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Sermon for November 5, 2023 – Proper 26

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 5050 | Expect the Unexpected
Greg Williams

We typically don’t like the unexpected. We don’t like it when our car unexpectedly refuses to turn over, or our computer unexpectedly crashes. Worse, an unexpected loss of employment creates great turmoil and loss of personal confidence. And we certainly don’t like unexpected health difficulties. But these are the realities we face, and we quickly learn to expect the unexpected along with all the frustration and heartache it can bring.

However, not all things unexpected are bad. An unexpected gift or raise can turn a sour day around in a hurry. I’m sure we can all remember with joy some unexpected blessing that came our way, large or small.

So, here’s a question. What should we expect from the Lord? Is he full of unexpected surprises?

The biblical witness seems to present… well, an unexpected answer to that question. We are presented with a God who is unchanging, yet, at the same time, full of unexpected surprises.

Listen to Psalm 107 the paradox of God’s unchanging nature described by images of unexpected natural events.

“Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.

He turns rivers into a desert, springs of water into thirsty ground, a fruitful land into a salty waste, because of the evil of its inhabitants. He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. And there he lets the hungry dwell, and they establish a city to live in; they sow fields and plant vineyards and get a fruitful yield.”

Psalm 107:31-37 (ESV)

It’s interesting how the psalmist refers to the Lord’s steadfast love but then equates that steadfastness with images of great reversals. It appears that the Lord is steadfast in bringing the unexpected. But did you notice the direction of the unexpected? It was always for blessing. We can expect the rivers of evil to run dry, while also expecting the deserts of his children to become fruitful.

With God, there is always good news ahead. Rivers run dry, but he refills them. Deserts become springs of water. Sinners become believers and followers of Christ. It’s easy to look around and get discouraged at the state of the world, so Jesus tells us to lift our eyes and gaze upon him. He is the restorer of all things. He is the one who works his blessings in unexpected ways.

As we wind down the season of Ordinary Time and enter the season of Advent, let’s continually look to him and learn to expect the unexpected. Ordinary Time ends with Christ the King Sunday – and no one expected the King of kings to enter our world as he did. God loves to surprise with the unexpected – it’s part of the mystery of who he is. 

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 • Joshua 3:7-17 • 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 • Matthew 23:1-12

This week’s theme is divine paradoxes. The first section of the call to worship Psalm expresses gratitude for God’s redeeming love, and in the second section of the Psalm, God’s redemption is illustrated by staggering natural reversals. The Old Testament reading from Joshua records the dramatic scene of the priests standing on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan river when its banks were typically overflowing. The text from 1 Thessalonians records Paul’s thankfulness for the acceptance and power of God’s words even though they were spoken by mortal tongues. The Gospel reading from Matthew records Jesus’ great statement of reversal that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

God’s Word at Work

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 (ESV)

Today for our message we have a short passage from Paul’s letter to the church of the Thessalonians. Paul has been writing this letter with passionate thankfulness of what he sees the Lord doing in the lives of these new believers in the striving metropolis of Thessalonica. Paul wasn’t able to stay with the church very long before he was run out of town by those who did not like his message. So, Paul was concerned about these new believers, moving him to send his traveling partner Timothy to find out how they were doing. Timothy brought back a glowing report to which Paul responds with his letter. In this section, he is going to remind them of the time they had together when he first brought the gospel to them.

For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:9 ESV)

It may seem odd to our ears when we first hear this verse. It sounds like Paul is bragging about himself in how he conducted his affairs when he was with the Thessalonians. Is Paul trying to build his reputation with the Thessalonians? Is he trying to obligate them in some way based on his past actions? What’s going on here?

Perhaps you have heard a wise pastor pray something like this before delivering a sermon: “Lord, may I get out of the way so you can be seen.” Or, “Lord, may my words only be what you are saying today.” Or some variation of that. The pastor is praying that he will not distract or become an obstacle to hearing God’s word. That prayer conveys what is of most importance for the speaker and the hearers – God’s word, not man’s. It’s the same recognition John the Baptist had when he said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” This is essentially what Paul is saying here. He is reminding the Thessalonian believers that when he came proclaiming the gospel to them, he did not want to get in the way of the gospel message. He did not want to be a burden to them while proclaiming God’s word. So, he labored and toiled, night and day, to take care of his own needs. Paul was following his own principle stated to the Corinthians, that he would “endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor.9:12). We could say Paul was working awfully hard to get out of the way of the message.

We may ask, how does Paul working night and day avoid being a burden, or a barrier to the gospel he was proclaiming? The first thing is it would free them of additional financial burdens. But it probably goes deeper than that. Paul also may have in mind the common practice of traveling philosophers who would charge the listeners for their messages. Some of these philosophers were charlatans. Perhaps Paul does not want the Thessalonians to assume that he was just another traveling philosopher peddling his thoughts. Paul may see that this cultural practice could become a hindrance if he appeared to be doing the same. So, instead of asking for financial support, he worked to provide his own support in order to share the gospel. This would distinguish him from being a possible false philosopher. Paul knows that what he is bringing is God’s word of grace and truth. It can’t be sold or bought. It is a gift to receive. And it can be trusted.

Paul knew he had a right to compensation for his services, though he did not always invoke that right (1 Corinthians 9:7-18). Also, at that time Paul was also receiving aid from the Philippians (Philippians 4:16).

Also, in the Greco-Roman world societies depended on the patron-client relationship to operate. The patron would financially support people of a lower class, but in return those people would have to pay allegiance to the patron. This created an informal yet binding agreement between the patron and those he was supporting. In short, it made the relationships between upper class and lower class contractual. Perhaps Paul did not want the Thessalonians to presume they would be entering into such a social arrangement with him. Whatever Paul had in mind, what is apparent is his desire not to allow anything to get in the way of hearing the gospel message for what it is.

We see in Paul’s action towards the Thessalonians an important reminder that God is at work in the world, and it’s about his work, not about ours. Paul worked hard not to make the gospel about himself. The center is Christ, not the messengers of Christ. How often we are tempted to turn the finger away from Christ and point to ourselves! This is not what we are called to do in proclaiming the gospel. We are to point to Christ, not to ourselves, not to our churches, and certainly not to some social construct that everyone else is doing. God’s word does not need any help from us. Yes, by God’s grace we are given the privilege to participate in God’s sharing of himself to the world. Most of us may not ever plant a church like Paul did. However, we too must still remember to keep Jesus as the focus of our proclamation of the gospel. How often are unbelievers invited to hear the gospel while being sold on our church programs or our amazing sanctuary and invigorating worship music or the inspiring and dynamic preacher? These things may be great, but if they take center stage, we will be left with the results those things can bring which will be far less than the results which come by the power of God’s word.

You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:10-12 ESV)

Again, it may sound to our ears that Paul is bragging about his character. But he is reminding the Thessalonians that he did not need to conduct himself like many do in the surrounding culture. He did not need to compromise his message by manipulating, lying, or pulling a fast one. He let the gospel message do its own work. There was no need to try and sell it or twist any arms. Paul was proclaiming the gospel while trusting the gospel. It’s when we don’t trust Jesus to call people to himself that we may be tempted to compromise in ways not becoming to the gospel message. When we trust Jesus, our lives will be marked by holy, righteous, and blameless living. And this too will be a witness to the one who has set us free to live in his freedom.

Paul then equates the way he interacted with the Thessalonians as a father would his own children. By doing this he is serving as a pointer to the reality that they are really God’s own children. As God’s own children they are to trust in the Father – made evident by walking “in a manner worthy of God.” They are to walk in a manner that is holy, righteous, and blameless. Paul piles up the words “exhorted,” “encouraged,” and “charged” to express the importance of walking in this manner. He wants the Thessalonians to know that this is what it is all adding up to – living as children of God. And notice that Paul doesn’t just leave it at “God,” but declares that this God is the one “who calls you.” It’s not Paul calling them to the Father. It is God himself who is calling us to him. And the calling is in the present tense. It is an ongoing calling. This is the reality we face every morning. Our Father is continually calling us to himself, as a loving Father calls his children.

Then Paul adds one more qualifier saying, God calls us “into his own kingdom and glory.” His calling is not generic or up for negotiation. It is a calling into a very specific kingdom and glory—his kingdom and his glory. This means that they are not called into the kingdom and glory of Rome. Their walk will be very different from the walk of their fellow citizens in Thessalonica.

Ultimately, what Paul is exhorting, encouraging, and charging is for us all to live according to the reality that God and his kingdom are real. Jesus is Lord. There is no getting around it, and one day all kingdoms will bow to that reality. So, Paul is passionately reminding them to continue to put their full trust in the gospel, in Jesus. To live in a manner that takes that reality seriously. If Jesus is Lord, then our walk will be in his footsteps, not another’s.

Paul will now conclude with another expression of thankfulness which is seen throughout Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.

And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thessalonians 2:13 ESV)

Paul has reminded the Thessalonians of how hard he has worked to not be a burden for them to receive God’s word. So, it is fitting for him to conclude this section by giving God the thanks that this has indeed happened. The Thessalonians heard the words of the gospel articulated from the mortal lips of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy; however, they received the words for what they really are, God’s word. What a paradox and miracle that God’s divine word to us can actually come by mere men and women proclaiming the good news that Jesus is Lord! And Paul concludes by giving the glory where it belongs. It is God’s word that is doing the work in the Thessalonians and among us. It’s not Paul’s work, your pastor’s work or anyone else’s. And for that we say, “Hallelujah, praise God!”

Reign of Christ w/ Dr. Michael Morrison W1

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November 5 — Proper 26 of Ordinary Time
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, “You Are Witnesses”

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Program Transcript

Reign of Christ w/ Dr. Michael Morrison W1

Anthony: All right, let’s move on to the lectionary passages. That’s why we’re here today. We’re going to be looking at four pericopes.

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13                                          “You Are Witnesses”

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18                                        “Resurrection Reality”

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11                                            “Hope in Jesus”

Matthew 25:31-46                                                 “Reign of Christ”

Our first pericope of the month is 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13. I’ll be reading from the New Revised Standard Version, the updated edition, which is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 26 in Ordinary Time, which falls on November 5.

9 You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11 As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12 urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.

Now, Mike, if you were exegeting this passage to prepare for a sermon, what would be the focus of this, from this pericope in your proclamation?

Mike: The word exegesis means to draw something out. We want to get something out of the passage rather than reading our own ideas into it. Now, on any passage, there are a couple of basic questions we can start with.

First, what is the author trying to say? What’s the main point? And second, why is he saying it? How does he want the readers to respond to what he writes? In this passage, Paul is writing about himself, and the people who were traveling with him. He says, We worked night and day. Why is he saying that?

He says they had good behavior. What’s the point of saying that? Why is he reminding the people in Thessalonica of something that they already know?

That’s part of the pattern in the chapter. Verse 1 starts out, You yourselves know. Verse 2 includes the phrase, As we know. Verse 5 says, As you know. Verse 9 says, You remember. Verse 10, You are witnesses. Verse 11, As you know. And then, verse 13 reminds them of what they did, and of course they know that as well. He is rehearsing this history with the people.


We get a clue in verse 12, where he reminds them of what he was teaching them. He was “urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God.”

That’s part of his earlier message to them, and he thinks it’s worth repeating. That’s why he reminds them of the example he set in labor and toil, working night and day. We read later in the epistle that some of the people in Thessalonica are not working, and here Paul is helping reinforce what he will tell them later.

So, it seems that Paul wants the readers to live in a way that God wants. We can see some confirmation of that if we keep reading in the letter. In chapter 3, he says more about the relationship between Paul and the people in Thessalonica, and then in chapter 4, he makes his point. “We ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learn from us how you ought to live and to please God … you should do so more and more.”

He wants them to have good behavior and he’s pointing them to his own behavior as an example: You learn from us how you ought to live. So that verse in chapter 4 confirms that we’re on the right track when we see that behavior is the main purpose of the passage in chapter 2. His concern is the way they’re living.

He wants them to be a good example to others, just as he was to them. So, the main point is that believers should live a life worthy of God.

Ah, wow. What does that mean? To live a life worthy of God? Isn’t that a rather tall order? Yes, it is. But we should note that Paul is not saying that we can earn our salvation by living a good life.

He is not saying we have to be perfect. We can’t. We will fall short. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t try. Being saved by grace through faith does not mean that God doesn’t care about the way we live. It doesn’t mean that he wants to leave us in a life of sin.

It’s a matter of living up to who we really are. God says he made us in his own image. We are his children, and we are supposed to live like he does. And that can be summarized in the one word, love. Humans are broken, and we don’t always know what love really is, so God tells us what it looks like. For example, it looks like being truthful with one another, being respectful, being faithful.

One reason that salvation is a good thing is that people will have good behavior. If people are just looking out for themselves and are willing to hurt other people in order to get their own way, then eternal life won’t be very enjoyable, at least for people on the bottom. Eternal life will be good for everybody, only if it is characterized by humility, service, and love for others.

We don’t want everybody deciding for themselves how to live, and what’s good and what’s bad. We want everyone to trust that God is giving us the best possible instructions for how to live.

And the best part of eternal life is that it will be with God. He actually wants to live with us, but that won’t be much fun for us unless we also want to live in the way that he does, in the way of love and kindness. And if we really want that in the future, then we will want to live that way now as well. If it’s good then, it’s good now.

Anthony: Yeah, and thanks be to God that it’s not just the instruction, but the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that God gives himself to empower us to live the life he is calling us to live—a life, as you said, worthy of God.

And one of the ways that we live this life worthy of God, especially those who are called to teach others, is to point to Jesus. Like John the Baptist did in John 1, “There he is the lamb of god who takes away the sins of the world.”

And in this passage Paul states his words weren’t human, but God’s word. My question for you, Mike, is how do pastors, preachers, teachers safeguard themselves from preaching their own word instead of God’s word?

Mike: All right. Yeah, Paul tells us that in verse 13. Some translations start a new paragraph at verse 13, but the Revised Common Lectionary includes it here as part of the same passage. Its function in this context is that it is a subtle reminder that Paul is writing with God’s authority. Just as the people received God Paul’s teaching as God’s word back then, so he wants them to receive his letter in the same way. He’s calling them to be attentive and responsive.

Your question reminds me, or this verse reminds me of what 1 Peter 4:11 says, that “whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God.” I’m not sure that we ever do that 100 percent right. I would not want to say that my sermons should be canonized and be used as the standard of right and wrong from now to the end of time. But I do hope that God can speak through me or that people will hear at least something from God in the words that I speak.

Church history and YouTube agree that preachers often speak their own words instead of what God is saying. Sometimes the speakers aren’t even trying to speak the words of God. But sometimes they are, and they don’t do a very good job of it. Your question presupposes that we want to get it right, that we want to present God’s word for the people and not just our own opinions.

One key to doing that is to stick close to the text. Don’t just use the text as a springboard to something else. It’s not just the introduction to our sermon, but it is the basis of the sermon. The sermon should re-present what the text says, and it should try to have a similar effect on the audience as the original text had.

Of course, our audiences are in such different circumstances we can never do it exactly the same, even if we do nothing but read the words of scripture exactly as they are. Because our audiences are in different circumstances, they are going to react to the words of Scripture in a way that might be different than what the original audience did.

So that’s part of the role of the preacher, to discern what the text is doing and to try to do it again for a different audience, when we as readers are in different contexts, thousands of years and thousands of miles away. So, we want to understand the original context, the historical and literary contexts.

And we want to understand our own context. Our own context will affect what we expect to find in the text, what questions we will ask, and even what things we don’t notice because we aren’t looking for them. A person who is in grief is going to notice different things than a person who is in a celebratory mood. So, we, ourselves, will notice different things in the Word of God based on our own context.

And then we also want to understand the context of the people we’re speaking to. Are they happy or sad? Are they worried about their salvation? Or are they taking it for granted? Are they puffed up with self-importance or dejected about their lack of importance? We want to give them a word from God that will meet them where they are. That’s why we need preachers and not just Bible readers.

It’s not an easy task. It requires an attitude of humility on our part and prayer that God might guide us to an appropriate message from the text for this audience at this time. A seminary course in biblical interpretation might help, a course in preaching might help, but a seminary course cannot give us humility and faith, and it cannot tell us what our audience happens to be thinking at this particular moment in the flow of time.

So that still leaves us with the question you ask, and perhaps that’s what each of us should ask when we are preparing to speak: am I being honest to what the text is trying to say, or am I using the text as an excuse to cover one of my own pet peeves or one of my favorite topics? That’s actually one of the advantages of using the Revised Common Lectionary. We don’t just choose our own passages according to the topics we happen to like but we submit to the text that is given to us that week.

The devil can quote scripture. But he will do so in a way that promotes selfishness, self-reliance, self-determination. Does our sermon promote our own ideas? Or does it respect what God has said? Are we pointing people to the Father, Son, and Spirit? And in this passage here in 1 Thessalonians, are we encouraging them to live a life that is appropriate to the way that God wants us to be?

Anthony: Thinking about respecting the text—the word that God has given us, that’s been canonized for us—it’s one of the reasons I encourage preachers and teachers to read the scripture, in a scripture reading, like it’s the most important word that’s going to be stated instead of our commentary about the scripture, which can be really helpful, of course. But the word stands the test of time. So read it in such a way that is of utter importance, and I think that will keep us safeguarded.

One of the prayers that I pray in preparation for preaching is that I would speak the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. And if I do, rub that in deeply, Holy Spirit, into our hearts. But if I say anything that is less than reflective of what’s real and what’s true, may it be forgotten quickly like water off a duck’s back and just gone. That’s my ongoing prayer so that I as a gospel proclaimer can focus on the gospel himself, Jesus Christ, as it’s revealed in Scripture.

So that’s really helpful, Mike.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • Can you think of something unexpected that has happened to you that you didn’t like? What about something that you did like?
  • What did you think of the description in Psalm 107:31-37 of God’s steadfast love expressed with images of unexpected reversals?
  • In what ways can we expect the unexpected with the Lord’s unchanging love toward us?

From the Sermon

  • Did this passage at first strike you as strange? How do you understand Paul’s statements that could appear as bragging?
  • Can you think of ways we can get in the way of others hearing God’s word?
  • How does putting our full trust in Jesus empower us to walk as holy, righteous, and blameless?
  • If our walk is different from the culture around us, what implications can be expected?
  • What does Paul attribute his thankfulness to at the end of this section (1 Thessalonians. 2:13)?

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