March 20, 2011

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent

1 Thessalonians 4:1-8
Second Sunday in Lent
March 20, 2011
Holy Trinity Anglican Orthodox Church
Powhatan, Virginia

Neutrality is impossible in some things, and Christianity is one of them. You either are a Christian or you are not.  You are either for Christ, or you are against Him.  There is no in between.  Even those who are in Christ are not in neutral.  We are either moving more deeply into God, or we are drifting backward toward ungodliness.  We are like salmon swimming up stream, if we stop swimming, we will be carried back downstream. This is a major point in our Epistle for today, for Paul urges the Thessalonians to abound more and more.

The words, "abound more and more" imply that they are doing well already.  Nowhere in this letter does Paul accuse the Thessalonians of not being Christians.  He does not accuse them of abandoning the faith, as he accused the Corinthians.  He does not accuse them of following another gospel or another Christ, as he accused the Galatians.  Nor does he accuse them of being lukewarm, as Christ accused the Laodocians.  He does not say they are ignorant of the basic truths of Scripture.  He does not say they do not know the Word of God.  He does not say they do not do the will of God. In fact, the Apostle is very generous in his praise of the Thessalonian Church.  He says they know the commandments of God and they know the Gospel of Christ. They received the word of God with great joy, even though they were despised and persecuted for becoming Christians (1 Thes.1:6). He says they recognised the Word of God as the Word of God.  They saw that it was not just another fable, not just another religion, not just another option among countless other options.  They understood it as the truth, "the Word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe" (1:13-14).  What a contrast we see between this church and the congregations of Galatia and Corinth.  What a contrast we see between the Thessalonians and many today who preach the gospel of "me" instead of the Gospel of Christ.

The Apostle says their faithfulness is so well known throughout the region that Christians in other places look up to them as examples to be followed and emulated.  There's a goal for us as a Church and as individuals.  We often apply ourselves to pleasures and amusements with great enthusiasm and energy.  Do we apply ourselves to Godliness with the same?  Can people point to us and say, "There is an example of real Christian faith"? Is that even something we are concerned about?  I am not talking about becoming obnoxious about Christ.  There are too many of that kind of Christian already.  You know the type, the ones who belittle rather than inspire, whose faith is more about talk than action.  The Thessalonians were not like that and we should not be either. I am talking about a different kind of example.  I am talking about an example of faithful and compassionate living that moves us to live quiet and holy lives at home at work and at Church.  This kind of faithfulness does not have to run around shouting, "Praise the Lord" or "Are you saved?"  It simply and quietly lives like a Christian wherever it may be, and does what God has given it to do, whether that is mowing the lawn, or preparing a meal, or going to school and work, or honouring and caring for those in your home and family and Church, and in the wide world beyond.

It may surprise us to find that Paul does not really mention the things we would call "religious" here.  He does not talk about prayer, reading the Bible, or attending the public worship services of the Church.  Some people have concluded that Paul wasn't very concerned about such things; therefore, we should not be either.  Not true.  Paul himself was a man of prayer.  In the opening verses of this letter to Thessalonica he wrote that he and his companions always make mention of the Thessalonians in their prayers (1:2-3).  And this is typical of Paul, for to the Colossians he wrote, "We give thanks to God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you" (Col. 1:3). He was a man of the Bible.  It was Paul who instructed Timothy to "preach the Word" (2 Tim.4:2).  It was Paul who wrote "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  And Paul was a man of the Church.  To whom did he instruct Timothy to preach the Word?  The Church.  To whom did he write his Epistles?  The Church.  What does he tell us not to forsake in Hebrews 10:25?  The Church.  What does he call the body of Christ in Ephesians 4? The Church.  Of what body is Christ the head in Ephesians 5:23?  The Church.  So Paul is not ignoring the religious things.  He is not telling us they are unimportant, or that we may dispense with them.  No, Paul assumes that Christians are doing these things faithfully.  He assumes that we are devoted to prayer, the Bible, and the Church, as he is.  Therefore, he writes to the Thessalonians about the things we often consider the non-religious things, the everyday, mundane things of life.  And his point is that these things are just as much a part of following Christ as the religious things.  In fact the two cannot really be separated in the Christian life.

The only problems Paul mentions to the Thessalonians is that a very small minority of their membership, having become convinced that Christ would return very soon, had quit working and providing for themselves and their families and were developing the habit of expecting others in the church to feed them.  Paul tells them in 2 Thessalonians that those who do not work have no right to eat. Of course he is not talking about those who are unable to work.  He is simply saying that those who can work should work, and if they don't the rest of the congregation is under no obligation to feed them.  I am sure that cured that problem.  A second problem is that some had concluded that, since Christ has forgiven all their sin, they were under no obligation to try to live a godly life. Thus they had started to drift back toward their pagan values, especially in the aspects of sexuality and business.  Paul is concerned to nip this in the bud, and he addresses it in our Epistle for today.  He warns them to repent.  In other places he is going to tell the rest of the Church to shun such people, to excommunicate them.  But to the rest of the congregation, the vast majority of the Church in Thessalonica, Paul gives praise and commendation.  Still, he doesn't say they are perfect.  He lets them know they can still grow in Christ, so he encourages them to abound more and more in the things of God.  In other words, don't put your faith in neutral and don't try to coast to Heaven.  Continue to grow in your understanding of God, and continue to grow in your love and obedience to Him.

As Paul commended the Church of Thessalonica, I commend you.  I commend your faithfulness.  I commend your willingness to leave valued ties and treasured buildings to meet in a library.  I commend your willingness to dig into the Bible and learn more of it and do what it teaches.  I commend your efforts to live up to your calling in Christ in every area of life.  I commend your courageous stand for the Bible and the faith.  And I thank you for your friendship, and the way you have welcomed my family and myself into your lives and hearts.  I see the things of God abounding in your lives, and I rejoice.  But God has still more for you, much more.  So, as Paul urged the Thessalonians, I also encourage you; abound more and more.

Let us pray.

Almighty Father, let us all abound more and more in the things of Christ.  And as Thou "seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul: through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

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