February 16, 2014
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
Live Holy Lives!
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Would you consider yourself generally a good person? Are you, for the most part, someone who takes care of your family, or is nice to people around you? You have probably heard it said that people are basically good. When we talk about the defining characteristics of a person, we may simply say, “He’s a good guy.” Or, “She’s nice.” Or, “They are good people.” In general, people think that they are good.
People believe that they are good because they compare themselves with others. They think that they are better because they aren’t staying out late at night, living a crazy lifestyle, or committing any felonies. But what is the definition of good? I could compare myself to a robber and say, at least I haven’t robbed any houses. But a robber could compare themselves to a murderer and say, well at least I haven’t killed anyone. And murderer could compare themselves to a mass bomber and say, well at least I didn’t hurt and kill all those people. We see that it is a slippery slope and that the world’s definition of being good really is subjective. We live in a sin sick world and a world of moral relativism.
Look at the world that the Thessalonians were living in, the readers of this letter from Paul. In Greece and Thessalonica, in particular, sexual immorality was common place. Sex was openly practiced anywhere and with anyone. For example, in the Greek mind, a man could sleep with a woman other than his wife under various circumstances. In other words, sometimes it was ok to sleep around, even when married. The idea of marriage was thrown out the window! That was the world they lived in. So for these Christians living in Thessalonica, avoiding sexual immorality would be difficult with it being the normal part of society. And on top of it, Paul wanted them to live a pleasing life to God! The slip ups and the temptations to join in on the Greek life almost seemed inevitable because sin was normal, and it was everyday life. They didn’t know any different. What would they say if I asked them, would you consider yourself generally a good person? A Greek person could say, well at least I didn’t do this or do that! I’m a pretty good person! We see the misconceptions with that question because everyone compares themselves to others and it seems like there isn’t a standard.
The problem is we can’t base our definition of “what is good” on what society thinks, because it is constantly changing. We have been given a standard. God has called us to the standard of living holy lives. Holy means perfect. Are we meeting that standard? Can we make it through the day without sinning against one commandment? Of course not! We need that reminder of what God demands because our sinful nature takes so much pleasure in enjoying the things of this world that it tries to convince us that a sinful lifestyle isn’t so bad. Or, it tries to convince us that our sin isn’t affecting anyone, so what is the harm! The sinful nature continues to work at us thinking that the way a person lives is up to them, it’s an individual matter.
But we need that reminder of the standard. These instructions about holy living are not my word’s, as the pastor’s. These words weren’t Paul’s. They aren’t any human words. The instructions for holy living and that standard of perfection can only come from a holy God. That standard shows us what we really are. That standard tells us that we are not perfect. In fact, we are far from considering ourselves as good. In the gospel lesson, Jesus not only hints at our actions that condemn us, but also our thoughts. No one may know what we are thinking, but God does. Our sins are punishable in God’s eyes, especially these sins that Paul lays out on the table for us of sexual immorality, not loving each other, and simply not living a holy life.
All of our lessons from God’s Word today bring us to our knees because we realize that we can’t make it through a single day without sinning. How does anyone have a shot at surviving? Paul gives us several words that our hearts cling to. He speaks to the Thessalonians and he urges them to live holy lives “in the Lord Jesus.” Paul reminds us as Christians that God did not call us to be morally in line with our society or culture. Rather, God calls us to be in line with him and his will. So, our motivation for Christian living isn’t to make ourselves look better than our neighbors. It isn’t to please the pastor. It wasn’t for the Thessalonians to please and make Paul happy. Paul nor any pastor laid down their lives to set you free from sin and death. Paul nor any pastor has given you eternal life. It is only by Christ and Christ alone that we have those things and He is the reason for our holy living. Paul points us to the cross. That is our motivation.
Paul encourages us to live in that holy lifestyle more and more. Christians are always a work in progress. This is what we call living a life of sanctification. Jesus Christ has declared us not guilty once and for all and has removed our sin forever. Now we get to live our lives for Jesus. His perfect life purifies our works and makes them good before God. They won’t earn anything before God nor can they guarantee heaven, but they are simply the way God wants us to live. We continue to do this more and more, as Paul says. We can only grow in our faith and live holy lives more and more by staying connected to God, by reading God’s Word and taking the sacraments. Growing in our good works and our faith is a lifelong commitment. On the other side, we know that we must strive with God’s help to avoid sin. Christians are works in progress and we will continue grow in how God wants us to live.
But, being told how we are to live isn’t always well received because of our sinful nature. If I were to tell you that I’m sad as a diabetic. I demand that you all eat only 50 grams of carbohydrate, a salad, and no desert for every meal. You would probably laugh in my face meanwhile eating ice cream loaded with candy. Paul talks about something that probably wasn’t so well received back then, nor would it be today. In fact, it sort of puts us at tension. It sort of makes us cringe.
Verse 4 really seizes our attention. It says, “So that each of you knows how to control his own body in sanctification and honor.” If you were to look at your own bibles for this translation, it would actually show that there are 3 possible translations for this verse. The better translation for this verse would probably be “so that each of you knows how to acquire a wife.” We see the importance of marriage here! For the Christians in Paul’s time and for us today, society’s view on relationships, living together, and marriage can obscure or even ruin our faith. The view is that sex before marriage isn’t a big deal. The view is that living together before marriage just makes sense for financial reasons. The view is that we are going to live together to test the waters and see if we truly are a good fit. Not only would we sin against God in this matter, but Paul also says here that we would actually be sinning against our brother. In other words, when it comes to sex, without a life long marital commitment between a man and a woman, a person steals that intimacy from another person and potential spouse. Remember the intimacy that David stole from Uriah as he was with Bathsheba. Think of how the devil even uses the extreme accessibility of pornography on the internet. With one click of a button on your computer or phone, the marital blessing of intimacy is stolen as our sin not only ruins our relationship with God, but with each other. God really knows what he is talking about! He’s the best interpersonal analyst and psychologist that there is!
So how relevant are these verses to those who are already married or for those who don’t even have these things on your mind? Even for those who are married, we can’t ignore these words of Paul. This isn’t normal. But rather, society’s view on sex and marriage goes against what God says. In fact, Paul even says that it is dangerous to our faith. God punishes the person who refuses to walk that path of sanctification that we spoke of. That is why we can’t ignore this. These sins are becoming almost as common as it seemed in Thessalonica. We need to encourage our children and our Christian family and friends to live according to God’s standard. Sin doesn’t merely cause problems, as we saw with David and Bathsheba. Sin actually kills me because it causes me to turn my back on God.
These are sometimes difficult words to take in, and I’ll be honest, not the easiest encouragements to give. The reason we share this is because of God’s love for us and our love for each other. Paul encourages us to love each other more and more, which can only come from the recognition of what God has done for us.
Our souls are precious and so are those people around us who don’t know the spiritual depravity that they are in. But remember where Paul points us to, to Jesus. Take a breath! We have Jesus who lived a perfect life for us, who took away our sin of sexual immorality, and not loving each other, or living a holy life, and he remembers our sin no more. No more! That is our motivation.
Living for the Lord in a way that pleases him affects every aspect of our lives, including how we show love to people. Paul is basically describing us as lifestyle evangelists. Of course, we will have our moral differences with the culture around us. But we can still live in a way that can open up doors to speaking to them about the hope that we have.
So if I were to ask you that question again, do you think you’re a good person? The words of God would have changed that answer. Our definition of good isn’t based on the standard of the culture around us, where there is no standard. Rather we see God’s standard. A standard that no one can reach. But, Paul points us to the cross and to the one who gives us perfection. Only through Jesus can we actually live holy lives in a world that sees us as different.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.