Yesterday, Jack Wisdom preached a challenging sermon at Ecclesia. With his usual comedic bravado and bluster, Jack laid out Paul’s situation and the situation of Thessaloniki at the time of the writing of 1 Thessalonians. He then looked at 1 Thessalonians 1:2–10, focusing on three action verbs found in vv. 9 and 10: ἐπιστρέφω, δουλεύω, ἀναμένω — turn, serve, wait.
Turn = Faith
1 Thess 1:9 commends the Thessalonian believers for turning from idols toward God. In its original context, the “idols” that Paul refers to are probably the various Greek, Roman, Egyptian, etc., gods that were commonly worshipped. The Thessalonian believers had eschewed the like of Isis and company in favor of the “living God.” They had completed a U-turn and begun to follow Jesus.
Jack equated this idea of the turn with faith.
The Thessalonians had put their faith in Jesus in a radical way. They were not willing to simply put Jesus into their religious cart alongside a host of other gods, but had acknowledged that he was the God.
In 21st century America, we don’t very often deal with idols in the overt sense that the early followers of Jesus did. Sure, old school idols still exist, but, for the most part, these idols have been exchanged for new ones: sex, money, power. Jack pointed out that these three things aren’t really bad in and of themselves. Instead, it’s our slavish devotion to them, our bondage to them, that gives them a bad rap. We are so easily seduced.
For many of us (and I don’t mind putting myself into this category), the day-to-day of Christian life is lived out in devotion to multiple gods: Jesus/Yahweh and some combination of the these modern American idols. Living in this way is not to be commended, and it’s not what Paul is describing in his Thessalonian friends.
Instead, these people had a true faith that had consumed their whole being. They had turned their entire selves away from idols and had begun to follow the living and loving God.
Turn = Faith
Serve = Love
Next Jack looked at this portion of 1 Thess 1:9 that says that these believers, after they turned from idols, served the living God.
Service meant to do for others. Service meant slavish devotion. Service meant love.
It’s cliché now, but it fits: love is a verb. For Jack, this notion of serving the living God meant loving others, making the Kingdom a reality amongst the least.
For me, I look at the root of the verb “to serve” in Greek, δουλ-, and I see “slave.” At various times, I have talked about bondage and slavery as it relates to Paul. I do believe that this is the way we should probably translate the word δοῦλος in Romans 1:1 — slave. At the end of the day, you’re going to have to serve somebody (thanks Mr. Dylan); you’re going to have to submit yourself to a king, to a god, to an idol, to something. As a non-god, I am subservient and beholden to someone or something.
The Christian life requires that I turn from those somethings and sell myself to the someone.
When I do that, I’ll be in service to what God requires. What God requires above all is love.
Serve = Love
Wait = Hope
Finally, we move into 1 Thess 1:10, and we see that these Thessalonian believers not only turned and served, but they also waited.
This is where the waters get murky for me. This is where this sermon becomes truly challenging. This is where I am derailed.
I am not by nature a very patient person. I like things here and now. If I know that something good is on the horizon, I want to experience it now. If I know that something ugly is on the horizon, I want to experience it now. It doesn’t matter. I want it now.
Okay, okay, okay…patience is a virtue, so I’m told.
Wait for what?
Here’s the thing: what is it that I’m waiting for? The Thessalonians, according to Paul, were waiting for the Song of God to come from Heaven and deliver them from the wrath to come.
Honestly, I don’t really know what I think about the parousia or the second coming. I haven’t done enough thinking on it to decide how I feel about it. But, I do know that this idea sounds extremely nice: Jesus who delivers us from wrath. That certainly applies. And that deliverance from wrath is certainly something to hope for.
Wait = Hope
And that’s the rub for me! When I do a little self-examination, I realize that I am unacquainted with the idea of hope. I can look at little portions of my life and find some hopefulness here and there, but overall, I don’t think I really know what hope means.
Let’s look at what Paul has to say elsewhere:
…[W]e rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3–5, ESV)
Perhaps I haven’t experienced profound hope because I haven’t experienced true suffering. Without suffering, I haven’t developed character, and without character, I have not produced hope.
This is my fervent prayer for 2010:
Lord, show me the meaning of hope. Pour out your spirit, the greatest of gifts, on me and help me to experience hope, not in the plain, overused sense that we Americans use the term, but in its full and rich meaning.
God, if this means that I must come to understand suffering, then let it be. I know that I am suffering even now in separation from you, but I have found ways to medicate myself, ways to stop the pain. I have allowed the numbing effects of this world (e.g., media addiction) to stand between me and suffering and hope and joy and you.
Jesus, strip me of my pretensions, found in me your Kingdom, and help me to understand what it means to turn, serve, and wait.