08 November 2016

Sermon – “A Birthday Prayer” (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12)

Allow me to begin by saying what an honour and a joy it is to be among you at First Congregational this morning on the occasion of your pastor’s birthday. Doug Mott and I go back a long way. I treasure not only my friendship with him and Ann but also the privilege of having watched First Congregational grow from a little gathering in the Police Club to the vibrant community that you are today, playing a significant role in making a difference for Christ in this city.
Not many of you may be familiar with the name of Terry Fulham. But thirty-five years ago he was a major figure in the church renewal scene in North America. Over the course of a few years, under his remarkable teaching and leadership, he had seen his congregation at St Paul’s Church in Darien, Connecticut, grow from a couple of hundred worshippers to nearly three thousand. And people were flocking from all over to find out how it happened.
In response to this Terry Fulham and St Paul’s offered regular renewal conferences for clergy and for lay people. I was leading a church in suburban Montreal at the time. Darien was an easy six-hour drive away, all on Interstates, and so in the fall of 1982 I decided to make the journey.
Now one of the things about St Paul’s in Darien was that they were a praying church. And so if you wanted to participate in one of their conferences you had to register several weeks in advance so that they could have time to pray for you—and I mean really pray. There were a couple of things I was praying about too. One was that I would have a chance to get together with a gentleman named Peter Moore, who headed up a very effective ministry called FOCUS in a number of the east coast prep schools. The other was that I would have an opportunity to meet up with a man who at that time was writing a national syndicated column from an explicitly Christian perspective. Both of these men lived in Darien and both worshipped at St Paul’s.
Well, what should I find when I registered but that I had been booked in to stay at the home of Peter and Sandy Moore throughout the time of the conference? When I asked Peter about the possibility of meeting up with the columnist, he said to me, “Why he’s a member of our home group. You’ll be meeting with them tomorrow evening.” Clearly God was answering both my prayers and those of the good folk at St Paul’s. He had prepared the way before me in what I thought was quite a remarkable manner.
Yet there was a further surprise in store for me. That was that I would be sharing my room with another Canadian, a young associate pastor from a congregation in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Now I don’t think it will take you too long to figure out who that was: none other than your own Doug Mott. I had no idea of the significance of that meeting and the conversations we enjoyed after the conference each day until three years later, when I moved to Halifax and began to serve as rector of St Paul’s Church. And who was one of the first people to welcome me? Of course—Doug Mott.
One of the most precious and significant aspects of our friendship over the years that followed was to share together in a pastors’ prayer group that met over coffee every second Tuesday morning. Over my more than eighteen years in that group I don’t think there was a single one of us who did not go through some significant struggles. There was often laughter, there were sometimes tears, but there was always prayer. The result was that for most of us there was almost nothing that we would allow to get in the way of those precious Tuesday morning times. We were united in the unbreakable bonds of the fellowship of prayer and common ministry in Jesus’ name.
Now here we are, and more than thirty years have flowed under the bridge. Yet I know that you still have the same passion for Christ and the same desire to be of service to him, that you had all those years ago. Indeed, if anything, it glows only brighter. And so, what to preach on, on this significant birthday? Well, the verses I believe that the Lord has given to me are these, from 2 Thessalonians 1:11 and 12. They are the apostle Paul’s prayer for the Christian believers in Thessalonica, and I hope they may become the prayer of all of us for you on this auspicious occasion.
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is a lot of prayer packed into those two little verses. But it seems to me that Paul is essentially praying for three things: that they may live up to God’s call on their lives; that they may see the fulfilment of their ministry and of their desire to serve Christ; and that the name of Jesus may be glorified in them. Let’s just pause there for a moment to take a brief look at each of them.

Made worthy

Paul’s first prayer for the Thessalonian believers was that they might be worthy of God’s calling. The word for “worthy” in the New Testament is axios. In the early church when the bishop was presenting a newly ordained priest or presbyter to the congregation, they would all exclaim in unison, “Axios! Axios! Axios!” to express their approval of the candidate. I can remember my ordination day and no doubt you can remember yours also, Doug. In my case I remember standing before the bishop as he read to me these words from the Book of Common Prayer:
Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. Wherefore consider with yourselves the end of your ministry towards the children of God, towards the spouse and body of Christ; and see that you never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until you have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life.
I think if I had had the least shred of wisdom at the time (and not the brashness of a twenty-something year-old fresh out of seminary), I ought to have made a dash for it right out of the service. I was having placed upon me responsibility for the spiritual well-being of men and women and children for whom Jesus had gone to the cross! I wonder, Doug, if you felt the same?
What does it mean to be worthy of our calling? If Peter and Andrew and James and John had had any idea of what they were getting into, would they have so quickly abandoned their boats on the shore of Lake Galilee in response to Jesus call to “Follow me”? Again and again they proved themselves not worthy of that calling: arguing over who was the greatest, asking to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans who wouldn’t welcome them into their village, cowering before a servant girl and denying that he even knew Jesus, passing off the women’s reports of Jesus’ resurrection as nonsense… And the list goes on.
When it comes down to it, let’s be honest. Who really is worthy of God’s calling? Can anyone here this morning stand up and make that claim? I know for certain that I can’t. With the prodigal son I cry aloud, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am not worthy to be called your son.” But of course Paul’s prayer was not that the Thessalonians would make themselves worthy of God’s calling. It was that God would make them worthy. And between those two things there is a world—no, a universe—of difference.


The second part of Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians was that God might “fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power”. I find that an interesting combination of words: “every resolve for good and every work of faith”. I rather like the way Eugene Peterson put it in his translation in The Message: “I pray that he’ll fill your good ideas and acts of faith with his own energy so that it all amounts to something.”
The words suggest to me that essential to any church, any ministry, is a desire, a vision—we might even say, a passion. There was a fad not so long ago that every church had to have a “mission statement”. And that’s not always a bad thing. The problem is that, from what I’ve seen, many such statements are either so vague and general that they don’t lead you anywhere or they are so specific that they don’t allow for flexibility when circumstances change or the Holy Spirit is calling us to something new. A case in point is the church where I served until a couple of years ago. We found ourselves and our mission radically altered when our ranks were swollen by more than a hundred refugees from Burma.
We never know what surprises God may have for us around the corner. The apostles never dreamed that the church should grow to include non-Jews, or that persecution should only make the church stronger and not destroy it. And Doug, I can’t imagine that when you were first ordained you could have predicted all the twists and turns along the way that have brought you to where you are now.
Some of you may remember Tom Robinson, the founding director of City Centre Ministry here in Halifax. Tom was also the founder of the All Souls’ Clubhouse, an outreach and resource centre to young people in central London. In its early days Tom and his colleagues spent countless hours and gallons of sweat to put together an attractive facility that would house its various activities. Many years later, when he went back for a visit, he found to his horror that almost no evidence of that hard work remained. The building was a shambles. That disappointment quickly evaporated, however, when he visited some of the original members of the club, who were continuing to follow and serve Christ faithfully and devotedly. He was forced to realize that the Holy Spirit is not nearly as interested in building institutions as he is in changing lives.
Doug, I suspect that your experience is the same as mine—that God has taken my “good ideas” (as Peterson put it) and my very limited acts of faith and used them in ways that I might never have imagined. And so, “straining towards what is ahead,” as Paul writes elsewhere, “we press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12-13).


All of this brings us to the third part of Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians: that the name of the Lord Jesus might be glorified in them. And really that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? It’s not me or even the church in the final outcome. It’s Jesus that we’re all about. Like John the Baptist standing in the waters of the Jordan, we recognize that we must decrease if he is to increase.
One of the qualities I have always appreciated in Doug is that he is genuine. I know when he is annoyed about something, or amused, or discouraged, or overjoyed. And I believe that is a quality that the Holy Spirit has used in him (and continues to use) to make Jesus real to others.
Jesus is not going to be glorified by our trying to appear better or holier or more righteous than we are. That is the way of the Pharisees and it will always end in failure. No, as the Bible teaches us again and again, it will only be though God’s grace. By grace we are made right with him; by grace we have heard his call; by grace we have been raised to new life; by grace we are able to enter his presence; by grace we are heirs of eternal life; by grace we have been given the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit; and by grace that same Holy Spirit will somehow take our faltering words and feeble actions that the Lord Jesus might be glorified in us. This was a lesson that none less than the apostle Paul himself had to learn, when he wrote,
But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Doug, I am grateful for the many ways in which the Lord has displayed and continues to display his grace in you. May he empower you to continue to use both your strengths and your weaknesses to draw others to him—and at this point I think the best thing I can do is to step aside and invite you all to join with me as we bring our brother Doug before the Lord in prayer.
May our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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