Sunday, July 12, 2015
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.
Sunday, July 05, 2015
This week I did one of my traditional summer things. It had nothing to do with eating ice cream, although I do that in the summer. There were no walks along the beach. I did what I always do in the summer - ordered my new diary. I don’t go in for a calendar year diary (Jan-Dec) - I like the academic diary from August right through. When it comes, I’ll take some time to write in all the dates and events and meetings, to start planning out the new church year. Birthdays and anniversaries go in so they’re no forgotten. But there’s one day that I can’t put in. I don’t know when it is scheduled, but it will happen, according to God’s timing.
Last week, we were reminded of the hope that we have, that the dead in Christ will be raised when Christ returns. Today, Paul continues to think about the return of Jesus, only today, it’s what it means for those of us who are alive and waiting for him. So let’s look at what the Bible says about the return of the Lord Jesus.
‘Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.’ The return of Jesus is described as the day of the Lord. Paul picks up on the Old Testament promise of the Lord winning victory against his enemies and bringing judgement to the earth. It’s a vivid picture isn’t it? The DAY of the Lord will come like a thief in the NIGHT.
Now, I hope this doesn’t happen, but imagine someone breaks into your house tonight. Would they have texted to say they were planning to drop round tonight at 2.30am? Would they make a phone call to check it was ok to rob you? No, the thief in the night goes for surprise. It’s the sudden, unexpectedness he wants. And the day of the Lord will be just like that. Sudden, unexpected. You’re lying in bed, all is well, you’re turning over for your second sleep, when the window breaks and you don’t know where you are.
‘When they say, ‘There is peace and security’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape.’ Jesus’ return will be sudden. A pregnant woman might have a bag packed for the hospital, but she doesn’t know when those labour pains will kick in. And once they do, that’s it. You can’t say to the baby, oh, just hold on a wee minute, I’m finishing watching this movie or whatever...
The Day of the Lord will be sudden. ‘They’ will be caught out, not expecting it. Paul is writing to the Christians in Thessalonica. He writes about they and them - someone else, not the people reading the letter. Sudden destruction. But for the Christian, it will not be surprising. We might not know the exact date. We can’t write it in our diary. We can’t put it on the calendar in the kitchen. But we know it is coming.
Do you see the contrast in verse 4? They, them, ‘But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.’
When I was growing up, my granny was turning 80. Mum and dad had arranged a surprise party. All the family were gathered in the function room, keeping quiet. Granny walked in and got the shock of her life! It really was a surprise. But for mum and dad, they knew what was happening. Granny had been kept in the dark so that she got a nice surprise. Here, Paul says that we aren’t in the dark. We know the secret of the day of the Lord. We’ll not be caught out, shocked at the sudden surprise.
Do you see how Paul describes us as Christians? ‘For you are all children of light and children of the day.’ We belong to the light, not the darkness. We are children of the day, we are connected to the day of the Lord. For us, the day of the Lord will be sudden but not surprising. Have you heard the phrase where two things are as different as day and night? They’re so different, there’s no comparison.
In verse 6 Paul continues with this day and night theme. Here’s how the children of day are to live. It’s completely different from those in darkness, because we are watching for the day.
Have you ever experienced jet lag? It’s when you fly far enough around the world to get into a different time zone. Your body thinks it’s midnight and needs to sleep, but actually, it’s just 2pm in the afternoon. Verse 6 is a bit like that. ‘So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.’
Those in darkness think it’s night, and do night time things - sleep or get drunk. But for the Christian, we’re in the day time. How could we do night time things when the day is here and coming? Verse 8. ‘But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.’
The night time can be a scary time. Paul says we’re to be watchful, alert, not distracted. We’re to guard our heart and our mind - the breastplate of faith and love, and the hope of salvation guarding our head. This is God’s armour, the God-given protection we need for every day between this and the day.
Perhaps you look at the world around, and see the way things are going, and you wonder what is this world coming to? The darkness seems to get darker. Things seem to be getting worse, not better. Paul says to hold on, to keep watching. We already have the day in our hearts, and the dawn will break. Jesus will return suddenly, and your endurance and your hardship will be worth it.
The hope of salvation keeps us going. This is what we’re waiting for, what we can already be sure of. Verse 9: ‘For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.’
In Jesus, we already know the verdict. We know how the story ends. We can be sure that our destiny is not wrath, but salvation. Jesus died to make it happen. That’s how the helmet of the hope of salvation works. We know where we’re going. And that changes how we live each day. Even when we slip (and we all do), we have the assurance that Jesus died for us, and he has destined us for life with him. As we come to the table, we recall Jesus’ life laid down for us to bring us to live with him.
A future with Jesus, secured by his blood, already in promise, and one day made final and complete. No wonder we watch and wait for that day with eager anticipation! We don’t know when it will be. We can’t write it in our diary, that on the 32nd October Jesus will return. But over the top of each day, we should write - maybe today. Today could be the day of the Lord.
The day of the Lord will be sudden, but for the Christian it will not be surprising. So be sober, watchful, as you wait for your salvation. And as Paul says in verse 11, encourage one another and build up one another.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 5th July 2015.