Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Sex, ambition and living to please God (1 Thessalonians 4:1-12)

Why would you want to please God?

You should want to please God because God can be pleased.  Before we became Christians it was impossible for us to please God.  Our hearts were hostile towards him.  Our guilt, which affects everything we do, was held against us.  But in Christ this guilt is removed and our heart is changed.  God is now always on your side.  He may not be pleased with everything you do, but he always takes pleasure in the fact that you are his.  You are the apple of his eye, and the very thought of you gives him joy.  As his child, he delights in your most imperfect attempts to please him.  He is not like a sort of critical parent who is hard to please.
We should want to please God because we have seen his beauty.  The most important thing you can do every day is to remind yourself how wonderful God’s love is.  God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.  This is love, not that we loved God but he loved us and gave his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sin.  The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me.  We love because he first loved us and we want to please him because of that love.
We should want to please him because our pleasure is found in seeking his pleasure.  Before we understood grace, we saw God as the enemy of our happiness.  We thought of God as demanding, if we thought of God at all.  We hoped that we might get to heaven if we obeyed him enough.  But there is nothing delightful about obeying a graceless God, and it is impossible to enjoy living for a God we do not love.  However, when we experience his kindness, then we realise that his pleasure is always in line with our good.  Every pleasure we seek apart from his is bound to disappoint us.  Every pleasure we seek in him will bring him glory.  He is the most loving of Fathers who knows what is best for his children.
Having told you why you should please him, I must tell you how you can please him.  
A year before this letter was written, the Apostle Paul had spent less than a month with the Thessalonians.  While Paul was with them we instructed you how to live in order to please God … Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord to do this more and more (1).  He turns his attention to the areas of sex and ambition.
Good sex is God’s gift (3-8)
God is not anti-sex, he is pro-sex.  I used to have one book entitled, ‘Sex, romance and the glory of God.’  I gave the last couple I married a book to read called, ‘A Celebration of Sex.’  I remember my mother embarrassing me as a teenager as she read verses to me from the Song of Songs.  The Bible celebrates sex between a man and woman in marriage.  God does not blush, but smiles, when he sees a married couple giving each other sexual pleasure.
However, our society has degraded sex.  It has ignored God’s instructions concerning this most precious gift.  It has made sex something cheap rather than precious.  We all know the pain of this because each of us knows the shame caused by our own sexual sin, whether in thought or in physical actions, whether as we look at someone on a screen or compromise with them in person.
Ours is not the only sexually dysfunctional culture.  Paul was writing from Corinth to Thessalonica—two cities known for sexual immorality.  Thessalonica was associated with the worship of deities called the Cabiri, whose worship included ritual prostitution.  In that culture it was widely accepted that men would not limit themselves to their wife as their sexual partner.  It was not uncommon to have a wife, a mistress, a slave you had sex with, and if that was not enough for you, to go and visit prostitutes.  The Thessalonian Christians lived in a society where chastity was an unknown virtue.  As one commentator points out, ‘they had to unlearn what their society considered “natural”.’  Never read the New Testament and consider that it is naïve about sex or that is was easier to obey then than it is now!
Paul tells us to ‘make a total break with all forms of sexual immorality’ (Tinker).  This command rules out all forms of sex outside the bounds of the marriage between one man and one woman.
You may have coveted another woman’s husband, you have lingered over images on your computer or television screens, your eyes have checked out that jogger.   Often, people, particularly men, feel a sense of helplessness in this area.  We can give up and stop seeking God’s help.  We need to ask God for a greater desire to please him in this area of our lives.  We may need to open up to a caring Christian friend, ask them to hold us accountable and seek their support in prayer.
Love for God always goes hand in hand with love for people.  So Paul urges us not to wrong, or take advantage of, a brother or sister in the area of sex.  Sleep with a woman before she is married and you rob something from her marriage bed—even if it is you who marries her.  Sleep with another woman’s husband and you have stolen something very valuable from him.  You will also leave the partner you are sleeping with feelings of shame, regret and guilt.  So much that happens in the name of love is anything but love!  When a married man flirts with a married woman, he betrays his spouse and encourages her to betray hers.  When you watch porn, you are engaging with an industry that degrades people.  When you lust over a person’s shape you are devaluing them and seeing them only as an object.  You are also hurting yourself and weakening your love for your spouse.
I want you to hear grace as I challenge you.  Sexual sinners were drawn to Jesus because he told them of a forgiving God.  We dishonour God when we live in shame for the sins that he has forgiven.  We also dishonour God when we feel too defeated to look to him for strength.  But Jesus loves us too much to have us carry on in sin.  Remember the woman caught in adultery, Jesus did not condemn her, but he did command her to ‘go now and leave your life of sin’.  Indeed, one of the things we need to do is to keep on seeking to grow in purity.
When a young man comes to me and admits that he is struggling with lust I feel sympathy and assure him I know how he feels.  We should meditate on the beautiful Saviour whose blood goes on cleansing us from all sin.  We should encourage each other to look to God for strength and not give up the battle for purity.  But when I meet a person who thinks that they can do as they like sexually, who takes this issue lightly, and who consider Christian values a little extreme, then I worry for their very salvation, for Paul says that those who disregard this teaching disregard God, and that God will judge those who do not seek grace in this area of their lives.
There is nothing wrong with being ordinary (9-12)
The churches of the New Testament were often wonderfully generous places.  They worked together to provide for the poor, especially the poor Christians.  But a problem had emerged in Thessalonica.  It seems that what had happened is that some rather immature Christians had heard Paul’s teaching on Jesus’ return, assumed that it would happen very soon, and given up their jobs while they waited.  ‘After all,’ they thought, ‘what is the point of breaking your back at work if everything is about to be wound up.’  The thing was that these same people were demanding that those in the church pay for their keep.  So Paul tells them to get a job, in order that you will not be dependent on anybody.  Of course he is talking about those who can work and refuse to work, not those who would like to work and can’t find a job or are disabled.
Instead of being selfishly idle they are to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that you will win the respect of outsiders, and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.  Greek culture despised manual labour, and thought of it as being fit only for slaves.  But the apostle Paul was content to work at mending tents as he followed the example of his beloved carpenter.
Idleness is awful, so is selfish-ambition.  We are called to be humble and content.  There is nothing wrong with ordinary.  We should be happy to be a part of an ordinary church, full of ordinary people, to do ordinary tasks, and to make a name for Jesus by not having to make a name for ourselves.  Ordinary remembers the matchless humility of Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing; taking the form of a servant … and humbling himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
In the 1920s George Mallory took part in the first three British expeditions to Mount Everest.  He was once asked why he wanted to climb that peak, and he famously replied, ‘because it is there!’  On another occasion he wrote to his wife saying, ‘dearest … you must know that the spur to do my best is you … I want more than anything else to prove worthy of you.’  Sounds great until you hear what his son wrote later in life.  ‘I would so much rather have known my father than to have grown up in the shadow of a legend, a hero, as some people perceive him to be.’  
What makes sex and work pleasing to God is when they are used to bless people and not harm them.  Seek your pleasure in sex and ambition, apart from God, and you will end up hurting yourself and others.  See that God is gracious and loving, and you will trust him to know what is best for you.  Thank God that the blood of Jesus goes on cleansing us in these areas of our life.  Seek his strength to find your pleasure in pleasing him.  

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