I think that a really helpful way to frame a sermon on the lectionary text for today, including if you choose to cover the verses that the lection skips over, is our covenant relationship with God.
A covenant is an agreement between two parties where each makes promises about how they will be to and for one another; it is a bond formed between them that their relationship can rest upon. Covenant is a major overarching metaphor used in Scripture to describe our relationship with God.
In the Old Testament, our covenant relationship with God was formed through his promises and his self-giving love and presence. For our part of the covenant, we were given direction about how to best live as his people—especially through our obedience to the ten commandments. Key forms or examples of God’s covenant with his people are found in his relationships with Abraham, Noah, and King David and his lineage. In each case, God speaks who he is, what he is about, and what he wants for the world while also guiding the human representative in what it means for all of God’s people and how they ought to respond.
In the New Testament, we see Jesus as the covenant incarnate: Jesus is the self-giving love and presence of the divine, and Jesus is the perfectly obedient human. At the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples that his “blood is poured out as the new covenant for the forgiveness of sins for many people,” (Matthew 26.28) transforming our understanding of the covenant through the lens of the cross. Hence, you’ll hear references to the Old and New Covenant.
Of course, the greatest aspect of our covenant (both Old and New) with God is that we human partners break it constantly, and yet, God never does; the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. The confidence that such a truth gives to a believer, and to missionaries like Paul and his companions, is found throughout the New Testament epistles—such as the one before us now.
For instance, the church is described as being “in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Such an identifier places them firmly within the covenant as God’s people. That means that God is with them. What does it mean for God to be with them as they faced persistent persecution? Paul doesn’t say, but he implies what it looks like. It looks like the love that they have for one another that is continuing to grow. It looks like their resolve to continue to seek the Kingdom of God even though it has increased their suffering in the world.
Also consider how Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s thanks is given first and foremost to God because of the believers in Thessalonica. Their thanks centers on what God has been up to in their community as faith—which is a gift from God—has grown abundantly, and for how their community models the love of God in tangible ways. Paul writes that such a focus on thanking God is the “as is right” thing to do because it is Jesus through his Spirit that is actually at work and being seen in their faithfulness and love. This is how the New Covenant works—nothing that we have done, but everything that he has done.
And yet, the reasons behind Paul’s written prayer of thanksgiving would not have happened without the committed willingness of the other partner in the covenant, God’s people as embodied in the community of faith in Thessalonica. Their faithfulness and their acts of love for one another are the ways that the Christians in Thessalonica have said “yes!” to the promises of God, trusting him instead of themselves even though they continue to experience affliction and hardship. Their love continues to grow as they seek to enact the kingdom of God among and with one another, saying “yes!” to trying to live into their end of the covenant relationship. In fact, the transformation that has happened in their community is so remarkable that the missionaries now use it as an example of God at work, sharing their story among all of the other churches as an example of what can be between God and his people.
The skipped over verses have to do with God’s judgement for those who are making things so difficult for the Christian community in Thessalonica. Paul urges them to take comfort and solace in knowing that justice will be served. Again, here is a key trust based on God’s covenantal nature: God is trustworthy enough for such a task because God keeps his covenant. A very pivotal point that Paul makes, however, is that in the covenantal relationship God has with his people, justice for our enemies and foes is served by Jesus and not us. On the day of Jesus’ return—a return that they are all waiting for—Paul tells them that God will repay what needs to be repaid… comfort what needs to be comforted… give relief where it is needed… so on and so forth. God doing justice is part of God’s covenantal promises to us and we can trust him to do what is right.
Verses 11 and 12 pick back up the lectionary selection and expounds upon what the church in Thessalonica can focus on while they wait for Christ’s return: their daily living. Paul writes that the missionaries pray for the church members to be good covenant partners with God. Specifically, they pray that God will make the people worthy of all that God wants them to do, and that God will fulfill in them every good deed and fruit of faith. If the community members submit to the Spirit’s work in these things, then they will be glorifying Jesus’ name and know more fully how they are united to him, in him. This is the epitome of what it means for us to practice covenant faithfulness: God making us worthy and then accomplishing his will through a willing servant, all of it glorifying the name of Jesus Christ.
Grace, by the Holy Spirit, is the glue of the covenant. I once heard Rev. Thomas Gilespie say in a sermon that “Grace is the opening of the Holy Spirit to the human spirit. Faith is the opening of the human spirit to the Holy Spirit.” This has immensely helped me get a handle (ever so small) on grace. Grace isn’t just a solitary act but better understood as the pattern of steadfast behaviour exhibited by our God. Way back in the book of Exodus, God told Moses that he was “God compassionate and gracious, patient, and abundant in love and fidelity.” And the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary captures the picture of grace that unfolds in the New Testament: “Grace is love demonstrated by giving; in the gospel grace is unmerited divine favour, arising in the mind of God and bestowed on his people.”
Everything that Paul and his fellow missionaries pray for the church members in Thessalonica is “according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” First of all, how trinitarian! Second of all, we need just skim through our selected verses to see the grace notes all over them.
God is so compassionate and grateful that he gathers up into himself the whole community of believers. It isn’t just the church in Thessalonica that is “in God”, but every church that Paul and Silas and Timothy go to and tell about what’s happening in Thessalonica is “among the churches of God!” It is God’s grace that makes us worthy before God himself: when God looks at us, he sees the prefect and holy Jesus. And their faith is growing, a sign that they have opened up their hearts to God, and it is now overflowing to others in their community through their mutual love.
It’s almost as though we should expect it. After all, covenants really show their muster and strength in hard times. Why do we bother to make vows if they are always easy to keep? Adding another layer to the whole situation is the fact that much of the persecution that the church in Thessalonica was experiencing was at the hands of the Jewish community. In other words, people of the Old Covenant who were angry that people were coming to believe in Jesus, the New Covenant. As this fledgling community of Christians tried to stand true to the preaching and ideas about God that they heard from Paul, and later on Timothy, they did so among people deeply rooted in the covenant with God but who could not accept the transformed presentation of God’s covenant in Christ. Paul is encouraged by them, and he hopes that they will be encouraged by his encouragement—and even more encouraged by the Encourager, the Holy Spirit.
In his commentary on the both of the Thessalonian letters, Ben Witherington III describes the particular prayer practice that Paul uses in the thanksgiving section as a form of a teaching prayer. He says it’s the kind of prayer a parent prays within their children’s earshot so that the kid will hear what his or her parents wants him/her to do. One can recall these same sorts of prayers we heard at the dinner table: for good grades… for successful careers as doctors and engineers… for well-behaved dates with young men or women… for clean rooms… or for more studious habits! If nothing else, when the Thessalonians heard Paul’s prayer read out loud to them, you can be sure that it was a moment of remembering the standard that their spiritual father wanted to see in their midst!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 3, 2019
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 Commentary