Deuteronomy 3:18:29, I Thessalonians 5:12-28
March 22, 2009
“Encouragement!” – is a great biblical word. We find it throughout the scriptures, particularly in the New Testament. And there are a number similar words. There’s the word “edification,” which I like a lot! There’s “upbuilding,” which is another word for edification. There’s “exhortation.” I really like that one! And all of these kinds of words have the same intention. That is, they speak of the supporting, or the upbuilding of another person.
In our reading for today, Paul tells the Thessalonian Church “…encourage (or strengthen) the fainthearted…” You hear me say that in my benediction every week. “Strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, help the suffering…” In our Old Testament reading, Moses tells the people to “Charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him.” Those are important things to do. I think they’re more important than we realize!
Paul recognized that encouragement has great power! It’s actually listed among the spiritual gifts in Romans 12. He said there that some people have the “gift” of encouragement, just like some have the “gift” of service, or teaching, or discernment. But encouragement is also one of those things we can all do! And when we do that, when we encourage each other, we find that encouragement has great power – both for the individual and for a congregation! So my purpose today is to encourage you to be encouraging!!
We’re using as our theme for Lent this “A Closer Walk.” And I think this is a great subject to use in that theme. Because when we think of encouragement, what we find is that it’s not just about us as individuals striving to walk closer to the Lord. The Bible is clear that we are to help each other to have that closer walk. If you think about it, by it’s very nature, encouragement is all about something we do for someone else!
I think that’s so important. Because I believe God made us – God even “wired us” – to be in community. Think about it. We are created in God’s image, right? But why did God created us in the first place? To be in relationship with us. So part of the image of God in us is that desire to be in connection with others. That’s part of the reason for the Church. We are together in a congregation so that we can encourage each other in the faith, so that we can upbuild one another. We are here to “strengthen each others family ties to the household of God.” Do you remember those words? We say that in baptism. And how do we strengthen those ties? “By our what?” “By our fellowship.” And fellowship is a big part of encouragement!
Remember, baptism is an act of community! Now I know certain times in history, the Church has emphasized the “cleansing of sin,” part of baptism. And that’s fine. I don’t want to get into that today. But I want us to see that we also emphasize that part of baptism which says that it is a community event. Baptism is a milestone in a person’s life when they become part of God’s kingdom – God’s kingdom which is represented in that community at that time. And in it we pledge to strengthen that community.
So, in talking about encouragement today, we recognize that we are in community for the good of the community. Do you get that? We are together in churches so that we can encourage one another. That is one of our prime purposes! I can’t emphasize enough how important that is. Because it’s easy to forget that, isn’t it? It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own little world and our own set of problems and pressures. That’s natural. It happens to everybody. Sometimes it’s tough to “let others in” or even to think of the needs for encourage that others might have. But when we do, encouragement has great power!
Now, I know that it can be hard even to know what to say to someone. And I’ll always remember what a minister friend once said about the three friends of Job. Do you remember them? Job had just gone through these horrendous disasters in his life. He had lost everything – his family, his fortune, even his house. Then he was covered with “loathsome sores.” His wife told him, “Curse God and die!” What a great encouragement she was! Then these three friends, these “comforters,” approached. And when they came near, they were so appalled by what they saw that they just burst into tears. Then it says this. “They sat with Job on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:13)
My friend then said, “The problem was that they didn’t leave it at that! Saying nothing was the best thing they could have done. But then they felt like they had to say something! And that’s where they went wrong!” His point was that after they started talking, their “advice” was anything but comforting. And I think that’s a great lesson. Because sometimes encouragement is just about being with someone. Not necessarily talking. Sometimes it’s just about supporting someone else with our presence.
On time in Kansas I decided to add a sliding door to my house. I’d never done that before. And it involved cutting an eight foot hole in the side of my house, and I was a bit “apprehensive.” So I called up a friend and asked him to come over to “help.” Now, you have to know that my friend had just lost his foot in a bad motorcycle accident. He was on crutches, it was hard for him to get around, and there was no way he could actually have helped me with anything. But it was very encouraging, it was very supporting, to me for him to be there! I needed encouragement for doing something difficult like that!
Of course, sometimes we’re helping someone who’s facing real disasters or terrible hardships! Sometimes it’s scary stuff! Sometimes we’re trying to help someone who is going through a time of terrible grief. That’s when it’s important to remember that the heart of the word “Encouragement” is the word “Courage!” In fact, to “en-courage” literally means to give or impart courage to someone.” And we need that, don’t we? And we need to do that for others.
Do you remember the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz? (Carol just started listening again!) So many things he would do, if he “only had da noive.” But it you remember the story, when the lion was joined by his companions along the Yellow Brick Road, he was encouraged by them to have courage, wasn‘t he? In fact the great twist of that story was that when the chips were down, he was ultimately the most courageous of them all! Wasn’t he?
When we encourage one another, that’s what we do. We impart courage. When someone is working on a big task, when someone is working on a job that’s scary for them, They need encouragement. It’s important that we take time to say, “You’re doing a great job!” or “That’s a real gift you have.” Or “You really care about the Church, and it shows.” Those kinds of words are magic words!! They impart strength. They impart courage. They upbuild people! The problem is that those kinds of things are too often forgotten. We forget how much they are really needed! Paul was really big on encouraging others.
The other problem is that sometimes we do the opposite, don’t we? Sometimes instead of being encouraging, we are critical and unappreciative. And where encouragement is community building, criticism and complaints tend to tear down community. Paul tells us that we are to be “slow to anger and quick to forgive.” But unfortunately, it’s far to easy to be the opposite! It’s far too easy to be quick to anger, and slow to forgive! And that causes “dis-couragement.” And that word means “taking courage away!” And we need to be aware of the power of discouragement!
I once knew a woman who like to say this. “If you’re going to criticize someone, you should first be willing to say five good things about them.” Now, that’s a nice sentiment, isn’t it? But, I have to tell you that there were times I found myself counting! Because I knew something was coming! “This all sounds great, but get ready, here comes the zinger!”
Maybe you’ve known someone like that. Don’t look around! But, maybe you know someone who starts out with a compliment… but get ready! The jab is coming! And I say that because it shows that the power of criticism, the power of the “put-down,” is huge! And it bothers me that so many television shows use the put-down as a comedic tool. Be aware of that when you’re watching. Notice how often that happens. And notice how someone always hits the button that produces recorded laughter. I find nothing funny about putting someone else down. Because, unfortunately there is great power in discouragement, too. It probably does take five encouraging things to make up for one discouraging thing. Probably way more than that!
So I want to “exhort” you today, not to go there. It’s easy. It’s natural to be critical. It’s natural to cut someone else down, especially when we feel like we’ve been slighted. And then it’s a downward road from there. I encourage you to choose otherwise. The biblical injunction is always to encourage one another. It is always to seek in other people the highest and the best. It is to forbear one another in love. And even when you disagree with them, love them anyway!
Remember today the biblical wisdom about being in community. Remember that we’re in this together – and that’s a good thing. And so I encourage you, to encourage each other. I encourage you to upbuild one another, and to edify one another. Be in the business of encouraging others so that they will be strengthened in their own “closer walk” with the Lord.
Eternal God, you have given us each other. Help us to care for and encourage each other as Jesus would. Help us to see with your eyes, and to love with your love. Help us to strengthen and exhort one another as we all seek to walk closer with you. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.