As most of you know, I am a bit nerdy with tendencies toward geekiness in some areas. It is a part of my personality formed many years ago in libraries and under trees and sitting propped up on my bed under the window with a cool breeze blowing over my head. This part of my personality originates with the reading of great science fiction and fantasy authors ranging from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the current, long-standing Shannara series by Terry Brooks, to the madcap writing of Douglas Adams. Call it escapism or whatever you will, I have enjoyed getting lost in a fictional world unlike our own, even if only for a few minutes a day, as long as I can remember.
The standard by which all fantasy fiction is measured, of course, is The Lord of the Rings, the epic masterpiece by J.R.R. Tolkien. No other book series has had anywhere near the social, cultural, and literary impact, from the creation of archetypal characters that are used over and again by other writers to the formation of several fiction languages used throughout the stories. Between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the stories of Bilbo, Frodo, and all their companions have sold an estimated 250 million copies worldwide, and the films have made nearly six billion dollars.
I believe what makes this series of books and movies powerful to us, even still today, is the humanity in the central characters. The main protagonists show a level of loyalty, friendship, and living for one another that I think we as individuals and as a culture long to experience. At times, it almost seems too good to be true and yet, if you know anything about J.R.R. Tolkien, you know that parts of the books found their voice through his experiences on the battlefields of World War I, such as the character Sam being an example of the courage of the English everyman, doing his duty in the face of horrors and certain death. These ideas form the basis for the humanity of heroes, which in turn gives us a glimpse at our own humanity.
One such scene from the films which illustrates this is at the end of the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo, in fear of the One Ring driving everyone else to madness, decides to go it alone, though with some trepidation ends up taking Sam along as well. As the others realize he is gone, they begin to despair that the great quest has been for naught. The conversation goes something like this:
Aragorn: Frodo’s fate is no longer in our hands.
Gimli: Then it has all been in vain. The Fellowship has failed.
Aragorn: Not if we hold true to each other.
This idea of holding true to each other, of keeping the bonds of friendship through adversity, is at the core of The Lord of the Rings story, and it also lies at the core of our reading today from 1 Thessalonians.
For this sermon, I want us to dial into a few verses that I think speak volumes about Paul’s heart as he writes to the young church at Thessalonica:
Brothers and sisters, we were separated from you for a while physically but not in our hearts. We made every effort in our desire to see you again face-to-face. We wanted to come to you—I, Paul, tried over and over again—and Satan stopped us. What is our hope, joy, or crown that we can brag about in front of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Isn’t it all of you? You are our glory and joy!
In these few verses, we get a glimpse into the mind of a pastor and his mission team and how they feel and view the congregation they have served. For Paul, Silas, and Timothy, the people of Thessalonica were what was important, not programs or statistics or any other qualifier. Notice the sequence of things here in these verses above: Paul and company are separated from the people of Thessalonica (in truth they were run out of town as rabble-rousers), then they try to go back to the town and see them, but they are stopped by an adversary. As we read on in the passage, we find Timothy sent back to the city, probably because he was the least conspicuous of the group. Timothy returns to Paul with a glowing report of how the church is bearing up well in the face of persecution and ‘standing firm in the Lord.’
Something we see at the beginning of this passage is the idea that the bonds of our friendship, our fellowship as a congregation are tested. I realize as I stand here in front of you that this congregation is no stranger to such testing. In much the same way which persecution tested the congregation of Thessalonica, you yourselves were tested. There have been difficulties with pastors, parishioners, and circumstances; yet through it all, you have weathered the difficulties and continued to hold faith with one another, even if you had to work a little harder to do it. As a result, this congregation is stronger for it, and if you look at the ministries that emanate from this congregation, I would say that is proof enough of it.
Paul also writes of facing an adversary as part of this testing. Paul uses the word satan which we have personified and made into an individual being of evil. The word itself comes from the Hebrew shaitan and is used in two ways. First, it means one who opposes you. In fact, in the story of Balaam and his donkey, the Angel of the Lord “stood in the road as his adversary,” the word adversary here being shaitan. The second use is more specific and understood as the Shaitan or the adversary, which is the way we understand it in the story of Job. In the New Testament, the same situation applies. There are those who are satans or against us, or there is the Satan, the accuser of Job and the one who stands against Jesus during his temptation. Speaking of the opposition that Paul talks about here, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington wrote,
There has been much speculation about what he [Paul] is referring to. Was it perhaps a recurring illness? This might be a reference to the politarchs [politicians] in Thessalonike having banned Paul from coming into the city, but this is uncertain. Elsewhere in Paul’s letters, Satan is the one who opposes and hinders the progress of the gospel. Particularly interesting is 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, which suggests that the false apostles are servants and tools of Satan hindering Paul. This shows that Paul could see human beings as manipulated by Satan to oppose Paul’s work. Hence, it is possible this is an allusion to the politarchs’ actions.
In the face of this opposition, Paul cannot stand the wondering about their suffering and how it was affecting their faith. He finds a workaround by sending Timothy into Thessalonica to check on the congregation there. We read that Timothy returned and told Paul and Silas “the good news of your faith and love…that you always remember us kindly and long to see us—just as we long to see you.” The report that Timothy brings back to Paul and Silas is enough to encourage them that the congregation in Thessalonica is living into the things that the apostles taught them and bearing up against any threat or pressure from the community to abandon their faith.
I believe there are several things we can learn from this passage regarding the idea of having hope in one another. First, I think we should recognize that those of us gathered here are not the full extent of our congregation. In the same way that Paul, Silas, and Timothy considered themselves part of the congregation at Thessalonica even though they were absent, we too have people who are a part of our congregation that may or may not be here. What about those who are sick or physically unable to be here, those who listen online or on the radio? We need to think of ourselves as more than the people who show up on Sunday morning and include in our fellowship those who are a part of our community as well.
Second, whatever our efforts in ministry, there will be some opposition. It may be purely spiritual, as in The Satan, it may be of the human variety where people disagree with one another, or it may be opposition from those on the outside who disagree with who we are and what we stand for. In the same way that the Thessalonians continued in the face of adversity, we too must continue with the mission of God’s Kingdom, knowing that the gospel we live and share with others is truly good news to the world.
Finally, we can see that for Paul, Silas, and Timothy, the Thessalonians were “our hope, joy, or crown that we can brag about in front of our Lord Jesus when he comes.” We should be this for one another, encouraging one another in the work of ministry whatever form that takes. When given the opportunity, we should do all that we can to help the ministries of the church succeed, either through our prayers, our financial support when needed, or our direct involvement.
Near the end of life, sitting in a prison cell awaiting execution, Paul writes at least two letters to Timothy. Toward the end of the second letter, we read these few lines,
I’m already being poured out like a sacrifice to God, and the time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. At last the champion’s wreath that is awarded for righteousness is waiting for me. The Lord, who is the righteous judge, is going to give it to me on that day. He’s giving it not only to me but also to all those who have set their heart on waiting for his appearance.
May we also be poured out as offerings of love, service, and sacrifice before God and one another. May we too fight well to finish this race with faith as we share the good news of Jesus and the Kingdom of God with the community around us. May we too, appear before the Lord as good servants who have lived well the gospel of Jesus in word and in deed.
Bauer, Walter, F. Wilbur Gingrich, William F. Arndt, and Frederick William Danker. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. 3. Edited by Frederick William Danker. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew English Lexicon. Edited by Sixth. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001.
Carpenter, Humphrey. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981.
Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 3rd. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Garth, John. Battle of the Somme: the ‘animal horror’ that inspired JRR Tolkien. October 4, 2013. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-one/inside-first-world-war/part-two/10356085/jrr-tolkien-war.html (accessed April 18, 2018).
Lee, Stuart. “For Another View of World War I, Look to Lord of the Rings.” The Epoch Time, March 24, 2014: A16.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings. Directed by Peter Jackson. Performed by Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, & Orlando Bloom. 2001.
Witherington III, Ben. 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Soci-Rhetorcial Commentary. Grand Rapids , MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006.
Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
 http://variety.com/2017/vintage/features/tolkien-lord-of-the-rings-1202506533/; https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9555838/The-Hobbit-What-has-made-the-book-such-an-enduring-success.html
 (Lee 2014), (Garth 2013)
 (Mortensen, Rhys-Davies and Bloom 2001)
 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20
 (Brown, Driver and Briggs 2001, p. 966)
 (Bauer, et al. 2000, p. 916)
 (Witherington III 2006, p. 90)
 1 Thessalonians 3:6
 2 Timothy 4:6-8