Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Chosen to be different (1 Thessalonians)

A long time ago in an English town, a faithful church ran a Sunday school.  One week their little group was joined by a young boy who caused lots of trouble.  But he kept on coming and eventually invited Jesus into his heart.  A few weeks later he came back with a little girl, who had a sign around her neck.  The sign read, ‘we don’t know what you have done for Johnny.  Can you please do the same for his sister?’  This morning we are going to see how the gospel radically changed a bunch of people in Thessalonica.

Thessalonica was an important city of around a hundred thousand people in what is now modern Greece.  Paul, Silas and Timothy had visited.  As they shared the good news about Jesus, some Jews, a large number of God-fearing Gentiles and not a few prominent women became Christians.  However, trouble soon erupted.  
You see, the Jewish authorities became jealous and so they recruited a gang of thugs who started a riot.  They stormed the house of Jason, where Paul and his companions were staying.  But they were not there.  So they marched Jason and a few of the other new Christians down to the magistrates and made a most serious accusation.  ‘Paul and his friends have caused trouble all over the world and now they have come here.  Jason has welcomed them into his house.  They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.’
Jason and his friends were released on bail and that night, under the cover of darkness, the Christians sent Paul and Silas out of the town.  Their visit to Thessalonica had lasted less than a month.  The year was A.D. 49.  You can read the story in Acts 17.
Now Paul was concerned for the young church at Thessalonica.  He wasn’t able to return to them, but he sent Timothy to find out how they were getting on.  When Timothy next caught up with Paul he was able to give them a good report that warmed Paul’s heart.  However, there were some problems.  There were people criticising Paul, saying that he was insincere and did not care enough to return to them.  There was also confusion on such issues as the Lord’s return and sexual immorality.  So a year after visiting them, writing from Corinth, Paul pens what is the second oldest book of the New Testament.
The Thessalonians were a persuaded people (1-3)
In the book of Acts, when Paul came to Thessalonica he reasoned from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead.  ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’  The people were persuaded to join Paul.  True faith never by-passes the mind on the way to the heart! True faith is never just an emotional experience.  However, true faith is never confined to the heart.  Some of you put too much emphasis on the emotions, but others don’t engage your emotions at all.
Paul now tells them about how he remembers them in his prayers.  We give thanks to God always for all of you … remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.  Like that little boy, who went to that Sunday school in England, the gospel was changing them from the inside out.  Their life focused upwards towards God, outwards towards people and forwards towards Jesus’ return.
I say forwards towards Jesus return because this letter majors on that theme.  I find that one of the greatest challenges of this letter.  I am so comfortably at home in this world, that I never pray, ‘Come, Lord Jesus’, the way the early Christians did.  Yet there are around three hundred references to the second coming of Jesus in the New Testament, which accounts for almost one in every thirteen verses.  The Thessalonians did look forward to Jesus’ return in part because they were being persecuted.  They wanted God to come and bring justice and comfort to his people.  
Look through the history of the church and you will see that the most effective Christians always had this steadfastness produced by their hope in the Lord Jesus.  Like the social reformer, Lord Shaftsbury, who explained that ‘over the last forty years there are not two hours of the day that I do not think of the coming of Jesus.’  Remembering that Jesus is coming back again should put everything in perspective.  It should shape our priorities.  It reminds us that so much of what we value will have no lasting value.  It should motivate us to be doing those things that will have eternal significance.  It prompts us to warn people to be ready.  It gives us peace when the world is shown to be against God’s people.
The Thessalonians were a chosen people (4-5)
For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you.  How do we know that they were chosen?  We know that they were chosen because the Holy Spirit enabled them to respond to the gospel.  There are many issues raised by the issue of God’s choosing people to be saved.  You will have to live with some level of mystery on this.  But the issue is raised here to humble and comfort us.
It humbles me because I can take no credit for my salvation.  I did not chose him, he chose me.  It wasn’t my decision, it was his.  I can take no credit it for it.  It was not because I was good, for I was a rebel.  He simply chose to set his love and me.  And because he has chosen me in love, I am comforted, for he will not chose someone and later un-chose them.  Having set his love upon our unworthy souls, he has committed to keeping us to the end.  One humble old lady explained to John Newton, ‘if God did not choose me before I was born, I am sure that he would have seen nothing in me to have chosen me afterwards.’

The Thessalonians were a transformed people (6-10)
Just as it did for little Johnny, this gospel that told them about God’s amazing love for them, turned their lives upside down.  

To start with, you became imitators of us and of the Lord.  They were copy-cats of those who followed Jesus.  You received the word in much affliction.  Getting a hard time for being a Christian is actually normal for those who are being saved.  They were persecuted for their faith, but that did not stop them from believing that this was the best news ever.

For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone everywhere, so that we need not say anything.  The verb translated ‘sounded forth’ is related to the word echo.  It is a word that can be trumpet call or even a roll of thunder.  Their witness echoed and thundered through the hills and valleys of Greece.  Christians from miles away said, ‘we want to be like them!’  Non-Christians told Paul, ‘we have heard of the amazing transformation in them.’

I imagine that if I was to ask any one of you how God brought you to faith, not only would you tell me about how you came to see that the message of the cross was good news, you would tell me of people who showed you the power of that good news in their life.  John Stott says that ‘we need to look like what we are talking about.’

They had turned from idols—an idol being anything that threatens to take the place of God in our lives.  I don’t know about you, but my greatest idol is ‘me’.  I am obsessed about myself, my reputation, what others say about me, my popularity, my silly little ambitions, and so on.  Like all idols, the idolatry of self is slavery.  Tim Keller writes a wonderful little book you all should read entitled ‘The Freedom of Self-forgetfulness.’

Now they were waiting for his Son from heaven, whom he has raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

Finally, remember that the Thessalonians were a persecuted people.  The witness echoed all the more loudly because their faith and love blossomed against the backdrop of suffering.  At the time I was working on this sermon, I was dealing with the fact that someone seemed to have a real dislike of me and my family.  Of course, the little trial we were facing was nothing compared to the hostilities the Christians at Thessalonica had to put up with.

But I was struck by how opposition can be turned to good.  Let that insensitive relative, rude neighbour or difficult work-colleague drive you to pray.  Let them remind you how much you need your fellow-Christians.  Let them help you see that you are completely dependent on the Holy Spirit if you are going to respond to them with love.  They don’t deserve your kindness, but then you didn’t deserve God’s.  Let the discomfort of their hostility make you look forward to the day when Jesus comes and comforts you.  Allow them strengthen your faith so that the great name of Jesus echoes more loudly through the hills and valleys of Munster.     

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