1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 (First Sunday in Advent—Series C)
“Blameless in Holiness at His Coming”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
November 29, 2015
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning’s text is the Epistle lesson for the day recorded in 1 Thessalonians 3:
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.
Paul was only able to be in the city of Thessalonica for about three weeks during his second missionary journey. A serious persecution broke out. The believers rushed Paul and Silas out of town. But Paul remained concerned for the Thessalonian Christians. They were so new to the faith in Jesus Christ. Paul hadn’t been able to teach them as much as he felt they needed. Would they stand up under the persecution? Would the infant congregation fall apart under harassment? When in Athens, Paul couldn’t bear not knowing anymore. He sent Timothy back “to learn about” their faith, “for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted [them]” and that Paul’s labor would be in vain. (1 Thess. 3:5)
Writing this letter of 1 Thessalonians from Corinth, Paul relates that Timothy had returned from Thessalonica. The apostle wrote, “He brought us 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.” (3:6) It is Paul’s strong desire to return to this congregation, to see them face to face and to supply what is lacking in their faith, to continue to give the Thessalonians instruction in matters of doctrine that hadn’t been covered with them yet. So Paul offers words of prayer in our text, “May He, our God and Father and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you.” But Paul also prays for the Thessalonians. “May the Lord increase and cause you to abound in agape for one another and for all, just as we increase and abound in agape for you, so that your hearts are established blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His holy ones. Amen.”
Agape is one of the Greek words for “love.” It is a self-sacrificing love. It is a love that considers others first. This love is fruit of faith, a gift of the Holy Spirit. Agape is the kind of love that God has for those whose nature it is not to love.
I guess I should qualify that statement. Our nature does “love,” but it is self-love, selfish love. Our nature is not one that agape’s, that loves sacrificially and considers other people before itself. That’s because sin has turned our human nature inward. Our thoughts and desires, yes even our love, only considers the self: What’s best for me? What’s in it for me? How can I be happy? Our sinful nature doesn’t care about others; it doesn’t care about God. It seeks its own way. It seeks its own satisfaction. We humans do not, by our very nature, love God or others. An illustration from It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown, which could certainly apply to this time of year:
“We’ve got another one of those holidays coming up,” Lucy told Schroeder while he practiced his piano. “It’s a great time of the year to start getting things!” Schroeder shook his head, “It’s not a time for getting. It’s a time for renewal, the start of Spring.” “Wrong,” Lucy replied. “It’s the gift getting-season.”
Isn’t what many, many people think of this time of the year? It’s a time for getting. It’s the gift-getting season ‘cause Christmas is all about me. It’s all about what I can get, get, get. Behold, the selfishness of human nature alive and well.
Looking at the second part of Paul’s prayer, the reason he prayers for an increase and an abundance of agape love for one another and for all is so that the Thessalonians’ hearts would be established “blameless in holiness” before God and our Lord Jesus. That’s another thing that is not in our human nature. We are not blameless. We are not without sin. As David writes so clearly in Psalm 51, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” All people are conceived and born with a sinful nature clinging to them, the “Old Adam” as we learned in Confirmation class this past week. That sinful nature is truly sin and it leads us to commit sins of thought, word, and action. Our sinful nature leads us to omit the good things commanded of us—to love. We are, therefore, not blameless or holy before God. We are selfish, sinful human beings who daily sin much by what we have done against God’s commandments and what we have left undone. We have not agape’ed God with our whole heart. We have not agape’ed our neighbors as ourselves.
We do need our hearts established blameless in holiness. We do need to be able to love selflessly both God and our neighbor. But this is simply not possible for us on our own. Only God Himself is able to increase our love by making us blameless in holiness before Him. God alone is able to do this because He is love and He loves, He agape’s, His fallen, sinful creatures. We read in 1 John 4, “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10 NET)
As the Father loved us, so does the Son. He came among His fallen, sinful creation, taking upon Himself human flesh, but without sin. Jesus, the Son of God-Made-Flesh, was blameless in holiness. Out of His love for His fallen creatures, Jesus fulfilled our obligation to God’s holy Law. Jesus kept the commandments perfectly on our behalf. He did what we could never do. He was perfect for us, even as our heavenly Father is perfect. Paul says in Romans 5:19, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man [Jesus] many will be made righteous. (Rom. 5:19 NET) Because of Christ’s perfect life lived for us in keeping God’s Law, the Lord credits our “accounts” with that blamelessness and holiness of Christ. We receive Christ’s righteousness as our own.
Out of His agape love for us, Jesus also removed our sins from us, taking them upon Himself as if they were really His. It’s not just a cliché to say that Jesus died for the sins of the world. “He Himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) On the cross, Jesus, true God and true Man, suffered the full punishment for your sins—for your failure to always love God, for your failure to love one another. Jesus was punished on the cross and suffered the wrath of God for the sins you have committed and omitted, for the original sin with which you were conceived and born. Christ shed His holy, innocent blood as the once-for-all sacrifice to take away your sins. His sacrifice on the cross for you has purchased and won your forgiveness.
Out of love, by an act of His gracious favor alone, God the Father declares you “not guilty” of sin. You are justified because of the perfect obedience of Christ, because He gave up His life into death and shed His blood for you. This means that, covered in the blood and righteousness of the Savior, you are indeed before the face of God blameless in holiness. Christ has made you so. Of that, there can be no doubt.
As a result of our new condition before God, blameless in holiness because of the work of Christ on our behalf, God the Holy Spirit empowers us to be as Christ is. Through the gift of faith, the Holy Spirit makes us to be like Christ in blamelessness and holiness as we produce the fruit of that faith—agape, love! Because of who you have been recreated to be in Jesus Christ, blameless in holiness before God through His merits, your life becomes one in which the Spirit increases your love for your brothers and sisters in Christ and for all people. By the power of the Gospel, through Word and Sacrament, you now abound in agape love. You can consider others more important than yourself, even as Christ counted you most important—so important that He took on flesh, kept the Law for you, and suffered, died, and rose again so that you could be blameless and holy before God through the blood-bought forgiveness of your sins.
As we walk together toward the time when the Lord Jesus will come again, we walk together in love. With the help of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel Word, through the strengthening of faith that comes in the eating and drinking of the Lord’s Supper, you and I are able to love others and to demonstrate that love in concrete ways. In Christ, the self no longer rules. In Christ, it’s no longer all about me. In Christ, it’s about agape, loving the least of these and loving the unlovable, loving one another as Christ first loved us.