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Model Living - 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 25th March 2001.

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Let me begin by asking a question: How do you boil a frog? It is not a pleasant thought is it? Neither is it the sort of question you are likely to be asked on ‘Who want to be a millionaire?’ But just in case it is asked and you happen to be the friend they want to phone let me tell you that scientists, being the sad sort of people they are, decided to find out. And so a few years ago experiments were set up with this question in mind. The scientists discovered, not suprisingly, that if you dropped a frog into boiling water, it simply leapt straight out again. So in the words of Baldrick, they devised a cunning plan. They found that if the frog was placed in cold water and the temperature was gradually raised to boiling point, the frog remained where it was because the change had been a matter of such small incremental increases that it didn’t even notice what was happening until it was too late.

So let me ask another question: How do you corrupt a society morally and spiritually? Well, by employing the same method-by slowly eroding the moral values of that society in such a way that hardly anyone notices what is happening until it is too late, when the rot is so thorough that reversal seems almost impossible. You see, like the proverbial frog, over the last fifty years or so, our culture has been subject to a slow, warm death. Little by little we have been acclimatised to accepting values and practices which to any civilised society would be considered unthinkable.

So let’s take the matter of sex. To say that our society is obsessed with sex would be an understatement. It is now integral to advertising something as morally innocent as Wrigley’s chewing gum. The moral thermostat has been gradually increased in such a way that not surprisingly even Christians have been affected. A few years ago, Christianity Today magazine, published the results of a poll showing that in several church singles groups in California - that is, groups of unmarried or divorced people in the 20-35 age group - more than 90% of both men and women had engaged or were engaging in illicit sexual affairs. A slackening in sexual conduct amongst professing Christians is a reality.

But of course this is simply symptomatic of a change in attitudes towards relationships in general because of an erosion of the notion of ‘love’ in its fullest sense. This used to embrace not only sexuality, but a sense of companionship, fidelity, trust, self-giving and self-sacrifice. But all of these things have been replaced- companionship has been exchanged for instant self gratification , self-giving for personal pleasure, and trust has been replaced with suspicion. So no wonder that the comedian Dudley Moore complained that he was busy ‘Looking for meaningful one-night stands’ - of course, they don’t exist.

Intuitively we know that real value and meaning is to be found in a loving relationship. We ‘long to belong’ .But if love is reduced to sex ,which in turn hardly differs from lust, then that lasting relationship is for ever going to elude us and we are forced into a Catch-22 situation from which there is no escape.

But supposing society’s view is wrong? Supposing that deep satisfying relationships are possible and love is redefined not in terms of what we can get but what we can give? Then what? Well, then we can start to function as we were originally designed to function, according to the Creator’s blue-print and in turn discover true freedom and value. And that is precisely what the Gospel offers and brings about. And we see it being worked out in the lives of these young believers in the little Greek town of Thessalonica. So let’s consider what right relationships look like when God sets to work in our lives.

Now in the passage we are looking at tonight, 1 Thessalonians 4, we come face to face with what it means to be part of a counter-culture. We are given a glimpse of a model church engaging in model behaviour in stark contrast to the surrounding culture. For the early Christians, unlike the Romans, there was to be no separation of behaviour from belief. Faith and action went hand in hand-it is the stuff of basic Christian discipleship. In fact what Paul is about to do is to unpack in some detail the practical implications of what he says at the end of the previous chapter in v12 f ‘May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.’

As we have seen, Paul was probably with these folk for no more than three to four weeks. And within that short period he had taught his converts not only the essence of the good news but the essence of the good life. He instructed them not only about the absolute necessity of faith in Jesus Christ but also the necessity of good works which flow from such a faith.

And if we are going to make an impact upon the surrounding culture of our day, so that everyone starts to talk about our faith as they did the faith of these Thessalonians, as we saw in chapter 1, then we need to take seriously the example of Jesus and his apostles in giving plain down-to-earth ethical instruction. The world does not respect us when we simply go with the flow and start accommodating. We are more likely to get a hearing, albeit initially a reluctant one, when we start to speak and act differently. It was a hard, immoral society in which these people lived as it is today. And just as the gospel comes to us in an uncompromising form, as the very words of God which brooks of no compromise ( 2:13), so the way a Christian is to behave comes with the same ‘not-open-to-negotiation’ divine authority, as we see in the first two verses of chapter 4 : ‘Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.’ As he later goes on to say in v8: ‘Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.’ You can’t get it any plainer than that can you? Christian ethics are as absolute and universal as the Gospel itself, that is, they are for all people for all time. So how does this work out?

Well, first of all we must begin by having a right view of ourselves-v3: ‘It is God’s will that you be sanctified.’ In one sense Christians are already sanctified, that is, set apart and different by virtue of believing the gospel. They now belong to God. But there is also a sense in which they are to be caught up in the process whereby they become more and more the sort of people God wants them to be. Christians are different and so are meant to show it. They have already started to live a life which pleases God, but they should not rest on their laurels, they are to do so more and more. To put it at its simplest, if you are a Christian, start acting like one-dare to be different.

But then Paul goes on to outline a right view of sex, vv 3-8. And he does so by starting off with the negative in v 3 which would be better translated: ‘Make a total break with all forms of sexual immorality.’ And that is quite a comprehensive prohibition isn’t it? It rules out sexual intercourse before marriage, sexual intercourse outside of marriage and all forms of homosexual behaviour. It also calls us to use that wisdom in avoiding those things which would lead us in these directions-such as Internet pornography, placing ourselves in compromising situations with members of the opposite sex, especially when combined with other things like too much drink - that, as Paul goes on to point out in v5 is the way the pagan behaves, not the Christian.

Now bearing in mind that such things were going on in the ancient world, as they are today, and that such standards did mark of Christians from the rest of society showing that believers did take their faith seriously not as a hobby but as a way of life, why do many of us find ourselves somewhat embarrassed and awkward about being so clear cut as the apostle Paul? Could it be that we have succumbed to the secular propaganda that saying ‘No’ to illicit sex is repressive and unhealthy? But is the propaganda right? Very few Christians have tackled this question better than the writer C. S. Lewis who said this: ‘ They tell you sex has become a mess because it has been hushed up. But for the last twenty years or so it has not been. It has been chattered about all day long. yet it is still a mess. If hushing it up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right. But it has not. Modern people are always saying, ‘sex is nothing to be ashamed of.’ They may mean two things. They may mean ‘There is nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that the human race reproduces itself in a certain way, nor in fact that it gives pleasure.’ If they mean that, they are right. Christianity says the same. But of course when people say ‘Sex is nothing to be ashamed of’, they mean ‘the state into which the sexual instinct has now got is nothing to be ashamed of’. If they mean that, I think they are wrong. There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food, but there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips... There are people who want to keep our sex instinct inflamed in order to make money out of us. Because a man with an obsession is a man with very little sales resistance.’ Now that was written back in 1944. Can you imagine what Lewis would have written today? And of course he is right, our present preoccupation with sex is not a sign of cultural health but a symptom of social decay.

So positively Paul makes it clear that sex properly understood and practised has a God-given context - monogamous marriage and a God-given style-holiness and honour.

So first, sex has a God-given context: marriage as we see in vv 4-5. Now there is some dispute over how verse 4 should be translated. It literally reads: Each one of you should know how to possess for himself a vessel in holiness and honour.’ The question is: what is meant by the term ‘vessel’? The NIV takes it to mean ‘body’. The RSV taking into account both Jewish usage and Scriptural usage, takes it as a metaphor for ‘wife’. And I think that best fits the context which is all about sexual relations, and the fact that the word translated here ‘control’ (ktaomai) normally means to procure or take for oneself. In other words, Paul is drawing attention to the way Christian husbands should treat their wives, namely that lust should not be confused with love. And that it is only in love, with its proper sexual expression within marriage, that a husband and wife honour one another and so remain holy. It is when when lust becomes the dominant driving force seeking to express itself either before marriage in fornication, or outside marriage in adultery or even within marriage in abuse ,that we act as if we do not know God and so deny our faith.

Let me ask: How many a young Christian girl’s life has been sullied because a young Christian man decided to forget that he ‘knew God’ and act like one of the lads? How many a Christian wife’s heart has been broken and family shattered because a Christian husband mistook infatuation with another woman for ‘real love’ while persuading himself that the wife of his youth no longer cared? How many Christian women have felt cheapened and used because they feel they are only valued for two things -sex and cooking? The woman finds herself locked into a marriage in which the husband shows no tenderness, no sensitivity, no meaningful communication and sharing throughout the day, just demand at night. Do you realise that is to ‘wrong and take advantage’ of a fellow Christian, according to v6 ? And I think ‘brother’ should be taken to include ‘sister’. In other words, such attitudes and actions goes beyond the boundaries set by God - venturing into forbidden territory and taking what is not yours by right. And the Lord, says Paul, will punish men for behaving like this. And as if to underscore the seriousness of it all he adds ‘as I have already told you and warned you.’

Now this doesn’t mean that those who have fallen into sexual sin cannot be forgiven and restored, of course that is made possible by the Gospel which Paul proclaimed and these people believed. That is not Paul’s concern here. Rather the emphasis on living a life which brings delight to our heavenly Father and enrichment to his earthly children - living the good life, God’s way - in short the holy life. Is that what you are seeking to do? Young Christians often ask: what is God’s will for my life. Here it is- be holy, get your sex life sorted out.

But then Paul goes on to spell out what a holy life looks like in forming right relationships: vv 9-12. Look at v 9ff ‘Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.’ You know, sometimes people make Christian ethics for more complicated than they need be. Have you noticed how Paul has brought the basis for a Christian deciding what is right and wrong back to the two great commandments? ‘Love God with all your being’ - or as he puts it in v1 ‘Live in order to please God’, and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ -brotherly love. This is basic Christian living- taught by God himself, the work of the Holy Spirit within us as he leads us to the Scripture to see what in practice such love involves. And notice too there is no point at which we can say ‘ I have arrived’- ‘I have done that, bought the T shirt’ now I can move on to something deeper and more exciting. Why, these people are outstripping everyone else in terms of practical Christian love- showing care for people in Macedonia- miles away. But Paul still says, ‘Yes, but lets have more, and more and more.’

And so Paul goes on in vv 11-12 to specify three down-to-earth ways of showing brotherly love, a love which enriches the congregation.

‘Make it your ambition’, says Paul, or as it could be translated, ‘make it your business’ to what? Lead a quiet life. That is a life which is opposite to frenzied activity - falling over ourselves, rushing from one thing to the next and never taking the time to be quiet, being still before God, drawing on the deep wells of the spiritual resources he provides, cultivating a calm manner. It is lovely isn’t it to meet those Christians which radiate calm - that is what we should all be seeking to be like. So, could I ask: do you take time out to be with God? Or are you for ever running around?

Then, ‘mind your own business’. To be busy is one thing, to be busybodies is another. How many Christians all but ruin the smooth running of a fellowship by interfering in other people’s business instead of getting their own lives sorted out. Often, no doubt, with the best intentions but with disastrous results- with confidences being betrayed and gossip set alight. Are you a peacemaker or a trouble maker?

Finally, don’t trade in on the good will of others thinking, ‘Oh, I will be all right, I don’t have to work, the church will look after me.’ No says Paul, ‘work with your own hands.’ A lazy and idle Christian is a contradiction in terms. And here we have a great biblical balance don’t we, on the one hand we are not to be caught up in a ceaseless round of activity - but be calm, on the other hand we are not to be idle, we are to work. And the aim and result of all of this? ‘So that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody’ - or better still, ‘you will not have any need.’ Because a church like this, an Acts 2 church ,provides for each other and so impresses a greedy selfish world which will invariably ask: what power can produce this? The answer of course is the Gospel.

How will our culture be changed for the good? How will this incessant greed and living only for the now be reversed? Not be government policy. Not by teaching moralism. It will be changed by people like you and me showing what real community, real relationships are. which are God centred and infused with the divine love which Christ alone can give.

 


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