Sermon: Not You, but Y’all

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as we hear your word this morning, may we receive it as what it really is, not a human word, but God’s word. As we do, may it work in us and not return empty, but bear fruit for your kingdom. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Christians are always in Advent. Advent is a season of anticipation, of great eagerness and longing for the coming of Christ. In the four weeks leading up to Christmas, the church practices waiting by remembering along with the people who waited for the first coming of Christ in a manger. But we do this to set our hearts on Christ who will come again, and to prepare ourselves for his coming. This advent, we are listening together to an Advent letter, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Turn there with me, please. 1 Thessalonians is in the New Testament – Phillippians, Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy. It is a letter filled with eager anticipation for the coming of Christ. Last time we were together, we heard the first chapter of this letter, and today we will pick up and hear the second chapter. 1 Thessalonians 2, beginning in verse 1.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. For as you know and God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed, nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our own selves, because you have become dear to us.

You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters, we worked night and day so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you live a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

We also constantly give thanks to God for this, when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. For you, brothers and sisters, have become imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you have suffered the same things from your compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, they displease God and oppose everyone, by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they might be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins, but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.

As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you – in person, not in heart – we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. We wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, want to again and again – but Satan blocked our way. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!

This is the Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

At the close of 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul asks a question, but the answer is not what we might expect. It is verse 19: For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming?

Jesus is coming. Last time we were together, we heard how Jesus the King is coming again. Jesus who died and rose again and ascending into heaven will return from heaven in glory. We heard how we need to be alert, to be awake, to turn to God from idols, and wait for his son from heaven.

What is praiseworthy in light of Jesus coming back? Paul asks, For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming? A crown of boasting comes from athletic competitions in the ancient world. When we see someone win the gold medal at the olympic games, they get wear a big necklace of gold around their neck. In the ancient world, the winner of an athletic competition would wear a crown woven of leaves (often laurel leaves). This crown would be the sign of their achievement and would bring them honor and respect. People would praise them.

What is praiseworthy in light of Jesus coming back? For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming? This is not asking what will save us – it is Jesus Christ who saves us and we live by faith in him. Paul is asking about what will not only give praise to Jesus at his coming, but result in us receiving praise from Jesus. What will God delight in seeing at his coming? What is praiseworthy in light of Jesus coming back?

Perhaps not what you would expect. We might expect Paul to say, For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not my preaching? But that is not what Paul says.

Paul spends much of this chapter defending his work of preaching. If we read between the lines, he was likely being accused of being nothing more than a traveling charlatan, preaching what the people wanted to hear, flattering them and trying to get their money. Paul reminds the church how far these claims are from the truth. Paul worked hard so that he was not a financial burden on the church, even if he could have required them to support him. Paul had to be courageous in speaking the gospel, because there was great opposition. Far from preaching in a way that pleased everyone around him, telling the people what they want to hear, Paul was driven out of the city of Philippi, then Thessalonica, and then Berea because of his preaching of the gospel. Paul did not preach for the praise of men, but of God.

Paul’s message – the message of the gospel that was entrusted to him by God – was  a challenging message. It was a message that poked and prodded, that confronted and challenged, that unsettled and disquieted those who heard. One of the signs that the true gospel is being proclaimed is that we do not always leave church comfortable. At times, we will be decidedly uncomfortable with what we hear, as God breaks and remakes us, bends and refashions us, slays and revives us. Paul, in all his preaching, did not seek the praise of people, but the praise of God.

What is praiseworthy in light of Jesus coming back? We might expect to hear the preaching of the true gospel. We would be right. It is good and right and the command of God and the joy of our hearts to share the good news of Jesus Christ in all its fullness with others. But that is not what Paul says.

For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming? What is praiseworthy, what will God delight in seeing at his coming? We might expect to hear about Paul’s character. He is vehement in defending himself to the Thessalonians. Paul was not filled with deceit, impure motives, or trickery. He did not seek to please people, but God. Paul did not flatter the people nor was filled with greed. Instead, he was like both a mother and a father to them. Paul, like a mother, was gentle with them. He tenderly cared for them. He shared not just the gospel, but his own self with them. Like a Father, Paul urged and encouraged the Thessalonians. He pleaded with them to live a life worthy of God. His conduct was pure, upright, and blameless toward them.

Paul was a man of character, of compassion, of conviction. His life matched his words. He not only spoke God’s word, but lived it – in both the ways people appreciate and the ways that got him ostracised. The ways that made him cool and the ways that left him sitting alone at the lunch table.

When Paul asks, For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming? What is praiseworthy, what will God delight in at his coming? We might expect to hear of Paul’s character. We would be right. Remember that this is not about salvation – it is Jesus Christ who saves us and we live by faith in him. But God delights when we walk in his ways. God delights when we live according to his word. But that is not what Paul says.

When Paul asks, For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming? What is praiseworthy, what will God delight in at his coming? We also might expect to hear of Paul’s suffering. Jesus’ whole life was one of humiliation and suffering, not just on the cross. Paul’s life share in the life of Christ in this way. His own journey was a reflection of his savior. Paul was driven out, he was beaten, he was mocked, he was falsely accused. He suffered persecution because of bearing the name of Jesus, which exactly what Jesus said would happen. You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. The Thessalonian church and the church in Judea shared in this too. The churches suffered as the culture turned against them, as the powerful found them quaint and irrelevant at best, or dangerous at worst. For you, brothers and sisters, have become imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you have suffered the same things from your compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, they displease God and oppose everyone, by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they might be saved.

Paul lived like Christ, suffered like Christ. He was like Christ, like the martyrs, who died to be witnesses to Jesus Christ. As St. Cyprian once said, “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” If suffering is the way to Christ’s glory, then paradoxically, the suffering church is the glorious church, is the church on the way of Jesus on the path of glory. It was not a sign that something was wrong, but that something was right. Suffering, for Paul, was not a detour on the path to glory in Christ, but part and parcel of the way of Christ.

When Paul asks, For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming? What is praiseworthy, what will God delight in at his coming? We might expect to hear that he has suffered like Christ, poured out his life like the martyrs in faithful witness to Jesus, even to the point of suffering. We would be right. God delights in and has continually used the faithful suffering of his people at the hands of persecutors for the glory of his name. Revelation declares that martyrs will be robed in white at the coming of the Son. But that is not what Paul says.

As we think about what counts as praiseworthy at the coming of Jesus, we might expect to hear of the preaching of the gospel, the character of the christian, or the faithful suffering and witness of the christian. There are all right and are praiseworthy. But listen to what Paul actually says, For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!

Is it not you? It is the church. What God delights in seeing at his coming is the church. More than Paul’s individual work in sharing and living the gospel, more than his individual character, more than his individual suffering and witness, what God delights in seeing at his coming, what will be Paul’s crown of boasting at the coming of the Lord Jesus is the church. To put it in Southern idiom, it is not just you, but y’all.

Paul’s hope, joy, and crown of boasting before the Lord is tied together with the church. Their faithfulness, their holiness, their suffering, their reception of the gospel, is bound together with God’s delight in Paul. God is not just concerned about Paul, but about the whole church. They are bound together. It is not just about you, but y’all.

When I came across this quote from the great early preacher, John Chrysostom, whose name means ‘golden mouth,’ I had to write it down and share it with you. He says, “He who will not seek in the well-being of his neighbor his own benefit will not attain to the crown for this reason: God himself has so decided that human beings should be mutually bound together. When one awakens a sleeping child and asks him to follow his brother, left to himself he is often unwilling. If, however, we place in his brother’s hand an object the child desires, he will pursue his brother to obtain what he desires. It is the same case here. God has placed our benefit in the hand of our neighbor so that we will pursue one another and not be torn apart.”

For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!

What does God delight in at his coming? What is praiseworthy in light of the return of Jesus? The church. It is not just about you, but y’all.

We are bound together in this. Again, this is not about whether we have eternal life in Christ – only Jesus saves us and we live by faith in him. But, as Chrysostom says, “God himself has so decided that human beings should be mutually bound together.” We are tied together in this.

So should we continue to proclaim the name of Jesus, not to please people, but to please God? Should we live in a way fitting of the gospel, a way that gives glory to the name of Jesus and does not present a barrier to those hearing our message? Should we continue to daily take up our cross and follow Jesus, wherever he would lead us? Yes! Absolutely yes! But it is not just about you, but about y’all.

Part of running the race that God has set out for us, running in such a way that we will win the crown, that we will feel God’s delight, is to fix our eyes on what God delights in. What God delights in is his bride, the church.

This is why Paul is confident and rejoices, because he has seen God at work in the church in Thessalonica. His preaching was not in vain – God’s word did not return empty. Instead, they received the word of God, not as a human word, but as what it really is, God’s word. They received it in all its challenge and freedom, in all its sin-killing and life-giving power. Not only did they receive it, but that very word of God was at work in them. The church was faithful and suffering along the way of glory.

So continue to receive the gospel, not as a human word, but as God’s word. Let it convict you and say something you do not want to hear. Let it do its work in you so that you are more pure, upright, and blameless. Let it make you stick out and even suffer for it. But remember that it is not just about you, but y’all.

This means that Jesus is coming and we cannot say, ‘I’m good. I know I have peace with God through Jesus Christ. But them, what they do is their own problem.’ I, as a preacher, cannot say, “I preached the word, I was faithful in my walk with God, but those people at Bethel were just difficult. That’s not my problem, they will have to deal with that when Jesus comes back.” No. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!

It is not just me, but us. Not just you, but y’all. We are trained by our culture to think primarily in terms of us as individuals, but God is concerned not just with you, but with all y’all. God delights not just in seeing one sinner saved – though he certainly is – but in the bride of Christ, the church. This means we cannot say, “I’m good, I’m ready and awake for Jesus to come back. But them, I’d rather not worry about them.” The people across the street in the apartment complex, the people living in tents down by the river, the children at Prince Charles school, the families hiding in their half-million dollar homes, the first nation on the reserve. We cannot say, “I’m good, what they do is their problem.” 

This morning, we have seen that God delights when we receive and live his word. He delights when our character is fitting to the gospel and not a barrier to it. He delights when we take up our cross, stand out and suffer, for the gospel. But, perhaps surprising to us, God has tied our well-being to that of our neighbor. Just as Paul’s joy and crown are tied to the well-being of the church in its life in Christ, our joy and crowns are tied together with our neighbors.

Jesus is coming. Advent is the season where we train our hearts to anticipate that day. At Bethel, we believe that God has called us to Share Christ in Community by Welcoming the Stranger. We believe this not because it is hip or popular or will win us friends, but because God has tied our lives together. He is building a church that he delights in, and we are called to seek and find our own joy in that of our neighbor. So what is your hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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