October 12, 2020
The Proper 24A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 22:15-22 from the Lectionary Gospel; Exodus 33:12-23 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Gospel Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 104 (Lord’s Day 39)
Author: Scott Hoezee
In recent years there has been a lot of talk about religion in America. This election year of 2020 is no exception—indeed, the upcoming election magnifies such things. Maybe other nations have similar conversations but America is definitely the epicenter of some pretty serious conversations in this area. This is due in part to the endurance of an old idea that America is somehow supposed to be—or ostensibly at least started out to be—a “Christian nation.”
Thus whenever something new comes along in society or in the law of the land that feels disagreeable to some people, they demand a return to how it used to be in some imagined golden era when every law in the country reflected Christianity somehow (or at least that made it easy to be a Christian without having to deal with pluralistic religious practices or the specter of gay marriage and the like). Sometimes we act as though we want to make it easy to be religious and hard to be unreligious. People of faith ought not have to keep bumping up against what looks like paganism or unbelief.
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. Caesar was the official Dominus et Deus, “Lord and God” of the realm.
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 worshiped 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. It was sacked and Herod’s Temple—the locus of Second Temple Judaism—was destroyed.
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 that 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, to a set of core truths that we can all agree upon.
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 wordplay 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: Stan Mast
Stories like this are nearly unbelievable for your average church goer and literally unbelievable for your average neighbor, because God doesn’t talk this way to us today, “face to face as a man speaks with his friend (33:11).” Very few of us ever hear God’s voice over a lifetime of faith. That’s why several years ago I preached a series of sermons on Moses entitled, “What God would say if we could hear.” This famous story was part of that series. My sermon went something like this. Perhaps it will give you some ideas for a sermon on this text.
Imagine yourself on a desert island like the ones you see in those cartoons– a little spit of sand with one palm tree under a blazing sun surrounded by circling sharks. If you could have one thing on that desert island, what would it be? What do you need most to survive on a desert island? Water, food, shelter, a boat, an iPhone?
Now, stop imagining and change the picture to fit our text and our own very real situation. We’re in a desert, wandering through the wilderness on our way to the Promised Land. What do you need most to survive in this wilderness world? What is the one thing you absolutely must have to make it to the Promised Land?
Ancient Israel didn’t know the answer to that question, until that one absolute necessity was taken away. Then they freaked out because they knew that, without that basic necessity, they couldn’t survive. So, Moses talked to God about it and God talked to him face to face as a man speaks to a friend. That’s when God said to Israel what he would say to us if we could hear. “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” That’s the One thing we need in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.
To understand this very strange and wonderful text, try to put yourself in God’s place. Have you ever gotten so frustrated with someone you love that you wanted nothing more to do with that person? Maybe it was a teenage child who tested the limits again and again. Night after night you waited up until 2, 3, 4 in the morning as she was out carousing. You prayed and prayed that she would come home safely, that God would spare her life out there. And then when she finally staggered in, you wanted to hug her and kill her at the same time.
It happens to the best of us; we can be so angry with someone we love that we almost want to kill them, or at least kick them out of our lives so we don’t have to watch them self-destruct. If you can’t relate to that feeling, you’ve never had a truly rebellious teenager. But if you understand that complex set of feelings, you can begin to understand God in our text.
Our story begins back in Exodus 32 with Moses up on the mountain talking with God and Israel down on the plain making their own god. God has already given Israel the Ten Commandments and now he is completing the constitutional guidelines that will guarantee their life and liberty for the generations to come. But they can’t see God, or even the Mediator he has given. Moses has been up there for over a month, 40 days to be exact. Israel grows impatient and demands that Aaron make them a god to lead them through the wilderness.
Of all the stupid, ungrateful, outrageous, forgetful, and commonsense things! Through Moses God has repeatedly told them that he will get them to the Promised Land. Through Moses God has demonstrated again and again that he has the power and love to do that. Through Moses he has just told them not to have any other gods or make any images of him. And then the first thing they do when Moses is out of sight is disbelieve God’s promise, violate his law, and break his covenant by making a god.
But of course! That makes sense, commonsense, because the thing they needed more than anything else out there in the wilderness was god, a god they could see– not a god hiding in the smoke up there on the mountain, but a god who would be present with them all the time. It made sense, and it made God furious.
So furious that when he tells Moses what is going on down in the valley, God says in effect, “That’s it. I’ve had it. I’m done with them. They want to make a god? Then they won’t have this God. They have broken my covenant one too many times. I’m leaving.” Indeed, says God in Ex. 32:10, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
What follows is one of the most amazing conversations in all the Bible, in all of literature, because Moses will not leave God alone. In fact, he keeps talking, arguing, pleading with God until God changes his mind. Back and forth the conversation goes, God speaking to Moses face to face as a man speaks to a friend, Moses daring to plead the case of God’s sinful people in the face of God’s righteous anger born of wounded love. Moses is a mediator par excellence, a powerful picture of Jesus Christ, hundreds of years before Jesus came. Ex. 32:11 sums up the work of Moses in the story. “But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God.”
Moses reminds God of how much he has already done for Israel, asks God if he really wants to give the Egyptians an opportunity to gloat, and repeats the promises God had made long ago to the patriarchs. And, says Exodus 32:14, “the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” When Moses comes down out of the clouds on the mountain and actually sees the sin in the valley, he blows up and, on his own initiative, kills 3000 people. But then the next day he goes right back to God to plead for more grace for sinful Israel. He even offers his own life for theirs. “Oh what great sin these people have committed…,” he says in Exodus 32:31. “Now please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”
God says a terrible thing in verse 33 of Exodus 32. He says, in effect, “No. Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. Each person is responsible for his own sin. When the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin. Now go. Lead my people up to the place I have promised, and my angel will go before you.” This angel will defeat the people who hold the Promised Land, so you will take it. You’ll get what you want. But you won’t have what you need the most out here in the desert.
Let me repeat that. You’ll get what you want. But you won’t have what you need most out here in the desert. You won’t have me. In fact, you don’t really want me. “I will not go with you,” God says in Ex. 33:3, “because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”
But Moses isn’t done yet, thank God. And neither is God. The people repent of their sin and Moses continues his face to face with God in verses 12-13, where today’s Lectionary reading begins. Moses says, in effect, “I need more. We need more. An angel isn’t going to do it. We need you.” And the Lord replied with the loveliest words you could ever hear in the wilderness, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
But Moses still isn’t satisfied because that word “you” is in the singular, meaning just you, Moses. Moses replies, “If your presence does not go with us, all of us, your covenant people who have broken your covenant, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
Lord, the one thing we need, the only thing we need, the thing that makes us unique in this sinful world is your presence with us. Without that, we are lost, we are doomed, just like everyone else. God responds with overwhelming grace, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” “My Presence will go with all of you and I will give you all rest,” not because of the goodness of my people, but because of you, Moses, because you are my beloved Mediator.
Like I said, it’s a strange and wonderful and troubling text. Two things particularly are troubling and touching. One is the picture of God we get here. What kind of God is this, who blows up and threatens extinction and then lets himself be talked out of it? Sounds way too volatile, too emotional, too, well, human. No, not human, but a real person. What kind of God is this? Well, not the golden calf of pagan religion, the crude creation of your hands; not the Unmoved Mover of pagan philosophy, the sophisticated creation of your mind; not a god who can’t think or feel or talk. No, the God of the Bible is very personal with deep thoughts and powerful emotions and life changing words. In his holiness he cannot stand sin. In his justice he must punish it. In his faithfulness he keeps his promises. In his grace he forgives sin. And in his deep love he provides a mediator who will stand between himself and his sinful people.
That’s the point of the story, and of the whole biblical story. The personal God who has entered into a covenant with his people has sent a Mediator to intercede for them when they break his covenant. Moses gives us a preview of that perfect Mediator– pleading for sinners, putting them before himself, offering his life for theirs, not quitting until everyone of them gets the blessing God has promised. Moses was not the perfect Mediator, as his temper tantrum coming down from the mountain demonstrated. The perfect One would come down to another mountain and die, and then leave from another mountain with these familiar words, “Behold I am with you to the end of the age.”
“My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” That’s the other troubling and touching thing in this story. What is this business about the Presence of God? Isn’t God already present everywhere? Well, yes, but not in a saving way. God is everywhere in his power, and his holiness, and his justice, but not necessarily in his saving grace.
We all know what that’s like. You’ve experienced the human equivalent of that many times. You can be with someone, but that person is not with you. You are on a date with your boyfriend, having a wonderful time. And then you say something, and he gets mad, and although you are still in the car together, he isn’t with you anymore. He’s there, but not there. His face has turned away. He is angry, hurt, distant. He is still there physically, but he is not really present.
God says, “My presence will to with you, in spite of your sin, because of the work of my Mediator. And I will give you rest.” God’s presence was with Israel in the pillar of cloud and fire, then in the Tabernacle and the Temple where the Shekinah cloud of his glory hovered over the Ark of the Covenant. But then the cloud of glory left the Temple when Israel went into exile, and it didn’t return until Jesus entered the Temple in his mother’s arms. Jesus was not only the perfect Mediator, but also the very Presence of God in the world.
Echoing this story about God speaking face to face with Moses and picking up on the end of the story where Moses asks to see the very glory of God, John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”
What we need most of all as we wander through this wilderness world is God—not a god we make with our hands or in our minds, but the God who is with us always in the person of Jesus. Celtic spirituality talks about thin places on the earth where the barrier between heaven and earth is wafer thin, and you can sense God’s presence. The Gospel of Jesus offers us something far better. The place you can meet God, the place where God is present in all of his grace and truth, is not a place at all, but a person, the one who long ago said to Moses what he would say to us if we could hear. “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
Author: Scott Hoezee
“A scribe to the Lord . . .” At least that is what I heard my minister say when I was a young boy attending a church in Ada, Michigan. Rev. Angus MacLeod began more morning worship services than not with that portion of Psalm 96 that repeats the call to “ascribe” to the Lord all manner of good things. It was his standard Call to Worship. But while I was not sure as a boy what “a scribe” had to do with anything, the verb “to ascribe” registered even less with my still limited vocabulary. And so most every week I heard Psalm 96 quoted but it would be years before I had a clue as to what those verses were talking about.
Now that I do know what “ascribe” means, I still find Psalm 96’s words to be highly curious. What would it mean for all the families of the earth to ascribe to God glory and strength when, as a matter of fact, the rest of Psalm 96 makes clear that God already has glory and strength all locked up? It reminds me of those psalms—or of the Virgin Mary’s song in Luke 1—that call upon us to “magnify the Lord.” Well how exactly are puny creatures like us supposed to magnify a God whose glory already fills the universe? “To magnify” means to make bigger and is usually applied to very small things—think germs and molecules and fleas—so as to make them easier to see. You magnify what you cannot easily see with the naked eye—or that you cannot see at all like a distant star or planet—not monster trucks or Mount Everest.
Of course, when it comes to God it would be odd to talk about magnifying God were it not for the myopia of sin. The classic old hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” traditionally had a line in one stanza that said “though the eye made blind by sin thy glory cannot see.” The glory is there. It’s on display. It’s visible. But we cannot see it. And so maybe there is a need for even as small a person as the Virgin Mary sitting in the middle of the backwaters of the Roman Empire to “magnify” God so that those who might otherwise miss seeing him have a shot of spying God’s majesty after all. You make God bigger for those whose vision is bad.
So also in Psalm 96: it is abundantly clear that the one true God of Israel has it all: splendor, glory, almighty power, majesty. The whole creation came from this wonderful God and that whole creation joins in to sing this God’s praises. To be God means, by definition, that you lack nothing.
It reminds me of a Star Trek movie when the valiant crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise encounters a powerful being who claims to be God and who the crew actually wonders if it might be God. Except then this “God” asks to borrow their starship so he could leave the region where he was and travel to another part of the galaxy. “What does God need with a starship?” Captain Kirk incredulously asks. It’s the moment they realize this is no god of any kind. If you are God, you don’t need someone to give you a lift. God is by definition self-sufficient.
But that is why that word “ascribe” is apt. The people reading Psalm 96 were not being asked to give God glory and strength. This was not a shopping list to go out and buy some nice stuff for God that God did not already have the way at a baby shower the expectant mother is given strollers and onesies and baby formula seeing as she does not yet own any of that soon-to-be-needed stuff. No, when you “ascribe” something, you attribute something to someone, you credit something to someone. Or it may be that you are associating a certain quality to a certain person. Say you hear a piece of beautiful music but you don’t know for certain who composed it and yet you are confident when you say “That just has to be Mozart!” You are ascribing the work to Mozart because you know of Mozart’s artistry, the quality of his compositions, the lyrical way he had with stringing notes together.
To ascribe is to acknowledge certain qualities. In God’s case we know all glory and power belong to God and so when we are called to ascribe such things to God, we are engaging both in an act of praise and an act of proclamation as we are inviting others to consider just how much glory and strength our one true God has. When you ascribe a piece of music to Mozart, you are indicating how talented Mozart was, how singularly lyric his every composition was. You are saying, in short, that Mozart was great, a musical genius nearly without peer.
When we look out over creation to behold beauty and splendor, we ascribe these things to the handiwork of God because they reveal something of God’s own glory. We are saying that God is great and when we say it publicly, we are hoping others might be inspired to take a good long look at our God, too.
Psalm 96 subtly also reminds us why this public ascribing is needed: because the world is filled with other “gods.” People get distracted by counterfeit religion and spirituality all the time. But if verse 4 startles you by claiming that Israel’s God is above all gods—making it sound like there really are other gods in existence—that is quickly undercut by verse 5 that says those “gods” are finally just idols. Fakes. There is only one God. But that does not keep people from pondering those hollow gods anyway and their devotion to those faux deities prevents them from seeing the glory and splendor of the real God.
In our modern world we have perhaps become a bit shy about public ascribing to God of all God’s wonderful attributes and characteristics. We have grown accustomed to pluralistic societies of religious tolerance and we don’t want to be accused to shoving anything down anyone’s throat. We want as Christians to come off as kind, not belligerent. And it may be true that we ought not want to be guilty of threatening those who cannot for now see the glory of our God in Christ or the splendor of the Gospel’s Good News.
But what we can do is bear witness, to display our own enthusiasm in ascribing to God all the good and beautiful things we can experience in life and in the created world. And in so ascribing—in standing up among “the nations” as verse 10 says—to declare that the universe is ruled by a good and gracious God, we can hope that the enthusiasm of our ascribing will become contagious, will make people want to ask us about our faith. And when they do, Psalm 96 alone provides a long list of wonderful things we can say about our one true God.
In her short story “The River,” Flannery O’Connor wanted to say something about the drama and the power of baptism. She believed many people had become a bit blasé where baptism is concerned, that we had turned it into a cute little rite of passage for babies on a par with getting their six-month portrait taken at Walmart or something. In her story, therefore, she has a young boy who wants to be baptized but for various reasons cannot find anyone to do it. So he tries to baptize himself in a river but he slips, falls, and drowns. Baptism, O’Connor wanted to remind her readers, involves dying with Christ.
When she was later asked why she used such grotesque and harsh imagery like this in this story and in many of her other stories, she replied “Because in the land of the nearly blind, you have to draw big caricatures to get anyone’s attention and help them to see.”
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Author: Doug Bratt
In this season that lies between the Canadian and American Thanksgiving Days, 2020, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson seems highly appropriate. After all, it’s not just that we’re “surrounded” by holidays on which we at least ostensibly give thanks.
It’s also that so many things threaten a spirit of thanksgiving right now. Our world continues to battle a global pandemic that has proven to be nearly as “clever” as it is persistent and deadly. We also struggle to identify racial injustice so that we may root it out and replace it with racial equality.
Americans are embroiled in the bitterest presidential election that I can remember. And while much of the North American media is so busy covering those issues that it pays little attention to anything else, famines, wars, rumors of wars and violent weather continue to shadow much of our world.
I don’t think that Paul would want us to ignore those harsh realities. But he would, I believe, urge us to be aware enough of what God is doing in order to remain thankful to God for so many of the blessings that crises sometimes threaten to overshadow.
I Thessalonians 1 especially invites us to be grateful for what God is doing in Christ’s Church. Paul’s description of the Thessalonian church for which he prays grace and peace, frankly, stuns us. It is, after all, probably only a few months old. The church’s members are new Christians whom God has newly converted from either Judaism or paganism. Persecution is also vigorously testing them. So we might expect the Thessalonian church to be wobbly and fragile in such a precarious situation.
Why, then, can Paul express such both great thanksgiving for and confidence in it? First, while various gods, idols, and the people who worship them live around the Thessalonian Christians, God the Father and Christ the Son live in them. “The church of the Thessalonians,” Paul notes in verse 1, is “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
By that he seems to mean that the relationship between the Thessalonian church and the Lord is close. God so closely links God’s children to himself that we might say that God and God’s people somehow share something of a common life. Christians who are in “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” to put it another way, draw our very life from God.
However, Paul can also be confident in the Thessalonian church because the “faith,” “hope” and “love” he mentions in verse 3 that distinguish it. The Thessalonian Christians were, John Stott writes, according to verse 3, directing their faith to God, love towards each other and hope towards the future.
These virtues, as Jesus’ followers find them in us, are signs that God’s Spirit is doing the Spirit’s work. After all, they show that God is drawing us toward himself in faith, outward towards others in love and forward towards Christ’s return in hope.
Each of these virtues also, however, produces concrete actions, as Paul implies in verse 3. Faith in God, after all, produces, by the Holy Spirit, good works. God’s adopted children’s love for people that God’s Spirit produces also leads us to work for our neighbors’ well-being. And hope produces the kind of “endurance” about which Paul writes in verse 3.
However, Paul is also confident in the Thessalonian church because he realizes that she is a community that God has “chosen” and “loved.” The apostle knows, as he insists in verse 5, that God lovingly chose the Thessalonian Christians because he sees evidence of that election in their faith, hope and love that are unmistakable signs of God’s electing work.
Yet Paul centers his description of the Thessalonian church in God. Jesus’ followers sometimes assume our churches’ health and survival depends on our own ingenuity. We may suspect we need to have some kind of fresh vision for the church because otherwise we’ll wilt and die.
Paul, however, would be confident in 21st century Christians’ stability not because of something we can muster, but because he knows that God’s at work in us. While God’s dearly beloved people don’t quit dreaming dreams and praying, God is our hope for the future of our churches.
Yet in verses 5-10 Paul notes that the church is not only chosen and loved by God, rooted in God and working for God. It also receives and shares God’s gospel. The apostle reveals three stages of that gospel’s progress in Thessalonica. First, according to verse 5, the “gospel came” to the Thessalonians. Paul, Silas and Timothy brought the gospel to Thessalonica.
However, they didn’t bring that gospel “simply with words.” While God’s gospel doesn’t only come with words, it always comes with words. So whether Christians publicly preach or quietly witness, we always choose our words carefully.
Yet words are seldom enough to spread the gospel. Because people may misunderstand or ignore them, we also reinforce what we say. So God’s adopted sons and daughters share the gospel depending on what Paul also calls in verse 5 the Holy Spirit’s work. After all, we know the “power” it has and the deep “conviction” that it produces.
Yet people must also “receive” that gospel, through the work of the Holy Spirit. So Paul goes on to describe how the Thessalonians “welcomed” his message. They faithfully received it, first, “in spite of severe suffering.” While the gospel aroused hostility in Thessalonica, such opposition didn’t deter its Christians.
As a result, the Thessalonian Christians were able, secondly, to welcome the gospel not grudgingly, but with what Paul calls “joy given you by the Holy Spirit.” After all, wherever people, by God’s Spirit, receive the gospel with their faith, there is joy in both heaven and among its recipients.
As a result of their reception of the gospel, the Thessalonians became, thirdly, “imitators of” the apostles “and “of the Lord.” The Holy Spirit transformed the Thessalonian Christians so that they began to follow the example of both the apostles and Jesus Christ. After all, to “welcome” the gospel is to let God transform our words, actions and even thoughts.
Finally, the Thessalonian Christians who imitated Jesus Christ also became a kind of example for other Christians. They, by the power of the Holy Spirit, became what Paul calls in verse 7 “a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” God’s gospel, after all, always has a profound affect on its faithful recipients.
However, the Thessalonian church didn’t just faithfully receive the gospel. It also shared that gospel with others. Thessalonian Christians let it be a loud noise that echoed throughout their whole known world. As a result, by God’s grace, the Thessalonian church’s faith in God became “known everywhere,” as Paul writes in verse 8.
Certainly the work of missionaries in letting the gospel ring out is vitally important. But those who proclaim 1 Thessalonians 1 also want to emphasize that churches’ support for missionaries doesn’t preclude our own work of letting the gospel “ring out.” Jesus’ followers also take the time and find the people with whom to share what Stott, to whom I owe many ideas for this Starter, calls “holy gossip.”
Such witnessing doesn’t necessarily have to be particularly imaginative. By God’s grace and the power of the Spirit even simple sharing may have a dramatic affect on those with whom God’s adopted sons and daughters share it.
The missionaries’ witnessing certainly had a dramatic impact on the Thessalonian Christians. They first “turned … from idols to serve the living and true God.” Of course, not many of the people with whom 1 Thessalonians 1’s proclaimers and hearers share the gospel worship wooden or metallic Idols. Yet idols like ambition for money and power, as well as obsessions with things like work or social media still fill our world. They’re idols when they demand the allegiance God’s adopted children owe to God alone.
By God’s amazing grace, Spirit and gospel, however, God graciously transforms us so that we serve not those idols, but the living God. God frees God’s beloved people from slavery to sin, Satan and death and puts us into God’s loving and willing service.
However, this gospel also produces in Christians what Paul calls the willingness to “wait for God’s Son from heaven.” Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters patiently await the One whom God raised from the dead to rescue us from the “coming wrath.”
So this Sunday’s Epistolary reminds its proclaimers and hearers that the church that receives the gospel must also pass it on. This is what Stott calls God’s basic plan for world evangelization. We let the gospel we’ve received ring out throughout our world.
However, churches that pass on the gospel also live in ways consistent with it. People were convinced of the validity of the Thessalonians’ faith not just by what they had heard, but also by what they had seen in the Thessalonian Christians.
No church can spread the gospel with any credibility unless the gospel it spreads has visibly changed it. Churches want to look like what we talk about. After all, it’s not enough to just receive the gospel and pass it on, whether through missionaries or through testimonies. Jesus’ followers also model the gospel in the way we live, talk and even think.
Those who plan to proclaim I Thessalonians 1 this week might spend some time reflecting on how God is at work in their church in ways that echo God’s work in the church in Thessalonica. We might also let that work inspire us to be publicly thankful to God and our church. After all, those who hear us may, by the power of the Spirit, be more receptive to what we say if we, with Paul, let them know how thankful to God we are for them.
In her November 28, 2003 article entitled, “Gratitude Grows as Salutary Habit,” Jane Lampman writes about thanksgiving: “For many Americans, Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday. Gathering at the table with family and friends in memory-filled tradition. Plenty of soul-satisfying food. And, the special feeling that comes from sharing gratitude.
“‘Thanksgiving has always been a favorite: It’s a time for gratitude and a holiday we haven’t messed up!’ says Susan Kirby, a California mother of two. That feeling is garnering a lot more attention these days, and not just during the fourth week of November. A universal experience and a component of many religious traditions for centuries, gratitude is being recognized not simply as a desirable virtue, but also as an essential element to wholeness and well-being.
“As latecomers to the concept, scientists are now engaged in long-term research that has already confirmed a host of beneficial outcomes, from healthier, more satisfying lives to greater vitality and more generous outreach to help others. ‘We’re seeing how concrete the effects of a grateful focus are.’ says Robert Emmons, a leading psychologist in the field. And people from many cultures are seeking ways to make gratitude a more conscious daily altitude that shapes their experience…
“Gratitude research is part of the growing field of positive psychology, which focuses on the strengths of human beings. In simple terms, it’s an empirical test of counting one’s blessings. ‘We’re trying to find ways to measure the healing power of gratitude in people’s lives.’ says Dr. Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis. They’re also studying the causes of and impediments to gratitude and developing methods to help people cultivate it.
For example, ‘the simple act of keeping a gratitude journal on a regular basis seems to have so many different effects.’ says Emmons. ‘People feel closer to God, sleep better, feel more connected to others, and make more progress toward important personal goals.’ They also report fewer symptoms of illness and higher levels of energy than do those in control groups.”