There are a lot of people that feel desperately confused, very guilty, and when they need to come and be with God’s people the most, it’s when they tend to come the least.
The first two years of my Christian life were some of the most joyful, confusing, difficult, and frustrating of my whole life. I didn’t know anything. I had never opened the Bible until I was eighteen, I didn’t know much about this new life, and boy, I was forgiven and I had peace and I had purpose and I was excited about it but I’d take one or two steps this way and then, boom, four or five back this way.
And, you know, I’d make real decisions about really wanting to follow God and address issues in my life and three days later I’d find myself doing just the thing I said I didn’t want to do anymore.
And then I’d feel guilty at church, then I felt this, and then I, pretty soon I learned how to sleep in and then avoid Christians. And then I thought there was something wrong with me. I thought my faith must be defective.
But it was real and I kept longing and wanting to be near to Christ but it was so hard and I got so frustrated. You know what I didn’t understand? I didn’t understand that just as there are physical laws that govern the universe, there are spiritual laws that govern our lives. And the law I didn’t know about was the law of entropy. It has to do, basically, with that well known fact in life that when you go on a diet you can work, work, work, work, work to lose ten pounds and you can gain it back in three days. It’s that well known fact that when you clean your garage that it doesn’t keep getting cleaner and cleaner. It just starts getting dirty. That when you wash your car, three days later it starts looking bad again.
That when you make commitments, that when you move and work in relationships it gets better and better and better. Just do nothing - it’ll get worse.
You see, the entire universe is moving from order into chaos. Things aren’t getting better and better and better. Things, left to themselves, do what? They get worse!
And it’s true spiritually. Every single one of us will go through seasons where, in your heart of hearts, you will find yourself drifting away from God. Now, I think it’s much more common among young Christians because when it happens to us we didn’t know what was going on.
But old Christians aren’t immune to it. You’ve got this lure of the world that’s happening every day. And then you got the lust of your own flesh and then the tempter comes in and those three things all concert together to draw your heart away from God.
And so then you’re away one weekend or you skip a couple three days of reading the Scripture and the prayers are just a little perfunctory and you have a good relationship and you back away from that and pretty soon those things, layer upon layer, upon layer, upon layer… and you find yourself , the last one to know usually, drifting away from Christ.
And it can happen to anyone. In fact, it does happen to everyone to some degree all the time. That’s what the apostle Paul, in I Thessalonians, is going to talk about.
How in the world do you overcome this magnetic draw away from Christ? Let me give you a couple symptoms if you can’t already think about what they are, when spiritual entropy begins to occur in your life. Time in the Scriptures becomes unfocused, sporadic, then negligible. Prayer becomes shallow, inconsistent, less honest, and then perfunctory. You know? Just do it around the table because we’re supposed to.
The external symptoms: first, our schedule. The pace and busyness of life, work, hobbies, families, and activities – it seems to increase. It’s an amazing thing, when I drift away from God my schedule gets busier, and busier, and fuller, and fuller.
And then our decisions: When you begin to drift, pressure replaces priorities in the decision-making process.
And then finally, our fellowship. This is the last to go, actually. Regular fellowship in church, in Bible studies, small-group involvement, in your service and ministry – it becomes increasingly, first it starts sporadic. You start, you hit and miss, you know?
And then, after you hit and miss, then you rationalize, “We need this time out. We need to get away. We need to be refreshed.” And then something comes up and then you don’t feel all that good and pretty soon it seems like a couple weeks but it’s been a couple of months. And you’ve distanced yourself from God’s people.
Have you been there? You don’t have to raise your hand. I have. I’ve been there a bunch, multiple times in my life.
Those are the symptoms when spiritual entropy begins to occur. Here’s the danger: The danger is the longer we drift the more difficult it is to return.
The word picture that comes to my mind is that of a little boat, like a little rowboat drifting out to sea. The farther it drifts, the greater the danger. Picture, if you will, a little rowboat and it’s out by the harbor, and then it gets out past the harbor, and then the waves, and the currents, and the winds, and it gets beyond the horizon. Now, it’s so far away from shore no one can see it.
Spiritually, there are people that you know and there are people that I know, in fact, some of us may be in this room, who are spiritually drifting away from God, and the truth, and all the things that we know are right.
It happens. In fact, it happens so regularly that in Hebrews 3:13 we are given a command about how to relate to one another. It says, “But encourage,” build up, “but encourage one another,” when? “day after day as long as it is still called today lest anyone of you be hardened, your hearts be hardened, by the deceitfulness of sin.”
See, no one wakes up and says, “You know something? You know, God’s been so good to me, He loves me, He’s restored relationships, He’s done such a work of grace in my life, I never knew what peace was, I’ve got forgiveness, I’ve got purpose, He’s used me in the lives of other people. Today would be a good day just to drop out. You know? I think I’ll just quit the Christian life today,” no one wakes up and does that.
You do it by little, tiny degrees. The question then is, “Who do you know that is in spiritual danger?” If you visualized in your mind a little rowboat, drifting past the harbor and then the wind and the current taking it out to sea, who is in that boat? Is it you? Is it a friend? Is it a family member? A mate? A child? Is it a coworker? You know they’re a believer and you’ve watched the slide. Is it an old friend from college?
Who is it? Who would be in that boat if God would bring someone to your mind that you know and you can sense they are drifting away from Him, who would go in there? Who is in that little rowboat that the current is pulling out, they’re going farther and farther away from shore, and they’re going to destroy themselves. They’re going to have a fractured family, they’re going to end up shipwrecking their faith, they’re going to end up doing something very, very dumb and it’s going to cost them a lot, and it’s going to embarrass Your name, and it’s going to embarrass Your Church, and they will reap the consequences forever.
Who is it? Because I’m going to tell you, there’s a lot at stake tonight. This is exactly the situation that the apostle Paul is going to write into. There’s a church he’s been away from for, plus or minus two years, eighteen to twenty-four months.
And he knows that there’s incredible persecution on the outside and he knows there’s great temptation on the inside. And he, literally, can’t sleep at night and he can’t sleep at night because he’s fearful.
And what he’s fearful about is that all their labor, all their preaching, all their discipling is going to go straight down the tubes because these people are going to spiritually drift, and they’re going to end up shipwrecked, and after coming to Christ they’re going to drift away and there’s going to be no impact, no fruit, no church, and you know what? This is something that makes the apostle Paul’s heart beat and pound and it’s one of his passions.
And what we’re going to look at tonight is a letter he writes to that group where he jumps into what I want to call his “9-1-1 rescue response.”
And there’s a way to help people where you don’t hit them over the head, there’s a way to help people where you don’t use Gestapo tactics, and there’s a way to help people where you don’t come over here like this; like this fellow did and I’ve done and you’ve done. I’ve been in restaurants, I’ve seen the people come in, I think, “They used to go to our church,” and then I rationalize, “They’re probably going somewhere else.”
And I don’t say anything. I don’t say anything because I don’t want them to reject me, I don’t say anything because I’m not obeying Scripture.
What we’re going to learn tonight is what to say and how to say it and how to do it in such a way where those people, you’re going to be like a little tugboat. And as those people are drifting out of the harbor into danger, God is going to show us, through the apostle Paul, how in the little tugboat you can come alongside, throw a little anchor, or whatever rope you throw over, hook onto their boat, and pull them into safety.
And you won’t be pushy, you won’t be holier than thou, and it’ll happen in a way that will restore them to the Savior.
And so let’s look at the model that the apostle Paul gives us here. He’s going to model a 9-1-1 rescue response.
In verses 13 through 16, of chapter 2, Paul thanks God continually for the manner in which the Thessalonians received the Word of God. Now, just before I read it, listen carefully. Here’s what he’s going to do. He’s going to tell them, “I am so impressed,” notice he starts very positively. He’s going to say, “I’m so impressed about how authentic your faith is,” and then he’s going to say, “I know it’s authentic because you have held strong, even in the midst of persecution.”
And then he’s going to have a little aside where he talks about the evil of those who persecute the Church. Verse 13 he says, “And for this reason we constantly thank God that when you received from us the Word of God, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the Word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.” Do you hear what he’s saying? He’s communicating his gratitude.
He says, “I’m continually thankful for you.” By the way, that’s the best way to start with people. Be thankful and communicate your gratitude for times in your shared experience when you know their faith was authentic, when it was operating well.
Now, how does he know? Look at verse 14, “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea: for you endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen even as they did from the Jews.” He’s going back to the early days, they received the Word, you came to Christ, you had a lot of pressure, you had a lot of persecution. He says, “Hey, I want to congratulate you and I want to thank God for those early times in your faith where I saw you stand up under difficult times.”
He says, “There was clear evidence of a supernatural working of the Spirit of God through the Word of God that was transforming your life even in the midst of great persecution.”
Now, he has a little aside in verse 15 and 16. He says that just as the Jews persecuted him, and the Lord, their countrymen are doing it to them.
He paints a picture of real gratitude. And he does it in the context of, “I know it’s real because I reached back into our shared experience and how you walked with God in the midst of hard times against some pretty tough cookies.”
So here’s the application. I’m going to give you four steps of rescue intervention. Step one: Communicate your gratitude for the authenticity of their faith in the midst of spiritual opposition.
See, when I’m sitting in that restaurant, or when I’m at the mall, or when I bump into someone, or if I see someone at church and I know, “Man, it’s been a long time since they’ve been here, or they’ve not been to our Bible study group or whatever,” see, how they’re feeling is how we felt when we’ve been there or maybe some of you are there tonight.
You feel down on yourself, you feel like you’ve gotta perform and do something good to get God to love you, which isn’t true, but you feel that way.
So guess what we need to do? We need to communicate our gratitude to God for the authenticity of their faith.
And you need to reach back in a shared experience. This happened just recently to me. There’s a gal … I need to quit playing basketball because I’m having my body parts rebuilt from the ankles and knees up… but in one of my surgeries, I had the chance to lead a young mom to the Lord.
And she comes from a very difficult background - her father is an atheist, she had never been in a church in her life, but little by little as I went to physical therapy, I got to share my faith and then she began to read the Scriptures on her own, and little by little she trusted Christ.
And early on she was very, very faithful in church and making good progress. But she’s got all these demands, and all these pressures, and you know how it is, right? In those early years?
And I hadn’t seen her for quite some time. And so she stopped in to Saturday night and I just, first of all, I think the way you greet people is important. I just said, “Oh, it’s so good to see you. I’m so glad you’re here.” You see, that’s a lot better than, “Oh, where have you been?” You understand what I’m saying? What we need to do is be positive and encouraging towards people.
And then I was able to share. I said, “Boy, you know, I think of when you trusted Christ, the impact you’ve had there. And, you know, the steps you’ve taken, how it’s impacted your family, I am so thankful to God for how He has already used your life and the authenticity of your faith.”
So guess what her next line is? “Oh, you know, I need to be here a lot more often.
And then I was able to say, “Yeah, you know, I think all that’s really great. But we miss you. It’s not a matter of just what you need. You see, God has given you something, and as you come you have something to give to the body, and we’re incomplete without you. We really miss you. But I’m thankful to God for all He’s done in you.”
After he communicates his gratitude then he expresses genuine concern. Verse 17, “But we, brethren, having been bereft,” that’s an interesting word. The NIV I like a little better says, “Having been torn away from you for a short period, in person, not in spirit, were all the more eager with great desire to see you face to face.”
By the way, this little word “bereft,” or “bereaved,” is the idea, you might circle it. It means to be physically separated but also with mental anguish. It’s an involuntary separation. One commentator says you could translate it, “orphaned.”
Do you hear what he’s doing? He’s communicating his sincere concern. This isn’t perfunctory, this isn’t, “Oh, we happen to go to church together.” This is, “I care about you.”
And notice the word here, he says, “We have great desire.” It’s the most emphatic, intensive form of that verb that you can have. In fact, that same word is translated, in a negative way, of being extremely lustful. Exact same word but it’s used in a positive way here.
He’s saying, “My heart beats for you! He says, “I greatly desire to see your face,” why? “for we wanted to come to you. I, Paul, more than once and yet Satan thwarted us.”
The apostle Paul is saying, “You matter. I’m concerned about you and I care about you, and I love you.”
And it was almost like they’ve had no contact. It would be like someone that you haven’t heard from in a long, long time saying, “Oh, I’m glad I finally got to see you and I’ve really missed you.” And you say, “Yeah, right.”
And then they have a box and they say, “Here.” And you take the box and you open it. And there’s a stack of thirty letters in it. And somehow they couldn’t get the right address, they couldn’t find you.
And on the corner, stamped in red in every letter it says, “Return to sender,” “Return to sender.” And here, for a two-year period there are thirty letters, they’ve been thinking about you every month, every two weeks, writing you a letter, praying for you. You just didn’t know it.
That’s what he’s saying here. Then notice the reason. Look at verse 19, “For who is our hope, our joy, or our crown of exultation?”
The apostle Paul says, “I don’t get up so that I earn more money this year. I don’t get up to find out what’s going on in the stock market. I don’t get up just so that my life will be successful, wealthy, happy, comfortable, and all my circumstances turn out right. I get up in the morning, and I live for your spiritual welfare and progress. You are our hope, our joy, and our crown.”
There are two words for “crown” in the New Testament. This one is in reference to a crown of victory. It’s the idea of royalty coming and arriving with his crown, as a sign of honor, and he says, notice what his crown is: “Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming?”
He says, “The day when I come to Christ, … the crown that I’ll wear on my head of victory and royalty will be my relationship with you as a church. I invested in you. I loved you. I led you to Christ. I built into your life. I gave my life. And when I stand before God, you are my crown, my joy, and my hope.” In fact, he repeats it, look at the last line: “For you are our glory and joy.”
If the person in that little rowboat that you have pictured in your mind is drifting out to sea, and is spiritually adrift from Christ, can you imagine what would happen if someone communicated that they really cared?