Proper 26A

October 27, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 23:1-12

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Joshua 3:7-17

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 43

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    The Apostle Paul was not averse to repeating himself.  “It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.”  (Phil. 3:1)  Although thoughtless, space-filling repetition is the bane of the boring preacher, Paul believed that pedagogically intentional repetition can be very helpful.  In our text for today, Paul basically repeats the thoughts of last week’s lectionary reading (I Thess. 2:1-8).  His purpose in continuing the same line of thought was surely pastoral; but even more, it was theological.  He is defending himself at length because his critics’ attack on him cast doubt on the whole gospel Paul preached.  If they could succeed in discrediting Paul as a preacher, they could also cast doubt on what he preached.  That would have been catastrophic for God’s plan to reach the Gentile world through Paul’s ministry (Acts 9:15).  So, keenly aware of the stakes, Paul gives even more evidence of his integrity.

    As with the reading for last week, the main question for anyone preaching this text is how to make it relevant for the ordinary congregation.  Perhaps the answer lies in that word “integrity.”  If the Gospel is going to gain a hearing in the world, those who “preach” it, whether ordained or lay, must demonstrate the truth of the Gospel in their lives.  As the old saw goes, their walk must match their talk.  So, while some of Paul’s self-defense is uniquely relevant only for ordained preachers, the general thrust of our sermon on this text could be a takeoff on Paul’s characterization of the Thessalonians as “imitators of us… [and] a model to all the believers….”  (I Thess. 1:6, 7)   For the sake of the Gospel, we must live with integrity, with lives that are integrated with the Word we claim to believe and dare to speak.

    Paul gives four pieces of evidence to establish his integrity as a preacher of the Gospel: his work, his walk, his words, and the way the Thessalonians received his Gospel.  The first proof of Paul’s integrity was his refusal to accept any remuneration from these new Christians, preferring instead to support himself by his own work as a tentmaker.   He appeals to their memory of his time with them.  “Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship….”  Those two words convey the idea of hard manual labor, which was looked down on by the Romans as the duty of slaves.

    As a good Jew, on the other hand, Paul had learned a trade in his youth, so that he could always support himself.  That’s exactly what he did when he began his ministry.  Elsewhere Paul maintains that he and the other apostles had a right to the financial support of the churches (II Thess. 3:9), and at times he did accept such support (cf. Phil. 4).  But with these brand new Christians, he didn’t want to be a “burden,” so he worked “night and day” at his trade, preaching before, during, and after that “toil and hardship.”  As a result of that practice, no one could justifiably say that Paul was in it for the money.  That is precisely Paul’s point.  My preaching was not a money-making venture.

    How can we preach this?  Paul has a real point here, and many contemporary mission organizations take great pains not to “burden” baby congregations.  When I began my ministry in a little mission church in St. Louis, my salary was paid by the denominational mission board in order to make the gospel as free of charge as possible to that local church.  Good mission strategy!  Of course, preachers do have a right to the financial support of the congregation.  You wouldn’t want to preach this text just prior to the annual congregational vote on the budget.  On the other hand, we can all think of high profile preachers whose ostentatious wealth makes them the object of ridicule to the unbelieving world.

    There’s an important principle here in Paul’s first piece of evidence for his integrity.  Be sure that making money never becomes a driving force in your life.  It’s not just money hungry preachers who give a bad name to the Gospel; it’s also sharp dealing capitalistic businessmen, contract abusing factory workers, and anyone who puts the acquisition of money ahead of the promotion of the Kingdom of God.

    Second, Paul points to his walk among these new Christians, his way of life.  Contrary to the accusations of his critics (who may have just arrived from another city), the Thessalonians actually witnessed Paul’s way of life.  And he goes a step beyond that.  “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous, and blameless we were among you who believed.”  Some scholars say that “holy” refers to God-ward duties, while “righteous” has to do with our duties to other humans.  The first has to do with worship, the second with law.  And the third, “blameless,” has to do with being beyond reproach in all of life, avoiding even the appearance of evil.  While such distinctions may be a bit beyond the scope of what Paul intended, he clearly intends to refute the accusation that he was a hypocrite who did not walk his talk.

    Once again, how can we preach this in a church climate where holiness is often perceived as holier than thou, where righteousness is confused with self-righteousness, and where blamelessness seems to conflict with the call to mingle with unbelievers in an effort to build bridges for the Gospel?  We’ll have to take great care as we point out that our public walk will greatly influence how the gospel is heard by its cultured despisers.

    Third, Paul demonstrates his integrity by (once again) reminding them of his pastoral work as a preacher.  He preached to them “as a father with his own children….”  This is the second parental analogy in Paul’s self defense.  In verse 8, he is a nursing mother caring for her little children.  Now here he is the paterfamilias exercising authority by carefully teaching his children how they ought to live.  What a lovely image of a pastor!  Focusing on that second analogy, John Calvin said, “No man will ever be a good pastor unless he shows himself to be a father to his church.”  While this image might conjure up memories of paternal authoritarianism or even abuse, Paul intends just the opposite.  He pictures a father dandling his beloved children on his knee and instructing them on how to live in this world.

    Each word in his description of his fatherly preaching covers a different dimension of preaching.  “Encouraging” is the Greek parakaleo, meaning to exhort in suitable ways of living.  Think of “afflicting the comfortable.”  “Comforting” is the Greek paramuthomenoi, which conveys the idea of “comforting the afflicted,” because it is difficult to live in a way that is counter cultural.  And “urging” is the Greek marturomai, which means to bear witness or to declare solemnly. Perhaps the idea here is that the first two verbs indicate the manner in which the fatherly preacher does the third verb.  With challenging and comforting words, we must bear solemn testimony about how God wants us to live in this world.  All preaching must aim at life change, so that we “live lives worthy of God who calls you into his Kingdom and glory.”

    Paul is proving his integrity.  Remember how I preached to you– not just what I said, but how I was with you as a father instructing his children.  Once again, this is a word uniquely suited to preachers, but it does apply to congregants as well.  The way in which we speak with both believers and unbelievers, that is, how we testify about the Kingdom and glory of Jesus, will have a lot to do with how the Gospel is heard.  Over the years many congregants told me how they had “witnessed” to an un-churched neighbor using the voice of a scolding school teacher or a club toting policeman, rather than as a tender mother or a loving father.  The ultimate point of “preaching” is not winning the point, but changing lives for God.

    Finally, Paul proves the legitimacy of his ministry by reminding the Thessalonians of how they had received his preaching.  “And we also thank God continually because when you received the Word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it, not as the word of man, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.”  Paul’s critics had apparently accused him of preaching a watered down, misleading, ultimately deceitful gospel.  Here Paul says to his congregation, “You know that’s not true, because that’s not how you heard it.”  Your reception of the Gospel is the proof that I am a messenger from God.

    You could preach a whole sermon on verse 13 alone.  If I preached on it, I would entitle the sermon, “How to Listen to a Sermon.”  I would use this text to combat the wide-spread postmodern notion that a sermon (and, indeed, the whole Christian faith) is nothing more than my/our opinion about things nobody can know for sure.   While congregations should carefully compare the sermon with the Scripture (as the noble Bereans did in Acts 17:11), they should expect a biblically faithful sermon to be the Word of God delivered through the words of a man/woman.

    This is an astonishing claim that should make the preacher very diligent in exegesis and homiletics and the congregation very alert in its listening and response.  We can tell our congregations that they should come to church expecting to hear the Word of God in two ways—in the Bible read and in the sermon based on that Bible.  Perhaps this inspired perspective will give our worship services a renewed sense of expectancy and urgency.  Not only will the preacher give the congregation “the Word of God,” but that Word will go to work in (energeo in Greek) those who believe.   Not only should the congregation expect to hear that Word, but they should also anticipate that this Word will energize their lives for God.  Who knows how the church would be revived if everyone listened to sermons that way.

    How do we know that a sermon is the Word of God?  Well, of course, we must be sure, as Paul was sure, that the message comports with the Gospel once for all delivered by Jesus through the inspiration of the Spirit.  To be sure of that, we must be like those Bereans.  But, as Paul challenges us here in our reading for today, we must also be sure of the integrity of the messenger.  While we can go too far with such discernment and become hostile snipers, as Paul’s critics did, we must be careful with the integrity of the preacher.  Has he/she integrated the Word into his/her way of life and practice of ministry?  In Matthew 7:16, Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them.”

    Illustration Idea

    The whole idea of integrity, of integrating the Gospel with life, made me think of the mess in Ferguson, Missouri back in August of 2014.  You recall the shooting of an unarmed black youth by a white policeman?  Protests and riots ensued.  And that launched a renewed national conversation about the continued segregation of America.  Through our founding documents, subsequent court cases and landmark legislation guarantee “liberty and justice for all,” it is clear that we have not yet fully integrated our society. The disconnect between our talk and our walk often makes a watching world skeptical about our vision of democracy.  A lack of national integrity casts doubt on the Good News of the American experiment.  As long as we are not together, whole, integrated, why should jihadists and communists believe us when we say, “This is the best way to live?”  So it is with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and integrity.

    Paul’s claim that his preaching was actually the Word of God brings to mind the age-old question, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?”  How do we preach the Gospel rooted in God’s revelation in a world dominated by human ideas?  How much do we use those human ideas as we expound God’s revelation?  When does cultural sensitivity blur and blunt preaching so that it isn’t the Word of God anymore?  Did the early church over-Hellenize the Gospel, and thus distort it?  Did Bultmann’s alertness to the assumptions of modernity strip the Gospel of its essential supernatural elements?  Does the emergent church’s address to post-modern tolerance rob the Gospel of its in-built offense?

    As long as the church is in the world, we will wrestle with the tension between Jerusalem and Athens, but I think we do well to remember what Leon Morris said about Paul’s preaching.  “His drive and forcefulness came not from some thought that he was abreast of contemporary trends in philosophy or religion or science, but from the deep-seated conviction that he was simply God’s mouthpiece, and that what he spoke was the veritable Word of God.”