Grateful and quite right too - 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 26th April 2009.

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If I say the name Susan Boyle, how many of you know what I am talking about? She was the surprise contestant on the first show of the new series of Britain’s Got Talent. She wanted to be like Elaine Page and sang ‘I dreamed a dream’ from Les Miserables.

How quickly we judge people by what is on the outside rather than what is truly on the inside.

Our culture is obsessed with outward appearance. Style and beauty. It was a wonderful feel good moment and a valuable lesson to be reminded of.

What I would like to do this morning is apply this principle to help us understand what Paul writes in verse 3 of this opening chapter of his second letter to the Thessalonians.

“We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.”

We’ll learn more about this church over the next few weeks. We’ll learn that they were suffering simply for being Christians, they were very confused about the end of the world and they had a number of people who had stopped working and were sponging off the rest of the congregation. Paul will address each of these issues in turn. But straight away he tells them that he is full of thankfulness to God for their growing faith and increased love.

Does this strike you as odd? It is rather strange when you think about it. Why does he thank God for their growing faith and increased love? Why does he not congratulate the Thessalonians? Surely they are the ones responsible for their growing faith and increased love? Yes God may have expected it and yes God certainly demanded it but are they not responsible for achieving it? Why does God get the thank-yous when the Thessalonians seem to have done all the hard work?

To understand this we need to make a right judgement about our true spiritual and moral condition. It is far too easy to make the wrong kind of judgement. A superficial judgement based on appearances. Humans can put on a good show but inside is what really counts.

What are we really like? The human heart is a wicked and selfish place. Full of doubts and self-centred ambitions. Even as Christians this is true. And yet as Christians we are expected to trust God and love our brothers and sisters in the Christian family. But how? By ourselves we don’t have the ability.

And yet is this not what we see all the time. We see Christians growing in their faith and increasing in their love. In this congregation. It is a great joy to see it.

How? How is this possible? If our hearts are so full of self-reliance and self-obsession then how can this change be?  You could try and say maybe they’re not all that bad but the Bible will not allow us to say that. It moves us in a different direction. It teaches us that God is not only the one who makes the demands but also the one who is responsible for the changes we see in our spiritual and moral condition. And so he deserves all the glory and the praise.

I’m aware that people are at different levels of spiritual understanding this morning so I thought I would give you a little tip. If you want to know more about the Thessalonian church here is what you can do. The Bible is a connected book so one part helps us to understand another part.

•    Go to Acts 17:1-9
•    1 Thessalonians.

I want to show you something which helps to reinforce what I’ve just said about who is responsible for this improvement in their faith and love. We discover this when we read the Bible as a connected book.

Look with me at 1 Thessalonians 3:12, “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other for everybody else, just as ours does for you.”

That’s what he prays. The next time he writes he is able to thank God for answering his prayer.

It’s important to say that that although God is the one who grows our faith and increases our love he does not do our believing for us or do our loving for us. We still have the responsibility to have faith and to love. But what Paul is saying is that God is the one who gives us the ability to grow in faith and increase in love.

Perhaps a helpful illustration is from a scene in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus meets a man with a withered hand. It’s there in Matthew 12. Jesus asks him to stretch out his hand. But he can’t. It’s the big thing he would like to do but cannot. Jesus will not stretch it out for him. But as he chooses to stretch so Jesus will somehow give him the ability to do it.

It’s the same with our faith and love. God will give us the ability to change but we are the ones commanded to have more faith and to love each other increasingly.

At this point let me say what this means in practice. This is much misunderstanding about Christian faith and Christian love so let me try my best to articulate clearly what the Bible expects from us.

Let’s take faith first of all.

When the Bible speaks about faith it means trusting in a reliable person or a reliable thing. When it applies to God it means trust in a God who is utterly trustworthy and reliable.

Has God given us any evidence that he can be trusted? Not only that he is real but that he can be trusted. Of course he has. Look how the countless promises he has made have been fulfilled. The promise to Abraham that he would give him many descendents. The promise that he would rescue his people from Egypt. The promise that he would take his people into exile. The promise that he would send a Messiah, born in Bethlehem, who would preach powerfully, do miracles, be pierced for our transgressions and who he would raise from the dead. Did he do all these things? Yes.  He is a God who can be trusted.

Faith simply means putting our trust in the God who has demonstrated that he is trustworthy.

This is a dynamic thing. Our trust in God goes up and down. God never changes but our perception of who he is does.

The problem is with our hearts. Why does the Bible repeatedly warn us not to worry? Because our hearts are full of doubts, insecurities and fears. We find it hard to trust God. Therefore, what we need is for God to give us the ability to trust him more.

How did Paul know that their faith was growing? There must have been evidence that he saw. What kind of things should we look for?

•    When our feelings or thinking say something and God’s word says something else we trust God’s word.
o    In the area of sexual relationships. Don’t date a non-Christian. Don’t marry a non-Christian. Faith trusts the word of God.
o    Coming to church. What do we do when we feel
o    Through tough times. God’s word says God loves you and is using this for your greater good and his greater glory. We trust God’s word.

Let’s be praying for increased faith in our trustworthy God and thank him when we see the evidence.

What about Christian love? What does God expect from us?

The love every one of you has for each other is increasing.

A passionate desire to see the other person flourish.

The desire that each of you has for everyone else to flourish is increasing.

How did Paul know? He is not saying that as soon as anyone walked into the church they were greeted by kisses and sentimental words.

People really cared for the welfare of everyone else. Physically, emotionally and spiritually. It really mattered to them. They did things to show they cared.

When God commands us to love each other he is not asking us to say I love you to each other all the time but to show our care in visible ways.

We know that the one who really cares will not just say it but demonstrate it with actions. In marriages when a husband keeps on saying he loves his wife but never spends time with her and never asks her how she is.

The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us what it means to love. It’s practical, it’s other person centred, it’s costly and sacrificial.

What might this look like for us?

•    Our conversation and decisions are not dominated by our own wants. We care and listen.
o    Small groups. It is a delight to hear good things from our home groups.
•    We turn up regularly. We will do this if we love each other. Not simply is it good for us it’s good for others.
•    Meeting with someone outside church hours. It will be sacrificial. We’ll have to give up something else.
•    Giving financially.
•    Giving of your time.
•    Giving of your knowledge. One-to-one. Do a Bible overview with a new Christian.

All this can happen without any strong feelings or affections for another. If we wait until then it may never happen. But what seems to happen again and again is that when we start doing these things the feelings and affections come.

How can we behave like this? God needs to change us and let’s thank him when we see the results.

Whatever else the Thessalonians were struggling with their faith was growing and their love was increasing. They are very much a model to us. That’s why Paul’s boasts about them. There is this vertical and horizontal dimension to his speech.

Let’s us seek to copy their example. Let us be encouraged that we are seeing these thing. Let us thank God for his grace. But let us keep on praying that God will keep on transforming us so that our faith will grow and the love every one of us has for each other will increase.


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