First Thessalonians 5:16-24
We’re in a season when, twenty-four hours a day, we can turn on our radios or visit a store and be certain to hear songs like, Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, or It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, or The Christmas Song (you know, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."), or even, Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.
Everywhere you look, you see lights and tinsel and elaborate displays. The other night, our son and I went to Chipotle's for dinner and saw one of those big inflated Christmas displays: Santa in sunglasses on a motor scooter underneath a Palm tree.
Television commercials tell us just how happy we and our loved ones will be when we buy that new car or video game or iPod or diamond ring. (Thankfully, this year I, have so far, at least, been spared seeing commercials for the Chia Pet or the Clapper!)
The point is that this is a time of year when everybody’s supposed to be happy. But we all know that, perhaps because of the disconnect between our culture’s expecations and the realities of our lives, many people become depressed. The suicide rate actually goes up.
Frankly, there are rational reasons for us to be somewhat sober at this or any other time of year. Charlie Lehardy is a Bible translator, a fine writer, and a guy I met at the GodBlogCon gathering I attended in October. He began a post on his blog in this way the other day:
I read these items in the morning newspaper: A woman testified that she had been tortured by members of Saddam Hussein's regime, because they considered her an enemy of the state;One big reason we find it difficult to buy into the “get happy” mandates of today’s secular culture is because evil is real. This fact may be even harder for believers in Jesus to accept than it is for other people.
A young mother is suspected of murdering her 3-month-old son by putting him inside a running clothes dryer;
A couple has been charged with keeping several adopted children in chicken-wire cages;
Defenseless female refugees are still being attacked and raped by gangs of Arab men, the Janjaweed, in Darfur, Sudan, despite worldwide condemnation, much finger-wagging, and the use of the word "genocide" by the US State Department.
After all, we believe in an all-powerful and completely-loving God, the sort of God Who would come into our world on the first Christmas as a baby in order to grow to be the Savior Who died on a cross and then rose so that all who believe in Him may live with God forever.
We also believe that one day, Jesus will return to the world and make all things right.
How do we, who have placed our lives, bet our every breaths, including the last ones we draw on earth, on Jesus Christ, deal with the reality of evil?
The people of the first-century church in the Roman colony of Thessalonica wondered the same thing. For them, evil was a present, personal, painful reality.
You see, Thessalonica was a city that from the first, believed in sucking up to the rich and the powerful. Sycophancy was a long-standing tradition there. The city was founded by one of Alexander the Great's generals, who named the place for Alexander's sister. (Talk about sucking up!)
After Alexander died, his generals couldn't agree on who should be in charge and eventually, with the willing acquiescence of Thessalonica's citizens, it came to be part of the Roman Empire.
When that happened, the Thessalonians went to work buttering up the Roman emperor, Augustus, treating him as though he were more than just a king. The emperor fell for it, too. When the Romans decided to build the ancient equivalent of a new Interstate highway connecting Rome to its eastern colonies, the route chosen went right through Thessalonica, making it one of the major trading centers of the Empire.
The leading citizens of the city bought the fictions of Roman ideology without question. They saw the emperor as being a king of godlike attributes. They hailed the "peace and security" that Rome gave them. (The famous Pax Romana that we learned about as schoolkids, an imposed and ruthless peace and stability not unlike what Saddam Hussein gave to Iraq.)
Most of the people of Thessalonica were so loyal to the Roman Empire that they viewed these Christians, who called Jesus "the King of kings" and the only true guarantor of peace and security, as a threat to everything in which they believed. And so, the Thessalonian Christians were subjected to all sorts of persecution, to both the threat and the reality of death, to economic pressures, and to beatings.
When we human beings face evil, we have several impulses that, if we’re to be true to Christ, we must resist.
One is to seek revenge. Like Jesus though, we’re called to seek justice for others and for our communities or nations, perhaps, but not just for ourselves. Hard as it is, we’re called to turn the other cheek.
We’re called to remember that vengeance is God’s prerogative, not ours.
U2 addresses this in a song called Peace on Earth that contains some of the urgency for the intervention of Jesus Christ today that the Thessalonian Christians must have felt back in the first century:
They say that what you mock/ Will surely overtake you/ And you become a monster/So the monster will not break youThe temptation for us when we confront monstrous acts of evil is to lash out at it, becoming monsters ourselves. Jesus died and rose for us not so that we would become monsters though, but to make us more like Him.
That’s why Paul writes in another place:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave...(Philippians 2:5-7)Another impulse we have when evil befalls us is to take action. We want to institute a program, get busy. Busy-ness has its place, of course. Christianity isn’t a sit-on-your-duff-and-soak-up-the-karma sort of religion. But it is a religion that waits on God, seeks God’s direction, and confidently looks for God to show us the way, so that we’ll know what our parts should be.
The Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, writes that, "those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:31).
This weekend, the film based on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe debuted. In the classic book, I have always been interested in one scene. Edmund, one of the four youngsters who has gone to that other world where the land of Narnia exists, has turned up missing. He has in fact, defected from his siblings, and gone to be with an evil witch named Jadis.
Immediately, his three siblings want to form search parties. They want action! But the creatures with whom they’ve just made this discovery say that would be unwise. First, they say, they must go to Aslan, the Christ-like figure in the book. He will help them recover their lost brother from the evil all around them.
Without Christ informing and empowering our actions, we’re like one of those Rube Goldberg machines: lots of movement, but no results.
Of course, Christians must fight evil. That’s why historically, believers in Christ were the first to start hospitals, why Christians opened orphanages and were among the first to open compassionate treatment centers of alcoholics, why Christians started Alcoholics Anonymous, why they worked against slavery, why they fought for equal rights for women, and why they were in the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. The Christian faith has a strong tradition of fighting evil and of advocating for social justice. But all of these laudable actions were preceded by seasons of prayerful and sometimes painful waiting. First came prayer, then action.
To help the Thessalonians cope with the evil around them and to prepare for Christ’s intervention in their lives, Paul gives the Thessalonian church--and us--two sets of three imperatives on how best to await Christ’s coming to us.
The first set is short and sweet:
- Rejoice always;
- pray without ceasing; and
- give thanks in--not for--all circumstances.
George Mueller was a pastor and social reformer in an evil time. Victorian England, back in the 19th.-century, was a place where the poor were treated like cattle. If you were indebted and couldn’t pay your bills, you were thrown into prison. Disease and alcoholism and abandoned children were everywhere.
After his conversion to Christian faith at the age of twenty, Mueller became a pastor and moved to the city of Bristol. The small church he pastored grew over the course of his lifetime and starting with just a few pennies, he founded an orphanage for which, before his death, he had raised the equivalent of about $7.5-million.
Mueller was a hard working person of action, but he was also a man of prayer. Everything he did was built on the foundation of having waited for God's green lights after seasons of prayer.
This past week, I read excerpts from his diaries. In November, 1844, they record, he began praying that five different young men, children of friends, would come to faith in Christ. He prayed for them every single day, no matter where he was and no matter how he felt.
Eighteen months after he began, one of them came to faith. He thanked God and kept praying for the other four.
Five years later, the second one came to faith. Mueller thanked God and prayed for the other three.
Six years later, the third one came to faith.
One year after he died, fifty-three years after Mueller began praying for them daily, the last two surrendered to Christ.
Hang in there, Paul says!
The person who hangs in there with Christ is doing more damage to evil than anybody else can. You are, in that wonderful phrase of Canadian rocker Bruce Cockburn, kicking at “the darkness until it bleeds daylight”! (Isn't that a great image?)
Then, Paul presents another set of three imperatives:
- Don’t “quench” God’s Spirit (In other words, don't let the inspiring flames of faith go out in your soul.);
- don’t despise the words of the prophets, but test everything people say comes from God against what you know about God from the Bible (Ronald Reagan said that his principle in negotiating nuclear arms reduction with Mikhail Gorbachev was "trust, but verify." Paul is saying here, "Trust that people may have words from God to speak to us. But always verify the truth of those words by checking them against what you know about God from the Bible.);
- and let go of evil, hold onto good.
In fact, isn’t that how God has always dealt with evil? Millions of people were on this planet when Jesus was born in a Bethlehem manger two-thousand years ago. They had no idea that God had taken on flesh and was moving resolutely toward a cross and a resurrection where He would completely destroy the power of evil to keep us from knowing God or living with Him in eternity. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is giv’n,” the Christmas song tells us. But a few did see what was God doing in Jesus.
In the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah listened for the voice of God in things like thunderstorms and earthquakes. But finally, he heard God in whisper to his soul, speaking in "a still, small voice." If Elijah hadn't been paying attention to God, inviting Him into his every moment, he might have missed God's powerful whispers.
While most of the world fails to see God's activity in the world, those who look for Him with the eyes of faith can't fail to see Him.
And whoever lets Jesus into their lives, find themselves, their ability to hope, and their capacity to cope, transformed.
As we move toward Christmas, 2005, we don’t have to accept the world’s shallow definitions of happiness.
We can embrace the joy that belongs to Jesus-Followers no matter what.
And we don’t have to be overwhelmed by evil. We can hang in there with God and allow God to have complete access to our lives.
This Christmas, let’s take our marching orders from God: Let’s stick with Christ in our living, praying, and thinking, and let's allow Christ access to every single part of our lives!
I believe that when we stand with Christ in these ways, the wintry evils of the world begin to melt and the freshness of a new spring begins to dawn on us and on our world.