Living Messages

Charlie Brown: Good News Charlie Brown

Sermon for Oct. 16, 2011
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Exodus 33:12-23
Matthew 22:15-22

On one end of our story today, we see Moses – begging for a glimpse of God.  And on the other end of the story we have the early church in Thessalonica – waiting – expectantly – for Jesus to return as promised.

Just a glimpse – pleaded Moses.

Soon and very soon – we are going to see Jesus – have said GENERATIONS of Jesus followers.

Like Moses, if we are going to step out in faith, if we are going to take this trip with God, we want to KNOW that God goes with us.  Moses even says, “Hey God, if you aren’t really going to go with us, just let us stay here.”  And EVEN WITH God’s reassurance that God will go with us, and give us peace – Moses wants more – something more concrete.  Moses wants to see God in all of God’s glory.

Now, we know the rest of the story – what God will and will not do to reveal God’s Self to Moses.  God will let Moses get a glimpse of God’s backside, but that’s all.  That’s hardly God’s glory revealed completely.

And we also know that – as of October 16, 2011 at (whatever time) – what the Thessalonians expected in the return of Jesus – and what we have expected in the second coming of Jesus has not happened – at least as far as we know.  Yet, the desire to SEE JESUS – that longing that preoccupied the Thessalonians and others in the early church – that longing continues to this day – some TWO THOUSAND YEARS later.

Because – as Moses well knew – the journey with God is a long journey for us instant-gratification humans.  And – as the Thessalonians well knew – the way of Jesus is not always easy or smooth.

You probably know more about the story of Moses than you might about the Thessalonians and Paul – so let me give you the background.  One Bible trivia fact about the Bible book of 1 Thessalonians is that it was likely written before any other book of the New Testament.  Thessalonica was the largest city and capital of the province of Macedonia.  Paul visited there on his second missionary journey.  Paul went to the Jewish synagogue and preached there for three Sabbaths.  By that time, many had come to believe the gospel – including Jews, pagans, and some leading women of the city.

That sounds great, but it’s also a problem for the powers that be.  For you see, it wasn’t long before that, that a certain Jewish rabbi named Jesus had done something very similar.  Jesus had captivated the attention of many people of HIS day.  Jesus painted a picture of what the Kingdom of God is like – and Jesus himself was a picture of what God’s will on earth looks like when a human being lives as God intended.  People who are attracted to God’s realm are the strangers who are welcomed, the hungry who are fed, the naked who are clothed, the women who immediately gain full personhood, the outcast who is invited into the core group, the children who are embraced and looked up to.  The good news of God’s realm IS good news for the least, the lost, the lonely and the love-starved.  And so Jesus is handed a coin – and confronted by the political leaders AND the religious leaders. To answer the question, “Should we pay taxes or not,” Jesus spoke in the language that is very well understood by citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven – “Give to Caesar what it Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”

The powers that be in Thessalonica saw people beginning to look at life differently – getting fired up over a new way – coming together to make a difference in the world that was the opposite of government ways of doing.  Love instead of demands.  Caring for the least instead of lining the pockets of the influential.  An economy that begins with the poor instead of the rich.  And the sure and certain knowledge that, while it is true that the image stamped on the government-minted coin is that of Caesar – the image indelibly stamped on human beings from the beginning of time is the image of God. 

[Some of the above paragraph from Nora Tubbs Tisdale, “What Makes a True Patriot” Day One, Oct. 9, 2008, quoting Dr. Albert Curry Winn]

The rest of the story is that the good news of Jesus Christ had been so powerfully preached and so openly received that the people had become – as the Bible says – “living messages” – the gospel no longer confined to a place or to words preached, but now proclaimed in the very lives of these new converts.  Paul was asked to leave – threatened really – and in order to preserve the good work that had begun in the community of believers, Paul left by night.

So their first pastor Paul – now gone – writes to them of his joy that they accepted his message.  Paul knows of their suffering. You can imagine the persecution they must have suffered when they began to live boldly as God’s agents of transformation and reconciliation – the trouble they must have faced as they were labeled as living messages of good news to women, to the poor, to the outcast.
You can just feel the peer pressure when they dared to oppose the Caesars of war and torture.
You can relate to what they endured when they confronted sexism and racism and homophobia and divisions of every kind.
You can just about feel how hard it was for them to leave behind making enemies and to stop being intolerant and to stop practicing economics that leave so many behind.

They were new creations.
The eyes of their hearts had been opened.
They now KNEW that they were stamped with the image of God – and they COULDN’T HELP being living, breathing messages of God’s liberation – convincing communicators of God’s love for ALL humankind (no exceptions).
They had soaked up their TRUE identities in Christ – and Paul thanks God – and thanks them – for their faith in God and their loving work – AND – for their firm hope in Jesus Christ.

Thessalonica might seem to have very little in common with [name our specific area] – our corner of the world – except for this:

There are still people – all kinds of people – who really do want to know if God is real. They would love to get a glimpse.  Some of these are religious people looking for a second coming of Jesus.  Some of these are people who look for spiritual ecstasy in drugs or sex or shopping or hoarding things &/or money.  Some of these are young people who long ago gave up looking to church to be a place for THEM to encounter God who speaks their language.  Some who want to know God are people who think they don’t have a place in church because of their gender, age, race, color, gender identity, sexual orientation or because they were born in New Jersey or Texas or some other flat land place.  And SOME people who have given up on the living God are people who still come to church – hoping, and praying, that God will appear – for real – in all of God’s glory.

This was as true in Thessalonica as it is today around here.

It is still as true now as it was then that the good news is good news for those who are perishing and foolishness for those who think they already have found a better way – which is often Caesar’s way or the way of another idol.  So, it will happen that the good news of Jesus Christ announcing the arrival of God’s realm will be met with everything from disbelief to outright anger and opposition.

It is also true – as true now as it was then – that a pastor – whether his name is Paul or her name is Sharon [or other pastor] – is only the pastor – only (on a good day) a messenger – ONE messenger of God’s claim on our lives, ONE messenger of the good news of the grace and forgiveness and call to discipleship that can be found by following Jesus Christ. A pastor is ONE messenger of God’s eternal desire for all people to live as one with justice and peace and freedom for all. A pastor is ONE messenger of the power that the Holy Spirit pours out upon a community FAITHFUL to gather – WILLING to be changed – the power there is where two or more are gathered with God’s agenda and priorities uppermost.

I understand the gratitude of Pastor Paul of Thessalonica because Pastor Sharon of the [X] United Church of Christ is ONLY the pastor – not the church – WE are the church.  When the pastor leaves the building – the church does not cease – the good news does not stop being told – and when a pastor enters the building – that lets no one off the hook – FOR YOU, my friends – YOU – every day and in every way – YOU are the witness to what God is doing here at this church – what God is doing in the world – the love that God pours out on ALL the PEOPLE.  I hope you know that the faithful witness of good news is YOURS to share.  The gospel is a treasure that YOU bear to the world.  Not just me [and Pastor X] – but YOU – are called to be convincing communicators – living messages – of God’s permanent-ink image imprinted on each person from the beginning.

Preach the good news always – if necessary – use words. 
[quote often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, its origin is unknown]


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