The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2000-2001

Preparing for That Day
I Thessalonians 3:9-13
Once again its not quite down but it is close.  I will publish more tommorrow before Noon.
The traditional holiday shopping began on Friday but if early reports are accurate, the shopper's attitudes have shifted. Retailers still expect gift-givers to purchase TVs, DVDs, jewelry, computers and accessories, computer generated games, iPods, and Palm Pilots, but those toys of Christmas past will be lying next to gift-wrapped stuff that reduces stress, increases health by decompress or defying the aging process. Stuff that makes us look, feel or smile better are hot this year. 

Costo is expecting brisk sales of a $39 gift basket filled with lotions, creams, and moisturizers. The White Barn candle line is enjoying strong sales at Bed Bath & Beyond even at $25 a candle because it has twice the fragrance of their other candles. And a $34 True Blue spa pedicure kit complete with a nail file, foot scrub, foot cream, a nailbrush and polish is ringing the cash registers at Bath & Body Works.1

This trend indicates a definite shift in gift buying away from gifts that wear us out to gifts that help us relax and improve the quality of our lives. 

The apostle Paul was also interested in helping people improve the quality of their lives but his gifts were his prayers and his prayers focused more on the spiritual dimension of our lives than the physical. His letter to the church in Thessalonica reveals this pastoral concern.

Paul had planted the seeds for the formation of this church during a brief visit. The apostle and his traveling companion, Silas had just left the city of Philippi where they had been beaten and thrown into prison. Still recovering from those injuries they arrived in Thessalonica and taught in the Jewish synagogue. They convinced some of the Jews, a large number of God-fearing Greek and a few prominent women to place their faith in Christ. The Jewish leaders responded by forming a mob and accusing them before the civil authorities of enticing treason against the Roman Empire. Paul and Silas narrowly escaped by fleeing Thessalonica to another city. 

Unable to spend time to teach the new believers he had left, Paul was quite worried about their spiritual health. He later sent another traveling companion Timothy to visit and was delighted when Timothy reported that the people were remaining in the faith. But in spite of this positive news Paul want to do more to help them. In this morning Scripture, he outlines his desire by telling them how he is praying for them. I wonder how our gift buying this Christmas season might change if we considered Paul's gift list of prayers for the Thessalonians.

Paul tells the community of believers that his first prayer is for God to remove the obstacles that were preventing him from visiting them. Those obstacles were formidable. The city officials wanted to arrest Paul and Silas. One of the converts, Jason, had to post a bond for them promising that the two missionaries would not return and cause trouble. Until the city officials returned the bond, Paul and Silas were essential banished from the city.

Besides gift buying, holidays are traditionally associated with family reunions. Modern technology has allowed people travel great distances to reunite with family and friends. For me, the gift of a family reunion far exceeds the value any gift wrapped electronic toy.

I wonder if there is a reunion that needs to be put on the top of your holiday list. Sometimes it is hard for us to admit that the greatest gift that we could give to someone is our presence.

The apostle Paul also tells the church in Thessalonica that he is praying for their love to increase and overflow for each other. Sacrificial, other oriented love can easily become lost under colorful wrapping paper, bows and gifts that are purchased with mix motives. Besides creams and lotions, holiday shoppers are also purchasing gift certificates to health spas and massages with the assumption that their loved one will take them along. I seriously question the love underlying gifts that also give to the giver. They stand in stark contrast to gifts that are given for the sole benefit of the other.

Herb jogged everyday after he got off work to a convenience store, purchase a paper and then jog home. He developed a friendship with the owner and occasionally they would talk. One day the owner was standing looking at the window when he Herb approached the counter. He turned to Herb and said, "Herb, do you see that bench over there? There's an old woman who comes there every day around this time. She sits there for about an hour, knitting and waiting. Buses come and go, but she never boards one and she never meets anyone who is getting off. She just knits and waits." 

I took a cup of coffee over to her one day and sat with her for a while. She told me that her son is in the Navy. She last saw him two years ago when he left town on one of the buses right out there. He's married now, and he and his wife have a baby daughter. The woman has never met her daughter-in-law or seen her grandchild, and they're the only family she has. 

She told me, "It helps to come here and wait. I pray for them, knit little things for the baby, and I imagine them in their tiny apartment on the base. They are saving money to come home on the bus next Christmas. I can't wait to see them."' 

Herb's friend behind the counter took a deep breath to fight back the tears. He then said, 'Yesterday I looked out the window and saw her son and his wife and baby get off the bus. You should have seen the look on her face when they fell into her arms, and when she laid eyes on her little granddaughter for the first time. It was the nearest thing to pure joy that I ever hope to see. I'll never forget that look for as long as I live.'" 

The next day Herb returned to the convenience store. Before the owner could say anything, or even hand Herb his paper, Herb looked him in the eye and said, 'You sent her son the money for the bus tickets, didn't you?' The store owner looked at Herb with eyes full of love and a smile that was the nearest thing to complete joy that Herb had ever seen, and said, 'Yeah, I sent him the money,' 2

Paul prayed that the gift of sacrificial love would abound in their hearts.

Paul's third gift to the Thessalonians was a petition for their constant renewal. He prays, "May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father..." His petition is a near carbon copy of a passage from his letter to another church. In his letter to the Colossians he tells them that he preaches and teach so that he might present everyone perfect in Christ. 

When a person puts his or her faith in Christ, it is the first step of the Christian life. The person is like a seed that has just sprout or a baby that has just been born. The Christian life is a long arduous journey of growth. At conversion, we have not arrived but only begun. Spiritual maturity is not automatic. Ultimately it is a work of the Holy Spirit but requires a dedicated effort by each believer. Sadly, most believers in North America have made two critical mistakes in their assessment of the spiritual life. First, some have falsely distorted the call to holiness. 

Several newspapers runs stories announcing that the former Playboy bunny and star of Baywatch, Pamela Anderson is teaching Sunday school at a church she attends with her son. The article stated that she did not see any conflict with her role as a Christian educator and her sexy image. While Jesus would have undoubtedly welcomed her into his circle of friends, I doubt if her see-through blouses would have aligned with his call to purity and righteousness.

Another misnomer of the North American church concerns its lackadaisical attitude toward the spiritual life. People appear to assume that since they are saved that heaven is a given. God does not demand that we strive for holiness. Since God is a god of love he will overlook are inconsistencies and tolerate are inadequacies. This was a very dangerous attitude for Paul. The apostle believed that every disciple should approach spiritual growth with the seriousness of an athlete in training and so directed his prayers to that end. He wanted the believers to be strong, pure, holy, and blameless before God. Nothing less would satisfy him. Paul took such a serious approach to the Christian life because he looked forward to that day when everyone would stand before God the Father. He did not want anyone to be found lacking. 

Often I hear people lament that the real meaning of Christmas has been loss underneath a barrage of commercialization. That is true but I would like to suggest that more importantly the real meaning of Advent has been lost underneath an avalanche of sentimental stories about Christmas. Advent is about season of comings, past, present and future. We are supposed to celebrate his past to prepare for the future. Paul wants to make sure that the Thessalonians are prepared for that future day. Their preparedness and ours are not a given. Love and spiritual growth are not automatics. They only develop when a person is intentional and diligent.

During the next four weeks, as you go about your Christmas shopping, I hope that you will also consider giving your friends and family the Paul's prayers as a gift.

Ask God to remove the obstacles that are blocking a reunion...

Ask God to stir up the gift of love in your relationships...

And ask God to renew the spiritual strength and health of your friends and family to prepare them for the day of His Return.

1 Bruce Horovitz, "'Tis the season to give gifts of self-improvement," Online:, November 27, 2003,

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1445 Welch Rd
Walled Lake MI 48390