October 28, 2019
The Proper 26C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 19:1-10 from the Lectionary Gospel; Habakkuk 1:1-4,2:1-4 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 32:1-7 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4,11-12 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Psalm: Belgic Confession Article 23
Author: Scott Hoezee
Maybe it was that sycamore tree that did it.
Maybe even before Jesus wandered by, Zacchaeus looked at where he was and wondered how it had come to this. What was it that had quite literally chased him clean up a tree? His nice Armani tunic had a chlorophyll stain or two on it from some sycamore leaves he’d smushed up against on his way up into the branches. He’d scuffed his Bruno Mali sandals and had chipped one of his nicely manicured fingernails on his left hand. And now there he was, hunched up in that tree like some schoolboy hiding from the teacher.
This was ridiculous.
What was a man of his social position doing in this silly position? Clettering up a tree like this was not one of the seven habits of highly effective people!
In fact, tree-climbing like that was something only a desperate sort of person would do—someone who knew deep down that he had gained the whole world but forfeited his soul; someone who knew that deep down in his heart he had a yearning and a hunger that not all the shekels in the Roman Empire was going to sate.
In the familiar little Sunday school song about this story, we are told that Zacchaeus climbed that sycamore tree “for his Lord he wanted to see.” And he faced the difficulty of being “a wee little man” who therefore needed some elevation. (I don’t know why but when I think of Zacchaeus, I picture Danny DeVito from his Taxi days!).
But we have no evidence that Zacchaeus’ curiosity toward Jesus had anything to do with his regard for Jesus as a Savior, a Lord, or any other potentially positive thing. “He wanted to see who Jesus was” is all the text says. That sounds pretty generic. It’s the kind of thing you say about someone whose character, identity, and physical appearance are all totally unknown to you.
Indeed, curious though he was, it seems very likely that Zacchaeus’ scramble up into that sycamore tree was not something he was eager to have his fellow Jerichoites witness. My hunch is that he was hiding up in that tree. He was not sitting there with his legs dangling inelegantly from beneath his tunic holding up some hand-painted “WELCOME JESUS!” sign like one of those eager people who daily mug for the camera and hold up “Hello!” signs in Rockefeller Center during the “Today” show. Instead Zacchaeus was likely well ensconced in the foliage of this tree, peering out from behind the leaves and branches and hoping that as the parade passed by, the crowds (and Jesus himself) would be too preoccupied by what was going on at street-level to notice him up there in that tree. It was, after all, such an undignified position to be in.
So when the parade stops, when Jesus looks right up at him, and when the rest of the crowd follows suit, I imagine that Zacchaeus’ first reaction was a deep gulp and a rush of blood to his face. But Jesus speaks kindly and says that it is his house where Jesus will stay for the day. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus fairly tumbled out of the tree and welcomed Jesus “with joy” (see the Textual Points below for the significance of that word “joy”). Something about the very presence of Jesus changed this sawed-off little crook. Luke 19 makes clear that Zacchaeus really did not climb up into that tree looking for a change in his lifestyle or outlook or fiscal practices. He had not set out from his house that morning hoping to have a 180-degree turnaround. He was just curious, that’s all.
Ah, but sometimes curiosity is the outward manifestation of an inward emptiness and restlessness. On the surface of Zacchaeus’ life, he had it all. He probably even told himself that he had it all. He strutted around Jericho giving off the vibes of a man who had it all. Zacchaeus was not one to appear shaky or uncertain. There was a steely glint to his eyes, a certain set to his jaw, a certain jutting forward of his chin that was all semaphore of a man who had it all together, who knew what he wanted, knew how to get it, and who had as a matter of fact mostly acquired what he wanted already.
But despite all that . . . here he was, quite literally up a tree and wondering how it had come to all this.
Maybe it was that sycamore tree that did it.
Maybe up there in that tree he was wondering how it had come to this. Maybe at some point, looking around him that day, the thought occurred to Zacchaeus, “I am lost.”
And just then a voice said, “Zacchaeus!” and somehow he just knew he’d been found.
Two little words in the original Greek leap out at me in this text. The first is when Jesus says that he “must” stay at the house of Zacchaeus that day. The verb there is the tiny Greek word dei and this is the same word used so often in the New Testament when the writer wants to convey the necessity of the incarnation or the utter necessity of Jesus’ death on a cross. “It is necessary” is the more typical translation of dei and it ties in just often enough to the utter necessity of God’s way of doing salvation that its use here in Luke 19 tells you that this business about Jesus’ wanting to stay at that particular house was in the end going to be a matter of redemption, of salvation itself.
The other word is the one that describes Zacchaeus’s reaction to Jesus: he received Jesus chairon, “with joy.” Flash back 4 chapters in Luke and read how this kind of joy and rejoicing was the bottom line of all three of the parables of lost-and-found in Luke 15. The “joy” with which this little tax collector received Jesus is the very joy that always crops up when salvation is in the air! “Joy/Rejoicing” in Luke is always semaphore for salvation.
Oh, and the fact that this joy/salvation was present BEFORE Zacchaeus did any of his subsequent actions of giving money back to the poor and the defrauded is further proof that Zacchaeus was saved not by those works but by the grace that came FIRST and that then overflowed into those later deeds.
From Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who by Frederick Buechner. Harper & Row San Francisco, 1979, pp. 180-81.
In this book, Buechner presents from A-Z several dozen character sketches of well-known (and sometimes not-so-well-known) biblical characters. The last entry in the volume under the letter “Z” is, not surprisingly, Zacchaeus. What Buechner shares about this man, and how he lets Zacchaeus be a summary for all the other folks in the Bible, is as delightful as it is instructive! Buechner observes:
“Zacchaeus makes for a good [character] to end with because in a way he can stand for all the rest [of the characters in Buechner’s book]. He’s a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway, and that’s why he reminds you of all the others, too. There’s Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, and there’s Jacob conning everybody including his own father. There’s Jael driving a tent-peg through the head of an overnight guest, and Rahab, the first of the red-hot mamas. There’s Nebuchadnezzar with his taste for roasting the opposition, and Paul holding the lynch mob’s coats as they go to work on Stephen. There’s Saul the paranoid, and David the stud, and those mealy-mouthed friends of Job’s who would probably have succeeded in boring Job to death if Yahweh had not stepped in just in the nick of time. And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter, such as Judas even. Like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them peculiar as Hell, to put it quite literally, and yet you can’t help feeling that, like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them somehow treasured, too. Why? Who knows? But maybe you can say at least this about it—that they’re treasured less for who they are and for what the world has made them than for what they have it in them at their best to be because ultimately, of course, it’s not the world that made them at all. “All the earth is mine,” says Yahweh, “and all that dwell therein” adds the 24th Psalm, and in the long run, presumably, that goes for you and me, too.”
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Author: Stan Mast
This passage is part of an extended dialogue between the prophet Habakkuk and his God, whose ways with God’s own people are a mystery to the prophet. In the first 4 verses, the prophet passionately voices his complaint to God. In 1:5-11, God answers that complaint with a truth that Habakkuk finds unbelievable. So in 1:12-17, Habakkuk replies that God’s answer to his question and God’s solution to Israel’s problem makes no sense at all.
Then in the rest of our text for today, 2:1-4, we have a short version of God’s long answer to the prophet’s accusation in 2:5-20. He calls on the prophet to walk by faith, even when he can’t figure out God’s answer: “the righteous will live by faith (2:4, a verse that figures prominently in the New Testament and in church history).” This little prophecy concludes in chapter 3 with perhaps the loveliest expression of enduring faith found anywhere in Scripture (especially verses 17-19).
Rather than commenting on each verse of the Lectionary reading or today (particularly the second part), I’m going to share a sermon I once preached on these opening verses of Habakkuk, a sermon entitled, “And God Lets Them.”
The title of this sermon was taken from that famous pre-Civil War anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In that novel there is a scene where a poor slave named George Harris is bitterly numbering the woes afflicted on him and his fellow slaves by merciless slave-owners. Particularly, he laments the fact that no matter what he does, he is always going to be a slave, and his wife and children can be sold away from him at the whim of their master. He cries out, “They buy and sell us, they make trade of our heart’s blood and sweat and tears, and God lets them. He does. God lets them.”
The prophet Habakkuk looked at the world through the eyes of a George Harris, or to be chronologically correct, Harris had on Habakkuk’s glasses. Habakkuk saw the wicked prospering, the righteous suffering, and God doing nothing. And he struggled to hold on to his faith. How can I square my faith in a God of justice with a world that is filled with injustice and horrible suffering?
I can relate to the George Harris’s and Habakkuk’s of the world, and I suspect that you can, too. Habakkuk’s questions and complaints are the deep concerns of our hearts. How do you square your faith in God with the facts of the world? This little prophet is for people oppressed and depressed by the ways of the world. It can teach us how to live triumphantly in times of trouble, how to keep living and believing when there are pieces missing in life’s puzzle. These first four verses explain the prophet’s problem and the prophet’s response, in words that resonate with our hearts.
Even a cursory reading of thee verses reveals what the prophet’s problem was: there didn’t seem to be any justice anywhere. He was prophesying during the last days of the southern kingdom of Judah, about 600 B.C. The northern kingdom, Israel, had already gone into exile. That once proud and powerful nation had been reduced to a fourth-rate power. As I read these verses, I thought about all the bigtime tennis my wife and I watched this summer, where heavy hitters like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and Serena Williams blasted that little yellow ball back and forth. That was Judah. It had become the ball in a game of power tennis between the great kingdom of Assyria to the north and east of Judah, and the nation of Egypt to the south and west. They were smashed back and forth by whichever nation was in power at the time.
That international power match had produced internal chaos. As so often happens when a nation is in decline, this little country was experiencing moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Everywhere he looked, the prophet saw pretty much what you and I see when we look around at 21st Century America. “Violence and destruction are before me,” he says in verse 3. Everywhere he looked he saw people taking advantage of each other, lying and stealing and cheating; people hurting each other with swords or words or money or whatever they had at hand.
As a result of this, he says, “there is strife and conflict abounds.” Everybody was fighting everybody. It was every person for himself or herself. It was one seething mess of self-interest, a special interest group there against a special interest group here, this neighbor against that neighbor, conservatives versus liberals, Democrats against Republicans, the President and the Congress and the courts. “Strife and conflict abound.”
In that atmosphere, he says, “The law is paralyzed. “We know what that is about, don’t we? When there is so much wrong, where do you start to make it right? Another translation of that passage says, “The law is relaxed or slacked.” That is exactly what happened then and what happens now. Think, for example, of the currently contentious problems of illegal immigration or climate change or sexual orientation. When there are so many things vying for our attention and support, what often happens is that we redefine right and wrong. We relax the law. And in the end, “the law is paralyzed.” Doesn’t that describe the gridlock in Washington?
Finally, says the prophet, “justice never prevails.” Of course not. There are some righteous people left, people who want to do the right thing, who want to live by the law of God, and who try to make that happen in their culture. But the wicked are so numerous, and they so surround the righteous that the righteous are hemmed in. So even when the righteous try to make justice happen, justice gets perverted. And so, says the prophet, the righteous suffer, while the wicked prosper, and God lets them.
I was in a Bible Study with a group of twenty somethings the other day. We were studying II Samuel 2, where David’s long struggle with Saul is finally over and David is officially crowned king, but people loyal to Saul want his son Ish-Bosheth to be king. So, a civil war ensues, in which young men stab and maim and kill each other. One of the guys in the group asked, “Where is God in the story? Sometimes, as in David’s life, God intervenes, but so often he just lets the blood flow.” We all said, “It’s still that way today.”
In the Middle East, shadowy insurgents plant bombs all over the countryside and innocent civilians and brave Americans are blown to pieces. And God lets them. He does. God lets them. In some African countries, dictators and rebels hack and stab and commit genocide. In the West Bank, Palestinians and Israelis riddle each other with bullets and rockets. And God lets them. He does. God lets them. Here in the United States, drug dealers peddle death disguised as pleasure, and God lets them. It seems like once a week you read about another mass shooting, and God lets them. Greedy companies ruin the lives of thousands by closing factories and going offshore. And God lets them. The Church of Jesus Christ is filled with people who act like saints on Sunday and like piranhas on Monday, living for possessions and prestige and power, while claiming to follow the principles of peace. And God lets them. He does. God lets them.
Where is the God of justice? That is what Habakkuk cried in his little book. That was his response to what he saw in the culture around him. Where is the God of justice? Specifically, he asks, “How long, O Lord? I cry for help, but you don’t listen. I scream ‘violence,’ but you don’t save.” All this evil and suffering goes on and on and on, and God doesn’t do anything. Oh, Lord, how long? Is there no end, no answer, no justice, no salvation? And why, Lord? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? You could do something, Lord. Why don’t you?
Some of you may know the name of Eli Wiesel. Eli Wiesel survived a Nazi concentration camp. He saw six million of his fellow Jews slaughtered in World War II. In his book, A Jew Today, Eli Wiesel turns to God and says, “Enough! Since you seem to approve of all these persecutions, all these outrages, have it your way. Let the world go on without the Jews. We’ve had it. We quit. Enough!”
That is the temptation we face as we look at the facts of injustice and suffering. We are tempted to say to God, “Enough! We quit. You will have to go on without me, because I no longer believe.” But that is precisely what Habakkuk the prophet did not do. Oh, yes, he cries out to God. He complains to God. He does what some of us have wanted to do in the last weeks and months; go straight to God and question the way things are, the way he runs things, and ask him to give an accounting of the way the world is, under his sovereignty.
Habakkuk asks his “how long’s” and his “why’s,” but he doesn’t give up. He doesn’t say, “Enough, God, I quit.” The prophet remained a believer. As a matter of fact, I am convinced that it is precisely faith that makes us ask “why,” “how long?” It is precisely because we believe that God is just and righteous and holy and merciful and gracious that the injustice and suffering in the world so confuse us. I mean, if you really believe the Gospel, that God is sovereign and God is our Savior, then there simply are those times when you look up to him and say, “God, I don’t get it. Why? How long?”
What you have in Habakkuk is a man of faith taking his questions and complaints not to the neighborhood tavern, not to the local newspaper, not to some television talk show, but to his God. He complains not against God but to God. And, wonder of wonders, God answers him. I mean, actually answers him. Not once, not even twice, but three times. We could spend a lot of time on this dialogue; indeed, I preached 6 sermons on this little book. But for now, I will stop with several observations.
First, I am happy this little book is in the Bible, because it tells us that even believers—no, especially believers—have questions for God. It is not bad. It is not wrong. It is natural for a child of God to ask our heavenly Father, “Why? How long?” As a matter of fact, such questions are often an expression of faith. They are like the little girl looking up at her father, saying, “Daddy, how long until we get to Grandma’s house?” “Why are we going this way?” “Daddy, I don’t understand.”
And if you find that the answers are too long in coming, or if you discover that the answers aren’t intellectually satisfying (as Habakkuk did in 1:5-17), may I humbly suggest that from time to time we need to stop our questions and our complaints. We need to be still and cup the ear of our faith to hear that agonized voice coming to us over the years and over the miles, the voice of the Son of God crying, “My God, my God, why?” When you can’t make sense of human suffering, and you wonder why God’s lets it all happen, think long and hard about God’s suffering for us on a cross.
God’s final word to us in our text for today has echoed through all the hard times of history. No matter how injustice and evil puff themselves up, the righteous, even the confused ones, “live by their faith…” “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).” Amen.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Most of his friends had been hanged. But despite his central role in helping to construct Adolf Hitler’s Nazi nightmare, Albert Speer somehow managed to receive from the Nuremberg trials only a 20-year sentence at the Spandau Prison in Berlin. Not long after arriving in Spandau, Speer met with the prison chaplain. To the chaplain’s shock, Speer said, “I want to use my time in prison well. So what I want to ask you is: Would you help me become a different man?”
The chaplain was savvy enough to know that for Speer to have even a chance of becoming different, he would have to provide full disclosure of his past evils. Whether or not Speer succeeded in doing that is a matter of considerable debate among those who have studied Speer’s writings. Speer’s memoir Inside the Third Reich was praised for its candor when it was first published. But over time people began to see that in actuality Speer may have held back, failing to confess the full scope of his Nazi activities. In fact, Speer probably made use of that age-old trick whereby you acknowledge some truths as a way to distract people from noticing other things you’d rather not talk about.
He talked to avoid speaking.
He laid just enough on the table to keep people from noticing what he was hiding under the table. Alas, it is possible Speer himself was not aware he was doing this. At very least, however, Speer and his spiritual counselors knew that the key ingredient in becoming a different person is forthright confession. Psalm 32 agrees.
Psalm 32 is a powerful poem for three voices as it teaches that the path to beatitude is confession. In a scarred world of sin, we are as often the perpetrators of wrong as we are victims of it. Fight though we may to combat sin, the unhappy fact is that whether you are nine-years-old or ninety, confessing sin is like taking out the garbage: once is not enough–in fact, you need to keep up with the task daily so the house doesn’t start to stink!
True, some days we may have only the spiritual equivalent of a crumpled cereal box and a banana peel to carry out. But there are also those days when the trash has to go out because a chicken carcass and some bacon grease are deliquescing at the bottom of the kitchen trash can. But whether it’s some small lapse or a stunning misdeed, the truly honest among us admit that the core truth of Psalm 32 touches us every day.
Again, the very structure of the psalm makes this clear. Psalm 32 appears to have been written for use in worship. The opening and closing pairs of verses (the second set of which is technically not included in this Lectionary selection) are the “lines” spoken by the priest. The priest begins by claiming that the path to beatitude, the way to be really blessed in life, is to be a person who knows he or she is forgiven by God. Following verse 2 you can almost hear the priest say, “For instance . . .” and then he would point to the person who speaks verses 3-7. This second voice in the psalm then becomes like a living example to substantiate the claim of the opening beatitude. The priest claims in verse 1, “Blessed is the one who knows her sins are forgiven.”
Then just such a person chimes in and says in verse 3, “That’s true! Look at me! When I kept quiet about what I had done, I was miserable. Day and night I was tormented by the thought that there was something out of alignment between the Master of the universe and me. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and so I spilled the beans. And, Voila!, God took away my guilt by forgiving me in something quicker than the blink of an eye!”
Following these wonderful words, the voice of God then bursts onto the scene in verses 8 and 9 (again, just after the RCL would have us quit, so maybe we should preach on the whole psalm), confirming what the penitent person had just said. Things are so correct now between this sinner and God that God can speak tenderly and directly. God is not aloof, sitting off in a corner with his arms crossed over his chest and a stern look in his eye. No, God is tenderly, personally present, offering further instruction so that from here on out maybe life will go a bit better for this person.
Finally, in the last two verses the voice of the priest returns. With a smile on his face, he proclaims that his opening beatitude has now been proven. “Yahweh’s unfailing love, his chesed, his grace, surrounds us. We’re hemmed in by God’s good heart. God’s got us surrounded! There’s no escaping his mercy! And so rejoice! Sing! Be glad! We’ve got a God who makes forgiving us the #1 item on his list of things to do every day.”
Psalm 32 reveals a biblical irony: as grim, dark, and awful as sin is, dealing with this same sin leads to joy! Sin may be the “bad news” of life, it may be every bit the “downer” and “guilt-inducer” that all those trendy preachers who avoid ever talking about sin claim it is. But Psalm 32 is one of a legion of biblical texts which reminds us that the path to lilting joy leads right through sin. Indeed, some of the most effusive passages in the Bible are the ones that talk the most about sin. Because when you’ve got a God who drips with grace like our God does, the bottom line is never just about sin but about how swiftly God forgives sin!
Probably not a few of us could tell a similar story from our own experience. But it is equally probable that many of us could tell an opposite story, either about ourselves or about someone else. If Psalm 32 were a description of how things always go, our world and our lives in it could be significantly better. If it were true that every time we sinned we not only knew it but were plagued by it until we came clean and confessed it, if that’s how things always were, then we might very well find ourselves leading happier lives.
If everyone always confessed their sins to God and to each other, then we maybe would be done with bearing grudges. We would maybe be done with seeing people “get away” with something. It always drives us a little crazy to watch someone hurt another person only to trot away without even the slightest twinge of regret. But if Psalm 32’s description were always accurate, that wouldn’t happen. The person who hurt you would admit it and ask you to forgive him. Also, when it is you who did the wounding, you also would be led to beg for forgiveness. As a result, our mutual life together might go along much better.
Alas, however, Psalm 32 is not a description of how things always go. All of us routinely commit sins that as a matter of fact do not burn our innards like hot wax, that do not cause us to toss and turn on our beds all night long, that do not sap our strength. No, instead we often go on with our lives just fine. Sometimes we even flourish.
And if that’s true even within the community of the church, we know full well that it happens with abandon in the wider world. Lots of people have whole aircraft carrier’s worth of sins which they never acknowledge to God or anyone else. But far from being weighed down, these folks proceed forward in life with a spring in their step, smiling all the way to the bank as shady business deals pay off, tax evasions succeed, extramarital affairs go undiscovered. They not only fail to confess their sins, they fail even to notice them!
Again, that’s not just the case with mafia dons, corrupt corporate CEOs, or playboys. Something similar can happen even to us. More days than not our confessions of sin get no more specific than the generic, “Forgive me for all my many sins, Amen.” Granted, saying even that is better than never confessing at all, but how probing or finally helpful is such anonymous acknowledgment of sin? Do such generic confessions help us feel and so celebrate the wonder of grace? Do empty confessions help us clean up those parts of our acts that are less-than-lovely many days?
We can’t change the past, we often say. That’s a painful truth. How much don’t at least some of us yearn that we could go back and turn left instead of right. We can’t. If, as science fiction movies like to show, if we could travel through time, I suspect the world would end. If time travel were possible, I suspect that most every person in the world would take advantage of it by zipping back to one past moment after the next to change something, to prevent something, to make something better. Eventually there would be so many changes going on in the past that there would be no stable present moment in which to live.
No, we can’t change the past. But God can. Through the alchemy of grace God can take what hurts us and make it better, take what weighs us down and blow it away like a feather. And when God does that–and when does God not?!–the present moment is transformed. Our happiness increases, our love for God mounts higher, our wonder at God’s grace brings an irrepressible smile, and the future looks effervescent with joy.
Psychologists tell us that there is such a thing as “doubling.” On a grand scale this is sometimes accomplished by those who have committed truly heinous crimes. Some of the soldiers responsible for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam thirty years ago viciously put bullets through the brains of women and children and bayoneted suckling infants. How could they live with themselves following such horrors? Well, they doubled themselves. “It wasn’t I who did that but someone else, some nameless “other” person inside my skin. That didn’t come from the core of who I am–it couldn’t have!” Ask some of those soldiers who pulled all those triggers, and they will reply, “I don’t know.”
That is a dramatic example of something we all do to one degree or another. We keep trying to daylight between ourselves and ourselves. In some of the Godfather movies mobsters who had assassinated one another’s sons nevertheless find it possible to be in the same room together, backhanding away those other events as being “just business.” “Sure I had your son killed, but it was just business, right?”
Sometimes we put a similar move on ourselves. Decisions we make at the office on Thursday don’t follow us into the sanctuary come Sunday morning. Or, we manage to slip out of the noose of our own actions by claiming afterwards, “I was misunderstood. My intentions were good! I’m not really an angry person, I just lose my temper sometimes . . . a lot of times . . . OK every day, but I don’t have an anger problem! I love people!”
The Psalm 32 path to beatitude does not go down these roads of denial.
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Author: Chelsey Harmon
I think that a really helpful way to frame a sermon on the lectionary text for today, including if you choose to cover the verses that the lection skips over, is our covenant relationship with God.
A covenant is an agreement between two parties where each makes promises about how they will be to and for one another; it is a bond formed between them that their relationship can rest upon. Covenant is a major overarching metaphor used in Scripture to describe our relationship with God.
In the Old Testament, our covenant relationship with God was formed through his promises and his self-giving love and presence. For our part of the covenant, we were given direction about how to best live as his people—especially through our obedience to the ten commandments. Key forms or examples of God’s covenant with his people are found in his relationships with Abraham, Noah, and King David and his lineage. In each case, God speaks who he is, what he is about, and what he wants for the world while also guiding the human representative in what it means for all of God’s people and how they ought to respond.
In the New Testament, we see Jesus as the covenant incarnate: Jesus is the self-giving love and presence of the divine, and Jesus is the perfectly obedient human. At the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples that his “blood is poured out as the new covenant for the forgiveness of sins for many people,” (Matthew 26.28) transforming our understanding of the covenant through the lens of the cross. Hence, you’ll hear references to the Old and New Covenant.
Of course, the greatest aspect of our covenant (both Old and New) with God is that we human partners break it constantly, and yet, God never does; the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. The confidence that such a truth gives to a believer, and to missionaries like Paul and his companions, is found throughout the New Testament epistles—such as the one before us now.
For instance, the church is described as being “in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Such an identifier places them firmly within the covenant as God’s people. That means that God is with them. What does it mean for God to be with them as they faced persistent persecution? Paul doesn’t say, but he implies what it looks like. It looks like the love that they have for one another that is continuing to grow. It looks like their resolve to continue to seek the Kingdom of God even though it has increased their suffering in the world.
Also consider how Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s thanks is given first and foremost to God because of the believers in Thessalonica. Their thanks centers on what God has been up to in their community as faith—which is a gift from God—has grown abundantly, and for how their community models the love of God in tangible ways. Paul writes that such a focus on thanking God is the “as is right” thing to do because it is Jesus through his Spirit that is actually at work and being seen in their faithfulness and love. This is how the New Covenant works—nothing that we have done, but everything that he has done.
And yet, the reasons behind Paul’s written prayer of thanksgiving would not have happened without the committed willingness of the other partner in the covenant, God’s people as embodied in the community of faith in Thessalonica. Their faithfulness and their acts of love for one another are the ways that the Christians in Thessalonica have said “yes!” to the promises of God, trusting him instead of themselves even though they continue to experience affliction and hardship. Their love continues to grow as they seek to enact the kingdom of God among and with one another, saying “yes!” to trying to live into their end of the covenant relationship. In fact, the transformation that has happened in their community is so remarkable that the missionaries now use it as an example of God at work, sharing their story among all of the other churches as an example of what can be between God and his people.
The skipped over verses have to do with God’s judgement for those who are making things so difficult for the Christian community in Thessalonica. Paul urges them to take comfort and solace in knowing that justice will be served. Again, here is a key trust based on God’s covenantal nature: God is trustworthy enough for such a task because God keeps his covenant. A very pivotal point that Paul makes, however, is that in the covenantal relationship God has with his people, justice for our enemies and foes is served by Jesus and not us. On the day of Jesus’ return—a return that they are all waiting for—Paul tells them that God will repay what needs to be repaid… comfort what needs to be comforted… give relief where it is needed… so on and so forth. God doing justice is part of God’s covenantal promises to us and we can trust him to do what is right.
Verses 11 and 12 pick back up the lectionary selection and expounds upon what the church in Thessalonica can focus on while they wait for Christ’s return: their daily living. Paul writes that the missionaries pray for the church members to be good covenant partners with God. Specifically, they pray that God will make the people worthy of all that God wants them to do, and that God will fulfill in them every good deed and fruit of faith. If the community members submit to the Spirit’s work in these things, then they will be glorifying Jesus’ name and know more fully how they are united to him, in him. This is the epitome of what it means for us to practice covenant faithfulness: God making us worthy and then accomplishing his will through a willing servant, all of it glorifying the name of Jesus Christ.
Grace, by the Holy Spirit, is the glue of the covenant. I once heard Rev. Thomas Gilespie say in a sermon that “Grace is the opening of the Holy Spirit to the human spirit. Faith is the opening of the human spirit to the Holy Spirit.” This has immensely helped me get a handle (ever so small) on grace. Grace isn’t just a solitary act but better understood as the pattern of steadfast behaviour exhibited by our God. Way back in the book of Exodus, God told Moses that he was “God compassionate and gracious, patient, and abundant in love and fidelity.” And the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary captures the picture of grace that unfolds in the New Testament: “Grace is love demonstrated by giving; in the gospel grace is unmerited divine favour, arising in the mind of God and bestowed on his people.”
Everything that Paul and his fellow missionaries pray for the church members in Thessalonica is “according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” First of all, how trinitarian! Second of all, we need just skim through our selected verses to see the grace notes all over them.
God is so compassionate and grateful that he gathers up into himself the whole community of believers. It isn’t just the church in Thessalonica that is “in God”, but every church that Paul and Silas and Timothy go to and tell about what’s happening in Thessalonica is “among the churches of God!” It is God’s grace that makes us worthy before God himself: when God looks at us, he sees the prefect and holy Jesus. And their faith is growing, a sign that they have opened up their hearts to God, and it is now overflowing to others in their community through their mutual love.
It’s almost as though we should expect it. After all, covenants really show their muster and strength in hard times. Why do we bother to make vows if they are always easy to keep? Adding another layer to the whole situation is the fact that much of the persecution that the church in Thessalonica was experiencing was at the hands of the Jewish community. In other words, people of the Old Covenant who were angry that people were coming to believe in Jesus, the New Covenant. As this fledgling community of Christians tried to stand true to the preaching and ideas about God that they heard from Paul, and later on Timothy, they did so among people deeply rooted in the covenant with God but who could not accept the transformed presentation of God’s covenant in Christ. Paul is encouraged by them, and he hopes that they will be encouraged by his encouragement—and even more encouraged by the Encourager, the Holy Spirit.
In his commentary on the both of the Thessalonian letters, Ben Witherington III describes the particular prayer practice that Paul uses in the thanksgiving section as a form of a teaching prayer. He says it’s the kind of prayer a parent prays within their children’s earshot so that the kid will hear what his or her parents wants him/her to do. One can recall these same sorts of prayers we heard at the dinner table: for good grades… for successful careers as doctors and engineers… for well-behaved dates with young men or women… for clean rooms… or for more studious habits! If nothing else, when the Thessalonians heard Paul’s prayer read out loud to them, you can be sure that it was a moment of remembering the standard that their spiritual father wanted to see in their midst!