Equipped for a mission-focused
Journey With Jesus

Sermon for October 22, 2023 – Proper 24

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 5048 | No Exception to the Rule
Greg Williams

The Main Ingredient was an American soul and R&B band best known for their hit song, “Everybody Plays the Fool.” Although the song is about unrequited love, its refrain alone speaks to us all.

“Everybody plays the fool sometime
There’s no exception to the rule”

That’s hard to argue with. I’m sure we can all remember some scenario of being played a fool. It comes with a feeling of shame and embarrassment along with the real cost we had to pay for falling for some deceitful scheme. An experienced con artist or unscrupulous salesperson has claimed many a victim with their devious tactics. Sooner or later, the song will prove to be true, “Everybody plays the fool sometime.”

However, for the Christian, we know the song is not completely true. There does stand among us one “exception to the rule.” And that exception is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus knew we would be no match for the deceit and fraud of the devil. So, he stands in for us as the one who does not play the fool.

One Gospel story illustrates this with Jesus being put in a no-win spot. It begins with the Pharisees and the Herodians conspiring together; these are two groups who are typically opposed to one another. They device a trick question about paying the Roman tax that will put Jesus walking a tightrope between the Roman authorities and the Jewish people.

After an attempt to butter Jesus up with flattery, they lay out their trick question. Let’s listen in to see how Jesus answers:

“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.”
Matthew 22:17-22 (ESV)

Notice first that Jesus was not tricked. He was aware of their intent to trap him. We often only become aware by hindsight. He then calls them out for who they are, “hypocrites.” Jesus is not afraid to call out those who yield power and influence.

Jesus has answered in a way that avoids being accused of subversion to the Roman empire, while at the same time affirming the Jewish belief of the allegiance that only belongs to the One in whose image they are made.

And he does all this while presenting us with the choice we must all make. Do we give ourselves over to the manipulating, and deceitful ways of this world, or do we give ourselves to Jesus, God’s own Son who is our High Priest?

In the end, we can trust that our High Priest will walk back all the former times that we played the fool, redeeming us and leaving us in amazement as well. And on this note the song rings true: There’s no exception to the rule.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 99:1-9 • Exodus 33:12-23 • 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 • Matthew 22:15-22

This week’s theme is the amazing effect of God’s address. The call to worship Psalm is an enthronement psalm that celebrates God’s rule over the earth and his response to those who cry out to him. The Old Testament reading from Exodus records Moses’ desire to see God’s glory to which God responds by providing divine protection in the cleft of a rock. Paul’s introduction to his letter to believers in Thessalonica contains a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s work in this new founded church. The Gospel reading from Matthew records Jesus leaving the Pharisees dumbfounded in his response to their attempt to entrap him on a question about paying taxes to the emperor.

Gospel Greetings

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 (ESV)

Today for our passage we have the opening greetings of one of Paul’s letters. You may be thinking, what can we learn from just the greeting and opening comments of a letter? Quite a bit in fact. When we write a letter, or more often these days, an email, how we begin that message will say a lot about what will follow. For example, if your letter is a complaint, it is probably safe to say you will not open with warm fuzzy comments. If you need to compose a formal request, you will avoid informalities in your greeting. The recipient of the letter will also affect how you begin your message. You will probably start a letter written to your sweetheart very differently than one written to your boss. Letter writing in the days of antiquity was not much different. The tone, form, and words chosen at the opening of a letter in the days of Paul would set the tone for what would follow, and it would aim to reflect the relationship between the sender and receiver. So, it may seem odd to have an entire sermon devoted to the introduction of one of Paul’s letters, but as we will see, this greeting is loaded with anticipation of the gospel.

Let’s begin with the opening line.

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. (1 Thessalonians 1:1 ESV)

The first thing we see is a greeting from the author. We do not have to speculate as to who wrote this ancient letter, it’s Paul. However, we also see included two other names, Silvanus, and Timothy. If you read through the entire letter, you will see Paul referring to “we” over “me” throughout. He is writing from a place of community. He does not address his church apart from his relationship with those who serve alongside him. You will also see throughout the letter many references that point to the Triune God. He clearly presents God not as a solo god among many, but as the only God who exists as Father, Son, Spirit. It is apparent even here in Paul’s introduction of himself, Silvanus, and Timothy, that he understands that the God he serves is a triune God who seeks community and loving relationships. We can expect all that he will say going forward will be from this foundation.

Then we see Paul name his recipient as “the church of the Thessalonians.” We will have to do a little history to know who these folks were. But in short, they were a church Paul founded on his missionary trip into Macedonia. Thessalonica was the capital of Macedonia and was a large city with many trade routes. That’s the context in which Paul began a new church. It would be like planting a church in Atlanta or Tokyo. We can expect that there would be added pressures in such a large city of such importance and economic opportunities. In the Roman Empire, it was expected that its citizens would support and go along with many of the ideologies promoted by Rome, particularly, idol worship. In that society, it was understood that for the good of the empire and the city you lived, everyone should honor the gods, the more the better. If you did not get behind this ideology, you would be considered someone who did not have the best interest of others in mind. You would be branded as a bad citizen. In today’s language, such nonconformity could get you canceled. But notice how Paul addresses this church. He doesn’t just call them the Thessalonians. He calls them “the church of the Thessalonians.” They may live among the Thessalonians, but they are called out as a church. Paul doesn’t stop there. He goes on to greet this church as “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” He is affirming their truest identity. Yes, they are people called to be a church of the Thessalonians, but their deepest reality is being a people in God. That’s where their deepest belonging resides. This is an important reminder of identity for a church that faces such strong pressure to find their identity in the culture in which they live.

With this background, we can see that we have a lot in common with the church of the Thessalonians. We too have certain idols of ideology, more observable now than ever. Corporations these days must toe the line with certain ideologies, so they aren’t canceled or suffer financial persecution. We are witnessing businesses having to get behind the latest ideological push that is purported to be good for the nation. It doesn’t matter as much how good your product is; what is important is how good your image is on current talking points regarding social or political concerns. Our education system from grade school to college pressures teachers and administrators to indoctrinate their students with ideologies that have nothing to do with a sound education. The schools that kick-back on these pressures are typically reported in a bad light if they get any attention at all. We are also seeing many churches cave to these cultural pressures. Idol worship is alive and well.

But Paul did not cave or cater to such pressures. He stood firm on the gospel, even when it landed him in prison or got him run out of town. Which is exactly what happened to him in his short time with the Thessalonian church. Once he was run out of town, he became worried about the new community of believers he had to leave behind. So, he sends Timothy to check on them, and he returns with a glowing report. It is after hearing this report that Paul wrote this letter. You can see Paul’s tender concern and care for this church. Unlike some of his other letters, like Corinthians, Paul is not aiming to be corrective. He is not having to remind them of his authority or come down hard on a particular issue. He is writing like a concerned parent. He is also thankful for what the Spirit has done and how the gospel has had effect. Here, too, is a lesson for us all. Paul will later refer to the Thessalonians imitating him. We also can imitate Paul’s steadfast devotion to Christ, not bowing down to the idols of our time. We can also imitate his concern for other Christians, our sisters and brothers, who face the issues of our times that bring challenge to our faith. And in it all, we too have much to be thankful for as we see God work powerfully in others as they receive the gospel.

Paul is using the ancient letter format of this time by writing an initial “greetings,” which is followed by a blessing or a thanksgiving. Paul tweaks this formulation by changing the usual use of the word “greetings” to the word “grace” and then adds the Jewish greeting of “peace” as he so often does in his letters. Grace and Peace. This is the life we are called into and the life we can live out with each other in our various church communities.

Now we will look at the thanksgiving section Paul writes. This section gives Paul the opportunity to remind the Thessalonians of their relationship. However, his reminder is grounded on the gospel throughout. Their relationship has everything to do with the bond created from Paul bringing the gospel and the Thessalonians receiving it. So, he is not just recounting the events of their relationship like a slide show at a class reunion. No, he highlights the gospel as the center of their relationship by stressing the result of the gospel in their lives, the presentation of the gospel to them, and a reminder of the content of the gospel once again. As we go through this section, may we remember that our relationships with one another spring from the gospel and are sustained by the gospel. When we try to build our relationships around other interests, we are settling for lesser substitutes. Nothing will develop the fellowship of a church more than remaining centered on the gospel – on Jesus Christ our Lord. This becomes clear in Paul’s words of thanksgiving in verses 2-10.

Result of the Gospel (vv. 2-3)

We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 ESV)

The first thing Paul wants to say to his beloved church is to let them know that he is thankful for them. Also, he wants them to know that he is constantly praying for them. Here are two hallmarks of Christian fellowship. Prayer and thanksgiving. We may want to ask ourselves how often this is the first thing we want to do for one another? How often are we thankful for all our brothers and sisters in Christ? Always, or just when they are scratching our back? And are we thankful for all our fellow believers or just the ones we enjoy? And do we spend time in prayer for each person God has gifted us with in our Christian circles? When someone tells you they are praying for you, it is such an encouragement. Not only does Paul pray for those in the Thessalonian church, but he lets them know he is praying for them.

Paul also uses prayer as a time to remember what God has been doing through them. The translation is not a good one for this text as it leaves us thinking that it is the Thessalonians work of faith, love, and hope that is being remembered. But the actual Greek wording of this passage would go more like this:

…remembering your work of the faith, and labor of the love, and steadfastness of the hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Can you see the difference between “in” our lord and “of our Lord? Whose faith, love and hope is Paul remembering? It is not the Thessalonians work of faith, love, and hope, but rather it is the faith, love, and hope of Jesus Christ that is working in and through them. Paul is not looking at his flock with a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately point of view. He is looking back at the result of the gospel working in them. On this basis, he is thankful for them as Jesus is working out in them Jesus’ own faith, love, and hope. Paul is seeing the results of Jesus in their lives. How often do we recall in our thanksgiving to the Lord the growth he has produced in the lives of those we fellowship with? Are we thankful for the effect the gospel is producing in our brothers and sisters, or are we only thankful when they produce something for us?

Presentation of the Gospel (vv. 4-8)

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. (1 Thessalonians 1:4-8 ESV)

Having focused on the results of the gospel, Paul now revisits how the gospel was originally presented to them by Paul and his companions. Notice how Paul’s description is giving credit to the gospel itself and not to their presentation. Although Paul and his companion came preaching the gospel, he recalls that the “gospel came to you.” This shows that the gospel does its own work. Preachers can hone their skills and aim to be as inspirational all they want, but unless the Spirit is at work in those hearing the gospel, nothing will come of it but maybe some goosebumps and watery eyes. But nothing of lasting change. Paul may have presented the gospel in word, which is our calling to do, but that is not what amounted to it coming in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. That is the work of Jesus himself by the Spirit working in those he is calling to himself. These Thessalonians responded to the gospel with “full conviction” meaning for them everything was changed. They didn’t just agree to add another god in their culture’s repertoire of deities to bow down to. No, they came to know in a real and personal way that this God presented in Jesus Christ is the only God to worship. Their lives were set on a whole new course that would not leave room for all the other gods of the Roman Empire. Paul knows he is not capable of gaining such a response by his presentation skills. That only comes by the power of the Spirit presenting Christ.

It is apparent that the Thessalonians, against all odds, quickly accepted and believed the message Paul and his companions presented. As Paul notes, they were already imitating him. They did not need to be urged to imitate him as was the case in some of Paul’s other letters. This is a work of God in which Paul can only be thankful. The Thessalonians did not shy away from the suffering that would come on account of following Jesus. As a result of their acceptance and imitation of the Lord, especially in their suffering, the Thessalonians themselves became an example to imitate for other believers, locally and beyond. They became a sign of what it looks like to belong to the Lord in a world that resists him. This is a beautiful picture of Jesus making disciples who make disciples.

Content of the Gospel (vv. 9-10)

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 ESV)

As Paul concludes his words of thanksgiving, he relates the report that has been going around about the Thessalonians receiving the gospel. In this report, we get a short presentation of the content of the gospel. We could go as far as to see it as a creedal statement. In short, there is a turning to God. A turning from idols. And a waiting for the return of Jesus. That’s a pretty concise presentation of the contents of the gospel as you could get.

First, we see that there is a turning to God from idols. This is what we call repentance. The gospel calls us to turn to God, and in that turning we will turn away from all that competes with that central place that only God should have. That is what we see in the Thessalonians’ example of turning from idols. Idols are anything that we put first over God. It can be good things, but once they lay a central claim on our lives, they become idols. And the more noble and good the idol is perceived, the more dangerous the temptation. However, the gospel tells us that we are not turning to another lifeless or generic god, rather this God is the living and true God we are reconciled to by the sacrificial death of Jesus. When we see who God is, turning to him and away from all our idols becomes a fitting response. Why would we not turn to him when he has exposed all other gods for the empty pursuits that they are?

What lays at the heart of the gospel is the return of our Lord Jesus. Paul reminds us to wait on him. Jesus changes the end of the story, and that shapes how we live in our present time, turning toward him and away from all that God is delivering us from. This world with all its idols, is coming to a glorious end. The Lord has taken death and undid it. He was raised to life, and he is bringing that resurrection life to us from the future. Since God is dealing with all the evil, sin, and death in our world, we can live in hope as we await his return. And that in a nutshell is what Paul is thankful for. His little church in the midst of the spawning metropolis of idol worshipers, was living out the gospel in worshiping the Lord, being a witness to him as they faithfully awaited his return. May it be with us as well.

Let’s Speak Jesus w/ Dr. Chris Green W4

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October 22 — Proper 24 of Ordinary Time
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, “Sounding Forth”

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Program Transcript

Let’s Speak Jesus w/ Dr. Chris Green W4

Anthony: Our fourth pericope of the month is 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 24 in Ordinary Time on October 22. Chris, would you read it, please?


Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy from the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For they report about us what kind of welcome we had among you and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

Anthony: You’re a good reader, by the way, Chris, for whatever it’s worth. Verse 8 tells us, For the word of the Lord had sounded forth. And I just find that is such a beautiful statement about a beautiful people. Here we are in Ordinary Time and the Christian calendar, and we focus on Christ’s righteousness and our formation in him.

How can we sound forth the glorious word of the Lord?

Chris: Yeah, I agree. It sounds like a line from the Psalms, the waves sound forth. This is how it has happened; your people sound like you. I think it’s a sound of many waters, right? There’s a way in which some of that sound, sounds like our testimony.

It sounds like our prayer. But it sounds also like our prayer requests, right? It sounds like our laments, as well as our praise because all of that is a word in which who he is comes to be known. And I don’t want to limit it to what we’re doing when we gather, but it certainly includes what we’re doing when we gather, that we are getting the word of the Lord said. I think in many of our circles, coming to church is about me coming to a place where my need can be met. The church is primarily about what we as a people are going to get said, for the sake of the world, that we are there to minister to the Lord in order to get the word of the Lord announced so that the word of the Lord is sounded forth in our community.

Jesus is Lord. He has been raised from the dead. God has made him Lord in Christ. And all of our needs are going to be met because that is true. But that announcement that we get to make as a community every Sunday—we’ve all heard this a thousand times, that liturgy is the work of the people. And it’s true, but we need to ask ourselves, what work is it?

And it’s the work of getting this word said, that’s what we do. And clergy and laity are not the observers for the clergy performing the liturgy. This is what we as a congregation do, week to week, and we get the word of the Lord said.

Now again, I don’t want to limit it to that, but that’s the center of it. That’s the heart of it. And then day to day, in countless ways, in ways that are probably unnoticed by most people, we can get the word of the Lord said to our neighbors, to our friends, to our enemies, in the way that we listen to them and the way that we’re present in their need and in the way that we attend to the concrete needs in their lives, compassionately respond as the Good Samaritan responds, as Jesus calls us to.

So, I think I love that you draw attention to that because I think that’s the heart of our calling. That’s why we are the church is to get that word sounded.

Anthony: Amen. And just thinking back to that Philippians 2 chapter of kenosis of the self-emptying, to me, this is how gospel declaration and gospel demonstration work together. That yes, I speak Jesus, I speak words of life by the Spirit, but also my action should reflect the reality of the truth I’m proclaiming right from my mouth, that I am loving my neighbor.

I’m not opposed to them. I’m not against them. That all of that speaks to the truth of who God is of revealed in Jesus Christ. And then this passage, Chris, we see trinitarian dynamics [inaudible] our God and Father, hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Does this matter? Are these just words?

Sometimes the Trinity is just a stuffy old doctrine, but is it more? It’s got to be more. Yeah,

Chris: Yeah, absolutely. And you’ll have to stop me because I could talk forever about this. And this is one of the places where I think we’ve been most impoverished. We’ve left people the impression that the Trinity is a doctrine that is a mystery, and it is mostly useless and it’s for academics, right?

Or it’s for nerds of one type or another. It’s not an essential aspect of our faith. But, of course, the Trinity is not a doctrine first. The Trinity is God, right? This is the one God is. We’re naming the one who is our God when we talk about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And the doctrine of the Trinity, incidentally, is not a mystery.

The God who is Father, Son, and Spirit, he is mystery. But the doctrine is something we can learn, and learning it is a way of learning to name God rightly. This is an odd illustration here, but when you meet someone who’s name you don’t naturally know how to pronounce, one of the acts of kindness you can offer them is to say, how do I pronounce your name rightly? I don’t recognize it. I’m seeing it here, but I don’t know how to pronounce it. And one of the ways you can attend to who they are and show them that you see their face is to ask how to pronounce their name. And that’s what Father, Son and Spirit is.

This is a way of naming our God, a way of knowing that we’re attending to his face, that we’re seeing him. Jesus, his name means the Lord is salvation That’s the one who’s revealed to Moses as the Lord. He is the one who is Father, Son, and Spirit, and Jesus has made him known.

And obviously, many of the people who are hearing me, I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. So, I don’t want to impose my experience on anyone else, but in the circles that I move in, I think it’s by and large true that the more fundamental a doctrine is, the less we’ve attended to it. And especially the doctrine of God, that we talk a lot about what God does and about what God has promised to do.

But we don’t talk about who God is very much. And when we don’t do it well, we end up making kind of obvious statements, or statements that don’t really bring God’s goodness to bear on us in any way. It’s like saying a triangle has three sides. God is good, or God is holy, or God is eternal.

Yes, all of that’s true, but you haven’t told me anything yet, right? You’re going to have to help me see what we mean when we say God is good, or what we mean when we say God is holy, and which God we’re talking about when we say God is good or God is holy. And to do that, you’re going to need to talk about God as Father, Son, and Spirit, which is exactly what we see Paul doing.

Anthony: Yeah. I appreciate the fact that you said he is mystery. And, Chris, my experience has been when anybody makes a statement about the clarity of which they know God, I know they’re not dealing with God. They’re just not, if it’s clean, straight lines, you’re not dealing with God.

It’s like Capon used to say, talking about God is throwing analogies against the mystery. We’re just, all of us are just trying to grapple with the enormity of this God. It’s like somebody also saying the scripture clearly says, and usually, that’s a setup for a bad take every time when I hear that. That’s just been my personal experience. And God is, oh he’s other. He is other.

Chris: That’s right, and I think that we have to say a lot of things at once. One is there’s nothing in God that is a threat because he might be other than who he’s shown himself to be. But there is so much in God, an infinite so much that who he has shown himself to be is true, but I’ve never have, and I never will exhaust all that truth means.

So, God is mystery. That he’s a mystery we know because he’s revealed himself, but he’s revealed himself as the mysterious one whose ways are not our ways, whose kindness exceeds our kindness, whose wisdom exceeds our wisdom.

And so, I think we have to rush to say to people, you don’t have to have any anxiety that God might turn on you. Or that God might reveal himself to be other than who he’s shown himself to be so far. But you must know that God is so infinitely good, so endlessly wise, that whatever you know about God you’ve not learned anything yet. There’s so much more to God, but he will always prove to be true to who he’s already shown himself to be. So, all of that has to hold at the same time.

Anthony: I don’t recall who said it, but the statement was mystery doesn’t mean unknowable. It means endlessly knowable, like we will never plumb the depths of who God is. Hallelujah.

Chris: And there will always be—and Robert Jenson is hugely influential for me on this point—that there can be surprise in God, even for God, but there’s no unpredictability. So, God is reliable and faithful, but God is not predictable.

So, on the one hand, God is never going to fly off the handle. He’s never going to be other than the God he already always has been. And yet, because God is infinitely creative and dynamic, because his life is the life of the Spirit, there is no way for me to anticipate how God’s goodness is going to come.

So, to cut to the chase, God is always going to be good. But that goodness is going to surprise me every time. Because it’s going to be better than I imagined, and it’s going to come differently than I expected.

Anthony: Praise him.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • Does anyone remember the Batman TV series or Robin’s “Holy” exclamations? Any favorites you can share?
  • How does Psalm 99:5-9 express God’s holiness? How do we see God relating to his people between the two statements that God is holy?

From the Sermon

  • What stood out to you in Paul’s greeting in his letter to the Thessalonians?
  • Paul used his greeting to remind the church of Thessalonians of their identity as belonging to God. Discuss the importance of reminding our brothers and sisters of who they are in Christ and as part of the church. In what ways can we do this?
  • The Thessalonians had to turn from idol worship upon receiving the gospel. What forms of idol worship do you see in our culture today?
  • Paul indicated that Jesus was the center of his relationship with the church of Thessalonians. What ways do we sometimes seek our relationship with others on some other center?
  • Discuss the importance of thankfulness for each other in our churches.
  • Discuss the importance of praying for one another.
  • In what ways do we sometime trust our presentations of the gospel more than we trust the gospel itself to get its own results?
  • How does knowing Jesus is returning to undo the evil of our world shape how we live in it today?

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