Sunday, July 12, 2015
Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 5: 12-28 Walking Worthy in Everyday Life
Have you ever seen a wee girl get a necklace making kit? There’s some string and then a big box of different sizes and shapes and colours of beads. Red ones, blue ones, green ones, every colour you could imagine. And then the wee girl sits down and picks one of those and one of those and one of the other, and threads them all onto the string. There’s no pattern, rhyme or reason. They don’t all ‘go’ together, it’s as if they’ve just been thrown together randomly. But she loves it, thinks it’s very stylish, and insists on wearing it. Or even worse, makes you wear it, because it was made especially for you!
When I sat down to study the final section of 1 Thessalonians, that was my initial thought. How does this all fit together? It seems to be all over the place. Lots of random ideas jotted down in quick succession. A bit like the student sitting exams, rapidly running out of time, so rather than writing structured, well-argued paragraphs, they just jot down some bullet points, some notes to try to demonstrate their learning to get a few extra marks. Or, if you were writing to a penpal and started into the second page of special airmail paper, so you want to use it to the full, so write a bit more to maximise your value for money. Was that what Paul was doing here? He was coming to the end of the scroll and wanted to get in all his ideas? Is this just a string of beads, each interesting, but not really connected or designed?
Now we don’t get to see it in the pew Bibles, but if you were to look at your Bible at home, you might see what the Bible publisher thinks of this section. Sometimes you get wee section headings (not part of the text, but added to help the reader understand what that bit is all about). The Bibles I looked at had, slightly unhelpfully, something like ‘Final instructions’ or ‘Various exhortations.’
So what do we do with these verses? What is it all about? How do we make sense of them? There’s so much in them that we could approach them in a couple of ways. First of all, there’s the approach that says Wow! look at this verse, and this one, and this one, and we could go for a really long and indepth sermon, bringing out the meaning and application of each individual verse - and, since I’m not around for a few weeks, we could have three or four weeks of sermons in one go. I can already see the horror in your eyes, the thought of the Sunday dinner being burnt to a cinder. So we’ll not go down that road today, even though there’s more than a month of Sunday sermons in these verses.
Another possible approach is for it all to just wash over us. There’s so much there that we can’t possibly take it in. It all sounds good, and that’s fine. But instead we focus on one wee bead we like and let the rest wash over us. And sometimes, if you read the Bible, it can be helpful for one verse or one idea to jump out and grab you, and to work on it.
But the more I worked on the passage, the more I realised that it’s not entirely random. God’s word is given to us for a purpose, and God worked through Paul to write down what he intended. This isn’t like a twitter or facebook feed, with lots of random ideas coming from lots of different places. This is a letter, written for a specific purpose. And these verses fit into the bigger picture.
We’ve seen that from 3:13, Paul has been showing the Thessalonians what it looks like to be sanctified, to be set apart, to become holy. He went into depth about sexual purity (saying no to lust and yes to love). he fixed our minds on the hope we have in Jesus to transform our grief and help us wait for the day of the Lord. And this last section shows us how we live out our becoming more holy in everyday life. Paul is driving towards the destination of the prayer and promise of v23-24.
Here’s the prayer: ‘May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ As Paul directs our thoughts towards the coming of Jesus, we might think that it’ll be impossible for us to stand before him blameless. Our hearts accuse us. The devil accuses us. How can we do it, when we much prefer sin to righteousness, as this battle continues to wage within us?
For that, we need the promise. ‘The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.’ We have our part to play in choosing to obey God, but look who will bring it about. The one who called you will do it, because he is faithful.
God has given us the means to become holy in our everyday life - and God will surely do it. That’s what verses 12-22 are all about. In the sermon notes, we have a series of triplets, a series of mini three-point sermons, of how God provides for our being made holy.
In the first place, God has given ‘those who labour among you. and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you.’ God gives church leaders to provide for our becoming holy. Paul says to respect them, to esteem them highly in love, and be at peace among yourselves.
But alongside church leaders, God also provides every member of the church family. You see, it’s not just leaders who have a ministry. It’s not just people in dog collars who do ministry. Its’ every one of us. So everyone is called to ‘admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak (and be patient with them all - not paying evil for evil, but doing good). There’s wisdom to know which is which, but this is every-member ministry, provided by God to build us up in holiness and obedience.
God provides another triplet to build us up and move us towards holiness - in line with his will. ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.’ This isn’t just a think positive thoughts and everything will be ok. This is urging us to tune our thoughts toward heaven - rejoicing in God’s love and care for us, and in what he has done for us; bringing every moment of our day to him, all our concerns, all our thoughts; and giving thanks to God, recognising that he is the good giver. But did you see that it doesn’t say, give thanks for all circumstances. Paul isn’t saying to thank God for a flat wheel or a parking ticket or a worrying diagnosis. But when these things happen, are there things we can thank God for in those circumstances? It changes our perspective, it tunes us in to what God is doing, as he works every detail for his glory and our eternal good - our holiness.
And to guide us along the way, in the final triplet, he says to not quench the Spirit - don’t pour cold water on what the Spirit is doing and leading. Also, don’t despise prophecy - test everything, examine what you hear, and hold on to the good. When you hear something good, hold on to it, like the wee boy who brought a lollipop in to his show and tell class. The teacher asked him to set it on the table and share with the class which Bible verse he was thinking about. He refused to set it down - as he said: ‘hold fast to what is good.’ He wasn’t going to let go, and neither should we. Hold to the good, and abstain from evil.
These are the dance moves, the steps to take as we become holy, more and more, as we look to the day of Christ’s coming. Sometimes our steps can falter, sometimes we might step on toes, but together we can learn the steps, we can do this together as we prepare for the wedding party of the Lamb, and we join the dance. For the new believers in Thessalonica, just starting out, they must have wondered would they be able to keep the faith, in face of persecution. Would they make it to the coming of the Lord. Would they really be blameless?
God has called us. God is faithful. He has provided for us in the death and resurrection of his Son. He has provided the way to become holy in everyday life in the church. He will surely do it. So let’s pray.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th July 2015.