2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 September 4, 2011
Two pastors; let’s say they were husband and wife; they lived on an isolated road out in the middle of nowhere. They lived back a long, winding lane in a pretty densely wooded area.
One night there was a storm that came through, and knocked a fairly large tree down, across their driveway. They went down early in the morning and found it laying there, so they started working at trying to cut their way through it with handsaws and other tools that they had.
They hadn’t been working long, when a member of their congregation drove by and saw their predicament. He happened to have his chainsaw in the back of his truck, so he stopped just long enough to talk a little bit and gave them his chainsaw to use. He told them he’d swing back through after work and pick it up when they were done, and he was on his way.
10 hours later, he came back and found the two pastors taking a break. The big tree was still where it had been. The pastors were soaked with sweat, they were dirty, they were bleeding and bruised in places, and they were in pretty bad moods.
To top it all off, there was barely a scratch on the tree where they had been working all day.
The man wondered what in the world they had been doing. He got out of his truck and asked if he could help.
“Oh, yes, please!” they replied.
He bent over, pulled the rope, and the chainsaw roared to life.
The pastors covered their ears and ran for cover, yelling “What in the world is that noise!!”
…The right tool in the wrong hands isn’t worth much. 🙂
The wrong tool in the right hands can often be used…
but if you’ve ever tried to tighten a screw with a butter knife, you know that by far the best situation is to have the right tool in the right hands for the right situation.
Now, God has given each of us a basic toolbox. Your toolbox consists of your personality, what you’re passionate about, and what you spend your time thinking about. It consists of the family you have, the parents who raised you, the education you received; it’s the friends around you, and the resources of this land we inhabit.
We can add to the toolbox; we can add skills that we learn along the way or new perspectives we gain from other people.
We can sharpen our tools; we can develop the talents that God gave us through practice and study.
But even the best equipped toolbox; like that chainsaw I was talking about; it needs to be used in the right way.
Otherwise, it’s frustrating for everyone involved.
The passage we’re looking at this morning comes from a letter Paul wrote to a church where some people had stopped using their tools.
Don’t get me wrong; when you read the first letter he writes to the Thessalonians, you find a picture of a truly remarkable congregation.
They were known for their faith and the love they showed to each other.
In fact, in the first letter he wrote, Paul calls the Thessalonians examples to the whole church!
Here in his second letter, however, he’s bringing a little thunder. 🙂
“Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.” he says. It sounds a little harsh, right?
After all, who are we to judge idleness? Isn’t religion all about inner transformation and a deeply personal relationship with a supernatural spirit named Jesus?
How can Paul be so blunt? We’re not supposed to judge people.
If they look idle; who are we to make that call? What if they’re just spending more time in prayer than others? What if they’re actually More Spiritual than we are?
Here’s the thing though… feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, withholding judgment…while these are the meat and potatoes of our faith, they can be reduced to simply a meaningless religious ritual.
And often, meaningless religious rituals can turn ugly pretty fast.
We know that faithful people feed the hungry.
We know that faithful people give to the poor.
We know that faithful living includes sharing our possessions and opening our homes and withholding judgment from people who find themselves in a time of need.
So why, then, is Paul commanding at least some of the Christians in Thessalonica not to feed some people in their midst who are probably hungry?
He goes so far as to tell them to AVOID such believers!
I think it’s because they had tools they weren’t using; and God gives us tools to use; not to sit on.
They had the same toolbox they always had; they knew how to use the tools to provide for themselves and do the work that God had given them to do…
They knew how not to be a burden.
But they weren’t doing it.
They were idle.
See, the church at Thessalonica had great potential.
They were serious about their commitment to love each other and they were deeply committed to their faith.
However, some of the believers there, were living in light of the expectation that Christ was going to return any day – at any moment.
Now, they were taught then, as we believe now, that Christ will return in an unexpected way, at an unexpected time.
The problem was, they were starting to expect it.
Some of them were taking this teaching too far.
We can imagine what it would be like, because we’ve seen it most recently just this past May, when the group led by Harold Camping predicted that the end of the world would take place on May 21st at 6:00 in the evening.
You’ll remember, there were people who were quitting their jobs, they were selling their houses, they were divesting themselves of every material possession they had in order to show how much faith they had that this was really going to happen.
Now, I don’t think we need to make fun of them; in fact, there were a lot of really disappointed, disenfranchised, and downright angry people when they woke up on May 22nd to find the same world they were hoping to leave behind.
A similar thing was happening in Thessalonica.
A few people became so infatuated with the thought of Christ’s return that it became the major, defining part of their lives.
They started missing work; they started letting the tools God gave them collect dust, and rust while their work went undone.
It wasn’t long before some of them stopped working altogether.
They had good intentions, and they probably thought they were being more spiritual than others around them.
But soon, these very devoted Christians who were waiting on Jesus with such fervor, they started to run out of supplies, because they weren’t bothering themselves to use the tools God had given them.
So they began to ask the others who were still working to feed them.
After all, they were being so very spiritual in their devoted waiting for Jesus to return, that surely the others could provide a few meals.
But Paul will have none of it!
He commands the church to avoid such Christians.
And I think there’s a painful word there for us, as well.
We’d all rather just give our brother or sister a meal or some money rather than point out the painful reality that they’ve got tools they’re not using.
It’s a handout mentality; we feel good when we can give something to someone who so obviously needs it.
But it’s like the old adage: give someone a fish and you feed them for a day.
Teach someone to fish, and you feed them for life.
Paul wasn’t out to give away fish.
He knew that there are no bargains when you follow Jesus. There is no clearance rack.
You earn your keep in God’s kingdom; you don’t expect something for nothing.
And so he gave them that example; he was not idle; he paid for everything he took; he was careful not to be a burden.
Hence his strong words that still sting my ears:
“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”
It sounds so hard, when all the images of the poor I’ve known come flooding into my mind. But then we can remember that he’s addressing the church, not the world.
And we can remember that at the heart of Christ-centered faith is human dignity, not a hand-out mentality.
We are not to regard the idle people as enemies; rather we are to warn them as believers. And that’s harder to do than just giving them what they want. It assumes that there’s a relationship there to build on, and that we know each other well enough to make judgments about how we’re using the tools in our toolbox.
When we were in Pittsburgh a few months ago for convention, a homeless guy asked me for money late one night as we were walking back to our hotel.
I don’t think this is the kind of situation Paul was talking about when he says those who don’t work shouldn’t eat.
He’s talking about a situation within the church, where people were just dropping the ball. They weren’t even using the chainsaw wrong; they were just waiting for the guy to come back and cut the tree for them!
Now, I know it was much different back then than it is now.
For the most part, we’ve all got our jobs and our possessions and nobody that I know of is just killing time until Jesus gets back…
Or…is it that we, all of us, are just killing time until Jesus gets back?
What’s your attitude towards your work?
What are the tools God has given you, and how are you using them?
I’m not just talking about what you get paid for!
I’m talking about each and every life that’s here.
Your whole life.
We all have jobs that pay the bills and keep us going; but I’m not talking about just our jobs. Otherwise life and faith would end at retirement.
I’m talking about vocation. What are you called to do with the tools you’ve been given?
If God gave you a chainsaw, would you ask Him how to work it? Or would you pretend like you know?
Tools take knowledge and practice and maintenance in order to be effective.
We have the responsibility to each other and to God, to speak to each other when we see a tool going rusty, or dull. We also have the responsibility to ask when we need a tool that’s n