Model response - 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me begin by telling you about the notorious Mexican outlaw Jose Rivera who was responsible for robbing banks and businesses in several small towns around Texas. Eventually the townsfolk became sick of this and hired a Ranger to track him down which he eventually did. He found Jose in a run down cantina south of the Mexican border. As he walked through the swing doors the tall Ranger saw a young man propped up against the bar and a rather staunch Mexican with his hands folded over his ample stomach leaning back in a chair, hat covering his eyes. So he went up to the young man and told him about his mission to bring back Jose Rivera dead or alive. ‘Can you help me find him?’ he asked. The young man pointed to the snoozing Mexican and said, ‘Si senior, that’s Jose Rivera.’ The Ranger ambled over to the bandit, tapped him on the shoulder and asked: ‘Are you Jose Rivera?’ The man mumbled ‘ No speak English.’ So the Ranger beckoned the young man who at least had some smattering of English to communicate on his behalf. Well the ensuing conversation was somewhat tedious. The Ranger would speak in English which would be translated by the young man with some difficulty into Spanish. Jose Rivera would speak in Spanish which would then be translated into English and on and on this went. Eventually, the Ranger became exasperated and told the young man to warn Rivera that he had two choices. Either let him know where the loot was hidden, in which case he would walk away a free man or he would be shot dead on the spot. The ultimatum was duly translated. Then Jose Rivera pulled himself together and said to the young man in Spanish, ‘Tell him to go out of the bar, turn right, go about a mile down the road, and he will see a well. Near the well he will see a very tall tree. Beside the trunk of the tree is a large stone. He will need help removing it. Under the stone is a pit in the ground. If he carefully uncovers it he will discover the jewellery and most of the money. Tell him!’ Somewhat nonplussed, wondering how on earth he was going to relate all this detail in English, the young man turned to the Ranger, opened his mouth, paused, opened his mouth again, paused and then stammered, ‘Jose says.... Jose says..... Jose says- Go ahead and shoot’!
Now as any counsellor will tell you most problems in relationships come down to a failure to communicate. ‘He never listens to me’; ‘She doesn’t understand me’; ‘It’s as if we are from totally different planets, I’m from Mars she is from Venus, the mother-in-law is from Pluto!’ Effective communication is vital to fostering good relationships. Now if that is the case at the human level how much more so is it at the divine level, between God and people. If there is a God, how do we know? If there is a God, how can we know him? Now for both questions to be answered positively some sort of communication has to take place and the initiative has to come from God’s side. If he is there he must make himself known, he must tell us what he is like. And in the passage that we are looking at this morning the astounding claim is being made that God has done just that. This ‘making known’ – God speaking if you will, is known by several names. It is sometimes called ‘Great News’ or ‘Gospel.’ Or, as we see in verse 13 twice it is referred to as ‘the Word of God’ that is it is a message from God about God, so can you imagine a more important message than that? So let’s look at this fascinating passage under three headings: the reality of knowing God; the effect of receiving God and the peril of rejecting God.
Now there are all sorts of things which area cause for thanksgiving- a marriage, the birth of a baby, getting a promotion, passing an exam. And the extent to which we give thanks is a pretty good indication of what matters to us. Well, just look at what it is that makes the apostle Paul praise God to the rafters- it is that some people have accepted his message and so have come to know God- v 13 ‘We thank God continually because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is the word of God.’ You know, sometimes a sceptic will ask me a question like this: ‘Have you ever seen an angel?’ And I can reply- ‘Yes I have. At least every Sunday.’ Now of course the sceptic means some supernatural being like Gabriel, but strictly speaking the word ‘angel’ simply means God’s messenger, someone who is sent by God to bring some news. Well, that is what we seek to do every Sunday. I may not look much like an angel, you may not think that I behave like one either, but I try to do that job of one, each time I open this book. Well, Paul and his friends were God’s angels who arrived in Thessalonica. And the message they brought is more than hinted at back in chapter 1:9, as we see the effect of the message- they ‘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 wrath of God.’ So this Word of God is about God- the real God in contrast to our false ideas about him. This God has made himself known by becoming one of us, the Son, Jesus who died and was raised to life. Why did he die- so as to save us from the judgement which is to come by taking the judgement for us in our place.
And this is a message which is not just a matter of getting information- ‘this is what God is like’, but about bringing a transformation – turning from idolatry to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven. This is a message which brings about an inner renewal leading to an outward reformation-v 13 b ‘the word of God which is at work in you.’ And so we have the effect of receiving God.
You know, it is sadly only too possible to know about God, but not know him- have a living relationship with him. And whether or not you know him is, to some degree, shown by how much you have been changed by him. Let me give you an example taken from Cornwall in the middle of the 19th century. There was a Vicar there called William Haslam. One day, much to his surprise, his gardener became a Christian and he didn’t quite know what to make of this change. And so he visited a friend who told him quite bluntly that the reason he didn’t understand was because he himself was not a real Christian. His friend asked him: ‘Have you peace with god?’ To which the Vicar replied, ‘Of course, God is my friend.’ Pursuing the point further, his colleague asked him, ‘How did you get that peace?’ ‘Oh’ replied Haslam,’ I get it at the daily service. I get it through prayer and reading and especially at Holy Communion. I have made it a rule to carry my sins there every Sunday and often come away from the Holy Sacrament as free as a bird.’ ‘And how long does this peace last?’ enquired his friend. ‘I suppose not a week,’ said Haslam thoughtfully, ‘for I have to do the same thing every Sunday.’ The friend went on to tell him about the living waters that Jesus promised, welling up from within to eternal life. Haslam admitted he didn’t know of that but would love to have it. Then he went on his way. Well, the following Sunday the strangest thing happened. The Vicar climbed into his pulpit and announced the text, ‘Who do you think Christ is?’ Then Haslam explained what occurred next, ‘As I went on to explain the passage, I saw that the Pharisees and Scribes did not know that Christ was the Son of God or that he came to save them. Something was telling me all the time, “You are no better than the Pharisees yourself, you do not believe he is the Son of God and that he came to save you any more than they did.” I do not remember all I said, but I felt a wonderful light and joy come into my soul, and I was beginning to see what the Pharisees did not. Whether it was my words or my look, I know not; but all of a sudden a local preacher, who happened to be in the congregation, stood up and putting up his arms shouted out in a Cornish manner, “The parson is converted! Hallelujah.” He then describes how at least twenty in the congregation cried out for mercy themselves and said they found the joy and peace which Christ gives, including four members of the Vicar’s own family. Well, the news spread like wildfire through the town that the Vicar had been converted by his own sermon! Do you see that you can be religious about God without having a relationship with God? And do you see how that relationship becomes real? When you personally embrace the message about who Jesus is and what he came to do. So let me ask whether you have done that? That is how anyone becomes a Christian. And today would be a great day to do it.
But notice what else happens as a sign of true conversion- trouble comes your way-v 14, ‘For you brothers became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews.’ Let’s face it, the greatest one of them all was given a rough ride. Jesus was castigated as a boozer and a binger by the religious establishment- not that he was. They even said he was an instrument of the devil. Time and time again they tried to trip him up by some clever scheme, only to eventually crucify him. So should his followers expect to be treated any differently? Jesus said no- in fact it was to be taken as a sign of blessing according to the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad for great is your reward in heaven.’ (Mtt 5:11-12). The Australian evangelist John Chapman tells of how when he was a teacher in SW Australia a boy came up to him once, knowing he was a Christian, and said in floods of tears: "Mr. Chapman, some boys have just flushed my head down the toilet because I’m a Christian." And John Chapman said to him: "Is that all! Get a grip, rejoice! Are you still a Christian?" "Yes," the boy said. "Good! Now be thankful that God is counting you worthy of suffering for his name. Now run along and stop crying!" And Chappo went on to say that that boy was now working in the mission field and was now as tough as old boots! And true Christians will persevere with God’s strength. These Thessalonians were willing to take the flak from their friends for the sake of Christ, and you can bet their friends took notice too and many would have been quietly impressed. Now it may be that you have a non- Christian husband or wife and they are giving you a tough time because you do follow Jesus. It could be your mates at work. Then don’t be surprised and don’t be down cast- it is a badge of honour.
But there is a peril in rejecting God. This is the way Paul puts it in v 14: ‘You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles (nations) so that they may be saves. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.’ Now we are not to think that Paul is engaging in an act of anti-Semitism here. Admittedly, this is sort of verse has been abused by people in the past as an excuse to persecute Jews, castigating them as ‘Christ killers’ and that has been shameful and deplorable. But remember that Paul himself was a Jew. He had previously persecuted the church before the Lord Jesus met with him on the Damascus road –so he is hardly going to be anti-Jewish. In fact the love he has for his own people is so strong that in his letter to the Romans he says that he wished he could be cut off from God if it meant they would be saved. No, Paul is simply telling it as it is. This is what he was experiencing- persecution from his fellow countrymen and that hurts the most. What is more he is merely echoing something Jesus himself had said in Luke 11: 47, speaking to the Jewish religious elite of his day Jesus says, ‘Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets and it is your forefathers who killed them, So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets an apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world.’ The real tragedy is that it is the most religious of all people who are doing this!
So why does Paul use such strong language, that those who try to stop Christians telling others the Gospel are displeasing God and opposing men? Well, think of it like this: imagine that a rich benefactor, a Bill gates type figure, had helped discover a cure for Aids through his trust. He then wants this cure to be distributed throughout Africa free of charge. But then some, maybe from a certain pharmaceutical company who have also invested money into finding a discovery, do all that they can to sabotage and prevent this. Would they not be said to displease Gates? Would it not be a very good description to say they were acting in hostile manner to the needy Aids ridden Africans? Would they not bring down upon themselves the ire of the righteous governments of the world? Of course! How much more so then, people who do all that they can to prevent people receiving God’s eternal medicine of the soul which saves people into all eternity, ridding them of the damning effects of the disease of sin? At this moment in time it was the religious Jew doing this terrible thing. But since then such opposition has continued in different forms. At one time it was Catholicism under Queen Mary when the man who gave us our prayer book, Thomas Cranmer was burnt alive at the stake because he wanted everyone to here of the Gospel message that anyone could be saved simply by trusting the Lord Jesus Christ and not having to go through the rigmarole of the mass. Hundreds were killed in England then. In the middle of the 18th century it was the Church of England’s turn to persecute its won with men like John Wesley and George Whitefield who had the gall to preach in other Vicar’s parish without permission so that people could be saved- which they were. Bishop Warburton warned everyone that John Wesley was ‘a wily and malignant hypocrite’- that would have hurt and done more than its fair share of damage. The lie was also put about that Wesley was expelled from Oxford for gross immorality. Some of the Methodist preachers had glass ground into their eyes, their houses burnt down, sometimes at the instigation of jealous Vicars. So the established Church has much to be ashamed of in this and has displeased God and been hostile to people just as much as some of the Jews of Paul’s day. And still it continues. To oppose Gospel messengers is on of the most serious sins that can ever be committed and God will act. Eventually he did in AD 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans and thousands were slaughtered, in this was seen the wrath of God. He is not a God to be trifled with, not when people’s eternal wellbeing is at stake.
Now do you see what we are about as a church? We are not meant to be a cosy club, but a rescue operation. We are in the business of knowing God, loving him, serving him and experiencing the transforming effects of encountering him, which will mean that like Paul and these Thessalonian Christians we will want others to know that reality too, and be ready to pay the price for it. That is why Malcolm and myself have given up other jobs to do this one- we really do care and it is a privilege to do it- being angels and all! Well, it is something for all God’s people to be involved in, lets pray for God’s grace to do what he calls us to do.
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