St Barnabas & St Michael’s, November 23rd 2014
Readings – 2 Thessalonians 2:3 – 3:5; Matthew 25:31-46
Are you ready for Advent? Have you already bought your Advent calendar for this year, for yourself or a member of the family? If you look on the church website, you’ll see an article about the ‘Real Christmas’ Advent calendar, which tells the Christmas story as well as giving you a daily dose of chocolate!
If you’re interested, you can buy online or in our major supermarkets … and the more we buy from them, the more they will stock next year.
Excuse the advertising – we’ll come back to Advent later. But first … last week Tim summarised our sermon series on Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church. If you didn’t hear it, do read it on the website or ask him for a copy. It’s clearly been a significant series of sermons for our churches at this time.
This week we’re looking at the second letter of Paul to the church at Thessalonica. We didn’t have time to read the whole letter, but it is closely linked to 1 Thessalonians with many of the same themes (and it filled a gap in Tim’s preaching schedule before the start of Advent next week!). So this morning we’re going to take a flying overview of the letter as a whole … so, bibles at the ready! (p.1189 in the church bibles)
In 1 Thessalonians, Paul began by giving thanks to God for the Thessalonians’ faith and the evidence of it (1 Thessalonians 1:2-10). Here in his second letter, probably written less than a year later, Paul thanks God that their faith is still growing …
We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. (1:3)
But, and it’s a big but, so too is the opposition they face …
Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. (1:4)
So in the rest of chapter 1 Paul reminds the believers God has promised that one day there will be justice … blessing for those who have believed and persevered, and punishment for those who have been deliberately disobedient …
God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. (1:6-8)
That promise however, is in the future … and chapter 2 is a graphic, and confusing, description of the evil that will grow alongside the kingdom of God until that day comes … we don’t have time to go through it in any detail, so I want to pick out just one verse,
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed … (2:1-2a)
It’s very easy, when we read the darker parts of the Bible – especially those that concern the future and the details of judgement and the Lord’s return – it’s very easy to become confused and unsettled. Paul has to tell them the truth, to forewarn them that there are some difficult days ahead, but his intention is that none of this should take them by surprise, and to remind them to stand firm in the faith whatever happens. For those of us who believe, that day will be a day of hope and the promise of glory …
He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2:14)
But how should we live while we wait? That’s chapter 3 …
… the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one. We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command. (3:3-4)
Paul draws his letter to a close by referring to a particular problem among the believers … those that are idle.
We can only guess why this was such a problem for the church in Thessalonica … Paul has already referred to it briefly in 1 Thessalonians 5(v14) … to understand why, we have to read between the lines. But at the very least, it tells us that while we look forward to that day, we should not simply sit back and wait for that day to come… our priority is to live for God in the present … and for the Thessalonians that meant working for a living.
And finally, Paul pronounces a blessing on the believers, and ends with a personal greeting …
Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you. (3:16)
So, that’s a very brief overview of the letter. How long did that take … it’s less than two pages of text anyway! Here’s a summary …
- 1:1-2 … The salutation, a greeting
- 1:3-4 … Paul praises God for evidence of continued growth
- 1:5-12 … God’s promise of justice
- 2:1-12 … A warning that justice is delayed and evil grows alongside the kingdom
- 2:13-17 … Encouragement to stand firm
- 3:1-5 … A prayer for continued growth
- 3:6-15 … The command to keep on living right
- 3:16-18 … Blessing and greetings
So, having raced through this short letter (leaving lots out, but we’ve seen the gist and the structure of the letter) … now let’s go back and pick out one or two things to focus on.
1:3 reads We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. So, two questions … is our faith growing? And what is the evidence that our faith is growing?
Is your faith growing?
I’m not sure it’s a question I can answer on your behalf … is your faith growing? Every now and then, we need to take some time to ask ourselves whether or not our faith is growing … our trust and love and commitment towards God. And if you’re not sure that it is, then there are plenty of people who are willing to listen, to encourage and to pray with you. Talk to someone, it doesn’t have to be Tim; or come along to a small group. Faith is spiritual muscle … it grows with use, and weakens if unused. So, ask yourself, is your faith growing?
Secondly, what is the evidence that our faith is growing?
Faith is not an individual pursuit, we are part of the family of God, and the first evidence of faith among a group of believers is their love for one another. I hope we can all sense that the love within this church family is growing … perhaps we need to share our thoughts and observations with each other, to encourage one another. But we’re not talking about groups and subgroups within the church … this love includes everyone, and sometimes it takes a conscious effort to include newcomers and established members, young and old, everyone together, loving each other.
The second evidence of faith that Paul mentions, is our perseverance in the face of opposition. We don’t perhaps face persecution as such … though I suspect a time is soon coming when to follow Jesus will put us on the wrong side of the law of the land. But we all have examples of when following Jesus is to swim against the tide, when being a disciple means we stand out from the crowd or we have a different set of priorities to our family and friends.
Those times are so much easier when we stand together, when we can depend on the love of other Christians, when we know our church will support, encourage and pray for us.
In one sense, that is the point of Advent. We saw in our overview of 2 Thessalonians that God has promised a time when Jesus will return bringing hope, justice and judgement … but we saw too that while we wait for that day, evil grows alongside the kingdom of God, which feels rather overwhelming at times.
So the season of Advent … which is, incidentally, the beginning of a new church year … the season of Advent isn’t about getting ready for Christmas. Instead, Advent looks forward to Jesus’ return. And this letter gives us three things to focus on while we’re waiting:
First, we focus on the promise of God, the promise that when Jesus comes again there will be justice – glory for those who choose to follow Jesus in trust and obedience (even when we get it wrong from time to time), and judgement for those who are deliberately disobedient. When everything in the world appears to be going wrong … God’s promise gives us hope of justice.
Second, we focus on how to live while we wait. Two verses …
And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right. (3:13)
We are to stand firm, or hold tight, to the word of God, to his many and varied promises, and we are to continue to do good, to live in obedience.
And finally, we are to focus on prayer and thanksgiving. Last week, Tim read us these verses from 1 Thessalonians 5,
Look at how often Paul includes prayer and thanksgiving in this short letter of 2 Thessalonians …
1:3 … We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.
1:11 … With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.
2:13 … But we ought always to thank God for you,brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.
3:1 … Finally, brothers,pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured, just as it was with you. And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith.
3:16 … Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.
In almost every section of this letter there is prayer and thanksgiving … these are only a few examples.
This is only a short letter, and difficult to read … but it is perfect for the Advent season!
Next Sunday is Advent Sunday … and all the preparations for Christmas are already under way … but will you take the time to look beyond the festive season, to a time when the real Jesus, not the story book Jesus, will come in glory, to bring justice, to gather his people to himself …
Lord, help us to be realistic about our growth in faith. Thank you for all those who come to church and support each other in love, encouragement and prayer. We pray for wisdom and perseverance, as we seek to live obediently and faithfully, and teach us to pray. In Jesus’ name, amen.