Sermon for November 15, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 2051 | Skin Your Knees Greg Williams One of Jesus’ most famous parables is about the wise and foolish servants, told in Matthew 25. A wealthy man goes on a journey and leaves a certain amount of money with each servant. Upon his return, the first two servants gave good reports. The first servant, given ten talents (which would be more than 10 million dollars today), made ten more. The second servant, given five talents, made five more. Then the rich landowner congratulates them both on their shrewd investing and hard work. The last servant, given one talent, hides it away and does nothing. His master curses him when he returns. Typical of Jesus’ parables, this story can be applied in many ways through our lives. It can tell us about the use of our gifts, the multiplication of the kingdom, our personal spiritual growth. Throughout all these interpretations of the metaphor, the theme is trust. The wise servants had to step out in trust—trust that God (the main character of the story) had given them these gifts for a reason. Trust that God would take care of them and that he’d be pleased with their engagement, even more so than results. Notice that the ten talent and five talent servants both received the same amount of praise. God calls us up like that—to engage in life, use the talents he gave us, get out on the field, skin your knees, love others no matter the results. When we do this, we step out in the confidence that he is taking care of us and that the world he made is worth engaging in. To keep our gifts and our hearts to ourselves is to have them spoil. To engage in life is to give ourselves a chance to live in trust, to need him and not just ourselves. The loser of this parable is not someone who lost or didn’t come out with only okay results. The loser is the one who hid his investment away, who disengaged, who refused for fear of skinning his knees. Let us be servants who confidently, invest the gifts we have been given. Trusting that our master not only has equipped us but is going out with us. Longing to hear these tremendous words of affirmation. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ Matthew 25:23 (ESV)  God invites us into relationship and participation. Go out and skin your knees! I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life  

Psalm 123:1-4 • Judges 4:1-7 • 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 • Matthew 25:14-30

The theme this week is God is in charge. Psalm 123 calls us to worship, and it sings of God’s mercy that we depend on. Judges 4 gives us an account of God sending Israel victory when they depend on him. 1 Thessalonians 5 talks about the end of days when God re-establishes his rule on earth in Christ. Our sermon, “Royalty in Exile,” is based on this reading. Matthew 25 tells us how God is in charge and we should make the most of the life he gave us because our time is finite.

Royalty in Exile

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ESV

Begin by reading 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ESV.

Falling in love. Getting bit by the love bug. Taking love potion number 9. Puppy love. Shot by cupid’s arrow. The experience of meeting someone and having romantic feelings for them has a host of metaphors around it. Everything from household pets (puppy love) to violence (smitten) has been used to describe this experience. The reason for this avalanche of metaphors is because the experience is hard to put into words.

How do you put this flood of feelings, the sweaty palms and quickened heartbeat into words that encapsulate what it means? The best you can do is hint at it, hence the metaphors.

This could lead to a fun discussion of metaphors for love or a personal example. In my own life, my father always described finding the right mate as: “she feels like home.” She turned out to be exactly right.

This seems to be Paul’s experience at the end of 1 Thessalonians 4 and the beginning of chapter 5. He uses several metaphors to describe the joyous event of Jesus’ return, what Jesus appearance will be like, and how we should live as we anticipate it. He uses so many metaphors that this passage has been infamously misread through a lot of recent church history.

Let’s look at chapter 5 and how this passage informs our lives as God’s people. We will look at the context in the writing itself and in the culture that Paul spoke to at the time. As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington warned us, “A text without a context is just a pretext for what you want it to say.” Especially when it comes to an ecstatic traffic jam of metaphors like this, it’s important to look at what was going at the time, how they would have understood it, and then building a bridge from our own space and time to see what the word is saying to us.

Let’s break it down into three C’s:

– Citizenship

– Conduct

– Courage

First, let’s look at Citizenship.

To apply these words to our own lives, it helps to put ourselves in the mindset of the first people who heard this. We’re talking about a small, beleaguered community in the ancient Greco-Roman world. They were persecuted, scared, and disoriented, but maybe not as disoriented as we would be in our own world.

The ancient world was harsh and war-torn—life could be brutal and short. One theme was very strong through almost all aspects of life, especially when compared to our world—the ancient world was religious. It was extremely religious—mystical ceremonies and beliefs marked almost all of life. There were temples on every corner, and every community occasion was religiously tied. There was no 4th of July or Thanksgiving— every big celebration was more like Easter and Christmas.

This was a major distinction between the modern context and the ancient. There was a temple and an idol or something similar on every corner. On one hand, there was no problem for people to take up belief in Jesus—the idea that a spiritual entity interacted with us every day was part of life. They could easily have added Jesus to the pantheon of gods they already had in their home and in their minds.

That was one break with the outside world that the Christian community first made. The apostles asked for allegiance to Jesus alone, which meant abandoning all those other gods. To make matters worse, they didn’t just say those other gods and idols were inferior, they said they didn’t exist. God the Father, Holy Spirit and Son was the only God in the universe, the one true God.

One of the early accusations against the fledgling church was that they were atheists! The issue was that they didn’t believe in enough gods. So, when their Greco-Roman neighbors got nervous about them or wanted to blame them for something, the accusation that they were unpatriotic atheists was a strong charge against them.

The other undertone of this discussion got them in even more trouble. One of the universal cults in the Roman empire, where all of them lived, was the worship of the emperor. Citizens burned incense to him and had rites and celebrations involved, even called him by the title: “Julius Caesar—King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

Rome didn’t care much who you worshipped. That was a matter of ancient peace keeping. Rome had conquered so much of the world that different faiths abounded. But one thing you were required to do was worship Caesar. This was no problem for average Greco-Roman citizens, because they just added Caesar to the multitude of gods they believed in. But it was a huge problem for Christians. They weren’t about to worship or bow the knee to Caesar or any other deity. Caesar was a government official, meant to be respected, but just a man, never meant to be worshipped. Worship was for God alone.

That’s what began the persecution of the early Christians in earnest. That’s what got them in real trouble. That’s what took them from rag-tag worshipping communities to become food for the lions in the Colosseum.

Jesus as a sage was fine with everyone. Jesus as a healer was fine with everyone. Even Jesus as a minor deity was fine. But Jesus as King? That was the problem.

Back to the passage at hand. In the previous chapter, Paul describes the appearance of Christ at the second coming:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (I Thessalonians 4:16-17 ESV)

This imagery, one of Paul’s many metaphors here, is taken directly from the Roman government culture. When Caesar arrived at a city with his entourage, a trumpet was sounded to announce who it was. Then a delegation of people would leave the city, meet the emperor, and escort him into the city.

This is the image given to us of Christ. At the end of all things, when God’s realm and our own (“earth” and “heaven”) are one again, Christ will appear as the true emperor of the universe. What Paul seems to hint at here is that a certain contingent of people will meet him and herald his coming as he establishes his kingdom on earth. This is a delegation going out to meet the true King, who is home at last.

This is Paul’s comfort to the Thessalonians and to us. The true king will one day appear and restore things as they are supposed to be. The alienation that this young church feels is part of the deal, and is not something that should make them despair, but look forward to the restoration of the true Lord. This is our true citizenship as God’s people. One day the full dimension of that royalty will be revealed when Christ returns.

Moving to our text in chapter 5, Paul takes a risk in describing this even more sharply:

While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thessalonians 5:3 ESV)

The phrasing here would have been immediately apparent to the first readers. “Peace and security” was the slogan of Roman power—a phrase they often repeated to show the people they’d conquered the benefits of being under Rome. Much of the “peace and security” Rome offered was brought by crushing and devastating the people and cultures they had conquered. This “peace and security” was nothing anyone had a choice about!

Paul is saying that the true King, the true kingdom, and our true citizenship, is outside of the country we live in. By co-opting both political and religious power, Rome was trying to make itself into its own universe, trying to dictate all of reality. Paul’s revolutionary words were that our citizenship is above and beyond any government power, and that our first allegiance is to Christ.

Think of the Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stood up against the corrupt powers of the day, even joining a plot to assassinate Hitler. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. who stood up against segregation and prejudice, which was the law in his time. In our own everyday lives, think of every time you don’t give in to a trend or find your value by how many clicks and likes you get in social media or put your career ahead of your family—all of these are acts of revolution declaring our allegiance to the true Lord.

As Malcom Muggeridge, renowned Christian journalist, said, “Never forget, it is only the dead fish that swim with the stream.” Your citizenship, your true identity, is not found in the lazy current of trends and power-plays and culture, but in the royal courts of King Jesus.

Second: let’s look at conduct.

So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (1 Thessalonians 4:6-8 ESV)

Again, we have metaphors abounding here. Paul is neither talking about teetotaling nor about staying literally awake all the time. He’s talking about being spiritually awake instead of deadening ourselves to reality.

The pagan culture Paul spoke to had several rites and festivals that involved drunkenness and sexual license. Paul’s message was that these activities deadened and emptied the soul, in contrast to knowing Christ, which wakes you up.

Our conduct should reflect our citizenship. The connection Paul made here, which was rare in those days, was between your religion and your conduct. The Greek and Roman gods might give you favorable weather or good crops if you presented sacrifices and kept their rituals, but they didn’t care very much about how you treated others or helped the poor. The Judeo-Christian message was countercultural—God not only loved you and wanted a relationship with you, but he cared about how you lived and treated other people.

Paul speaks to them about keeping watch, staying awake, being aware of the life God has given you. Verse 2 presents this contrast powerfully:

For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5:2 ESV)

You have a “full awareness” of something that happens “at night.” Instead of being lulled into the sleep of trusting worldly powers and living by worldly morals, we in Christ have a full awareness—an awareness that this life is only temporary, and that any powers that exist are limited and well under the control of King Jesus. Spiritually, we are awake and sober in the night while the rest of the world is drunk and asleep.

Finally, courage.

Paul is writing to encourage a community that is troubled and tired. We know from context that they were experiencing persecution for their allegiance to Jesus, and that some of them had already died, perhaps because of that persecution.

Paul writes to encourage them, even mentioning those who have died specifically: “And the dead in Christ will rise first” (4:16). King Jesus, upon his return, will have conquered even death. He was writing to comfort and inspire them, not to present the exact details of what Christ’s return would look like. His underlying message is simple: Christ is going to return, be awake and ready, and he will be the true emperor of the universe.

He encourages them with images like 4:11-12:

Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 ESV)

This is not a picture of a doomsday cult watching the sky and withdrawing from the world in fear, but of people living free and knowing that their Lord is in charge and will take care of them. We live in faith and our hope for salvation. This is true courage, a freedom from the trappings of ego and cultural winds in which one can be still and know that he is God.

But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:8-11 ESV)

Paul calls us to keep things in tension. On the one hand, he calls us to realize that our true citizenship is in Christ and that the kingdoms of this world will come and go. On the other hand, he calls us to fully live in this earthly exile— alive and awake in our conduct and working in harmony with each other and those outside the community. Because we know our true identity—beloved children of Father, Son and Spirit, we know our citizenship is in heaven. This changes our conduct, motivating and inspiring us to live as children of God. We do this with courage, knowing God died for us so that we might live in him.

Paul tells us to encourage one another and build one another up with these words.


Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life:

  • One of Jesus’ most famous parables is the story of the wise and foolish servants in Matthew 25. Have you ever found this parable applicable to your life? In what sense?
  • The loser, the bad guy, in this parable is the one who doesn’t engage, not the one with only okay results. God doesn’t want our results; he wants our faithfulness and obedience. What does that perspective mean to our regular lives?

Questions for sermon:

  • What does it mean to be a member of the royal court of King Jesus—royalty in exile, a child of God away from home? How does this change the way we live? The way we view ourselves?
  • The ancient world was highly religious, with temples and altars to many gods on every corner. Our world is just the opposite, with religion finding less voice in the public conversation and more people identifying as “none” in terms of faith or affiliation. How do we as Christians engage the “none” world? How do we do so with grace and boldness at the same time?
  • Paul calls us to hear, and in several places, to “wake up” to the day that has dawned with the coming of Christ. Are we living “awake” to the life that God has given us and with his eternal perspective? How would that change who we are?

Quote to ponder: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” ~St. Augustine

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