Following the Word

Pastor Kim Gilliland
All Saints Day/Pentecost 22
SCRIPTURE: 1 Thessalonians 2: 9-13
And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.
1 Thessalonians 2:13 (NIV)

ALL SAINTS DAY

Today is a very special day in the church. But it’s a day that we don’t often celebrate because it only falls on a Sunday every six or seven years. Today is All Saints Day. Traditionally, it is a feast day on which we remember all of the saint, known and unknown, living and dead, past and present. It’s also a day when we remember that we are part of a long line of saints that began with the Jesus’ first disciples and will continue until he comes again.

In Medieval times it was one of the top three holy festivals of the year, the other two being Easter and Pentecost. You’ll note that Christmas was not a big deal back then. In fact, it wasn’t really a big deal until it became commercialized. Until the mid-19th century, December 25 was just another day on the calendar.

But All Saints Day was a very big deal. People came to church. The names of those who had died during the previous year were read and candles lit in their honour. And there was, of course, a feast of remembrance which, in Europe and North America, would have been sumptuous since the harvest had just recently been brought in. But, ultimately, the celebration turned to the victory of Christ over death which assures that all the saints will gather together again at the end of the ages.

It was a very big deal and so was the evening before it. That day, of course, is stilled called Hallowe’en which is short for All Hallows Eve – all hallows just being another way of saying all saints. It is the evening of preparation before All Saints Day, when the faithful prepare themselves for the next day celebration. So Hallowe’en is to All Saints Day what Christmas Eve is the Christmas. And just to be clear, Hallowe’en has nothing with worshipping the devil. For Christians it is not about evil. It is all about honouring the holiness of the saints.

But how do we define who is and who is not a saint? That varies depending on what tradition of the church we follow. For our Catholic friends, saints are holy people who have been declared to be saints by the Church. Not so for us Protestants. For us, a saint is anyone who believes in Jesus Christ and is filled with is Holy Spirit. And as far as I know, this room today is filled with saints who believe in Jesus Christ. So welcome you saints of Jesus.

THE WORD OF GOD

With that introduction, today’s reading is from 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 (NIV) which talks about what it means to live out our faith as saints and followers of Jesus Christ. This is what it says in verses 9-12:

Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

The passage is interesting because Paul talks about the character of someone who is  a follower of Jesus. Listen again. It says that they toil and work hard. That they a holy, righteous and blameless. That they encourage, comfort and urge others to live lives worthy of God. Those are all great things and we should strive to reach those lofty goals. But what it doesn’t say – probably because it says it so may other places – is that we aren’t perfect. We don’t always attain those heights or perfection in our lives and sometimes we fail dismally. But that’s why Jesus came, to save us and forgive us of our sins. So it’s okay not to be perfect.

But still, we are called to reach out to become the people that God calls us to be, to do the work that God calls us to do and to do our best to make the right choices in life that will enable to walk in the footsteps of the saints who walked this road before us.

But how do we do that? The answer to that question is found in the next verse, 1 Thessalonians 2:13 (NIV) which says this:

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.

There it is. That is what we need to do to become the people God created us to be and fulfill the missions that God put us on this earth to fulfill. So, for the rest of this message, I want to unpack this verse and see where it takes us.

First of all, what does Paul mean when he talks about the word of God? That’s not as obvious as you might think because, when we hear the phrase “the word of God” our thoughts go directly to the Bible which we often call the word. But that is not the case here because the Bible, at least the New Testament portion of it, did not exist when Paul wrote this letter. In fact, when Paul was writing these words, I doubt that he had any idea that he was writing something that we now call scripture. As far as he knew, he was just writing a letter to his brothers and sisters in Christ in a distant city. So Paul is not talking about the written word. What Paul is referring to is the spoken word.

The spoken word that Paul and the other missionaries share with the people is not a book but a message. That message is the good news of Jesus and his promise of redemption through the cross and eternal life through faith in him. That is the message that Paul shares with the believers in Thessalonica. This is what he refers to as the word.

The nice thing, of course, is that because the church preserved the writings of Paul and others in the New Testament, we can have that word in written form which, of course, is very helpful

THE WORD AT WORK IN PEOPLE

But now comes the key point for us today. It comes right at the end where Paul says that this word of God is at work in those who believe. The message of Jesus, that Paul and the other missionaries shared with the people of Thessalonica is not some passing fancy. It is not something to be heard and dismissed. Rather, it is something that is at work in those who believe. That means that it is transformative in the lives of those who truly accept and believe it this word.

As Christians, we have always known that because we have seen the way that the message of Jesus has transformed so many lives. Isn’t that what All Saints Day is all about, honouring the way that faith in Jesus has changed people? I think about John Newton who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace in the late 18th century. The story of that song is that Newton was a ship’s captain. And not just any ordinary ship’s captain. He was the captain of a slave ship that ran human cargo from Africa to North America. He came to Christ during a violent ocean storm in 1748. It was one of those occasion when Newton pleaded with God for mercy, “If you’ll only get me out of this mess, I promise to follow you!” God took him at his word and saved his ship. And Newton, being a man of his word, kept his too. It took a few more years of the Spirit working on him until he finally quit the slave trade in 1755 when he studied theology, was ordained as a minister in the 1764 and became one of the most outspoken abolitionists in Great Britain. Amazing Grace is, in many ways, a statement of how God had changed his life: “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found. Was blind but now I see.”

Let’s move into the 20th century and a man by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a reknowned German theologian who decided to oppose Hitler when most of the other churches in Germany were quite content to be swept up in the cult of the Fuhrer. He didn’t plan it that way. His plan was to because a scholar and teach in a seminary. But something happened and he had a conversion of sorts from being primarily an intellectual to being a dedicated man of faith, resolved to carry out the teaching of Christ as he found it revealed in the Gospels. This included working to end oppression and injustice. In Nazi Germany, it meant siding with the Jews and against Hitler. He joined the resistance and became a courier who carried messages from within Germany to the Allies. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1943. He was executed on April 9, 1945 just two weeks before the camp in which he was held was liberated by the Allies. For his sacrifice, he has become a beacon of what it means to be a faithful saint.

And how could we not mention Mother Theresa. She grew up in Albania in a wealthy family with the means to do whatever she wanted. But as a child, she became fascinated by stories of missionaries and decided that she would eventually become one. At the age of eighteen, she gave up everything and joined the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland. This began her long and interesting journey to India where she founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. Her work with the poor and marginalized became legendary and recognized with various awards including a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Truly a saint.

These people do not achieve these goals by accident or coincidence. They achieved so much because they allowed the word of God to work in them, to move their hearts and direct their lives in accordance with what God wanted them to do.

It was the word of God working in John Newton that allowed him be transformed from one of the worse people in society to one of the most outspoken abolitionists who penned a hymn that is still sung with great joy 250 years later. It was the word of God working in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that gave him the courage to stand with the Jews and challenge the Nazis even though it meant his death. It was the word of God working in Mother Teresa that gave her the selfless determination to give up her privileged lifestyle and commit her life to serving the poor in one of the poorest places in the world. This is what happens when we open ourselves up to the transforming power of the word of God.

“But,” you say, “Pastor Kim, I’ll never be able to do the great things that those people did.” To which I would say that you’re probably right. Most people aren’t John Newton or Bonhoeffer or Mother Teresa. But then again most people don’t have to be. And I don’t think God wants us to be because if all of were to travel around the world doing great things, who would do the things that need to be done in Cottam? For most of us, God’s word works in us and calls us to do simple things that will never make the news but will make small but significant differences in the lives of those we touch for Jesus.

SEPARATING THE VOICES

While most of us will never be write classic hymns, be executed for our faith or win Nobel Prizes, we can apply one of the simply principles that are consistently applies by even the greatest saints. What they are very clear about is what voice they follow. Faithful saints, great and small, in all generations and places, keep their focus on the word of God.

That might seem self-evident but it’s really not because there are many voices out there competing for your attention. Every ad on TV and radio, every article you read in the paper or online, almost every meme you see on Facebook is trying sway you over to a particular viewpoint and particular actions. There are very few things in the world today that are neutral. Almost everything we see is motivated by the intention of changing our behaviour in some way. Maybe we are encouraged to buy a product. Or maybe we are being cajoled into accepting a particular position on a political or social issue.

And if you’re not sure about that, just look at what’s happening in the US right now with a presidential election just days away. Being just across the border, it’s tough for us to avoid seeing what is going on over there. I see ads that are not only dishonest but downright hateful. And that’s from both sides of the political aisle. I just don’t know where anyone can look in the news media to get an honest and balanced report what is happening in the world. I’m not even sure it’s possible anymore.

These voices are loud and pervasive and often well-funded. And many of them are seeking to become the primary influence in our lives. But as Christians, we have to understand there among all of the voices competing for our attention, we have to claim the word of God as the primary voice in our lives. It is the voice by with all others are measured and evaluated.

John Newton understood that. Deitrich Bonhoeffer understood that. Mother Teresa understood that. They would not let anything distract them from staying on the path that they believed God was calling them to travel. They did it gracefully and they did it faithfully.

One of my favourite verses in the Bible is Isaiah 30:21 (NIV) which says, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” I can’t tell you many time in my life I have claimed that verse. That’s because, like you, I am tempted to move off the path that God has called me to travel.

I hear voices and those voices tell me that it’s okay to turn to the right or the left. They are voices that tell me that I’m not strong enough, that I’m not wise enough, that I’m smart enough and that I’m not good enough. They tell me that

The world might look at me and see someone who is educated and capable and fit and confident. But you know what that is? That’s a veneer that I hide behind because sometimes I hear voices that tell me that I’m not strong enough or smart enough or patient enough or persistent enough to do what God has called me to do. Those voices can be very persuasive and they can call me to leave the path of God’s making.

And I know that you know what I’m talking about because all of us hear those voices from time to time and all of have to deal with doubt and lack of confidence, anxiety and insecurity.

Even Paul faced those things voices. He speaks at different times about what he had to go through to be a missionary of the gospel of Jesus. He had trials and tribulations. He was arrested, jailed, flogged and shipwrecked. I can only imagine the voices that were crying for attention in his head. He speaks about one of those voices in 1 Corinthians 12:7-8 (NIV) where we read, “But to keep me from being puffed up with pride because of the many wonderful things I saw, I was given a painful physical ailment, which acts as Satan’s messenger to beat me and keep me from being proud. Three times I prayed to the Lord about this and asked him to take it away.” But it was not taken away. The voice of that ailment called to him for the rest of his life. But it did not deter him because, as we read in 2 Corinthians 12:9-11 (NIV) he heard another voice, the voice of God which said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul went on to write: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

What Paul is telling us is that we are not to be discouraged. The voices of defeat will be all around us telling us that we aren’t strong enough or good enough or smart enough or powerful enough. But don’t be fooled by those voices for the enduring word of God, speaking the message of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit tells us that in our weakness we are made strong by the power of the word. Do not despair. God’s word is there to direct, strengthen and transform us into the people God calls us to be.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

The Spirit speaks and beckons us to listen. Open us, God, to your message of faith, hope, and love. Fill us to overflowing with the Good News of Christ. May your Holy Spirit transform us and make us new in the likeness of Jesus our Lord.

There are, in this world, many people with many messages. Each one wants us to hear what they have to say. Many of those messages contain words of comfort and peace, hope and challenge. They speak to us of how we should be as Christians in the world and they call us to live in your way. Help us, O God, to distinguish the spirits of the messages that we may hear your words in the din of the noise around us. Urge us, prod us, bless us as we journey down the path that you would have us walk.

We lift up our military personnel who defend this country and the freedoms that we enjoy especially as we approach Remembrance Day.

We have prayed for ourselves. We pause, now, to pray for the other Churches in our community. May we find unity in our faith. We remember, also, those whose faith is other than Christian. May we learn to respect and support one another in spite of our difference as we search for truth and peace.

Finally, Heavenly Father, we pray for the sick of our congregation and community. We lift them up to you. Grant them your blessing and healing this day and forever.

God of Peace, grant us your peace. God of Hope, fill us with hope. God of Love, make us vehicles through which that love is shared. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE

November 1, 2020 / All Saints Day

SCRIPTURE

Joshua 3:7-17, 14-25; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; Matthew 23:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

CALL TO WORSHIP

Let us open our minds to God’s teaching and tune our ear to his word.

Let us listen to the stories of the faith of our ancestors and share our stories with our children.

We put our trust in God.

We worship the one who gives us life.

PRAYER OF APPROACH

God of Heaven and Earth, God of the sunrise and the sunset, God of the highest mountain and the deepest valley, hear our prayers as we come before your throne of glory. Declare your message to us and grant us the courage to listen. May our listening turn to action. May our actions touch the hearts of those who need to hear your voice. We put our trust in you knowing that it is well placed in your gentle and caring hands. Amen.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

God of Mercy and Light, forgive us for walking in darkness of our own making. Forgive us for not being ready to receive your love. Forgive us when we move in the wrong direction and away from your word. Forgive us and help us to share. Forgive us and help us to shine. Forgive us and help us to shelter those in need. Light a pathway for us to follow, O God of all Creation. Amen.

ASSURANCE OF PARDON

God is patient and kind, gentle and loving, slow to anger and quick to laugh. God’s love overflows the deepest sin. Be assured that, when we repent of our sin, we are forgiven. Through faith in Christ Jesus, we are invited to share in the everlasting life.

DEDICATION OF OFFERING

You have trusted us with a great abundance, O God. You have blessed us with immeasurable gifts. Not only do we bring our tithes and offerings to the table. We also bring our whole lives asking that you would sanctify us and our gifts for the work of your Holy Kingdom. Amen.

COMMISSIONING

The world seeks light amidst the shadows. Jesus calls us to shine in the darkness. May we, in our lives, be examples of God’s love.

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