We are having a series on these Sunday mornings in this "Spring" period - as we euphemistically call it - on the Nature and Character of God. How important it is that we know God - that we know both about him and also know him individually as our loving heavenly Father. It was Jesus himself who prayed to his Father for his disciples in John 17 v 3 like this:
Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.
Last week we thought about the Sovereign God. This week we are thinking about the True and Living God.
And to help us in our thinking on this Foundation Sunday morning I want us to look at the passage we had as our New Testament lesson, 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10. Let me put this chapter and this letter in context.
The apostle Paul had a plan for planting churches around the Roman Empire in strategic communication centres. And Thessalonica was just such a centre. He saw the value of Christian churches in large metropolitan areas. He had the same vision as the founders of Jesmond Parish Church who wanted this church to be a "central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and Evangelical truth in a large and populous town." In such metropolitan areas there is more rootlessness. People are more ready to "re-think" fundamental questions about life and death. They seem more open to the gospel.
We read in the Acts of the Apostles (17.1-9) about Paul's first visit to Thessalonica and how he preached for three Sabbaths in the synagogue with a number of people responding to his message. But the synagogue authorities then got nasty. They attacked the house where Paul was staying and created a riot. They then accused Paul's host, Jason, together with some of the new converts, in those now famous words - Acts 17.6 (in the RSV version):
"These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also and Jason has received them."
Well, Paul, together with Silas and Timothy had to leave. They must have known that they hadn't given the new converts much by way of Christian nurture and teaching. But they had to go. Soon Paul was in Athens and then in Corinth. Probably because Paul was worried about how the folk in Thessalonica were getting on, Timothy made a flying visit to see them again. His report back to Paul was good. So Paul immediately wrote to congratulate and encourage them and also to put them right where they were going wrong - not least in the matter of sexual morality. And 1 Thessalonians is the letter.
It may well have been the earliest of all Paul's extant letters; and, therefore, the earliest of all Christian writings. It's relevance for us on this Foundation Sunday is this: because Paul is dealing with a Christian Church at its own foundation stage, he deals with the foundations of the Christian faith to make sure they are well laid. And because these folk are not well taught, he does so in a very basic and blunt way. The message is crystal clear.
Are you clear about those foundations - that "evangelical truth" - the truth that Richard Clayton declared and preached? I was with someone last week - someone who taught theology - and he was anything but clear. It's good, therefore, on an occasion like this to remind ourselves of some of the basics. We do that as we hear the Thirty-nine Articles. And we can do that as we look at this first chapter of 1 Thessalonians. And you'll see that my headings this morning are first, THE FOUNDATION, and secondly, THE RESULT. I shall spend most time on "the Foundation".
First, THE FOUNDATION
What is it to be a Christian? I see that the national census that is going to take place on 29 April has a question on religion. No doubt many people will put down "Christian". But what does that mean? Well, Paul tells you here in black and white. Look at verses 9b-10. This is what he says about the Thessalonian Christians:
9 ... They [other people] tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
That sums up a true Christian. And you will note that being a Christian relates to the past, the present and the future. First, ...
a) the past:
you turned to God from idols
This is something that happened in the past - when they responded to Paul's preaching. You see, a Christian is fundamentally someone who has turned away from something that is wrong and evil to something that is right and good. That is what "conversion" means - you turn from sin to Christ; from darkness to light; or, as it is put here, from idols to the living and true God. All that has to happen. At the heart of sin and darkness is idolatry. It is putting something or someone else in the place of God. It is having another God. And idolatry is still an issue - in fact, the issue. At the start of this new millennium the choice before men and women is still the choice between idols and the living and true God. These idols can be superstitious and primitive or sophisticated and advanced - either way it is the same thing - having another God and not "the True and Living God". And idolatry, says the bible, is foolish. Jeremiah, in the Old Testament, never someone to mince his words, puts it like this (Jer 10.5):
Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good ...
This is referring to primitive idols. But, you know, advanced people can still be in bondage to such primitive idols. In Japan, last year, we saw Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines. But it is clear that millions of very advanced, civilized Japanese people, with the latest electronic gadgetry are in spiritual bondage. They tie padlocks and prayer requests to temple gates - for a good marriage or a child or healing or to pass an exam or whatever. And it's the same in the West. The opinion polls tell us that most people are not "atheists". They believe in something. The latest figures for Britain show that only 10 per cent say "I don't believe in God". And even then as G.K.Chesterton said: "when you cease to believe in God you don't believe in nothing you believe in anything." That is so true. If you go into the main book shops the sections on tarot, astrology, the occult and new ageism far surpass those on biblical Christianity. These are all forms of idolatry. And so are the so called "higher religions".
Paul knew about the religions of ancient Greece. He'd just been in Athens. In terms of tactics he had dialogue with people on Mars Hill. But in terms of theology he was horrified by all their idolatry. Oh, he knew that the popular religion focusing on Zeus, Apollo and Athena in Athens was better, or "higher", than the sexual orgies associated with the Aphrodite religion at Corinth where he was writing this letter. But he doesn't say, "let's affirm the highest of these religions". No! He says to the Thessalonians, praise God, you didn't affirm any of them. Rather you turned from them. You turned from idolatry. Paul has no time for what today we call "multifaithism".
And because Paul calls greed or covetousness "idolatry", he knows that idolatry can take a more sophisticated form. In his day, people like Lucretius, the great poet, didn't believe in the gods of mythology as some did. But Paul knew that such sophisticated people could also be idolatrous. In Paul's day, as today, thre were people were for money or fame; others for sport or pleasure; and yet others were addicted to food, alcohol, or sex. All this is idolatry, says Paul - Ephesians 5.5:
For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person--such a man is an idolater--has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
And it is all so stupid, as Jeremiah says. The fundamental choice is between what is false and leading to death, and true and leading to life - the true and living God. How this needs to be hammered home in the modern world. As we drift from the true God to various alternative "gods" we live in a world of lies and half-truths. In the news is a dreadful case of child abuse - the death of the young girl, Anna Climbie. Undoubtedly we don't know the whole story. But we know that on average there is more child abuse if people cohabit than if they are truly married. Her abusers were her great Aunt and her cohabiting boyfriend, not her husband. But have you heard Government ministers or journalists say: "let's get back to marriage as the best way to care for and nurture children; one way to stop child abuse is by returning to marriage"? I haven't.
As you move away from the true and living God and his standards you become caught up in falsehood, and, before long, death. The fact is that every idolater is basically in bondage and a prisoner to their own idol whether it is a superstitious or a sophisticated one. But the gospel is this. Through the grace of God you can turn from your idols to God. This is what these Thessalonians had done. Perhaps there is someone here this morning who needs release from an "idol". As you pray for the Holy Spirit's strength and you seek the forgiveness of Christ through his death on the cross for not putting God first, - as you do that, you too can turn away.
But being a Christian is not just a past turning "to God from idols". There is, secondly, something for the present.
b) the present:
Look at verse 9 again:
[you turned to God from idols] to serve the living and true God.
Paul is saying that the Thessalonians then were no longer living for themselves. No! Literally, they were "slaves" of the living and true God.
What does it mean to be a slave (or servant) of the living and true God? Well, it means that every day when you wake up you think that your main business is to please God and achieve his goals in the hospital, in the office, in the factory, in the home, in the lecture room or wherever. It will be different in some ways for everyone. But it will be similar in this respect. You can be sure that it will be difficult. As society is drifting further and further from God's standards, you will be opposed and you will suffer as you stand up for Jesus Christ. This is just what these Thessalonians discovered. Look at verse 6:
In spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.
They suffered for their faith. And so will you at some point. But the key for the Thessalonians, and it must be key for us, is that they knew that the one they were serving was "the living and true God." He was in control. He knew all about their problems. Nothing happened without his permission.
Then, thirdly, there was a future dimension to their Christian faith.
c) The future:
Look at verse 10:
[you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,] and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
These Christians were focusing on the Second Coming of Jesus. It is said that the Second Coming of Jesus is alluded to on average in 1 in every 13 verses. They were confident that one day the course of world history would come to an end. They were confident because Jesus was the one "whom the living and true God raised from the dead." The resurrection is at the heart of the heart of the Christian faith. "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless" said Paul (1 Cor 15.14). But as he goes on to argue, "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor 15.20). How important to focus on the truth of, and the evidence for, the Resurrection.
And these Thessalonians were confident as they faced the future because they knew that Jesus is not only risen, he also is the one "who rescues us from the coming wrath". A lot of people don't like talk about Hell or "the coming wrath".
I don't know how many people have visited Sydney. I have had the privilege of doing so. You saw the harbour area on TV over the summer during the Olympic Games. Well, you can swim in parts of the harbour and along the neighbouring coastline. But these swimming areas are well defined areas and netted off to keep out the sharks. Personally, with memories of Jaws, I'm the sort to be worried in case there are holes in the netting. Well, apparently a few years ago the sharks had been getting through the barriers and the netting and coming close to the shore off some of the beaches in Sydney. The authorities then put up notices: "Beware of the sharks!" Underneath was a picture of a gruesome shark with vicious teeth. One mother complained that the signs were frightening her children and asked if the shark could be made to look less scary. She had totally missed the point. These signs were meant to be frightening. It is the same with the Bible's teaching about Hell, most of which goes right back to Jesus himself. Sin must be judged. Hell is banishment from God, with the impossibility of returning into his presence. C.S.Lewis said in The Great Divorce:
"there are only two kinds of people in the end; those who say to God, 'Thy will be done', and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in hell choose it."
Yes, God is fair. He sent Jesus to "rescue us from the coming wrath" by taking that wrath for us on himself at Calvary. You then cannot blame God!
So the Foundation of the Christian faith and life is threefold, it relates to the past, the present and the future.
It is a) to "turn to God from idols", b) to "serve the living and true God", and c) to "wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead - Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath."
Secondly, THE RESULT.
I've only time to summarize. First, there is "Godly living" - or the changed lives of the Thessalonians. Look at verse 3:
3 We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Secondly, there was "Church growth" - changed churches. Look at verse 7:
7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.
And, thirdly, there was "Changing Macedonia and Achaia" - and indeed further afield. Look at verse 8 and 9a:
8 The Lord's message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia--your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us.
The Thessalonians' faith affected the pagan world. So, what is the conclusion for us after 140 years of the life of this church?
Answer: we need to serve God and wait for Jesus. And those two things must go together. There is a lot for us to do - yes, at this church - as we serve God and work for Godly living, Church growth and Changing Britain and as we seek to help people turn from idols to the living and true God. But we must keep alive all the time the great hope of heaven. At best our serving and working will only improve society; it will never perfect it. For that you have to wait for heaven. You will so often be frustrated in this life. Without the hope of heaven and eternity, you can so easily get discouraged. But confident of a wonderful future, you can be busy and faithful in the present, knowing you are doing what Christ wants. And his will is always good and perfect.