Hope and Judgment

My sermon from yesterday, which was the first Sunday in Advent.

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“Thessalonica” 

Does that name ring a bell with you? Well, Thessalonica is a city in modern day Greece – also known as Salonica. But for our purposes what’s interesting is that the city of Thessalonica existed already in the time of Jesus and the earliest Christians.  In fact, this city was founded three hundred years before Christ by the King of Macedon – he named it after his wife Thessalonike.

Well, it must be nice to be able to name a city after your wife… Reading that historical tidbit this week I wondered whether I might try that this Christmas. Becky, there’s a beautiful little village in the Eastern Township called North Hatley, and but I’m going to re-name it for you as a Christmas gift. More than likely that’s a gift I’ll never be able to give.

In any case… This ancient city of Thessalonica was established by the King of Macedon on a major trade route – a trade route that reached from Asia into Europe – that trade route was essentially a road constructed by the Romans linking East and West. And not only was Thessalonica on the trade rout – it was also a port city. As a result of its location, then, it became a hub of commerce and of trade – and given its location it was also a cosmopolitan city. There were people in that city from across the known world.

Perhaps ancient Thessalonica will remind you a bit of Montreal – the similarities certainly crossed my mind.

What’s also interesting for us is the fact that the Apostle Paul finds himself on that ancient road. And he doesn’t just pass through Thessalonica- he stops there to share his message. He comes to this cosmopolitan, commercial centre and he speaks about Jesus – he goes to the synagogue and to public places, and he engages people in conversation about Jesus – about this one who lived a remarkable life – this one who died and who rose to life – this one through whom all our wrong-headed living comes to an end – this one through whom there is hope, for all of us, for resurrection life.

And wonderfully – as Paul speaks about Jesus some who hear want to know more. And of those who want to hear more, some find themselves believing it’s true – yes, this Jesus is different. This Jesus is the Son of God. Hearing the message, some in that city find themselves announcing: I believe it – This Jesus defeated death – he is new life.

As Paul engages with men and women in Thessalonica around the question, the person of Jesus, a small community is formed – formed around the name of Jesus – formed around the person of Jesus. A community of faith and hope is formed in that place.

Before we say more about the relationship between Paul and this Christian community, we should say a little more about the religious context of that city. It was a city of many gods. Its gods were those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In that city there were firmly established religious traditions, with a whole collection of ancient gods each finding their own place society and family life.

But then a question… What happens when certain women and men living in Thessalonica find themselves enamoured with Jesus? What happens when they confess with joy that he is Lord?

In fact, their embrace of the Jesus way generates serious conflict with the wider society.  Suddenly these women and men can’t with good conscience participate in the worship of the many Greek and Roman gods. Suddenly these women and men feel compelled to follow a different way of life than is accepted by those around them.

And imagine how their embrace of Jesus looks to their family and neighbours. The refusal of these Christians to participate in the ancient religious traditions was seen as a slight of the worst kind – an arrogant to rejection of the traditional gods. “What do you mean you are following Jesus? What do you mean you only worship this one God? What is this new-fangled religion anyway?” Again – doesn’t sound unlike the reaction you will get in modern day Montreal.

All of which is to say: When these Thessalonian women and men find themselves compelled to worship Jesus only – when they find themselves joyfully enthralled with Jesus and the gift his forgiveness – they open themselves up to hostility from those around them. Strong social pressure is brought to bear – trying to convince them to abandon this new-fangled faith – or at least not to claim that this Jesus is uniquely to be worshipped. On account of the faith they embrace, these women and men expose themselves to severe mental distress and even physical violence.

I recall worshipping in a very small church in Northern Senegal – there were only a handful of us there. But one of those in attendance was a young man whose family had rejected him because he had become a Christian. Indeed, this young man had recently fallen off the map for several weeks – the other members of the church didn’t know where he was, couldn’t find him. When he reappeared he shared with them how his family had taken him and beaten him and threatened him on account of his faith in Jesus. It is a story that has played itself out innumerable times across time and space.

After he first came and preached in the city of Thessaonica, Paul stayed with these new Christians for some time – teaching them about faith, helping them sort out what it means to say Jesus is Lord. But after a time he left them as he continue on his path of service to Christ. And of course 1 Thessalonians, from which we read this morning, is a letter that Paul writes to these Christians he’s left behind – a letter in which he speaks of their common suffering and of their shared hope in Jesus – a letter in which he tries to encourage them and also correct them. Above all, a letter in which he expresses his desire to be back with them again.

In the middle of our reading this morning from 1 Thessalonians, however, Paul speaks not only of their shared life and faith. He also speaks about how the young Christians of that Thessalonica should relate to the hostile world around them. He writes: May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.

Here our gaze shifts from the community’s sharing together in faith to their relationship with the world around them. And on one hand Paul’s words sound like motherhood and apple pie – love one another, and love everyone around you. But thinking again about the situation of the Thessalonian Christians it becomes clear that this command to love everyone represents a real challenge. They are under severe social pressure; even experiencing physical persecution. And here Paul offers a radical invitation to love. In his prayer we hear a clear echo of Jesus’ words: love your enemies – pray for those who persecute you.

When Paul offers this command – love everyone – he may be responding to a specific problem among the young Christians of Thessalonica. It seems that some of the Thessalonian Christians, anticipating the imminent return of Jesus, anticipating his judgment upon sin and injustice – some of these Christians have begun preaching and evangelizing in an aggressive, obnoxious, and even angry way – perhaps emphasizing God’s wrath and judgment – perhaps engaging in a full frontal assault on the gods of the culture around them.

Also, some of the Christians of Thessalonica, in the face of immense social pressure and persecution, may have been tempted to respond to violence with violence. In this highly charged circumstance, some may have lashed out with hostility in reply to the hostility they were facing. For this reason Paul also says later in his letter: See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. (repeat) An echo, perhaps of other words of Jesus: “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer…”

In our own Thessalonica – in our own cosmopolitan, commercial, urban centre of Montreal – perhaps the last thing that we are likely to do is aggressively and angrily speak the name of Jesus to neighbours or co-workers or family members.

Our difficulty is perhaps that we are too timid and hesitant in speaking of Jesus’ love and lordship. Many of us live with a crisis of confidence about our faith. Our cosmopolitan, commercial, sophisticated city has little time for our faith, and we display little courage in speaking of our life and hope in Jesus. But Paul’s prayer that we abound in love for all doesn’t only rule out aggressive and obnoxious evangelism – his prayer also invites us to love people enough to want to share with them the news of our friendship with Jesus, of our hope in him, of the community we experience in his name.

Paul in fact sets himself up as a model for the Thessalonians, and also for us, how to relate to those who live around us – those who have little patience for the perceived arrogance of our faith – those who see our as merely quaint. Paul describes how he and his fellow-apostles related to the Thessalonians: “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” It is this gentleness that is to characterize those who reach out in the name of Jesus. With such gentleness, we can learn to speak to our neighbours and friends – those with whom we are building meaningful relationships of trust and love – we can speak about Jesus. As the well known phrase puts it: “As one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”

Does this mean, then, that the theme of judgment is entirely without place in our Christian faith? If Paul rejects the angry proclamation of God’s wrath, is judgment without any place? We are in the season of Advent, a season in which we embrace our hope that God in Christ comes to bring a better world – a season in which we announce our conviction that in Christ darkness and death do not have the final word.

But we should also realize that throughout the New Testament the celebration of Advent, of Christ’s appearing, is heavy with the theme of judgment. This is apparent in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. He offers this prayer for them: May God so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

If it is indeed the case that some of the Thessalonian Christians were speaking an angry word of God’s judgment against the society around them, Paul’s prayer does something interesting. It takes that angry pointing finger, and turns it away from the world around them and in some sense points it back at his sisters and brothers themselves. May God so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Christ is coming. God will judge the world, yes, but he will also judge your lives – so may God give you the grace, the strength, the courage to live well in the world.

In our modern lives, we twenty-first century Christians are pretty slow to accept judgment. We are slow, I think, to acknowledge that we live wrong-headed lives; we are slow to acknowledge that we are guilty of hurting others, of self-preoccupation, of greediness – that we are guilty of a failure to pursue the way of justice and truth. We have an almost pathological need to pat ourselves on the back and say – “you’re doing ok. You’re pretty good.”

Gary Thomas in his book The Beautiful Fight tells an interesting story of a manager who worked in the service industry, in a hotel. This manager got so frustrated with the anger and hostility that his staff often faced at the front desk that he had a large mirror mounted behind the desk – the thought was that anyone who was tempted to fly off the handle into inappropriate language or behaviour might just hesitate to do so if they could see in the mirror what they were doing.

Sometimes, we don’t see, or can’t see, the ways our lives are marked by mistakes and sin – ways of living that aren’t consistent with who we are as God’s beloved children. Sometimes its takes something like a mirror held in front of us to see how unfortunate, even ugly, our words and actions can sometimes be – a mirror to invite us to a different way of being in the world.

In a sense that’s what the season of Advent does for us – it holds up a mirror to our lives. Paul writes: May God so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus.

Later in his letter Paul will go on to give more concrete examples –

he invites his sisters and brothers to work diligently with their hands,

he challenges them not to give in to lust,

he encourages them not to take advantage of one another,

he asks them to support those who are faint hearted,

he tells them to help those who are weak.

May God so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus.

The last word though is not simply a moralising word of judgment. Nor is it merely a word of angry hostility toward us. God’s judgment is always exercised against a backdrop of grace. God’s goal in judgment is not to destroy but to transform us, making us fully alive, fully human. As our mistakes and sins are judged and forgiven, their power over our lives is undone.  We are set free to live in the resurrection life of our Lord.

Perhaps this morning it is fitting to hear the words of our Hope as they are expressed in Living Faith, a confession of the Presbyterian Church in Canada – chapter 10.

            Life had its beginning in God.

            In God it will come to completion

            and its meaning be fully revealed.

            All creation will find fulfillment in god.

            Christ will come again.

            Only God knows when and how our Lord will return.

            Now we see in part. Then we shall see face to face.

            Come, Lord Jesus.

            May the God of hope

            fill us with joy and peace in believing

            so that by the power of the Holy Spirit

            we abound in hope.

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