October 13, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Sometimes these days Christian people can seem a little, well, thin-skinned. Some people can all-but fly into a rage and get into a serious spiritual lather when confronted with some obvious piece of anti-religious behavior or when they hear that a character on a TV show said something religiously offensive. On Facebook you can regularly see posts that huff and puff a lot about some story in a newspaper that indicates that somewhere a new law got passed that seems to chip away a bit at some cherished piece of Christian expression—some school takes the Ten Commandments off the wall of a classroom or another school rules to keep a science textbook that teaches the tenets of evolution.
Jesus generally did not seem that bothered by instances of pagan practice or a thoroughly secular mindset.
After all, the Roman government in question in Matthew 22 was not some religiously neutral (much less faith-affirming) institution. Few Christians in North America can imagine serving a government that was openly idolatrous the way Rome was. Indeed, most scholars believe that the inscription on the coin to which Jesus refers in verse 20 was likely some blasphemous designation. Some scholars believe that the denarius in question likely bore the image of Tiberius with the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” and an image of the “high priest” Livia on the coin’s obverse.
“In God We Trust” it wasn’t.
Yet Jesus calmly deflected questions about it all even as he held the coin in his own hand. He did not fling the coin away as though it were white-hot with paganism. He did not roll his eyes at the unbelievable fact that not everyone worship the God Jesus called Father. That alone is curious and just possibly instructive.
Jesus took this opportunity to convey some pretty profound theological truths after all. Because Rome at that time was all-powerful. Pax Romana covered most of the known world and the influence and almighty power of the Empire was all-but unchallenged. Indeed, when a revolt against taxes in A.D. 70 took place, Jerusalem paid the ultimate price for daring to stand up to the Caesar.
But Jesus was able to see down to a deeper and more profound reality. When you know that the whole world belongs to God and when you know that above all the human heart is what belongs to the Creator God who fashioned us in his image, then even the big, bright, loud, and resplendent realities of this world become mere sideshows and distractions. But they do not ultimately touch God. They do not finally threaten God. Getting all excited about the powers that be and becoming hyper focused on them tempts us to downplay and underestimate the glorious sovereignty of God.
When Jesus takes the Caesar’s coin into his hand and holds it up in front of his bewildered questioners, you can almost see him shrug his shoulders, furrow his brow, and just generally convey the idea, “What are you talking about? THIS is all you have to ask me about? Who cares? This means nothing! Get a life! And remember that God is still ever and only God and then no human power can dislodge him, displace him, or challenge his claims on our hearts and on this world that belongs to him.”
As Jesus’ sermons go, this one may be brief, but it packs quite a wallop! And in a political age when so many people are so sharply divided along so many various cultural and social and economic fault lines, Jesus’ confident posture and consistent, laser-like focus on God both challenge us and call us back to our better selves.
Notice in Matthew 22:16 that the Greek text can be literally translated as “. . . for you do not look upon the face of people.” The Greek there says blepeis eis prosopon anthropon. Does the typical translation of this text (“you pay no attention to who they are”) maybe miss a pun? After all, in the very next verse Jesus calls his interlocutors “hypocrites.” As you may recall, a hypocrite was literally an actor, and in the Greek and Roman world of that time, actors wore masks to cover their faces when on stage. A hypocrite is someone who hides his true face behind a mask, a false front—a hypocrite grins at you and butters you up with unctuous words of flattery but is secretly sneering at you. So Jesus’ opponents say that they know Jesus does not look upon the “face of people,” and if by that they meant the public face people show, they were right. But Jesus does look upon the true face of people, that which we hide behind the masks we present to those around us. And that is precisely why he nails these slippery fellows who were trying to trip Jesus up!! He sees through to their true faces!
The last word in this story is “went away” (Greek: apelthen). There may be something to this little textual detail that we can play with, too. They were amazed at Jesus, which is a proper reaction. But they don’t use that amazement the right way. When we are amazed at Jesus, it should draw us to him. Yet it drove them from him. This alone may present a sad picture of how too many people react to Jesus even yet today.
One other possible connection here is what happens when Jesus looks upon the face of the one pictured on the coin: Jesus sees down to the true face of all, see what is what. That could be a word-play here as well.
Some years ago James Dobson and John Woodbridge sparred in the pages of Christianity Today over Dobson’s repeated use of warfare language to describe a Christian stance over against the larger American culture. Woodbridge believed that such language blinds believers to the places where God may be lurking while also doing violence to the gentleness, humility, and love demonstrated by Jesus and listed in the New Testament as spiritual fruits. Dobson replied that there is little if any ambiguity in the wider culture such that not to use fighting words would be the equivalent of remaining silent.
It seems that we have a deep human tendency to want to make the divides between God and the world wide and deep and perilous-looking. And it seems that we in the church also like to gauge other people’s piety by litmus tests to see if their attitudes toward the big bad world out there are properly hostile and negative where they need to be negative and combative. But Jesus’ words about the Roman Empire, the Caesar, and taxes give one pause on all that. Is this the only way to go vis-à-vis the wider world? Or does striking a more confident and faith-informed posture convey the very message of hope and trust and joy in the Lord that we want to convey in the first place?
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
OK, so the text of Exodus 33 is a little inconsistent. After all, in verse 11 we were told that one of the wonders of God’s special relationship with Moses was that God actually spoke to Moses “face to face” the way friends talk to each other. But then, a scant 9 verses later, God tells Moses that he absolutely could not see the divine face because it would kill Moses to do so.
Literally. He’d die.
Either this is a place where the redactor of Exodus dropped the ball a bit by letting the seams show where he stitched together a couple different textual traditions or something else is going on here. If we want to go with the latter scenario, we could conjecture that maybe there was a qualitative difference between how God interacted with Moses in conversations with him and what would happen when the divine face glowed with all the intensity of glory that Moses had requested to see near the end of Exodus 33. It’s hard to say what that difference might be but if it was both true that God communicated directly to Moses, friend-to-friend and that seeing God’s face in the way it would appear when God’s glory passed by could be fatal to Moses, then some kind of difference must have existed between those two divine appearances.
But if we get overly hung up on this point, we’ll miss the main thrust of this story at the end of Exodus 33, so let’s turn to that more directly.
Because what we have here is a remarkable—almost amazing—exchange between Moses and Yahweh. These two really do sound like old friends having a conversation as Moses is very bold in negotiating with God by insisting that the divine Presence accompany the people on the journey ahead. In fact, Moses all-but says, “Look, Lord, this is a deal-breaker for me: you go visibly with us as a sign of your presence and favor or you can forget about having me lead anybody anywhere.”
Equally astonishing, however, is the ease with which the Almighty God deals with this bold request: “No problem, done deal. I’ll do what you ask.” Talk about influence! Anyone today interested in power and leverage and such would love nothing more than to, as they say, “Have the president’s ear.” If you are the one person who can always get some private time with Barack Obama and then be able to sway him to your way of thinking at that, then you become by proxy quite possibly the second most powerful person in the world.
It goes without saying, however, that having God’s ear is just a wee bit more impressive (sorry, Mr. President!).
But wait, Moses is not finished here. Once he gets Yahweh to sign on the dotted line to accompany the people with his holy Presence, Moses then ratchets up his boldness by demanding—and it really does look like a demand—that God show Moses just what it was God had in the glory department. And on this particular request, I am not even sure I could come up with an analogy for what this is like. But it sounds a little like asking God to strut his stuff, to take off his shirt to show off his rippling muscles, to get down to basics in the swimsuit part of the beauty pageant where there is no hiding whether you’re a true beauty or not.
Again, plucky. And again, amazing that God shrugs and as much as says, “OK, please stand by: the glory show is about to begin.”
So God passes by, glory ablaze, but tenderly makes sure that it does not fry Moses to a cinder. He shields Moses just enough from the hottest parts of the white-hot intensity of divine glory that Moses more than gets the idea but survives the encounter, too.
But there is one little detail in these verses that we ought not miss: God says that in the middle of the light show of glory, something else was going to happen: he would speak the divine name of Yahweh. And this then gets connected—in God’s mind apparently—to the fact that God would show mercy and compassion in the future, too, on any and all whom he deemed worthy to receive those wonderful holy gifts.
The intoning of the divine name is as surprising as anything in this endlessly surprising story in Exodus 33. Picture it (if you even can): God hovers over Moses ablaze with more light and pulsing with more weighty power (remember: “Glory” = “Heavy” in Hebrew) than is conceivable but then, in the midst of all that something even more powerful happens: the cosmos reverberates with the blast of a gazillion trumpets as God speaks God’s own name:
Somehow I am reminded of a scene near the end of the Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A mind-bogglingly massive alien spacecraft—awash in light and color—is hovering over the earth near Devil’s Tower Wyoming. The scientists who had been awaiting the spacecraft are communicating with the aliens musically, playing a certain set of five notes on a keyboard. They play it over and over without response until finally on one play-through, the spaceship plays the last two notes in the sequence. But unlike the flute-like, quiet notes that the scientists had been playing on their little electric keyboard, the spaceship’s final two notes are so thunderous, they flatten the people standing near and blast out glass panes everywhere in the vicinity. (If you are not familiar with it, you can see that scene here and it takes place right at the very beginning of the clip that can be found here: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Maybe God’s sounding forth of the divine name was like that: in the midst of all the glory, nothing could compare with the glory of God’s thundering forth his own name. Before that holy name, the cosmos trembles, reels in response, echoes on and on with that Name above all names that goes out to the ends of the universe and beyond. But it’s not just the sheer power in that name that causes such a gargantuan reaction: it is also the profound Beauty of the Name and all that it portends for mercy, compassion, and the grace that will save us all at the end of the cosmic day.
Because the day would come when the One who bears that Name would become flesh and once he did, we would behold his glory, the glory of the One and Only Son who moved into our neighborhood full of grace and truth.
There is a certain semi-saccharine strain of popular piety that can get a little overly romantic and swoony in crooning out songs about the sweet, sweet name of Jesus. However . . . let’s not for a moment underestimate the glory that is laden now on also that Name above all names. Paul assures us in Philippians 2 that one day there will come a revelation of Jesus’ glory that will be so powerful, there won’t be a tongue in the universe that will be able to resist pronouncing that Name and all that the Name means for heaven and earth and salvation and the whole New Creation of God that just is the Kingdom of God.
When God speaks the divine Name, there is in the end only one response fitting to hearing it: all God’s people—and maybe all God’s creatures—together cry “Glory!” We can bear that glory now because it has come to us in the form of God’s own Son. As Dale Bruner likes to paraphrase the 18th verse of John 1: Jesus is the exact exegesis of God—he has made this God known. And in seeing his glory, we see also our very salvation.
Moses was pretty bold in asking to see God’s glory. But a thousand years before God’s Son came to planet Earth, he was also on to something: in seeing the glory, we see our salvation because in the midst of the glory, we hear a very special Name.
“Glory” in Greek is doxa, from which we get “doxology.” It is the standard term to refer to the shining holiness and grandeur of God. “Glory” refers to the punch of God’s presence. God has so much power, is so very holy, and exudes so strongly all that is right and true that you cannot miss his presence. In fact, the glory of God is almost too much for ordinary (and sinful) mortals like us.
Even in the human sphere there are some people who have what we term “great personal presence.” There are some people who, partly because of what you know of their reputation, partly because of their position in society, and partly because of some ineffable, hard-to-define personal magnetism simply bowl you over when you are in the same room with them. If you’ve ever been in attendance when a president has spoken, perhaps you sensed this. My friend Philip Yancey once said that the first time he met President Clinton, he was astonished at the power of his personal presence. A few years ago I was sitting near the stage when Maya Angelou spoke and though I cannot quite put my finger on why, I felt physically and emotionally jolted by the sheer power of her presence. There was a sense of gravitas, a palpable weight to her very presence.
Interestingly, the Old Testament Hebrew word for “glory” is kabod which is a cognate of the verb kabed meaning “to be heavy” or “to have weight.” God’s glory is the sheer punch of his holy presence, the sense of gravity and seriousness and weightiness you receive when God is near.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
Psalm 99 is the poet’s song that celebrates God’s reign over the whole creation. It’s the last of the “enthronement psalms.” Yet it doesn’t just celebrate God’s sovereignty. It also, according to Sandra Richter, at least indirectly addresses the problem of Israel’s kings’ failure by recalling Israel’s wilderness wanderings under Moses’ leadership. Psalm 99, after all, remembers a time when Israel’s leaders “called on” God’s name (6) and God “answered them.” However, under many of her rebellious kings Israel enjoyed no such intimacy.
Among the refrains of Psalm 99 is an assertion of God’s holiness. It concludes each of its stanzas that sing of God’s sovereignty (1-3), the stability and peace God offered Israel (4-5) and God’s faithfulness to God’s servants (6-9). This emphasis on God’s holiness serves to highlight not only God’s moral perfection, but also God’s complete “otherness.” God, insists the poet, is not a creature like human beings. God is the wholly “other.” Yet, it’s as if the poet marvels near the end of the psalm, this wholly other God not only reigns over what God makes, but also “stoops” to hear and answer God’s human creatures’ calls.
This concept of God’s holiness offers those who preach and teach Psalm 99 an opportunity to reflect with worshipers on modern notions of God. It’s natural to try to “domesticate” God by referring to the Lord as a “best buddy” or toothless grandma who’s just like us except that God never gets angry. This, however, is hardly the “holy” God of which this psalm sings.
The first half of Psalm 99 employs some tabernacle/temple language. It reminds worshipers of one of the great paradoxes about Yahweh: while God is wholly other, God also graciously stoops to be present among God’s sons and daughters. God, according to verse 1, “sits enthroned between the cherubim” who sat atop the ark. We first meet cherubim in Eden where God has assigned one of them to guard the Garden from fallen people. They reappear in both the tabernacle furnishings and Ezekiel’s visions. Israel houses those cherubim in the tabernacle until David moves the ark to Jerusalem.
Ezekiel describes cherubim as having faces like humans, wings like eagles and the bodies and feet of either lions or oxen. Cherubim form the seat of the sovereign Lord’s throne. Richter notes that they show up only when the Lord is near in order to defend the Lord and God’s throne from unholy advances. She also suggests that Psalm 99’s reference to those cherubim emphasizes God as a great and awesome king who should be approached only with reverence and deep humility.
This holy God’s reign leaves, to borrow Jerry Lee Lewis’s musical phrase, a “whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on.” “The Lord reigns,” asserts the psalmist in verse 1, “let the nations tremble … Let the earth shake.” While the nations may be great, God is more formidable. Israel may fear her mighty neighbors. God, however, is even mightier. This is no God to be lightly trifled with. The holy Lord must be approached with awe and reverence.
The psalmist’s profession that this God is sovereign over all the nations is, as Richter points out, a radical claim. After all, the ancient world viewed its gods as reigning over only the lands controlled by people who worshiped them. It assumed, for example, Shamash ruled over a Babylon whose rulers served him and Chemosh ruled over a Moab ruled by its worshipers. So Israel’s “neighbors” assumed that Yahweh ruled only over a little patch of Canaanite hill country whose rulers served the Lord. Against that assumption, the psalmist professes that while Israel doesn’t rule over the whole world, her God does, even over those lands and people that don’t yet submit to God’s rule.
Because God reigns over them, the psalmist invites not just Israel but also “the nations” to worship the sovereign God. In verse 3 he calls them to “praise” God’s “great and holy name.” The poet challenges the nations to “exalt the Lord our God” in both verses 5 and 9. So God’s creation and creatures don’t just tremble before the Lord. They also offer God their worship and service.
God, after all, deserves that worship. In contrast to much human reign, God’s reign is just (4). Israel’s contemporaries thought of kings’ word as law. So the only hope those on society’s margins had was for a king who showed them compassion. God and Israel’s prophets either praised or condemned kings according to the care they did or didn’t show the vulnerable. God’s reign, insists the poet, is always just and right. It is praiseworthy because it pays special attention to those on society’s margins.
Psalm 99 reflects on the care God lavished on Israel throughout her history. By referencing “Jacob” in verse 4 perhaps the poet isn’t just using a synonym for Israel. She may also be inviting Israel to remember God’s faithfulness even to a Jacob who wasn’t always particularly faithful himself. In verse 6 the poet speaks of Moses, Aaron and Samuel as leaders who not only worshiped God, but also led justly. God responded to their godly leadership by speaking to Israel from within the cloud. In doing so God gave Israel directions for godly living in obedience to God’s “statues and … decrees” (7). In fact, the psalmist recalls, God graciously forgave Israel even though God also justly punished her for her disobedience.
So why does the psalmist rehearse God’s past care for Israel? Why do God’s modern adopted sons and daughters pay so much attention to what may seem like the Bible’s ancient history? It’s a way of giving both the psalmist and our contemporaries’ confidence that God will graciously act in the same way toward us that God acted toward Israel. This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 99 a chance to reflect with worshipers on their own need to recall God’s faithfulness.
Psalm 99 ends with a refrain that echoes verse 5. “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy.” What, after all, could be a more appropriate response to God’s sovereignty, holiness and justice?
Verse 5’s mention of God’s footstool” (Hebrew: la hadom) is a vivid one that may invite some whimsical reflection. People, after all, link footstools or ottomans to rest. They’re where we put our feet up after a long day or hard work. Footstools are places where put people rest as they sip a cold drink or even take a short nap.
God’s footstool that is Zion, however, is hardly a place linked to God’s rest. God is, after all, as Jesus said, always working. God never rests. What might it mean, then, that Zion is God’s footstool?
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.
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?