2 Thessalonians 1:1-12
Grace which manifests itself as peace in our relationships, to you from our Lord Jesus and from God the Father.
At the end of our Church year, we turn again to the end times and to the future shrouded in mystery. In the coming month, we’re going to walk through 2 Thessalonians, and, in the next weeks, I’d invite you to read through 2 Thessalonians with us. Read it, soak in it, wrestle with it. It’s a short-enough letter to get through in ten minutes, and in reading it again and again, you will see the remarkable depth of the word of God.
From the Day of Judgment to the Day of Salvation, from the sons of destruction to the sons and daughters adopted into the family of God, from the weariness of our long years to the joy of the world to come, we find ourselves fleeing once again, in the midst of uncertainty, trial, affliction, fire, and suffering, to that which we have always known – the promises of our merciful God.
A Growing Faith In Days of Affliction
Paul begins his letter by thanking God for the Thessalonians – for their growing faith – that’s their relationship with their God, their identity…. They’re gratefully receiving his divine gifts, eagerly searching their Scriptures for what he’s saying, they’re rejoicing in the forgiveness of sins. And for their increasing love – that’s the way their faith is allowing them to see God working and leading them in every nook and cranny of their lives, that’s their purpose in life. As far as for which you would thank God, these two would be top on the list.
But notice why this growth is happening. That’s verse 4 and 5. This super-abundant growth and increase in the Thessalonian church is in persecution and affliction. It’s happening when the budget’s shrinking and the needs are growing. It’s happening when the culture is against them. It’s happening when the town demographics are falling. It’s happening when hope for change seems furthest.
And it seems our text takes it one step further – not only in, but also because of persecution and affliction. Do you notice that?
I remember sitting at the side of Orville Grothe and hear his breathing grow calm as I spoke the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and he clung to those words like never before. Ask many of our faithful widows and they’ll tell you that their dark days were when they had to cling closest to their Lord. Ask many of the families that have traveled through grief and they’ll tell you that the hope for the resurrection never felt more real than when they needed to hold onto it through tears.
Our faith and our love, they grow, especially in times of affliction. I remember a bike trail a pretty famous bike trail that goes from Elroy Wisconsin to Sparta Wisconsin. The reason this particular bike trail was famous was because it was built on an old railroad line, and it had three tunnels on it – two ¼ mile tunnels and one ¾ mile tunnel. And as you get to this tunnel, you see the mist rolling toward you, you feel the temperature dropping, and you stare in the face of tis black cave… my father in law and I went in and everyone else stayed at the edge… and as we went in, the light behind us faded, and there was a point, a hundred yards in, where you couldn’t see where you had been and you couldn’t see where you were going…. You had to just keep walking forward. And we walked forward, and then the most remarkable thing happened... your eyes strained to see it. You wondered if it was real, but you could see, the faintest glimmer of light in the distance. You could see that you were heading in the right direction..
And I tell you all that to tell you this: in the end, fighting the darkness will help you love the light. Right? For however long your days might be, your purpose doesn’t change – to grow in faith and love for one another… for however long your days might be, your identity doesn’t change – you are a beloved child of your God.
The Day of Salvation is the Day of Judgment.
The heart of our passage, verses 7 to 10, paints a picture where the day of salvation and the day of judgment are like two sides to the same coin, like a double-edged sword, cutting twice with one stroke, they happen on the same day, they fall in the same stroke. “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you and to grant relief to you who are afflicted… They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction when he comes to be glorified in his saints.” Can that be right?
I say it because it’s in the Bible, and I ask because if it weren’t in the Bible, I’d rather not believe it, and yet, there it is. The day of our salvation is also the day of judgment.
I think about it like this: I remember being a young boy taking piano lessons with my older brother John, and we were required to practice piano for 30 minutes a day, every day, and I remember at least on one occasion that my Mom had left and told us to practice piano while she was gone. My brother John did practice, but I chose not to, even if John had told me to. Now, when my mom came home, it was a day of John’s salvation was also the day of my judgment.
Or how, for all kinds of Chicago Cubs fans, Pastor Nathan Grewe included – you should check out his Facebook page for a pretty entertaining commentary on Game 7 – this past Wednesday was a day of salvation when a supposed curse was broken, and yet, with that same last out, for Cleveland Indian fans, it was a day of judgment and loss and hardship.
Or how, for some, the deathbed of a loved one is a blessed relief, because they knew where they were going, because their pain is ended, because their battle is won, even as it is in the same way painful departure, marked with tears and suffering and the sting of sin which is death.
The Day of our Salvation is also the Day of Judgment. When you look through our Bible, you’ll find that there is far more judgment than there is salvation. When you look through Lamentations to find the beautiful Gospel, “Morning by morning, new mercies I’ll see,” you see yourself wading through five chapters of longing, lamenting, of suffering and sighing, just to get to 3 verses of Gospel.
In Job, you find yourself wading through 19 chapters of argument and struggle before you get the desperate voice of Job, whose business had tanked, whose children were dead, whose wife had left him, who was covered with boils, whose friends had turned against him, crying out, I know that my redeemer lives. You get another eighteen chapters of heartache and struggle and pain before God shows up and declares that he is God, and that, however much we don’t understand, he is God and he is good and he will take care to do all that is needful. What would t have been like to have lived those long chapters? What would it have been like to have stopped in the middle?
Dear Christian friends, perhaps what will shed light on this is a phrase from our funeral liturgy. In the prayers, we say “Help us, we pray, in the midst of things we cannot understand, to believe and find comfort in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Lord, in your mercy, Hear our prayer…”
Help us we pray, in the midst of things we cannot understand. Whether it is persecution or affliction. Whether it is malice premeditated or random tragedy. Whether it is the inconstant nature of man or the incomprehensible nature of God. Whatever would stretches the limits of our sanity. Whatever makes the day look dark and the night look long. Whatever the tension is between the reality before our eyes and the Word of God. Whatever loose ends and long questions we wish we could get answers to, we pray in this prayer, help us, Lord, in the midst of all kinds of things that are too high and lofty – that’s Job’s words – for us to understand, help us to believe in and find comfort in what you have promised.
That the back of Christ is broad enough to take the punishment for the whole world’s sins. That on the cross of Calvary, Christ died for us while we were still ungodly. That the chief desire of our Father in Heaven is to have mercy instead of bloodshed. That it is by Christ and Christ alone we are made worthy and glorified and filled with goodness and grace.
To This End, We Always Pray.
Paul sums up his whole run on sentence so far with these words, To this end we always pray. So, what is that end? What should we take from this chapter?
First, we ought to search the whole counsel of God. It is no good to pick and choose what you believe. It is good to search the scriptures eagerly, to hold the promises that god commands us to hold, and to keep on clinging to the words that we know are true.
Second, that we would strive to be constant even in suffering. Our identity and our purpose do not change, even when all society would change. Our identity and purpose do not change even as the circumstances of our lives change. That our attitude of love and grace does not depend on someone’s reaction to it.
Third, that with Paul, we would pray to this end always. He says it twice – once in verse three, once in verse eleven. That he is thanking and praying always, at all times. It is a daily dialogue with our God where we honestly hash out all of life’s joys and difficulties. It is a daily remembering of our baptism, a daily rest in God’s grace.
To this end, like Paul, do we pray. Amen and Amen.