The Sunday of the Fulfillment presses upon us next week. This Sunday, the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, serves as its “Eve,” like Christmas Eve, to heighten a sense of expectation for how the story ends. Preach, therefore, this great drama of how the story of our present reality ends. For on everyone’s mind is the question: How does it all end? In particular, “How does it end… for me?”
Paul’s opening paragraph, in chapter 3, evokes Jesus’ ominous teaching about sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Indeed, His disclosures in Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
Ah, there is that word again, “lawlessness.” We remember it from last week’s epistle pericope. Clearly, the workers of lawlessness, while outwardly righteous, lack faith in “the traditions” of the Gospel, the substance of our faith: Christ crucified and resurrected for our salvation and justification. They are the ones who, by their hypocrisy, disheartened Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fictional Goodman Brown. There exists a wide chasm between humanitarian “good works,” be they never so needful and useful, and faith that God is as His Word and it truly is the Lord who has worked all things for our good in Christ Jesus.
Do not omit the parenthetical first five verses of chapter 3. They are pure Gospel and the hope of the Gospel to save those who otherwise would bear judgment themselves. Hear Paul’s evangelistic plea and exclamation of thanksgiving:
“… pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.”
Pray for us so the Gospel of Christ (i.e., “the word of the Lord” about the Lord and from the Lord) may run and be glorified… for not all have faith. And all need faith if they are going to be saved from the Day of Lord, both near and far. For the Gospel to be glorified is for it to be believed, treasured and loved.
Paul prays for the Thessalonians and, now, he entreats them to pray for his gospel ministry, agreeable to the second petition Christ offers in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:10). Luther writes to this affect:
“The Kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayers, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also. How does God’s kingdom come? God’s kingdom comes when our Heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity” (Small Catechism).
That is how the Word of the Lord runs and is glorified. The people of God participate, at a basic level, in missional and evangelistic endeavors through prayer which inclines the heart of believers to those outside of Christ. Prayer purposed for the growth of God’s Kingdom of grace and mercy, of love and obedience, somehow unleashes the potential of proclamation so it can run; run over racism, bigotry, hatred, neglect and alienation. The Gospel outpaces all would-be and eventually fleeting identity-makers and brings in the truth of a renewed-in-Christ humanity.
Paul also asks them to pray that he may escape the wiles of wicked people. The minister of the Gospel must remain shrewd to hypocrites and subverters of the truth who would do harm to both the message and the messenger. Pray for your ministers. Pray for your missionaries. They need it because wherever the light of the Gospel shines, it is dispelling darkness and the darkness does not comprehend it but frequently maligns against it.
Behind the preaching of the Gospel and praying for its success (and the minister’s safety!), the work of Christ’s ambassadors, emissaries, and Churches, stands the Lord Himself, who remains faithful to both the Gospel and the Church. Here, again, is the paradox of Christian living, proposes one commentator: because the Lord is faithful and will guard us, therefore we pray He will do so. This defies human logic. It is about faith. We trust the Lord for He is as His Word and His Word is as His nature. Transcending human logic, it has a logic of its own: the logic of love. Our praying hearts, minds and lives are put at the disposal of the living Lord, who remains sovereign, but who also longs for our collaboration in His work of strengthening the Church and guarding it from evil. This, of course, agrees with the sixth and seventh petitions of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:13).
Therefore, the urgency of Christ’s gospel mission is what Paul sets before us in these opening verses. It is a message of urgency which needs to be heard again today, as missional endeavors have waned in recent decades and spirituality becomes increasingly privatized and personal, certainly nothing public, much less proclaimed. Not so, says Paul. Pray it may run loose everywhere so this Word of the Lord, which justifies and regenerates, may be glorified in the availing love and mercy of God our Savior. Be urgent about this. Recover an urgency about gospel proclamation, gospel formation, and gospel missions. The end of the church year provides an annual reminder how the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Indeed, it comes suddenly:
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day.”
Coming immediately after this encouragement regarding the Gospel and the mission of the Church, verses 6-13 underscore the accomplishment of this mission with the Church’s faithful involvement and support of it. Paul’s tone and demeanor herein become less celebratory and more militant. He commands them, using apostolic authority, to maintain ranks. So important is this section that the command is given, “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:4), to his brothers (i.e., the brethren of the Church). Not only are they to stay away from subverters, but they positively are to live and walk in “the traditions” committed to them (v.6).
Idleness is denounced in the strongest terms. A lazy, uninvolved, consumeristic Christian is simply disobedient and neglecting the familial nature of the Church and how the Son and the Spirit work in and through the people of God to accomplish the urgent task, but also loving care for one another. This is why they are, “to follow our example,” or better, “imitate us” (v. 7). So, get active. Get active because the Gospel is a work of urgency… always. You cannot slack. You cannot be idle. And you cannot be idle precisely in this, supporting the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments; both of which every Christian should insist upon being the highest mandate of the Church and the things most desired in the Church, each and every time the people of God gather together. Neglect the Word and the Sacraments and, very likely, you will have a proportionate drop-off in the urgency of evangelism and missions. Support your ministers of the Word and Sacraments. Expect of your ministers the pure preaching of the Word and the Sacraments administered according to the Gospel. You cannot be idle, passive, non-committal, procrastinatory, or deferential about these things. Pray, serve, give, expect and require… especially if you cannot go yourself into holy ministry or the mission field.
Concordia Theology- Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching 2 Thessalonians 3:(1-5) 6-13.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 2 Thessalonians 3:(1-5) 6-13.