We continued our journey through Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians last Sunday. The Thessalonian correspondence isn’t just about sitting around and waiting for Jesus to return. It’s about how we live right here, right now, in the meantime (which really is a mean time) between the two comings of Christ.
As we live in the meantime, we will have trouble. When we encounter difficulties like trials, temptations, or persecution, we can either build a wall around ourselves or stand firm in the faith. Sometimes that requires letting go of things in life that we don’t want to let go of.
Click here to listen to the sermon audio. The manuscript is behind the jump.
After looking for a picture of the Hourglass online, it appears that the high ropes element that I remember as the Hourglass is commonly called the Heebie Jeebie (or maybe the Tension Traverse). And I think the first option that I describe is called the Postman’s Walk. You might want to look at this page if you can’t visualize the obstacles yourself. They’re not exactly the same as the ones I describe, but they’re similar.
If I remember correctly, my experience at the high ropes course was at the National Scouting Museum in Murray, Kentucky. I’m sad to have discovered that the museum is no longer in Kentucky, but they’ve moved it to Texas. And I can’t find anything about the high ropes course. Not that I was planning on ever doing the Hourglass again.
Be Ready: Keeping the Faith
1 Thessalonians 3
I want to begin this morning by telling you about a man who was known the world over for the beautiful music he could produce from a piano. He was also a man of faith. One night, while touring Europe, he was invited to play before royalty. In an effort to kill the king, enemies threw a bomb into the room. No one was killed. But the noise from the blast destroyed the hearing of this great musician. Broken hearted and hopeless, he had to give up his career.
He came back to New York City to try to figure out some way to pick up the pieces of his broken life. But he saw nothing ahead of him but despair. One day, a friend took down his Bible and read this verse from the Gospel of Luke to that now-deaf pianist: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.” (Luke 12:6)
“I do not believe that,” the musician said bitterly. “I once believed it, but no more. How could a God of such tenderness take from me the one thing I loved?”
As the years passed, the musician was eventually introduced to lip reading. And he became very proficient at this skill. Little by little, he began amusing himself by standing at the window overlooking Central Park and reading the lips of those who passed by.
One day he say a frail young man come into the park with a beautiful young woman in his arm. It was evident that they were in some trouble. “We can never marry,” he read the lips of the young man saying to the girl. “The doctor tells me that I have tuberculosis. He says I could be cured with the proper treatments and time, but it would cost at least a thousand dollars…which is impossible to pay.” Then in desperation, the young man lifted his face toward heaven and prayed.
The great musician lip-read that prayer, and his heart was touched. He went to his desk and wrote out a check for a thousand dollars and sent it down to the young couple with his congratulations.
Seeing their radiant faces, he felt some of the brightness in his own heart. In fact, it brought him such a thrill that he began to make it his business to listen to the prayers of the desperate souls that came his way.
More and more he tried to forget himself by remembering other people. More and more he threw himself under their burdens until little by little he lost his own. His faith came back stronger and sweeter than ever because he allowed himself to be used in this unique way by God.
As followers of Christ, we know that we will go through difficult times. The Gospel of John reminds us that Jesus promised us as much when he said, “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) There really should be no question about it and we really shouldn’t be surprised about it – life will have its difficulties. And some of those difficulties can come as a result of your decision to allow Christ to come into your life as your leader and your savior. When those difficulties and trials come our way, we have a decision to make. Are you going to build walls like the musician initially did and cut yourself off from everything and everyone? Or are you going to put your faith into practice, building bridges and drawing closer to the Lord and His people? The talented musician learned that putting his faith into practice helped strengthen his faith. The best exercise of faith is to get busy for God and to do what he asks and commands us to do.
We see this in the Thessalonian church. If you have your Bible with you, please turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 3. If you don’t have your Bible with you, you’re welcome to use the one in the pew in front of you. 1 Thessalonians 3 is found on page 1030 in those red Bibles.
When people talk about Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, the first thing they usually think of is the Apostle’s discussion of the second coming of Jesus Christ. And while Paul does spend time talking about what will happen when Christ returns, that’s really not the main purpose of this letter. Paul’s greater concern is how we should live in the meantime, while we watch and anticipate the return of Christ. While we live in this time between the two comings of Jesus Christ, we are challenged with difficulties. How we respond to those challenges is Paul’s greater concern in this letter.
Four different times in this short group of verses, Paul brings up the faith of the Thessalonians. It’s because of their perseverance in the faith that Paul says they “now really live” in verse 8. In the midst of all of their difficulties and the persecution we discussed last week, the Thessalonian church continued to stand in the faith. This isn’t just a head knowledge where you subscribe to a certain creed or acknowledge a particular list of theological beliefs. This faith is an action. Standing in faith results in a life of love. And that love wells up within the believer and overflows to everyone, regardless of who they are. As a result of our living out our faith, we pour out God’s love on a world that desperately needs it.
This last week, we were able to spend some time in my hometown of Evansville. One of the highlights of the trip for me was having the opportunity to spend time with my mentor and friend who was my Youth Pastor during my teenage years, Todd Bussey. Now – I know what you’re thinking. We all know that Todd is a last name, not a first name. Why would any parent give their kid a last name as a first name? Well, let not your heart be troubled. Todd is actually his middle name. So everything’s OK.
As I was driving to meet Todd for lunch, I was reminded of one of the first experiences I had with him. We were participating in a team-building exercise, which included a combination of low rope obstacles and a high ropes course that was at least 30 feet in the air. The climax of the exercise was every participant would climb this tower 30 feet in the air and then walk across a rope to another tower that was probably 50 feet away. I wasn’t the first person to climb the tower. But I wasn’t the last one, either. I went somewhere in the middle of the group. Once I got to the top of the first tower, I had to choose one of three paths to take to the second tower. The first option was a set of three cords. One was at foot-level, which you obviously walked across. The middle one was at waist-level and you held on to it with your hands. There was another cord that ran overhead where you attached your safety harness. The second option was shaped like a big log. And the idea was that it would challenge your balance while walking to the second tower. It also had the cord overhead where you attached your safety harness.
Then there was what they called the Hourglass. The setup was similar to the first option. You had three cords: one at foot-level, one at waist-level, and one overhead for your safety equipment. The main difference, however, was that the waist-level cord wasn’t just a straight shot like the first option. It actually went down to the middle of the cord that was at foot-level. So, as you’re crossing and holding on to the cord, you’re slowly crouching down until you’re at the middle of the obstacle…how high did I say it was? 30 feet? Oh, it was surely 45 feet in the air…so you’re in the middle of this rope in a crouching position. On the other side of the middle of the rope, a guide for your hands is attached and goes back up as you continue the walk towards the second tower. Do you see what I’m describing here? The guides for your hands essentially form two triangles that meet in the middle of the obstacle while you’re standing on the rope…how high did I say it was? …Oh, it was surely 60 feet in the air. The ropes kinda look like half of an hourglass…hence, the name.
So, I’m standing on the tower and I have to make a decision about which of the three paths I was going to follow to get to the second tower. The first option with the parallel ropes looked fairly simple. I didn’t think it would be enough of a challenge. Same with walking across the log. I chose the Hourglass. I mean, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I couldn’t pass it up!
Things started off fine. As I made my way towards the middle of the rope, slowly crouching down as the hand guide descended towards the cord for your feet, I started to think this wasn’t nearly as tough as it had appeared when I was watching from the ground. But then things changed once I got to the center. I remember standing there with my hands on the rope close to my feet, suspended in the air…how high did I say? By now it felt like I was 120 feet in the air…and I had a dilemma. In order to continue down the path, I had to actually let go of the rope, turn around, and grab the other hand rope that was behind me.
I knew I was safe. I was strapped to that safety equipment and I wasn’t going to fall. But I was, after all, really high up in the air. It felt like I was at least 235 feet in the air. And I had to let go of the rope. I just couldn’t do it. So I stayed there, crouched down in the middle of this ropes course…frozen 277 feet in the air.
Everyone who was after me in our group continued on the course. They couldn’t do the Hourglass though because I was stuck there. Eventually, all of them had completed the course. And they were down on the ground…looking up at me, who was still crouched down on this cord 322 feet in the air. And they began to shout out encouraging words to me, telling me exactly what I needed to do.
Of course, I knew what I needed to do. I needed to let go of the rope, turn around, and grab the other one. The problem was, every time I tried to do that, my legs started shaking, which made the entire obstacle shake, which made it even more difficult to let go of the rope, 393 feet in the air.
I was hot, sweaty, and tired. My legs hurt from staying crouched for so long. I just wanted to get down off that ropes course that felt like it was 462 feet in the air by now. But the only way I could do that was by letting go of that rope and continuing down the path towards my goal. Everyone continued to try to encourage me from the ground. But looking at them continued to make me realize how high up in the air I actually was.
Todd, my youth minister, eventually climbed back up the tower and walked out on the log obstacle to coach me on what to do. After spending several minutes of sweet-talking me, he finally convinced me to let go of the rope that I’d been gripping for so long and to grab the other rope that was behind me. Once I made that switch to the second rope, things were very easy and I was down off that tower in five minutes or less.
I knew in my head that I wasn’t going to fall. I had on a safety harness and it was safely attached to the cord overhead. I knew what I had to do: just let go. But that knowledge wasn’t going to get me anywhere until I actually did what I knew I needed to do. I might have had all the faith in the world – but it didn’t do me any good until I actually acted on that faith and let go of the rope.
Where are you in your journey? Are you like I was? You know what the next step is but you just…can’t…take it? I’d venture to say that all of us have something we continue to grip onto, holding it tightly when God is telling us to let go. It could be something as basic as choosing to follow Christ’s example and being baptized…by participating in the death, burial, and resurrection in a symbol of a watery grave. You know you need to do it. You just can’t…let…go. It could be something as simple as walking across the street and getting to know your neighbor better, allowing God’s love to pour out on you in a new way. You know you need to do it. You just can’t…let…go. Or it could be something more difficult like seeking the forgiveness of a friend against whom you’ve sinned; or turning the other cheek and loving an enemy. You know you need to do it. You just can’t…let…go. It might even mean preparing to do something completely unexpected that others might even think you’re a little bit crazy for even considering…like going to Liberia with the Amazing 80 Team in 2011. I don’t know what part of your life you’re gripping onto. But I do know that as we live our lives in this time between the two comings of Christ, we need to continue to walk in faith, following Him wherever He may lead. And sometimes that means letting go of the rope.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a fully devoted follower of Christ for the last 50 years or are a new believer who’s still learning this whole walking by faith thing. You can be involved in every aspect of the ministry of the church or just come here on Sunday mornings. Regardless of who you are or what you’ve done, God is still calling you to a closer walk with Him. He’s calling you to draw nearer towards Him. And when we respond to that invitation by acting on our faith, then we’ll see God’s love begin to work on us and through us, pouring out on everyone around us.
But you’ve got to let go of the rope.
And when we do that, we’ll see our love increase and overflow for each other. We’ll find our hearts strengthened by the One in whom our faith is placed. And we will be ready for whenever we see Jesus face to face.
12May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 13May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. (1 Thess. 3:12-13)
 Dr. Lee Roberson. The Gold Mine, pp 50-51. Recounting short story The Man Who Played God.