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New Year Hope - 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 6th January 2008.

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Have you made any New Year resolutions?

For most of the year we tend to be in a state of constant busyness. We run around from one activity to the next and there is seldom time to catch our breath. The 24/7 culture has established itself as normal and the catchphrase “I’m busy” seems to be the most popular reply when people ask us how we are.

So throughout the year most of us don’t give any thought to our hopes for the future. The instant, the now, the immediate, call it whatever you like, well this becomes all-consuming and all-demanding. The result?  We don’t have the luxury of making those longer term plans. Unfortunately, the pace of modern life gives us little time to dream of better days.

One regular exception seems to be New Year. In fact, it almost seems to be a necessary thing for people to do.  Before the busyness begins again people sit down and contemplate what they want to achieve in the next 12 months.

The usual suspects frequently appear on lists around the world. Go to the gym. Tame the bulge. Quit smoking. Drink less. Spend more time with friends and family. Get out of debt. Learn something new. Get organised.

These are noble ambitions but at the start of this New Year I would like to suggest a life changing resolution. You won’t find it in the secular lists. You won’t find it in the popular magazines but if you are a Christian it is the best New Year’s resolution you can have. You’ll find it in verse 1 of 1 Thessalonians chapter 4.  Listen to what Paul says, “Finally, my 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.” Why listen to Paul? “For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.”

It seems very simple but our lives would be changed radically if we decided to adopt this resolution for the year ahead. Set out each day with a desire to please the Lord.

I don’t know if you are a morning person. Once I’m awake I tend to be switched on and bouncy. The process of getting out of bed is not always easy. I hear of some people who get up and say things like this, “Another day to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in his world.” And “Is this resurrection morning?” My first thought is often, “Is this the time already?”

How can we change our mindset so we begin each day with the godly ambition of pleasing the God who loves us? Perhaps we need to consciously to say these words, “Another day where we have the opportunity to please the Lord.” Whatever the day holds, whatever its joys and sorrows, its strains and triumphs, we have a new 24 hours to make the creator of the universe smile.

Before we consider how we please the Lord I think it’s vital to mention why we should aim to please the Lord.

Many religions will say that we need to please God but the reason given is very different from the reason given by the Bible. People will say that if we choose to live in obedience to God’s instructions then he will be pleased with us and will then may let us into heaven. The idea is that if we please God we will merit heaven.

The Christian reason for pleasing God is very different. God has saved us by sending Jesus to die for us. We are saved already and eternally secure. As a response we want to please God in everything we do.

I don’t know what else you plan to do in the next 12 months but can I urge you to make one resolution above all the others: make it your ambition to make God smile.

In the rest of this section of the Bible we are provided with two practical applications of this general idea. So remember the general idea is “Make God smile, Please the Lord” and now, in verses 3-12, we are provided with two ways to achieve this result.

First of all, avoid sexual immorality – we are told how to do this in verses 3 to 8.

Secondly, love each other deeply – this is the focus of verses 9-12.

First of all, avoid sexual immorality. Paul makes it very clear in verse 3 that it is God’s will that we should be sanctified.”

Christians frequently get worried about the will of God.

Where should I live? What job should I do?  Who should I marry? Not irrelevant. Big decisions we have to make. But rarely does God reveal the answers to these questions in his written word. Instead he asks us to trust his providential ordering of his world and asks us to make wise choices along the way. However, what is clear in God’s written word is his desire for his children to be sanctified. “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified.”

The Bible normally uses this word in two ways. First, there is the idea of being set apart from the crowd. Happens instantly when we become a Christian. We are no longer part of this world. We become children of God and he becomes our heavenly Father. We have a new status in the spiritual world. Previously, we were dead in sin but now as Christians we are alive in Christ – and set apart from the world. We have been sanctified as Christians.

Another way the word is used  - not so much an event but a process of change. So in status we are holy but in practice we are commanded to live different lives. We are freed to live as we were intended. Day by day to be transformed to be more like Jesus.

Now when Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4 that God’s will is that we should be sanctified he seems to have the second meaning in view. We have already been set apart from the world but now as children of God we are to actively live different lives in a rebellious world.

Many different areas we are to do this but the one Paul focuses on here is our sexual conduct. It is God’s will that we should avoid sexual immorality.

Now sexual immorality in the Bible is a very broad category. Our danger in the West is to keep on speaking about homosexual practice. Certainly includes this but against the background of the whole Bible this is dangerously narrow.

Bible is not anti-sex but pro good-sex. So valuable that it defines a relationship for this to be enjoyed to the full. And this is between a man and a woman who are married to each other.

Sexual immorality is all sexual activity that takes place outside this marriage relationship.

Includes heterosexual activity between two unmarried people, includes homosexual activity and it includes what we call having an affair but which the Bible labels as adultery.

If we want to please God, if we want to make him smile, then we should avoid sexual immorality.

Forgiveness of past mistakes. This is a command for future holiness.

Important to get this command right. What is and what is not being said. Not saying that we should not have sexual desires. This is perfectly normal. We were designed to be sexual beings. It is not a sin to feel attracted to another person. Bible says is that marriage is the place for sexual activity and all other relationships which involve sexual conduct, either in the mind or in practice, result in sexual immorality. And Christians are to avoid this for their greater good and the glory of God.  

Or in the words of verse 4, each of us [not just the singles but the married) should learn how to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God.

You’ll see from the footnote that alternative translations are possible. At the moment I’m convinced by the translation we have in the main text.

Some would claim that it is unrealistic to control our sexual nature. Indeed, to resist our feelings in this area will ultimately do us long-term psychological damage.

Against this common viewpoint I would say two things.

First of all, look at the unhappiness caused by this so called sexual liberty in our country. All around us.

Do you want to listen to the advice of people who are inherently unhappy and without joy?

Secondly, trust that God knows best. When he says avoid sexual activity outside marriage then this is best way to thrive. Trust the written word of God. Avoid sexual immorality and to do this we need to learn how to control our own bodies.

Different ways to do this but let me mention a few…

o Desire the pleasure of God more and more
o Make sure the simple disciples of feeding on the word of God are in place
o Work out what fuels your lust and cut off the fuel
o Late nights
o Boredom
o Internet – such a problem today. So many men suffer from this and it causes so much guilt. There are ways to be liberated from this freedom. Software programmes.
o Have accountable relationships.
o Memorise Scripture.
o Pray.

We must act because this will please our loving God.

Don’t do this on our own. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But his power is released as we actively seek to change our behaviour.

Why mention this at the start of the New Year? We are bombarded daily with alternative messages about sex. The common mantra is do whatever feels good for you and don’t hurt anyone else. We must not believe this lie.

You don’t always do whatever feels good. Our desires are fallen and what feels good often leads to great personal harm.

Don’t believe the lie that your behaviour never hurts anyone else. How do we know?

In essence we are asked to trust God’s word and actively seek to control our own bodies - and if we do this then we will please our loving God. 

How do we make God smile? First of all, we must avoid sexual immorality.

Secondly, we must love each other deeply. Listen to what Paul says in verse 9.

“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.”

This young church were known for their devotion to each other. Both within their own local fellowship and also to Christians many miles away.

And yet what I love about what Paul says here is that there is no room for complacency. He says you have done really well. It’s fantastic to hear of all your practical demonstrations of love for your brothers and sisters in Christ. But let’s not sit back and pretend we’ve arrived. Let’s not buy the t-shirt to say we’ve completed the race and move on to a different ambition. No let’s love each other more and more.

How wonderful to be part of a loving family here at St John’s. Where people do look out for others, get involved in serving, commit to coming regularly, who join small groups, who pray.

But at the start of this New Year I want to encourage us to love each other more and more. Let’s have a burning desire to please our God and let’s do this by seeking to love each other more and more.

Many ways to do this. Let me mention three practical ideas for how we can show our devotion to each other.

o Commit to coming regularly. What is regularly? Every week. I will gather together every week with God’s people unless exceptional circumstances stop me.
o Commit to a small group. Not simply Bible study but where we can know each other better.
o If you are then take positive steps to love your small group.
ß Speak to them at church.
ß Ask about their families.
ß Pray for them.
ß Get their phone numbers.
ß Invite some of them round for dinner. So counter cultural. Take the initiative.
o Use your gifts. Don’t simply sit and listen.
o Active and passive.
o All food and no exercise is not good for us,
o Get involved. Coffee, Sunday groups, service sheets, working party
o So often 20% of the people do 80% of the work. Why should this be the accepted norm?
o Think now. What do you do apart from coming on a Sunday? How are you involved? If you are interested in what you could do then act on it tonight. Come and speak to me.

Tried to be simply tonight. One ambition: make God smile. Live in order to please the Lord.

We can do this by avoiding sexual immorality and by loving each other deeply.

Let’s pray as we finish.

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