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You Never Walk Alone (chapter 2:17-19)
One Step at a Time
You Never Walk Alone
1 Thessalonians 2:17-19
In working our way through the book of 1 Thessalonians, I have been struck by how much God has done to help us walk with him.  Now only has he called us to a new life, but he has blessed us with pastors and teachers and the Bible to make sure we "walk worthy" of Him. 
This morning, I want to take a look at the closing verses of the second chapter and point out another source of support God has provided. 
1 Thessalonians 2:17-19
Here we discover that God has placed us in an environment of love and encouragement called the church.  Paul and his missionary team had started the church there but they were run out of town by those who opposed them after a short time.  Some believe it may have only been about three weeks before Paul had to leave town. 
And now, as he writes this letter, he is reflecting back on the time they shared together and it is just pregnant with his concern and you can just sense the deep affection he has for this group of believers.   
You can tell there is a deep level of connectivity between them and him.
And you need to know, in the 2,000 years that have passed since Paul wrote this letter, that aspect of church life has not changed.
There is still a great need in the human heart to get connected and staying connected to a community of faith. And I find it very interesting that Paul makes this vital connection between his ties to the physical, human group of people in Thessalonica and his hope as a Christian. 
In fact, if someone from the Thessalonian church had asked Paul, "What gives you hope?", Paul would have answered, "You do!"
Paul is saying that his connection to others through Christ and the church raised his level of hope! Being around others that shared the same basic values built up Paul’s hope. When he got around others who were following Christ it encouraged him. It reminded him of spiritual truth.  It motivated him to keep going.
And that's true with us as well!  We need to be around others who share our faith and come along side us as believers and not only teach and preach the Word, but live the Word as examples and encouragers because it will increase our hope as well. 
There are some old hymn lyrics that say, "It is sweet to know, as I onward go, the way of the cross leads home!  And it is even sweeter when we are walking with others who share the same convictions and beliefs and expectations! And in that regard, as we continue our journey "One Step at at Time", we never walk alone! 
There are other believers out there who are traveling the same direction!  They are working their way home also!  They are looking to the same Lord!  They are serving the same God!  They are indwelt by the same Spirit!
And that's what Paul is talking about.  Paul believed in fellow Christians being as encouragement to one another.  You find that theme, not only here, but throughout his writings. Everywhere he went he made friends and was intent on keeping those relationships vibrant.  He stayed in touch and offered his help and here he says it was that sense of community that gave him hope. It kept him going.  It kept him motivated.
And Paul faced a lot of situations that called for hope.  Paul put up with a lot of troubles in life. He had violent enemies trying to kill him. He was beaten within an inch of life on several occasions. Several other times he had to flee a city because people sought to kill him. Thessalonica was one of those cities.
 His enemies even followed him to the next city. He was involved in storms at the sea, which led to shipwrecks, which threatened his life. He did battle with Satan continuously for the lives of those who needed Christ. He was arrested and put in jail, and he suffered hunger and need – and much more.
Yet every time you read his letters you see that he is filled with tremendous hope! Nothing got him down. That’s why we should pay close attention to what he writes because this man knew what he was talking about!
It came to mind this week how that essential element of community is still so very important. 
You can sense its importance when you go to the surgery of a brother in Christ, as many of you did this week, and there you find a gathering of the church. 
You understand its significance when you gather with a family that has lost a loved one, as some of you did this week, and there you find the church coming alongside that family to grieve with them. 
In so many ways, that happens day in and day out as the church takes care of its own. Sometimes it's a hug or a card.  Sometimes it's a meal or simply your presence.  But all of those are the church's way of saying, "You're not by yourself.  You are not walking alone through this experience.  We are there with you."  And through those human touches the message of hope is shared. 
So how do we make sure that we cultivate that environment of hope? From this text and what Paul says to these first century believers, I would suggest it come through establishing some habits that produce it.
For instance, we need to develop the habit of
1. Spending Time With Others
verse 17
Notice the phrase, “endeavored more eagerly”.  To put that in everyday language, he "tried real hard"! You can tell that Paul wanted to be with them.  He wanted to spend time with fellow believers, even if it was an inconvenience or required some extra effort. It was a vital habit of his life.
Would you say that describes your attitude about Sunday School and church?  Would you say being in Sunday School and Bible study and spending time with fellow believers is a vital part of your life?  
Unfortunately, many drag in late like they're being forced to go to their own execution, and once we're here, we can't wait for it to be over!  We mope around as if it's the most boring and disgusting thing we've ever had to do, talk to no one, shake hands with no one, gripe if no one visits with us and don't bother to come back until next week. 
But Paul says, "I did everything within my power to get there and be with you, and it broke my heart when it didn't happen!"
Listen:  If you want your hope to be strong you need to develop the habit of regularly and consistently spending time with fellow believers.  Your kids shouldn't have to wonder if we're going to church this week.  Sunday night and Wednesday night should never be optional. 
Everyone in the family should know if the church is gathering, we're going to be there.  We're going to come early.  We're going to be happy.  We're going to be an encouragement.  We're going to be a blessing.  We're going to smile and shake hands and go out of our way to make sure others remember why they gave their heart to the Lord and wanted to go to heaven.
That needs to the habit of every child of God.  And when the time comes when you can't be here, then there out to be a great void in your life. 
So folks seem happy when the kids have a runny nose because that means they get to stay home that week. It ought to break your heart that you can't gather with God's people in God's house singing God's music and listening and learning God's Word. 
How many times have I heard some precious saint of God bemoan the fact that they can't come as much as they used to while able-bodied others pittle their time away with the amusements of the world rather than being in church? 
It ought to be the habit of our life that we spend time with other believers!  By the way, did you know this was a habit with the Lord Jesus?
The Bible says, in Luke 4:16, speaking of Jesus, "So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read."
Some translations say, instead of "as His custom was", "as He always did".
You say, “But Brother Terry, sometimes I have a difficult time making it to church. It just takes a lot of effort to be here sometimes.”
I understand. But I found out a long time ago that if I make it a habit it isn’t as difficult. There’s no question where I’m going to be on Sunday morning or Wednesday night. In fact, I don't remember the last time I wasn't in church on a Sunday.  I've never missed a Sunday for sickness or vacation.  And that's coming up on 32 years now.
There have been Sundays when I don't feel good.  My blood sugar has been out of whack.  I've had the sniffles and fever, and I understand that I've been extremely blessed, but I also understand God has honored my commitment to honor him and be in church.  And besides that, typically, if you'll get up and do the right thing, you'll feel better anyway!  But ultimately, I want it said of me, "He, like His Lord, went to church as He always did!"
Our kids never ask whether or not we are going to church. They know. It's not just a personal habit, it's a family habit.  You say, “That’s because you’re the pastor.” No it’s not! It’s because I’m a follower of Christ and I need Christian community. 
My mother died at 11 pm on a Saturday night, but the next morning I was in church preaching, not because I had to be here or felt it was my job.  I was here because I needed you.  You gave me hope!  You reminded me of what we believe! 
God knew when He created the church family that we need to get together habitually to fan the flames of hope for one another!  And He knew that isolation is not good for you. 
Some of the most hopeless people in the world are isolated people. The worst kind of punishment in prison is solitary confinement. Why? Because God programmed us with the need to live in community.
And when you and I are unable to spend time with others our hope gauge reads closer to empty than at any other time.  When we lose contact with others we’re more likely to become despondent, discouraged and depressed.
Isolation can even affect our health. It’s been known to be associated with high blood pressure, heart disease and other ailments.
And the Good News is that we don’t have to live isolated lives. We needn’t live lives of quiet desperation. We may have lost family and friends by death or geographic relocation but there are always people who love Christ that want to be our family.  They'll come alongside us and walk with us so that we never walk alone! 
No wonder Paul said, “We tried real hard to come back.” How hard do you try to connect with other Christ followers? Paul believed in making a personal effort to maintain contact with others. Do you ever make contact with anybody in the family? 
Like Paul we need to “try hard” to stay in touch with other followers of Christ. It takes effort but the investment pays off in large dividends of hope.
Nicky Cruz was once a man without hope. He was the leader of one of the toughest gangs in New York City. His Satan-worshipping parents abused him brutally, so he grew up a hardened young man void of love and full of hate.
In his autobiography he says, “I wanted to do to others what my mother did to me,” Nicky says. “I used to feel good when I hurt people.” But he also honestly admitted…“Privately, when I was alone, loneliness became like a seductive woman that crawled inside my chest and ate away at me. I was there twisting and fighting; I felt so lost.”
Only two people saw the desperate condition of Nicky’s heart. One was a psychologist.
“He told me about five times. ‘There’s a dark side in your life that nobody can penetrate. Nicky, you are walking straight to jail, the electric chair, and hell. There’s no hope.’”
The other person who saw the desperate condition of Nicky’s heart was a pastor named David Wilkerson. Wilkerson had been pastoring in rural Pennsylvania when God called him to the violent streets of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn.
He saw a picture in LIFE magazine of two teenage boys convicted of murder in New York City and God placed a burden on his heart to minister in the inner city. He risked his life to tell people like Nicky Cruz that there is hope!
One day Wilkerson was out street preaching. “I heard his voice: ‘God has the power to change your life.’ he said. I started cursing loud,” says Nicky. “I spit in his face, and I hit him. I told him, ‘I don’t believe in what you say and you get out of here.’”
Nicky never expected what he heard Wilkerson say next when Wilkerson replied, “You could cut me up into a 1000 pieces and lay them in the street. Every piece will still love you.”
Nicky says, “It did damage. Good [damage] in my brain and in my heart. I began to question, and for two weeks I could not sleep thinking about love.” So Nicky and his gang showed up at one of Wilkerson’s rallies. One by one, they gave their lives to Christ.
It was the crucifixion – Jesus’ death on the cross -- which grabbed Nicky. “I was choked up with pain, and my eyes were fighting and tears became to come down and more tears and I was fighting and then I surrendered,” says Nicky. “I let Jesus hug me, and I let my head rest on His chest. I said I’m sorry. Forgive me, and for the first time, I told somebody ‘I love you.’”
I want you to know there is hope in the family of faith for you also.  But the catch is – it’s up to you. It’s up to you to be like Paul and like David Wilkerson and like Nicky Cruz. It’s up to you and me to accept the hope that is offered to us by connecting with Christ and with people who have Christ’s hope.
It’s up to you and me to make the effort to go to others, to try and share Christ’s hope with them. It’s up to you and me to connect with and remain connected to the body of Christ – the church – Christian community – in order to establish and maintain our hope. It’s up to us to make connecting with community a habit.
Paul said, “we tried very hard to see your face because of our great desire”
You and I have got to follow that “great desire”, that intense longing that God put in our hearts by developing the habit of spending time with others. 
There is a second habit that we need to develop and that is
2.  Resisting Satan's Opposition
verse 18
Satan understand how important the church is to your individual strength as a believer, therefore, you need to develop the habit of resisting what he does to try and stop you. 
Have you ever wondered why Satan battles you about coming to church? He knows the greater your connection with the body of Christ the greater your hope! So he constantly throws obstacles into the road to try and keep you from sharing the hope of community.
 He’ll tell you any lie he can to keep you out of church on Sunday or Wednesday or to keep you from starting or joining or participating in a small group. He’ll do anything to keep you from inviting others to your home or accepting their invitations, or being involved with others socially in Christian community.
He has various tricks. His biggest deception tool is flat out lies. Satan will tell you every lie in the book to get you to slowly pull away from other Christ followers. He wants nothing more than to see you disconnected from Christian community. Jesus said this about the devil:
“He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies.” John 8:44b (NLT)
Satan tells lies to disturb the peace between believers. He lies and tells you that you can’t get along with others. He convinces you that others don’t really love you, that they have it in for you, that they don’t want you around.   He'll sit down beside you in church and elbow you in the ribs and say, "If people treated me like they treat you I'd be mad as hell!"
He lies and tells you that you need to go to another church where people aren’t so messed up. Do you know what’s wrong with that lie? All churches are made up of imperfect people.
He tells you that other people are weird and they say hurtful things and they do hurtful things and you just need to slink into your own little cocoon and protect yourself from getting your feelings hurt. “I don’t want to go to church today. Someone might snub me or ignore me or someone might embarrass me.
Let me tell you where that stinkin’ thinkin’ comes from. He has various names: Lucifer. Beelzebub. Satan. The devil. He will do anything and everything to cool our love for others. He tries all the time to break up the unity of the family of God. That’s why the Bible gives us this responsibility.
Listen to Ephesians 4:3 from the New Life Version:
"Work hard to live together as one by the help of the Holy Spirit. Then there will be peace."
Circle those two words, “Work hard.”  Sometimes it's hard work but like most hard work it bears good fruit.
We don’t have to agree on everything as Christians, but we do have to work hard to get along with one another.
Some may object, “But how can I get along with so and so, they are so different from me. I just don’t like some of the things they do or say. How do we stay in tune with one another?”
We all have to tune to the same pitch.  How do all these instruments manage to play together and sound right?  They are tuned to the same pitch. 
They don't tune to one another. They are in tune with the standard.
Listen:  the only way we can live harmoniously together in Christ is to stay in tune with Christ – He is our standard pitch! And when my fellowship with Christ is what it should be, my fellowship with other believers is what it should be.
And that is true in any relationship.  It is true as a husband to his wife, a father to his children, a worker to his employer and a Christian to other fellow believers. 
In fact, most relationship issues can be corrected with a simple mathematical illustration.  Consider a triangle where point A is God, point B is you and point C is whomever you have an issue. 
If point B and Point C move closer to Point A, then by mathematical definition, they move closer to each other.  If you will work on your relationship to God  and they will work on their relationship with God, then your relationship to each other will be improved.
You say, "What if they don't work on their relationship with God?"  Then you will be closer to God and He'll show you what to do from there.
But I do know this:  Nothing will ever improve if you keep listening to the devil and giving him to his temptations.  You've got to develop the habit of resisting his attempts to destroy the fellowship.  
There's another way Satan tries to hinders our relationship as believers and that is by telling us we’re too tired or too busy to connect with others. “I’m just too tired to go to church today. I’ve just got too many other things to do.”
According to a recent survey, “59% of formerly churched adults left their church because of ‘changes in their situation.’”
When I read that I thought, "What in the world is changes in their situation?"  Did they mean changes in their life, or their job, or their health, or even their church?
No.  The top specific situation changes were ‘too busy to attend’ (19%) and family/home responsibilities (17%). Next were, moved (17%), work (15%) and got divorce/separated (12%).”
Listen:  What you're using as an excuse to not come to church is called life.  Everybody's got one.  It is full of stuff and some of what happens is out of your control.  But you get to manage your time.  You get to decide when you go to bed and how much time you spend watching TV and staying on the computer.
And for far too many, church rates way down on the list.  Other things take priority and precedence.  That's why the writer of Hebrews included this admonition in chapter 10: 23-25:
23We must hold tightly to the hope that we say is ours. After all, we can trust the one who made the agreement with us. 24We should keep on encouraging each other to be thoughtful and to do helpful things. 25Some people have gotten out of the habit of meeting for worship, but we must not do that. We should keep on encouraging each other, especially since you know that the day of the Lord’s coming is getting closer. Hebrews 10:23-25 (CEV)
The habit of meeting for worship maintains my hope and I also encourage other people’s hope by my habit of faithfully and consistently attending the worship gatherings of the church where my faith can lift them up.
So our second habit must be that we will resist Satan's opposition. 
In fact, I would suggest Satan's opposition is good evidence that we are on the right track. If church attendance didn’t mean so much the devil wouldn't try to interfere with it. 
Develop the habit of spending time with others, resisting Satan's opposition and finally,
3.  Treasuring the Church
verses 19-20
Now don't miss the point.  Paul says to this little group of believers, " I value you now because you what God has done in you is eternal!  And you are important to me now because we're going to spend eternity together with God.
Have you seen the movie "Antwone Fisher"? If you haven’t I recommend you rent the video and watch it. It’s the true story of a young man abandoned at birth by his mother and then raised in abusive orphanages, foster homes, and reform schools. Denzel Washington adapted the story into a movie that was released several years ago.
After his 18th birthday, Antwone Fisher joins the Navy where his anger towards life brims to the surface. After several fights, he is ordered to undergo counseling. Psychologist Jerome Davenport, played by Denzel Washington, encourages Antwone to find his family to begin healing.
After several phone calls he reaches one aunt and uncle in Cleveland, who escort him to a dilapidated apartment complex where his estranged mother lives. A suspicious and rather distant woman answers the door. Upon realizing that Antwone is the child she gave up at birth, she retreats to another room and sits down on dirty and worn couch and begins to cry. 
Antwone asks for some explanation as to why she never came to rescue him or why she never sought him out. She cannot answer. She simply stares ahead, not daring to look at him, tears rolling down her expressionless face. He gently kisses her on the cheek as if to say, "I forgive you," and walks away devastated and feeling helpless and alone.
His mother remains on the couch and stares at nothing, making no effort to respond. A despondent Antwone Fisher leaves the apartment with his questions unanswered and rides back to his aunt’s house with his uncle.
As he exits the car, he walks as a lonely man with no hope.  He has no one, but when he enters the front door, his world changes. He is met with a chorus of cheers from 50 plus relatives, all waiting to meet Antwone for the first time.
There are children, couples, cousins, uncles, and family friends, all smothering him with hugs, slaps on the back, and beaming smiles. One cousin tells him his name is Edward and says, "I’m named after your dad," and an older aunt squeezes his cheeks. Antwone takes it all in, overwhelmed.
The hallway stairs are filled with kids holding up signs with his name scribbled next to crayola-sketched smiley faces and rainbows. He is then led into the next room where a grand feast is spread across a long table.
The table is overflowing with chicken, mashed potatoes, fruit salad, and every other possible dish. The room is prepared for a party. For the first time in his life, he is being adored. For the first time, he belongs.
As the clamor quiets, an elderly woman sitting behind the table knocks to get Antwone’s attention and then waves for him to come over next to her. With slow, deliberate moves, she raises her arms, grabbing his hands and then caressing his face.
A slow tear runs down her cheek, and with a raspy voice that seemed as if it was mustering all the strength it possessed, she whispered the redemptive invitation: "Welcome."
If you will latch that movie, you will see the church as God designed it.  If you can picture that kind of love, that kind of joy, that kind of acceptance, then you can picture what the family of God is like. It is a place of acceptance and joy and above all – a picture of hope.
No matter how you may have been abandoned by this world and the people in it. The church – the Christian community – is a place of warmth and love and welcome!
If you can picture that you can begin to imagine the reception that awaits everyone who is welcomed into the presence of God when we leave our earthly home and go home to be with Jesus.
Now, here's the thing:  In order to get to the welcome there, you have to be a part of the family here.  And the good news is, you're welcome to join.
Let's pray.
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