*Given at Midtown Christian Community, October 15, 2005*
Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Psalm 96 or 96:1-9
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Our texts for this week address a fundamental misinterpretation of the world. Not only this, but they also provide a true interpretation of the world—the correct reading of reality. They are meant to address a misunderstanding of who God is and what He does, and to give us a true vision of who God is, what he’s up to, and how we participate in this.
First, let’s talk a bit about the kind of mindset these texts are meant to address. It is tempting, by virtue of our living in America, watching television, reading newspapers, to think that what really matters in the world is the big stuff that constantly demands our attention. What is the game that is currently up and running? Well, it is doubtless the movement of nations, Supreme Court nominees that must be confirmed, wars that must be fought, initiatives and bills that must be passed, the latest about Katie and Tom and the name of their baby, the freshest words of life dripping from the lips of Dr. Phil. The dominant reality is surely the ever-onward march of consumer activity and corporate takeovers and the movements of markets around the world. In other words, history, the movement of big things and big people through time, is the dominant story that interprets and defines our reality.
And we know that God is obviously complicit in this. After all, he’s a God who pays attention to stuff that makes lots of noise, right? He pays attention to the big stuff—nations, presidents, and prime ministers. They make their plans and mobilize their armies and do their thing…, and then they pray for God’s blessing …, just to make sure that they’ve covered all the bases. But God doesn’t mind, because after all, this is his thing—he’s the God of people who matter and he’s got to look after stuff.
And who are we, on this interpretation? Who are the people who constitute the church? Well, we’re fairly insignificant, actually. We’re small and weak—just look at us! We’re not flashy or interesting, and we lack sex appeal, for the most part. We’re not impressive and we can’t mobilize lots of people to do big and really significant things. We can’t even keep the ceiling tiles from falling!
We can’t make lots of noise to the heavens, but nations can, governments can, important people can, corporations can. So, we should get hold of positions of power so that we can make lots of noise to God. Then perhaps he will wake up and hear us and he will come and save.
That’s our identity—we’re citizens of this world, so we vote and do our duty. We shop because we’re shoppers. Oh yeah, we’re also Christians, so we should do that, too, but only in our spare time, or, perhaps, in our “quiet” time.
Our texts for this week, these words from the Lord arranged by those who followed Jesus before us, call us to repent from this view of reality—this misinterpretation of who God is and what He does, of who we are and what we do.
Our texts give us a true interpretation of reality, one that is life-giving, one that offers hope and a fruitful way forward. A vision of all things—that brilliant underestimated phrase in the Bible, “all things”—that not only confers dignity upon our lives, and gives us a place in the world, but places us at the very center of what God is doing.
The game that is currently up and running is not history—the movement of events and people who matter—but the story of God and his people and his plot to redeem the world through Israel, Jesus, and the church. Everything else is a footnote.
I say this because of our Isaiah text, which portrays one of the big events—a headline news item involving a “person who matters.” Who is Cyrus? Well, from our worldly interpretation, he is the one in charge, the one who makes waves and whose every move determines what’s going to be on cable news for the next few weeks. But that’s a mis-reading! Cyrus is a servant of God—an unwitting servant of God to carry out the stuff that God considers really important—the salvation of his people. Why does God give Cyrus the power to wreak international havoc? “For the sake of my servant Jacob, andIsrael my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.”
You don’t know me, but “I arm you…, so that my people may know me…” Far from God paying attention to the nations and personalities and figures that make lots of noise and get face time on CNN, God pays attention to such things only insofar as they serve to reveal his love and grace to his people!
And who is God, according to a corrected view of reality? God is indeed King over all the earth—everything belongs to him. All other pretenders to the cosmic throne—like Cyrus, Caesar,Nike,America, Wal-Mart, Coke—are pathetic and impotent to do anything, as the psalmist says in v. 5: “all the gods of the nations are idols”—empty, vanity, nothing. “But God made the heavens.” Only God can speak the creative word and have reality immediately bend to his will.
But he is not merely the King; his reign is one of passionate love and salvation. Because of this, the psalmist calls on all people to sing to the Lord and bless his name, to worship him and give him honor.
So that’s who God is and what he does. He is the King of everything whose reign is one of outrageous and magnanimous forgiveness and passionate love—who will redeem the world through his people, not through movers and shakers. He stiff-arms the proud, using them as tools to show himself and his love to his people.
Well, so what? What does this mean for us? What does this look like in action? How does God’s identity touch our lives?
Our New Testament passages fill this in for us. Paul writes 1 Thessalonians to an incredibly insignificant group of people, according to “the way of the world”—a small band of nobodies who orient their pathetic little gathering around a man who made the powerful uncomfortable and so was put to death as a common criminal, a rebel against the empire, in Judea some years previously. These people don’t enjoy any social status and have to meet in secret for fear of being arrested.
This worldly angle of interpretation, as you know, is completely wrong-headed. They aren’t nobodies, at all. On the contrary, Paul highlights, in his opening address, the extreme privilege these people enjoy—the unique intimacy with the Creator God that is theirs: “to the group from among the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” They don’t merely have access to God—they are integrally united to him—in him. He notes that this little collection of weak people living in the shadow of the empire were sought out and chosen by God, the living and true God. They had turned from serving dead idols, vanities, nothings, to serve the living God and are now waiting to be vindicated by Jesus Christ at his return.
1 Thessalonians begins to depict who we are and what we’re supposed to do: We’ve been sought out by God, who has set his love on us, and who has called us to carry out his mission of redeeming the world by God’s own power—we’re called to be imitators of the Lord in his servant-love for the world.
The final piece of identity-formation is added by the Matthew text, where we see this same dynamic with Jesus, in this fascinating interchange recorded in Matthew 22. The Pharisees and Herodians—not naturally friends, but uniting against a common enemy, Jesus—come to him and try to trap him by identifying which interpretation of reality is correct.
They ask him to name which game is currently up and running: “what matters, Jesus, the course of history, the rise and fall of nations—Cyrus, Caesar, empires, big events, powerful people? Or, God and his mission to redeem the world?” Whichever Jesus answers, he’s going to make an enemy of either the Jewish establishment orRomeand Caesar.
In response to their question, Jesus asks to see a coin, and asks whose image and name is on it. “Why, Caesar’s, of course,” they reply. “Well,” says Jesus, “it must be his. Give it to him. But give to God what is God’s.”
Where is God’s image? What is stamped with his own name, showing ownership and possession by God? What belongs to God? We do! We have been claimed and stamped by God, given his name—“the assembly from among the Springfieldians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
So Jesus is naming our currently bizarre situation in this world. What is apparently real is the world as we see it through the eyes of the flesh. Jesus is saying, “Navigate your way wisely here in this reality. Be careful to evaluate reality from the right angle, the true interpretation. Value people rightly, evaluate your lives rightly, in light of the reality that is really up and running. And what is truly real is the mission of God to redeem his world for the glory of his name.”
You are not consumers, shoppers, citizens, drivers, home-owners, voters, students. You are children of God in Christ, agents of grace on God’s mission to reclaim the world for his glory. That is the big thing going on right now.
So we are not insignificant—we matter! And we actualize and maximize that insofar as we remain faithful to our call to love each other and participate fully and joyfully in the mission of God to love this neighborhood for the glory of his name.