"Doing or Dawdling?"
July 25, 2010 2Thess 3:1-18
LEECHES, LAMPREYS, & LOAFERS
Ahh, summertime...What can be more refreshing to escape the heat and humidity of muggy southwestern Ontario than a quick dip in the water? On our farm when I was growing up there wasn't any pond, but one of our favourite activities as boys was to go puddling in the 'crick' or drainage ditch that flowed through the property, conveniently close to the house. So we could often be found (when there wasn't work to be done) building 'dams' in the crick. Sometimes water would spill over into your rubber boots, which wasn't a problem - except when you found bloodsuckers had gotten in and attached themselves to your skin.
Or, on our other farm a mile-and-a-quarter up the road, there was a gravel pit. Occasionally after picking stones or some other onerous task we'd be known to go skinny-dipping. Again, when you got out of the water, better check for leeches! They hung on pretty well, until you got a hold of a salt-shaker.
In recent years a similar but larger creature has been wreaking havoc on the Great Lakes. Lamprey eels are suspected to have been introduced from the bilge water of ships. These ugly creatures have a grotesque circular mouth full of rasping teeth that latch onto passing fish and suck out their life-juices. Pilfering parasites.
The church at Thessalonica was suffering from an infestation of leeches as well - but these weren't bloodsuckers, or lamprey eels: these were of the two-legged variety, Homo sapiens. Apparently some Christians were so taken with the promise of Jesus' coming again that they decided to quit work and become idle until His return. They not only became unproductive, they interfered with those who were trying to work, and mooched off brothers and sisters in the faith like true parasites. In 2Thessalonians 3 the apostle Paul pulls out the saltshaker of God's inspired truth in an attempt to convince them of their error - that they should be examples to others instead of a blight on the community.
THE FOLLOW-THROUGH OF FAITHFULNESS
Sports are big in summertime. Whether it be swinging a gold club in the St.Andrew's Open or swinging a baseball bat to belt a home run in the World Series, an important aspect trainers teach is follow-through: don't check your swing after you've made contact with the ball. In the first section of chapter 3 Paul emphasizes that faith has a follow-through, too.
He begins by asking for prayer-cover that the Lord's message might spread rapidly (v1) and "that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men" (v2) adding, "for not everyone has faith". In Corinth, where Paul was probably writing this letter, he encountered at least two varieties of unbelief. For one, the city was renowned for its loose morals and sexual misconduct; the expression 'to Corinthianize' was synonymous far and wide with the meaning 'to practice sexual immorality'. (In the church there Paul later had to confront a situation in which a man was sleeping with his own step-mother - and some weren't even shocked at this, but rather proud: 1Cor 5.) However, on the other hand, you could also be a religious person and not have faith. Acts 18(12) describes some of these: "While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court." So Paul was very aware that 'not everyone has faith' - whether living immorally, or religious but opposed to the teaching about Jesus. Some of the Thessalonians you may recall were suffering persecution from religious folk (2Thess 1:4f).
But people's lack of faith spurs Paul to remember there is One who remains faithful, whatever our attitude to Him. V3, "But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one." The Lord Jesus IS faithful - He can be counted on, He's worthy of putting our trust in Him and depending on Him. And He will strengthen and protect us: make us stable, place us firmly. Out of God's faithfulness comes His reliability and dependability - He's going to look after us and guard us from Satan's attacks. God's faithfulness has follow-through: He IS faithful (fact / attribute - now the outcome), He WILL strengthen and protect.
In v4 Paul expresses his faith that the Thessalonians will likewise show follow-through: "We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command." Confidence is related to trust and faith. He trusted through Christ that the church would do and keep on doing as they'd been instructed. What's that expression - "a long obedience in the same direction." Doing follows from real faith.
Not that this is in our own strength - in which case we'd falter and fail. V5 gives a positive benefit of having faith in God: "May the Lord direct your hearts into God's love and Christ's perseverance." If we trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, there's an openness in our lives through which the Lord can reach and direct our hearts (not just our emotions but intellect and will, too); believing allows Him access to steer us into God's love - the magnitude of God's affection for us which impels Him to offer His precious Son on the cross for our reconciliation - AND Christ's perseverance, NLT "patient endurance". Jesus hung in there showing extreme follow-through despite His sufferings, taunting, and torture. Gary Demarest comments, "This is...active and unswerving fidelity in the midst of any and all adversity, that then uses the adversity creatively and constructively.Jesus Himself is the definition of hupomone (NIV perseverance), for He took the rejection and the shame of the cross and used it for the redemption of all humankind."
So, do you see the foundation Paul is laying for the next section? The Lord is faithful; He follows through in strengthening and protecting us. If we are faithful, that will show in our follow-through - continuing to do what He wants and be obedient. That faithfulness then gives God the opening by which He can pour into our lives the vast riches of His love and perseverance - creative enduring stick-to-it-iveness.
ENERGETIC EXAMPLES OR DAWDLING DEPENDENTS?
Unfortunately there had arisen in the Thessalonian church a group of believers who were anything but faithful and showing follow-through. Anticipating a bit too eagerly Jesus' return, they had essentially checked out of everyday life with its obligations and were sponging off the welfare of other Christians. A commentator attempts to reconstruct the situation: "...people had become so convinced that Christ was just about to return - or in some way had already returned - that they refused to work.Why work to earn a living when you are certain there is no tomorrow on this earth? It's a small step from that position to begin to tell everyone else how to run their lives.Minding everyone else's business is regarded with the sense of divine calling.From that point, conflict is inevitable and there soon follows the noisy disruption of community." A fine mess! Moffat terms them "fanatical loungers". Robinson describes it this way: "These theological dead-beats were too pious to work, but perfectly willing to eat at the hands of their neighbours while they piddled and frittered away the time in idleness." Leeches - lampreys - parasites latching on to suck out another's living, slowing them down in the process.
A complicating factor here is the cultural one: native Thessalonians were thoroughly Greek in culture, they weren't saturated with the 'Protestant work ethic' (for in fact that's partly what Paul is developing by this letter). In Greek thought, manual labour was degrading, fit only for slaves. The 'fashionable' people - the aristocracy - didn't stoop to dirty their hands with such menial things as WORK! Recall Luke's mildly sarcastic aside when describing the situation before Paul's address in Athens, Acts 17:21: "All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas." (What a capital idea!) But you can see how, if that's your prevalent concept of what it means to be somebody who's 'made it' or 'arrived' in society, suddenly the possibility of quitting your job to await Messiah's return becomes attractive, even fashionable.
But it won't wash with Paul. In the sternness of the language in verses 6, 12, and 14, you can hear him pulling out and putting on his authoritative Apostle's hat and braided epaulets: "In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers...Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ ...If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him." Hear that tone? He's very soberly underlining what he's about to say as coming directly from Jesus through divine inspiration.
He clearly is taking aim at the scourge of idleness that has been creeping in. V6, "...keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us." V7, "We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it." Vv11-12, "We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat." Emphasis on the word 'earn' probably - as opposed to sponging off everybody else.
There's an old saying, "Idle hands are the devil's own worskshop." Isaac Watts observed, "The devil finds some mischief, still, for idle hands to do." The word Paul uses for 'idle' in v6 is literally to be disorderly, irregular, deviating from the prescribed order: in a military sense, of a soldier who steps out of the ranks. Or to think of it as a marching metaphor, not keeping in step with all the others. (I was reading a review of a theatrical dance performance along the lines of Riverdance: they gave the show a very low rating because the clogging sounds were actually in the soundtrack rather than made by the dancers, and some of the dancers were obviously poorly practised, being very out-of-time compared to the rest of the troupe.)
So Paul's suggesting idleness is out of order, a distracting blemish on the unified and harmonious picture Christians OUGHT to present of being productive, useful, positive contributors to society. His rule is very basic: v10, "If a man will not work, he shall not eat."
Note this is not to say salvation is by works. Salvation is by grace, through faith, from start to finish; just as Paul begins and ends his letter by praying Christ's GRACE be with them all (1:2; 3:18). Ephesians 2:8-9 says, in part, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast." Yet even here faith is followed through on by works: v10, "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." Saved people should automatically be doers, not dawdlers; busy, not busy-bodies.
Paul speaks authoritatively here not just because he invokes the Lord's name, but also because he's set such an example when he was present at Thessalonica. He's modeled for them exactly what he's talking about. V7, "For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you..." V8, "...we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you." V9, "We did this...in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow." Working night and day - labouring - toiling - Paul, Silas, and Timothy had all proved very energetic examples in founding the Thessalonian church of how to provide the gospel free of charge. He didn't want to burden anyone or be dependent on anyone for support, lest the charge be levelled at them that they were using the gospel to take advantage of people - although as an apostle he could have earned his wages thus as the Lord permitted (1Cor 9:14).
So, work is part of the fabric of Christian life. It's not a curse or something to be avoided, but embraced. Genesis 2:15, "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it" - before the fall. Work is part of our faithful follow-through, a positive witness for Christ in society that earns a living, gives to others, and keeps us from having to be dependent on others. The Heidelberg Catechism states, "First, that all and every one who believes, being members of Christ, are in common partakers of Him and of all His riches and gifts [that's the part about faith's openness to let the Lord direct our hearts into God's love and Christ's perseverance]; secondly, that every one must know it to be his duty readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts for the advantage and salvation of other members."
As v13 sums it up: "And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right."
HELP OTHERS AND YOU WILL ALWAYS GAIN IN THE END
I'd like to close with just a couple of brief present-day examples. This week Yvonne and I were watching 100 Huntley Street one evening; it featured a young guitar-playing recording artist named Chris Bray. When he was interviewed between songs, it came to light that he suffered from a learning disability as a child. Yet now he's graduated from Fanshawe College, works as an IT systems analyst, writes Christian music, and has produced a CD! That doesn't happen without a lot of work and perseverance. Chris Bray spoke of the passion God has given him to sing for Christ, and how his faith and his family had helped struggle through the learning disability to overcome and be so productive in society.
A second example is a 57-year-old plumber in Saskatoon named Dan Huston. Paul wrote "the Lord is faithful," and Dan has discovered that for himself, overcoming difficult situations with God's help. This includes not only financial hardship, losing a great deal of money as a courier operator, but also health concerns in his family, a daughter born with mild cerebral palsy, and the death of his wife four years ago due to cancer. Yet despite all that, Huston says of God, "He's always come through."
The ChristianWeek article notes that he has his own plumbing business after being laid off; "the Lord was pushing me to start my own business again." Dan is generous with his time, offering his plumbing services to several churches, and sharing his plumbing as well as landscaping expertise with missionaries, expecting no payment in return. He observes, "The Lord gave me the gift of service...I enjoy doing the work, so why can't I do it serving the Lord?
"Help others and you will always gain in the end," he continues; "the Lord will provide." Resting in God's faithfulness, this man finds it much more satisfying to be doing than dawdling. Let's pray.