Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Word at Work

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
James of Jerusalem, Brother of Jesus and Martyr
October 23, 2011

If you open a present and it’s empty you’re let down. There’s supposed to be something in there. But if someone hands you an empty jar and tells you to stuff as many ten dollar bills as you can into it, well, that empty jar is suddenly a very good thing.

The word Paul uses for his having come to the Christians of Thessalonica is literally ‘empty’. He says it was not empty. As the version we have it in our bulletin says it, it was not in vain. That’s the way it is when you come with the Gospel. It’s never in vain. Paul’s march to Damascus to stamp out Christianity, that was in vain. God turned him around. Not literally around so that he found himself on his way back to Jerusalem. Spiritually. God turned Paul around. Now Paul was marching, on a mission, to stamp out unbelief. His weapon was the Word of God. His sword was the Gospel. These weapons are never used in vain. They never come up empty.

When Paul was opposing Christianity he saw results. But never like he did when he was proclaiming Christianity. Results that come from the Word of God are results that God brings about. Paul declares that his proclamation of the Gospel was not in vain, despite receiving harsh treatment for doing so. His conviction that the Gospel did not come up empty was boldly asserted in the face of opposition to that Gospel. Paul came to this conviction because he very quickly saw in his new call from God that it was to God that he would answer, not people. He quickly saw that it was an amazing thing, this new life God had given to Paul. Forgiven of his assault on Christ and the followers of Christ. He was now given a new call: to preach the Gospel to those Christians as well as to all who would hear. There was also this amazing thing: God entrusted Paul with the Gospel.

Paul knew the Scriptures. He was a Pharisee. The Pharisees knew the Scriptures. Paul could argue and discuss and motivate as well as anyone. Now God was giving to Paul something simple. The Gospel. It was as though Paul stood there with an empty jar and God filled it with the Gospel. Entrusting him with it. “Here. Go with this. Make it known. Bring it to others. Proclaim it. Wherever you go, proclaim this Gospel.” His motives for bringing the Gospel to the Thessalonians were not for his own benefit but rather, as he says, “…our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.”

This had a profound impact on Paul. He now saw Christians not as enemies of God but as the people of God. He saw that they were people who were in need of this Gospel. This thing to which he had been entrusted was the very thing that would change their lives just as it had changed his. How would he be among them? He says, “…we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the Gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” He loved them as God had loved him. He cared for them as God had cared for him. He made known the Gospel among them as God had made known the Gospel to him.

He was with them as one who was there for them, not for himself. He was among them not because he had a job to do but because God had called him to love them and care for them spiritually and it grew into a relationship that was more like family.

What kind of an effect does this have on those who are the recipients of such action and love and proclamation of the Gospel? We all know people who very politely tell us that they’re not interested in hearing about the Gospel and Jesus and His love for them. Many of us probably know of people who are nasty in their making known to us that they want to hear nothing of the Gospel or Jesus or His supposed love for them. Closer to home, we ourselves at times may harbor doubts about the Gospel and Jesus and His love for us. Some of us may wonder if it’s all really true. Some of us may wonder how it all makes sense. This is opposition. Our sinful flesh opposes what God brings to us.

This is what Paul said about his making known of the Gospel to the people of Thessalonica: “We had boldness in our God to declare to you the Gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.” What do you suppose that conflict might have been? Ever been in a congregation that had conflict? I’m not sure if there’s anyone who could say they’ve been in a congregation that did not experience conflict. We probably know of several congregations that have had or are experiencing conflict. As if it’s not enough that we are sometimes conflicted with our family members at home or our co-workers at work or our neighbors down the street, we show up here at church and sometimes we go through it all here.

Part of this is due to the Gospel. The Gospel naturally stirs up opposition. Sinners do not like hearing the Gospel. Sinners like hearing how good they are. Or what they can do to be good or to get better than they already are. Sinners don’t want to hear the Gospel. The sinful flesh is opposed to the Gospel. Here’s a test of this. What do you hear when you hear the words of the Lord in the Old Testament reading? “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” “Be holy. Be perfect. No more sin. No more selfish desires or actions. Have your mind set on Me, the one true God. The holy God.” The sinful flesh rails against this. I don’t deserve to be demanded upon by God. I should be able to go about my way and be the good, decent person I generally am. And besides, nobody’s perfect, so why should God demand that of me?

The sinful flesh doesn’t want to hear the Gospel. The sinful flesh wants safe harbor in its own merit. The sinful flesh does not hear those words of the Lord as they ultimately are—not as a command, “Be holy!”, but as a statement of what God brings about. Namely, holiness. When God says, “Be holy”, He brings it about. He makes it happen. He speaks it into existence. When He says, “Be holy”, what happens is that He is declaring you, and thereby making you, holy. You are His. You are a person created in His image and now re-created in the image of His Son, in holiness.

That’s how the proclamation of the Gospel works. It pierces through the hardness of the heart of the sinful flesh and brings about holiness, newness of life. It’s true, that this comes hand in hand with the Law of God. The Law hammering through the heart of stone. But the Gospel nevertheless does the effective work of making sinful human beings into the people of God. It is never in vain. The Gospel never comes up empty.

That’s why it’s not an overstatement that Paul says, “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.” Paul can thank God constantly because of the effects of the Word of God. The Word that was made known to them was the Word that always goes forth from God and there was all the more reason to rejoice in their receiving it as the Word of God.

Paul was talking to the Thessalonian Christians but we’re listening in. We hear the very same Word proclaimed. What do you hear when you hear the words of your Lord as He spoke them in the Gospel reading? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the prophets.” Do you hear a burden placed on you that you can’t achieve? Or do you hear the words of your Lord that release you from your own attempts at convincing yourself that you’re a pretty decent person? Because loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind is really the best way to go. The First Commandment is nothing other than fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things. If you really did this things would go so much better for you than you could ever realize.

The amazing thing is, you really do. In Christ. In Christ you do. On these two commandments, loving God and loving your neighbor, depend all the Law and the Prophets. What has Christ done? He has fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets. He has loved God perfectly and in holiness. He has loved His neighbor as Himself, selflessly and perfectly. He is holy for He is the Lord. He is the one who paid the penalty for not being holy as the Lord God is holy.

Why this is is because of what Paul says to the Thessalonians: they were receptive of the Word “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God, which is at work in you believers.” This is the crowning glory of what Paul is talking about and what he rejoiced in. The Word is at work. It is never in vain. It doesn’t come up empty. It goes forth and accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent. The reason you fear, love, and trust in God above all things is that the Word of God is at work in you. You are in Christ. Jesus works substantially, not abstractly. His work in you is of substance. You are an actual new creation in Christ. You have actual new life in Him. You actually “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The Word is at work in you. God brings this about in you through His Word. You in actuality “love your neighbor as yourself.” The Word is at work. God brings it about in you.

Think about this statement that Paul uses: the Word is at work in you. It sounds kind of cool. It’s a little catchy. The Word is at work in you. You could think of that phrase in your head throughout the week: the Word is at work in you. But once you think about it a little you might find yourself thinking that it’s also a bit strange. What exactly does it mean that the Word is at work? How is the Word at work in you? It’s cool and maybe even catchy, but what exactly is going on?

What’s going on is God at work. God is not just God. Anybody can talk about God or think about God. But God is active. He is at work. And He is primarily at work through His Son. Jesus is the way God is at work. He became flesh. He dwelt among us. He fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets. He suffered at the hands of men and the punishment we deserve at the hands of God. He rose on the third day. He is at work. He is God who became man. Jesus is the way the Word is at work in you because He is the Word made flesh. When you receive the Word of God you aren’t receiving the words of men but what it really is, the Word of God which is at work in you. Amen.

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