“Spiritual Reality”

Sermon for 6 Feb 2005

Texts: I Thess 1:1-6


            As we begin this series on I Thessalonians, I want to present as a bridge between our day and the time and setting of this early epistle of Paul the quest for spiritual reality.  Everyone in every age has wanted to know what is real, true and spiritual.  They want to know if they can build their present and future life on the spiritual reality behind their faith.  Few parts of the New Testament lend themselves better to this desire for spiritual validation than the one before us.


            Its April of 49 AD.  Imagine, if you, will being invited into the city of Thessalonika, a thriving urban center of the ancient world located in the Macedonian provinces of Greece.  The city named after the step sister of Alexander the Great was founded in 315 B.C. and currently is the home of some 200,000 folk.  It exudes confidence and prosperity.  Consider its thriving business precinct with its state of the art development.  A major architectural innovation, for instance, is a shop/residential unit known as an “insula.”  Jason, the man who befriended Paul, Silas and Timothy after their relocation from Philippi--a mere five day’s walk to the east own a new, well-designed insula downtown.  The city has an excellent natural harbor where the mouth of the Auxius River empties into the head of the Thermaic Gulf off the Aegean Sea--the extreme northwest corner of that commercial waterway.  As a sizeable city, we find a well-established synagogue of Diasporic Jews, that is, scattered Jews and this well-established and respected institution has been quite effective in evangelism, attracting to itself a sizeable number of seekers. There may have been as many as 30,000 Jews living in the city--a whole district was filled with people of similar ethnic and religious background.  Many Gentiles, weary of the immorality of polytheistic religions--a large number of pagan religions practicing idolatry also fill this cosmopolitan city--have become interested in the Jewish monotheism.  They wanted to know what set this people apart and they came to inquire.  So, the city is diverse, tolerant, for the most part, and open to religious influences.  Administering this sea of humanity are five, or six politarchs--for so they were called--because as a free city, run by a council of its citizens, Thessalonika doubled, since 146 B.C. as the seat of Roman government for the whole province.  Just inland, fertile fields dotted the flood plains of the Auxius River and this produce streamed into the marketplace daily in harvest time.  But let me take you to another, deeper level.  Many of those whom came to find a place in the city were broken, hurting people like Naomi.  They were displaced, broken, afraid and bitter.  Let’s slip as it were away from the tour guide and meet one who’s struggle prepared her to meet God as proclaimed in Christ.


            We read about her this morning after she came staggering back to Palestine, to Bethlehem after an experience in Moab of the most excruciating kind.  She had gone to Moab with Elimelech, her husband and her two young sons.  They were fleeing famine and looking forward to a better life in Moab.  That dream turned nightmarish.  Her two sons grew up and, after Elimelech’s death, they married two women of Moab: Orpah and Ruth.  They made a life for themselves there for some ten years.  Then disaster hit and both of her sons died without issue.  Three widowed women were socially stranded-they had no means of support, no claim to any inheritance so Naomi tried to sent the girls home to their families where at least there might be some comfort in the care of those who knew them.  Naomi’s predicament had gone from poor, to bad, and then on to horrendous.  She was bereft, grieving and miserable.  With her youth had gone all her dreams for a happy marriage, a prosperous home, a legacy.  So far as she could tell her life was one unbroken calamity!  Her feet were cut on the shattered pieces of broken life.  No wonder that her life was full of bitterness, so full that she told all who had known her from happier times call me Mara, the Hebrew word for bitter.  And Whom did she blame for her afflictions, she blamed God, El Shaddai, the Almighty One: “for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.  I went out full and the Lord has brought me home empty:” (vv. 20-21)  Naomi is a counterpart to Job.  The poignancy of her despair was sharpened all the more by the timing of her arrival home--in the beginning of the barley harvest, a happy and festive time . . . a time when few would be in the mood to sympathize.  It only served to intensify her loneliness.  How does one keep his, or her faith when one misfortune after another hammers on your life?  Where is God?  Why doesn’t He do something?  What had Naomi done to deserve such gut wrenching suffering?


            The truth is, if we were honest, we would openly acknowledge that there are Naomi’s and Job’s all around us.  And some of us are them.  Except we put on the brave face, we choose to act more proper than real, we smile but we want to scream and cry and wail.  Shattered dreams, broken lives are painful.  And the reason that people seek God, seek answers is because they, like Naomi, would like to know what is really going on.  They rightly sense that if they could break through to the truth, if they could only get to God, then it would become bearable.  If only they could break through to God, encounter Him, know Him, then they would be satisfied.  Therefore Jesus declares that to know God is eternal life.  Therefore Job is satisfied when God openly rebukes him: I have seen you and that is enough.  But where does Naomi meet God?  Where does she encounter the One who destroyed her dreams, shattered her into a thousand pieces each more battered and bruised than the next?  She meets Him in the something He was doing that she thought was nothing.  She meets Him in the heart and life of Ruth--the one who said “yes” to the God who said, No.  Naomi encounters the great redeemer in the midst of her brokenness.  There she meets Him and finds out that He is not indifferent al all--He is simply unwilling to let any other pleasure compete with the excellency of knowing, loving and enjoying Himself.  It’s all about Him.  It’s all about Him.  Life is not about me, not about my happiness, success or fulfillment.  It takes great suffering to break out from the bondage of our flesh, to escape the seductions of personal significance and family history even.  Naomi sees God in the provision of Boaz.  She finds the family God meant her to have with her daughter-in-law’s new life.  She re-enters the community of rejoicing through the gate of wonder.  Of course, God cared.  Did He not make a Ruth and a Boaz.  Therefore it is infinitely significant that we read of Obed’s conception as a gift of God (4:13)  just as we read in Job 42:10-13:


And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends, and the LORD increased all that Job had twofold. Job 42:11  Then all his brothers, and all his sisters, and all who had known him before, came to him, and they ate bread with him in his house; and they consoled him and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought on him. And each one gave him one piece of money, and each a ring of gold. Job 42:12  And the LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning, and he had 14,000 sheep, and 6,000 camels, and 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys. Job 42:13  And he had seven sons and three daughters.

Now some theologians are offended by this so-called happy ending.  I no longer understand their offense.  Is it because they think this is somehow a reward for perseverance?  It is not that.  Is it because it looks like compensation--God making up for the sons and daughters lost?  That is not possible.  Let me put this plainly: the reward of Job’s perseverance was his meeting with God.  And that beloved is quite enough.  When we get to the place that we realize that knowing Him is its own reward--when we go after God for God alone, we enter into our intended rest.  We find our purpose and we meet our proper end.  Perfection awaits us in heaven.  Eternal life is on the far side of the grave.  Naomi is an old woman bouncing baby Obed on her knee and she sees God.  She suffered intensely and that suffering brought her through.  She finally saw that God suffers with us but He has a plan.  She saw that He was not over against us, but always for us.  And that kind of faith, tried and true, fired and pure is what pleases God.  God was pleased with her loyalty--it was that loyalty that won Ruth to faith.  It was that loyalty which beget Obed, who beget Jesse, who beget David.  Naomi’s suffering was what it took to bring all into alignment, and to establish the lineage of Israel’s greatest king--that is, until Jesus appeared.  How fascinating!  Another baby bouncing on the knee.


            But before we jump ahead to the good news, before we leap to grace, let’s assess what we’ve heard.  When Paul arrived in Thessalonika, he was pretty beaten and bruised; but he was not bitter.  He had suffered a lot for the God he preached, yet his faith was sure, his love was passionate and his hope was contagious.  The Job’s and Naomi’s of this world are drawn to that.  They want to know a God who stands in the bad times as well as the good times.  They wanted a God who made sense of suffering because there was so much suffering about them.  In the dark, yes.  Lost, of course.  Sinners, by all means.  A God who suffered for our sakes, a God who had a plan for reconciling all things, that was the God for them.


            Paul, when he arrived in Thessalonika, began immediately both to teach and preach at the synagogue and to interface with the vendors and merchants of the city.  He was a manufacturer of goat’s hair cloth--the kind use for tents, and probably sails.  His wares were in demand and the materials appear to have been in ready supply throughout Asia and the European provinces.  His message was that life is a gift and had purpose.  He taught that Jesus, the long- expected Messiah for the Jews and Savior of the entire human race had indeed come.  The reality of a personal God and the supremacy of Christ is the big picture.  Jesus is king and Lord of all.  Paul proclaimed the suffering, death and resurrection message of Jesus as the Christ on the cross--there Christ won full and free atonement of our sins through His sacrificial death just as the scriptures foretold.  For three straight Sabbaths, he taught gaining both strength and converts.  The leadership of the synagogue probably came to view him as a Jewish heretic--that was the official take on Christianity at the time.  But Paul’s bold preaching and his demonstration from Scripture of the truth of God in Christ Jesus had a powerful and for some alarming impact.  In that gospel presentation, Paul most certainly stressed the three cardinal virtues of faith, hope and love that emerge several times in his letters (1 Thess 1 and 1 Corinthians 13).  Because Paul saw himself as a transmitter of true doctrine--rather than as an original thinker, we have some grounds for believing that these emphases came from Jesus Himself.  Therefore it is not surprising to find echoes of this tri-fold teaching in other apostolic writings, particularly John where we are urged to believe on Him (faith), find our hope in Him and to love one another. 


            How long did Paul stay in Thessalonika?  At the very least, he stayed three to four weeks--but certain internal evidences suggest a much longer time.  He had, for example, settled into a trade, had been there long enough to receive at least two gifts from the church in Philippi and left a large thriving fellowship behind.  To be sure resistance to his teaching shut down Paul’s outreach to the Jews in the synagogue (and eventually occasioned his flight from there to Berea); but all of that takes time.  Therefore, I hold the position that Paul worked in this city for at least three to four months--quite a bit longer than the seven odd weeks in Berea and certainly less time than the ministry in Corinth which may have lasted 18-20 moths beginning with early 50 A.D.  Paul’s ministry in Athens was  frustrating and futile for the most part--he appears to have been either ignored, or ridiculed.  Perhaps it was the success of his efforts in Thessalonika that reinforced his determination only to preach Christ and him crucified after the disappointing results of challenging pagan philosophers at Mars Hill in Athens. Jesus Christ as Lord, crucified for our sins and raised to glory by the power of God is the heart of the message that Paul preached.  He also preached about Christ’s return to judge the quick and the dead at the end of this age--which is the substance of the hope spoken of here.


            The greeting in 1 Thess. is bare, simple.  Paul is writing, along with Silas and Timothy, to the new church plant in Thessalonika.  After their move to Berea, Silas and Timothy had remained in place--this is probably because they were less conspicuous and because Paul had really stirred up the Jewish opposition.  It’s October, 49 and Paul is apparently so concerned about the state of the church that he is willing to stay in Athens alone.  Timothy is sent back to Thessalonika--and Silas is probably sent back to Philippi and eventually the three are reunited in Corinth where Paul is residing with Priscilla and Aquila in the spring of 51.  After all that waiting, and prayerful concern, Timothy’s news is so affirming that you can almost feel the pulse of Paul’s exuberance in the opening verses of the epistle--all ten verses of chapter one are tied together in one sentence modifying the main clause “we give thanks.”  They had survived and were thriving in spite of persecution and suffering. 


            Paul’s purpose in writing was one of encouragement.  He wanted the believers there to know that they were the real thing, the genuine article, authentic Christians.  And the truth of the matter is that the desire for such assurance didn’t disappear with the 1st century.  Individual Christians still want to know is my faith real? Is it true?  Paul praises their Christian virtues of faith, hope and love with a view to their perseverance.  (All this is summarized in verse 3.)  There are set forth the marks of an authentic Christian faith.  It is as if Paul is declaring his delight that a “rare energy of faith has shown itself powerfully in you.”  In trouble and tribulation, the Thessalonians found opportunity to show forth love--they made occasion of their sufferings to show faith and hope as real.  True Christianity is thereby defined by them as a faith both lively and full of vigor.  This faith spares no labor when assistance is to be given to others.  Those who truly love Jesus appear to despise everything else.  Armed with patience, and certain of the future’s outcome (Jesus is coming to establish His rule on earth with them), they live above their circumstances.  They rise above the wearisome-ness of time, and all temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil.  Again, their lives were power filled--the spiritual energy of true doctrine, as Calvin puts it,-- pleads their authenticity.


            Faith, hope and love are not mere, bare abstract nouns here.  They are paired with work, endurance and labor.  This  pairing, this modification is to clarify the meaning of each virtue.  Faith abounding in works--works that God has prepared beforehand for us to walk in, works such as witnessing, service, worship and evangelism.  When we speak of the labor of love, we are drawing our attention as did Paul to the self-sacrificial character of Christian love.  Such labors cover financial support of Christian endeavors but here it refers to visiting and helping the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and taking in the homeless.  It entails vulnerable, honest listening to the Naomi’s and Job’s all around us!  Listening with open, hurtable hearts.  When we speak of hope, we are speaking with Paul of our anticipation of the Lord’s return.  Such hope secures us, changes how we act in the moment to moment life we lead because He is the coming One.  We escape perfectionism by hope--things will never be perfect here and now--How unspeakably sad!-- but they will be perfect there and then!  God wounds us, God heals us We escape fear because God’s plan is in place, unfolding even as I speak..  We escape vengeance because our hope includes the settling of all scores justly and rightly by the one person completely qualified to do so. 


            I wonder.  What has God been up to that has prepared you for today? What answered prayers? What silence suffering, or loneliness is it that beckons you to Him?  This table has been prepared for you.  You cannot partake without knowing death.  It is a feast of brokenness.  It is also a feast of compassion.  It is the feast prepared by Christ the co-sufferer for all the weary and torn--true food and real drink.  Are you ready for the great exchange?  His righteousness for your wretchedness?  His forgiveness for your guilt?  His comfort for your pain?  Come all who are hungry. . .come all who are thirsty.  He has come to meet you here.