[This was shared this morning during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Today’s sermon is a rerun and I think I would have preached it whether I’d spent Thursday and part of Friday at the hospital to get my defibrillator. That’s because the topic for today is something about which I am passionate. It’s about the object of an ongoing love affair in my life and it isn’t with Ann. (How’s that for grabbing your attention?)
To start, I'd like to show you a few books from my personal library.
This first one is a paperback version of the New Testament in the Good News translation. It was given to me by my parents’ church in Columbus when I graduated from Ohio State in 1975. This Bible is especially important to me because this was the very one I read when I first fell in love with Jesus Christ!
It was on these pages that I came to learn more about Who Jesus is and the depths of His passion for you and me and everybody in the world.
Acts was the first book of the New Testament I read in this edition. I remember being especially stirred when I read this verse, which comes after an account of how the apostles, the leaders of Jesus' post-resurrection Church had been beaten for their faith in Christ. It says: “The apostles left the Council [that had beaten them and told them to never speak in Jesus' Name again], full of joy that God had considered them worthy to suffer disgrace for the Name of Jesus.”
To this day, I can hardly read that passage without choking up. Imagine it: These followers of Jesus derived joy from having the privilege of suffering for their allegiance to Jesus! By contrast, I sometimes complain about being inconvenienced by people for whom Jesus died and who Jesus has called me to love.
After I left atheism to become a follower of Jesus, my early mentor in the Christian faith, Martha Schneider, got a hardback version of the whole Bible in the Good News translation. As you can see, it's gotten some wear.
When I went to seminary four years after becoming a Christian, I was required, along with all of my classmates, to have a copy of the Oxford edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. It’s no longer in print, but I used this Bible throughout my seminary career and into my early years as a pastor. After it got worn out and had nearly fallen apart, no matter how much Scotch, masking, or duct tape I put on the binding, I bought another one just like it to replace it. As you can see, after awhile, this second came to look like the first one, too.
It was from this edition of the Bible that I read on the night before my family and I headed to the first congregation I served as a pastor twenty-seven years ago. Just before I went to bed, I read Paul’s letter to a young pastor named Timothy. In the book called First Timothy, Paul gave Timothy advice that I felt that I needed as a then-young pastor myself: “Command and teach these things. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity…attend to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you…Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Later, I bought this Study Bible, which I still use sometimes. And later still, I bought this Life Application Bible. Like the others, it’s now showing its age. I’ve had it for about thirteen years and still use it every day.
A few years ago, I added The Message translation to my arsenal of Bibles. And, within the past year, I’ve gotten two wonderful editions: The Orthodox Study Bible, with notes by Greek Orthodox scholars, and The Lutheran Study Bible, from the publishing house of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Though I have differences on many issues with both of those Christian traditions, these are wonderful study Bibles.
Now, I’m not showing you my Bibles to impress you. My point is this: Since 1976, reading the Bible has been an almost daily part of my life. And if you were to open most of my Bibles, you’d find underlines and notes all over them. You'd find questions in the margins, too, because there are still many things I don’t understand about God.
Some people might find all my markings on the pages of my Bibles offensive. But if the Bible is God’s Word, as I believe it is, then what you would see in those notes and underlines and questions is the record of my ongoing dialog with God, the conversation to which God invites all of us on the pages of the Bible.
This morning, I confess that I sin every day of my life. I do things that are wrong and say things I shouldn’t say. And I think things which, if any of you were mind-readers, would cause you to want to avoid me at all costs. The Bible hasn’t made me perfect. But it has introduced me to the God Who loves imperfect people like me and is committed to helping those who daily surrender to Him.
It's shown me the God Who's committed to changing us into all that God made us to be in the first place.
You see, unlike Lady Gaga, God doesn’t think that we should pursue sinful lifestyles just because we were “born that way.” In the Bible, God teaches us that we’re not to live as the slaves to sin, which is what we all are when we are born; instead, in Christ we are born again and set free to live God’s way!
When we spend time reading God’s Word, it brings changes to our lives, usually in ways we can’t readily articulate.
I love a story about an exchange of letters to the editor that once appeared in a newspaper in England. It started with a disgruntled church member who wrote something like this: “I’ve been in worship virtually every Sunday for the past thirty years and I have recently realized that I can’t remember a single sermon I’ve heard in all that time. Therefore, I’m going to quit going to worship. It’s obviously a waste of time.” Several days later, another letter to the editor appeared. It began: “My wife has always cooked the meals in our family these past thirty years. Recently, I have realized that in scanning my memory, I can’t really remember more than a handful of specific meals she has prepared. Therefore, I’m going to quit eating.”
Daily taking the time to read God’s Word, like weekly worship, is another way God feeds us and nourishes us. I certainly don’t remember every specific conversation I’ve had with God as I’ve read and written on the pages of my Bible these past thirty-five years. But I do know that when I take the time for this daily discipline, I remember that God is with me and that He is waiting to help me that day.
I receive God’s counsel.
I find what displeases God and the things for which I need to repent and receive the power of His Holy Spirit to change.
I see how God provides for me and how God wants to be with me forever.
I’m encouraged in my down times, guided through life’s mysteries, and brought down to earth when my ego is riding high.
I remember that Jesus died and rose for me.
But it takes time spent reading and paying attention to God's Word for all of these things to become apparent in our lives.
I'm a slow-learner when it comes to almost anything in life. That includes learning what it means to follow Jesus and trust in God. The moment God begins forming faith in Christ within us—something we Lutherans believe starts at Baptism—we are part of God’s kingdom.
But growing up in the faith, living in the confidence that God willingly gives His children, being able to face whatever life throws at us, and becoming the high-impact people of faith we’re made to be, that is a process.
It happens bit by bit as we surrender our lives to Christ. It happens through things like regular worship, regular prayer, regular service, regular giving, regularly encouraging others with the love of Christ, regularly inviting others to worship with us, and regularly reading God’s Word.
This is what Paul is talking about in our second lesson for this morning, composed of the opening passages of his first letter to a church in the Greek city of Thessalonica. He begins by saying how thankful he is that the Christians in this Aegean Sea-coastal city are so faithful to Jesus Christ.
He writes: “For the Word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Acaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known... [And then Paul goes on to write:] For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, so that we have no need to speak about it.”
Do you see what happened? The Thessalonians had daily feasted on the Word of God. It had become integrated into the very marrow of their souls. The results were predictable. People who lived miles away heard about how Jesus Christ was at the center of their lives and how His Word made a huge positive difference in how they lived and faced each day.
When we daily take in God’s Word, each verse becomes like one of those time-released medicine capsules that, at just the right moments, work. God's Word works within us and then bring into being things like joy, compassion, hopefulness, a commitment to justice, and deep faith.
This, in turn, is seen by others and, as was true of the Thessalonians who influenced other people, we will bring God’s Word to those around us. God’s Word enters us and our lives become God’s Word for others, speaking God’s truth and God’s call to repentance and belief in Jesus.
I urge you to make reading the Bible a daily part of your life.
Wear out your Bibles!
Make notes in the margins!
Memorize verses that are meaningful to you!
Ask God to explain passages that you don’t understand.
Ask God to help you apply the things that you do understand.
Consider joining in with the remaining readings and weekly discussions as we read the Bible together in a year.
And ask God too, to set off the power for living with joy, peace, and hope that comes to all who let God’s Word act as their guide through life. Amen