Living in light of a future celebration
by Jack Wald | November 15th, 2002

I Thessalonians 4&5

I stopped on the auto route the last night of Ramadan to help a car that had broken down. I tried to help push the car to get it started but that did not help. I could have lifted the hood to look at the motor, but unless I noticed they were missing a motor, there was not going to be much help I could offer in a mechanical way. So I took the two men into Rabat with a large box of cookies they were planning to sell that night.

When they discovered I was a Christian, they asked me what festivals Christians celebrated. I told them we had two celebrations: Christmas and Easter, to celebrate the birth of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead.

As I’ve thought about this, it has seemed strange to me that we have only these two. I know that there is also Pentecost and Ascension Sunday and Passover that we remember, but it is just two, Christmas and Easter that we really celebrate.

From a new perspective, this pointed out to me how central Jesus is to our faith. In fact I would claim that of all the events in history, it is the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus that has had the most effect. Think about it for a minute.

My parents have a book written by Michael Hart that lists the 100 most influential people in history. They like to point out that Mohammed is listed in this book as #1. According to Hart, Mohammed has had more influence on the world than any other single person in history. A large part of the world’s population follows his faith. He led military invasions of the world around him that brought those lands into submission to him and his faith.

Any time someone makes a list of any kind, the top hundred books of all time, the top 100 cricket players or top 100 football players, the top 100 songs of all time, the list creates a lot of discussion and argument. “How could you have left Wimbley Cheevers off the list of top cricket players?” (I don’t know who Wimbley Cheevers is, but he sounds like a cricket player.) “How could you put Catcher in the Rye on a top 100 list of books and not include Catch-22?”

In a list of inventions, one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century is argued to be the air conditioner because it opened up large parts of the world for labor that was not possible under hot, sweltering conditions.

Lists create argument and so a list of the top 100 most influential people in the world is no exception. After Mohammed Hart listed Isaac Newton and then in third place came Jesus. Everyone has a perspective from which they make their judgements.

Hart put Mohammed in the first position because he founded his religion and also was the political and military leader that spread his religion through conquest. From his perspective, perhaps he was right to list Mohammed above Jesus. But I want to ask a question.

Wouldn’t the person who was able to defeat man’s greatest enemy be considered to be the most influential person in the world? So who is man’s most powerful enemy? Who is it that every man and every woman battles, without exception? Who is it that is always comes away victorious in this battle every man and every woman fights?

There have been a lot of great inventions and great innovations but no one has been able to defeat death. Death is a problem that cannot be overcome. Technology has extended life. Lots of discoveries and inventions have improved the quality of life. But death still wins. The wealthiest person, the most intelligent person, the most powerful person, the most creative person, the most imaginative person all have come to the same end, they have died.

No matter what people have been able to accomplish in this world, they have died and left this world behind.

So wouldn’t the person who was able to defeat death, man’s most bitter enemy, be the most influential person in the history of the world?

This brings me back to Jesus whose birth we celebrate at Christmas and whose resurrection we celebrate at Easter. Only Jesus has been able in the history of the world to overcome death. Only Jesus died and was able to break the power of death and be resurrected.

There have been great men and women in the history of this world, but all they have been able to accomplish is to make our time on this planet a bit more enjoyable or more interesting or safer. Only Jesus has freed us from the power of death so that the Apostle Paul could say,
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

No person has had more effect on the world than Jesus because only Jesus has been able to defeat our greatest enemy, death. And because of what Jesus has done, we celebrate his birth at Christmas and his resurrection at Easter.

But there is another event in history that will be as significant as Christmas and Easter. There is a third event Christians would celebrate, if we knew when it would happen.

Imagine that before Jesus died he had told his disciples he would return on August 9th. Now there is a bit of a problem with this because the month of August was not to be invented for another five hundred years, but maybe Jesus could have said that he would return 120 days after the anniversary of his death.

So Christians would celebrate his birth at Christmas, his resurrection at Easter and his return in July or August depending on when Easter was that year. How different would that day in July or August be if we knew he was coming back on that day? We wouldn’t know the year, but can you imagine what it would be like to move forward to that day in July or August, 120 days after Easter?

I want to talk about this next week so think about it and we will come back to it. What would it be like to know that if 2003 is the year Jesus will return, the day on which this would happen would be August 18th?

Now some may ask why we are talking about the second coming of Christ at Christmas? The four Sundays before Christmas make up what we call in the church calendar, Advent. Advent is a time of waiting in which we anticipate the celebration of the birth of Jesus and also in which we anticipate the celebration of the return of Jesus he promised before he ascended.

We do not know the date of his return, but it is a foundation of our faith that he will return and this morning I want to talk a bit about what it means to live in light of his promised return and the celebration that will ensue when we are in his presence.

To do this I want to take a look at Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Let me explain why.

On Paul’s second missionary journey in 50 AD, he set off with Silas and Timothy to revisit the churches he had started on his first missionary journey in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). While there, Paul received a vision of a man begging them to come to Macedonia (present day northern Greece) and Paul sailed across the Aegean Sea to preach and start churches in the cities of Macedonia, including Thessalonica.

Because of opposition, he was forced to make a nighttime escape and continued traveling, starting new churches and visiting churches he had started earlier. When Paul was in Corinth, Timothy came with news of the Thessalonians and with some questions they had. This is what prompted Paul to write this letter we know as I Thessalonians.

The Thessalonians were eagerly anticipating the return of Jesus and expected his return within their lifetime. When some of their brothers and sisters in Christian faith died, they became concerned. “What will happen to them?” they wondered.

So Paul spoke to them about the return of Jesus and in his remarks, we can learn a bit about what it means to live knowing that Jesus will return and we will celebrate in his presence.

In the first three chapters, Paul has given thanks for their faith and their perseverance. Now in chapter 4 he begins to point them to the future. And the first thing he mentions to them is holiness. Because of the celebrations of the birth and resurrection of Jesus and in light of the celebration that is to come when Jesus returns, we are to live holy lives.

Specifically, Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about sexual immorality. He did this because the culture in which they lived was a sexually promiscuous culture. Idol worship involved sex. Some temples employed prostitutes for purposes of worship. It was common for a husband not to limit his sexual relationships to his wife. Homosexuality was common. Incest was overlooked. Slaves were kept and used for sex.

Paul wrote to the church living in this culture and called them to resist that culture and live holy lives.

3 It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality;  4 that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable,  5 not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God;  6 and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you.  7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.  8 Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.

Why be holy? Why avoid sexual immorality?

If you meet someone to whom you are attracted and that person is also attracted to you but either you or the other person or both of you are married to someone else, why not have a sexual relationship with that person?

This is the stuff of books and movies. Two people meet and are so powerfully attracted, so much in love, that what they do seems right. Maybe your spouse is not meeting your needs. Maybe it is not a good relationship. So why not do what feels so right and good? Why not love as your heart is leading you to love? Why not abandon the vows you made when you married and follow a greater, more powerful good, the love that you feel for this other person?

Let’s say you travel to another city on a business trip. You are in a hotel and relaxing before dinner after a hard day’s work. You meet an attractive person and decide to have supper together. It’s a great meal and a wonderful conversation. Now as the evening is ending, that person invites you up to his/her room. Why not go? Who will ever know? Why deny yourself this pleasure?

What if you are single and the prospect of marriage seems a long way off. You have opportunities to enjoy sexual relationships, why not take advantage of them? Why not do so especially when the culture says that to do so is normal and without shame?

The letter to the Thessalonians may have been written almost 2,000 years ago, but the sexual promiscuity of their culture is not much different than our culture today. This is true in the West and it is true in this country. In fact, this has been one of the big surprises to me in coming to Morocco, to discover how sexually promiscuous this culture is.

When the culture in which you live approves of sexual immorality and considers it normative behavior, why not enjoy what the culture says is OK?

If you do not believe that Jesus was born as Emmanuel, God with us; if you do not believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead; if you do not believe that Jesus will return and there will be a judgement and celebration then there is no good reason not to follow your heart and seek love wherever you can find it. There is no good reason not to seek pleasure or satisfaction wherever you can find it.

But if Jesus was born as God in the flesh; if Jesus did defeat death and resurrected; if Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead and there will be a heavenly celebration of all God’s children, then be holy and resist sexual immorality despite what the culture says.

When we live life as if this life is all there will ever be, being holy does not make a lot of sense. But when we live knowing that we will one day stand before Jesus who will judge us and love us, being holy makes a lot of sense.

There will come a day when you stand before Jesus and he will look into your eyes and you will relive your disobedience to him. When you are tempted to do what you know is wrong, keep this picture before you, standing before Jesus who died on the cross for you and looking into his eyes.

Live in the presence of God. When I first became aware of the presence of God, I was in the habit of stealing from stores – mostly books. And I remember going into a store to steal some books and realizing I could not do it because I knew God was watching me. That was my first sense that God existed. I stole things because no one knew I was doing it. But now I could no longer keep what I was doing a secret. God was watching me and I knew I had to stop.

When you are tempted to do something you know you should not do, whether it is sexually immoral or stealing or lying or whatever, be aware of God’s presence and resist the temptation to do what is wrong.

Be holy.

There is another emphasis in Paul’s letter that helps us to see what it means to live in light of the future celebration.

9 Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.  10 And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.

In this admonition, Paul was reflecting a major theme of Jesus. When Jesus prayed for his disciples and all who would follow him in the future, he prayed that they would love each other and be one body, living in unity.
May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Unity is not easy. It is not easy in any relationship. I have been surprised to discover how many people have struggles with their siblings. There have been struggles between my sisters and myself and I have discovered that in many other families those tensions also exist. It is not easy for a family to stay together over the passage of time.

Unity in marriage is not easy. The forces that seek to pull a husband and wife apart from each other must be constantly resisted. It takes work to stay together in a loving relationship.

Unity is the church is not easy. Our differences separate us from one another. But God calls us to seek unity. Love each other.

Why work to be unified when it is so difficult to do?

There are some people we just don’t like. Their personality, their mannerisms rub us the wrong way. They irritate us. Some Christians are very difficult to love. So why not keep your distance from that person? Why not avoid being with that person?

We hear so often that we are supposed to love one another that we take it for granted. But why? Why subject ourselves to something unpleasant?

Sometimes someone may do something that offends you. Perhaps you were not invited to a party that you wanted to attend. Or someone made a remark that hurt you, embarrassed you. Why put yourself in situations where you will be hurt? Why not pull away from that person?

Maybe you tell someone something about yourself in confidence and then find out they have told others about it. Maybe someone is friendly with you and then you find that they talk negatively about you when you are not present. You feel betrayed and cut another relationship off your list. Why try to be friends with someone who treats you like that?

Betrayal on a grander scale is much more painful. Perhaps your spouse has an affair with another person. The trust in your marriage is ruined. Why work to restore the relationship? Why forgive and seek to heal what has been broken?

People separate from each other because of theological issues. Is communion a symbol of what Christ has done for us or is it transformed into the actual blood and body of Jesus? Will Christians suffer through the Tribulation or will they be raptured before the Tribulation? Is our experience of the Holy Spirit a second baptism or is it the continual work of God in our lives filling us again and again with his Spirit?

If someone does not agree with what I believe, why should I not separate and go to be with others who agree with me, where I don’t have to think quite so hard about what I believe. Why not separate? Why seek unity? Why work for unity?

This is why. When Jesus died on the cross, he made all men and women equal. His death on the cross was an act of grace and atonement but it was also an act of unity.

His death brought all of us, equally in need, to the foot of the cross to receive forgiveness and eternal life. Because of what Jesus did for us on the cross, there is no Jew and no Greek, no male and no female, no slave and no free, no African, no Asian and no European, no rich and no poor. When Jesus died for us, he brought us together in unity.

When you work for unity you accept the work Jesus did on the cross on your behalf. When you separate from your brothers and sisters in Christ, you dismiss what Jesus did for you on the cross.

Unity is the action of one who loves Jesus. One who seeks unity in the church is on the team of Mary and the centurion and John, all those who loved Jesus and grieved for him in his suffering. Separation is an act of rejection of what Jesus did on the cross. One who separates is on the team of those who mocked and scorned him while he was on the cross.

God’s actions are actions that draw us together in unity. It is the devil’s work that separates us from each other.

So I don’t care what someone has done that has irritated you, offended you or in any way hurt you. If you don’t forgive and work for the unity of the church, you are working against the purposes of God.

We work for unity because of what Jesus has done for us and we work for unity because of what we will celebrate in the future.

When we are gathered together in heaven in the presence of God and every knee is bent and every tongue confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, who will be kneeling beside you? When you look around, who will you see?

Someone you refused to speak to because they offended you? Someone you cut off from your life because they betrayed you? Your spouse whom you refused to forgive because of his/her affair?

When you are irritated or offended, consider this, the person irritating or offending you may well be the person who will be kneeling beside you in the heavenly celebration. Make things right with that person now. Forgive that person now because you will be blessed by your efforts when you celebrate in the future.

How can I exhort you this morning? If I encourage you to get together in the next couple weeks with someone you have distanced yourself from, everyone will be suspicious when they receive an invitation. “Oh, what a surprise! I didn’t know you didn’t like me?” So I won’t do that.

But if there is someone who comes to your mind when I talk about people who irritate or offend us, at least begin to pray for that person. I have seen this happen many times. Someone will tell me they just don’t like another person. Or most often they will say that the other person doesn’t like them. But over and over I have seen that when they get together for a meal or whatever, they come away with a very different impression.

Be open to making new friendships. Overcome the differences that separate us.

What does it mean to live in light of the celebrations in our faith? We have talked only about two this morning. Be holy and seek unity but the list is endless. In every part of life it makes a difference if you think this life is all there is or if you believe that Jesus died for you and that you will one day be brought before him to be loved and judged.

Live with your head and heart in eternity.

Encourage each other. Twice in this letter Paul wrote that we are to encourage each other.

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.  18 Therefore encourage each other with these words.

For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.  10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.  11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

We greet each other at this time of year with “Merry Christmas” which reminds us of the coming of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. I encourage you to talk with each other about what it will be like to be together in the celebration that is coming when we will live in the presence of Jesus.

The world reminds us all the time that this is all there is so we might as well enjoy what we have before it is too late and we lose it all. Help yourself and help those around you to live in the reality of what will be. Live in the reality of the coming day when you will stand before Jesus who will love you and judge you.