Be Ready: Looking Up

This Sunday, we began our journey through Paul’s letters to the Thessalonian church. As we look to the skies in anticipation of Christ’s return, we must continue to remain faithful to our calling because God’s not done with us yet. And God leaves no loose ends.

You can hear the sermon here.

Here’s an enhanced copy of the manuscript…

Call it a sick pre-occupation if you’d like, but people seem to be infatuated with stories about the end of the world. It’s really not a new phenomenon. We know there’s a beginning. And there’s surely going to be an ending. But I can’t really explain why we’re so pre-occupied with the end of the world. Maybe it’s because we know it’s something that’s beyond our control. Maybe it’s an attempt to tap into that sense of fear and helplessness that comes with an uncertain future. It has become apparent, however, that contemplating the “hows” and “whens” of the end of the world could be considered part of our shared human experience.

To illustrate my point, all you have to do is look at one of the more popular film genres: Disaster movies. Many of these disaster movies are about potential end of the world scenarios. There’s Deep Impact and Armageddon, which conveniently came out in the same year and are conveniently about some type of giant object on a collision course racing towards earth. And we know that such a crash would be so catastrophic that it would cause all living things on the earth to go extinct. There’s The Day After Tomorrow, which is about the sudden coming of the next Ice Age. And then there’s the old standby: alien invasion. These movies include such classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Independence Day, War of the Worlds. And there are some more light-hearted movies about the topic, including Mars Attacks and Chicken Little. Even some of the Star Trek films have dealt with potential end-of-the-world scenarios.

But the pre-occupation with the end of the world doesn’t stop with just blockbuster movies. Every few years or so, there’s a resurrection of interest in the works of the 16th-century French apothecary and supposed prophet, Nostradamus, who they claim predicts the end of the world. His “enthusiasts have credited him with predicting numerous events in world history, from the Great Fire of London”…to “the rise of Napoleon and Adolf Hitler, to the September 11…terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center; but only ever in hindsight.”[1] Some of these same people have also tried to give him credit for predicting the landings on the moon, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and even the death of Princess Diana. Every few years or so, you’ll hear people claiming that Nostradamus has predicted the next wave that will lead towards the end of the world.

There was the Y2K phenomenon at the end of the 20th century, where there was predictions of weeping and gnashing of teeth and fires and panic in the streets and we’d be hurled back to the stone age because of a computer glitch that would reset all of our computers at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000. While there were a few glitches because of Y2K, we can look back and say that – despite all the hype – the end of the world didn’t happen.

Over the next few years, it’s likely that we’ll hear an increase of discussion about the Mayan calendar. If I understand correctly, people argue that the ancient Mayans had a calendar only lasts 5,125 years; and at the end of the 5,125 years, all of time essentially resets, resulting in the end of the world as we know it. The current version of the Mayan calendar is set to expire on either December 21 or 23, 2012. So, according to some of these interpreters, that’s when the end of the world is supposed to happen.

Conveniently – that’s also the same year that Indianapolis will host the Super Bowl. But I doubt there’s really a connection between the two.

Discussion and concern about the end of the world is not limited to just popular culture and doomsday scenarios. From the earliest days of the church, Christians have looked toward the skies in anticipation of the time when the old will pass away and God will make all things new again. And rightfully so.

Acts chapter 1 shares the account of how Jesus appeared to his followers after his resurrection from the grave. He spent time with them for the next 40 days, speaking about the kingdom of God and challenging them to spread the good news with the rest of the world. And finally, he ascended into heaven right before their eyes. This obviously shocked his followers, leaving them frozen as they fixed their gaze on the skies. In Acts 1:11, we find that two men (presumably angels) appeared before them and said, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” And although we continue to do what Christ commanded: making disciples and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God with our words and our actions; we still turn our eyes towards the skies, waiting for his return. And we join followers of Christ throughout the centuries in asking the same question: “When?”

We live in uncertain times. We are in the midst of a global financial crisis and it seems like no one’s job or retirement fund is safe. There are rogue nations that are intent on getting their hands on nuclear weapons. There are wars and famines and now it has been announced that the H1N1 virus is at the highest pandemic level. Just this last week, there was a loose cannon who went into the Holocaust museum intent on killing random people.

With all of this chaos and uncertainty around us, it leads us to look heavenward again and re-join the refrain that the church has been asking for the last 2,000 years: “When?

Fortunately, we haven’t been left to make up answers on our own. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at one answer to the timeless question of when Jesus is coming back; and how we should be living our lives in the meantime (which really is a mean time).

If you have your Bibles with you, please turn with me to the 1st chapter of 1 Thessalonians. If you don’t have your Bible with you, you’re welcome to use the one in the pew in front of you. 1 Thessalonians 1 is found on page 1029 of those Bibles. 1 Thessalonians is found towards the end of the New Testament, immediately following Philippians and Colossians and immediately preceding 2 Thessalonians and 1 & 2 Timothy. Although this is found towards the end of the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians is really one of the earliest letters we have from the apostle Paul.

The church in Thessalonica found themselves asking this same question that we ask today – “When?” The apostle Paul and his companions, Timothy and Silas came to the influential city of Thessalonica while on one of Paul’s missionary journeys through Europe. They had taken the gospel into the city and the people were receptive to the life-changing message. A church was established and Paul and his companions stayed in the city to help this new church get off the ground. Unfortunately, their stay in Thessalonica was short-lived. After what appears to be just three weeks’ time, Paul and company had to leave Thessalonica because persecution against the believers broke out in the city. Even though Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was not a long one, it was solid enough to leave behind a thriving church.

Although Paul longed to go back and visit his Christian brothers and sisters in Thessalonica, he was unable to do so. He did, however, send Timothy back to encourage the Christians and assure them of his love and concern. Timothy eventually rejoined Paul and gave him a report about the status of the Thessalonian church.

The church in Thessalonica was a thriving community. Because of the faithful witness of the Thessalonian Christians, the gospel was heard throughout the entire land. The change in the lives of these young Christians was clearly evident. Many had been idolaters and some probably continued to battle the pull of their past. Yet they had welcomed God’s message by faith and were putting their trust in Jesus. But there was growing anxiety among the believers. They longed to have their spiritual mentor return to them so they could be together. In addition to their desire to see Paul again, the persecution and difficulties they faced led them to look heavenward, longing for Christ’s return. This longing to see the return of Jesus led to some confusion about his return. And we’ll discuss some of that confusion as we look through this letter.

As we begin reading Paul’s letter to this young church, we can see the love that Paul has for his Christian brothers and sisters. The power of the grace of God has been displayed in the lives of these new Christians. And Paul begins by encouraging them to keep it up.

Read 1 Thessalonians 1

What a powerful example of the life-changing message of the good news of Jesus Christ! When Paul initially entered the city of Thessalonica, he and his companions went to the synagogue first. Through those efforts, the gospel took root in people’s lives. And it spread like wildfire. And it didn’t stop with the Jews, who had been looking for the Promised One sent by God. It spread to those who had absolutely nothing to do with the Lord. And the gospel took hold of their hearts, too. They turned away from their old lives of idolatry and became fully-devoted followers of the Lord. And word of their changed lives spread for miles and miles.

The good news of the coming of Jesus Christ has the power to change our lives, too. It can make the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk. It can bring healing to broken relationships. It can heal hurting marriages. It can breathe new life into that which was dying. That’s the life-changing power that the Thessalonian church experienced…the kind that led them to give up their old, sinful ways and become new creations in the kingdom of God. it’s also the life-changing power that we can experience today.

But the Thessalonian believers discovered that a life devoted to following Christ isn’t always easy. As a result of their decision to make Christ Lord of their lives, they chose to give up the rituals and traditions with which they had grown up. Surely their turning away from idolatry caused a rift with their families, who raised them to worship those idols. The Thessalonian Christians soon discovered that choosing to follow Christ can cause strain on friendships, family relationships, and even your business decisions. When Jesus Christ comes into your life, it changes you. You become a new creation. And sometimes, people from the old life don’t understand that.

Local reaction to the Thessalonian Christians’ conversions was less-than welcoming. And persecution erupted in the city. In Thessalonica at the time, choosing to follow Christ could mean the death penalty. And as these newer Christians began to experience these difficulties, surely they began to question whether following Jesus was really worth the price they were paying. And Paul opens his letter to the church by telling them that God leaves no loose ends.

God called them out of lives of idolatry and they responded. God called them to proclaim the gospel to their neighbors and they responded – in spite of threatened persecution. God had a plan to use His followers in Thessalonica and they responded. And God would remain faithful to what He promised.

Have you wondered if the cost of following Christ is worth it? Maybe following Jesus has put a strain on a family relationship. Or maybe it has meant that you’ve had to cut yourself off from some of your old friends and from your old lifestyle. Maybe it has led some of your friends to make assumptions about you that just aren’t true. Following Jesus isn’t always easy. There are some preachers out there who try to tell you that giving your life to Jesus means that all of your problems will go away; that following Jesus means you’ll have physical health, financial wealth, and prosperity. But they’re wrong. Following Jesus doesn’t guarantee any of that.

But here’s what Jesus does promise. He’ll be with you regardless of the circumstances. He’ll work on you and through you as you choose to proclaim His kingdom with your thoughts, words, and actions.  The message in these opening words of this letter to the Thessalonians is the same message He has for us today: God’s not done with you yet. And He doesn’t leave loose ends. He has begun a good work in you. And he will be faithful to complete that work as you continue to follow Him.

And God has promised that His Son will come back again. But God’s not finished yet. The story isn’t complete. And God leaves no loose ends. He will be faithful to complete the story…in His time…and in His way. So while we continue to live in this mean time of chaos and unpredictability, we do so with one eye fixed on the sky, awaiting His glorious return. But while we wait, we know that God isn’t finished with us yet. He’s still working on us. He’s still working through us. And God leaves no loose ends. So we continue to look up in anticipation of Christ’s return. But we also continue to look up so we can draw nearer to Him and allow Him to shape us into His likeness. God’s not finished with you yet. He’s not finished with me yet. And God leaves no loose ends.


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