Text: I Thessalonians 5:9-11
Theme: We are to cheer one another to carry on in the face of weariness and hardships.
Right after college I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area.
One of the big events every May was the legendary Bay to Breakers footrace.
Nearly 100,000 people would crowd behind the starting line in downtown San Francisco-
some linked as centipedes, some in outrageous costumes, a few with almost nothing on.
I had been running regularly and was in good shape. So I decided to get in on the action.
The Bay to Breakers is 7.6 miles long.
From the financial district by the Bay it heads west to the breakers of the Pacific Ocean. But two miles into the race the course meets the Hayes Street Hill- a big, steep hill.
For over a quarter mile you run up and up and up. Runners call it Heartbreak Hill.
Well, I got caught up in the excitement of the race. I started out way too fast.
By the time I got halfway up that hill I was really hurting.
I couldn’t suck in air fast enough. My legs had that rubbery, wobbly feeling.
It was all I could do to keep leaning into that hill, putting one foot before the next.
I thought that hill would never end. I was afraid of real disgrace: slowing to a walk.
But just then I heard it. Fans were cheering at the top of the hill.
Big stereo speakers were blasting. And they were playing Chariots of Fire.
Suddenly I felt re-energized. I kept my stride smooth in front of the cheering crowd. In a moment we swept over the top of the hill and streamed down the other side.
From there: mostly downhill to the ocean. I finished the race in under six minutes a mile.
What happened on Heartbreak Hill pictures Paul’s appeal: encourage one another.
The Greek word literally means:to call to one’s side- to urge them on to a continued effort. Wherever this word is used in the Bible, it involves cheering someone on to faithful action.
In our text Paul urges God’s people to encourage one another, because they needed it. Acts 17 records the difficulties in Thessalonica after Paul first preached the gospel there. There was a strong Jewish community, which soon became envious of Paul’s influence. So they rounded up some thugs, attracted a mob, and stirred up a riot.
To save his life Paul’s friends smuggled him away at night.
Paul’s letter reflects the bitter opposition the Christians there faced from day one.
Chapter 1: in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with joy.
Chapter 2: you suffered from your own countrymen.
The Thessalonians were like runners who felt worn out and were tempted to quit.
So Paul is cheering them on: hang in there! Keep on going!
Encourage one another and build each other up.
The need for encouragement is certainly not unique to the Thessalonians.
Acts 15:32 Judas + Silas …said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers.
In Romans 1:12 Paul writes I long to see you…that you + I may be mutually encouraged.
Titus 1:9: An elder must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught,
so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine. The church needed encouragement.
All this encouragement reflects the heart of God.
Psalm 10:17 says: You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them.
God is a God of encouragement.
We see that best in the ministry of Jesus.
Perhaps the premier exhibit is found just before Jesus’ death.
He knows the opposition and hardship his disciples will face. So he encourages them.
John 14: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.
In my Father’s house are many rooms… I am going there to prepare a place for you.
Imagine how encouraging this was for the disciples!
When the Holy Spirit was poured out, he carried on Jesus’ ministry of encouragement. Listen to this observation from Acts 9: Then the church… enjoyed a time of peace.
It was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit.
So, the triune God- Father, Son and Spirit- is a God of divine encouragement.
You know, the world often thinks the church is a burden: backward, narrow or stifling.
But what about this: join the church and have a crowd of people cheering you on in life!
That’s a pretty good deal! God intends his church to be an engine of encouragement.
You know, we live in a world that can be draining and discouraging. It can be cut-throat.
The pressure of jobs. The pressure of meeting mortgages and paying the bills.
The challenge of raising children- especially if they’re strong-willed or have special needs.
It’s easy to get worn out and want to give up- like an exhausted runner.
So, the ministry of encouragement is every bit as much needed today.
So, let’s address two practical questions. First, how do we encourage one another?
Encouraging others is really an art form. There is no formula for it; no prescribed recipe.
It can be as varied and creative as the person or the circumstance.
In fact, Romans 12:8 points out that encouragement is a spiritual gift.
One main avenue of encouragement is a direct word. Think again of Jesus’ words:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. How encouraging!
The Apostle James highlights the power of the tongue to hurt and destroy.
But our words also have great power to encourage: keep it up; you’re doing just fine;
your music today was a blessing; thanks for coming by to visit- it meant a lot to me;
hang in there with your kids; we love you.
Then there is the written word. It has this advantage: it can be read and re-read.
At my church in Grand Rapids, Michigan we had a ministry called Grief/Share.
It provided support and biblical perspective for people who’d lost a loved one.
One meeting a woman read a note which a pastor wrote years earlier when her mother died.
The note was understanding and tender and deeply encouraging. She had saved it.
Now she was sharing it. You know what? That pastor had died several years earlier.
But his written words of encouragement were still a blessing long after his death!
Another medium of encouragement is hospitality.
For five years I served as the regional pastor for my area- a sort of pastor to pastors.
Mostly what I did was invite fellow pastors out for breakfast or lunch.
I would simply ask about how their life and ministry was going. Then I listened.
I asked follow-up questions. I might share similar experiences. I listened some more. Every time simply having a fellow pastor attend to them provided rich encouragement!
Yet another potent avenue of encouragement can be humor. Humor is powerful.
It has a way of picking us up, restoring perspective, and keeping us going.
In my church in Michigan we’d start the ministry year with a dinner for council + staff.
At the dinner I’d always include some humor. A big favorite was bulletin bloopers.
Here are two: After today's service, coffee and donuts will be served in the basement.
Please come down and say hell to the pastor. Or: Ladies, don't forget the rummage sale.
It's a chance to get rid of stuff not worth keeping around the house; don't forget your husbands.
So, encouragement is an art conveyed in many forms.
Encourage one another. Here’s a second practical question: who needs encouragement?
Well, everyone needs it. The Apostle Paul puts no limits on whom to encourage.
Timid children need encouragement, and self-assured adults need encouragement. Strangers need encouragement, and old friends need it.
The sick need encouragement, and the healthy too.
Who needs encouragement? Certainly those who are discouraged by heavy burdens.
A young adult struggling to find her way. Families supporting someone with a disability.
Those going through divorce needs encouragement. Single parents.
Those who battle disappointment or disease or declining health need encouragement.
I think of the time my parents were providing around-the-clock care for my grampa. His health was failing. At 89 years old, his mind was fading due to dementia.
He might appear on their porch, ringing their bell at midnight, all confused.
Near the end he barely recognized who they were.
The unrelenting demands were hard on my parents. All my life we kids leaned on them.
But now there was a new dynamic- they were so eager for an encouraging word from us.
Who needs encouragement? Leaders especially need it.
Often we think of leaders as strong individuals who don’t need much encouragement.
But they bear the weight of great responsibility, high expectations and public criticism.
Presidents and teachers and coaches and pastors all need encouragement.
They all need to be cheered on as they pursue their God-given calling.
What about you: are you often a critic? Or are you an encourager?
Perhaps the Spirit is bringing someone to mind to offer some timely encouragement.
Let me ask: how can you help make your family + our church an engine of encouragement?
Running the Bay to Breakers was great. Getting cheered on along the way was electrifying. But running the race for Christ is far more important.
Getting cheered on by fellow Christians is far more important.
After all, this race is for keeps. We run for an eternal prize.
So, brothers and sisters, encourage one another and build each other up.
When we do we imitate Jesus. We follow in the steps of the early church.
Pastor Neil Jasperse
Faith Church; September 30, 2018