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Monday, August 31, 2015

“Fully Receive the Word” (1 Thessalonians 2:13-20)

Sunday, August 30, 2015

[prior to reading the text]

        Last week, we received spiritual prescriptions that contribute to us living spiritually healthy lives in relation to God as disciples of Jesus and as a church that stands on the foundation of faith.
        The first prescription is to read 1st Thessalonians, 2nd Thessalonians, and Acts 17.
          The second prescription is to the welcome the madness that is in the world, and we do this by creating an environment of love and grace as we invite broken people to come to faith in Christ.
          This morning, we receive additional guidance for a spiritually fulfilled life.  Our Bible passage is 1st Thessalonians 2:13-20.
13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. 14 For you, brothers and sisters,[d] became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets,[e] and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.
17 As for us, brothers and sisters,[g] when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 Yes, you are our glory and joy!
        In 1st Thessalonians 2:13, Paul says the people in Thessalonica received the word of God not a human word but as God’s word, which works in us.  Note, Paul did not hand out Bibles – the New Testament had not been written and bound books were not available.  We hear the phrase ‘word of God,’ and we think Bible.  Paul meant his preaching.  When he went to Thessalonica and preached to the Jews in the synagogue, he felt that his sermon was the word of God. 
          Something similar should happen here.  When you come to HillSong or to another church, here is what should happen.  The experience should be one in which you encounter the living God.  I don’t say this because my words are necessarily the Word.  I do my part.  I study.  I pray.  I try to write a sermon that is interesting, well-informed, and includes a message that meets a need people have.  But, you receiving the word of God is not contingent upon my competence as a preacher.  Some weeks I do well, some weeks, I really stumble and stink.
          Some weeks, I finish, and I sit down, and I think, “Boy, I am glad that’s over because my preaching was just awful.” Inevitably someone will come and say through tears, “That’s the best sermon you’ve ever preached.”  Do you know why that happens?  God was at work in that person on that Sunday.  They need to express the overwhelming sense of the holy they have had.  How do they express that?  They don’t know.  So they complement me.
          Sometimes people listen very carefully and give me feedback that is directly tied to something I said and I am grateful in those moments whether the feedback is critical or affirming.  But sometimes, people have actually been dealing with God and did not really hear me at all.  They have to react and the easiest thing to do is say something nice to me. 
          I’ll admit it does feel good to hear affirmations and ‘attaboys.’  But, this morning, I think the word in 1st Thessalonians is calling us to go beyond the easy and immediate reaction.  We need to step toward a more life-changing engagement with the word.  And by the phrase “the word,” I mean the sermon, the Bible, and the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking into hearts as we go through the entire Sunday morning exercise of worship at church. 
          We need to fully receive the word and that requires full engagement of each of us.  Be aware of your life – the good, the bad, the ugly.  Be aware of your spirit.  Are you happy, in a good place right now?  Are you going through difficult times?  Is your life kind of inert, it feels dull, boring?  Is this a season of radical change?  Does all the new that’s pouring to your life leave you feeling unsettled and unsure of what’s next?  As we sit together as a community of faith and encounter God’s word, know yourself, your emotions, your dreams, your situation.  Bring all of it before God.
          When Paul preached at the synagogue in Thessalonica, obviously Jews were present.  Greeks were too.  Non-Jews attended because they found something in the Jewish faith to be attractive.  It was a world of Roman power, Greek culture, and Jewish religion.  Many there knew that the tense situation in Jerusalem.  Certain groups were intent on using military force to evict the Romans.  It would be a suicide mission as Israel was a meager force in the face of the might of the Roman army. 
          The Jews and Greeks who gathered at the synagogue in Thessalonica knew of this.  They heard Paul claim that Jesus, who was crucified, a shameful, loser’s death, had been raised and was the Messiah.  They knew this message was way outside of anyone’s expectations, whether they be Greek, Jewish, or Roman.  How could Paul, a Jew, make such a far-fetched claim?  Yet, he did.  A few Thessalonican Jews believed him and wanted to become disciples of Jesus.  So too did a few Thessalonican Greeks.  Many others got so mad they kicked Paul out of town. 
          In writing the letter 1st Thessalonians, Paul picks up on this ongoing story of struggle and persecution.  When he says, “You received the word as God’s word,” included in this is the acknowledgement that to follow Jesus is to suffer.  Verse 14, “[You Thessalonians] became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews.”  Please remember, in both churches, the Thessalonican and the Judean, many of the Christ-followers were Jews. 
          Bible scholar Calvin Roetzel writes how suffering brought “the suffering churches of Thessalonica and Judea together into a community of shared suffering.”  In this passage, “Paul emphasized the bond between himself and his readers.”[i]  He suffered.  They suffered.  Christians in other cities suffered.  And ultimately, God can identify with all of this because on the cross, Jesus suffered. 
          Suffering of course is not the heart of the faith Paul taught; just the opposite.  In 1st Thessalonians he is moving to show that God welcomes suffering people.  If you are having a tough go of it, that is not a sign that you’re cut off from God.  Sin cuts us off.  If you’re suffering, God understands and so too do all God-followers.  The answer to the cross and to your pain and mine is the resurrection.  We are united in that we are broken and that we have hope that God will clean up our mess, fix what is broken, heal what’s hurt, and make us new. 
          We won’t receive the word fully unless we attend to it fully and that means bring everything before God when we come into the worship.  The preacher stand to preach and we’re all here – with all our junk.  Our hearts are fully present and so too are our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.  Our challenges are linked to those who languish in poverty just a few miles from here.  Our story is a part of the story of the faithful believe drowning in a sea of apathy and atheism in post-Christian Europe.  We are connected to the Christian starving in solitary confinement in a North Korean prison.  It is all connected.
          When Paul told the Thessalonians they were receiving the Word as they heard Him speak and when I say here that God’s word is spoken during my sermons, there is a lot more going on than just a guy as microphone offering commentary on the Bible.  God is bringing us all together in Christ. 
          N.T. Wright says it this way.  “I believe [Paul] regarded [his own] work as being to set up cells loyal to Jesus as Lord across the world where Caesar was lord, raising small but significant flags which heralded the dawn of a different empire, a different sort  of empire.”[ii]  We see several things happening.  One is we, in our brokenness are invited in to find what we need, whatever it is, in a community that is based on faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior of all and Lord of all.  Our hope is in Him.
          A second thing at work in this Word of God is the unity we have with one another, with churches and with people from almost 2000 years ago – Thessalonia, Jerusalem, Paul, Silas, and with churches around the world today.  We who have our hope in Christ are connected to all others who have their hope in Christ because we’re all broken and we all have hope of healing from the same source: the crucified, resurrected Lord.
          A third thing in Paul’s letter which Dr. Wright so astutely observes is that we who are healed and connected through the Word we have received are commissioned to announce that Jesus is Lord.  We are to look at the governments of today and the situations of the lives we lead and we are to be today’s heralds of a new kind of empire.  The word we have received heals us and then propels us just as it did Paul to announce the Gospel, the good news of life in Christ.
          I preach this same message just about every week.  I use different words and the themes vary, but the idea that we meet God in Christ, are healed and made whole, and then are sent into the world in His name is at the core of what I think the Bible says we are to be as His followers.  So discipleship and proclamation is always a part of what we do and say.
          Last week we received a prescription of 3 Bible readings and one orientation – an orientation of welcome to all people.
          This week the word is in the form of exercise or spiritual therapy.  I got to doctor in hopes a magic pill that will my shoulder pain disappear.  No, he says, you don’t get medicine.  You have to go through physical therapy.  It takes time and commitment and it is hard work.  But I can tell you, it is worth it!  I didn’t like the exercises, but 6 weeks later, my shoulder was working properly again.
          This spiritual version of physical therapy is demanding.  (1) We need to come to worship with the family of God – the church.  We need to come every week.  (2) When we come – whether here or elsewhere, whether with me preaching or with Heather or Nathan – we need to be fully present.  This doesn’t mean we hang on every word Rob speaks.  We need to come fully present to God. 
          To be fully present, we have to give God our attention.  Distractions happen, but we keep our minds and hearts open to God as the Bible is read and the preacher speaks.  Fully attentive, fully open, prayerfully waiting, we are ready to receive what God has for us.  In that moment, when we sit fully ready and the Holy Spirit awakens us to new truth and revelation God has for us, that is when we receive the word as God’s word.  It may be directly related to the preacher’s sermon; it may not.  Either way, we have received God’s word.
          Finally (3), we carry what we have received into the world so that we are ready to share the healing and to invite the lost and hurting world around us to the hope that we have in the resurrection of Jesus.
          Come, be fully present, and carry with you what’s been received.  These three spiritual practices need to be done regularly for spiritual health and the transformation of the heart. 
          N.T. Wright marvels at this message we proclaim.  He’s amazed that it actually does anything.  He says, “I have often reflected on the strangeness of the task to which Paul devoted his life: telling pagans that there was a single creator God rather than a multiplicity of gods was bad enough, but adding that this God had made himself known in a crucified Jew, who had then been raised from the dead was bound to cause hoots of derision and, if Acts is to be believed, sometimes did.   Yet Paul found that when he told this story, when he proclaimed that this Jesus was indeed the world’s true Lord, people (to their great surprise, no doubt) found this announcement making itself at home in their minds and hearts, generating the belief that it was true, and transforming their lives with a strange new presence and power.”[iii]
          Yes, it is strange.  Come every week.  Listen so presently and intently you meet God.  Go out and share that God in Christ is the answer to the world’s problem.  We don’t have to participate in this exercise to breathe or have a heartbeat.  But to truly live, we do this.  And, as the apostle says, we have joy.

[i] C. Roetzel (2003).  Paul: A Jew on the Margins.  Westminster John Know Press, Louisville, p.32.
[ii] Wright (2005).  Paul in Fresh Perspective.  Fortress Press, Minneapolis, p.170.
[iii] Ibid, p.100.

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