Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 4: 1-12 Walking Worthy in Holiness

Have you ever been driving off the beaten track, no signposts, grass up the middle of the road, and you come to a crossroads. You haven’t a clue where you are. You have to decide what to do, which road to take. How do you make your choice? Pick one at random? Take the one that looks the nicest? Follow your intuition? It’s one thing if you’re out for a Sunday afternoon drive, just exploring, and you know that sooner or later you’ll come back to a main road with some kind of signpost. It’s different, though, if you’re on your way to someone’s house for dinner. You’re late. You’re lost. You’d need some direction. Where to turn?

As we travel through life, we’re faced with all sorts of decisions about all sorts of things. Some people see those choices as whatever makes you feel good. You pay your money and take your chance. But oftentimes Christians want to know what God’s will is for them - who to marry, what job to take, and so on. Sometimes we get so worked up about knowing God’s will for every detail of our lives. In our reading today, Paul gives us what God’s will is for our life. In this passage, it’s not complicated - but working it out might not always be easy.

Look at verse 3. ‘For this is the will of God, your sanctification.‘ God’s will is our sanctification. Now what does that mean? Sanctification is one of those churchy word that sounds great, but no one really knows what it is. It simply means the process of becoming (more) holy. And holy, or holiness (as we have in our passage) is being set apart. So God’s will for us is to be set apart (for him).

In nearly every home (although less so these days with the healthy eating advice), we have something that’s holy, set apart. If you still have a sugar bowl, then you probably have a spoon which is set apart, only to be used to lift the sugar from the sugar bowl. You don’t use it to put sugar in your tea, then stir it, then put it back in the bowl. You’ll get hard, brown lumps of sugar. The sugar spoon is holy, set apart only for the use in the sugar bowl.

In the same way, we’re holy, set apart for God. There are lots of things we could do, but we’re set apart to only do the things God wants us to do. Back at the end of chapter 3, Paul had prayed that God ‘would strengthen {their} hearts in holiness that you may be blameless...’ So now he gets to the heart of what that will look like. In verses 1-2, Paul reminds them that he had told them how to live and to please God, and they have been doing it, so now they should do it more and more. But remember that this isn’t a ten step programme to make God accept you. This is written to Christians who have already turned to God from idols (ch 1). This is how we’re to live when we are saved. Not how to live to be saved.

So what does holiness look like? What is God’s will for our sanctification? Paul breaks it down into three parts, which follow on from each other. The first is in verse 3. ‘that you abstain from fornication.’ Newer versions use the words ‘sexual immorality’. But the word Paul uses is ‘porneia’ - from which we get ‘pornography’. It’s any sexual activity outside of marriage. Christians are to be set apart for God, by being set apart for their own husband or wife - or in the absence of a spouse, to be celibate.

Following on from that - and in order to do that - we’re called to ‘know how to control your own body in holiness and honour, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God.’ The world will be different, it burns with lustful passion - as is clear in so many ways around us. But we’re called to be different, to control our bodies in holiness and honour. You’re not responsible for what someone else does, but you are for yourself. Be self-controlled (one of the fruit of the Spirit). Take control of yourself - if certain situations or programmes or internet causes you to stumble, then deal with it.

Thirdly, ‘that no one wrongs or exploits a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things.’ A few years ago we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the ending of the slave trade by William Wilberforce. Yet today human trafficking still continues. Even in Northern Ireland, women have been brought to work in the sex industry. Exploitation continues.

We’re called to be different. That call is expressed in verse 7. ‘For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness.’ God didn’t call us to say ‘yes’ to lustful passions and impurity. He has set us apart for him. You see, this is God’s will, not just something Paul made up. This is God’s call, so we don’t reject human authority if we disagree - we reject God’s authority over the creation he has made. His holy will calls us, and wants to make us holy, separate, different. We’re called in his holiness, to be holy, by saying no to lust.

That leads us to ask the serious question - where do we get our values from? Who do we look to for approval? Whose pleasure are we living for? Our own? The world’s? Or God’s? As Paul writes to the Corinthians - You are not your own. For you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:19-20) To do this, what things will need to change? Who might you need to step back from? What do you need to stop watching or thinking about or doing? God’s will is for us to be holy by saying no to lust.

At the same time, God also wants us to say ‘yes’ to love. Look at verse 9. We’re getting into the season of school reports. We’re all different, but most of us probably had things we were good at, and then there was always some subject that said ‘must do better.’ Paul says in verses 9-10 that the Thessalonians are top of the class. In terms of love for the brothers and sisters, they don’t need to be told; God has taught them, and they are doing it. Full marks, top of the class.

But look at the middle of verse 10. Top of the class, but keep going, more and more! Verse 11 shows us how to love one another - but it might not be what we would expect. To love one another you would... fill in the blank. Did you say ‘to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands’? This is how Paul describes loving one another in this context. It seems that some people were expecting Jesus to return any day - so why bother working? They could exploit the generosity of their fellow believers and live off handouts. But Paul says the loving thing is to get on with your own work (if you’re able - 2The3), so that outsiders won’t be disgraced by your actions, and that you’re not dependent on anyone else.

God’s will is that we say yes to love. How can we grow in love for one another? What are the ways we can love each other, so that those watching on say ‘see how these Christians love one another?’

When we started off, we were in the wee country roads with no signposts, facing a decision. Left, right, straight on? Going to a friend’s house, we’ll have their directions. As we come to those decisions, big and small, in our daily life, as we choose which way to go, we have God’s directions. God’s will is for us to become more holy, as we say no to lust and yes to love. We’re on a lifelong journey. We’ll sometimes take wrong turns. We’ll find ourselves at the same junction a few times. God’s will is for us to be holy. He is guiding us, restoring us, forgiving us, and encouraging us. And he will bring us home, if we listen to him.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 14th June 2015

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