Saturday, December 10, 2005

Third Pass at This Week's Bible Lesson: First Thessalonians 5:16-24

To help the people of Friendhsip Lutheran Church, the congregation I serve as pastor, and others who may be part of congregations that use the lectionary (explained here), every week, I try to present a few notes on the Bible texts on which our weekend worship will be based. I've already presented two posts that give a general overview of what First Thessalonians is about. You can find those here and here.

A note about context: Any time that a preacher prepares a message, there are at least three contextual issues that must be addressed.

First, there's the context of the Biblical passage on which the message is to be based. This itself is multifaceted. There's the more global context of when and where the Biblical book was written and to whom. There's the personal context of the person or persons who wrote the book, if authorship can be identified. There's the context of the general themes of the particular book. And finally, there's the matter of how the specific passage being addressed fits in with the overall themes.

Besides, the context of the Biblical passage, the preacher must also strive to understand the context of the world. What's going on in the world right now? What are some of the common ways of looking at life prevalent today?

And finally, closely related to this second broad contextual area is the specific context of the congregation being addressed. Has there been a notably wonderful event within the church or community? Has there been much illness within the congregation or among members' extended family? What seems to be the state of most members' lives right now? What are their favorite restaurants? How are the local professional and college sports teams doing? What's going on with the local schools? You get the picture.

This is why preachers must necessarily, I think, regard their messages (or sermons or homilies) as necessarily disposable. The preacher's job is to show people the relevance of God's Word to a specific time and place. Few of us will produce sermons that will stand the test of time or perhaps even, be appreciated beyond our congregational families. (This is one reason why, not long ago, I threw out all of the sermons I preached during the first six years of my pastoral ministry.) This doesn't mean that they're bad sermons; it only means that they're not relevant in other times and places.

I bring up this business of context because right now, we're in the Season of Advent. We are, in fact, in the third weekend of that season, the first of the Church Year. Advent is about waiting. Not just for Christmas, but also for the return of Jesus, what's called the Second Coming or the Parousia. For some, the prospect of Jesus' return is a horrible thing. For those who follow Him however, it brings excited anticipation!

But as we wait, there are challenges, sometimes painful ones. That is precisely the context in which First Thessalonians was being written. The evil of the world and the evil of persecution were ongoing realities in the life of the Thessalonian church.

How does one live faithfully in the face of evil? That's the question specifically answered in this letter from Paul to the first-century church at Thessalonica.

Here's the passage for the week:

16 Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

And now, a paltry verse-by-verse consideration:

v.16: How does a person rejoice in the midst of so much evil? That word, rejoice, is related to joy , not happiness. Those are two different states of being. Happiness is related to the word happen. Happiness is that fleeting state that comes to us when we have a pleasurable experience. It depends on emotions.

Joy is something altogether different. It's not hostage to our feelings. It's that sense that, because we belong to an eternal God, we have strength for our journeys and hope for tomorrow.

We're not always happy. But we always have reason to rejoice.

v. 17: The idea here is to be in constant communication with God. Ephesians 6:18 makes a similar bit of encouragement: Keep praying! The God Who came into our world as a flesh-and-blood Savior in Jesus wants to be part of our real, everyday lives.

v. 18: The call here is to be thankful in all circumstances, not for all circumstances. There is a critical difference. Only a masochist would be thankful for suffering, evil, or death. But we can be thankful in all circumstances because we know that, as surrender to Christ, God will transform our mourning into dancing.

v. 19: I love this! Don't block out the Spirit's messages to you. These come most definitively from the Bible. But when measured appropriately against what God has clearly revealed to us in the Bible, they may come from people, worship, preaching, prayer time, and so on.

v. 20: Don't block out the messages of those who claim to have some revealed truth from God. But...

v. 21: ...check everything against what you know about God from the Bible. Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev during their negotiations over nuclear arms that he needed to "trust, but verify." That's what we Christians must do whenever somebody tells us that they have some message from God. Does it match what God has revealed about His will and character in the Bible? If not, bag it!

v. 22: This is particularly important advice to hear for those who are subjected to evil treatment. Because we human beings are sinners, our natural impulse after we've been subjected to evil is to look for opportunities to return the evil. But if we engage in the same evil behaviors that we associate with monstrous people, we become monsters ourselves.

This admonition has little to do with the justice which governments may have to mete out in order to insure both justice and order, although governments should discipline for the sake of society, not to lash out in anger.

Nor does it relate directly to the question of governments making war. Governments are called by God to protect their peoples. While one may question whether governments should engage in specific wars, it is legitimate in this imperfect world in which not all voluntarily submit to God as the ultimate authority over their lives, for governments to have war-making powers. It was perfectly legitimate, for example, for the US to declare war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The object was not revenge, but protection and justice.

It does however, say something to how we Christians respond to persecution, in whatever form. A simple rule of thumb I use is this: Be angry in the face of injustices done to others; be charitable in the face of injustices we perceive having been done to ourselves.

We Christians, both as individual and as the Church, place ourselves in the hands of an eternal God, Who will make all things right in the end. That includes setting us straight when we self-righteously think that we ourselves are being mistreated or put-upon or when we actually are being made to suffer for our faith in Christ. Jesus became angry. But He never sought revenge. The best way to resist evil is, to the extent that we can with God's help, to not engage in it ourselves.

v. 23: To be holy means to be set apart for God's purposes.

v. 24: This underscores that holiness is not our achievement. It comes to those who, day by day, surrender their lives and wills to Christ and cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Martin Luther said that every believer is "the Holy Spirit's workshop." We allow the Holy Spirit access to our wills, minds, and lives so that He can do the sometimes painful work of making us over into the image of Jesus Christ.

I will see you in worship either today or tomorrow, I hope.

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