Proper 24A

October 13, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 22:15-22

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 33:12-23

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 99

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

                With this reading, we begin 5 consecutive weeks in I Thessalonians, which is fitting for this time in the liturgical calendar.  We are coming to the end of Ordinary Time which climaxes with the celebration of Christ the King.  Then we begin another liturgical year with the season of Advent.  Focusing on what scholars call Paul’s eschatological letters will help us prepare for that climactic revelation of the hidden King.

                Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians began in a Jewish synagogue on his second missionary journey.  After a very short time (three Sundays?) Paul was driven out of town by the opposition of the local Jewish leaders.  During that short mission, a number of Greeks had joined the church, turning “to God from idols.”  (verse 9)   What we have in this letter is Paul’s first correspondence with one of his new church plants, a hasty plant with very little root system.  He writes, he says in 3:10 to “supply what is lacking in your faith.”

    What was lacking had to do in large measure with the return of Christ (thus the term “eschatological letters”).  Every chapter of I Thessalonians ends with a reference to that return; chapter 4 is perhaps Paul’s major teaching on that subject; and II Thessalonians continues that teaching just 6 months after the first letter.  All of which reveals how central the Parousia was in Paul’s preaching and in the belief system of the early church.  That Paul’s first canonical letter (unless we date Galatians in 48 or 49 AD) was focused on eschatological things should alert a 21st century preacher to the importance of such things today.  The Gospel is not just about Jesus death and resurrection (ala I Corinthians 15:3-8), but also about his reign and return.

    But Paul begins this eschatological letter in the simplest, most homespun terms, identifying himself and his fellow missionaries without the modifying adjectival phrases so important in Paul’s later letters (“Paul, Silas, and Timothy”) and offering profuse thanks to God for the lives of these brand new Christians (“we always thank God for all of you”).  There may have been something lacking in their understanding of the Faith, but they were splendid examples of that Faith being lived out fully in daily life.

    Here’s a place to touch the lives of our established congregations.  How often do baby Christians put old Christians to shame with their “work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and endurance inspired by hope?”  This is the first instance of Paul’s now familiar triad of faith, hope and love, with love and hope being reversed because the letter focuses so much on that hope.  The verbs in that quotation from verse 3 are only implied in the Greek, so don’t make anything of them in your sermon.  Paul’s emphasis is on the fact that their faith, love and hope had produced such robust Christian living that they had become famous around the Christian world.  Can we say the same about our lives?  Unlike these Thessalonians, our mature Christian minds are full of correct doctrine.  Are our lives full of the fruit of the Spirit, like these infant Christians?

    Paul continues his thanksgiving in verse 4 with a surprising reference to their election.  “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you….”  How would these Gentiles even know what election was about?  Could Paul have preached that controversial doctrine to them in his earliest evangelistic messages?  We would never do that in our church plants because of the unpleasant speculation such a doctrine inevitably produces.  But Paul mentions God’s loving choice of these new Christians, not as the basis for speculative theology, but as the ground for thanksgiving.  We know you are among God’s elect, says Paul, not first of all because of the fruit I’ve just mentioned, but because of the way the Gospel came to you in the first place.

    The Gospel came to them “not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction.”  Is Paul talking there about the way he and his fellow missionaries preached, or about the way the Thessalonians responded to that preaching?  Scholars disagree.  The wording of verse 5 suggests that Paul is talking about the preachers, but the wording of verse 6 seems to refer to the hearers (“in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit’).  Perhaps the conclusion is the same either way.  We know we are chosen by God when the preaching of the Gospel comes with such Holy Spirit power and commitment that we sinners who had served dumb idols turn to the living God.  Unless we are elected by God’s sovereign love, nothing would come of the preaching moment.

    The strongest evidence of election, however, ultimately turns out to be the lives of those who received the Gospel with such faith.  After mentioning how he lived among the Thessalonians during that brief time, Paul turns to what will become a familiar refrain in subsequent letters, namely, the call to imitate him.  What a challenge that is to all of us preachers, and to every Christian!  “Don’t just do what I say, but do what I do.  I imitate Christ.  Now you imitate me.”  Who would dare to say that today?  Could that be why the church today does not grow as it did in the first century?  Who was it that said, “I think that I might become a Christian if I could meet one?”  I do recall Gandhi saying, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians?  They are so unlike your Christ.”

    I’m not really out on a limb in my ponderings about the connection between church growth and imitating Christ.  Listen to Paul in verses 7 and 8.  “And so (as a result of your imitating), you (plural pronoun) became a model to all the believers.”  You became a pattern community, demonstrating how the Gospel ought to change lives.  And as a result of that exemplary living, “the Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia (the two provinces of Greece)—your faith in God became known everywhere.”

    Could it be that the secret of church growth is not the expert use of technology in our preaching, the adoption of worship styles that mimic the world’s entertainment, the adaptation of our message to the sensitivities of our culture, or the re-imagination of our theology, but the church modeling how human life should be lived?   When we imitate Christ so consistently that we become the visible manifestation of Christ in the world (“the Body of Christ”), the message about Christ will “ring out.” The word there in the Greek refers to the sounding of a trumpet or the rolling of thunder.  That’s how loud and clear the Gospel will sound in the world when we so imitate Christ that we become model communities.  But that can’t happen, says Paul, unless there are humans among us who will show us how to do it.  Who will set the example in our age, as Paul and Silas and Timothy did in the first century?

    Paul closes his thanksgiving with a little reminder of the Gospel he preached.  In verse 9 he recalls “what kind of reception you gave us.”  He’s referring there not to the way the Thessalonians received him into their homes (their hospitality), but to the way they received his Gospel message (into their hearts).  They “turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.”

    Those words remind us the straightforward, uncompromising character of the primitive Gospel in the multi-cultural first century Roman Empire.  The church grew by leaps and bounds, not by softening the edges of the Gospel so that it was more palatable to sophisticated pagans, but by confronting them with a direct call to turn away from their former lives and put their faith in the crucified and risen Christ who will rescue his followers from the wrath of God.

    Now, Paul knew very well how to speak in the language of the world and how to use cultural references to gain a hearing (see his masterful sermon to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17, shortly after his initial experience with the Thessalonians).  But he and his fellow missionaries had no appreciation for “the rich world of ancient paganism” as a contemporary scholar put it.  For Paul, the idols of the pagans were dead, dumb, inactive, and everyone had to repent and turn to the one true living God.  While he acknowledged God’s work in even the pagan world (common grace), he basically called for a radical break with that world.   “The attitude of apostolic Christianity to the polytheistic world was one of militant hostility.”  (F.V. Filson)  “Let those who have ears hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

    The Jewish opponents of Paul’s ministry to Thessalonians sounded the alarm about Paul and his friends with a stirring epithet.  “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here.”  (Acts 17:6)  A better and more exciting translation of that warning goes like this:  “These men who have turned the world upside down….”  That’s exactly what the early church did in a short 300 hundred years.  The combination of an uncompromising Gospel and a consistent model of Christ-like living turned the world right side up.

    This text challenges us with a clarion call to imitate the early church in our multi-cultural, polytheistic, postmodern world.  We must unhesitatingly call people away from the idols they serve to the one true God.  We must dare to say that the crucified Jesus is God’s Son whom he raised from the dead.  And we must warmly invite everyone to come to Jesus so that he can rescue us from the coming wrath, whether we think of that wrath of some intermediate event occurring in history or the ultimate event of the Parousia at the end of history.  Who doesn’t know that the world is filled with wrath?  What a wonderful thing to be able to tell the world that there is a Rescuer from all of this.

    It was such a straightforward, politically incorrect message that first turned the world upside down.  It can happen again, if there are enough Christians modeling right side up living, lives filled with “work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and endurance inspired by hope.”  Let us dare to speak boldly and live consistently Christ-like lives, as we “wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead– Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.”

    It will take courage to preach on this text.  The question is, do we want to be faithful or popular?  That’s what Paul deals with in the next chapter of his letter, and what all preachers have to face every time we bring God’s Word to a lost world.

    Illustration Idea

                Paul’s stirring words to the Thessalonians who faced strong opposition because of their allegiance to the Gospel (cf. verse 6) made me think of all the ways modern Christians shy away from such Pauline boldness.  That reminded me of H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous critique of the liberal preachers of his day who preached a very different Gospel than Paul did.  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”  These days, it isn’t just liberals who have so domesticated the Gospel. In our efforts to be missional, how many evangelicals have softened the hard parts of the Gospel?