I Thessalonians 5:1-11

Speaking of encouragement who is more in need of it in this story; the wife or the husband or the marriage counselor they made an appointment with because they felt their marriage needed a shot in the arm? The wife was hurt and upset and as she began to recount her loveless life, tears filled her eyes and her lips started quivering. It wasn’t long before the wise counselor realized what the problem was, so without saying a word he took her by the hands, looked in her eyes for a long time, smiled, and then gave her a big hug. A change immediately came over her face; she softened and her eyes lit up. Stepping back, the counselor said to her husband, “See, that’s all she needs.”
The husband pulls out his Daytimer and says, “Great, I’ll bring her back to see you every Tuesday and Thursday.”

Regardless if we are husbands or wives, parents or children, brothers or sisters, friends or colleagues; to experience all the joy that relationships have to offer requires copious amounts of . . . ENCOURAGEMENT!

The practice of encouraging others is a key ingredient in experiencing harmony in any relationship. And giving encouragement can do more than yield harmony; encouragement can go a long way toward bringing about a positive transformation in another person’s life.

That’s why a change immediately came over the face of the wife in that story, that’s why her eyes lit up. Because encouragement can lead to a changed for the better life, for both the person giving and receiving it.

That’s why Paul encourages the Thessalonians to encourage one another. The word translated here in I Thessalonians as ‘encouragement’ occurs 106 times in the New Testament. 1 It literally means ‘to call to one’s side;’ 2 almost always with the intention of telling someone something positive. The word is more often translated ‘comfort’ than ‘encourage’ though you will agree that comforting words are encouraging words, and vise versa.

I ripped off my sermon title today from John Ortberg who got the idea for his title from Gregory of Nyssa, one of the 4th-century early church fathers who wrote:

At horse races, the spectators intent on victory shout to their favorites in the contest. From the balcony they incite the rider to keener effort, urging the horses on while leaning forward and flailing the air with their outstretched hand instead of a whip. I seem to be doing the same thing myself. Most valued friend and brother, while you are competing admirably in a divine race, straining constantly for the prize of the heavenly calling, I exhort, urge, and encourage you vigorously. 3

Then Ortberg comments, “Gregory is basically saying, ‘I’m up in the stands. I’m watching my friend run the race, and I’m cheering him on. This is your life. This is your race. God is with you, so don’t stop. Keep running the race.’ Some people do that for you. They’re what you would call your balcony people.” 4

All of us need balcony people. They are the people who stand in the balcony watching us run the race of our lives, and they cheer us on: “Don’t give up!” “Don’t give in!” “You can do it!”

Balcony people believe in us. They are realistic about our faults and shortcomings, but they also have a vision for what God has made us to be.

All of us need these kind of people because when we have balcony people in our lives we have this deep sense that they are for us and that no matter what comes down the pike they are going to be there for us; encouraging us to stay the course. These kind of people are one of God’s greatest gifts to us. They are living breathing incarnations of what Paul admonishes in I Thessalonians: “Encourage one another and build one another up” (5:11).

By the way, although there is a real need for any kind of encouragement Biblical encouragement isn’t focused on complementing someone’s pedicure or telling them how good their homemade salsa tastes. Biblical encouragement is shared in the hopes it will point the person to the Lord. It encourages them to know that God is using them in some way. Or points another to God’s promises to assure God always has their back.

This message is like an introductory message on the great need for encouragement in general. For the next two Sundays, I will follow with Biblical encouragement ala Paul.

In other words, encouragement was and still is an essential way of extending grace to each other.

But doesn’t it seem to you there is more discouragement being handed out than encouragement?

A guy was vacationing in the Bahamas and saw a large crowd gathered on a pier. He discovers that the object of the attention is a middle-aged man making preparations for a solo journey around the world in his sailboat. He noticed that almost everyone on the pier was vocally pessimistic telling him everything that could go wrong: “The sun will broil you.” “You might run out of food.” “Your boat’s not big enough to withstand what the ocean will throw at you.” “You’ll never make it.”

So this vacationer, feeling sorry that this guy received all the discouragement, runs to the end of the pier as the boat is drifting away waving his arms and shouting, “Bon voyage! You’re really something! “We’re with you!” We’re proud of you! Good luck, brother!” 5

Why does it seem that there are more people who feel obligated to tell us all the things that have or will go wrong as we set out on the uncharted waters of our lives than those who stand at the end of the pier cheering us on? Especially when everybody instinctively knows that cheering and clapping are preferable to someone discouraging us?

Jimmy Durante, a great comedian and entertainer from the 40’s through the 60’s was asked to be part of a show for WW II veterans. His schedule was already packed that day but he told the director that if he would accept just a few minutes on stage he would take part. The director gladly accepted and was surprised that Jimmy remained on stage after the short monologue continuing to ad-lib to this crowd of veterans.

Durante continued delivering jokes for 15, 20, 30 minutes before he took a bow. Backstage the director said, “Hey Jimmy, I thought you only had a few minutes.”
Durante motioned him to where he could see the front row where two veterans each of whom had lost an arm in the war were sitting. One had lost his right arm and one had lost his left. And there they sat cheering and clapping their hands together. 6

All people need someone copious amounts of encouragement, someone to cheer them on in the game of life? And among the people of God, encouragement should be the order of the day.

Imagine the possibilities of transformation that could occur in your marriage if you committed yourself, or better yourselves, to looking for and calling forth the best in each other by liberally applying copious amount of encouragement? Your husband, your wife, your relationship would begin to be transformed into something more exciting and beautiful than it presently is.

Imagine the possibilities of transformation that could occur in your children if you began to each and every day be on the lookout for something good in their lives and then when you saw it, you would praise them for it and would affirm their strengths? They would learn to love and appreciate, not only you more, but themselves as well. And they would over time be transformed into something greater and more wonderful and mentally stronger than they presently are.

Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, the real-life couple portrayed in the movie Blindside, share the following story in their book In a Heartbeat:

There is a little-known congressional program that awards internships to young people who have aged out of the foster care system. These are kids who were never adopted and are no longer eligible for state support. [A senator we’ve met] employed one such man as an intern. One morning the senator breezed in for a meeting and discovered that his intern was already in the office, reorganizing the entire mailroom. The senator said to the intern, “This is amazing—the mailroom has never looked so clean. You did a great job.” A few minutes later the senator saw that the intern had tears streaming down his face. [He] said, “Son, are you okay?”
“Yes,” the intern answered quietly.
“Did I say something to offend you?”
“No, sir.”
“Well, what’s wrong?”
The young man said, “That’s the first time in my life anyone’s told me that I did something good.” 7

Imagine the possibilities of transformation could occur in this world if people would stop delighting in pointing out everything that does or could go wrong and instead began to see people as unique creations of God who are filled with great potential and the capacity to change the world for the better.

For years, the great Christian statesman, William Wilberforce, pushed Britain’s Parliament to abolish slavery. Discouraged, he was about to give up. His elderly friend, John Wesley, heard of it and from his deathbed called for pen and paper. With trembling hand, Wesley wrote:

Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? Oh be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery shall vanish away before it.

Wesley died six days later. But Wilberforce fought for 45 more years and in 1833, three days before his own death, saw slavery abolished in Britain. 8

Of all the great and wonderful things John Wesley did for Christ’s kingdom, perhaps the greatest was to encourage William Wilberforce.

Imagine what would happen in our church if all of us would re-commit ourselves to seeing and calling forth the best in each other by liberally applying copious amount of encouragement? Our church would gain a reputation as a harbor for those who are in danger of making shipwreck of their lives, as a haven for the depressed and downhearted, as a home for people who are looking for the kind of family that helps its members become all that Christ hopes we can and will be.

I have a vision of you and me bringing about a marvelous transformation in our church and in our community by liberally lavishing encouragement and affirmation on one another!

Sister Helen Mrosia who taught at Saint Mary’s School in Morris, Minnesota writes about one of her students, Mark Eklund. He was an excellent student, very neat in appearance, extremely polite, and had an infectious happy-to-be-alive attitude, but he talked incessantly. Every time she told him that talking was not acceptable, he would respond, “Thanks for correcting me Sister.”

Sister Mrosia writes:

One Friday things just didn’t feel right. We had worked hard on a new concept all week, and I sensed the students were growing frustrated with themselves. So I asked them to list the names of the other students on the room and then told them to think if the nicest thing they could that about that person and write it down. On Saturday, I wrote the name of each student at the top of a piece of paper and then listed all the nice things said about each one. On Monday, I handed them out and it wasn’t long before there was a transformation in the room as everyone was beaming and whispering about how they never knew how others felt about them.

Several years later, I learned that Mark had joined the army and had been killed in action and that his parents were requesting that I attend his funeral. After the funeral most of Mark’s former classmates headed to Chuck’s house for lunch. Mark’s mother and father were there, obviously waiting for me. “We want to show you something,” his father said, taking a wallet out of his pocket. “They found this on Mark when he was killed. We thought you might recognize it. Opening the billfold, he carefully removed two worn pieces of notebook paper that had been obviously been taped, folded and refolded many times. I immediately knew what the papers were. “Thanks so much for doing that,” Marks’ mother said, “as you can see Mark treasured it.”

Mark’s classmates started gathering around. Chuck smiled rather sheepishly and said, “I still have my list. It’s in the top drawer of my desk at home.”
Johns’ wife said, “John asked me to put his in our wedding album.”
“I have mine too,” Marilyn said. “It’s in my diary.”
Then Vicki reached into her purse, and showed her worn and frazzled list to the group. “I carry this with me all the time, I think we all saved our lists.” 9

That’s a story of grace, that’s a story of encouragement, that’s a story of love, that’s a story of that needs to happen again and again. In the name of the Lord God, creator of heaven and earth, for the sake of the Mark’s in the world and in our midst, I am encouraging us to learn a lesson from Sister Helen Mrosia and find creative ways to “encourage one another and therefore build one another up” (I Thessalonians 5:11).

1 Wigram-Green. The New Englishman’s Greek Concordance and Lexicon. [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, © 1982]. Pages 674-675.

2 Vine, W. E. An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. [Old Tappen, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revel Company, © 1940]. Pages 119-120.

3 https://www.preachingtoday.com/sermons/sermons/2008/april/balconypeople.html

4 Ibid.

5 Hasler, Richard A. God’s Game Plan. [Lima, Ohio: C. S. S. Publishing Company, 1990]. Page 35.

6 Gray, Alice. Stories for the Heart. [Gresham, Oregon: Vision House Publishing, Incorporated, © 1996]. Page 46

7 Men of Integrity, How Little It Takes, (November/December 2010):

8 Carol Porter in Fresh Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching (Baker), from the editors of Leadership: https://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/1998/july/3860.html

9 Canfield, Jack, and Hansen, Mark. Chicken Soup for the Soul. [Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc. © 1993]. Pages 125-128.