Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 5, 2017
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 Commentary
We preachers need to be careful. When someone catches us at the church door to disagree with our sermon some Sunday, it is tempting to say “Hey, your quarrel is not with me but with God. I was just preaching God’s Word so . . .” Of course, sometimes that really may be the case. Sometimes and upon further conversation with the upset parishioner it turns out that what this person does not like is less your sermon on this or that text but the text itself. Other times, though, what was disagreeable was more our application, the spin we put on the text, the rather careless way we spoke about some situation or subject. Sometimes those who object to a sermon are right—we messed something up.
All of which is to say, we had best not move too quickly to what some might regard as the dodge of saying “Your problem is with God, not me.”
True enough. But at the end of the day what all preachers should hope will be the case is that the bulk of what we present in a sermon really is God’s Word, not merely our ideas or thoughts about God. We cannot paper over our occasional mistakes by slapping a “Thus saith the Lord” label overtop of the sermon but hopefully a lot of what is in any given message is from the Lord. Or at least the most important things that we communicate should be rooted firmly in the biblical text.
In some ways this lection from 1 Thessalonians 2 is covering the same territory thematically that was in the previous Sunday’s lection on the first 8 verses here. Paul is taking pains to remind the Thessalonians that the apostles were neither charlatans nor money-grubbing leaches when they were in Thessalonica. Stung by accusations along these lines—and as noted in last week’s sermon commentary, it seems that such accusations go back to the earliest days of the church—Paul hits back with reminders of their gentleness, their love, their sincerity, and their having earned their own keep by doing honest work with their hands. That theme continues into this text in verses 9-13.
But the new element in this reading is that the Thessalonians ultimately received the words of the apostles not as mere human speech but as no less than the Word of God. As such, the Word they received was elevated in importance, it rang with truth. What’s more, unlike human speech—no matter how eloquent or stirring—God’s Word is active. Paul says it was “at work” within the very people who heard and received this divine Word. The “at work” here is the Greek from which we get our word “energy.” God’s Word is an energizing Word that activates all kinds of things inside of people who have faith.
Indeed, that distinguishes this Word from all others. But you wonder sometimes if we still really believe this is so about God’s Word. In our world right now we all bob around in a sea of verbiage, of language, of words, words, words. Tweets, Facebook status posts, Instagram messages, blogs, comments on articles posted online, never-ending streams of emails, talking heads on split-screen cable news shows, shouting matches encouraged by TV hosts who know that verbal back-and-forth arguments are good for ratings . . . On and on it goes but so very often to so little effect.
As one Facebook post I read recently said, “Posting your political views on Facebook changes the minds of so many, said no one ever.” And it’s true: we all tend to live in our own echo chambers today, gravitating to anything that props up our pre-existing viewpoint, disagreeing angrily with those who challenge such positions, but then walking away from those fields of verbal warfare unfazed, unchanged. Maybe now and then we actually succeed in making someone re-think something briefly. But mostly we don’t really expect much to come from lobbing our verbal hand grenades about. It all ends up feeling like that Beatles song in which John Lennon sang “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup. They slither as they pass, they slip away across the universe . . .”
In the midst of all this, can we believe there is an enduring Word of truth that can and really does go to work inside people? Can even we preachers whose lifeblood is the proclamation of that Word believe that the Spirit will take what we say and—insofar as it is transparent to God’s enduring Word—actually DO something, create something, activate something glorious and far beyond anything any other form of speech could ever do? Paul knew the power of that Word preached. He saw its fruits in the lives of the Thessalonians and so many others.
If today we let our expectations for the powerful working of God’s living Word to atrophy on account of our overall verbal bombardments on multiples fronts, then we have pretty much given away the Gospel farm. Yes, it is hard to be heard in this cacophonous environment. It may be even harder to sell the idea that in all that noise there endures a true Word that cuts through everything else and that goes to work inside people in a way nothing else could ever do. But that is what we are called to say, to proclaim, to believe.
We preach the Word and then sit back to watch what the Spirit of God will do. And we should expect it will be amazing.
From Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 96-97.
“God never seems to weary of trying to get himself [his word] across. Word after word he tries in search of the right word. When the Creation itself doesn’t seem to say it right—sun, moon, stars, all of it—he tries flesh and blood. He tried saying it in Noah, but Noah was a drinking man. He tried saying it in Abraham, but Abraham was a little too Mesopotamian with all those wives and whiskers. He tried saying it in Moses, but Moses himself was trying too hard; tried David, but David was too pretty for his own good. Toward the end of his rope, God tried saying it in John the Baptist with his locusts and honey and hellfire preaching, and you get the feeling that John might almost have worked except that he lacked something small but crucial like a sense of the ridiculous or a balanced diet. So he tried once more. Jesus as the mot juste [exact right phrasing] of God. ‘The word became flesh,’ John said, of all flesh, this flesh: holy, hick, whore’s hero, poor man’s Messiah, savior as schlemiel. Jesus as Word made flesh means take it or leave it: in this life, death, life, God finally manages to say what God is and what man is. Means: just as your words have you in them—your breath, your spirit, power, hiddenness—so Jesus has God in him.”
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