Sermon: A true and living God
Proper 24A: Sunday 18 October 2020
1 Thessalonians 1.1-10 & Exodus 33.12-23
Rev. Daniel Mossfield
(Crookwell Uniting Church)
When you read the letters from Paul contained in the New Testament, you are unlikely to find one more gracious, loving and generally positive in tone as Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica.
Unlike many of Paul’s other letters that we still have access to, this one was not written because of some theological controversy, bad behavior, or huge fight amongst the local congregations.
Instead, right here from the very beginning of the letter, Paul gives thanks for the faithfulness of the Thessalonians not simply as a rhetorical device to win them over, but from genuine love and affection for the community.
Now, its worth noting that, of course, Paul would not have expected the Church to still be reading this letter some 2000 years later, particularly in a land on the other side of the world he never knew existed. Nor could he have anticipated the Church including this letter in its canon of scriptures. We are not the reason Paul wrote these words, though they might still speak to us today.
Instead, Paul is writing to a group of people dear to him about whom he has been deeply concerned.
You see, Paul, along with his companion Silas, had started the Church community at Thessalonica and been amazed at how quickly the gospel took root in the hearts of the congregation.
Indeed, it seems the followers of Christ at Thessalonica had really got the gospel message, leading them to turn away from idols, offer generous hospitality to strangers, become imitators of Jesus in their lives, and examples to believers throughout the region.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that they were perfect. And I’m quite certain that Paul still had a great deal he wanted to teach the community about the way of Christ, and the good news of salvation. Nevertheless, all the early signs were encouraging, and Paul was no doubt feeling hopeful about this community he had come to love.
That is, until Paul’s time with them was cut short.
For all was not rosy in Thessalonica, and Paul and Silas and the local Christians began to attract the ire of the leaders of the synagogue in the region who, ‘with the help of some ruffians’ according to Acts 17, ‘formed a mob and set the city in an uproar.’
And it seems that in the face of this persecution and violence the local believers snuck Paul and Silas out of the city and forced them to flee to safety, leaving this community they had grown to love behind.
In a COVID-19 world, perhaps we can appreciate the anxiety and helplessness which must have seized hold of Paul in the days and weeks after he was forced to leave those he loved.
Maybe in our present situation we too know what it is to worry for family and friends far away from us, or isolated from us by locked nursing home doors and travel restrictions.
It hurts deeply to know ones we love are facing times of suffering while we are unable to be present with them – to comfort them and help them and protect them from life’s hardships in the ways we wish we could.
Perhaps like Paul we might find ourselves too wondering if what we taught them, the life lessons we gave them while we had the chance, are enough.
Are they enough?
Have we done enough?
So, Paul does what he can, hoping and trusting it is enough. He writes to the Thessalonians this letter that we will hear read over the coming weeks.
Now, by the time Paul writes this letter, he has had word from the community at Thessalonica, via his companion Timothy who has been to visit them. And the news Timothy has brought to Paul has been an encouraging and hopeful word of the believers continuing to share in the way of Christ with joy, in spite of the persecution they have faced.
But Paul is still yearning to be with his community and to give them encouragement, and so writes this letter to them.
He writes to them to remind them of the ways the Holy Spirit has been moving amongst them since Paul first arrived.
He writes to them to remind them of the fruits the Spirit has borne amongst them in the face of persecution.
He writes to them, to remind them that even now they are not alone, for they serve a true and living God.
Indeed, perhaps Paul is even writing this letter to remind himself of this good news: that even in the face of his own feelings of helplessness and worry, the ones he loves are being held by a true and living God.
Now, lest we get too sentimental here, serving a living God does not in fact always feel like good news.
The danger of a living God, of a resurrected Christ, of a Holy Spirit dancing amongst us, is that this God doesn’t always act the way we think they should.
To quote American Methodist Bishop Will Willimon,
‘One way you can tell the difference between a true and living God and a dead and fake god is that a false god will never tell you anything that will make you angry and uncomfortable.’
It is no wonder then that idols have always held such allure and attraction for us. It is no wonder that in the face of an uncertain world we have been so quick to make for ourselves false gods of politicians, and racist ideologies, and the love of money.
A true and living God, our reading from Exodus proclaims, can ‘be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’ A true and living God may in fact forgive the ones we want to see brought to justice and point out the failings of the ones we love.
But there is no such risk from the false gods we love to construct, who tell us what we want to hear, inflate our egos, maintain our comfort, and privilege, and tell us we don’t have to change.
It is far safer to worship a dead God who says exactly what we want, and votes exactly how we vote, then a living God who may act in ways we find unacceptable.
But, as the Israelites in the reading from Exodus realised, these false gods, these golden calves, are just not up to the task of being present with them in the wilderness.
For these golden calves cannot show mercy, be an abiding presence in suffering, or ultimately give them rest.
Instead it is the true and living God, who has delivered Israel from Egypt.
It is the true and living God who continues to give life to the Church at Thessalonica in Paul’s absence.
And it is the true and living God who abides with us and those we love, even and especially when we cannot be there to help them.
And ultimately this is good news, because it is the same living God who disrupts us and challenges us and acts in ways we cannot condone, that has also dared to raise Jesus from the dead. Amen.
 Will Willimon, ‘PROPER 11: Amos 8.1-12: Pastoral Perspective,’ Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).