Practical Proverbial, from 1 Thessalonians, 12 March 2018

In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know.  1 Thessalonians 3:4(NIV).

This is a theme we’ve talked about here many times before:  when you believe in Jesus, you will be persecuted.   You’ll lose friends.   You’ll become alienated from family.   You may lose your job, your home.  If you become a believer in Jesus and you expect your life to be peaches and cream, brother (or sister), you need to be prepared.  Jesus Himself told His disciples – and us – that those who hate you hated Him first.   That those who follow Him will be persecuted but also blessed.  Paul spoke squarely with his friends.  He didn’t varnish this truth for them, he didn’t downplay it.   When you care about someone, you speak the truth to them, and Paul spoke Jesus’ truth.

Put yourself in first century Asia Minor and consider how they might have viewed things.  You have befriended a renegade in this man Paul.   You know his past, that he was once a Jewish Pharisee who, himself, violently persecuted followers of this Jesus.   In listening to him you know him to be a learned man, a man well-versed in the words of the Pentateuch, and the hymns of David, and the accounts of the prophets.  You have been told how he oversaw the murder of Stephen, one of Jesus’ early followers.   You have heard his account of how Jesus met him on a road to Damascus and transformed his life.  You know how he is in conflict with the leaders of the local synagogue (all synagogues in fact) as well as the local government authorities, representatives from Rome and Athens both, and that he is an argumentative though persuasive firebrand.   And you have seen the look in his eyes, the look that combines determination, regret, peace, and something else that you can’t quite nail down.   Whatever it is that gives Paul that look, you want it for your own life.

To get that look means you have some serious choices to make.   The people around you insult this new sect, deriding it as lunatic fantasy.   A man walking around after he was dead?   The Messiah murdered by the people He came to save?  Love your enemies when your enemies want you dead?  Yet there’s something about Paul’s words, something about the peace of this Jesus, that is calling to you, speaking to you in a place deep inside all you know to be true.   In a world where we seem destined for pain and trouble, the words of Jesus, told by this eccentric tentmaker, talk to the very core of your being.  To accept them means turning your back on everything you’ve ever known and that carries great risk.

My friend, in 2000 years, what has changed?

For further reading: John 15:18, Luke 6:22, 2 Timothy 3:12, 1 Thessalonians 3:5.

My Lord, I will follow You no matter the cost.

 

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Practical Proverbial, from 1 Thessalonians, 9 March 2018

We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them.  1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 (NIV).

Are we destined for trouble?   Answer:  yes.   Does that mean God is indifferent or not present?   Answer:  no.   Gee, those easy answers couldn’t be more difficult.

“Life is hard.   It’s harder if you’re stupid.”   That’s a meme supposedly quoting John Wayne.   No disrespect intended to the Duke (who, nearly 40 years after his death, is still my favorite actor) but we’re all stupid.  Stupidity is a symptom of sin; bad choices yielding more bad choices is symptomatic of sin starting off the whole process.   And our choices do largely determine our outcome.   Bad choices are almost guaranteed to make hard times even harder.   Don’t believe me?   Ask anyone who’s gotten into crime, or drugs, or adultery, or a web of lies.   Stupidity only makes things worse.

Sometimes it seems like that’s all we’re destined for, as if God has it in for us.   As if God has abandoned us.  Depression entrenches that impression; so do negativity, exhaustion, anger, and pain.  Yet, if you think God does indeed have it in for us, that He sets things in motion but then takes a hands-off approach as we live, how do you explain Him constantly sustaining us in life?  How do you explain the feeling of release that comes from compassion, or forgiveness?  How can we not see that it is the hand of Jesus at work in our lives when we act out in ways that demonstrate His love, His patience, His empathy, His heart?

Paul was lonely in Athens, and Athens was a hostile place for a follower of this new belief system called “Christianity.”  Think of it as the San Francisco of its day, but with a better appreciation for democracy yet having poorer standards of sanitation.  It would have been tough to endure, even for a gifted spirit like Paul.   Yet he sent his friend Timothy to Thessalonica because Thessalonica needed Timothy more.  That wasn’t just Paul being pragmatic or realistic:   it was the heart of Jesus at work in him, causing Paul to act in ways that edified and encouraged others.   Paul knew he could expect trouble, especially when his ‘forces’ were separated and divided.   Yet he knew God would provide, that God would be with him, that even when troubles seemed destined, God would work in him to help him endure, persevere, and build hope.

We’re no different.   Life is harder when we’re stupid; Paul did stupid things, too.   But Paul trusted Christ implicitly and that allowed him to move beyond adversity and into the realm of miracles called “faith.”  I think the Duke would agree.

For further reading: Romans 5:3-5, Thessalonians 3:4.

Lord, help me to rely more on you, to overcome adversity.

Practical Proverbial, from 1 Thessalonians, 7 March 2018

So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. 1 Thessalonians 3:1 (NIV).

This and coming verses explain that Paul loved the Thessalonians.  In context of chapter 2, it’s obvious he did.   That’s not an ordinary thing.  I find myself here in San Francisco this week not knowing how to react to the homeless.   I’ve been to SF many times but I’ve never seen as many homeless people here as there are this year.   What’s more, the city appears to be doing less and less to address the situation of so many folks needing genuine help.   Many are drug-dependent; many appear disturbed; many need help with money, food, hygiene, and health issues.   Our society tells us that we should be wary of such strangers.   Jesus (and probably Paul) wouldn’t have hesitated to help but Dave does.   What can you do to help someone who is in such desperate straits?

If nothing else, pray.  I don’t know the strangers I pass on the street, and the people who yell and scream out of the blue for no reason, or the guy kissing the magazine on the subway give compelling reasons to be apprehensive at least.   But I pray for them.   I pray for them, and I pray God opens my path and my heart to find a way to help.   Until then, I pray.   Pray for health, pray for peace, pray for safety, pray for food and shelter and assistance.  Jesus and Paul would probably do more; I pray, too, that God would enable me to do the same.

So, riddle me this Dave:   how does “best to be left by ourselves in Athens” demonstrate Paul’s love for anyone but Paul?  Did Paul only pray for them?  I think the key is in the first words of the chapter coupled with the last words of Chapter 2.   Recall that 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20 said “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.”  Paul says those things then immediately intimates that he was left alone in Athens because he loved the Thessalonians, whose love in Christ was Paul’s pride an joy.   He was left alone in Athens because he sent his friends Silas and Timothy to other places to love on other people, including the Thessalonians.

I bet that Paul’s first inclination was to pray for his new friends and the other strangers in their midst.   When you can’t do anything else because of distance, ability or even fear, you and I can pray because prayer is a real, tangible way to be involved.   And in it, you’re never alone.

For further reading: Acts 17:15, Thessalonians 3:2.

Lord Jesus, show me ways I can help.  Show me people I can pray for and help.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 22 November 2017

 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.  Hebrews 13, verse 13.

Jesus earned “street cred” by dying outside the city walls.   That wasn’t the intention of the Jews who murdered Him.   They wanted to discredit Him, to consign Him to a place with the worst of society.   The Sanhedrin that sentenced Jesus to death wanted to erase the memory of Him so that He would soon be forgotten.  To do that, they reasoned that having Him executed as a common criminal would cause people to abandon following Him.   By branding Jesus as a criminal worthy of death, they would so disgrace His name that people would be repelled by even the mention of it.  Within a few years nobody would remember this evangelist from Nazareth.

With anyone else, it might have worked.   After all, there is only a small handful of names we actually know out of the billions of people who lived before, say, one thousand years ago (maybe even one hundred years ago).    The people we know of (like Jesus) earned fame or honor.   Who even knows the names of condemned prisoners from Phoenicia, Babylon, Athens or Rome?   Do we know the names of the men crucified with Spartacus?  Without using Google, who are the people on death row now in Idaho?   Can you name anyone shot for cowardice during the Mexican War?   We don’t know the names of these men because they’re lost to history.

We don’t know their names because we don’t want to.   They died in disgrace.   They died in ignominy and dishonor.   You, me, and our friends don’t want to be associated with their dishonor and disgrace.  It’s like adulterers in church:  nobody wants to be associated with them because we feel like, if we are, we’ll be tainted by their sins.   It’s a stupid, highly irrational feeling even if it is a constructive psychological defense mechanism.

It’s also ungodly.   What would Jesus do?  Not that.  Jesus ran to the cross.   He wrapped Himself in the dishonor and ignominy.  Jesus knew that His sacrifice would bring glory, honor, and love to the Father.  THAT is our better example.

Luke quoted Christ in saying that each of us who wants to really follow Him must deny himself and take up his cross daily.  We must willingly, even gleefully, run outside the camp and pick up the weapon of our own death.  We must embrace the disgrace.  And the writer of Hebrews reminds us that human disgrace for faith in Jesus is worth more than all the treasures in the world.  Joy in being persecuted for believing in Jesus is the street cred of faith.

A few years ago I read the Left Behind books.   I’m not a millenialist, so I didn’t accept the rapture/7 years tribulation idea; to me, getting mixed up in the how & when details of the end of time misses the miracle of being called home to heaven.  But one scene from one of the books (I don’t remember which one) stuck with me.  In it, one of the main characters is talking with a condemned man who is on his way to the guillotine.  The man is about to die for not taking the mark of the Antichrist and instead of being hesitant about it, he is joyful.   Imagine that:   the man is about to be murdered for what he believed and he is enthusiastic about it.   He’s ebullient, joyously embracing the disgrace of dying for the one you love.   And I don’t even remember the character’s name.

But that’s just a book.   The truth of it is that that this happens here and now.   It’s been happening for real to Coptic Christians for years.   It happens wherever ISIS rules.   It still happens in Communist China, and Cuba, and Islamonazi Iran.  A watered-down version of the persecution even happens in American universities and American corporations.  I am challenged regularly online for words like these, and I have lost friends over my faith.   The best response when that happens?   Joyfully thank God and press forward.  The world thinks it’s a disgrace to believe like this.  Embrace the disgrace and advance against an enemy that has already lost even when it costs you everything.

For further reading:  Luke 9:23, Hebrews 11:26.

Lord, let me embrace the ‘disgrace’ of serving You, of loving You, of faith in You.   Teach me and uphold me to better serve you in the world.