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Order Of Worship (Liturgy)Sing: Hymn 64: 1, 2
Sing: Psalm 99: 1, 2, 5
Sing: Psalm 97: 4, 6
Sing: Hymn 39: 1, 2, 3
Sing: Psalm 79: 5
Read: 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10
Text: 1 Thessalonians 1: 4, 8a
Beloved congregation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters:
What happens to someone if he is lazy? You have a job and you do as little as you can get away with. You frequently don't even show up for work and show little interest in your work. It's not likely that you will last at that job, is it? You certainly will not be considered to be an asset to the organization. And you certainly won't get a promotion. The same thing is true when you're a student. What's going to happen to you, young people, when you're lazy about your school work? You don't do your homework. You skip classes once in a while. You don't pay attention in class. It's likely that you will flunk your courses, right? If you keep it up you won't get your diploma.
When you have a certain task to do, the Lord our God asks us to put effort into it. Else we fail. Else we will not make a meaningful contribution.
Let's translate that into our membership of the church. God has made us members of his church. If the Lord God were to do a job evaluation right now concerning you, what would he say? Would he commend you for the good job you are doing? Or would he call you a lazy Christian? Try to answer that question for yourself. Don't think of other people. As we listen to the sermon think about in what way YOU are making a contribution to the church and to the kingdom of God. How joyful are you that God has saved you? What are you doing in regard to your task as a Christian in this world?
Note well that in his letter Paul is commending the Thessalonians for their work. He gives them quite a positive job evaluation. He is very impressed. He said, not only did the people in Thessalonica notice your productive labour for the Lord, but so did the people throughout the whole province of Macedonia (of which Thessalonica was the capital) and the neighbouring province of Achaia (of which Corinth was the capital) and even beyond. It's amazing.
The question this morning is: how did that come about and how does that apply to us? Could the same commendations be said about you and me?
At this point you may already be feeling a little guilty. Would the Lord God think I'm good enough? Perhaps that kind of scares you right now. Well, Paul says something else to the Thessalonians which is also quite amazing. He says to them, "For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you." He is talking about their salvation. God is the one who has done it all. God has elected them from eternity. They do not have to be afraid.
We have questions about that. We have difficulty with the doctrine of election. How do you reconcile what man does with what God does? How does that work with regard to evangelism? For if God elects us then what is our role? What is the use of evangelism? We will address these matters in today’s sermon:
The Impact of the Gospel on the Thessalonians.
Through the power of the gospel, God made them to be:
1. An exemplary people;
2. An elected people;
3. A joyful people.
1. Paul says to the people of Thessalonica that their faith rang out from them in Macedonia and Achaia. The word that Paul uses is related to the English word ‘echo’. It therefore brings to mind a very vivid picture. An echo refers to the amplification of your voice so that your voice can be heard over a very large distance. That same Greek word is also used to refer to the sound of a loud trumpet or a thunderclap. The image is clear. The word of the Lord made quite an impact on the people at Thessalonica. It hit them like a bolt of lightning. And the Thessalonian believers were like sounding boards that amplified the sound. The reverberations were heard long afterwards. All of Greece and beyond heard about what had happened in Thessalonica.
We can understand how that might have happened for the city was a populous trading-center and was connected to the world in a unique way by both land and sea. It was a port city, connected with all the harbors of the then-known world. It was also located on the Egnation Highway, linking east and west. And so news could spread from this place in a very rapid way to regions far and wide. Indeed, that was also one of the reasons Paul chose to preach in this city. He looked for major centers from which the Gospel could spread out. That strategy certainly worked with regard to Thessalonica for the Gospel spread from there very quickly.
And yet it is quite unexpected that that did happen. For in the first place, Thessalonica was a very worldly city. It had a lot of things to offer. It offered a lifestyle wherein you could give full vent to your natural passions. It also offered many different kinds of idols to worship. Thessalonica was especially noted for the trade guilds. Every artisan belonged to a guild, and every guild, which was an incorporated organization, possessed property in its own name, made contracts for great constructions, and wielded a wide influence. The guilds were closely connected with the local pagan gods. Pagan feasts, with which immoral practices were associated, were held and therefore the nature of the guilds was such that they were opposed to Christianity. Those Thessalonians who no longer wanted to worship those idols were in trouble with their guild.
Therefore in such a city you did not easily break with the customs and religion of the day. For consider what that all takes. It takes great conviction and a lot of courage to break from the norm. In order to become a Christian, a radical change had to take place. As a Christian you had to renounce your idol worship – all of it. For Christianity does not tolerate another god besides the only true God. Becoming a Christian did not involve just changing from one idol to another, and then retaining your old ways of doing things, pursuing the same kind of lifestyle you have always engaged in. No, to become a Christian meant to become a totally different person. It meant a radical change.
Satan does not so easily let you do that. He has many tricks up his sleeves. One of his major weapons is using the people you hang around with. If all of a sudden you change your thinking and your lifestyle, you have a lot of explaining to do and a lot of pressures to withstand. People do not let you change just like that. Bad habits are also very hard to break. You have to be very motivated. As we think about the work of evangelism we should realize that. You do not turn someone into a Christian overnight. There is a lot involved in becoming a Christian. You will have to suffer.
That is exactly what happened to the Thessalonians. Some of them lost their jobs or their livelihood. Others were thrown out of their houses. In Acts 17 we read how hostile the people, at the instigation of the Jews, had become to Christianity.
You see, that is why Paul writes this letter to the Thessalonians. He wants to encourage them in their faith. He does not want them to give up. It is in that context that he tells them that they are the elect people of God. We come to the second point.
2. A lot of people have difficulty with the concept of election. They don't understand it. They want to reason God's election, and they try to look at it from man's perspective. Brothers and sisters, if you want to try to explain the doctrine of election in every detail you will lose your mind. At the same time let me state that if you try to explain the doctrine of election away you may lose your soul. In other words, you may not be able to understand everything fully, but don't for that reason ignore that wonderful doctrine. The basis of it is easy enough to understand. God makes that clear enough. It is very important for us to understand the concept of election especially within the context of evangelism.
Why did Paul tell those Thessalonians that they were chosen by God? Wouldn't that make them lazy Christians, thinking that they have already arrived? No, it actually works the other way around. It encourages you. It reminds you of the wonderful and powerful God you have. It spurs you on in the midst of hardship. Those Thessalonians needed to know in the midst of their difficult circumstances that God would never go back on his word; that he would not turn his back on them; that nothing could undo his eternal decree of election. He told his children about their election for their comfort.
That is also comforting for us. You may know that, even when you're slipping and falling as we all do at times, God will not abandon you. There may be times when you are not so sure about what you are doing with regard to your faith. There may be times when your prayer life is lacking. There may be times when difficulties in your life are so overwhelming that you are not sure about anything anymore, including your relationship with the Lord God. During times like that you need encouragement. It is then that you may know that God is still there, that his promises are sure and that he will not turn his back on you.
So that is why Paul wrote those comforting words to the Thessalonians. He did not want them to become discouraged in the midst of the trials and tribulations that they were suffering. He did not want them to throw in the towel. He wanted them to know the kind of God that they had. He wanted them to know that they have a God who is always in control.
Brothers and sisters, that is also the kind of message that we must send to others when we are evangelizing. We have to remind them of the sovereignty of God. Reformed evangelism is unique. We believe that God does not leave it up to man whether or not there will be a people left on earth to serve him. No, we believe God is always in control. God does not sit around waiting for man to make up his mind whether or not he will serve him. God always makes sure there are people on earth to worship him. Of ourselves we are incapable of choosing God. Scripture clearly teaches that. Paul says, for example in Romans 8:7, "The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so." The Lord Jesus himself said in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day." And in Romans 9:16 Paul says, "It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy."
Can you imagine if it were up to man to choose for God? It is only through God's mercy, through His grace, that we can become children of God. That is why Paul starts off his letter with the greeting "Grace and peace to you." And that is why we also begin each worship service with that greeting.
Why do you think God chooses us? Why do you think he chose those Thessalonians? Was it because they were such good people? Because they practiced their faith as well as they did? No, that's not the reason he chose them. That's not how God chooses his people. He does not choose us because we are somehow better than others. Listen to what it says in 1 Corinthians 1:27-28, "But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things."
The Scriptures clearly teach that God has chosen his people from eternity. Paul made that quite clear to the Ephesians, where he says to them in chapter 1:4-5, "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will."
However, when you bring the message of salvation to those who do not know the gospel, then you do not begin with the doctrine of election. The doctrine of election is hard enough for a believer to understand, let alone someone who knows little or nothing about the Bible and about God's ways. Paul did not start off with the doctrine of election either. Paul began by speaking to the Thessalonians about the wonderful news of the gospel. That everyone who believes in the Lord Jesus and repents of sin will be saved. They will be saved because of the blood of the Son of God who came to earth to die for those who put their trust in him.
Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to put their faith in the wonderful creator of heaven and earth. He told them about the wonderful works of God and how he loves his creation and how he wants to have a people who will honor and glorify him. He spoke to them about God's love for those who repent from their sins and that through an active faith they too can be part of that people. Through faith they can live eternally with the Almighty Creator. They must choose for that almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth.
But once the unbelievers come to faith then they should never be able to boast of their own efforts, for it is God who prepares the heart to receive that message. Only he can give birth and only he can give rebirth. God does not want us to boast of anything ourselves as if we are God's people because of some inherent worth or ability in us that others do not have. He does not want anyone to be proud or arrogant. He wants us to be humble.
That is why a believer should not shy away from being in contact with all kinds of people, with all kinds of sinners, no matter how deep their sin is, and no matter what economic circumstances they find themselves in. We must be kind and merciful and accepting. That is also how the Lord Jesus showed us the way. Look how he dined with sinners and with the downtrodden of society yet he also dined with the rich and he came to all of them with the message of salvation. All kinds of people came to faith.
Once people come to faith, and as they mature in their faith, only then will they begin to have some understanding of the doctrine of election. Then they'll be able to understand that God is the one who has lifted them out of their miserable circumstances. That he is the one who prepared their hearts to receive the message of salvation. And that it is all God's doing. Then they may know about God's election for their comfort and they may give glory to God’s name. As they struggle with their faith, they can be sure God has set them aside and chosen them.
3. God will also then confirm his election. That's what he did to the Thessalonians. We come to third point. All those wonderful things that the Thessalonians did in order to advance the gospel were, in reality, the fruit of God's election. It confirmed them in their chosen status. Therefore Paul reminded them of the kinds of things that they did, such as turning away from the idols of the world and from their futile way of living, to the living God. It is the fruit of their election. And he reminded them of the great impact that they made on all those around them, on their families, in their city and with their business contacts. “Look at what a blessing you have become, Thessalonians. Don't be afraid to continue to go on that course. Don't go back to your former way of life. Remember what that was like, and how frightened you were.” How these words must have encouraged them!
Before their conversion they were a completely different people. They were full of fear. They believed in the fickle pagan gods who would punish them for having done something wrong. For they believed that the gods were the ones who caused the earthquakes; they were the ones who withheld rain or who brought about the floods; and the gods were responsible for whether the crops failed or succeeded; and they brought about illness or death. These people had been serving these gods for hundreds and hundreds of years. They devised many elaborate rituals in order to plug in, so to speak, into the power of those gods. Those rituals included mutilating oneself and others, and engaging in all kinds of horrible sexual practices. And you had better get all the rituals right or else the god would be angry. If a calamity occurred in your life, then that was because of the anger of the gods. So the people were always full of fear. Those gods held them in their grip. Satan saw to that for ultimately he was the one they were worshipping. They were a people without hope.
But then Paul came with his unique message about the only true God, the living One. It was totally opposite to the kinds of things they had formerly believed. Paul spoke to them about the Creator of all things, about the only true God who made everything and who sustains and preserves it all. He told them about the love of the only true God for his creation. He told them how God wants man to turn from idols and worship him, for that is the way to life, to eternal life. Paul told them not about a God of rules and regulations and rituals but about a loving God. The loving God is the true God who does not want sacrifice. He is a God who frees you from fear.
O yes, he wants to be served. There are rules. There are regulations. But they do not serve in order to earn his favour. He is a God who forgives our imperfections and our shortcomings, also in the way we serve him. His love for man does not depend on how well we keep the rituals. No, all he requires is true faith, a humble heart, and an acknowledgment that he alone is in control of all things. He is a gracious God; a forgiving God; a wonderful God; the only true God. If you believe all that, you will also show it in your words and deeds.
Can you imagine how liberating it was for them to turn from idols to the only true living God? It was as if a tremendous weight was lifted from their shoulders. The people were introduced to the only true God. They no longer had to fear that they had to get everything right. They no longer had to cringe at the anger of the gods. Through faith you are saved. If you truly believe then you do not have to doubt. What a newfound freedom they suddenly had! They were liberated. God’s Word, spoken through Paul, made them totally new creatures.
And what a wonderful future awaited them! For the message touched not only their earthly lives but also their eternal lives. The living God would continue to want to regard them, and to give them eternal bliss. He will love them forever and ever. He will give them eternal life without any pain or sorrow or fear. He will wipe away all their tears.
You can well imagine that they could not help talking about all this. Their whole outlook had changed. Their life style had changed. Their thinking had changed. Their way of doing things had changed. There was a joy in their lives they had never known before. And every one with whom they came into contact could see and hear that there was something completely different about them. It is no wonder that the thunderclap of their conversion was heard far and wide.
One commentator said that we might call such a phenomenon ‘holy gossip’. It is what people do when they are full of something they heard. They can’t help but talk about it: “Did you hear what happened to some of the people there in Thessalonica and how they have changed? They are talking about the Saviour of the world. The people are full of joy. I wonder what that's all about? "
Brothers and sisters, that is the same kind of message that should be coming out from you and from me. I know this is a different age and yet, basically, it is not any different from before. The people of that day were idol worshippers, and, although it may be in a different form, we still see that today. For what is an idol? An idol is anything that replaces God. It is, as the catechism says, “having or inventing something in which to put our trust, instead of, or in addition to, the only true God.” Today our idols are much more sophisticated, or so it would seem. People no longer worship funny little man-made objects. But what does man trust in now? He puts his faith in money, in possessions. He worships these things. He cannot have enough. He puts his faith in power and influence and politicians. There are those who are obsessed with their work, or with sport or with television. Or they serve the god of drugs – including prescription drugs – or the god of alcohol, or the god of sex. Those are the gods of this world. And they hold you captive.
We will have to admit that often these kinds of things hold us Christians captive as well. Even though we know the truth and consider ourselves to be God's people, Satan lures us with all kinds of earthly pleasures. That is why it is a good thing that we are made to think about the work of evangelism.
Some people would rather not do that. They think that we have enough problems in our own church. They suggest that we should deal with those problems first before we deal with evangelism. Well, brothers and sisters, it's a good thing that the early Christians didn't think that way. Those early churches had a lot of problems as well. We can read about them in Paul’s letters. But that didn't stop them from speaking about the new hope that they have found through the Lord Jesus Christ.
The work of evangelism is important for the health of the church. For what happens when you have to speak about your faith? First of all you have to examine yourself. As you deal with your fellow worker, and with everyone with whom you come into contact, you have to be right before the Lord yourself. You have to think things through and you have to think about your own behavior. There is sometimes resistance to evangelism because you have to open yourself up. You have to be vulnerable. It is not that you are without sin. That's impossible. But no sin should be holding you captive. You have to examine yourself: "Am I being held captive by pornography, or by greed, or by my earthly possessions? Why do I get up in the morning? Do I do it so that I can pay off my mortgage as fast as possible, or do I get up so that I can praise God in my life?"
I wonder what kind of gossip emanates from this church? What are the people saying about the members of the [insert name of your church]? Is it clear to everyone with whom you come into contact that you have turned from the idols of this world and turned to the living God? What are they saying about you and about me?
Let me ask you, can the people notice the great joy of your faith? Do they see that you are different from the rest? Do they see that you are not held captive by the gods of the world? Can they notice from your conduct that you do not fear the loss of those earthly gods? Do they see a completely different person from the world? Is it so that you too cannot help but talk about your wonderful salvation? Is your heart full of it? For if it is then your mouth will flow over with it all. Is there a holy gossip coming out from this church into the rest of the community? Or is it the other way around? Are there bad reports about us?
Think about it, brothers and sisters. We pride ourselves in being the true church of the Lord Jesus Christ. The people in the community know that about us. They know the claims we make. And they also know the reputation that we have. It is not in all cases a good one. That is because, instead of sounding forth the truth of Gospel, we tend to want to blow our own horn. That is what some people think evangelism is all about. They think that in order to be effective you must talk about the fact that we as Canadian Reformed people have it all right. We have the only right doctrine, and we are the only true church.
But is that what we begin by talking about? No, beloved, such talk has no effect. It has no effect especially if our life style does not match our claims.
Brothers and sisters, we may not be lazy Christians. We cannot just show up for church on a Sunday morning and then for the rest of the week forget about who we are. We have to practice our faith every day of the week and in this way make an impact on other people. The one may speak more easily than another – we all have our gifts – but we all have been given the gift of salvation through no merit of our own. The joy of our salvation must show in our lives. It is the fruit of our election. If you do not show that fruit, then you are a dead branch.Brothers and sisters, bring forth fruits of thankfulness. Be a living branch. Amen
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. W.B. Slomp, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service. Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2008, Rev. W.B. Slomp
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