II Thessalonians 1:1-4,11-12
Our scripture readings this morning include a wide spectrum of motivational tools, from threats at one end to pleas and rewards in the middle, to modeling of behavior at the other end. The middle reading from Paul’s letter to Thessalonica is threatening, both to the righteous and the unrighteous. We only get the beginning and the end of the threats this morning, but what lies in the middle goes like this: the righteous are told they are in the midst of persecution in order to make them worthy of the kingdom of God. The persecution was seen as an opportunity to build character, and so what at first looks like a threat is actually a means of reward. The real threat in this reading comes from Paul’s words about those persons who were the persecutors – they are going to get into all kinds of trouble when Jesus comes back with his angels. Maybe Paul was hoping the threat of eternal destruction might turn some of the persecutors from their ways, or maybe he thought they had already gone beyond the point of repentance and redemption.
The first reading from Isaiah is also full of threats, as well as pleas. In this instance, the ones who are being threatened and pleaded with have not gone beyond the point of no return, and God is desperately trying to get them to turn around to come back to him. God is telling them that he is tired of their hypocrisy; doing all the right religious things while the rest of their actions were cruel and merciless. God says he won’t even look at them or listen to their prayers – two serious threats. But he also begs them to change, and even offers to discuss the situation with them. He pleads for them to seek justice and in so doing prosper, instead of continuing on their wicked course which leads to death.
The gospel story from Luke is basically a story of modeling correct behavior: Jesus comes to town, Zacchaeus the crook sees him and is so drawn to him that he changes his ways. It would seem that we would all strive to need only the modeling form of motivation. We should all have our attention so fixed on Jesus that we automatically base all our actions on his life.
But that is not how we really live. Our actions and attitudes don’t reach the goal of selfless love all the time. So even though it sounds barbaric and makes God seem mean, maybe threats are actually an act of kindness. Maybe even though the pleas and rewards make God sound like a frustrated parent, they merely reflect the reality that we act like spoiled children. The ultimate reality is that we have been taken into God’s eternal life, but the immediate reality is that we are not there yet. So no matter how true the ultimate reality is, we must deal with daily life as it is now. We all sometimes need the threats, pleas, and rewards, as well as the model of Jesus – who took on our human nature so that we might take on his divine nature.
Hopefully, as we grow in Christ, we will need less of the other forms of motivation as we more readily model our life on him. But as we grow, we will occasionally fall and need some of the threats and pleas and rewards. One might wonder if we will ever get to the point of complete trust in God so that we don’t need the lower forms of motivation to help us grow more into him. Our life in God is eternal, so who knows – maybe we do eventually come to complete union with his will, or maybe we just keep getting closer and closer for eternity, like an asymptote in math class. The one sure thing is that all of our growth in Christ comes solely from him. We can only take the growth he gives us and put it to work. Of course, we also have the option of throwing that growth away.
Tomorrow we celebrate all those who have gone before us in their growth in Christ. Maybe some of them are completely there, maybe they are just always getting closer, but it is good to know that there are others on the way to God with us. And of course, we are all surrounded by each other, on the way to God. So may we gather with each other, as well as all those who have gone before us and come to the table up here to be guests as God feed us with everything we need, because all we really need is God. We might need threats later on in the day, or a plea or promise of reward tomorrow, but right now what we are offered is God giving himself to us and for us. May we imitate the model and give ourselves to God and to those around us. AMEN