Over the next few weeks we will be spending time with the letter that Paul wrote to the new church in Thessalonica.
This letter is almost certainly Paul’s first letter and the earliest Christian document that we have. It was written about 15 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. That is very close. It is a bit like someone writing today about the impact of something that happened in 2000.
It is a letter which does four things. First, and this is what we look at today, Paul gives thanks for the Thessalonian church. Second (chapters 2 and 3), he reaffirms the authenticity of his ministry and his love for the Thessalonian believers. Third, he urges them on to sanctification – to live a holy live (that is chapter 4.1-12); and finally he reassures them about those who have already died (chapter 4.13-5.11)
So in chapter 1, Paul gives thanks to God for the Thessalonian church.
He had been worried. We are told about the founding of the church in Acts 17.1-8. He had gone to Thessalonica and preached in the synagogue for 3 weeks. His message is all about Jesus. He teaches that Jesus is the Messiah, that he died and rose from the dead. Some of the Jews believed but the majority rejected the message. So he starts to preach to the Gentiles. They hear and they respond: 'they turn to God from idols to serve the living and true God' (v9).
So Paul remains. And a small congregation is established.
But then trouble comes. It usually does when God is at work. Several of the believers are arrested and accused of treason, of saying that there is another king to Caesar, namely Jesus. They are released on bail, but it is felt that it would be better for the church if Paul moves on.
Paul fears that this new church will be crushed. So after a few months he sends Timothy back to find out what is happening. Timothy returns with bad news and good news. The bad news is that the persecution continues. The good news is that the church has not been crushed. On the contrary, it is flourishing.
Paul writes immediately and he gives thanks to God for them. V2: ‘We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers’ – and he particularly gives thanks for their faith-inspired works, their love-inspired grit, and their hope-inspired perseverence.
So what relevance does this letter have to us?
We live in very different times. We are not a new church. We are not persecuted for our faith. We are not in a community which worships idols.
Or are we? We do not live in a world which worships stone gods, but we do worship other gods, gods we have made.
It is easy to identify what those current gods are. Look at our biggest and most impressive buildings. Look at Canary wharf, at our shopping centre cathedrals, at the amazing science and research facilities of the pharmaceutical and technological companies. They are the cathedrals of our current gods. Today we worship the gods of money and material prosperity and possessions and power.
What saddened me in the debate about Scottish independence was that at the end it all seemed to come down to whether people would be better off in an independent Scotland or one that remained part of the union. It was finance, big business, markets and personal wealth that decided the result: not vision or ideals, not principals of history, or of shared cultural values, or of the relative values of autonomy or interdependence. And elections we are told are always won or lost on the economy, on how well off people feel.
We have forgotten God and so we live for the only thing we can live for: the here and now. So it is obvious that our gods will be the things of the here and now: the economy and capital, science and technology, education, military might, health and fitness, possessions and entertainment.
It is not wrong. Of course we want to live in a prosperous safe society, have the highest standard of health care possible, and do the absolute best for our children in our education system. When the people of Israel were in exile in Babylonia, Jeremiah urges them ‘to pray for the welfare of the city in which you live’.
The problem comes when we forget God and put those things in his place.
We’re like the beloved who has been given a ring by the lover. Our lover has made it for us, because they love us. It cost them a great deal. It is a most beautiful ring, with intricate detail and design. It is priceless and it has been shaped for us. But as we gaze at the ring, we fall in love with the ring, we live for the ring and we forget the one who has given us the ring.
And when we forget God and fall in love with the things he has given us, we allow those things to control our lives and to become our gods.
And the tragedy is that we become like our gods. So if you make science your god, cold clinical analysis that is supposedly value free, you do end up with Dawkins saying that if science tells you that your baby is going to be disabled, you abort it and try again. If you make racial superiority your god, you do end up exterminating those you think inferior. If you make the economy your god, then it really doesn’t matter how you make money – whether gambling, selling drugs or sex, charging excessive interest rates on pay day loans: you become like your god - cold and hard and calculating. If you make yourself, and your freedom to do what you want your god, then it is all about you and in the end what happens to others does not matter. If they die of ebola in Liberia it is tragic, but it does not really matter - until, of course, it might come here.
And when we worship the ring rather than the giver of the ring; and when we make things that are not god into god, into our idols, then as night follows day, disaster will happen. Paul speaks of it here as the wrath of God.
So what can we learn from this small church to whom Paul wrote 2000 years ago?
How did the Christians of this small church live for God in a world of idols? How do we live for God in a world of idols?
1. This was a church which welcomed the Word of God.
Paul writes, ‘You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit’ (1.6)
And in 2.13, he writes, ‘When you received the word of God .. you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God’
These were people who heard the message not only with their ears, but with their hearts.
As Paul spoke to them of Jesus something happened. They didn’t just hear it here. They heard it here – in their heart.
The message came to them with power, with the Holy Spirit – and I’m not sure that here that is talking about signs and wonders, although it might be – but the evidence that it came with power and the Holy Spirit is that it came to them ‘with full conviction’ (v4).
They realised that they had been serving idols: they had made things that are not god into God. And they ‘turn from their idols to serve the living and true God’ (v9)
What we are talking about here is triple listening. There is the listening of the ear. I’m good at this. I can listen to Alison telling me something, but if she then asks me what she has said, I don’t know, because I have been thinking about something else! That is the kind of non-listening that gets you into trouble. The second listening is when you listen and you listen. So this is when Alison says, ‘Have you listened to what I have said’, and I’m able to repeat back to her what she has said! But there is a third kind of listening. It is when we listen with our ears, with our mind and with our heart. It is when we listen to the bible and know that this is for me. It is when we realise that what is being said is not what the preacher is saying, but what God is saying.
And that kind of listening is not something you can choose to do. We can put ourselves in the right place, but in the end it is gift and it happens to you. The fact that you are here today – if you are here for God - probably means that it has begun to happen to you.
And I pray, and I ask you to pray, that God would speak to the hearts of men and women in our town. That we would have the courage to speak of Jesus, of his death and resurrection, of the forgiveness of sins, of the fact that he is Lord – and that God would take those words and apply them to the hearts of those who listen.
On the day of Pentecost as Peter preaches and tells them that they have rejected Jesus – and they hear with their heart. They are, we are told, ‘cut to the heart’.
We can argue, we can persuade, we can plead - and we need to do that, but in the end it is only God who converts the human heart. It is only God who shows us our sin, our idolatry. It is only God who begins to show us our need for him and for his mercy and for his strength and for his hope.
So pray. Pray for your friends, your colleagues, your neighbours. Pray that God will open the ears of their hearts to hear him. Pray that they may see through the idolatry of the ring which tells them that now they have the ring, they do not need the lover. The idolatry of science or knowledge which says, 'I'm all you need if you want to live in paradise'. The idolatry of money which says, 'Get me and everything will be OK'. I heard the story Friday morning of the couple who were about to go on holiday, forgot to buy their ticket with their usual lottery numbers and missed out on £2m. Please don't make winning the lottery your hope. The idolatry of the individual which says, 'It's all about me being who I choose to be'.
God has made us unique individuals; he has given us amazing stuff; and he has given us minds to think and reason and to imagine. But don't forget him. He has also given us his word to shape how we use those gifts, how we hold them together. And we need to bring them under his Lordship.
This was a church which had heard the word of God and received it.
2. This was a church which looked to the men and women of God of the past.
I don't know whether you noticed how important the word ‘imitate’ is in this passage. The Christians in Thessalonica became imitators of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. In turn they were imitators of Jesus Christ (v6).
And in turn, they become an example to others: 'so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia'.
And in particular Paul is thinking about their faithfulness to God in the face of suffering. Just as Jesus was faithful to God in the face of the cross, so they are faithful to God in the face of persecution. In 2.14, Paul writes, 'For you became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews'.
And so Paul says, v8, 'The Word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and in Achaia, [and] your faith in God has gone forth everywhere'.
I wonder who are your Christian role models?
Other traditions in the Church speak of saints. In one sense each person who has turned to Jesus is a saint. But in another sense, some people are so much further on that journey, and we can look to them as examples of godliness, of courage, of perseverance. And we can seek to imitate them.
So I think of a man called Ken Hooker, who was a retired minister in his 80's in a village near Cambridge where I was on placement when I was at Ridley. 60 years earlier he had been president of the Cambridge CU - and his love for the Lord and his desire to serve him was as live at 80 as I suspect it had been at 20.
Or I think of another 80 year old in Russia, Fr Kyrill. I saw him regularly but didn't really know him. But I knew his story. Sentenced on three occasions to 10 years in labour camps for being a priest, he was now the father confessor of the Orthodox seminary where we were living. He could have been so hard, but he was one of those people whose face shone.
And in turn, would it not be wonderful if people spoke of the Christians in Bury St Edmunds, as Paul speaks of the Christians in Thessalonica. 'Look at them, at their faith-inspired works, their love-inspired grit, and their hope-inspired perseverence. Look at how they faithfully speak the Word of God. Look at how they love one another. Look at how they are prepared to go on listening to the Word of God even when they suffer because of it. Look at how they live different lives, with a different perspective. They don't live their lives centred on themselves; they don't put their ultimate trust in science or education or possessions. Instead they seek to serve God, and they long for the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.'
How do we live for God in an idol obsessed world?
It is very simple.
1. We listen to the Word of God. We allow the Word of God to penetrate through our ears, through our minds into our hearts.
One of the desert fathers asked: 'What is harder - this water or this rock?' 'Obviously the rock'. But the father said, 'Imagine water dripping from this jar on this rock, day after day, month after month, year after year. Eventually the rock will be broken.' And he said, 'In the same way the human heart is hard. And the Word of God is soft. But allow it, day after day, month after month, year after year, to drip away at your hard heart. And it will break it'.
2. We imitate the example of Jesus, of Paul, of the Thessalonian Christians, of the men and women who have suffered for their faith – and who are today suffering for their faith - as we consciously choose to turn from our idols to serve the living and true God.