Please have a seat… and let me say a very good morning to you. It's great to be back here at JPC for a quick visit. And I want to say a big "Thank You" to all of you who have been praying for and encouraging us at St Joseph's over this last year or so. Now it would encourage me no end if you could also grab a Bible and look back to that passage we read earlier on from 1 Thessalonians 1 – so that you can have it open in front of you as we start a new series in it today. And we do so, let me pray for us:
Father God, we thank you for this letter written so long ago, yet still a living word from you. We ask that as we open it up together that you would use it to build us up to be model believers for others to imitate just like the Thessalonians were. Amen.
I don't know about you, but I just love a good film. There's something immensely enjoyable about just losing yourself in another world for a while, isn't there? Most films we watch are an escape from reality. The film is a pretend world so there is a willing suspension of disbelief while we're there. We know that ordinary life doesn't have a happy ending or a cast with perfect teeth and hair or an intergalactic imperial empire building a planet-destroying space station. But we live in that pretend world for a while and then when the film ends we re-enter the everyday, humdrum world in which our own lives are lived. And though I always want to drive my car a bit faster on my way home from watching a James Bond film – the fact that I am driving a Volkswagen Polo not an Aston Martin DB5 reminds me that there is a big gap between what I've seen on the screen and where I live my life.
And I think a lot of the time we're tempted to read the Bible in that way. We're tempted to put that same gap between the pages of the New Testament and our lives. Treating it like a pretend world – an imaginary world which we enter for a time on Sundays or Home Groups or when we have a quiet time – but then we step out of it again – back into the real world in which we live the rest of our lives. But when we do that we're forgetting that a letter like the Thessalonians, is a real letter. It is not a theological treatise. It's not a work of fiction. I mean just look at the first verse:
"Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace."
Now that was just the normal start to a letter in those days. It was the 1st Century Christian equivalent of 'Dear Pete, How are you?' Or however it is you start your letters... if you write letters at all that is! Though if you're more of a text-er or Facebook-er I have to say that try as I might I can't think of what the emoji for "Grace to you and peace" actually is! But even though this letter may have been written 2000 years ago, in a quite different culture – it is written to real people, in a real time and a real place –about 51-52AD in 1st Century Greece to be precise.
Paul visited the Thessalonians when he and his mission team were on a preaching tour. You can read about it in the book of Acts, chapter 17. And they were met with an encouraging response at first as some of the folks in Thessalonica believed, but then they found themselves about as popular as Nigel Farage at a European Union drinks party. Religious folk rounded up a mob, started a riot and hounded Paul and his mates out of town. And after such a brief and exciting stay Paul's heart yearned to find out how those new Christians were getting on. Was their faith genuine? Were they still going on with Christ in a world that stands against him? Well yes they were! And Paul is filled with relief and joy when he gets word of this and so he writes this letter to affirm the Thessalonians in their faith and to encourage them to keep going.
So let me give you two things that Paul gives thanks for in the lives of the Thessalonians; two things to encourage them; two things that we can give thanks for and be encouraged by if we find them in our lives. Here's the first – Paul sees in them:
1. Genuine Transformation
Their lives have been changed! Have a look at verses 2 and 3:
"We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ."
Paul prays, giving thanks to God for what he's done in the Thessalonians' lives by bringing them to Christ – God has transformed them into people of Faith, Love, and Hope. These are the three key characteristics that should mark every Christian.
I don't know if you've ever experienced the joys of a trip to Blackpool – if you haven't then really you should have it on your bucket list. It's one of those unique things you should really do before you die. But if you want to ruin your teeth you'll buy a stick of rock, and wherever you break the rock the letters "B-L-A-C-K-P-O-O-L" run all the way through it. Well it's like that with these distinctive marks of faith, hope and love – wherever you break into a Christian's life you should find them. And when you find them you will always see that each of these qualities forces our focus away from ourselves:
- In faith - towards God and his agenda.
- In love - towards other people and their needs.
- And in hope - towards a future that is always in God's hands.
But notice also that each of these qualities is productive too. They bear fruit – faith works, love labours and hope endures. What you believe always affects how you live. For example, if someone were to rush into this service and told us that there was a fire in the church halls – if we believed their message then we would react, wouldn't we? We wouldn't just shrug our shoulders and say: 'Well thanks so much for telling us, but we're in the middle of a service here. Ken Matthews is speaking, and when Ken speaks I hang on his every word.' No! If we believed the message then some of us would be running to grab children from the crèche or Scramblers, some brave souls might try to find a fire extinguisher to help tackle the blaze, some of us would just be running to get out of the building.
And if we have believed the message of the gospel – the great good news that Jesus Christ is God and died for us to bring us back into a relationship with himself – then that inevitably will be seen in how we live. So if we have faith in Christ – that will mean that we will trust him not just to forgive our sins and get us into heaven when we die, but to take charge of our lives while we live. We will say: 'Jesus is my saviour and my Lord. Who else should I live for?'
Some people when they find out how much money it takes to fund gospel ministry here and at St Joseph's have asked me how we get the funding – is it from grants or lottery money or elsewhere? And they're stunned when I say it's all come from the congregation. That kind of generous, sacrificial giving is a "work of faith" because it believes giving to gospel work is worth it.
And I guess that for those of you who have signed up to be on the support team for our new Christians Against Poverty Debt Centre, or any of the many other different ministries that happen across the church here – all those hours spent preparing and praying for and then pitching up to serve others in Jesus' name are a "labour of love", are they not?
And we give of our money and our time, in all kinds of ways – and we keep doing so… because we hope. "Steadfastness of hope" is an on-going theme in Paul's letters to the Thessalonians – which is why we've called this series 'Waiting for Jesus.' But it's my guess that the present is often a little bit too comfortable for us. It is too enjoyable for most of us. So we hardly need a future hope to make our present more bearable. But then when our present circumstances do become less bearable, unbearable even – for one reason or another – we find we have too little in our Christian experience to help us to keep going.
Well that wasn't the case for the Thessalonians - their future hope had made them steadfast. And the Greek word for "steadfastness" here means 'the spirit which bears all things' – not simply with resignation, but with a fierce certainty. It is the determination of a winning boat race crew. I don't know if you saw the Oxford / Cambridge Boat Race a few weekends back – or have ever watched it. But I have married into a keen rowing family... from Cambridge no less, so I have watched it many a time over the last 18 years. And I've noticed that most boat races are over within the first five minutes, as once the teams go under Hammersmith Bridge – only a third of the way through the race – it's pretty obvious who is going to win.
Yet interestingly neither crew ever gives up at that stage – even though one crew is usually a full boat length ahead and it's pretty clear that there will be no miracle comeback over the rest of the race – they go on rowing through the pain barrier and they row right on to the finishing line. But there is all the difference in the world between the perseverance of the leading crew who know they are going to win – and the perseverance of the trailing crew who are pretty certain they are going to lose. It's gruelling hard work to keep on rowing, but they do so with a bright hope in their hearts – For they know the end result.
And in the same way the Christian looks forward to the future in certain hope and what we see there helps us keep going. Christ's death and resurrection from the grave assure us that one day he is coming back and that when he does we will win! All sin will be wiped away and we will live with him forever in perfect glory. And so we persevere with great hope in our heart. Under great stress we go on believing, because we know where it is all leading eventually.
So, three qualities to mark our lives as Christians: our work of faith, our labour of love, and our steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. Do you see them at work in your life? I hope and pray you do.
But that is not all that Paul saw that was significant about these Thessalonian Christians. He, secondly, also saw at work in their lives:
2. Spiritual Power
Look at verse 4:
"For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you..."
What has God done? He has set his love upon them. He's picked them out as his children. He's brought them home to be in him. And we know that it's God who is pulling all the strings here because, verse 5:
"...our gospel came to you not only in word, [i.e. truth that make sense] but also in power [that opens people's hearts and minds to the truth] and in the Holy Spirit [who illuminates those hearts and minds to the truth] and with full conviction [for the gospel had really taken root in those who proclaimed it]."
So it's not that Paul and his mission team were really brilliant at explaining the gospel – rather it's God who has come and done a work of power through them. Now you might say: 'That's all very nice for the Thessalonians, but I don't remember God doing a work of power in me. There was no blinding light, no astonishing revelation, no amazing epiphany.' Well, let's just look at what that work of power was like. Verses 6-10:
"And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how 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 delivers us from the wrath to come."
Do you see what's happened here folks? It's a miracle! The Thessalonians were worshipping idols. In other words – they were worshipping anything that isn't God. For many of them it literally was blocks of wood and iron – but those idols represented the same false God's we worship of sex and money and status and family. They made good things into God things – worshipping his gifts, rather than the God who gives all good things. Their backs were turned to him; their eyes didn't recognise him; their ears didn't hear him. But now they have "turned"! And that can only be a work of God. Paul in 2 Corinthians 4.4 tells us that:
"…the God of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ."
How can you not see light? How can you not see that idols are just a lump of wood? You must be blind not to see that living without God is folly! But we're all spiritually blind unless God takes the scales from our eyes and by the power of the Holy Spirit he helps us to see.
When God is at work something supernaturally powerful happens through the speaker and in the listeners, as the Holy Spirit does His work. Maybe you've had the experience of listening to a talk or a sermon and thinking: 'This could be written for me.' And maybe, more than that, you've not only been able to hear who Jesus is and what he's done for you and understand it, but you've also turned from living for anything but God to putting him at the centre of your life. Well, anyone who is able to say: 'Jesus Christ died for me and is Lord of my life', has obviously had the gospel come to them. Verse 5:
"...not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction."
So the Apostle Paul reassures the Thessalonian believers that they are loved. They have been chosen by the true and living God. 'Don't worry if it doesn't 'feel right',' he says, 'or if it's hard going at times, or if folks respond badly to what you're doing when you seek to live for Christ. Keep on serving and waiting for Jesus, because God has done a work of power in you... to turn you back to Him.'
So, let me give you a couple of applications, and then I'm done. For one thing: Thank God for Faith - the faith he's given you and the faith he's given others. When someone becomes a Christian, I've noticed that I often don't appreciate the enormity of that piece of news, – often because I'm focusing on all the people who haven't yet become Christians. Well Paul's example is: focus on the response, not the non-response. He's focusing on the Thessalonians who have become Christians, rather than the ones who are opposing the cause of the gospel. There are so many things that can discourage us aren't there? Not least of which is not seeing any response to the gospel from our friends and family. But at those times – especially at those times – we need to take encouragement from responses among other peoples' friends and family, or from testimonies where individuals tell us how they've come to faith. We need to focus on what God is doing, rather than what he isn't – and Thank Him for Faith.
And the other application is to: Trust God for Faith. In my last year at Glasgow University, I remember planning and organising with a friend of mine a Christmas event to help a Christian Union group in a local hall of residence to introduce their non-Christian mates to Jesus. It started well as a good number of folk turned out, but then it all went downhill from there.
- The lad we'd got to play the music was dreadful, his Casio keyboard seemed to be stuck on 'funeral parlor' setting.
- The soloist sang not with the voice of an angel but a demon.
- My mate's testimony left people with tears in their eyes as he went off on one and didn't stop for 20 to 30 minutes.
- And then I stood up realising that after all that, I couldn't do the full talk I'd prepared so I tried to cut it down, but just ended up rambling for a bit.
At the end the Christian Union leader left the room in floods of tears. She rushed up to her room where a gang of CU members had been praying fervently. Their eyes lifted expectantly from their prayers. She entered sobbing. I was hot on her heels. Nobody dared ask. Finally someone piped up: "So, er… how did it go?" Before she could answer there was a knock on the door. A member of the CU group was there with another girl. "This is Kate, she'd like to become a Christian." Within a few minutes there was another knock at the door. Another CU member, another girl: "This is Jenny, she'd like to become a Christian."
"Our gospel came to them not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction."
So if we're a Christian we're not to think it all rests with us, our presentation skills, our personalities. We're not to be tempted to change the message and make it more palatable. And we're not to get blasé about praying for our friends. God is at work, in his time and in his way. And if we're not yet a Christian, we're not to be discouraged that we don't have enough faith to believe. And neither are we to think that we can merely reason it all out. The gospel needs to come with both convincing words and the power of God being at work. So why not ask God to give you the eyes to see and the faith to believe by his spirit? Let me pray for us now:
Father God, we thank you for the great miracle of having our hearts turned from worthless idols to you – the true and living God. Please help us to live out those distinctive qualities of faith, love and hope which show that we are truly yours. We pray that we would give thanks to you and trust you for the work you want to do in others' lives – and ask that you would help any here who are not yours to come to understand the wonderful good news of the gospel. In your name we pray. Amen.