30th January 2020
Bible Readings: Matthew 7;13-21 and 2 Thessalonians 2; 13-16
The question is, “How do you approach the future?” To what extent do you assume that everything about tomorrow will work out well for you,---that is,-- just as you imagined it would be?
From the outset here I want to issue a challenge by suggesting that a Christian approach to the facing the future can never depend on circumstances around us being favourable or on the assumption that things will always be easy or comfortable.
In the context of the New Testament Israel had been nationally suppressed for hundreds of years but with Jesus arrival on the scene he came with the message of a positive future in a bad-news world. He came proclaiming the GOOD NEWS of the Kingdom of God .
Bursting with anticipation and enthusiasm the disciples asked Jesus when the final Kingdom would come. Matthew Chapter 24 makes it clear that life would not be a ‘box of chocolates.’ Jesus made it clear that the future Kingdom would be proceeded with hardship. Firstly, Jesus said there would be deception, religious deception. “ So take heed that no one leads you astray.” Be aware of false prophets, Messiahs and false miracles. Secondly, there would be a “falling away —as in the days of Noah so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” So when Paul writes to the Thessalonians he urges them to, “Stand Firm, Hold Fast.” They were serious words to a people under pressure---in danger and in trouble. So we need to pause and reflect on the background.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was very early, about 52 AD. They were words to some of the earliest converts in Europe. (1) The church was suffering from terrible persecution. (2) To make things worse someone had sent a false letter in Paul’s name making extreme claims about Jesus second coming (Fake-news is not new to our time) (3) The Christians in Thessalonica who were already ‘toughing it out’ were confused. They had not held fast to Paul’s instructions, and the oral tradition of that time. The church fellowship had been tricked by letters pretending to be from Paul. Fanatics were making extreme claims, announcing the immediate return-coming of the Lord. So with pastoral concern Paul now writes to correct and comfort his friends.
You see from the earliest of times there was not only persecution from the authorities outside, but there was distortion, false influences and teaching from within the fellowship. In fact one of the main themes of the New Testament that is spoken of time and time again is that of the determined effort by some to corrupt and distort the gospel, to shift away from the work of Christ.
Some warning and examples can be found in Matthew 7:15-23, 24:4 and verse 10,
2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Peter 2-into chapter 3 , Jude, Revelation 17.
Then as Paul lays in prison in Rome he writes his final words to the early church in 2 Timothy 3: 1-14.
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress,---people will be lovers of self---but as for you , continue in what you have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.” The words, “times of stress” in the Greek ‘Chalepos’ is only found twice in the New Testament. Once here and then in Matthew 8: 28 when it is used to describe a demon possessed man with super human strength. It means there will be a time of ‘great stress and trouble,--- hard to deal with, ---‘hard to bear.’ So here in 2 Thessalonians 2: 15 Paul urges the people on saying “Stand firm, Hold fast,”---but to what?---“To those traditions and truths that came by word of mouth or by writing.”
Now listen carefully. -----They were urged to do something that today we regard as largely irrelevant, even detrimental. They were urged to hold on, to preserve and to respect those familiar insights they had already received. The Question is, WHY ?
(1) Because the past was not just irrelevant or old fashioned, throw-away material.
The teaching of apostles, the early creeds and insights actually embodied a continuing transmission of the tradition and revealed truths of Christianity. In instructing the Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23) Paul spoke of how important the past was when he wrote, “For what I received from the Lord (the past) I handed on to you!!!” He was saying “The truth from the past is identical to my apostolic testimony and it rests on the authority of Christ himself.”
(2) Paul wants to emphasise that opposition to the truth is not a passing phenomena. It is characteristic of the age/period in which we live. Friends we need to get used of the fact that Christians will face opposition. You can’t duck your head and hope the storm will pass. It will be hard to be faithful to Christ in 2020. Even within the church today there are distortions as the Judeo-Christian foundations of our culture are eroded away.
I attended a Christian meeting sometime ago where the speaker invited questions. One person asked a question that went like this, “By referring to Christ’s death on the cross don’t you think that’s a crude interpretation based on a primitive sacrificial religion?” Now that may sound like an intelligent, sophisticated question but before we dismiss the central message of the Christian gospel we need to know the gospel sounds outrageous because it does not appeal to our intellect, self-esteem or pride. Rather, today as never before we need to know what it means to ‘stand firm,’ to ‘hold fast’ and to allow God to guide us by what we have been taught and learned.
I don’t want to be negative or just critical towards the church in which I have served for the greater part of my life but we need to allow what is actually occurring to confront us.
Can I suggest that if you want to know how Uniting Church priorities and ‘beliefs’ are portrayed in the public arena that you go to Wikipedia. Under the word ‘orientation’ (not ‘beliefs’) you will find the church embraces a full range of theologies. Protestant, Reformed, Arminian, Calvinistic, Charismatic, Progressive, Christian. Clicking onto ‘Progressive’ you will see that the church draws on insights from many styles, streams and ‘isims.’ Evangelicalism, Liberalism, Neo-Orthodoxy, Pragmatism, Post Modernism, Progressive Christianity, Re-constructionism and Liberal theology.
Without being over simplistic, here we discover the church does not commit to using the word ‘believe.’ at all. There is no direct mention of belief in Jesus Christ, or the unique Biblical revelation, or even the Basis Union. Today it seems that for the church to be known for its ‘belief’ in anything is just one step too far!
The real test to our faithfulness to the gospel entrusted to us and the church is found in our focus on the centrality of the Jesus death and resurrection.
1 Corinthians 1:18 says, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The Apostles Creed affirms, “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord”---who was crucified, died, and was buried.
The Basis of Union states, “Every member of the church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified.”
John Stott has said,
“So far from offering us flattery, the cross undermines our self- righteousness. We can stand before it only with bowed head and broken spirit. And there we remain until the Lord Jesus speaks to our hearts his word of pardon and acceptance and we, gripped by his love and brimful of thanksgiving go out into the world to live our lives in his service.”
As we step into the future there will be all sorts of distractions, all sorts of false gospels. It will be hard to live for Christ---but friends we are not without hope or direction. We have God’s promises---a living truth and presence. We are not abandoned. God constantly speaks and renews his people. Today as never before we are called to be God’s people and to stand firm,--hold fast.
Rev E.A. Curnow.