Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Faithful Worker

Text:    1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

    TOMORROW AMERICA CELEBRATES the Labor Day holiday.  Kids and comedians like to joke, "Hey, it's Labor Day, why aren't we all laboring?"  But of course the day is set aside to honor all those whose hard work makes America as great as it is, and to give the workers recognition and a well-deserved special day of rest.  The idea that Labor Day is a day of rest would come as a surprise to workers in retail stores and car dealerships and other enterprises that use the long weekend as an occasion to attract customers.

    But there's a group of people who should never stop working, no matter what the day is, and that is the members of Christ's Church when we're doing His business for the sake of His kingdom.  God calls us to be faithful workers for Him, day in and day out, for He has chosen and elected us to be like the one supreme faithful Worker, Jesus Christ our Lord.

    You, the members of the Calvin Presbyterian Church of N--- City, are in a crucial position in your work in the name of Christ.  I know nothing about your now-former pastor or his time here (though I hear he's a pretty good bagpipe player), only that this past Sunday was his last time in this pulpit.  I know nothing about your time with him, the successes and failures, the plans accomplished and the ideas that fell flat.  What I do know is that from this Sunday on you will be starting a new phase in the work of this congregation.  However you choose to proceed, whether you will be going on with pulpit supply for the foreseeable future, or hiring an interim pastor, or whether you hope to begin searching for a new pastor as soon as possible, there are both possibilities and pitfalls in your way, that will have a strong effect on the work and future of this church.

    It might be tempting to come up with scenarios.  But it will be more useful, more edifying for us to examine how the work of this church should proceed as God our Father has laid it out Himself in our reading from 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5.

    The Thessalonian church of the 1st century A. D. was in pretty good shape as to doctrine, ministry, and practice.  It was dear to St. Paul's heart as one that didn't need a great deal of correcting and rebuking.  In chapter 1, verses 2 and 3, he writes,

    We give thanks to God always for you, making mention of your in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus in the sight of our God and Father.

The Thessalonians were faithful workers in the Lord, and the Apostle wanted to encourage them to stay that way. 

    In our passage from chapter 5, the apostle puts first things first.  In verse 12, he writes (as we have it in the New King James Version), "And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you . . . " Now, I usually preach out of the New International Version, 1984 edition.  But with this text, I've found that the NKJV gives a more accurate and stronger rendition of the original Greek. 

    This word "recognize," for instance.  As in English, this word (which literally means "to see") urges us rightly to perceive the worth of pastors, elders, and teachers, and to pay close attention to them.  Why?  Because first and foremost, whether you have an installed pastor or in this interim time, the preaching and teaching of Word of God must take priority.  My seminary field-education pastor impressed this one thing upon me especially: That the laypeople of the church could carry on most of the work of the ministry, but the one indispensable job of the pastor, the one thing the laity could not do, was to be the theologian of the parish.  It is the pastor's job to set a faithful course in interpreting the Scriptures so Jesus Christ is glorified and the saints are built up in sound doctrine and practice.  In turn, the elders take their lead from the pastor as they teach the Word (and the Scriptures say that elders must be able to teach), and they guide all other teachers by overseeing curriculum and so forth. 

    As Paul says, pastors and elders are over you in the Lord.  That's "in the Lord"-- for His sake and His glory, not for their own power or pride, but to nurture the church in holiness and service.  You elders must resolve not merely to rule over the church and administer its business affairs, but along with that to be concerned about your brothers and sisters in this congregation, to care for their spiritual well-being, and give them all necessary aid in their Christian lives.  This you primarily must do by encouraging and admonishing them with the good news of Christ and Him crucified.  For without your labor in the Word, your labor in the Lord will be faithless and in vain.

    As a congregation, you're in a very delicate position for the next few weeks.  Without an ongoing pastor, it can be difficult to ensure that your work here is grounded in Christ and His work as recorded in Scripture.  You must do all you can, in cooperation with the presbytery, to make sure that the good food of faithful preaching and teaching continues to come to you.  Never let yourselves believe for one minute that it's not important or that you can get along without it.  As a former pastor of mine would say, a church without the faithful preaching of the Word is just the Rotary Club with hymns.

    Verse 13 reminds us we are to esteem or honor those who labor in the Word very highly for their work's sake.  You honor the surgeon who successfully treats your diseases: how much more highly you should rate the man or woman who week after week applies to you the holy medicine that brings you spiritual health and eternal life! 

    And be at peace among yourselves.  Nothing destroys a church faster than gossip, backbiting, and arguments.  Defend what is right, by all means, but always in a spirit of love and graciousness, knowing that the Lord Jesus who made peace between God and us with His blood is the only Head of the Church, not we ourselves.

    But what about difficult people in difficult circumstances?  Verse 14 addresses this issue.  We don't notice it in the English, but all these situations are taken from military life.  And isn't the church of God like an army under His command?  The exhortation-- that's a good old word we need to use more often-- is a combination of command, encouragement, and advice we'd better follow-- this exhortation is primarily addressed to pastors and elders, but all of us have a part in this work.  First of all, the unruly must be warned.  Some translations say "the idle,"or "the lazy," but it's "idle"or "lazy" as in "Idle hands are the devil's workshop."  Think of a soldier goofing off in the ranks.  Or a disruptive student sprawled out in a desk in the back of a classroom, mouthing off at the teacher.  Inevitably will be some who think the commands of Christ to live holy, upright, and moral lives do not apply to them.  They must be warned-- based on Scripture, not on our particular preferences-- that they may shape up and stop abusing the grace made available to them, lest their Christianity be revealed as a sham. 

    But the timid or fainthearted are not to be warned, they are to be comforted and encouraged.  Here we see a picture of the recruit the night before the battle, worried about what's going to happen, afraid lest he prove to be a coward and turn tail and run.  For the Thessalonians and many Christians today around the world, this fear is real.  Anti-Christian persecution is rife and our brothers and sisters are losing their lives daily for confessing Jesus as Lord.  Our own culture is making it clear in many ways that the less we say about Jesus as God, the safer we'll be from damaged reputations and lost friendships.  The temptation to timidity is there.

    So let us comfort the fainthearted.  How?  By telling each other it's okay to be afraid?  Certainly not!  Let's remind one another of who Jesus is and what He has done for us.  Let's commend one another to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who applies the steadiness of Christ to us through the ministry of His Word.

    And the weak must be upheld and built up.  Think of a new and flabby recruit who can't possibly run the obstacle course the first time through.  But gradually, he undergoes strict physical training, his muscles are made hard and powerful, and he gets so he can carry a 200-pound pack for twenty-five miles and ask for more.  In the church, again, we grow our spiritual muscles and overcome weakness by reading, hearing, and meditating on the Word of God.  We stop being flabby Christians.  But Paul makes it clear that the church leadership is to make sure this happens, not simply to hope everyone is taking care of it on their own.

    And this, as we see, takes patience.  It can be frustrating always to be warning, or encouraging, or trying to strengthen the same people over and over.  Never mind.  Keep on doing it, in the love, serenity, and peace of your Lord, knowing how patient He has been with you.

    Don't be looking out to get revenge, whether against fellow Christians or against nonbelievers.  Pursue, strive for, seek after, aspire to what is good for all people, for this is how Jesus has dealt with you.

    Verses 16 to 18 go together.  "Rejoice always," Paul says.  Why?  Because events and conditions in this world are so wonderful all the time?  No.  Rather, because Christ our God is so wonderful all the time.  Keep Him by your side in prayer all the time.  Refer every problem, every difficulty, every joy to Him at every moment.  Be in constant inward conversation with Jesus, and so in everything you will be able to give thanks, for you will be focussing on Him who is the Giver and Provider of all that is good, lovely, and meaningful.

    And do not quench the Spirit.  We think of this in terms of pouring water on a fire, and yes, that applies.  But think also of putting out a candle's flame, or turning off a light.  We can quench the Holy Spirit by refusing to pay attention when the Scriptures are being read and preached, for His special work is to shed light on the Word.  We can quench the Spirit in one another, when we refuse to listen to what might be His inspired ideas for new ministries and new possibilities in the church.  "Do not despise prophesies," Paul writes.  In our day, the canon of Scripture is closed and God is not giving us anything new to add to it.  Very rarely does He give a message that foretells the future.  But whenever the Word is faithfully told-forth, there is prophecy for our day.  There are churches who think preaching is dispensable, that if you want to get the crowds in you have to have loud music! smoke! mirrors! light shows! not some individual up front talking from the Bible.  But preaching is the means that God has ordained to bring sinners to salvation; do not despise it.

    But even as you hear the Word preached, make sure the preacher is preaching the Word.  "Test all things," says verse 21, and do so by the revealed Word itself.  The Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture, and He does not contradict Himself.  And once you know that what you have been taught is the genuine article, hold onto it with all your strength.  There is no virtue in being open-minded about matters the Spirit has proven to you.

    And in all your labor for the name of Christ, as a congregation and as individuals, abstain from every form-- or, more specifically-- even every appearance of evil.  We represent Christ in the world.  This is our job for His sake.  Let's not associate Him with anything dubious or shady. 

    All this is a lot of work!  When will we ever get any rest?  Is it all up to us to do it ourselves?

    No, brothers and sisters, it is not all up to us.  In a way, it's not up to us at all.  For as we read in verse 23, God is the God of peace, and He has already given us rest in the blood of Jesus Christ.  It is He who makes us holy and enables us to live holy; as it says in Philippians, He works in us both to will and to work according to His good pleasure.  He Himself sanctifies you completely, and He will preserve your whole being: spirit, soul, and body, blameless when Jesus our Savior comes again.

    For isn't that what we are working for in the church?  The day will come when we will sit down with Jesus in His kingdom and enjoy His everlasting feast.  We will hear Him tell us, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"   We will rest and rejoice forever in His love.  He will throw away the wages of sin, which is death, and give us instead the pay He has earned for us, the riches of eternal life.  On this Labor Day weekend and always, celebrate the finished work of the One who died and rose again for you, the Master who keeps His promises.  In His sanctifying strength, keep on working, for Christ is the faithful Worker, and He will do it.

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