Holy Hearts Jamie Maciejewski
1 Thess 3:12-4:12; 5:12-28 4/28/2018
Do you ever feel overwhelmed with the list of things you need to
accomplish? Our readings this morning feel a bit that way. Where to begin to tackle the long list of advice that Paul offers the believers in Thessalonica? But the Christian life is not a self-improvement program.
Paul is talking about something far more sweeping than a list of do's and don'ts. Paul is talking about becoming holy, about becoming like God. When God gives his laws to the Israelites, he frequently punctuates his commands with one overarching command. "Be holy, because I am holy." Be like me!
For us who follow Jesus, holiness stakes a claim on every single aspect of our lives. It touches what we do and don't do. What we think and say and want. Holiness touches our relationships and our sexuality, the way we worship and how we spend our money. Holiness is the marker that God himself lives in us.
Paul begins today's readings with a prayer for the Thessalonians. "May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones." (1 Thess. 3:13 NIV)
What does it mean to be holy, anyway? Someone who is holy belongs to God. They are "set apart" for God. Holy doesn't just apply to a special class of Christians who follow God with extra special devotion. If you are a Christ-follower, then God has already made you holy. When Jesus made his home in you, he set you apart as holy. God does that so nobody can boast that they made themselves holy through their own self-improvement program.
"It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God-- that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: 'Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord."' (1 Cor.
So if God makes us holy, why does Paul launch into a whole list of do's and don'ts, some of which seem really difficult?
I heard a radio preacher recently who was talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan, and Jesus's command to love our neighbor. He said that Jesus's expectation of loving someone who is hard to love is just way too difficult. Nobody, he said, can love another person the way Jesus wants us to love. He pretty much concluded, so why try? Just ask God to forgive you.
It's kind of an interesting argument. We know we are going to fall short, no matter how hard we try. So let's just ask Jesus to forgive us and be grateful for grace.
There's a problem with that line of thinking, though. Jesus never let people off the hook from doing what he said. He didn't say, I know this is way too hard and you'll never be able to do this, so just ask me to forgive you and we'll call it good.
No. Jesus said, If you love me, you'll do what I tell you. (Jn 14:15) Paul's pretty much in the same camp.
"As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus." (1 Thess. 4:1-2 NIV) Paul's got instructions from Jesus, and he expects people to follow them.
Paul continues. "It is God's will that you should be sanctified." (1 Th 4:3a) That word—sanctified—means to make holy. God wants us to be holy, set apart from our former lives and the culture at large. Remember, the Thessalonians hadn't grown up as God-worshippers. They came out of a culture that bears a lot of similarities to our own, where people worshipped a lot of different gods, followed what seemed right to them.
"It is God's will that you should be sanctified" that culture isn't your identity any longer. And then Paul immediately begins with the instructions. Just like Jesus, Paul delivers some pretty tough words. He begins with one of the hardest. "Avoid sexual immorality." (4:3b)
I wonder what that radio preacher would have counseled people? "We can never live up to God's standard, so don't worry about it. Just ask Jesus to forgive you." But Paul doesn't seem to allow for any wiggle room. He spends a significant amount of time focusing on it.
I wondered as I was studying this passage, why is Paul so worked up about sex anyway? Why not greed or hatred or pride? Why not racism? Why not things that really hurt other people, instead of something that happens in private between two people who are just trying to make more love in what sometimes seems like a loveless world?
It's a good question. Why get so worked up about sex?
There's a couple of things that are helpful for us to know if we want to answer that question. The first one is that Paul was carrying a letter when he first visited Thessalonica with the gospel. We talked about that letter a few weeks ago. It was a letter from the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. A letter written to answer a weighty question: did non-Jews (like the Thessalonians) have to become Jews before they could become Christians? This question had become increasingly sticky as more and more non-Jews came to believe in Jesus.
The letter said No. Non-Jews didn't need to become Jews first. However, there were a couple of other things they did need to do—essential things, they were called. And one of those essentials was to "abstain from sexual immorality." (1 Cor 15:29) They put these essentials in the letter and sent it off with Paul, so that he could share it with all the churches that were springing up in non-Jewish places. Places like Thessalonica. When Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the "instructions" he gave them when he was with them, he was probably referring to this letter from Jerusalem.
So, it's not likely that Paul, all by himself, is so worked up about sex. It's coming from the church leaders on high! Which might let Paul off the hook. But it doesn't answer why those church leaders thought avoiding sexual immorality was so important—more so than all those other issues that appear to cause a lot more problems than sex.
This brings us to the second thing we need to know if we want to understand why Paul was so insistent about avoiding sexual immorality. It has to do with some old guys Paul hung out with. Guys with names like Ezekiel and Jeremiah and Hosea, guys who lived centuries before Paul. Guys who preached a lot about sexual immorality.
Oh great, you are thinking. First you want to compare standards for sexual behavior today with 2,000 years ago. Now, you're want to go even further back. How is that even a little bit relevant?
What would you say if I told you that these Old Testament prophets mostly weren't talking about sex at all? Weren't talking about people cheating on their spouses, or sleeping around, or living with someone they weren't married to?
What if I told you they were talking about people cheating on God? Sleeping around on God? What if I told you they were talking about God loving someone so deeply he marries them, and then those people throw it all away for a sexier god? Throwing it away for gods that promise a good time and a fresh rush of passion?
Those prophets were downright embarrasing in the comparisons they made. Israel runs off after her lovers like a wild donkey in heat, sniffing the desert wind to catch the scent of a mate. (Jer 2:24) Lies down with legs spread wide to entice a new lover. (Eze 16:25) Lusts after lovers whose genitals compare to those of donkeys and horses. (Eze 23:20) In one really painful instance, God actually tells the prophet Hosea to marry a woman who was sexually unfaithful, just so Hosea could experience the kind of pain God does when Israel is unfaithful to God. As a result of his experience, Hosea's preaching is some of the most poignant and painful of all, because he understands what it
is to be a rejected lover.
Hosea says, "Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites, because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: 'There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. My people consult a wooden idol, and a diviner's rod speaks to them. A spirit of prostitution leads them astray; they are unfaithful to their God."' (Hos. 4:1-2,12 NIV)
That word "prostitution" is the same one as "sexual immorality" in this morning's reading.
Paul was steeped in the writings of the prophets, and as a result he
understood how important it is to cultivate habits that strengthen a holy heart. Paul wants us to cherish our status as the beloved of the Lord, those set aside by God. Developing robust habits of sexual fidelity and purity in our human relationships spills over to our relationship with God. Sexual faithfulness and purity strengthen our hearts to be faithful and pure toward God.
Did you notice how Hosea referred to the "spirit of prostitution"? Paul reminds us that God has given us his Holy Spirit. They can't live together!
This is why Paul is so insistent. "God's will is for you to be holy, so stay away from all sexual sin." (1 Thess. 4:3 NLT) You may be waiting for me to say what sexual immorality is. I think the best way to define it is with an ear to the prophets. They likened God to a husband is passionately in love, and God's people to the beloved bride. Love like that calls for complete devotion and faithfulness. It is still the same for us today, 21' Century Christians though we be. Complete faithfulness of intimate sexual expression, celebrated within the bond of marriage.
That's a challenging standard, and it isn't much accepted by our culture. If we were to try to define sexual morality based on the culture, we'd probably say things like these: Sex is important to healthy relationships. No cheating. Marriage is a nice aspiration for some. Sex before marriage keeps you from
rushing into commitments before you're ready and ensures you're sexually compatible.
They sound wise. They sound loving. And they fall short of God's standards. Although normal in our culture, they fail to honor God's requirement that sexual intimacy belongs inside the covenant of marriage.
It is not easy for us Christians to live faithfully in our culture. Every day, and most definitely in the case of sexual faithfulness, we are asked to go against the grain. Sometimes it might feels like the cost is just too great. We may be tempted to go with that radio preacher's view and say, "Wow, that is way too hard, so I'm just going to have to ask Jesus to forgive me."
My brothers and sisters in Christ, holiness is the marker that God himself lives in us. Holiness is the result of God's exclusive and loving claim on us, his people, and of our response to him of loving obedience.
God doesn't leave us to walk this difficult path of holiness alone. God gives us his Holy Spirit. Did you notice that word, holy? God puts his Holy Spirit in us, and the Holy Spirit replaces the spirit Hosea referred to as a spirit of prostitution, the spirit, we might say, of sexual unfaithfulness and immorality.
God also gives us one another. The intimacy of our Christian friendships can be even richer than sexual intimacy. King David said the friendship he shared with Jonathan was deeper than sexual love with women. My husband just cannot take the place of the deep friendships I share with a handful of sisters. Marriage and sexual intimacy are not the be-all, end-all.
Nevertheless, I will not sugar coat it. Being single while walking a holy road can be very lonely. Those of us who are married must not allow ourselves to forget that, or to abandon our single sisters and brothers to go it alone. This is so important! I have single friends who've told me how much it means that their married friends include them. Years ago a couple I knew invited me and a few other single friends over on Sunday afternoons just to hang out. It felt like we were family. Those were some of the richest friendships I ever experienced, coming as they did at a time in my life when I wasn't dating
Perhaps it's why, in this morning's reading, Paul makes such a point of encouraging the Thessalonians to love each other more and more.
Friends, let's pray with Paul, for God to strengthen our hearts in holiness. God has claimed us as his dearly beloved. As we respond to him in loving obedience, our hearts become stronger in the habit of holiness.
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit,k soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. (1 Thess 5:23-24)