II Thessalonians 1:3-11 (click to display NIV text)
November 25, 2012 (Christ the King Sunday)
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“God is just. He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.”
II Thessalonians begins in the same way as the first letter, giving thanks for a church that is faithful to the Lord, even during times of persecution. They are people of faith, hope and love. Now we learn that not only are they standing firm, but their faith is growing and their love increasing. Paul is confident that they will be counted worthy of the Kingdom of God. He is also aware of their suffering. He assures them that God is just, so there will be a time when things are set right. Those who trouble God’s people will be punished and those who are troubled will find relief. They will experience the presence and the glory of the Lord.
The judgment of God displays the justice of God. An essential part of the Christian faith is the firm conviction that God is just. In contrast to the gods of the Greeks and Romans, who were vindictive, jealous, vengeful and thoroughly immoral, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is just, righteous, holy and fully and consistently committed to the fulfillment of his will for the creation.
Mary expressed her confidence in the justice of God. Just before Jesus was put to death, the great injustice that revealed the justice of God, Mary anointed Jesus with a costly perfume, a costly gift that showed her faith that even in the cross, God would vindicate his son, God would show his justice. In the justice of God such a gift is affirmed, it is recognized as one part of God’s plan that points to the cross and to the resurrection. Mary, knowing God’s justice, acted in faith to offer a costly gift to the Lord.
The justice of God comes to us as grace and mercy. But to those who oppose God, it comes as judgment: in the justice of God all secrets are laid bare, all attitudes are revealed, all hostility to God is exposed.
Sometimes we are afraid of the justice of God; we are reluctant to speak of it. Kathleen Norris writes of judgment in her book, “Amazing Grace, a Vocabulary of Faith.” She tells of Emily Dickinson, who on the subject of a preacher who had delivered a terrifying sermon on the Last Judgment, wrote, “The subject of perdition seemed to please him, somehow. It seems very solemn to me.”
Then Norris goes on to speak of the solemnity of Judgment. The fact that we are called into account for the way we have lived in the world can be terrifying. But she found some assurance in reading the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat. Jesus tells how the enemies of a farmer went into his wheat field and sowed weeds among the wheat. When both crops grew up the owner told the workers to wait until harvest for the weeds to be removed and burned.
Norris writes, “What I found in the story was a sense that God, knowing us better than we know ourselves, also recognizes that we are incapable of separating the wheat from the weeds in our lives. I began to find the parable freeing, not from responsibility, but from the disease of perfectionism. Even the image of fire was transformed into an image of hope. The thought of all my weeds burning off so that only the wheat remains came to seem a good thing.”
I think we live in a culture that often denies the judgment of God. People often make up a God of love who never judges; a God who is loving, but not just. In that we lose something essential in the Gospel.
The issues were quite different in the Jewish and Christian communities of Paul’s time. They held to a strong anticipation of the Day of the Lord. This would be a day of awe, a time of trembling. The justice of God was held with great respect and fear.
Isaiah 2:19: “People will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from the fearful presence of the LORD and the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to shake the earth.”
On that great Day of the Lord there would be a separation from the Lord’s presence of those who opposed God in their lives. But those who believed in the Lord would experience life in his presence.
I Thessalonians 4:17: “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
The response that is called for in people of faith is to remain steadfast in faith, to be busy about the work of the Lord, to be as Mary offering the gifts of her life to the Lord, and to be alert and awake. So the Thessalonian church remained faithful, even through persecution, because God is just. Paul prays for the church in verses 11 and 12 that God might count them worthy of his calling, and that God might bring to completion every good purpose of theirs, and every act prompted by their faith.
But there was one problem for at least some in the church. The letter does not give enough explanation to truly understand what was going on. But a message came to the church, Paul says — perhaps through a prophecy someone spoke in church, or a report or just a misunderstanding of his first letter — and the message was that the Day of the Lord had already taken place. This caused confusion in the church. If the judgment of the Lord was already past, then how should we live? And, why are we still being persecuted? Are we being punished by God? In chapter 3 we discover that some quit working, and just lived off the resources of the community as they waited for the Kingdom to be established. Some might have been tempted to go along with the culture, to compromise their faith.
Paul tells them in chapter 2, verse 15, “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.”
Our immediate issues may be different, but the challenge is the same. Our firm conviction in the justice of God is to override our anxiety about the state of affairs in the world. We do not quit or become discouraged. God is just. There is a day coming when the world will be put right, and God will do it. The justice of God made known on the cross will be established in his return. So do not become discouraged or be tempted to live as if it does not matter what you do. Keep on serving the Lord, even if your service is costly, like Mary’s.
There are people who need to hear the Gospel, to know that God loves them, to find in Christ a Savior. I know it is hard in our world to do the work of evangelism. But people need the Lord. The Gospel is to be proclaimed. The Good News still speaks to hearts. Don’t quit living and speaking for Christ just because the response is lacking. I once knew a psychologist who worked with parents of teens where there was trouble and rebellion in the home. These people had tried everything: grounding, punishments of various kinds, yelling, threatening –- nothing seemed to work. My friend would tell them the most powerful thing they had to give was a simple, clear word about what is right and how we are to live. It seems to have no power at all in the moment, but he said over time that is what wins the day. Without screaming or threatening, the clear, repeated statement of what is true in life, what is held most deeply in our hearts, is what wins the day. So it is with our witness to Christ. Don’t give up. Stand firm.
Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by the amount of need in our world and in our communities. Last Tuesday 145 families came to the food pantry we support. That amounted to something like 575 individuals. That is an overwhelming number of people who needed help. The day before we helped stock an enormous amount of food in that little church. It all went. They gave out 140 turkey dinners, plus the regular boxes of food. The need is frightening. But the justice of God over rides our anxiety about the state of affairs in the world today. Don’t give up. Stand firm.
“We constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
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