Can you be better? Can you be a better student? Can you be a better employee? A better employer? Can you be a better son or daughter? Can you be a better parent or grandparent? How about this one, can you be a better Christian? That last one – can you be a better Christian? – that’s a difficult question to answer. And what makes it so difficult? Well, what do we mean by “better”? Better in comparison to whom? And why are we asking ourselves that question? Is it not true that Jesus died for my sins and my works play no part in my salvation? “For it is by grace through faith and this not from yourselves”, right?
So why do we find Paul encouraging the Thessalonians to be better in our lesson? Paul writes, “Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.” Be better! Why? “In order to please God.” But they’re already doing that, Paul even says it, “as in fact you are living” But Paul doesn’t want his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to be content with where they are at in their new, holy, set apart lives. He urges them to do better; to be better. Not because it will win them salvation – they already have that! Not because he believes it will earn them more favor with God – they have that too through faith in Christ. Paul urges this because this is “God’s will, that you should be sanctified.” God is the one urging the Thessalonians to be better.
And maybe the best way to think about this is to recognize that the word better, can be taken in one of two ways: negatively or positively. A negative use would be when someone says ‘you can do better,’ which very often is a nice way of saying, “you really didn’t do a good job; you need some improvement.” A positive use would be when challenge someone or yourself to do better. You already proficient at something, but you want to be the best. You want to be a master at it.
Take Olympic athletes for example, are they content with basic training and going through the motions of a workout routine a few hours a week? No, they challenge themselves, they set goals to be the best that they can be. They put in grueling hours to be world class athletes, they record themselves to catch mistakes and weak areas in routines. They make their training to be better theirs focus, their life. In the same way, God is challenge the Thessalonians. He is asking them to not just go through the motions of being one of his children, but to make it their life goal to live always as one of his children and to do this all in Christ Jesus, to do it in faith.
And the first area that Paul urges the Thessalonians to be better more and more in a positive way, is in regards to sex and marriage. And that’s an uncomfortable topic isn’t it, yet during Paul’s time it needed to be addressed. Sexual immorality was rampant at the time this was written. The Thessalonians lived in a society in which premarital sex and marital unfaithfulness wer the norm. Paul says, “No” this isn’t the norm, at least not for you; not for a child of God. Instead, he says, “avoid sexual immorality” don’t act in “passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God.”
And if you look at the following verses and what Paul describes as sexual immorality, don’t we have to admit that Paul’s words to the Thessalonians are just as applicable today? Is our culture not awash in sexual images? Sex is in our entertainment, in songs, on TV, and even in books. It’s used to sell products. Both women and men alike are told on a daily basis that sex outside of marriage is not only acceptable, but it is expected. They are told that affairs while married keep things fresh and exciting. They are told lies. Sexual immorality is not normal and acceptable. It is a sin; a sin that kills. “The Lord will punish men for all such sins” Paul writes.
So as God’s children we are told to avoid it. God isn’t urging us to make society better, he is urging us to make ourselves better. If and when you are looking for a spouse, do so in an honorable way. See marriage as God created it. A lifelong union of companionship, sexual happiness, and if God wills it, children. This is an outlook all of us have because unlike the people of the world we know God and with his help we will strive to follow his way. For “God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” Single or married, God urges all his children, all of us, to avoid sexual immorality; to make it our goal to be better!
But how does God’s urging here make you feel as you recall a past sexual sin from your youth? How does God’s urging to be better make you feel as you recall the struggle or lack of struggle you have when you are on the internet or are watching TV to avoid images that bring you sinful pleasure? But above all how does it make you feel when he has Paul write, “he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God?”
It makes you see that question earlier, “Can you be better?” in a negative way. No, I can’t be better. I’m a sinner. When we think about it you and I realize that we’ve failed. We’ve failed in living our call to be God’s children, and we’ve failed to live a perfect life set-apart from this world of sin. In a world that floods our eyes with sinful images and our minds with lustful desires, we feel as though we are drowning. Past and present sins haunt us as we are dragged down by our own guilt and feelings of inadequacy.
In those moments, when you feel condemned, set aside your feelings and remember your lifeguard Jesus. He breathed his last breath on the cross to pay for your sins, in order to breathe life into you when you were dead in sin. And that breath cast out every sin that you have or will ever commit. That breath freed you from all your guilt and shame. That breath came from a God who loves you and chose you to be his own. His breath of life, the Holy Spirit, gives you the ability to do his will. To live that holy life that you were called to live.
This is the positive side of that question, “Can you be better?” Of course I can! I am not a child of this world anymore, I am a child of God. Sin and all its temptations can no longer drag me into the abyss of hell; I am free. I am holy, and I will now challenge myself on a daily basis, by God’s grace, to be the best Christian that I can be, to obey his laws, and specifically here his commands about sex and marriage. Not so I can pat myself on the back and say well done, but so that my God is praised. My God who gave his best, his only Son, for me.
It is that love of God in sending his Son that motivated the Thessalonians in the next section of our lesson to continue to be better in the love that they showed to each other and to the rest of the world. Paul writes, “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.” Brothers and sisters, you, like the Thessalonians, know how to show love to others.
I’ve seen it just in the seven or so months I’ve been here. I’ve seen it in the many and varied ways you’ve volunteered your time to help and support the church and school. I’ve seen it as you’ve raised your voices in prayer for those in our church family who are facing sufferings and hardships. I see it as you interact with each other and as you support the ministries of this church with your offerings. Thank God that he has instilled in you such a love! A love you experienced first-hand when you were brought to faith. But don’t be content, seek to be better! Make it your goal to love and serve each other “more and more!” Not to win favor among each other, but to bring glory to your God.
And as you continue to show love to each other, keep in mind these last words from Paul, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your hands.” Why does God have Paul write this? Why is God so concerned about how we go about our daily affairs? Maybe a story about a man living almost 2000 years ago will help. This man was a tent maker, and he used his trade so that others wouldn’t think he was taking advantage of their generosity. This same man once found himself in prison, but instead of raging at his captors, he and his friend sang songs and prayed. This man was Paul, the writer of this letter.
Paul understood his call to faith was a call to be a representative of God. At the moment of his conversion, he had a light to shine in a world of darkness. He had a love to share about a Savior. We too are God’s representatives, our lives are a reflection of his love. Often it isn’t our words that start a conversation about Jesus with a stranger. It’s our actions. “Hey, how can you still wear a smile, when that bad thing happened to you?” “Hey, why don’t I ever hear you saying bad things about our useless co-worker?” “Hey, where do you find the motivation to get up for work?’ It is those moments when someone comes to you because you reflected Christ’s love in your daily life, that you can then speak his Words of love. Words which can and do create faith in the hearts of those who hear it. It is then that we fulfill Paul’s words, as our “daily life wins the respect of outsiders.”
But finally, all this leads us back to the original question: “Can you be better?” The bar Paul sets is high, as you daily are attacked by sinful images and desires, and as your love for each other and for others in this world becomes burdensome and seemingly pointless. You might wonder why you ought to bother being better, let alone if you can be better. Yet, here in Paul’s letter we see why we bother, “in order to please God.” The God who sent his best, his Son, to save us. And in him, “in the Lord Jesus” all of us can strive to be better. Brothers, Sisters, seek to be better, and may God give us his strength as we carry out his will more and more until the day we see him face to face. Amen.