God chose you as first fruits
Sermon preached at the Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, November 10, 2019
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (year C, proper 27):
Haggai 1:15b-2:9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

Haggai 1:15b-2:9: In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17: As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?

But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

Seventy-five years ago, in the cloudy darkness before dawn, over 156,000 men boarded ships and airplanes to cross the English Channel into France. They knew that the day would be dark. Indeed they knew that many days would be dark ahead of them, if they were blessed to survive. They knew that the challenge they faced was one of the greatest in history. These men were chosen to brave a deadly and well-prepared enemy to be the first fruits of the defeat of Nazi oppression and murder. On D-Day, some soldiers parachuted into France, while others climbed out of landing craft facing fierce enemy fire in the invasion of Normandy.

These men were deeply aware of the danger and the costs involved. Nonetheless, they answered the call of their nation, and of the nations of the world. They were chosen—chosen to serve, and to give their lives if necessary, to save and defend others. They could not see victory clearly, as we can now, looking back from the safety of time. They could not see victory clearly, but they resolved to engage the struggle until the day of peace arrived.

As they prepared for the invasion, General Dwight Eisenhower sent out the following message: “Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force. You are about to embark upon the great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.” General Eisenhower sent them into battle reminding them of the world’s call to them—how they were chosen as the first fruits of the day of victory that lay ahead.

In today’s Old Testament reading, the prophet Haggai brings a message from God to the beleaguered Jewish exiles, returning to the ruins of Jerusalem after forty years in Babylon. God spoke to his defeated people as they look at the destroyed ruins of the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. He spoke to them like a general encouraging his troops. He told them “Take Courage! …Take Courage! …Work, for I am with you!” Rebuild the temple; rebuild the city. Do not be afraid of the peoples around you, for your work will glorify my name in all the world. He promised them renewal and encouraged them as he called them to join in the first fruits of the day of victory that lay ahead.

In today’s New Testament Reading, St. Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica much like a general encouraging his troops. Paul writes to a church that has heard the gospel and embraced the love of God in Jesus Christ. They discovered the life-changing freedom of the grace and mercy of Jesus, and the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. They knew that the kingdom of heaven was breaking into the world, and that the resurrection lay before them. The Thessalonians fought the oppression of sin and death. They fought against the oppression of pagan gods and pagan powers. They fought with the weapons of the spirit for the victory of God’s freedom from sin.

But these Christians also discovered what every Christian discovers—that faithfulness to God does not always come easily and following Jesus Christ comes with a price. They were deeply aware of the dangers and the costs involved. Jewish Christians would be ostracized from Jewish society. Gentile Christians would be inhibited from the very social fabric of pagan society—they could not eat food sacrificed to the gods and sold in the marketplace. They lived in constant danger of being executed for sedition if they did not simply burn a little incense in worship of the Roman Emperor. Like soldiers approaching a fortified enemy, they were deeply aware of the dangers and the costs involved in following Jesus. Nonetheless, they answered the call of God. They were chosen by God—chosen by God as first fruits of salvation.

Like a general committing his troops to the invasion of a fortified enemy, Paul sends the Thessalonians into ministry, reminding them of God’s call to them—how God chose them as the first fruits of salvation. When Paul calls them “first fruits,” he brings to mind the Old Testament commandment to bring to God the first fruits of the harvest. The first crops brought in from the harvest fields were brought to the temple in service of God. These were the offerings of life and labor set aside and consecrated for God’s service. Paul tells the Thessalonians that they were chosen by God as the first fruits of salvation—that they have been set aside and consecrated for God’s service.

Paul reminds them of their training. He reminds them of God’s faithfulness to them. Paul reminds them of the hope and promise of glory that lies ahead of them. Like the allied soldiers on D-Day, they could not see the day of victory completely, but they knew that it was approaching, and that they were chosen to brave the darkness and participate in the new dawn.

Many years have passed. The Empires of Babylon and Rome lie in dust, museum pieces of history. Nazi Germany is an echo of the past, a shivering memory of human sin. Yet Christians such as you and I join with the ancient Jews and the Thessalonians in their place in history. We also know of the assurance of God’s love. We also know the life-changing grace and mercy of Jesus Christ—we also know the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. We also see the Kingdom of Heaven breaking into the world, and we know that the day of God’s victory—the day of resurrection—lies ahead of us.

But you and I also face challenges for following Jesus. When the world around us scoffs at Christian devotion, God calls us to have courage and faith to see what the world cannot see. When the world around us insists that self-fulfillment is the only thing that counts, God calls us to set our hearts on him. When it would be easier to avoid the tough questions and avoid the things that truly hurt inside, God calls us to go deeper—deeper with God and deeper with each other. When the world calls us to self-service, God calls us to self-sacrifice to serve Jesus—to give ourselves sacrificially to bring God’s light to the darkness. God says to us “Take Courage! Go—for I will be with you.”

This Christian community also faces challenges in following Jesus. Our culture no longer reinforces involvement in church. Instead, there are countless options and numerous excuses to take us away. Away from putting Jesus first, away from growing disciples, away from saying no to the spiritual drift so easy to fall into. God calls us to say yes—yes to investing in our relationship with God—yes to investing in relationships with each other in Christ—yes to bringing the light of God’s grace to the world.

Like troops in a platoon, we support and encourage each other, we train together, we serve together, dedicating our very lives to our mission. We give of our time to learn and grow as disciples; we brave the call to teach our children in Sunday school; we give of our time to feed the hungry and house the homeless; we sacrifice our time and energy to pray and shape our lives to follow Jesus. We dedicate our Sundays to worship God as king in our lives.

Like the veterans of D-Day, we answer God’s call to us. We face the challenges and we face our fears and apprehensions, knowing that the day of God’s victory lies ahead of us, knowing that God is with us. Like the Thessalonians, we know that we are chosen by God–each one of you is chosen by God as the first fruits of God’s vision for our future.

Like the Thessalonians and the soldiers at D-Day, Christians know the dangers and the costs of discipleship, but we also know that God is with us, that the kingdom of heaven is breaking into this world. Listen to the language of Paul’s letter: We know that God called us through the proclamation of the good news. God loves us, and through grace gives us eternal comfort and good hope. God strengthens us in every good work and word. God guards us from the evil one. The Lord is faithful to us.

Like a general committing his troops to the invasion of a fortified enemy, God sends us into ministry, reminding us of our calling—how God chose us as the first fruits of salvation. God calls us to press on to the day of victory. God calls us to follow in the steps of veteran saints who show the glory of God in their steadfast love of God, their steady perseverance over many years, their unwavering joy and commitment, their faith in the promised day of God’s victory.

Every Sunday, we embark on a great crusade toward which we have striven these many years, and to be sure, the eyes of the world are upon us. God has chosen us as first fruits of salvation, and we too will see the day of God’s victory.