Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek

When I as a junior in college, a local youth group was hosting a city-wide service day with church youth groups. After the day of service, they gathered together that night for worship and a message. They asked me to preach. After the service, Brooke (who was my girlfriend at the time and now my wife) and I went out for ice cream at McDonald’s with one of the pastors and his wife. As I ate my McFlurry and we talked about life, the pastor encouraged me to go consider going to seminary after college. That was sixteen years ago, and couple was Jason and Natalie Abbott.  

So, when 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. I’m sure you did too. If you’ve been at our church any length of time over the last seven years, likely Jason’s preaching and pastoring shaped your live for the better in both obvious and subtle ways. That’s what faithful pastoring does. And Jason did pastor faithfully for seven years at our church. 

Before we dive into the sermon, I’m going to take about 10–12 minutes to share some updates about where things are headed for our church, which means the sermon will be shorter than normal. Last week, I met a few first-time visitors, 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. Additionally, last week was a holiday weekend, and many people were traveling. So whether you’ve been here for a long time or a short time, I hope this update will help. And if you heard all this last week, please just overlook the redundancy and consider it a necessary part of helping everyone feel included.  

Two weeks ago was Pastor Jason’s last week. Jason mentioned to the staff 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 begin this update by backing 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. I’d never been east of Indiana.  

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 was in college I attended a church called The Crossing. They had a teaching team, which I had never experienced before. Each week one of the two, or sometimes a third person on the teaching team, rotated sermons. Over time, I began to love the effect it had. The sermons weren’t about this guy or that guy, but about the one guy who mattered: the God-man Jesus Christ.  

After seminary when I moved to Tucson to pastor in a church, 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. It was frustrating, but I still didn’t want to leave.  

But then Jason called. So here I am in the desert and this church called Community that I didn’t know much about was asking me to come be part of a team and to do so with a friend I had known 15 years. 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 have liked it if we have done that. But I don’t think we’ll 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 copastors here, 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 this to say, we won’t be able to have the outworking of partnership in a true 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. Throughout the letters Paul frequently uses the pronoun “we” not just “I.” And when Jesus sent out his disciples he did it in pairs, which we see frequently continued in the book of Acts. 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 3 times a month, maybe 35 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 next week. 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 10–12. Other than that, nothing is going to change quickly with youth and music. 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. As the next week’s meeting we’ll talk about what the role of the new hire might look like.  

Finally, I’ll mention again that I’m calling our church to a season of 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 when associated with prayer means setting aside food so that each twinge of hunger becomes the reminder to pray, “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. 

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.  

Scripture Reading 

And speaking of prayer, now let us turn our attention to God’s Word for a passage that says much about prayer. Please follow along with me as I read from 1 Thessalonians 3:6–13, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.  

6 But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you— 7 for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. 8 For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. 9 For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? 

11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you,12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. 

Introduction 

All of us have people we’ve lost contact with over the years. Sometimes it’s intentional and other times it just sort of happens as life moves on. But it’s very rare that there are people we can’t connect with—maybe not in person but through phone, email, text, Facebook and other social media accounts, video calls, and so on. There is almost no one at any time we can’t hear from if we wanted to. We can even write actual letters, those things that have handwritten words on paper and get a stamp. It’s a little slower but will get the job done.  

One of the rare contexts where we still can’t get updates is in war-time deployment. I heard a story about his over dinner a few weeks ago from friends new to our church. The husband told me about when he was an Army Ranger in the 90s. His parents had been on vacation and decided to stop at Fort Bragg on the way home to briefly see their son. When they were let on base, they drove to their son’s barracks, which seemed like a ghost town. A lonely Private greeted them at a makeshift table set up in the hallway. When they asked to see their son, he looked down, flipped through the manifest, found the name of my friend and their son. He looked up and said he needed to get his Captain. The Captain was allowed to tell the parents that their son had been deployed, and for his safety and the success of the mission, these poor parents couldn’t get a single update about their son. They left to go home and watch the news and wonder if the reports they were hearing related to him.  

This is basically the context behind 1 Thessalonians. This week’s sermon is part 2 of 2, and I titled both sermons, “Friends, How Goes the War?” I did that because these believers in Thessalonica were Paul’s comrades; they are his friends, and he wants to know how they are doing. 

But maybe a better title would have been, “Son (or Sons and Daughters), How Goes the War?” because Paul saw himself as a spiritual mother and father to these new believers. 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). And in v. 3 of chapter 3, the literal rendering of Paul being “torn away” from them is that they were orphaned. Just like Paul, we want those we love and care about to thrive spiritually, but we also know that thriving spiritually is only something God can bring about. You can’t reach into the hearts of your children or spouse or friends or parents or co-workers and change them. You can’t do that. But God can.  

Paul met the Thessalonians on his missionary travels. 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. Meanwhile, false teachers had come into discredit Paul, claiming that Paul only cared about money (cf. the beginning of chapter 2). So the Thessalonians are left to wonder, “Did Paul really love us? And maybe God doesn’t love us; maybe this Jesus isn’t so real, not so alive. And maybe he’s not really coming back again.” 

So, Paul sent Timothy, his trusted companion and partner in the gospel, to check on them. That is where last’s week’s passage ended. This week, the first words of the passage say, “But now that Timothy has come to us from you . . .” Timothy has returned, and the report is positive. The war goes well. That’s good news, even great news. The word Paul uses of Timothy’s report is the word that’s used for preaching the gospel. Timothy’s report is like gospel-good news to him. And because it’s such good news, Paul directs his attention to God, which is what we should do too. Good news should direct our attention to God.  

Prayer is one way to intentionally direct our attention to God. In this passage Paul speaks of praying “night and day,” meaning often, and the passage even has the words of one of Paul’s actual prayers. In other words, as Paul wrote to them he breaks out into prayer. My wife and I received a card in the mail last week that didn’t just say the sender was praying for us but actually wrote the prayer out in the letter. So, so wonderful.  

One modern convention for praying to God has been the acronym ACTS. You can write that down in your sermon outlines if you like. I’m not sure where it originated, otherwise I’d give credit appropriately. When we met for prayer in the café last week, we used the acronym ACTS to direct our prayers to God. The A stands for adoration, the C for confession, the T for thanksgiving, and the S for supplication. 

The best approach to preaching is to usually let the structure of the passage dictate the structure of the sermon. That’s what we try to do most weeks—let the structure of the passage dictate the structure of the sermon. But this week, I want to use this modern outline for prayer as a way of both teaching the passage and one helpful way to pray.  

A for Adoration 

Let’s begin with the letter A for adoration, which is just a fancy word for giving praise to God. Look with me at v. 11.  

11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 

Here’s one thing that is praise-worthy about God that strikes me about this passage. Paul prays that God would direct their way to the Thessalonians. The image is of roads that are rough and bumpy, maybe even impassable, becoming level. Paul believes God can make the path straight.  

That’s significant because back in chapter 2:18, Paul states that Satan “hindered” them from meeting. We don’t know the specific way the Satan hindered Paul from reconnecting with these believers. There was a governmental restriction place upon Paul related to his preaching of the gospel. You can read about it in Acts 17. Perhaps that is what Paul refers to as being hindered by Satan. Perhaps it was something else. We don’t know. But what we do know is that Paul believes whatever aim Satan had, God was more than able to overcome the aims of Satan. “Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you.” That’s something worth giving adoration and praise to God for. So a prayer of adoration might go like, “Lord, we praise you that no evil spirit or the evil one himself can stand in your way of doing the good you intend to do to your people.” There are other praise-worthy things to point out, but let me keep going. 

C for Confession 

When some of you hear confession you mainly think of confessional booths and telling someone something that they didn’t know before. That’s not what this means. To confess something to God is not to tell God something he doesn’t know but to acknowledge that what he says is true of us as sinful human beings is actually true of us. In short, confession is aligning the posture of our hearts with what is true.  

Look with me at vv. 9–10.  

9 For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? 

Notice that phrase “what is lacking in your faith.” I wonder how you would feel if someone mentioned in public that you had something lacking in your faith. Russell Moore is a Christian author, a speaker, and the president of a political organization. He was once criticized on Twitter by a very public figure you would all know who said that Moore was “a nasty guy with no heart.” In a television interview about the criticism he received, Moore said, “[This is] one of the few things I agree with [him] on. I am a nasty guy with no heart. We sing worse things about ourselves in our hymns on Sunday mornings: we’re a wretch and in need of God’s grace.”  

I love that response. Would that we all had that kind of humility to confess what is true: we are sinners who need grace.  

Apparently, what these young believers in Thessalonica lacked was instruction in the Christian faith, which likely is reflected in some of the themes Paul takes up in the rest of the letter, themes about the return of Jesus and living lives of holiness. So, a prayer of confession might go like this, “Lord, I acknowledge that many things are still lacking in my life. Lord, my faith is not as strong as it ought to be, and I confess my love for others often grows cold.” But there’s more to pray.  

T is for Thanksgiving 

The next letter in the anonym is T for thanksgiving. Paul’s thanksgiving to God is not hard to spot, is it? Verse 9 begins,  

For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God? 

I’ll slow down here a bit because this verse answers something in more detail that I mentioned last week. In 2:19–20 we read,  

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. 

Last week I mentioned that I don’t think the boasting Paul is talking about a bad kind of pride or boasting. But before I explain why, think about how strange his statement is. When Jesus returns on a war horse to vanquish every foe and recreate the earth into a perfect paradise, it would be strange to stand in the presence of the returned Christ and say, “What is my boast before you, Lord, if not my paycheck? Look at my career, Lord? Look at my [fill in the blank]?” That would be strange. But that’s what Paul says he’ll do with this church. Why? 

Paul can glory and boast and take joy in this church—just as all Christians should take joy in their church—in the presence of the returned Lord because he knows that in taking joy in them and boasting in them, he’s really taking joy and boasting in God. Paul is thanking God for so working among these believers that they were changed by the gospel and in such a way that even in trials and afflictions, they don’t deny Jesus.  

Now look again at v. 9.  

For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God. 

 Paul takes the blessing they are to him and directs his thanksgiving back to God. So, a prayer of thanksgiving might go like this: “Lord, you have given me such a wonderful community of other believers here who know you and love you. And I’m thankful that not only you have invited me into a relationship with you, but also that you invite me into a relationship with other believers who long to see me spiritually thrive.”   

S is for Supplication 

The final letter in the acronym is S for supplication. Supplication is a fancy word for asking or requesting. One thing I like about the acronym is that it puts requests last. When you read prayers in the Bible, there is no indication that supplication should always go last; it can go first. It can be by itself. I just like the reminder that we should only ask for things, and the acronym provides that helpful reminder.  

But we should ask for things. In fact, embedded within our requests and suplications are all the other letters: when we ask we give God adoration God because he is worth to be asked; when we ask we are confessing need; and when we ask we are giving thanksgiving that God delights to be asked. Our asking honors God in the same way my children honor me when they are scared and ask for their father to come close because their request signifies that I’m the type of father who can protect them meet their needs. We honor God when we ask him for things only he can do. Look at what Paul asks God for in vv. 11–13.  

11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you,12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. 

You and I can’t thwart the obstruction of the devil, but God can make a level path. And you and I can’t cause our love for others to abound all the more. But God can. You can and I can’t produce within us or others the kind of spiritual thriving that leads to lives of holiness that please the Lord. But God can. So we honor him through supplication.  

Conclusion 

And notice the hope in these verses. Every chapter of 1 & 2 Thessalonians celebrates the return of Christ. All eight chapters make at least one, and sometimes more than one, mention of the second coming of Christ. We’ve lost that emphasis today. But when Christ comes, we will see him face to face. And not only him, but he will come with all the saints who have already died. They will return with the Lord.  

When the Bible uses the word “saint” it’s not talking about some special, varsity type of Christian. It simply means someone redeemed by the Lord. Every Christian, according to the Bible, is a saint. We are not born saints, but we become saints by grace and trusting in Jesus. We do not become saints by earning a special status. But we are given a special status, not because of what we have done but because of what Jesus has done for us. And when Jesus comes again, we’ll be like him and see him face to face. That is good news.  

Prayer  

Because so much of this week’s passage is about prayer, I want to give us time to pray. While the worship team plays an instrumental song, I want to lead us in a time to prayer through the acronym ACTS.  

I’ll begin by praying something related to each letter, and then I’ll pause for 30 seconds or so to let you pray silently where you are at. You can pray specific things related to the transition at our church or maybe you want to pray about specific things going on in your life. It’s up to you. But would you join me in prayer.  

Let’s pray . . . 

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