Sunday, 20 August 2017

A Prayer to Endure: Sermon Notes on 2 Thessalonians 3:5

May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.

Summer is a better time to take stock than Christmas and New Year, because it’s busy and it is dark and cold.

This verse is a window on how Paul was praying for the Thessalonian Christians and no doubt all the Christians he knew.

One of the values that guides our prayers as a church is to endure in the faith ourselves like Jesus did and to build a community of Christians here that endures for as long as there is a town called Reading on the map of what is currently called the United Kingdom.

The Thessalonian Church was a church under fire. If you read Acts 17, you find that the mob was out for them. Paul writes two letters to them and in this second letter, one of the issues he is addressing is that some have given up working for their daily bread and for the Lord because the opposition was intense and somehow, maybe through grief and discouragement, they believed the “Day of the Lord” had already come and that they would be imminently carried off to Heaven or some such. Paul exhorts and admonishes them to persevere in their responsibilities to the Lord and to each other, to be busy both in work to provide for their bodily needs and in the work of the Lord because the end has not come just yet. What might seem like the end times to them in their bubble, is not the end times to the rest of the world and they need to be diligent in serving the Lord for some time yet.

Two thousand years later and we are all still here! Some of those Thessalonian Christians would have their tails between their legs if they knew! Whilst our context is not a context of violent pressure like theirs, pressures still exist. The call to persevere remains, even if it comes from a different angle and the power to endure still comes from the same place.

I want to ask three questions relating to this verse:

  1. What is the love of God?
  2. Who is the Lord who directs our hearts?
  3. How does the steadfastness of Christ help us to endure?

What is the love of God?
The true and living God is a community, a family of love: God the Father and God the Son delighting in each other through the fellowship of God the Holy Spirit. All three of them are fully distinct personalities, yet all three of them are fully God. And yet, they all dwell in each other so fully, that if you have met one of them, you come to know them all.

But here is a question. If the Father, Son and the Spirit enjoy true bliss and satisfaction in each other and have no need of anything else, then why are we here at all? Surely that means God lacks something, needs something – why otherwise would we be here.

The good news is that you and I exist not because God has some gaping hole in the soul, or because the trinity all got bored of each other, but because God is love.

You see true love shares and gives. When you truly love someone you want to share all that you have with them and you want to give all of yourself to them.

True love is self-effacing and self-sacrificing. True love does not say “look at me, I’m important.” True love forgets itself, it is too delighted with another. True love says I want to give everything I am and have to the one whom I love.

God the Father loves God the Son and desires to give him the greatest gift he possibly can. That gift was not the latest smartphone or even a stash of cash the size of the Himalayas, but people. More specifically a people who would love the son, and delight in him the way the Father delights in him. A people who would share his delight in his beloved son and be united to the Son in that love.

Think about that for a moment. As a human being you are, along with all other humans, the person sat next to you, your family and friends, and all the people who fill the earth are, in God the Father’s mind the greatest possible gift he could think of giving to his Son. Let that thought fill you with dignity that it should for a moment. Poke the person next to you and tell them they are the greatest gift the Father could think of to give his Son. You are not just a biological machine, you are not just the sum total of all your worldly titles. Whether you realise it or not, you as a human being, as the pinnacle of God’s creative genius are a gift – a gift from the father to the son.

And the Son is not passive in this gift giving process. He is not up in his bedroom in heaven playing computer games and shouting downstairs every half an hour when he wants a snack. When the father offers him this gift of a people to love and be loved by him, he doesn’t say Meh! Got anything else? He says Wow! That’s the greatest gift I could ever conceive of receiving. Father you are the greatest father there is and I desire that just as I have enjoyed your love eternally and honour you for that love, so too, I want to do everything I can so that this people you give to me, come to know that enjoyment of your love also.

And so together, through the power of the Holy Spirit, they created the universe we see around us. A place that is vast in size and yet intricate and balanced to the finest detail. A place full of beautiful variety and yet ordered and harmonious in that variety.

And at the centre of that creation they placed Adam and Eve, the babies of the human race. And in this world of love, beauty and perfection, all we, the human race had to do was give our yes and amen to God by loving and trusting them and doing all that they asked of us so that we could grow, flourish and mature into a beautiful people who filled the earth with the happiness of God and when all had been fulfilled – when we came of age, God would give us in marriage to his son forever.

The problem was, we didn’t say yes and amen to this plan, we said no, no way. We didn’t say “I do,” we said “I don’t.” And in that moment, we became spiritual orphans and adulterers.

We became orphans, not because God the father died, but because we refused to recognise his existence in our lives as the Father of our souls. We became adulterers because instead of giving ourselves in faithful love to God the Son we gave our hearts and our bodies in obedience to another voice – the voice of the serpent. We have all lived in the shame, guilt and slavery of that decision ever since, deaf and dead to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

At that point, the Father, the Son and the Spirit could have thrown in the towel outraged at our faithlessness and consigned us and the universe we live in to the dustbin of Heaven and got back to the drawing board saying “Let’s try that again.”

But the God of the Bible is love, and true love does not give up. True love pursues. The greater the love, the greater the pursuit. The greatest love gives birth to the greatest pursuit.

More than that, only tragedy can truly prove how great any love is and so the greatest tragedy – our rebellion against God, whilst far from being the plan and no one plans tragedy – is nevertheless the opportunity for the greatest love to show itself true.

Whilst it is absolutely outrageous that the God of the universe should be humiliated in such a way, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is nevertheless, the moment in history where the love of God and the glory of that love is most truly displayed. And where the Son of God proves that he is worthy to receive all our adoration and affection as our future bridegroom.

For it is there he said I love you. It is there that he became our representative and stood in our place. It is there that he said:

  • Let me take your shame so that you can receive my glory.
  • Let me take your guilt so that you can receive my perfection.
  • Let me take your punishment so that you can receive my peace.
  • Let me take your bondage so that you can receive my freedom.
  • Let me take your darkness so that you can receive my light.
  • Let me take your chaos so that you can receive my rest.
  • Let me take your weakness so that you can receive my power.
  • Let me take your spirit of lawlessness so that you can receive my Holy Spirit.
  • Let me take your death so that you can receive my life.
  • Let me take everything that you are so that you can receive everything that I am.
  • I love you, I love you, I love you and my father and I want you to be with me where we are!

Paul sums it up like this in Ephesians 2: As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Thanks to the kindness and mercy of God, at the end of history, there will still be a great marriage when God the Son, in the presence of his Father will be united in love to all those out of every nation on the earth who have believed and trusted in him.

The Apostle John puts it like this in 1 John 3: Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

The Apostle Paul puts it like this in 1 Corinthians 2: No eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard, nor has any mind conceived of the things that God has in store for those who love him.

David the Psalmist, puts it like this in Psalm 45: Listen, my daughter, and pay careful attention: forget your people and your father’s house. Let the king be enthralled by your beauty; honor him, for he is your lord. All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold. In many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions following behind her. With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.

Whoever you are, whatever you have done, whatever your history, whatever your trajectory, the Father and the Son desire that we all should join them forever in a renewed world unspoiled by our darkness and evil, and they have made provision such that no barrier can ever get in the way of us believing him. The only thing that can possibly stop us now coming to him is our refusal to receive his love. He will not force his love upon us, but neither will he wait forever, if you hear his voice today, don’t wait to receive his love and obey his voice.

Have you said yes to this call from him?

The Love of God is the Story of History

But what about the here and now, we have just looked at the beginning and end of human history, but where are we here and now in Reading in 2017 at whatever age and stage we are.

I have spoken much about the Father and the Son, not so much about the Spirit.

Which leads us to our second question...

Who is the Lord who directs our hearts?
It is the Holy Spirit who the Father and the Son have given to us to guard us and to prepare us meet them and to help us prepare the world for it to be God’s future home.

In the Old Testament, the guardian of God’s people was the Law – the law guarded God’s people and helped them prepare for the coming of Christ. The Law was to be a seal upon their hearts reminding them who they belonged to and light to their eyes showing them how to live.

The Spirit of God is the true and better guardian of God’s people. He is the true and better Law. He is preparing us for the return of Christ. He is the true and better counsellor, he is our the true and better advocate. The Law brought people near to God, the Spirit unites our hearts to God.

Like the Law once was, now the Spirit is God’s seal upon our hearts reminding us who we belong to and so Paul writes in Ephesians 1:13-14: When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession. He is also light to our eyes showing us how to live. Again, Paul writes in Galatians 5:25: Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

So in his role as guardian, what is it that the Spirit is to do?

His role is to take us from immature adulthood to mature adulthood.

When you and I turned 18, our status in law changed from child to adult, but that did not mean that you and I were immediately allowed to do everything that every other adult is allowed to do. Yes, we could legally drink in a pub without supervision, but nobody immediately handed us the keys to a jumbo jet, or the tools of a brain surgeon and said “Off you go, have a go”. If they had, they would have been ridiculously negligent. There was still a huge amount of training and maturing we had to go through, both in our technical ability and in our relational wisdom so as to become mature in our adulthood. And if you’re like me, you are still learning and still maturing. At 18, my status changed overnight, but my maturity and competence level most definitely did not!

Maturity isn’t a mix you can buy from the supermarket: “Instant Maturity:” Just add the Spirit.”

Just like the picture behind me, the girl who has probably just turned 18, has a different status in her family, but if she has any sense and her parents are any good at parenting, she will be constantly returning to them for help, advice and money as she learns to take her place in an adult world.

When God poured out the Spirit upon his people, it was a sign that their status had changed! Now they were truly born of the Spirit and children of God, now they were truly the betrothed bride of Christ, now they truly would reign with Christ and be seated in heavenly realms with him, but they were / are immature in that new status, and it was and is the Spirit who was given to help us to grow up and mature into who God has made us to be. Paul says in Ephesians 4:13 that we are to “grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” Paul is not just referring to individual Christians here, his scope is much broader, he is referring to the people of God down history, including you and me.

The giving the Spirit marks God’s intention to transition the world and his people from this old way of life in sin, death and hatred of God to a new way of life, a way of light, life and the love of God.

But this process of maturing that the Spirit wants to do in us doesn’t come easy! Like Josh said last week, nothing great is easy. The greatest tasks are often the hardest tasks, so if this stuff sounds hard or even impossible to you then you are thinking the right things and asking the right questions.
So we come to our third question...

How does the steadfastness of Christ help us to endure?

We can face opposition in the world around us, but even more than that, we find sometimes that our hearts are at war within us. The greatest battle in our lives is the battleground of the heart. Our old task master, Satan, that great serpent, doesn’t just role over when we give the allegiance of our lives to Christ. Moreover, our own hearts are so used to living a different way that they find it difficult do synchronise to this true and better vision of life.

In these moments of internal and external conflict the Spirit of God will point our eyes to Christ. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

The Spirit wants us to see Christ who is both our guarantee and our inspiration.

He is our guarantee in those moments when we are given to disappointment and frustration because we have let God down, that he will not forsake us. The blood of Jesus is always fully able to cover over and redeem all our failings and weaknesses. God will carry on to completion the good work he has begun in us.

He is also our inspiration for he has called us to finish the work he began and if we are facing difficulty in that work, we can look to him and his example so that we know how to proceed in the circumstances that we find ourselves.

What stops us from allowing the Spirit to direct our hearts?

At the root of it, what causes us to stifle the voice of the Holy Spirit is that we elevate the voice of our hearts above his voice.

Our culture is constantly telling us to listen to our hearts, that this is the way to flourish. Proverbs 14:12 disagrees, it says There is a way that seems right to us, but in the end it leads to death. What truly brings life to us is listening to the voice of God.

The danger here is not that we can’t be honest to God, we can and must be honest with God and with each other, the danger here is pride. Considering our voices more important than God’s voice which when you think about how great God is and how puny we are, is nothing short of madness.

This process can be subtle. You and I can fall into the trap of assuming that because we believe the right stuff that we have somehow been vaccinated against falling away from God, but if we let our emotions and desires be the prism through which we understand God’s words, rather than asking God’s words to be the prism through which we learn to understand our desires and emotions, then we are already half-way to living in disobedience, stifling the Spirit and giving up.

We may carry on being Christian on the outside, but there will little energy and appetite for obeying Christ’s command to complete the great commission and a strong desire to stay on the path of least resistance, maintain the status quo and avoid change.

Here are some emotions and desires we can elevate above God’s word in our hearts. The list is not exhaustive.

  • Disobedience
  • Failure
  • Guilt
  • Grief
  • Disappointment
  • Unmet expectations
  • Victimhood
  • Cynicism
  • Self-pity
  • Bitterness
  • Opposition
  • Fear
  • Fatigue
  • Boredom
  • Comfort
  • Pleasure
  • Overfamiliarity
  • Complacency
  • Deception
  • Fruitlessness
  • Frustration
  • Discouragement.

When these emotions and thoughts come we must speak the words of God to them and believe the Spirit as he reminds us of them and fix our hearts on the love of God and steadfastness of Christ.

Then, and only then, we will have the strength to endure to the end.