We have learned that the Thessalonian church was made up of new Christians who modeled well what it means to follow Christ and their faith and love was getting to be known everywhere. But it wasn’t because of their circumstances that they were blessed. It was because their faith didn’t collapse under trials and tribulations. Today we look at how that happened for them, and maybe how it can happen for us. Day in and day out we can rise to walk in his grace and enduring love and strength. Let’s give our hearts to God again in this hour.
Praise Band From the Rising of the Sun; I Will Rise Up;
Forever; Come, Now is the Time to Worship
Hymn My Faith Looks up to Thee
Bible Reading From Habakkuk 1:1-4,2:1-4
Our Lord, how long must I beg for your help before you listen? How long before you save us from all this violence? Why do you make me watch such terrible injustice? Why do you allow violence, lawlessness, crime, and cruelty to spread every-where? Laws cannot be enforced; justice is always the loser; criminals crowd out honest people and twist the laws around. (CEV) … I will wait to see what the Lord will say…The Lord answered me: “Write down what I show you...clearly… so whoever reads it can run to tell others. It is not yet time for the message to come true. But that time is coming soon… It may seem like a long time before it happens. But be patient and wait for it. These things will happen. They will not be delayed. See, the nation that is evil and trusts in itself will fail. But those who do right because they trust in God will live. (ICB)
Message “Nightmares and Dreams” 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:9
An artist, a pastor, and a cowboy walked to the edge of the Grand Canyon. The artist said, "What a beautiful scene to paint". The pastor said, "What a wonderful example of God’s handiwork.” The cowboy said, "What a terrible place to lose a cow!"
Personalities and experiences can make a big difference in how we view and approach the very same thing. The sermon title Dreams and Nightmares is about how our personalities and experiences form our creative imaginations to create best-case and/or worst-case scenarios for life.
A successful expression and expansion of the gospel (Jesus’ message and what he had done for us) depends on believers standing firm and living faithfully no matter what evil, or life, throws at them. The ability to be faithful – to live right when wrong seems the more rewarding path, to love when surrounded by a culture of hate, to risk investing our lives in others when there is no pay back (no reward), to boldly move forward when it would be easier to give in or give up. To live faithfully demonstrates the reality of the power of God in his people.
The Nightmare: Gives in to the temptation to fall from faith
No wonder Habakkuk and Paul were praying constantly. Habak-kuk’s nightmare, his worst-case scenario, is that the remaining faithful would fail to withstand a nation that had turned from God and against each other to realize their personal narcissistic dreams.
In Thessalonica, Paul was afraid his new church was going to become a lost cow in the Grand Canyon – that major city of idol worshipers and others who were eager to stamp them out. But the real threat was not from their surroundings, for as Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of people. They can only kill the body. They cannot kill the soul.” (Matthew 10:28a (ICB) The real fear is that God’s people would be unsettled (or shaken) by these trials (these persecutions). They were afraid that people pressures and circumstance challenges would lead to a desertion of their faith and a loss of their salvation.
Paul’s mission team had been forced to move on to Berea, then Athens, and then Corinth, and he hasn’t been able to get back to them. He knows that when the pressures of life are on, and we have no support, and we don’t know better, we tend to listen any voice (including our own) that offers us hope - no matter what it says or where it leads us. Paul says,
“I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you…” (1 Thessalonians 3:5b (NIV)) that someone led them away from the gospel and back to their sinful ways. This is the nightmare of any true spiritual leader. Listen to Paul explaining his concern: “when we were… separated from you… (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you...but Satan blocked our way. 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.” (From 1 Th 2:17-20 (NIV))
Not having the internet, any kind of social network, or phones; Paul couldn’t stand not knowing what was going on to his young church and so while they were at Athens, he sent his close friend and trainee, Timothy back to Thessalonica to find out how it was with them, and to comfort and encourage them to stand strong.
And while they were waiting for Timothy to re-connect with the mission team in Corinth, their spirits were like the body of a limp balloon -- half blown up and the stem being pinched in suspense. Would Timothy’s news – the stem -- open and deflate what was left of them? or would the news open to breathe in fresh air, fresh energy, and fresh life…
The Dream: Faith and Love is strong even in suffering and trouble
Timothy returns with great news. The Thessalonians longed for them too. They still respected Paul’s teaching, leadership, and example. Even more importantly, their love and faith in God was firm and they continued to model what the power of God can do in his people. They had not given in to the negative forces in the city.
This is Pauls’ best-case scenario, his dream – any true spiritual leader’s dream -- that in spite of what was going on with the Thessalonians, with the mission team, (or with us); faith and love stand strong. Paul’s team is inflated and elated! It is life to us [Now we can really live] to know that your faith in the Lord is strong. How can we give God enough thanks for you for all the joy you give us? (1 Thessalonians 3:8-9 (NIV))
So the practical application is this: Are we a nightmare or a dream? – even to ourselves? How do we hold on to the faith in tough times? How do we resist giving into temptation? How do we not fall from faith or fall from love? It helps to understand the nature of temptation…
The Power of Temptation is in its: Persistence
Temptation is persistent. Resistance and victory over one instance of temp-tation will not, unfortunately, resolve the issue for the rest of your life. It will come back and haunt you at another inopportune time. (See Luke 4:13) Someone once asked, “Why is it that opportunity knocks only once, yet temptation is always banging on the door?”
The Power of Temptation is in its: Appeal
Recognize too, that temptation is appealing. (See James 1:13-15) During a freezing rain storm, ice built up on trees causing some branches to fall and pull down a power line. A policeman arrived to keep people away. There was a small tree with a short trunk and long slender branches in the middle of it all. As the power line hopped and crackled and popped with electricity, it threw sparks through those iced branches sending out a rainbow of glimmering colors. The policeman wondered how anything so beautiful could be so deadly. Temptation isn’t hard to resist because it is ugly and evil, it is hard to resist because it appears to be powerful and beautiful.
The Power of Temptation is in its: Subtlety
And then, most animals don’t get lost because they want to run away from home or pasture. They get lost because they aren’t paying attention. (See Jeremiah 50:6a,c) A grazer nibbles on a tuft of grass here, and then there, and then one just off the property, and then another one -- and when they finally finish grazing and look up – they have no idea where they are.
The Power of Temptation is in its: Distractibility
OR, a young predator joins a pack and chases something. (See Proverbs 1:10, 15,16a) It is a longer chase than expected, and when it ends, they are not near home. Temptation may nibble us into nowhere or run us into the wilderness of nothingness before we even realize it.
So what tools, what helps, do we have and use to resist temptation? Portia Nelson wrote Autobiography in Five Short Chapters. I’ll read the chapter, then make a comment on each in connection with today’s topic of temptation.
Resisting Temptation * Awareness
c 1) I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. It takes forever to find a way out.
We fall to temptation because we don’t see it.
c 2) I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don't see it. I fall in again. I can't believe I'm in the same place, but it isn't my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
We fall to temptation because we deny its danger – perhaps because we have lost sight of what is good and what is evil, so we continue to plunge in and be surprised at the results.
Resisting Temptation * Proactive
c 3) I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in ... It's a habit. My eyes are open, I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out.
We are aware of the temptation; and that it is a danger, and accept responsibility for falling into it -- these awarenesses are important first steps, but we still need to take action and deal with it. Bad habits must be overcome.
Resisting Temptation * Face (Resist)
c 4) I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
Sometimes we have no choice but to look temptation in the face and beat it. To illustrate by a trivial example: Sometimes I have the privilege of preparing for coffee hour, and it forces me into the fruit and bakery section – right by the apple fritters. I can eat apple fritters by the box… But now I face them down, I remember the hole I’ll fall in, the calorie cost it will create -- and when I win, it is because I manage to go on by. James tells us to resist the devil, and he will flee. (James 4:7))
Resisting Temptation * Flee (Avoid)
c 5) I walk down another street.
Sometimes, the best way to resist is to never enter the bakery section in the first place. It isn’t the devil we make run, it is prudent for ourselves to run… Paul tells us elsewhere to flee sexual immorality, flee idolatry, flee the love of money, flee the evil desires… (1 Cor 6:18, 10:14, 1 Tim 6:11, 2 Tim 2:22) If you know you shouldn’t, when it is at all possible -- don’t keep it in your house, and don’t surround yourselves with it, don’t go to places where it is at.
Of course, that is not always possible. For example, sometimes our temptations may be at work, and we can’t not go to work. So here are some additional suggestions.
Resisting Temptation * Reward victory more than punish failure
Reward yourself when you succeed more than punish yourself when you fail. It is easier to beat ourselves up, to throw ourselves in the hole and stay there than to keep pulling ourselves up and out. It is also easier, when we do manage to walk around the hole or choose another street -- to hardly notice -- because nothing dramatic happens. How often do you notice that you didn’t put on three pounds because you did avoid that box of fritters? When we fail, we may notice dramatic consequences, when we succeed, nothing may happen. So, it is important to make a point to recognize and make a bigger deal out of our victories.
Resisting Temptation * Get to the root of the problem
And also know that band aids are fine for minor cuts and abrasions. But sometimes we need a deeper cure. When dealing with temptation, we often want to deal with outer symptoms and consequences -- the cuts and abrasions we get from falling into the hole, but we do not want to deal with why we keep falling in in the first place. It is a much harder fight if we never deal with core causes within us that coerce us to fail.
Resisting Temptation * Depend on God’s strength
Trust God. Know that the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:4) I don’t know how to tell you to gain that in your life. I think we all find it in different ways. All I can say is, find and do whatever disciplines work for you, and whatever those disciplines are, they will put your priority and focus on God. Open your hearts to Christ in willingness, and with then the Spirit may choose to do what he does in you. Because it is not up to us to win this battle alone, but it is God working within us – it is up to him. Earlier, Paul wrote that the Thessalonians work produced by faith, the labor prompted by love, and their endurance inspired by hope in Christ was possible because Christ’s message came to them not as mere words, but with power, the Holy Spirit, and deep conviction. (1 Thessalonians 1:3,4 (emphasis added))
Resisting Temptation * Replace bad habits with good habits
Another practical idea is to find an alternate positive activity (habit) that fills the time and energy that was spent on the bad habit you are trying to overcome. Spend so much time doing good that you don’t have time to do bad, you don’t have time to do what tempts you.
Resisting Temptation * Find a support network
. If it is necessary and possible, find a support network you can trust that will offer their support and if need be, hold you accountable. It may be a personal friend or an organized group. Find and participate in what you need…
Victory will make you strong
And finally, keep in mind that victory breeds strength and additional victories, and if we do not give in to the trials of temptation and of life, they may eventually make us spiritually stronger.
An elderly man brought a boy into the woods to cut down hickory trees to make ax handles. They were in a valley. The boy pointed to some, "These trees will make good ax handles, let’s cut these down.”
The man replied, "These trees in the lowlands have natural protection from the weather. Let's go to the heights where the trees have been rocked by fierce winds and had to fight for water before it sinks out of reach. They are hardened by the storms and they will make much stronger ax handles."
When we fight to drink in God’s presence, and when we are tempted but do not give in, we become stronger. We are more than conquerors through him that loves us! (See Romans 8:37)
And when we become conquerors over temptation and stand firm in the faith, and win more and lose less in the things that really matter, and we continue to grow toward spiritual maturity, – it is a joyful, pride-filled dream of Father-God for his children, and for ourselves, and for all who care about us.
Let’s pray. Lord, we come humbly to you, relying on you to see us through every trial and temptation, so that by your power we can stand firm and faithful. And because of your grace, we can be forgiven when we do happen to fail, and you lift us up and keep us going, so that even setbacks do not destroy us, but only make us more determined to succeed the next time. We pray you will grant us a faith like that – so that no matter what happens within or without we will sense your pleasure and your gift of eternal life… Amen.
Closing Hymn O For a Faith That Will Not Shrink
Now as we leave, let us go with the assurance that God grace and power always goes with us and guides us toward his light. As his children, then; hold high the light of Christ -- be a beacon of hope to those around you -- that all may be drawn to him. Amen.
The Nightmare: Gives in to the temptation to fall from faith
The Dream: Faith and Love is strong even in suffering and trouble
The Power of Temptation is in its:
* Awareness | * Get to the root of the problem
* Proactivity | * Depend on God's strength
* Face (Resist) | * Replace bad habits with good habits
* Avoid (Flee) | * Find Support
Reward victory more than punish failure