Student Guest Service - 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10
I wonder if you have ever been taken in by a practical joke. Well some years ago, two students decided that they would try and pull off a practical joke in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The first student, a man called Willie Rushton, stealthily put a label on an ordinary plug socket in one of the galleries which read: 'Plug socket, designed by Hans Plug (born 1908).' Meanwhile, his friend, Nicky Bird, with equal cunning, labelled an ordinary bench which tourists used to sit on whilst admiring the other exhibits. His notice read: 'The Bennidorn Bench, designed by the Marxist minimalist Van Der Pohe, around 1958. Van Der Pohe, the fake label went on to explain, believed in the primacy of shoddy goods. 'Cheap and cheerless' was his catchphrase. Here he has fashioned something uncomfortable out of vinyl and Formica to discourage loitering.' Well having positioned their two labels, the students took a bet on whose label would last longer. After two months, Van Der Pohe was discovered by the museum not to have existed, but Hans Plug remained for over a year, much to the annoyance, apparently, of the poor cleaner who had to use a huge extension cable so as not to damage the exhibit.
Well there are many fraudsters in our world aren't there, and none more so in the realm of religion, particularly, it is sad to say, in Christianity. You only have to flick through some of the satellite TV channels to see the slick TV evangelists telling their viewers that they can have health, wealth and prosperity, if only they will part with their cash and send it to this particular evangelist. But on a more popular level there are many who would claim to be Christians and yet whose lives bear no resemblance to the Christian life which the Bible tells us about. So what is authentic Christianity like? What makes a real Christian?
It may be that you have come to St. John's tonight, dragged here by some friend, and you are mildly interested to find out the answer to that question. Your Christian friends appear to live for something that seems quite attractive. And you are asking, is it really worth my while to spend my life pursuing what Christians call a relationship with God? Just what is it all about? Or maybe you are a student who is about to leave Hull. You need to be reminded of the priorities you must set if you are to survive as a Christian outside of university life. For the decisions you make in the next few weeks and months about Jesus Christ and how he impacts your life will affect the rest of your life. Either you will be serious about Christ, or else you'll find that this Christian commitment was just a passing phase which you experienced when you were young at university. And for the rest of us, those who have been Christians perhaps for longer, we too need to keep making sure we are walking the way of true Biblical Christianity.
And to help us answer all these questions, we're going to look at a few verses from a letter written by a man called Paul to some Christians living in northern Greece. Paul was a travelling missionary and he had helped to found this small church in Thessalonica, home now to many a cheap hotel and English fish and chip outlets. But all those years ago, there was a small group of Christians seeking to live Christian lives in an atmosphere of great hostility. And Paul reminds them in these verses, which you'll find on your sheets, of just what has happened to them. And he's encouraging them to keep going in the Christian life, because they are true Christians. And Paul says that they display three characteristics of true Christians which we'll look at together tonight. So what makes a true Christian?
1) A New Direction
2) A New Ambition
3) A New Perspective
1) A New Direction
So the first quality that these Thessalonian Christians had was a new direction. Have a look at the first verse on your sheet. Paul is saying how all the Christians in Greece are talking about these Thessalonians, and he says: 'They say how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.' Now these Thessalonian Christians were literal idol worshippers. The Greeks had dozens of different gods that they worshipped, everything from the goddess of love to the god of the sea. And they would have had statues that they bowed down to and worshipped. But of course, we are a long way from that. Surely we don't worship idols like that! But before we go too far, it's worth doing a little test. If I were to ask you what your ambition in life is, unless that ambition involves the desire to serve Jesus Christ as Lord, then your ambition is an idol, according to the Bible. It doesn't matter how good it may seem. Unless your chief ambition is to serve Jesus Christ as Lord, the Bible says you're an idolater, albeit a 21st century, sophisticated one. You're still an idolater. And there are many idols in the 21st century. Careers, cars, houses, even family or relationships. I guess at this time especially we are aware of how much sport is an idol. In fact, I found out recently that things have been taken a step further in Thailand, where in one Buddhist temple there is actually an idol of David Beckham, though the staff of the temple have been quick to point out that Beckham is a minor deity. However, this is what the temple abbot, Chan Theerapunyo had to say: 'Football has become a religion with millions of followers. So to keep up with the times, we have to open our minds.' And this is the 21st century! And if any of these things take you away from Jesus Christ, be it sport, career, house, or family, then they are idols. And it is even possible for practising Christians to be idolaters. And if you are a Christian and something is getting in the way of your relationship with Christ, then that something must go, it must be put second to Christ and his ways, however good and honourable it may be.
And the problem with idolatry is that it stops us from being the people we were meant to be, people in relationship with the God who made us, and we become people living for ourselves, with no reference to God. And it's amazing how far we will go to promote ourselves. Job application forms are a good way of seeing how we view ourselves. Often we tell a few little lies just to make ourselves look better than we really are. For instance, one secretary applying for a job claimed that she could type at 756 words per minute, which if you think about it is almost thirteen words a second. Or there was one gentleman applying to be an accountant who submitted a 43 page CV, which included a reference from his old Scout Leader, his first aid certificate, and a photograph of his wife and child.
But when God looks at us, he can see through all the hype we claim about ourselves. His X Ray vision can see right into the heart, and what he sees there is a heart in rebellion against himself. A heart of what the Bible calls sin, the disease we all have which puts me on the throne and gives God the boot. And the result of this decision we make, whether it be conscious or subconscious, is that we must face God's justice, or as Paul puts it in verse 10, the coming wrath, God's righteous anger at human rebellion, which is a prospect far worse than death.
But the wonderful thing about these Thessalonians, was that they had turned from idols. They had a new direction in life. They had turned away from that old way of putting themselves first and God last, and turned to God, to the only one who could save them, to the only one who could deal with their sin and put right the many wrongs that they had committed. How had God done it? The answer comes in verse 10. The answer is 'Jesus who saves us from the coming wrath.' You see, part of the message that Paul would have told these Thessalonians in his brief stay with them was that God was willing for his own Son to die on a cross so that our sin, our rebellion, our idolatry need not be held against us. Jesus died in our place to take the punishment we deserve, bearing the full force of God's anger against our sin on himself. And he would also have explained that God was not punishing some innocent third party on the cross for our sins, but that Jesus, as God himself in human form, was taking the punishment himself, because he loves us so much. That was the extraordinary message that Paul preached and even today it is still timelessly relevant.
One of the problems that the American pioneers faced as they sought new lands in America was bush fires. The prairie grass could grow so high that it would be higher than a man, and during the summer the grass was very dry. Another problem was dry storms, when there would be no rain, but plenty of thunder and lightening. And all it would take to set those prairies alight was one strike of lightening from one of the dry storms. The fires would streak across the prairies faster than a man could run and much faster than the heavy wagons of the pioneers. And yet the pioneers faced this danger with confidence. For when a fire was spotted they would stand with their backs to the wind and light a series of smaller fires which would take off in front of them. In a few minutes they had burnt an area big enough to put all their wagons and people into, and they would confidently await the oncoming fire. For the place where the fire had already burnt could not be burnt again.
Our problem is that God's judgment is coming, and none of us can outpace it by the goodness of our lives. We cannot save ourselves. And yet when Jesus died on the cross, he took the judgement we deserve so that we need not face it ourselves. And if we shelter in him, like the Thessalonians, then Jesus will rescue us in the wrath to come. All our sin is paid for, and we can have a new life which begins now, forgiveness of sins, and freedom from guilt. So let me ask: Have you turned from idols to God? If not, you will have to face that judgement on your own. There's no other rescue on its way. And you will not stand. Why not turn back today to the only one who can rescue you, Jesus Christ. Ask him for forgiveness and a fresh start. Turn away from idols and accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. For that is the first mark of the authentic Christian. Someone who has turned from idols to the only God who can save. Someone who has a new direction.
2) A New Ambition
But having turned from idols to God, the Thessalonians did not stop there. Rather they had a new ambition. And that is seen in the rest of verse 9: 'They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.' Their ambition was to serve the living and true God. You may have seen on the news over the last few days, the most recent exploits of the illusionist and escapologist David Blaine. Blaine has just spent 35 hours standing on a 109 foot pole on a metal plate no greater in size than the average paving stone. When Blaine came back down to earth by hurling himself into a mound of cardboard boxes, he said that his next trick would be to be thrown bound hand and foot into the Thames in London, and then escape without drowning. Why does he do all this? Because, he says, when he was five years old, he was reading about Houdini, the famous escapologist, and thought: 'I want to do that!' And so his whole ambition in life has been to copy Houdini and no doubt go one better.
But the trouble with many of our ambitions in this world which God made for us is that they fail to take account of the life to come. There was once a boy who was called into the Headmaster's study before he left school and the Master asked him what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Well sir, said the boy, I'm going to University. And then what? Well sir I'll get a job. And then? I'll find a wife. And then? I'll get a better job. And then? I'll have some kids. And then? I'll get a bigger car. And then? I'll get the final promotion. And then? I'll retire. And then? I'll live off the large pension plan I've got planned. And then? Well sir I'll suppose I'll die. And then? You see, most of our ambitions are simply to do with what we can get out of life. But a Christian's ambition is to serve the God who rescued him as lovingly and faithfully as possible. Now of course there is nothing wrong with wanting to do well in our jobs, in wanting to have a family or the like. But the Christian will frame all his ambitions in the context of the overall aim in life which is to serve the living and true God. And as we serve God, walking in his ways, then we find that all these other ambitions find their proper context and we can understand them properly from God's perspective. And that was the Thessalonians' ambition- to serve the true and living God.
So how did they do this? Well there are two hints in the verses before our passage which we had read to us. One came in verse 6. Paul writes: 'You became imitators of the Lord.' In other words, they lived their lives no longer following their idols, but instead following God and his ways. They sought to be obedient to him in terms of every aspect of their lives- their lifestyle, their priorities, their use of time and money, their words and actions. In everything they sought to imitate God. But there is another clue in verse 8: 'The Lord's message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia- your faith in God has become known everywhere.' Everyone soon heard about their new found faith in God. And no doubt that involved, not only people hearing on the grapevine, but them telling others about what God had done for them. They willingly shared the good news about Jesus with others, so that the message spread across the whole of Greece, which is what Paul means when he says Macedonia and Achaia.
So that's who they served the living and true God. That was their new ambition. They became imitators of God and they gave themselves to telling others about him. And the Thessalonians' new ambition is a challenge for us who claim to be Christians, whether we are staying in Hull and especially for those leaving this summer. Is it your aim in life to serve the true and living God? Will you make it your aim when you leave to get stuck into a Bible believing and preaching church in your new town or will you say: 'I'll just wait until I'm settled down, then I'll sort that out.' Will you make it your aim to read the Bible and pray or will you say: 'I'll wait until my schedule is regular, then I can get that sorted.' Let me warn you. If you leave it, if you don't make going to a good church a habit or regular prayer and Bible reading a habit, then you're on the slippery slope of idolatry. The true and living God is being squeezed out, ever so slightly, but surely. And unless you make a conscious decision to serve the true and living God every day, you will fall into idolatry, that is a life without God. Many have started the Christian life well. Fewer finish it well. So make it your ambition to serve the God who rescued you every day. Make that decision today and stick by it praying for God's strength each day. For that is the second mark of authentic Christianity. A new ambition.
3) A New Perspective
But then finally, and briefly, we come to third mark of these Thessalonian Christians, of authentic Christianity, and that is a new perspective. Look at the verses again: 'They say how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who rescues us from the coming wrath.' And it is a new perspective on the future that these Thessalonians had. They were waiting for Jesus who would come again. Now waiting did not mean inactivity. These Thessalonians were not kicking their heels. Rather as we have just seen, they were serving God in very practical ways. Waiting for the return of Christ is a perspective on life which makes you realise that this life is not all there is. There is an afterlife, which Jesus will inaugurate when he comes again.
Now I guess some of us might be tempted to think that this is all a bit of pie in the sky when you die! Surely there is as much hope of Jesus returning as England winning the World Cup this year- a vain hope! Where's evidence? Well Paul actually gives us good historical evidence for believing that Jesus will come again when he says that God raised Jesus from the dead. Because there are good historical reasons for believing Jesus rose from the dead and defeated death, and therefore there are very good reasons for believing Jesus when he said that he would come again. In fact, of all the promises Jesus has yet to fulfil, one remains. He said he would return, and if he's kept all the other promises, as he has, then there is no doubt he'll keep all the others.
So if you are not a Christian tonight, then be warned. One day you will have to meet Jesus face to face and give an account. And you need to be prepared to do that. Turn back to him before it's too late. But if you are a Christian, then you can take great encouragement that Jesus is coming back, sooner or later, to wrap up human history and bring into fulfilment a new heavens and a new earth. That is a hope which is steadfast and certain. And we Christians must keep one eye on that day, allowing it to shape our priorities and our lives. For it is only with the future perspective that we can get through the difficulties of this life trusting in Christ.
Florence Chadwick was the first woman to swim the channel. But the next challenge was to swim from Catalina Island off the coast of California to the mainland. It was considerably further. On the first attempt it was a foggy day and the visibility was very poor. She could never see more than a few metres in front of her. They pulled her out of the water exhausted just a few hundred metres from the finish. When she was asked why she gave up so close to the end, she said: 'I just couldn't do it. I couldn't see the end.' But two weeks later on a clear day, she swam the whole distance with ease. It's very important to have the right perspective and to keep your eyes fixed on the end. So Christian, is that your hope? Do you long for it and live for it? The Thessalonians did and it changed the very way they lived, not for the present but for the future. They had a new perspective.
Well there are many frauds in the world of religion, including Christian frauds. But we have learnt tonight three marks of true, authentic Christianity. Christians have a new direction, a new ambition and a new perspective. Think very carefully before you reject this way of life because in doing so you reject the God who made you. And if you accept it, ask God to give you the strength to live that life to the very full.
Let's spend some time in quiet and then I will pray for us, and it may be that you wish to echo this prayer in your hearts, as I pray that we would accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour and then seek to live for him wholeheartedly to the end.
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