“Paul, Silas, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.”
It seems as though it is around this time every year that we focus ever more clearly on themes of thanksgiving and gratitude and abundance. Late summer has wound down and we wake up to far fewer unseasonably warm days. We see the leaves changing color and beginning to fall…the trees baring their delicate branches in a skyward dance. This, we expect, is the season of abundance and gratitude and thanksgiving.
If you had asked me a year ago at this time what I had an abundance of, it wasn’t gratitude or thanks. Not at all. Reeling from an unanticipated medical emergency, my “abundance” felt much different. It was an abundance not of peace and hope, but of worry, doubt, confusion, and pain. Living abundantly was probably the last thing on my mind at that time….my focus then was not on “living”—it was just on making it through the next hour of my day. It was a dark and difficult time. My valley in the shadow of death.
I know that I am not alone in having had that experience. I know that many, if not most, of us here today have had our own dark valleys to walk through. We have faced other medical crises that have consumed our thoughts and our time. We have felt weighed down with worry. We have felt listless in the throes of depression. We have felt emptiness in the depth of grief. We have felt pain in the face of estrangement. We have felt helpless as we’ve seen our loved ones struggle. We have had our share of valley moments.
We say that and we know that and we believe that we share all these things together in our own time, but when we ourselves are in the thick of it, it is so much more difficult to navigate. When that heavy cloak of grief wraps around us, we can see little more than darkness. And darkness can feel so limiting and deep and endless. While our eyes may adjust to see in the deep night, it can be harder for our spirits to do so. Darkness upon darkness upon darkness can leave us feeling little more than cold and alone.
Things in Thessalonia in 51AD were not going well for the people there either. Paul was ministering to a people who were struggling with the aftermath of believing that the second coming—the day of the Lord had already come—that judgment had been made and the righteous had been rewarded and the unbelievers were left to suffer in godlessness.
These early “Christians” were subject to such persecution and suffering that many thought the End was upon them. They were hysterical in their confusion—floundering about in the darkness of their own misguided judgment and misperception.
Have you ever felt like one of the Thessalonians? Have you had moments in your own life when you felt like everything was crashing down upon you? Have you had times when you were so convinced that everything was awful and nothing was going to get better? Have you stood there in your own swirling hysteria of confusion, looking out upon a world where you see more darkness than light? More grief than hope?
These were the people Paul was called to minister to. A terrified people. A hope-less people. A people paralyzed by fear. A people suffering under trial and persecution. Rooted so deeply in their own misperception that many stopped their usual routines to wait for the Last Days. Stopped working, stopped hoping….stopped believing. An abundance of grief and suffering will do that to you. Make you feel stuck in place, unsure if you can or even should try to venture further.
These were the people Paul was called to minister to. And Paul had some hard truths to share with them. He had a difficult balance to maintain, between coming alongside them gently with encouragement and hope, while also reminding them of the challenges of the Gospel. He had to bring them from their despair in the darkness, but he couldn’t promise them only glory and peace….he had to walk them along the twisty path. Some of them had become so caught up in their panic that they couldn’t see beyond their own swirling frenzy. Paul was charged with bringing an abundance of hope to a people mired in an abundance of confusion.
It is hard to walk out of the valley. The descent is so much easier and faster than the ascent. You can walk into darkness much more quickly than you can walk out of it. When we are laid low with doubt, when we are worn out by grief, when we are worn down by sadness, we don’t notice the thorns and rocks in our path as the darkness beckons us closer. The path into the valley is not always clear to us until we are so deep into the thicket that the mountaintop is obscured by the trees.
I wonder if this is what the Thessalonians felt. If they were so overwhelmed and confused and scared that they misunderstood their dark place as being The Last Days. That their suffering made what was a door before them, seem like a wall. That their hysteria made them believe that the path was ending, when really they were just turned around at the end of maze. In their turmoil and confusion, they were stunned by an abundance of futility and desperation.
To this suffering people, Paul spoke with encouragement, saying, “we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.”….. “we thank God for you, because your faith is growing more and more…”
In your darkest and saddest and loneliest moments, has anyone ever said that you? As Christians, don’t those words make all the difference in the world? To know that a fellow believer is there alongside you, supporting you and encouraging you and promising you that you will persevere in the face of all the “persecutions and trials” you are enduring?
When we are struggling, it is easy to see the abundance of darkness before us, and so much harder to realize that there is an abundance of everything. Everywhere, good and wonderful and beautiful things are happening. Even when we can’t always immediately see them. Even as we flounder in the murky depths of the difficult parts of our paths…. everywhere around us, hope and peace are flourishing. Like the Thessalonians convinced that the Last Days were on their doorstep, we need to hear the voice of Paul over the buzzing din of our own worried thoughts. We need to see the hand of God in the work of our days. We need to feel the breath of the Spirit renewing our tired minds. Sometimes the darkness can feel so big and so interminable and so consuming, that we miss the seeds of hope that have been sown along our path. Sometimes hope roars, but sometimes hope whispers.
We have inherited a world that is at one and the same time, harsh and difficult, but also wondrous and optimistic. There is an abundance of everything. Darkness calls, but the Truth speaks louder. Like the Thessalonians, we sometimes get confused, and think that the end of one part of our lives is the end of it all. Like the Thessalonians, we sometimes get so caught up in our hysteria that as we are crying that the darkness has grown too deep, we fail to see the ways the light is breaking in. We get stuck in the darkest hour even as dawn is breaking on the horizon.
Thus, to me, it seems somehow fitting that as our calendar turns and we speak more often of abundance and thanksgiving it is also the beginning of the winter season when we will have more darkness than light all around us. It is as though God is speaking through the season, encouraging us to accept both in their time and to find the gifts in each. Darkness and light, light and darkness. Ends and beginnings. Grief and loss, hope and peace. Confusion and clarity. There is an abundance of everything, and God speaks through in our pain as God speaks in our prosperity. May we weather the darkness as we celebrate the light. May the Spirit help us find peace with it all. Amen.