Church under pressure – Destination – Pleasing to God
Welcome and introduction
Call to Worship: Psalm 95:6-7
Song – Ten thousand reasons (Bless the Lord)
Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8
Message: Church under pressure (3) – Destination: pleasing to God
One of the largest industries today is that of health products. People go to great lengths to make sure they get healthy and stay healthy. Food and vitamin producers vie for their share of the public’s money. Advertisers say their products will make you healthy, and will also make you look and smell better. Self-help books by the lorry load claim you can be healthy if you just buy their diet, programme or machine.
Paul had a different approach to a healthy life. He did use athletic metaphors, such as running the race, *but Paul’s view of a healthy life was ‘live in a way that pleases God’ (v.1). Paul was saying that a life which lacks nothing – a life which abounds more and more, is a life which is growing in relationship to God.
Paul’s phrase, ‘to please God’ is the key. The OT prophet Jeremiah likened God to a master potter shaping his clay. We can stay humble and pliable in the hands of that master potter if our daily goal is to please him.
Paul points us in two directions, which actually are parallel roads, and can be travelled at the same time. Firstly, he told the believers he didn’t have to remind them about how to choose right from wrong, because God did that in their hearts. Secondly, his letter was to remind them of what they already knew and to exhort – even command them to do it – to live in purity.
In this regard the circumstances of the church in the first century and today are relatively similar. The sexual licence of first century Mediterranean culture and our current western culture have close parallels. Even within the church, contemporary culture has made a widespread impact, whether it be through movies, television, music, books or the arts. The Christian is called to live by the biblical model given by the Creator and not be led by contemporary thinking.
When people discuss ethics today, behaviour is usually analysed in terms of whether it is psychologically healthy, or in terms of its social impact or consequences. Paul works from a different starting point – his understanding of God. He assumes that our bodies belong not to ourselves, but to the God of creation – * ‘Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honour God with your body’ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Paul takes for granted the Bible’s fundamentally positive view of the essential goodness of human sexuality, both as created, and when exercised in its intended context – marriage between one man and one woman. He wants to see this gift of God exercised in a manner that builds up the community rather than tears it down. For Paul, sexual activity is not just an inconsequential private activity involving consenting adults. On the contrary, it has an impact on your relationship with God and with other people. It’s meant to be an act of giving rather than of self-serving. God’s call is essentially a call to holiness, to become like God. *Paul makes it clear in v.8 that it’s not a human code, but God-given (v.8).
Holy living, with respect to sexuality, involves disciplined faithfulness to your husband or wife if you are married, and disciplined abstinence if you are not. It’s about being holy – relating to our relationship with God – and honourable (respectful of the other person, or people who may be involved, including children).
However much contemporary culture tries to insist that sex is a private matter between consenting adults and so of no concern to anyone else, private sexual behaviour can and does have both spiritual and social consequences. We should never view this as a separate segment of our lives, but rather see it within the larger framework of our personal walk with God. Jesus’ words about the heart and adultery.
Maybe we don’t hear much about holiness in the church today. Often we see it negatively. *God says, ‘Be holy because I am holy’ (Leviticus 11:44). The word holy means ‘set apart, absolute cleanness, otherness’. But for Paul it is fundamentally positive, rooted in the very character of God. It’s about becoming more and more like the God who has chosen, called and saved us. Of course, this means separating ourselves from things not pleasing to him, which don’t fit the model of becoming more like him.
God makes the call to holiness to a people with whom he already had an established personal relationship. It’s a call to discipleship. It’s a gift, it’s a journey, and it’s a future goal. And he provides power to make progress in this by the person of his Holy Spirit. Living in purity means we will be healthier – both physically and emotionally. A person who wants to walk the pathway of a healthy life will first of all make a commitment to living in purity in God’s strength.
You might be thinking you’ve really blown it in this area. But with God there is never a wrong time to make things right. God would never have told his people to forgive one another if he wasn’t willing to forgive us the moment we come to him in sincere repentance and confession, with the determination to be changed and be different. He never would have told his people to strengthen one another if he wasn’t willing to strengthen you, and put you on a pathway that will help you make changes so you can live in purity.
Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
This prayer tells us that what matters is not so much how we start, but how we finish.
When two people decide to get married, they make a commitment to one another and decide that they will no longer live their lives separate from one another. On the day of their wedding the marriage relationship is as complete as it can be that day. But as the weeks and months of marriage continue, although the initial thrill and excitement may not be as intense, they will nevertheless hopefully grow in the relationship.
Was this couple’s relationship less complete on the wedding day than it was at an anniversary many years later? No. It was as complete as it could be at each moment. That is what holiness is like – simply growing each day in our relationship with God.
A little girl might play a simple one-hand piece on the piano for her first recital. The teacher could well exclaim, ‘That was Perfect!’ Years later, the grown woman, as an accomplished musician, could not play the same simple piece and have it called perfect. Much more would be expected of her. Similarly, as we grow in our relationship with Jesus, there should be a corresponding hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Jim Jones, a 45-year-old landscaper, husband, and father of three in San Diego, had been a Christian for twenty years, but only in the last year or so did it begin to gnaw at him that he was missing something in his spiritual life. He says, ‘I was a believer. I had a powerful conversion experience – but there was no power in my life. I rationalized when it came to sin, instead of being victorious over it. I was like everyone else around me – good folks who love God, love our neighbours, share our testimony when asked, and focus our lives on our rents, mortgage payments, jobs, and getting ahead.’
After spending a lot of time in God’s Word, he came upon Deuteronomy 4:28-29 – *‘There in a foreign land, you will worship idols made from wood and stone – gods that neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. But from there you will search again for the Lord your God. And if you search for him with all your heart and soul, you will find him’. He said, ‘I was so dissatisfied with my life at that point, and when I read this, I decided that is what I wanted. I felt like I only knew God as a concept, and now Jesus was saying to me what he said to his disciples in John 14 – ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?’ I wanted to know Christ as I had never known him before.’
Driving down a dual-carriageway home from his sister’s house in California, more than a year after his search began, Jim said, ‘I connected.’ The presence of God filled his truck in such a way, he began to weep. He said, ‘On that drive I reached a new level of intimacy. And then I wondered how I could have known Christ so long and missed this!’
It’s easy to settle for too little. Caving into the argument that a person is doomed to stumble along in constant failure, we have lived defeated lives. Some people give up on Christianity all together. Not only does this mean personal defeat but there is no telling how far back the kingdom of God has been set.
There is a process that God is performing in our lives. It isn’t something we’re doing, as if we had the power or the resources to sanctify ourselves, but it’s fundamentally a work of God. That doesn’t mean we’re passive in the process, but it does mean that we can’t make ourselves holy. Here we find a note of assurance – that just as God has called Christians to faith in Jesus Christ, so also God will faithfully complete his work of making us holy.
If you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, God has called you – your faith in Jesus is evidence of that call. If you’ve been called, then you can be sure that God will accomplish his work of making you holy through and through – spirit, soul and body. We can depend on that promise – God is faithful, reliable, and trustworthy to do whatever needs to be done in our lives to make us holy.
If it depended on us – our faithfulness, our dependability, our resolve – we’d never make it. If our progress in the spiritual life depended on us, our prospects wouldn’t be very good. But since our progress depends on God’s faithfulness, then our prospects are great.
Prior to his conversion, John Newton, author of the famous hymn Amazing Grace, had sunk very low in his life. Early on in his life, he stole away on a ship, where he was found and sold to a woman in Africa as her slave. He sank so low that he fed himself from the crumbs from this woman’s table and from digging up wild yams in the night hours. His clothing was reduced to a single shirt, which he would wash in the ocean.
After rescue, he himself became a slave trader until one time he was on board a ship in a violent storm off the coast of County Donegal in Ireland. He called out to God to save him. The ship didn’t sink, and that experience led to Newton’s search for God and his conversion to Christianity. Giving his life to Jesus Christ led to him abandoning his involvement in the slave trade and becoming a leading abolitionist campaigner.
The Lord called him to preach and he became a minister. He wrote the hymns, Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken and How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds. In the Church in London where Newton laboured for years as pastor, you can find his epitaph. He wrote it himself.
*Sacred to the memory of John Newton, once a libertine and blasphemer and slave of slaves in Africa; but, renewed, purified, pardoned and appointed to preach the Gospel which he had laboured to destroy! He focused upon what God had done in his life – he’d purified him.
Do you have a dominant hunger to be more and more like Jesus Christ? Has God changed your orientation toward others so that your heart and will are committed to love them? Are you becoming ‘perfect in love’ as Christ is? This is about being continually cleansed from bitterness, grudges, malice, ill will, envy etc. This is a call to more than just a feeling – it’s a mindset! It is a commitment of the will to love!
Newton also said, ‘I’m not the man I ought to be, I am not the man I wish to be, and I am not the man I hope to be, but by the grace of God, I am not the man I used to be.’
Like you and me, he knew he wasn’t there yet. He fully recognized his own weaknesses and failures. But he was focused on his destination. Let me end with the words of another 18th century hymn writer, William Cowper, another avid anti-slavery campaigner, whose writing was quoted by Martin Luther King. For the last verse of his hymn, ‘Hark, my soul! It is the Lord’, *Cowper wrote, ‘Lord, it is my chief complaint that my love is faint and weak. Yet I love thee and adore. O for grace to love you more’.
We’ll never fully arrive in this life but let’s make it our destination – as Paul urged the Thessalonian church – to be increasingly pure and blameless – and so to live lives with the chief purpose of pleasing God.
Reading – Jeremiah 18:1-6
Beautiful Lord, wonderful Saviour
I know for sure, all of my days are held in your hands, crafted into your perfect plans
You gently draw me into your presence, guiding me by your Holy Spirit
Teach me, O lord, to live all my life through your eyes
I’m captured by your holy calling
Set me apart, I know you’re drawing me to yourself
Lead me Lord, I pray
Take me, mould me, use me, fill me
I give my life into the potter’s hand
Call me, guide me, lead me, walk beside me
I give my life to the potter’s hand
Hymn – Breathe on me, breath of God
Prayers of Intercession – Nwabs
Mission Prayer – Street Pastors – Derek
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).