Church Under Pressure – The Ultimate To-Do List
Welcome and introduction
**Call to Worship: Psalm 19:1-4
Song – Indescribable (From the highest of heights)
**Message: Church under pressure (5) – The ultimate ‘to do’ list
(1 Thessalonians 5:12-28)
It’s easy to see this last part of the letter as just a series of unrelated instructions, plucked out of the air at random at the end of the letter – ‘oh yes, and make sure he wears a clean shirt, and don’t forget to feed the cat, and remember to pick up the tickets for the concert, and don’t forget the girls have got piano practice tomorrow night.
I said last week that Paul is directing the Thessalonian believers’ attention away from the ‘when’ to the matter of ‘how’ they should conduct themselves in the light of the return of the king Jesus and the unknown and unexpected nature of his coming.
And so we have here some very direct instructions on the essence of being a follower of Jesus in practical terms. These verses are written to the community of God’s people – they are addressed to the church as one but also apply to individual believers. It’s the ultimate ‘to do’ list, and is just as applicable to us today, with the pressures and challenges of Covid 19, as to the Thessalonian church, under perhaps much greater pressure from every quarter – Jews, Greeks and Romans.
Why did Paul feel it was necessary to encourage them to recognize or appreciate those who were their leaders? Was the opposite taking place? Maybe some were resenting the leadership. Paul says, ‘Hold them in the highest regard in love…’ Why? Because they’re always right? No, because of their work! Because of their calling – because of who called them.
*‘Be at peace’ – already in the early church, it seems tensions were coming along. The peace Paul has in mind is not merely the absence of conflict, but the presence of positive, healthy relationships. Perhaps we too often place a higher value on superficial harmony than on genuine peace. We can be ‘nice’ to one another and co-exist without open warfare, but avoid the hard work needed to maintain real relationships. Perhaps when a problem occurs we do not follow the biblical guidelines and go to the other person to clear up the matter. We might pretend there’s nothing wrong to that person and meanwhile gossip about it to others. But that’s superficial harmony, because we have avoided the hard work of reconciliation needed for genuine peace to flourish.
What’s noticeable here is that Paul calls on the entire community to be responsible for the entire community. Every member, and not the leaders alone, is to be aware of his or her responsibility to others and seek to help them. Who should shoulder the burden of warning the unruly, comforting the faint-hearted and upholding the weak? The pastor and leadership team? No, Paul says, it’s not just their job. One way of ensuring that it is not done adequately is to leave it to them. These tasks are the responsibility of the membership at large.
‘Take care of the weak’ – some churches don’t want weak people – however you define them. But just think how good it is they are among us. Some people might be quirky now, but imagine what they’d be like without the grace of God.
‘Be patient with everyone’. *A definition of patience goes – ‘the power of suffering with fortitude; uncomplaining endurance of evils or wrongs, as toil, pain, poverty, insult, oppression, calamity, etc….’ That would be remarkable patience. Many of us struggle to wait patiently in a queue at the supermarket!
One psychologist put it this way: ‘No one wants to wait for anything and, for the most part, no one has to anymore. Waiting is interpreted as pain. … People walk into my office and say they are Christians, but I see no difference except that they want to be happy and now expect God to make it so. People like the fact that they can buy a 50-foot tree and instantly plant it in their garden. Why on earth would anyone want to wait on relationships or wait on God?’
In the church I used to pastor in Leicestershire, there was an elderly Polish man in the congregation – a very interesting person to talk to, because he had been tortured in Russian prisoner-of-war camps in WW2. He later become a chef, owning an upmarket restaurant. He told me that from time-to-time he had customers complaining to his staff about how long the food was taking to come. He then used to leave the kitchen, and go and tell them where they could find the nearest McDonald’s.
Patience is accepting a difficult situation without giving God a deadline to remove it. The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it open. There is no such thing as preaching patience into people unless the sermon is so long they have to practice it while they hear. One suffering lady said, ‘I pray for – wisdom – to understand my man; love – to forgive him; patience – for his moods; because, Lord, if I pray for strength, I’ll beat him to death. Amen.’
Paul felt he needed to talk about this, because there are many people who claim to be experiencing the joy of God’s salvation, yet complain about everything. They have been called custard Christians – always upset over trifles – rarely having anything good to say! As one American man delicately put it, “They musta’ been raised on sour stuff, an’ weaned on pickle juice.”
‘Always try to do good to (or be kind to) each other and to all people’. One hassled customer service assistant is alleged to have replied to an unable to be appeased person, ‘We will close the store, give you all your money back and shoot the manager. Will that be enough?’ For some people the answer would be, ‘no.’
Outside one church in Liverpool, the local corporation (known as the ‘corpy’) had dug a large hole in the road. Present in the service one day was a man who was known in many churches to have a ministry of discouragement. There was line at the end of the service waiting to shake hands with the pastor and when it came to this man’s turn he told the pastor that the service and sermon were terrible and why. Being very gracious, the pastor listened to it all and when the man had finished said, “Thank you, brother. God bless you.”
But this man then went and re-joined the queue of hand-shakers and when he got back to the front he repeated his criticism, saying, “That was terrible. You don’t earn your pay.” “Thank you, brother. God bless you.” Then he went to join the queue a third time. Meanwhile, there was former gangster who was a member of the church, described as small but hard, a bit like the Michelin Tyre man. He saw what was happening and had generally taken it on himself to be the pastor’s minder. He came up to the man, took him by the scruff of the neck, and said, “If you say that to our pastor once again, there’s a hole dug up by the corpy, and you’re going in it.”
But this is not just about not being unkind. It’s about positively seeking the good of others, especially perhaps those we find it difficult to have good feelings towards.
Paul doesn’t say give thanks for all circumstances but in all circumstances. What does this mean? Joy is not something that can be turned on and off like a tap – after all, Paul says elsewhere, mourn with those mourn. Rather, to rejoice always is to see the hand of God in whatever is happening and to remain confident of him at all times. Paul has in mind a stable and deep-rooted joy that enables him – and even more so the church – to cope with disappointments and see them in their true perspective.
Scottish minister Alexander Whyte was known for his uplifting prayers in the pulpit. He always found something for which to be grateful. One Sunday morning the weather was so gloomy that one church member thought to himself, ‘Certainly the preacher won’t think of anything for which to thank the Lord on a wretched day like this.’ Much to his surprise, however, Whyte began by praying, “We thank Thee, O God that it is not always like this.” What did Paul have to be thankful for? You’re in danger every single day of your life. You’ve spent years and years in prison because of your faith. You threw away a thriving career as a Pharisee. And look what you have to show for it! Nothing!”
When Corrie Ten Boom book was at the concentration camp, she stayed in Barracks number 28. And it was infested with fleas. It was almost unbearable. But one night, they read the same passage of scripture we’re looking at now: “Give thanks in all circumstances.” And Corrie’s sister said, “God wants us to thank him for the fleas.” And Corrie said, “No way! That’s taking religion just a little bit too far! I’m NOT going to thank God for these infernal fleas!” After a while, the nightly Bible studies attracted more and more women. And Corrie started wondering if they would get caught. And so she asked one of the women, “Why don’t the Nazis ever come in and check on us?” And she said, “It’s because of the fleas. They won’t come near this place for that reason.” And then Corrie remembered this Bible verse and said, “God, thank you for the fleas!”
‘Pray continually’. Jesus said his disciples should always pray and not give up, and he used the parables of the wicked judge and the persistent widow to enforce this encouragement. Praying continually is an attitude. Apparently, at the tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, quite often an attendant sits at the entrance with a large polished sheet of metal directing the sunlight into the dark recesses. Our lives should be so angled to God that whatever strikes us is at once reflected up into his presence – living life continually on the prayer level. God desires to hear from his children. He loved to walk with Adam in the cool of the day, fellowshipping with his creation. We have the same opportunity.
It seems Paul wants to affirm but regulate what he views as legitimate and normal. Prophecies are spontaneous, Spirit-inspired, intelligible messages, orally delivered. Because such utterances are from the Holy Spirit they must not be despised. But because these utterances come through human vessels, they are not to be accepted blindly because someone claims to have the Spirit. Our responsibility is to not quench anything that is genuinely of the Spirit, and yet at the same time, not to attribute anything false to the Spirit.
There is the danger that we can be too structured, programmed, choreographed and controlled. The key issue is attitude and approach. We prefer things under control and the comfort of the predictable. But the cost of predictability is a loss of spontaneity, and a consequence of too much control could be a quenching of the Spirit.
While for some the problem may be too much control, for others there is too little discernment. We can test prophecy by purpose and effect. Genuine prophetic activity serves to strengthen, encourage, comfort and build up God’s people. If the results of an alleged prophecy are otherwise, there is good reason to suspect it. This is especially true for prophecies that exalt or serve the interests of an individual. And nothing that is truly of the Holy Spirit can contradict what God has said in his Word.
Do we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us, or will we only yield to the Holy Spirit when it is convenient to us? The Holy Spirit is not an entertainer that you schedule to come into your life. The Holy Spirit is the Holy God working in our lives. The Thessalonians must be keepers of the flame. They cannot allow their cinders to cease. They cannot allow their coals to become cold. They cannot allow their fire to become smoke.
Paul understands one important thing – the success of any local church is directly related to the Holy Spirit’s impact in their lives and among them. It seems there were some professional ‘fire fighters’ in Thessalonica. They were proficient experts in extinguishing the work and influence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of others.
We don’t know when Jesus is coming back, or how long we will live for, but we are placed in time for eternity. Quenching the Spirit results in worldly, lifeless, powerless, aimless, meaningless, and fruitless lives. And in that context, that reality, we are called to be church in our day, just as the Thessalonians in Paul’s.
In all these ways, we are called to a faith that is not just belief and words, but comes from the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in our hearts, manifested in the immense difference that makes – whatever pressures we may face – in our purpose, motivation, words and actions.
Paul closes the letter as he began it, with the spotlight, focus and emphasis firmly on God and Jesus Christ. In the course of the letter, Paul has talked a fair amount about both himself and the Thessalonians, but at the end the last word is about God. *He’s the one who has called and saved us through Jesus Christ, who gives us the Holy Spirit in power and holiness, and who will bring us into his kingdom and glory when Jesus returns. So (v.24) not only is God able to do all he has promised, but because he is trustworthy and reliable, he will do it. So our future rests entirely in the power and faithfulness of God as revealed through Jesus the Messiah.
Song – From the inside out (Everlasting)
Prayers of Intercession – Linda
Mission Prayer – Clement – Compassion
News and Information – Clement
*Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again. God will make this happen, for he who calls you is faithful (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).
*May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you (1 Thessalonians 12:28)