Monday, November 11, 2013

Sermon: "Be Not Deceived!"

Be Not Deceived
II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Thessalonica was another one of those strategically located ancient cities to which Paul had the good fortune of visiting and in which he had the good fortune of being able to establish a church. Its main street linked Rome with the East. (1) It was a center for the trading of goods that came from both the East and the West.

One bible scholar offers this observation: “It is impossible to overstress the importance of the arrival of Christianity in Thessalonica. If Christianity was settled in Thessalonica it was bound to spread East along the Egnatian Road until all Asia was conquered, and West until it stormed even the city of Rome. The coming of Christianity to Thessalonica was a crucial day in the making of Christianity into a world religion.” (2)

The story of Paul’s visit to Thessalonica is told in the 17th chapter of the book of Acts. One of the things we learn is that he was only there for approximately three weeks - but, wow the result of his visit was phenomenal! He drew such a following that some of the leaders of the more established religions were upset and tried to silence him. Paul’s followers smuggled him out of the city fearing for his life. Paul refused to change his preaching though, getting into trouble again in the next community. He finally ended up in Athens.

While in Athens, Paul had some time to think about some of the places he had visited. He became concerned about how short his stay in Thessalonica had been. His concern was whether he’d been there long enough to really establish an alive and active community of believers. He wondered if the seeds of Christianity had taken root and thus would enable Christianity to grow and spread throughout the Roman Empire. Basically, Thessalonica was a test case for Paul to determine whether it was possible to start new churches by only being in an area for a short period of time or whether it was going to be necessary for him or others to settle in for several months or years. (3) Paul was truly anxious to hear what was going on in Thessalonica.

And so, very shortly after he and his young mentee, Timothy, were reunited, Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to evaluate the situation. Some of what Timothy discovered when he returned was good news. The Thessalonians still held Paul in high regard. They were hanging in there. They were continuing to be faithful. Paul was pleased to hear these things.

However, Timothy also discovered a few disturbing things. Apparently Paul and the others had been so persuasive when they talked about the return of Christ, that when a rumor developed that Christ had already returned, some of the followers freaked out. (4) Some of them stopped working. Others abandoned all their ordinary activities to await the second coming. A sort of hysterical sense of expectancy took over their decision-making. Some were concerned about what was going to happen to those who had died before the second coming happened. Some were alarmed by the fact, since Paul had said that the faithful would be “caught up in the clouds. . . (to) be with the Lord forever” (4:17), that thought the airlift had already taken place and they were – heaven forbid! – left behind! They didn’t know how to handle not being among the chosen, the saved, after Paul had so successfully convinced them they were.

Bible scholars believe that some of the things Paul wrote in his first letter when he was trying to warn them about how suddenly the Day of the Lord would come – you know, the “like a thief in the night” comment – well, such comments were probably partially to blame for the Thessalonians’ hysterical reaction.

Some believe that second letter to the Thessalonians may not have been written by Paul. They hypothesize that the letter may have been a later attempt by the early church to clarify some of the things followers might have misunderstood in Paul's initial letter. (5) (Marcus Borg points out that it was not unusual for people to use someone else's name to give validity for a writing in that day. Borg is of the belief that the intent by the Paul-pretender was to soften the radicalness of Paul's theology.) The author or authors, Paul or someone using Paul's name, spent some of the space in the second letter giving advice, but the primary intent was to calm the Thessalonicans down and probably other Christians who'd read Paul's initial letter to the Thessalonicans. Church leaders wanted to encourage followers to wait – not in excited idleness – but in patience and daily attendance to the work they had to do. And they did this by explaining some of the signs that must come before the second coming. Church leaders tried to reassure followers that the second coming had not happened and that they should “get a grip” on things. Basically, they said to them, “If you haven’t seen these things, then Christ has not come back. Quit worrying about when Christ is coming back and get back to work and being faithful.” (6) "Do not be deceived about these things! Christ’s return will happen after the rebellion which will reveal who the lawless one is, the one who is destined for destruction.”

I would add that it's good advice for us in our day as well. We likewise need to guard against being deceived. We are not to worry about when it’s going to happen – ours is to simply remain faithful. We have nothing to fear if we are living faithful lives. Jesus himself instructed us not to waste our time trying to figure out when it’s going to happen, but to spend our time remaining true to our calling. Don’t be deceived by the doomsayers – those who want you to give into despair and hopelessness about the world and the possibilities for it. Be faithful and spread the good news – offer forgiveness, tell others about the grace of God and the rest will take care of itself.

The author using the authority of Paul's name went on in this second letter to affirm – compliment – the Thessalonians for their faithfulness and, some believe, to provide a synopsis of what it takes to live a Christian life. He began by pointing out that the Christian life begins with God’s calling us. He put it this way: “…because God chose you from the beginning,” and “for this he called you…” The idea was that it is God’s initiative that starts us on the journey of faith. It is God’s seeking a relationship of love with us that first moves us to respond. We are first of all a called people.

Whoever wrote the second letter then lifted up the importance – the necessity – of our doing something in order for a continuing development of faith. As one commentator explained it: “The Christian is not called to dream, but to fight; he is not called to stand still, but to climb. She is called not only to the greatest privilege in the world, but also to the greatest task in the world.” (7) A measure of our being faithful is our acting – doing – serving – witnessing – helping.

When the Jewish people were about the task of restoring the temple, a delegation of them went to the prophet Zechariah and asked if they should continue to “mourn and fast in the fifth month.” Zechariah reminded them of the time before the exile when people fasted and ate more for themselves than for God. He reminded them that the worship that is pleasing to God is different than fasting or feasting – important and helpful as they might be for one’s personal faith development when done with the right motivation. Worship that is pleasing to God is that which brings us into a relationship with God – not that which is directed toward making us feel good, have a good time or enriching our personal inner spiritual journey (perhaps a good and cautionary word for what some of us do in worship in our day).

Then Zechariah spoke for God and said: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy each to his brother and sister, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless or motherless, the sojourner, or the poor; and let none of you devise evil against his or her brother or sister in your heart.” The call on our lives to be faithful is the call to worship God by showing kindness and mercy, not oppressing the less fortunate, not breeding evil thoughts in our minds or hearts.

Well, the author of II Thessalonians went on in his letter to suggest a couple of things he thought would also help us as we try to be faithful. He mentioned the importance of keeping close to us good and godly people – that we should surround ourselves and be taught and guided by people of faith. God speaks to us through those to whom God has already spoken. We’ve heard it many times before, “A saint is a person who makes it easier for others to believe in God.” Some do it by what they say – some by what they write – most, by what and who they are. When we meet them we sense that we have been in the presence of God.

A second thing Paul suggested would be helpful to us on this journey of trying to be faithful is a recognition on our part that God hasn’t called us to this journey to leave us sink or swim on our own. The same God who calls us and gives us the task to perform or the life to live out, also provides for us the strength to do it – in fact, does it with us. We don’t have to rely on our own puny resources to do battle with the struggles of life – God is with us. When Paul was up against things in Corinth, he had a vision by night, and in it the Lord said to him, “Be not afraid…for I am with you.” (8) We need to hear and believe that for ourselves today. God is still with us. Our trust must be in God not in whomever our elected officials are, nor our military, nor our economy, nor our families. It is a resolve to believe that it is in God we trust that will keep us faithful.

When we move into the third chapter of II Thessalonians we read words that reveal that Paul requested that his new brothers and sisters in the faith keep praying for him and Silas and Timothy. Can you imagine what that request meant to those struggling Thessalonians – to hear a man they deeply admired ask them, who had so messed up the message – who were such babies in the faith – who well recognized their own weakness – to pray for him? To be faithful includes seeking the prayers of others for ourselves and recognizing the role of our intercessory praying for our own faith development. What a novel idea – praying for one another and allowing others to pray for us. It will keep us from being deceived by those who would have us worry too much about when it’s all going to come down.

I'm praying for you and I trust I am in your prayers as well! Peace be with you, brothers and sisters!

1.  William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1959), p. 213.
2.  Ibid.
3.  Ibid.
4.  “SF/HF,” Homiletics, November – December, 2004, p. 11.
5.  Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul (New York: HarperCollins e-books, 2009) p. 22/291.
6.  Ibid.
7.  The Daily Study Bible Series, p. 248.
8.  Ibid., p. 249.

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