READ 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Let’s start this morning with our reading about the Sadducees from Luke’s gospel. And I really have no interest this morning in their question about the resurrection… because… really…neither did they. As the gospel said, the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection… unlike the Pharisees and other Jews of that day. They asked Jesus their question for one reason… to judge him according to their standards. To judge according to their standards. And that’s what I really want to talk about today. How is it that we find ourselves in that same place as the Sadducees again and again… judging another by our standards? And I guess I need to be a bit clearer here at the start in order to stay connected with our scripture passages… what I’m asking is why do we keep finding ourselves at the place where we believe that the standards we’ve already met is what it means to be the first fruits for salvation. Well… I guess that’s not a whole lot clearer… but that’s why I have a whole sermon to try to make myself understood.
For the last few Sundays… whether you realized it or not… I have been talking about justification… this important theological idea that God… instead of rightly judging us for our sin… instead of rightly condemning us for our sin… God instead freely forgives by grace and by grace alone. As I’ve told you before, Jesus doesn’t come to judge us for our sins… Jesus is the judgment. God… and God alone… chooses grace and shows that grace through our Lord Jesus Christ. Basic reformed theology, right.
As I was playing with kids the other Sunday… that’s what I meant when there’s a particular order to things theological. We put on our underwear before we put on our pants. We put our socks on before our shoes. It just doesn’t work the other way around. Theologically speaking… justification comes first. God’s free act of grace comes first… and then there is the response to grace. It is humbling to believe this is the order of things. Like Zacchaeus, our short of stature tax collector from last Sunday’s reading in Luke was humbled when he realized God’s grace. Jesus comes to town. Grace sweeps into Zacchaeus’ life when Jesus calls him by name and invites himself unbidden into Zacchaeus’ home. That is the experience of grace… that is justification. Unearned. Unbidden. Not of your doing or of your own making so that you have nothing in which to boast. Humbling. God forgives your sin and then God says, “Ok… so what are you going to do now?” And in that story we saw how Zacchaeus reacts by embracing the higher ways of God… by abandoning what wasn’t of God in his life before this experience of grace. Zacchaeus is inspired by God’s grace and aspires from that point on to live his life by that same grace.
The story of Zacchaeus unfolds in a particular order. But let’s tell the story in a different order to see if it makes a difference. Do a little though experiment. Jesus comes into Jericho. Zacchaeus, wracked with his own guilt and feelings of being lost by his being a tax collector and burdened by what he knows is the low opinion of him by all around, rushes to Jesus and falls at his feet begging for forgiveness. He tells Jesus that if he will forgive him and relieve him of his terrible burden of sin, then he will give half of his possessions to the poor… and if he has defrauded anyone… then he will pay them back four fold. Jesus seeing Zacchaeus’ sincerity and listening to Zacchaeus’ promises then asks, “And what is your name?” Zacchaeus overwhelmed at the thought of being forgiven not only tells him his name but invites him into his home. And, let’s say, Zacchaeus keeps his promises to the best of his ability.
Not a bad story, right?
So… does it really matter if it is you or God who is the agency of your justification?
Two men stand in prayer. One a Pharisee. The other a tax collector. The Pharisee gives thanks to God that he is not like other men… and then he lists out the good actions he performs that exemplifies and secures his own justification… those things he does that demonstrates the worthiness of God’s forgiveness. The tax collector, on the other hand, can only hope in God’s unmerited mercy knowing that he deserves condemnation for his sin.
So again… does it matter how we understand justification? Does it matter… one way or another… if we understand Jesus seeks out and saves the lost… or that the lost must seek out Jesus in order to be saved? One relies on hope and trust. The other gives the assurance of knowing you have done the right thing in order to receive forgiveness.
Just for fun… let’s say in our retelling of Zacchaeus’ story that the witnesses in Jericho… those who had originally murmured against Zacchaeus… now decided that every seven years they would give half of their possessions to the poor and in that way they too would be justified before God. Not a bad thing to do, right? Giving half of your possessions to the poor every seven years. But… how would those who gave half of their possessions to the poor feel about those in Jericho who did not give half of their possessions to the poor. What would a Zacchaeusite say about a non-Zacchaeusite… how God judged the non-Zacchaeusite who did not give half their possessions, but who, in their own greed, made their possessions into their true god? Who would they believe to be justified and who was not according to their own standards?
Getting back to the Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection… what do you think… do you think they could be saved by Jesus’ resurrection if they didn’t believe in resurrection in the first place? Will their lack of belief in resurrection be the reason they stay lost and are not sought and found by God’s grace? Would that give those who believed in resurrection something in which to boast over the Sadducees? And having something in which to boast… a certain belief… who do you think they would believe to be justified over who would not according to their own standards?
In Galatians, Paul writes, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Over in Ephesians he says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” The topic of boasting is important because Paul is talking about the quality of sanctification… another fancy theological term that simply put is our response to justification. It is the life that follows the realization of being justified. Again a certain order to understanding. First, comes justification and then follows our response to justification… how we steer our life… how we understand and interpret and react to the world around us in the course of our lifetime understood through the eyes of God’s grace… that’s sanctification.
So… to boil it all down… if you believe that you performed a certain work… whether it was giving half your money to the poor… or any of the long list of good things done by the Pharisee in prayer… or even coming a certain correct belief… and that work is what triggered and made justification possible for you… then the response… the resulting acts of sanctification… will be colored by your judgment of all those who have not completed that certain work. Clear, right? You will judge according to your standards and the quality of your sanctification will be influenced by that judgment. Let me put it in a silly example that makes the point. If you believe tattooing a large yellow star on your belly is the necessary work to be ensured of being justified by God, then your response… your sanctification… will be colored by your judgment against all those without stars upon thars… and if you declare that having a large yellow star tattooed upon your belly then obtaining that yellow star for yourself becomes the ultimate and most important work and everything else becomes secondary… and not a deciding factor in either your own justification or your works of sanctification. Dr. Seuss knew the truth. Paul knew the truth. And so do you. Having that something in which to boast opens the door wide to quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit and disorder. These were the qualities that Paul was finding in the church in Corinth as they fought with one another over who had done the right work or who had followed the right leader… doing the right thing in order to be assured of their own justification… resulting in different factions judging others by their own standards… drawing new lines over who was in and who was going to be out. You can’t draw those lines if you are forgiven by God’s freely given grace which you neither earned nor deserve.
All that brings us back… here at the end… to our passage from 2 Thessalonians. The warning from the first part of our reading is a warning against alarmists… those who come with their anxiety and their bad news and their message that they have the only way to save you from the world burning down around you. Listen to me. Follow me. Give your attention to me. I have the answer. I have the way. I know the secret and I’m willing to share it with you. Do what I tell you and say what I tell you to say and you will be safe. They feed on emotions and fears… and pull us away from the hope that is God’s grace. Here are the terms and the conditions through which you can receive your justification through me. The passage does not name a particular name… but it paints a clear picture. “He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.”
Grace alone leads to a certain quality of sanctification less informed by specifics or specific works… defined more by characteristics and the growth of one’s character. Paul lists the characteristics of being the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth throughout his letters. Again… you hear them all the time. To the church in Philippi he writes… “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” To the church in Rome… “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” To the church in Galatia… “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” The church in Corinth… a church full of divisions and dissent… Paul reminds them that love is the most excellent way… a love that is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude… a love that does not insist upon its own way, nor is irritable or resentful. A love that rejoices in the truth over wrongdoing. All this… all this characterizes the sanctifying purpose of our proclamation of the good news. All of this is in response to God’s freely given grace. This is what it looks like to live into hope… instead of the false securities that others will proclaim… false security based upon this work or that work or a trust in someone who is not our Lord Jesus Christ.
So let’s finish this morning with these words from 2 Thessalonians…
“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” Amen.