October 27, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Matthew 23 indicates that pastors (i.e., most of us reading this sermon starter) need to be wary of the titles people afford us. Although neither “Reverend” nor “Pastor” is specifically mentioned in Matthew 23, only a very wily preacher would ever suggest this indicates that those titles are exempt from Jesus’ comments. So what are we to make of Jesus’ words in Matthew 23?
We will begin with the passage in context, which means glancing back at the end of Matthew 22. As Matthew 23 opens, it looks like Jesus has had about as much as he can take from the religious leaders who had been engaging in a tag-team effort to trip him up. So he cuts loose with the single-most harsh and negative speech Jesus gives anywhere in the New Testament.
Beyond the verses of this particular lection, the balance of Matthew 23 presents seven hard-hitting indictments, each of which charges the clergy with hypocrisy. The Pharisees are all about false fronts, facades, public relations, prestige, and just generally getting ahead in society. And in detailing all this, the otherwise soft-spoken man from Nazareth does not spare the verbal lash: he calls them sons of hell, blind guides, stinking graves, snakes, vipers.
Bracing stuff, that.
Yet all that fiery bluster begins quietly. Jesus even tells everyone that they must obey the words of these leaders. Probably what Jesus means is that when these ministers read from God’s Word, the content of the Scriptures must be heeded. But that’s where the positive part ends. “Do what they say, not what they do,” Jesus says. “They don’t practice what they preach, and so even though they want you take note of their lifestyles, ignore them!”
He doesn’t practice what he preaches.
There are few indictments of a minister more wounding than that. From personal experience, I know how that accusation, whether or not it has any truth to it, cuts straight into a pastor’s heart like the sharpest of scalpels. (After an unhappy staff dust-up that led to the dismissal of a staff person, I had a few people tell me how sad it was that I was good at preaching forgiveness but not living it. That’s just shattering for a pastor.)
It is hurtful because if it were true, such a charge would undermine all credibility. It is not something to say lightly, and there is every indication that Jesus has given this a lot of thought. This is not how Jesus began his ministry, this was not based on a mere week’s worth of observation. This had been a long time coming. But after all that time had passed, Jesus felt certain that this was the verdict. The Pharisees did not practice what they preached. They did not listen to the words of God they themselves read from the pulpit.
Instead, they focused their energy on just looking good. They strutted around trying to look ever-so-holy but only because it generated prestige. They made certain always to have their flowing robes on because when they did, they got a clergy discount on fruit in the marketplace, got upgraded to First Class when they traveled, got seated up on the dais at the head table whenever VIPs came in from out-of-town to speak at a banquet.
Like altogether too-many celebrities today, the Pharisees came to believe their own press releases. Actress Helen Hayes was always known as, introduced as, and lauded as “the first lady of American theater.” Over time what most reporters forgot was that it was Helen Hayes herself who first cooked up that sobriquet and then spread it around! But that’s the way it goes when image becomes a way of life. After a while, things get so weirdly inverted that it’s difficult to tell what’s what anymore.
The entertainment industry is an ego-driven affair populated by throngs of people who are full of themselves. As even actor Marlon Brando once observed, “The greatest love affairs I have ever witnessed took place with one actor, unassisted.” Yet there is even so a kind of unspoken “code” among these people that says if you are too obvious with this self-infatuation, you will be shunned. Back in 1985 when actress Sally Field won her second Oscar in the span of only a few years, she famously gushed in her acceptance speech, “You like me! You really like me!”
Well, not after that speech. It would be 28 long years before the Academy ever nominated her again (just last year for her role as Mary Todd Lincoln in the film Lincoln).
After F. Murray Abraham won an Oscar for his stellar performance as Salieri in the movie Amadeus, he was tapped to be an Oscar presenter at the following year’s ceremony, and when he did this, he conducted himself quite pompously–in other words, he outwardly displayed the same pompous pride that inwardly filled the hearts of every actor there. But because he made the mistake of letting it show, he, too, has ever since been cast out into a kind of wilderness.
So here is a curious combination: the Academy Awards depends on self-congratulatory people all getting together to celebrate themselves, yet if a person lets this pride show, it is considered bad form. But probably what that points to is the core of hypocrisy: deception. The hypocrite is a deceiver of other people. What counts is not what you are really like but what other people think you are like. What counts is not whether you are worthy of the nice things people say about you but that they say them in the first place. What counts is doing whatever it takes to maintain your image, which often consumes so much time and energy that there is little left to nurture the genuine article in your heart.
Jesus, of course, is interested only in the inner person. If it should be that people admire you for the kind of person you genuinely are, that is fine as far as it goes, but Jesus’ warning in Matthew 23 indicates that even so, those honors should not assume too high a profile in your own mind. Because Jesus also knows the seductive power of such things. If you start falling in love with your own P.R., then even if public respect for you began originally as a proper response to the kind of person you really were, eventually it may well be that your own focus will shift.
Frederick Dale Bruner points out that in Matthew 23:5 when Jesus says that everything the Pharisees do “is for people to see,” the Greek verb there is theathenai, and even a quick glance at that Greek word suggests its connection to the English word “theater.” What Jesus is saying is that for people like this, the entirety of the religious life has become less about God and more about a kind of public theater, a drama meant to unfold in front of the eyes of other people, who in turn are no longer brothers and sisters in God but passive viewers, an audience. But one of the main things Jesus always taught is that the only “audience” we should think about is our great Creator God. When we make other people our audience before whom we perform theatrics designed to garner us lots of attention, our desire truly to serve God in our hearts diminishes right along with the enhancement of our own theatrics before others.
Although I am quite certain I won’t be doing so anytime soon, if I ever felt inclined to write a letter to Pope Francis in Rome, papal etiquette would suggest that I close and sign my letter as follows: “Prostrate at the feet of Your Holiness and imploring the favor of your apostolic benediction, I have the honor to be, Very Holy Father, with the deepest veneration of Your Holiness, the most humble and most obedient servant and son, Scott.”
As someone has wryly noted, this may explain why the pope gets so few postcards!
Whether or not any given pope would ever insist on such a salutation, the fact is that over time, honorifics and titles of privilege and prestige have most assuredly accumulated for members of the clergy. The pope is addressed as “Very Holy Father” or “Your Holiness,” cardinals and bishops are often referred to as “Your Eminence,” ordinary priests are always addressed as “Father.” Although the Catholic Church is a fairly obvious and large example of this kind of thing, they hardly have that market cornered. In my own Dutch tradition of the Reformed church, for a very long time every pastor was hailed as “Dominie,” which has clear connections to the Latin dominus or “lord.” These days few people in my tradition still use “Dominie,” but “Reverend” and “Pastor” are still pretty common.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
As Frederick Buechner once observed, Moses was a hard act to follow. Joshua 3 indicates that maybe even God felt that way. Even almighty Yahweh seemed to know that if Joshua was going to gain acceptance in the eyes of the Israelites, God was going to have to do something on the dramatic side to make it clear to everyone that Joshua was Moses’ heir in every meaningful and important sense.
Of course, you have to wonder if even Joshua felt a bit in Moses’ shadow and if even this crossing of the Jordan more-or-less kept him there for the time being. After all, through Moses God had parted a whole sea and then drowned Pharaoh and company behind the Israelites for good measure. This time . . . well, it was a river and there was no hostile army behind the people in the kind of hot pursuit that made everything that much more urgent. Granted, the river was at flood stage (thank goodness for that at least!) but maybe Joshua worried this whole spectacle had the air of “cheap imitation” about it. (Moses has parted his seas and Joshua his . . . well, his streams.)
Probably he didn’t think that but even if he did, he need not have worried. For those with eyes to see, this was the working of Almighty God, the Creator of this whole world who could—precisely because it all came from him and belonged to him—make that creation do pretty much whatever he wanted. In this case, he made a river at flood stage stop flowing so the people could get across it easily and with dry feet and with children and small animals protected from harm as well.
It was a neat trick and a fine miracle but what’s instructive about the text of Joshua 3 is how Joshua frames it. Yahweh tells Joshua, “I am going to exalt you, Joshua, in the eyes of the people.” But for his part, Joshua does not let the spotlight fall on himself at all. Instead he makes it abundantly clear that God was doing all of this and that the key lesson the Israelites were to take away from this was not how great Joshua was but how great God is and how this action will help the people know for certain that God will do exactly as he promised in driving out the people from the land of Canaan so that the Israelites will be able to call it home.
It’s a curious tag-team here: God wants to exalt Joshua, Joshua wants to exalt God; God wants the people to know that Joshua is his new #1, Joshua wants the people to know that they are God’s #1 people and he will fight for them.
There are, of course, lots of ways a preacher could go with this story. At this point in the Year A Lectionary sequence, this is but the merest snippet of the Joshua narrative that the Lectionary kind of chunks out of the larger Book of Joshua. (The Lectionary even does the somewhat odd thing of stopping the reading well short of the dramatic and meaningful setting up of stones in the middle of the river as a perpetual memorial to Yahweh’s work there that day). This snippet of the story doesn’t make sense unless you can locate it within the wider narrative arc and sequence of this book and although the story itself is dramatic and memorable, there’s not lots and lots of textual material to go on here.
But perhaps there is something about that interplay between Yahweh and Joshua—the way each defers to the other, the way each promotes the glory of the other—that is worth pondering. One of the best insights we Western types can gain from our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers is the image of the Trinity as a community of perichoresis, of a wonderful intermingled dance of life and light and delight. In the West, we draw a triangle with big bold lines to represent the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The East draws a circle. We make it all about logic and propositions and proper boundaries. The East makes it about a dance, a divine choreography as each Person in God constantly defers to the others, moving in and with and through each other in a circle of mutual service and zest and life.
This reminds me of Richard Lischer’s depiction of his Lutheran congregation in Illinois and their favorite stained-glass window: it was a triangle with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each on one point of the triangle and with the Latin words “Non Est” etched along each leg of the triangle. As Lischer said, it was as though that Trinity Window was staring down at the congregation to say, “Any questions!!??” Maybe we are sometimes a bit overly analytical and calculating in the West!
There is something lyric to the idea that God has great enthusiasm for us, that God wants to work in and through us as he did with Joshua, that he wants to see us flourish and be validated. But there is something also quite wonderful about the idea of our joining the divine choreography (as Joshua did) by being invested in helping God to shine and be displayed in all his glory. In Joshua 3 God tries to defer to Joshua to make his name great. Joshua responds by deferring to God so as to make God’s Name great among Israel.
And somehow in this little tidbit of interaction between Yahweh and Joshua we see a vignette of a deep dynamic of our very lives as human beings before the face of God: it really is all about service and humility and love, even for God and certainly for us!
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson shows her narrator, 76-year-old Rev. John Ames, pondering the enormous love he feels for his little 7-year-old son. At one point Rev. Ames writes to his son, “There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. Your hair is straight and dark and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”
Maybe loving God is like that–it begins with the sheer delight we take in the fact that God exists at all. It begins in the wonder we feel when we try to wrap our minds around that Trinitarian mystery of three who are somehow still just one. It begins with having enthusiasm for the God who created such a galaxy of wonders and who then loved us enough to plunk us down smack in the middle of it all. God arranged it so we could enjoy the splendors of a juicy Bartlett pear, taste the oakiness of a sparkling Chardonnay, have our hearts quickened by the lyric, liquid melodies of the Wood Thrush. We begin by loving the sheer existence of God and we go from there.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” That’s what Jesus said. And Jesus is the same One who taught us to call that God “Our Father.” And how we yearn to love and be loved by Father. Few things plague us more than the sense that things are not right between our parents and us. That’s a motif throughout literature. In many stories there is the figure of the ne’er-do-well, the son cut off by his father. Maybe they had words. Maybe their split was bitter. And then the day comes when the old man dies, and yet the estranged ne’er-do-well finds it impossible to resist the urge to ask, “Did Papa mention me before he died?”
Some while back I heard a story relayed by Ernest Hemmingway. Once in Spain there was a personal ad that ran in the classified section of a newspaper.
“Paco, meet me tomorrow at noon at the Hotel Montana. All is forgiven. Love, Papa.”
And the next day the police had to be dispatched to deal with the mob of 800+ Pacos who had shown up at noon at the Hotel Montana. Hemmingway wanted to show the popularity of the Spanish name Paco, but at a more wrenching level, this reveals the universal hunger to connect with our origins, with our parents, with our Father.
The Eastern Orthodox wing of the Church has long pictured the inner life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a kind of dance. From all eternity the three persons have twirled in and through and around one another in a divine choreography of life and light and joy. God invites you to join the dance. He wants you to share the joy of his life. He’s waiting for you. He loves you. He wants you. Once you discover how much God wants you, you may find what you’ve been wanting all along.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
While the Lectionary appoints only Psalm 43 for this Sunday, it will be treated and referenced here in combination with Psalm 42. The two, after all, form one psalmic unit. Among other things, the repeated refrain (42:5 & 11, 43:5), “Why are you so downcast, O my soul . . . Why so disturbed within me?” strongly suggests Psalms 42 and 43 are artificially divided.
God created people for a relationship with himself. So we’re not surprised that this psalm, like so much of human life, begins in longing for God. Yet it also ends in hope. So it’s as this psalm moves from the foothills of longing to the mountaintop of hope. That means this psalm addresses people wherever they are in their walk with God. Some, like the psalmist, long for God. They want to feel close to God, yet feel far from the Lord. Or they find themselves in some kind of spiritual “rut.” While they have a relationship with God, they long for a more intimate relationship with him. Yet some worshipers also find themselves on a kind of spiritual mountaintop. They strongly sense God’s presence. Their walk and relationship with the Lord is intimate.
This psalm implies God’s children aren’t frozen on the foothills of longing for him or in the valley of despair. God wants to move worshipers to a place of praise. To appreciate how the Lord moves the psalmist to that place, we need to see this poem is divided into three stanzas. The first includes verses 1-6, the second, verses 7-11 and the third, Psalm 43:1-5.
Several phrases pulse throughout each stanza. We’ve already noted how three times the psalmist asks himself, “Why are you so downcast, O my soul . . . Why so disturbed within me?” The poet answers his own question by admitting that he has an intense longing for God that we infer is being unfulfilled. “As the deer pants for streams of water,” the poet writes in Psalm 42:1, “so my soul pants for you, O God.”
The poet feels as though she’s in a wilderness where there’s so little water that all the wells are dry and cracks split the parched ground. So she longs for God like thirsty people and animals in drought-stricken places long for water. However, she doesn’t know how to find God, much like living things struggle to find water during a drought.
A couple of circumstances heighten the psalmist’s thirst for God. First, she seems to feel isolated from God. In Psalm 42:2 the poet asks, “When can I go and meet with God?” 42:6 implies the poet is in northern Palestine, far from Jerusalem where the Israelites traditionally believed they met with God. This sense of the psalmist’s isolation from God is heightened by her memories of earlier meetings with God in Jerusalem. She remembers joining many other people in joyful, singing processions up to God’s house.
The poet returns to that theme of distance from God throughout this psalm. In the second stanza, in 42:9, he says “to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me’?” And in the third stanza, in Psalm 43:2, the psalmist also says, “You are God my stronghold. Why have you rejected me?” However, his enemies’ taunts also heighten this psalmist’s thirst for God. “My tears have been my food day and night,” he grieves in 42: 3, “while men say to me, ‘Where is your God’?” So while the psalmist has longed to drink the “water” that is intimacy with God, he’s only been able to drink his “tears.”
Part of the poet’s pain stems from the fact that while his mocking enemies can see and touch their idols, the living God is invisible to him. What’s more his God also seems to the psalmist to be inactive. After all, God doesn’t immediately vindicate God’s people when their enemies mock God’s. So the poet doesn’t just feel isolated from and forgotten by God. His spiritually battered body also feels wounded by his enemies’ taunts.
The psalmist, however, repeats this refrain of his enemies’ mockery in the other two stanzas. In the second, in 42:9 she asks God, “’Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?’ My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, ‘Where is your God’?” And then in the third stanza, Psalm 43:2, the psalmist also adds, “Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?”
What, then, relentlessly intensifies the psalmist’s thirst for God? The absence of God to comfort him and the presence of people who mock him. So this God-thirsty poet prays, in the third stanza, in Psalm 43:2, that God send out God’s “light” and “truth.” He’s confident that light and truth will, like guides in the desert, lead him back into God’s presence. At God’s mountain, altar and home, the poet is confident he will again meet and worship the God in whom he rejoices and delights. Of course, the psalmist isn’t suggesting that the Temple is the only place where one can meet with God. He looks to the temple simply because the poet has experienced that intimacy in the past in public worship there.
The psalmist tries to quench her thirst for God by remembering better days. So in 42:4 she recalls trips to the temple with other religious pilgrims to worship God. And in 42:8 the poet also remembers knowing and experiencing God’s presence. Neither memory, however, can satisfy this psalmist’s longing for God. While memory can have great power, it doesn’t always affect the present experiences of those who hurt.
So how does the psalmist “talk to himself” at the end of each refrain? He recognizes that a crushing burden weighs down his soul. He also realizes that something like a raging ocean disturbs his soul. The poet, however, doesn’t cave in to his spiritual depression or excuse himself or his pain. Instead the psalmist prescribes a remedy for his spiritual depression. He knows that he must give up his introspection and self-pity. He must surrender his wistful reminiscence and anger at his enemies’ mockery. The psalmist realizes that he must, instead, put his hope in God.
Yet the psalmist doesn’t move from longing for intimacy to perfect intimacy. This poem doesn’t move from despair to complete joy. No, this psalm moves from a longing for intimacy with God to hope in God. It ends with a call to renewed confidence in God: “put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” Since praise may even grow in the soil that is the most trying circumstance, this psalm won’t let us expect perfect resolution to all our pain. Yet it does give us reason to again hope in God.
We often think of hope as a desire that may or may not be fulfilled. So you and I may, for instance, hope that it rains today or hope that we don’t have to sit here much longer. However, we also know that it may not rain for days and that we may have to sit here for hours. Hope in God, however, doesn’t have that degree of uncertainty. Those who put their hope in the Lord are absolutely confident in the Lord. We know that God keeps God’s promises, that God will be faithful to himself and his children.
In his terrific book on hope entitled Standing On the Promises, Lewis Smedes writes, “When God gets into our hoping, we pin our hopes on a Person. More exactly, on a Person and the promises he makes. Not that he will see to it that we get everything we wish for and believe is possible, but he will give us what he promises. So now our hope moves from a belief that the good that we want is possible to a trust that God intends to keep his promise and is competent to do so.”
The cross is a wonderful symbol of such hope. It reminds worshipers of the place where Jesus Christ reconciled them to God. The cross also, however, symbolizes the place where Jesus Christ defeated the immense power of Satan and evil. The cross reminds us that while God may seem far away, as God appeared to be to this poet, in Christ God actually came to live and stay among us. It’s a visible reminder, then, that God will yet lead us through our times of loneliness and despair to praise God. The cross also, however, reminds us that though evil may seem so powerful, just as it did in the life of this psalmist, it’s a defeated power. It’s a visible reminder that God will yet, by God’s Spirit, lead us through our times of longing and despair to praise him.
Psalm 42 and 43’s poet feels much like Simon Wiesenthal did in World War II’s Mauthausen concentration camp. Wiesenthal was a young Jewish prisoner in that doomed camp. One night a fellow prisoner woke Wiesenthal to tell him about an old woman. She had looked up to heaven and prayed, “Oh, God Almighty, come back from your leave and look at thy earth again.” “What do you think of that, Simon?” the prisoner asked him. “God is on leave. Let me sleep,” Wiesenthal replied. “Tell me when he gets back.” Later, however, Wiesenthal reflected on their conversation. “One really begins to think that God is on leave,” he wrote. “Otherwise the present state of things wouldn’t be possible. God must be on leave. And he has no deputy.”
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.”
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.”