11/03/13 Sermon (November 3, 2013) “Good Gift of Faith”

posted Mar 11, 2014, 10:20 AM by David Hawkins

11/03/13 Sermon (November 3, 2013)

“Good Gift of Faith”

Scripture Reading: 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12  (Liturgist)

[A Letter from] Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.

To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Sermon: “The Good Gift of Faith”

The scripture this morning is from a letter to the church in Thessaloniki, and was written as an encouragement in the face of great affliction. The church is being persecuted, and yet, even in the grip of violence, they have been able to persevere in their ministry and their love for one another.

For those of you who were following along in your Bibles, you may have noticed that a few verses were left out of the reading, and perhaps I should explain that.

As far as I know, the pastors of this church have traditionally preached from the Lectionary, which is a centuries-old system of ordering the Bible into units of scripture that, if all four readings from the lectionary were read each Sunday, would get through about 85% of the Bible in three years. I say 85% because there are few bits left out, mostly the long litanies of names and lists, and some parts of scripture that are duplicated in other scriptures.

Occasionally, however, some parts of scripture are skipped because they present theological problems that are at such odds with the rest of the scripture that throughout the years they have been left out of the reading in order for the pastor to concentrate on one aspect of the the scripture at a time. And today, that is the reason that some of the scripture was left out of the reading.

But to be fair to the scripture, I would like to read to you all the rest of the passage that was skipped, verses 5-10, because I think that it has some bearing on what I’m going to say about the gift of faith. Now as I read this, remember that this letter is written as an encouragement to a church that is really suffering, and it includes languages which is graphic and challenging to our understanding of who Jesus is.

Beginning with verse 5, the writer says, “This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

“These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marveled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.”

This scripture speaks to the power and the privilege of God to judge and to decide the fate of those who cause suffering in the world, and it is a frightening thing to comprehend, especially for those of us who are relatively comfortable in our lives and are pretty far removed from any real suffering or persecution. It is especially frightening to consider our own complicity in the suffering that our political and economic systems causes in the third world countries that bear the weight of our consumer-based culture.

But while I’m sure there might be some very productive soul-searching that we might do if we went that direction, that’s not where I’m trying to go, at least not today. Rather, I would like us to consider this part of the text from the point of view of those who are suffering. The letter offers the church in Thessaloniki the comfort that regardless of their current persecution, their oppressors will be held accountable, at a time, and in a manner chosen by God.

And this knowledge may be the only thing that helps the church continue in its mission. Paul is reminding them that their suffering is not in vain, and their persecutors will not get away without facing the consequences of their actions.

We have a tendency in our modern, sophisticated, rational world, to disparage the idea of a God who judges. I know that I do at least. It’s hard for me to think of a God who would sentence anyone to eternal separation, of a God who would punish anyone in that kind of cosmic, never-ending way. My natural inclination is to think of a God who will welcome everyone into heaven with open arms. And I’m probably not alone in that way of thinking, I’m sure.

In fact, one of our great reformed Theologians, Karl Barth had that inclination as well. Karl Barth would often say that he wanted to believe that God was going to save everyone. The problem is, according to Barth, that making this kind of sweeping generalization about God limits God’s freedom to do what God is going to do. It boxes God up into a neat, predictable little theological package, and removes all sense of danger or unease that we might have about God. And for this reason, because Barth believed in a sovereign God, he couldn’t ultimately say that everyone was going to heaven. That would limit God’s freedom to do what God chooses to do.

Of course, we also have in this world way, way too many people who are willing to go in the other direction, and proclaim with great authority who exactly is going to hell. But you know what? They are just as guilty of limiting a sovereign God’s power to do what God chooses to do.

This is what we do, isn’t it? We try to figure God out, and predict what God is going to do in every situation, in every context. We pretend to know who is in, and who is out. And we use the threat of who is out to try to scare people into believing in God. But that’s not faith. That’s idolatry. That’s creating our own God out of our own hopes or fears or desires, and worshipping it, instead of coming before the strange and perplexing God of the Universe in humility and faith.

Today’s text is a reminder that God is God, and will act in ways that are consistent with God’s own mysterious disposition of grace and justice. And it’s important hold these opposite ideas of God in tension. Because without justice there is no grace. And without grace there is no forgiveness. And without forgiveness there is no reconciliation. And without reconciliation, there is no eternal life with God.

Our faith is in a God of eternal life, reconciliation, forgiveness, grace, justice, and yes, as terrifying as it sounds, judgment.

And so, even though we might flinch at the idea of a judgmental, vengeful Jesus coming from the heavens with an army of angels at his side, I think that there is merit in remembering that ultimate power and ultimate judgment and ultimate punishment is not ours to enforce. That prerogative belongs only to God.

Which brings me back to the idea of faith.

Paul’s letter to the church reminds us that our faith is in a God of both Justice and Mercy. That means that we do not need to exact revenge on those who have hurt us. Our faith in a God of judgment means that we can trust God to make those decisions.

And this is such a gift. Desiring vengeance is a corrosive way of living. My sister used to say that being consumed with the desire for something terrible to happen to someone you hate is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. It does something to our souls, and it wears us down. Let God handle it. After all, it’s his job.  

And our faith in a God of mercy trusts God to forgive those sins that are our own, those thing that, whether through commission or omission separate us from God and from each other. Our faith in a God of grace means that we trust God to hear our cries for mercy. And this also is such a gift. We believe in a God who wants us to come to him, and is willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

But when I say that our faith in God is a gift, I also mean that faith itself is literally a gift. Faith is not something that we earn or decide or create. Faith itself is a gift from God, this conviction, this belief in something that cannot be proven or seen, this confidence in something that can only be confessed.

Faith is a gift that reminds us of a God of love and mercy.

Faith is a gift that reminds us of a God of justice and power.

Faith is given to us by God, and will never be taken away.

Thanks be to God for the Gift of Faith. Amen.