As the historian Pliny records, the Roman governor in Thessalonica, the farther-reaches of the empire, mandated, “All will worship the statue, venerate our August Caesar!” And Christians there would not. And people knew it. “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things…” In a black, wicked streak someone spattered the market food with the emperor-sacrificed wine – so to buy food was to buy in to the emperor worship. So some Christians wouldn’t – and now they were known, worshipers of Christ, marked out. “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music.” Blood pooled, poured down from bodies staked to wood crosses, others burned with screams and black, smelly smoke – many of those marked out died so; or they went about with bruises, broken, maimed for pagan fun. “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord!” Far greater than Pliny, the Christ himself promised trials and court-dates and prison and death for those who followed him. “All the ends of the earth have seen the power of God…and sing praise!”
Psalm 98, the psalm appointed for this day, to accompany these readings we’ve shared, it calls us to sing that way. In the midst of the kind of life Paul called out among the Thessalonians just before our verses today – in the midst of their persecutions – the things that happen because we believe in Christ; and in the midst of their trials – the things that happen because we live in a sinful world. The tenor of this day is, in trials and persecutions, hearts trilling with praise… And some part of my heart, perhaps yours, says, “Sing to the Lord? Wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t and I might not blame them…”
In reality, it’s not just for them, is it? To whatever extent there is persecution in our jobs for holding to God’s moral will, mockery from our friends for belief in things they cannot see, that our family members hold God’s truth to be unfashionable… To whatever extent there are trials of unexpected diagnoses that change our life direction, the interpersonal problems because we receive each other in anger or with arrogant disrespect, the simple failings of wars and strife and money and political disagreement… To whatever extent we face these things, doesn’t it seem sometimes something like Psalm 98’s praises were mis-appointed – a discord in our ears? Because we are dissatisfied with how life goes or we doubt God’s goodness because our experiences are uncomfortable or we fear what will happen to us amid the turmoil…
We may even make a different cry like Israel of old… Malachi’s prophetic word, our first reading this morning, came in response to Israel’s cries; these ones:
It is useless to serve God. How have we been helped by keeping his requirements and going about like mourners before the LORD who rules over all? So now we consider the arrogant to be happy; indeed, those who practice evil are successful. In fact, those who challenge God escape! (3:14-15)
They were wrong, of course. They won’t escape… God’s burning wrath is coming, says Malachi. Or, as you heard St. Pau, “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” There’s no un-just wickedness going free… no unfairness here… No, righteous judgment there will be.
Even so, even there…sometimes we suffer from a sort of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome, don’t we? You know, where the captive develops a psychological bond with the captors; begins to think his abusers or captors are actually good… So that when we hear of God’s harsh judgment coming, as though we’re caught in the world’s ways and feelings, we might say, “That’s not justice – it’s barbaric! It’s too harsh! Everlasting destruction! Oh! and punishment! How uncomfortable to say… better would be amnesty, don’t you think?” And, perhaps for understandable reasons, who likes conflict? Or if the persecutors are our friends or the unbelievers are our children whom we love…
In a variety of ways, we’re tempted to define justice by the measure of our enjoyment and comfort and tolerances – what we find glorious – without any kind of accounting for God’s great wisdom or for the true depth of sin that sets people outside God’s gracious presence. We’re tempted to leave off the beautiful refrains of praise and take up the harsh cries of “Injustice!” and “Unrighteousness!”
We do struggle with God’s hidden will, don’t we? Not knowing why this or that happens or why we have to face harsh words in this world for loving something as beautiful as grace? This morning though, St. Paul is tugging, dragging on our perspective to keep it where it ought to be. He’s focusing on the real reality behind everything else, the one that points ahead to the reminder of the Last Day… that God Is Just.
Paul reminds in v.5 that what Jesus calls us to: perseverance in holding to God’s Word under persecution and in all the trials of sinful human life – it’s evidence. We’re tempted to see just evidence that things are broken. But it’s evidence that God is righteous and just. As Paul says, “All this [perseverance and holding to God’s promises in the midst of trial and persecution] is evidence that God’s judgment is right (because we sometimes do doubt it), and [his right judgment is after] (and I mean, has as its purpose and as its promised result) [to count you] worthy of God’s kingdom, for which you are suffering.” That’s how Paul addresses the Thessalonians and us! Not as broken – though it might have felt that way. Not as tired or afraid – though surely we are. He called us “worthy”…
Paul starts his letter in “grace and peace”, writing to people flourishing in faith even though troubled – to people who trusted that the work of another was greater than their own works and anything this world could work up. As Jesus said in the gospel, “in his name” they stood firm because of that declaration from God that this world cannot alter: worthy of God’s kingdom. Not guilty of sins by Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Washed clean in his blood poured out. Worthy, or call it holy like Christ, or even glorious… In his name, he promised life – the kind far behind anything here.
For you who hold that same faith, who stand in Jesus name, who are worthy… this morning, Paul calls you to look at what it will look like on that day, no matter what it looks like now in your life… Because God is just – and you have suffered in various ways as Christians, holding the holiness of Christ within you through persecutions & trials – there will be punishment for those who do not know God’s salvation, who have chosen to not obey his Word won’t receive his blessings, who have assaulted God’s holiness in you. They will face justice, and it is good and right for God to do.
When Jesus comes in blazing power and glorious might, those not his own will be driven from his presence into unending destruction. But for you: relief… the burning glory of his might that destroys his foes will warm your faces because he wants you in his presence, you who are marked with his name, worthy of his kingdom. In fact, v.10, he’s coming for that purpose: to be “glorified in his holy people” and “marveled at in all those who believe.”
Consider things this way – this life is not always bright. Most often it is dim. It’s shaded with failing health, personal weakness, ruined lives, defamation, and disdain borne for Jesus’ name. But that day Jesus’ own will be like the filament of a light bulb… Do you remember that? The incandescent bulb with the little wire inside? Where electrical current is applied and the heat and light of moving electrons glows through that filament, so that it sears your retina to look at? That’s you… Jesus’ great glory – no matter how you’ve ever looked or felt… It’s his shining glory in you, whom he’s fashioned by trial and persecution for his purposes – into just the right shape and strength – glowing with glory incandescent that will make the world gawp – better, marvel, because of how so not glorious they thought of you and him. Regardless, incandescent with holiness, as God is so you will be seen to be. You: who simply heard this message of salvation and knew his righteousness as your own.
Behind the veil, beyond what we see, the truth is God is just. And that Last Day will prove it out. And the divine historian will record… that the world demanded you worship its ways and hum its melody, but you would not. And people heard it in your lives: “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things…” And in devilish ways they twisted life and society and work so that you had to choose – God or them – and you chose Christ, and it rang loud and clear: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music.” All the while spouses died, there was war, and jobs went away and knees had to be replaced and everyone hated chemistry – and some of us even died just to say that Jesus is Lord. And sometimes when our voices were hoarse from crying and too weak to carry the tune the angels bore the bridge: “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord; for he comes to judge the earth!” For far greater than any lottery we could win or comfort we could achieve, the Christ himself promised – through trials and persecutions – those who followed him are worthy – and would shine with his glory – and would sing his praise – to the never-ending refrain. “All the ends of the earth have seen the power of God…” By God’s grace, even here we have seen; surely there so we will. Amen.