“Labor of Love”
27 February 2005
Texts: 1 Thess 1:5-10
Last Sunday we spent time looking at the “sounding forth” of the gospel based on verse 8 of 1 Thess.1 as it connects with the role of trumpets in the life of Gideon, hymnody and biblical revelation. It was time well-spent. Stepping back, I wonder what my preoccupation with loud noises signifies because last week it was the summons of the trumpet, church bells and the meal time triangle. And this week I find myself taken with steam whistles as in river boats. When I attended the Maine State YMCA, I was impressed with the antique mail boat that made runs up and down Lake Cobbosseecontee. That boat’s whistle lingers in my mind. But there were other lessons in chapter one that bear presentation, too. But before we get into river boats and whistles too far, I want to give you a phrase upon which to hang the heart of today’s message: love to the lost, Lord to the saved. In all that we do as Christians, we must take care not to lose sight of the principle entailed in love to the lost, Lord to the saved. It expresses a critical discernment. We need to know to whom we are speaking if we hope to communicate well. Now J Vernon McGee shares a wonderful metaphor in his teaching of this chapter. To illustrate his point, he relates a story his Dad told him about a steam-driven river boat on the Mississippi. It had a tiny boiler and a great big whistle. Now if this boat was driving a load upstream and it had to use its whistle, it immediately began to lose power and drifted downstream. Some Christians I know, myself included, are a lot like that boat. We have a steam, or power management problem.
So, the first lesson from Thess. 1, from Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica, that I want to share is this: keep your boiler stoked, but also keep that steam under control. If we have any hope of accomplishing much in this life, we must learn how to manage the limited power we have to accomplish the great purposes before us. The Lord has prepared works beforehand that we should walk in, works of service, kindness, compassion and witness aimed at the world as well as the works of mutual edification and encouragement aimed at fellow believers. And the second lesson which is an expansion of the first has to do with love and Lordship themselves. Whatever service we perform, we must make sure that it motivated by a love of Christ--if you do not love Jesus, forget the service. That’s right, if you don’t labor out of your love for Him, that is indeed love’s labor lost. It’s worthless and gives no joy either to you, or to the unfortunate recipient of your begrudged duty. We owe the Lord good service.
Let try to get a handle on the love and lordship bit first. John 21 can be preached from a number of angles and all to good effect, but the big deal, it seems to me, is this: Jesus wants to establish in Peter a principle of ministry. Paul operated out of the same principle in his missionary work! “Do you love me, Peter? Paul?” Ah, that’s the question. And, if Peter’s answer or our own answer is affirmative, then the Lord has work for us to do: “Feed My sheep.” “Tend My lambs.” “Feed My sheep.” And, at last, after Peter’s painful threefold admission of love, comes a fourth curt command: “Follow Me.” We are culturally very uncomfortable, I think, with anyone, including Jesus, being in a command position in our lives. But if anyone could be rightfully in such a position surely it would be the Lord Jesus, the One who laid His life down for lost sinners--a pure gesture of true love. Surely, if anyone could be trusted not to take advantage of us, and not oppress us, or “lord it over us,” it would be Jesus who first loved us.
And what does Christian love express to a lost world? It says, Jesus is your Savior; He loves the lost. Is it the same thing that Christian love expresses to the church? Hardly. To the church, we speak about the lordship of Jesus, our obedience and growth in holiness. Believers call each other to repentance, but they beckon unbelievers to trust in Jesus’ love. To the world, we need to stress Jesus as Savior. We should present Jesus as God reaching out to mankind in mercy, with infinite kindness--rescuing the perishing. Helping people find themselves is a delicate and wonderful business of love. It is patient. It is listening love. It is discerning love. Yes, it listens to the hurt, the pain, the confusion without pandering to the sin, or contributing vices the least bit. It means attending to the brokenness of the human heart before dispensing spiritual bromides, as in cheap and superficial remedies for this problem or that. Those who are lost have no foundation for understanding repentance. That’s what the people in Thessalonica learned. They turned to God. Paul had taught them well: “This is Who God is, what He is like, what He came to accomplish for your sake. Jesus came to deliver you from your bondage to sin, death, hell and the wrath to come.” Paul painted a picture of the human dilemma and the divine response. However, he didn’t expect those who had yet to turn to God to have the least idea what repentance looked like, or even begin to grasp why they might want to repent. Repentance is language reserved to believers, to the church. Indeed, without the context of a redeemed fellowship, without a sense of covenant belonging, repentance is like so much empty air. . .a flailing in futility.
Paul’s approach to the world was apostolic. By “apostolic” I mean, he shared certain assumptions about the world, and the nature of divine revelation with the other apostles such as Peter and John. The same insights about presenting Christ as Savior to the world and as Lord to the church prevail. In Peter’s great Pentecost sermon, found in Acts 2, please note that Peter begins with divine activity in current events: “These men are not drunk, as you suppose”. . .no, this is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel.” Then, to a listening crowd, he recited Joel 2:28-32. So, current events were followed by applicable scripture; they explain the events and express divine love through prophecy fulfilled. Then Peter proceeds to preach other current events: the recent betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. If God had not raised up Jesus of Nazareth, this sermon would never have transpired. Again, Peter, slam dunks this news report with another prophetic passage from the Psalms (16:8-11). Now this is excellent stuff for in the first few minutes, Peter has cited both the Prophets and the Writings of Jewish Scripture and boldly declared that these words have been fulfilled in your sight. Peter next honors King David as a prophet and specifically mentions the promise of a Messianic offspring, namely, the Christ who would be raised up to sit upon David’s throne. Peter interprets David’s prophecy as pertaining to the resurrection news Peter has already mentioned. So far, not a word has been said about the need for repentance--the emphasis is entirely upon belief. Believe on Him Whom God has sent”--this is the work of God. It is through such presentation of the gospel that faith is activated. Faith comes by the hearing of the Word. Peter refuses to let the world set the terms for his gospel presentation and we, tempting though it may be to inveigh against the lost-ness of the world and the general depravity of man, leaves that to the convicting work of the Holy Spirit. Then Peter testifies directly as to the resurrection of Jesus and His exaltation to the right hand of God. Peter concludes the sermon by returning to the outpouring of the Spirit--rather than drunkenness- with which he began. It is at this point that he says, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Faith breaks out and repentance follows--indeed talk of repentance is inevitable, unavoidable. Turning to God is the work of faith and turning from other things is the work of repentance--the second is inevitable if the first is in place.
Acts 2:38 And Peter said to them, "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 2:39 "For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself." Acts 2:40 And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation!"
Those whom Peter keeps exhorting are the new believers, those who have turned to God. Furthermore, there seems to be not so much as a syllable wasted as this little boat drives up the river. Every word seems bathed in love, in Christ-like concern for the lost. The only piece missing is what Paul preached in Thessalonica, the expected return of Jesus as judge. Yes, this does suggest a turn to the moral question of the hour, but again, I suggest to you that Paul has already preached Christ as Savior to them--Christ as the ambassador of God, bringing the hope of reconciliation with the true and living God through the work of the cross. Liberty from guilt through forgiveness, freedom from the fear of death through the resurrection of the Lord, the way of love and the community of faith were parts of the good news Paul proclaimed and these promises are just as valid today as they have ever been.
Okay. Love to the lost, Lord to the saved. Two invaluable lessons flow from the Thessalonians: 1. keep our boilers stoked, but also keep that steam under control; and 2. whatever service we perform, to the world or to each other, we must make sure that it motivated by a love of Christ. I fondly hope that you hear the sound of a steam whistle soon--perhaps you will hear it differently because of what you’ve heard this day. I hope that you will hear yourself in it.
I have proposed three pursuits for our church this year: the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge, the pursuit of peace and pursuit of deep, intentional community. They build on each other and today’s sermon ties in directly. Let’s return to the little riverboat. What a little picture of life as it truly is! Everyone can relate to the struggle of going up river with a heavy load and a tiny boiler. Here is wisdom and knowledge. There are times when anyone can get in touch with the challenge of margin--the reality of emotional and physical exhaustion is inescapable. But the whistle, now that’s the fascinating part. You blow the whistle to signal danger, to warn some other boat that you are just around the corner. A good thing, too. But blowing the whistle takes your steam, and you need all that steam to keep the pressure up and the paddles turning. Here’s some applications: merely talking about love and service is a squandered steam. Kindness, service, acts of compassionate caring and witness--these are the freight we want to move upstream. So, superficial talk about repentance is also a waste of steam. Too many Christians appear to be stuck in the ventilation mode--they confuse this with spirituality. They let off lots of steam, lots of emotional energy--they are spiritually agitated over this and that--and what’s the result? They drift downriver. They lose their momentum, their power and, although they feel in control, they have actually lost their control. So it’s truly best not to let off steam, too long or too often. Avoid perpetual crises. Here is peace. It is best for us as river-men to pace ourselves and so resist the temptation to overheat the boiler. Settle in for the long haul. Expect the Lord today, but exert yourself as if it will be tomorrow, or the day after. Persevere in good works! Don’t squander your daily opportunities to accomplish things for the Lord in your own heart and in the world. Love and encourage each other in truth and excellence-- for we are all in this together and His reputation is at stake! In humility and with deep tenderness, call each other to sincere and continuous repentance. Here is deep, intentional community. If you can get in a few more trips up and down the river that would be excellent. It makes for a better report when the tallies are called in. There will be an accounting and the harbor master will have accurate records when He appears.