Be Ready: Riding the Gospel Train

Sunday’s sermon marked the completion of our journey through Paul’s letters to the Thessalonian Church. As I prepared for this week’s message, I couldn’t help but remember a class I took on the book of Acts during my days at Milligan College. Because Paul’s message to the Thessalonians is that the good news of Jesus Christ must continue to spread. And it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to be part of that effort or try to hinder that effort. Or, in the words of Dr. Matson (who taught the Acts class), “The Gospel Train’s a-comin’. Either get on or get off, but get out of the way.”

There’s no audio from this week’s sermon, but you can read the manuscript after the jump.

This was our Crew Shirt from the trek.

This was our Crew Shirt from the trek.

As I’ve shared before, I have had several opportunities to hike in the Sangre de Christo Mountains in northeastern New Mexico at Philmont Scout Ranch. On my final trek at Philmont, I served as an adult advisor to a crew of Scouts. Early on during that trek, Mike, one of the crew members, cut his finger pretty deeply with a knife. He had a backcountry staff member help clean and dress the wound on his finger. Throughout the rest of the trek, Mike’s finger continued to hurt. It felt like it was getting worse. After our 10-day trek hiking through the mountains was over, we finally arrived at Base Camp. While we prepared to leave Base Camp and return home, Mike visited Health Lodge, the First Aid headquarters for the entire Ranch. They discovered infection had set in. And they had to re-open the wound that was already beginning to heal, which was extremely painful. But it was highly critical for them to get rid of the infection in his finger.

When problems are not solved, they grow and become worse. A sliver left in your finger can become infected and cause a toxic condition so serious that surgery may become necessary. A deep cut on a finger needs to be cleaned dressed properly or infection can set in, just like Mike’s finger. If you tell your doctor that you stepped on a rusty nail, you’ll immediately get a tetanus shot, even though the wound may appear insignificant to you.[1]

Church problems are like physical problems: if left unsolved, they grow and become worse. And they infect more people. The church is a body; and what germs are to the physical body, sin is to the spiritual body. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul warned against sitting around and waiting for Christ to return while the rest of the world is going to hell. Apparently, the troublemakers to whom Paul was referring did not stop, because he brings them up again here at the end of this second letter.

Last week, you might recall, we talked about the “Gossip Train” and how if we allow gossip, misinformation, and unsubstantiated rumors to be entertained within the church, it can derail us from our mission. Because the Gospel Train is coming. And you can either get on or get off, but get out of the way.

We have come to the end of our journey through Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. I hope our exploration of the Apostle’s correspondence with the Thessalonian church has helped de-mystify conversation about the return of Jesus Christ. The point of this letter and other discussions is to remind us that God is in control and He has given us hints at what is to come…not so we can create a calendar; but to build our character in the meantime.  The letters to the Thessalonians are really about how we’re supposed to live right here, right now, in light of Christ’s return…whenever that may be. If you have your Bible with you, please turn with me to 2 Thessalonians 3. If you don’t have your Bible with you, you’re welcome to use the one in the pew in front of you. 2 Thessalonians 3 is found on page 1033 in those red Bibles.

Paul’s concluding remarks here at the end of the letter remind us of why we’re here and what we’re supposed to be doing. We cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of our calling and our mission. Here’s what he says in the closing verses of the second letter to the Thessalonians

Read 2 Thessalonians 3

Paul’s prayer for the church should continue to be our prayer for the church today: that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly. He wants it to run through houses, neighborhoods, communities, cities, and regions. When you read through the book of Acts, which is the account of the spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ from just a few dedicated followers into a worldwide phenomenon, you see that there are many attempts to slow down the expansion of the church and the spread of the gospel. The purpose of the book is to show us that the answer to Paul’s prayer did come into fruition in the immediate future. The Gospel of Jesus Christ spread rapidly and was unhindered. It’s illustrated in a powerful way when you realize that the final word in the Greek text of the book of Acts is, in fact, the word, “unhindered.” The gospel had begun to take hold of people. And it was spreading like wildfire. Paul’s prayer nearly 2,000 years ago should be the same prayer we have today: that the gospel will continue to spread rapidly and its spreading will be unhindered. To paraphrase a well-known quote, the church is the only community that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.[2] In other words, the primary reason we are here is to be the hands and feet of Christ in a world tainted by sin, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to all who come in contact with us.

God is on a mission here on earth. And He has chosen to accomplish His will through the obedience of His people. God wants the Gospel to be shared around the world. Although He could have the good news of Jesus Christ proclaimed through a blast of a trumpet or by writing it in the sky or some other supernatural method, He has chosen to use people like you and me to accomplish His will.

One example of God using the combined efforts of His followers to accomplish His will that has really impacted our family recently has been our experience during this whole adoption process. We know that God has commanded His followers to take care of widows and orphans. But it’s no secret that it can be expensive. One night, as I was tucking Aiden into bed a few weeks ago, he asked me about how we were going to be able to pay for the plane tickets. “Well,” I said to him. “God will provide. We know that God has called us to this and we know that He’ll provide.”

“How?” Aiden asked.

Suddenly, Alyson walked into his room and said, “I know! Maybe God will just make money appear in our bank!”

I paused for a second. “Well,” I said, “He could do that. But let’s don’t plan on that. Lots of times, God likes to use the gifts of people who love Him to help others.” Apparently this satisfied them because they both went to bed and didn’t really say anything else about it.

The very next day, we received notification from a ministry that provides financial assistance to families who are adopting internationally. We were awarded a grant that has allowed us to buy the plane tickets to Ethiopia. The primary way this ministry is able to provide financial assistance to families is through the combined efforts of God’s people using God’s resources to God’s glory.

And that’s why it was such a big deal to Paul and the Thessalonian church that there were people who were not active participants in the church community. They had time on their hands and gossip on their lips. But they defended themselves by arguing, “The Lord is coming soon!” The promise of Christ’s return was an excuse for these people to sit back and soak up the love and grace of God without squeezing it out on everyone else. And that slows down the spreading of the Gospel.  Just like what Paul prayed, the Gospel Train is coming. You have to choose whether you’re going to get on and be actively involved in sharing the good news of the life-changing message of Jesus Christ or if you’re going to slow it down. If that’s the case, you probably should just get off the train. Either way you’ve got to get out of the way because the Gospel Train’s a-comin’.

Because the message of Jesus Christ is spreading, we must continue to press on. The key point is verse 13, which literally says “do not lose heart doing good!” The Thessalonian Christians were obviously discouraged by the actions (or lack thereof) of the careless saints who refused to be active participants in the life of the church. Surely some of them thought, “If they don’t have to work, why should we?”

And Paul nipped this argument in the bud. As members of Christ’s body, we belong to each other and we affect each other. The bad example of a few saints, as seen in the Thessalonian church, can destroy the devotion, and hinder the service, of the rest of the church.

Paul names the sins of this group of sponges who are just soaking things in without contributing at all. He calls them mere busybodies – not busy workers. The Greek word for “busybody” literally means “to be working around.” In other words, they were busy…but busy fooling around and not really accomplishing anything, meddling in things that really do not matter to them. And that’s an infection to the church that must be treated before it spreads throughout the entire body.

God has called you to a purpose. He has prepared things ahead of time for you to do; things that will bring God glory and impact the world around us. Have you discovered that purpose? God has given you a unique set of gifts, talents, and passions. And He wants you to use them to bring Him glory. Are you using them? Because the Gospel Train’s a-comin’. You either get on or get off. But get out of the way.

What does it mean to get on the Gospel Train? First and foremost, it means to surrender your life to Christ. If you have never made the conscious decision to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord over all, including your own life, then that’s where it begins.  It means admitting that yes, you have sinned and continually fall short of the standard that God has set before us. It begins by accepting the free gift of grace that is available to all of us because of the loving sacrifice that Jesus Christ made when he willingly chose to spread out his arms on a cross and die, taking on the punishment that we deserved because of our own sins. Getting on the Gospel Train begins by being following in Christ’s example and symbolically participating in his death, burial, and resurrection in the waters of baptism. The Gospel Train’s a-coming. And you’ve got to choose whether you’re going to get on or get off. But there’s no stopping it. And you’ll have to get out of the way.

Once on the Gospel Train, we cannot sit back and allow things to pass us by. Following Jesus is not something we do for just an hour or two on Sunday morning. It’s something we do daily. We cannot be content just sitting back and soaking things up like a sponge without allowing God’s love and grace to pour out of us throughout the week. That’s like putting our lives in Park. And God doesn’t move parked cars. We have to be actively involved in living out the gospel with our lives. It can mean something as simple as sharing a plate of cookies with your neighbor or showing extra patience with a co-worker. You never know what seemingly-random connection could actually be a God-ordained appointment to share the good news of Jesus Christ, inviting others to hop aboard the Gospel Train.

A pastor friend of mine in southwestern Indiana shares this story about the mother of a man named Eric and how one person’s obedience can impact the lives of others:

“ One day while loading the groceries into the car a man asked her if she knew she was going to heaven and gave her a tract. Eric’s mother was born again and began attending a Gospel preaching church. Eric and His brother were saved as a result of attending this church.”

Much later, Eric “bumped into at the post office. The man accepted an invitation to church and was eventually saved. This man is now a missionary. Now Eric and His brother are preachers sharing the gospel, the stranger he met at the post office is sharing the good news around the world. All three (are) reaching out and making more connections.
It all started with one connection in a grocery store parking lot. One connection can lead to countless others. Each witness has incomprehensible potential.”[3]

Riding the Gospel Train and being the church is much more than putting your name on a membership roll. It’s continuing to allow God to work on you and shape you into the person He has called you to be. It’s about allowing Him to change you from the inside out. Riding the Gospel Train is much more than participating in services and ministries within the walls of this church building. It’s living out your faith every day in the midst of people who desperately need to know Jesus.  It’s making the most of every opportunity, even a seemingly random encounter in a grocery store parking lot. You never know if that’s one of the good works that God has prepared in advance for you to do.

As we anticipate the second coming of Jesus Christ, we must continue to get to work, putting our faith into practice in every day, real-world situations. Because the Gospel Train’s a-comin’. Are you going to get on? Or are you going to get off? It’s your choice, but God will not allow us to hinder the spread of the good news.

[1] As I have been several times throughout this series, I’m deeply indebted to Warren Wiersbe’s book, Be Ready: Living in Light of Christ’s Return. Many thoughts are reflected here.

[2] Attributed to William Temple


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