Stand firm - 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17
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A legend from India tells of a mouse who was terrified of cats until a magician agreed to transform him into a cat. That sorted out his fear…until he met a dog. So the magician changed him into a dog. The mouse-turned-cat-turned dog was content until he met a tiger- so; once again the magician came to the rescue and turned him into what he feared. But when the tiger came complaining that he had met a hunter, the magician refused to help. Instead he said, ‘I will make you into a mouse again, for though you have the body of a tiger, you still have the heart of a mouse.’
And we all know people like that don’t we, folk who build up a formidable, tough exterior, but who on the inside are simply wracked with fear? We tackle our anxiety by taking on the appearance of a tiger. We become the very thing we fear, but it does no good in the end. You know for all his power the one man you would have thought was fearless was the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin. Instead he was afraid to go to bed. He had several different bedrooms, each of which could be locked as tight as a safe, sleeping in a different one each night for fear of assassins. In fact, so deep seated was his fear that he employed one servant whose sole task was to monitor and protect his tea bags. Fear is the great paralysis inducer. It robs us of our security; it steals away our sleep and suffocates our joy.
And Christians are not immune from this either and we may think that in some cases with good reason. When you consider the difficulties and opposition Christians around the world have to face, it is quite natural for the question to come into our minds: ‘Would we cope?’ When faced with the loss of job, loss of property, loss of family because of being a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, fear is an understandable reaction. And that was a reaction which the apostle Paul anticipated with the young Christians in Thessalonica. Last week we saw in the earlier part of this chapter that there is to arise someone Paul calls, ‘the man of lawlessness’. Elsewhere he is referred to as the anti-Christ; a man of phenomenal charisma and ceaseless cruelty who will do all within his power to oppose God and his people. In principle these Christians might have had to face him- we might have to deal with him- and when you came face to face with evil on this scale, to be overwhelmed with fear and doubt- wondering whether we will make it to the end- is more than understandable, it is natural. So how are we to handle fear in the face of the unknown? Well, Paul is making a sharp contrast between those in verse 10 who perish because they refuse to love the truth and real Christians who we are told in verse 13 believe in the truth. So Paul is wanting to bolster up our confidence that we are on the right track. And to help us keep on that track Paul gives five reasons to be hopeful and I trust that you will find them as encouraging as I have.
First, says Paul, you have a God who loves you. Look at how he begins the section in verse 13, ‘But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord.’ He is in effect saying, ‘Look, the others who have rejected the truth, who have gone along with the great lie stand condemned- but not you, that is why we can give thanks to God, because you are loved by the Lord’, that is the Lord Jesus. Paul uses a tense here which points to something which has happened in the past whose effect continues to operate in the present. What is that something? You were loved. When where we loved? Well, when Jesus died on the cross for you and bled for you. That is an event which is datable in history. That is a public happening which we can point to and say, ‘There, he did that for me!’ That is why I can say I was loved- way back then- and that love keeps rolling on down, century after century, year after year, month after month, day after day, hour after and it is inexhaustible. And God is not going to let that love come to nothing by allowing us to get hoodwinked and brow beaten by false teachers and anti-Christs.
Then Paul comes to his main point which is secondly, you have a God who chooses you- v13b, ‘because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.’ You know we sometimes talk, don’t we, about making a decision for Christ, and that is all well and good, but here Paul speaks of something far more significant, that is Christ making a decision for us. Have you ever thought of it like that? From the beginning, which I think is before the beginning of anything from our point of view- eternity past- God decided upon saving Melvin Tinker. Why did he do that? Well, why did he decide on rescuing the Jews when there were plenty of other people’s subject to political oppression. Ah, you say, he did that because he had promised Abraham to have a people. But that just pushes the question back one stage, for why did he choose Abraham, there were plenty of other moon worshippers in Mesopotamia back in 2000BC. The short answer is that God simply chooses- that is what he does. Of course he doesn’t have to choose anyone, but he does, and he often chooses the most unprepossessing, awkward, unlikely people not least because that shows we are chosen not because we have merit but because God loves mercy. And there is something reassuring about that. To know that my salvation ultimately rests on God’s choice gives me a kind of security because this God is not fickle changing his mind according to circumstances or even the strength or lack of it of my faith- he simply reaffirms, ‘I have chosen you’. There is a story of a little boy who was being teased in the school playground one day because the other children discovered he was adopted. And this teasing went on for some while when suddenly the little boy turned on his taunters and said, ‘Well, at least my parents chose me, yours had no choice.’ Well, if you are a believer in Jesus, God has chosen you.
But you say, ‘That is easy enough to believe when things are going fine, but when I hit a crisis, when my family are ill, when my daughter goes off the rails, when my church seems less than ideal, I begin to doubt that, so how can I know he has really chosen me?’ Well, look at what this choosing entails- ‘God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.’ In other words, when God chooses you to be saved he brings about changes. There is that internal change brought about by the Holy Spirit disposing you towards holiness, so that things which you used to cling to you now let go of and other things you would have never thought of doing in a million years you find yourself drawn towards like truth telling, sexual fidelity, kindness, prayer, sharing your faith, being in a place like this every Sunday. How do you think those things come about? Well, by a supernatural work of God’s Spirit. But also, there will be new convictions too- ‘belief in the truth’. Sure, you too once thought that Jesus was some past historical figure preaching peace and love like some 1st century hippy, but not now. Now you see him as the Son of God, the one who made this wonderful world you live in, who gives you your very breath. You too thought the church was an irrelevance, a haven for buck toothed curates and cranky women and not a few cranky men. But not now; now you see her as God’s precious family, a bride in the making and a delight to be with. Certainly, you have not got it all together, sure there are things you still haven’t let go of and other things you yet to take on board, but there has been some changes haven’t there? So, be amazed and encouraged because that means God has chosen you.
Thirdly, you have a God who calls you-v 14, ‘He called you to this through our gospel that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ This calling is what God does when he puts his choosing into effect, in other words this is what God does in order to make you into a Christian. Now, it may happen over a period of time as you come along here Sunday by Sunday until eventually the penny drops- and you say, ‘Yes, now I see it and I have to do something about it- make me yours Lord Jesus, take me, I want to follow you.’ It can come as you are having a chat with a Christian friend over coffee at the kitchen table, or it can come as with my Dad as he was lying on his death bed fighting for breath. As the Christian message is explained, God speaks through it and makes it personal- he calls you. I am sure that you, like me, receive junk mail and I don’t know if the people who send these things out think I am dim, but there seems to be the belief that by printing my name at the top I am going to be hoodwinked into thinking these people have a personal interest in me. ‘Dear Melvin, you have been chosen to be the winner of a new Fiat Uno and all you have to do is phone this number to claim the prize’. Yes, me and 2,000 other suckers. Well, when the Gospel comes to us it isn’t like that. It is more like receiving a personal, handwritten letter from a loved one full of affection and promise, such that your heart is stirred and you say, ‘This is for me, God loves me, God wants me!’ And if you find that happening to you- even this morning, embrace it because God is calling you.
Fourthly, Paul says you can stand fast because you have a God who teaches you, v15, ‘So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings, we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.’ You see it would be so easy up to this point to misunderstand what Paul is saying. Some folk point to all of what God has done and say, ‘Well, if God loves me, chooses me and calls me, then I can put up my feet and relax- just “let go and let God”’. But that is not the conclusion Paul draws, quite the opposite- ‘So then- in the light of this- what are we to do?- ‘stand firm and hold on to the teachings.’ Because Jesus has taken hold of us we are to hold on to him and we do that by paying attention to what he has to say through the Bible. For the Thessalonians they were in a position to hear the apostle’s first hand and have letter’s written by them. But we have the same access they had but simply through the letters and the Gospels. If we hold on to these, read them, understand them, practice them and pass them on to others as our Sunday school teachers are doing right now-then we shall make it to the end, because it is those who go along with false teaching, the lies and halve truths that won’t make it-v12.
So let me tell you about Henry Dempsey who was flying his 15 passenger Beechcraft 99 turboprop from Lewiston Maine to Boston when at 4,000 feet he heard a noise in the back of the plane where the rear stairs are. He turned the controls over to his co-pilot and walked back. The plain hit turbulence and knocked him against the door and- horror of horrors- it fell wide open and Dempsey was sucked part way out, fell face down on the steps, and grabbed for something—anything that might save his life. He caught a railing and held on. The co-pilot thought he had fallen out and diverted the flight to a nearby airport. When he landed, they found him with his face 12 inches off the runway and with his hands so tight around the rails that his fingers had to be pried open.
What is the point of that story? Well, it is this: the life and death grip with which Henry Dempsey held on to the stair railing at the back of that Beechcraft turboprop is the kind of grip we should have on the teachings of the apostle Paul handed down to us in the New Testament. Let me tell you that the wind and the suction and the gravity and the noise that swirled around Henry Dempsey and tried to pull him to his destruction was less dangerous than the mystery of lawlessness that is swirling around us today, even within our own denomination, and which will someday become even stronger when the antichrist appears. And what is more the stakes are greater, because the mystery of lawlessness and unbelief is sucking us not to physical death in the Atlantic Ocean, but to eternal destruction in hell. That is why Paul says what he says and why we have a tremendous responsibility to teach and hold on to the truth. As we hold on to the truth then God holds on to us.
But the temptation, especially when we feel we are up against it is to try and hold on to other things and find our security elsewhere- in our job, our home, our money, our drinking-whatever we think will get us through. But let’s go back to the experience of Henry Dempsey for a moment. Just supposing as he lay there upside down part way out of the plane at 4,000 feet over the Atlantic with his fingers clinched around the rails and every fibre of his brain devoted to holding fast—suppose his credit cards and his hundred dollar bills started to fall out of his pocket. What would he do? What would he feel? We all know what he would do and what he would feel. He would do nothing but hold on to the railing. And he would feel freer from the love of money than at any time in his life. And what is the lesson in this? When, by faith, you take hold of the rail of God's truth, and you love it because it's your only hope in the world, that faith is the power of God's Spirit to purify your life—your money-life, your sex-life, your professional-life, your leisure-life. God chose you to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.
But finally and most wonderfully says Paul, you have a God who graces you-v 16, ‘May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word’ This is really a prayer of Paul, and so underscoring that God’s sovereign care for his people and prayer for his people go hand in hand. What God has promised, Paul prays for, and so are we to do the same. And notice how the Lord Jesus Christ and God the Father are placed on the same level- Jesus is equally divine with the Father. And although distinguished from one another they are so united that all that follows is in the singular- ‘who loved us ( which ‘who- the Father or the Son’ both) and gave us grace. It is all unmerited and this sustaining grace comes to every single one of his children not just the super Christians. And what does this grace do? We are told that it gives us eternal or endless encouragement and good hope, encouraging us in every good work and word. The word translated encouragement is quite a strong word. It is not the ‘oh so very English, cheer up old chap’ type of encouragement, it means strengthening, a fortifying so that we can get the job done. In the Bayeux tapestry relating the Battle of Hastings from the Norman’s perspective there is one figure in the battle, which I think is of a bishop on his horse with a sword prodding the bottom of one of the Norman soldiers and the caption underneath reads, ‘The Bishop encourages a soldier’. That is the kind of encouragement that God has in mind here. It is a strengthening of the heart, it is the giving of the ability to go on when we feel we can no longer do so, but we do.
Really? Well, yes. So let me end by telling you about Robert Reed. Once Robert said, ‘I have everything I need for joy.’ Which was quite an amazing statement really given his condition for his hands were twisted and useless. He couldn’t bathe himself or feed himself or dress himself. His shirts were held together by Velcro and his speech drags like a worn out cassette. Robert, you see, has cerebral palsy and is a Christian. His disease prevents him from driving a car or riding a bike or even taking a walk. But it didn’t stop him from graduating from University with a degree in Latin or becoming a missionary in Portugal. He moved to Lisbon back in 1972, rented a hotel room and started to learn Portuguese. He found a restaurant owner who would feed him and a tutor to help him learn the language. Then he stationed himself daily in the park where he distributed leaflets for Christ. Within six years he led seventy people to the Lord, one of whom became his wife. His shirts may have been held together by Velcro, but I tell you this, his life was held together by grace. Five reasons to be hopeful. Let us pray.
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