1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 Matthew 22:34-40
Are you a person who “thinks in pictures”? I am one, and I find myself trying to “picture” God. Without much success. How about you? 1. Do you have an image from Monty Python, a bearded guy up in the clouds, speaking with lots of thunder in his voice? 2. Or do you picture God as a shepherd, caring for sheep, searching for lost lambs? 3. Or do you see God more like Isaiah’s vision where he saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted? 4. Some folks imagine God with a dis-approving scowl, angry that we have sinned and wandered away.
Needless to say, some of our images of God are drawn from Scripture, while others come from the culture or even our own imaginations. But here is a truth: When we look at the life of Jesus of Nazareth, what we see is a “snapshot” of the very nature of God. And when we hear the words of Jesus, we are given a very clear word-picture of God and of how God sees us! Jesus portrays God as 1. a father who not only watches and waits when a child has gone astray, but who also welcomes the child home with open arms. He shows us 2. A God who looks at Jerusalem shortly before the crucifixion and says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”
Now, granted, there are Biblical images that show God as being upset with us, as any parent gets upset with children who misbehave! And why do you and I get upset with our children/grandchildren? Because we love them, we want the best for them, and we get frustrated when they make choices that diminish their lives and hamper their development—their potential!
So, what we discover in Scripture is a God who:
- Loves us and wants the best for us;
- Gives us freedom to choose and delights when we choose God’s way (because it’s always the best for us);
- Grieves when we fall and offers us new ways to get back on track;
- Cares for us tenderly, gently, AND like a good parent disciplines us;
- A God who has high standards, and holds these standards up to us gently but firmly.
In our readings for today, this idea of holding up the truth with gentleness is affirmed. Jesus fields a question from one of the Pharisees—a question that could have been designed as a TRAP, like the one we looked at last week. It could also have been a sincere question from the heart of a seeker of truth. Notice that Jesus does NOT call this fellow a hypocrite; and he gives him a reasonable answer that was both OBVIOUS and SUBTLE. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Then, in his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul describes his ministry among them. He says, “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.”
Paul had come to them with a clear message of the Gospel to leave their pagan lives and follow the upward call of Christ. He didn’t call them to simply make some slight changes in their normal view of the world—no, he called them to a radically new life! Paul 1. Held up the truth for them to hear, and he 2. LIVED the truth for them to see, to experience. And he did this without harsh judgment or condemnation—“We were gentle among you.”
Friends, this seems like a word directed at our day! The news is full of Christians who are taking a stand for what they see as the TRUTH, but they are doing it with voices that are strident and full of harsh judgment. The question is: How do you and I stand up for the truth AND do so in a way that conveys the love and acceptance modeled in our Scriptures? Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” We must love others enough to tell them the truth, YES! But we must do so in a way that is winsome and engaging rather than alienating.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is reported to have said, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his book, Stride Toward Freedom, describes the characteristics of nonviolent resistance. Here is one of them: “it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.” (Stride Toward Freedom, p. 102)
When Jesus was asked by that Pharisee, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”, Jesus gave him TWO answers. The first answer was a recitation of the twice-daily prayer called Shema Yisrael (“Hear, O Israel.”) Observant Jews practice this prayer both morning and evening every day—both in the time of Jesus AND right to this day. It begins with these words, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deut. 6:4ff) This might have been the expected answer. What was unexpected was for Jesus to follow it up with a quotation from Leviticus 19, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Pharisee had asked which commandment was the most important, and he was given TWO: 1. Love God, and 2. Love others. Then Jesus said something astonishing: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
In other words, without these two central ideas, these two pivotal commandments—all the rest are without meaning!
Love God, and love others. Anything that doesn’t fit into these two commandments DOESN’T FIT IN THE CHRISTIAN FAITH!
Paul reminded the Christians in Thessalonica that he and his companions had been “approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel.” They had come for the sole purpose of bringing the good news to the people, and Paul says that they had to have courage to declare the gospel in spite of great opposition. He mentions the suffering they had endured in Philippi (and you can read about this in Acts 16). But it puts his gentle work in Thessalonica into context: 1. Paul knew that some folks would be furious to hear Jesus proclaimed as the Messiah; 2. He knew that others would be upset to have their old way of life challenged. So he found a gentle way to bring them the good news—a way that would be winsome and engaging, a way that would demonstrate the love that he had for them. In other words, the two commandments of “Love the Lord your God” and “Love one another” were the center of the good news that Paul proclaimed! Isn’t this just what we need today?!
Friends, what we see and hear all around us are people arguing their point of view—in the hope of winning the argument, I guess. What the world needs is Christians who are passionate about their faith, yes, but less interested in winning arguments or elections, and more interested in developing Godly relationships.
As Martin Luther King would say: It’s much better to make an enemy into a friend rather than into a “defeated enemy!”
IF you and I love God and love people, we will Stand for the Truth, but we will do it in a way that exudes respect and care, a way that demonstrates the very LOVE that is at the center of our faith.
Prayer: God, help us to gently care for those whom you have put in our path. Give us the wisdom and the love required to be patient and understanding, determined to let your love flow through us to them. Thank you for being patient with us, for gently leading us into your ways. We pray in the name of Christ, amen.