The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
First Sunday of Advent
December 2, 2018
I Thessalonians 3:9-13
Houston is crazy, thriving, mixed up, whacky place to live. Think about it - nestled here along the Gulf of Mexico, the Port of Houston sees more foreign tonnage cargo than any other port in the country. We have Interstate 10, so you can drive directly to Santa Monica, California or to Jacksonville, Florida. We’ve got two international airports. We’ve got NASA. We’ve got the Med Center, which employs more people than the entire coal industry in the United States. Houston is the most ethnically diverse city in the country, and demographers say that what Houston looks like now is what the country will look like in 2050. Houston looks like the future.
But Houston also looks like the past. This week we read from Saint Paul’s letter to the Christian church at Thessalonica. The similarities between the two cities are striking. Perched at the northern end of the Thermaic Gulf, Thessalonica was a major port city of ancient Greece. Not only that, it was built on the major road of the Roman Empire that was the east-west corridor of ancient Greece. Thessalonica sat on the I-10 of its day, just without the Buc-ee’s. Thessalonica was a diverse city, with Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Jews. With the port and the road and the diversity, Thessalonica looked like a city of the future.
But there was one element of Thessalonica that really made it stand out. You know, in Houston, if you peer out across the Gulf of Mexico you might seen an oil rig. But in Thessalonica, if you stand in the Upper City, you can look out across the Thermaic Gulf and see Mount Olympus; the mythical places in which the gods dwelled. Mount Olympus, where Zeus and Athena and Apollo gathered to feast and throw thunderbolts and do god things. They said that on Mount Olympus it never rained or snowed, it was always perfect for the gods. Mount Olympus looms there on the horizon of Thessalonica, the ultimate symbol of the pagan gods.
Imagine, for a moment, that you live in ancient Thessalonica and for your whole life you’ve honored Zeus, and Athena, and Apollos, and all the rest. You’ve offered sacrifices, slaughtering the bulls, the oxen, and pouring out wine, hoping that your sacrifices please those fickle gods. For all your whole life you’ve been looking to Mount Olympus, making endless sacrifices hoping that those gods would eat and drink your offerings and that they would be satisfied with you. What you offer is never enough.
Then one day you’re in the marketplace and some foreigners show up. That’s nothing new, it’s a port city; strange people from strange lands are always showing up. But these foreigners are different, they’re Jews but not like the Jews you know. They’re talking some nonsense about how their God was a human. “Ha!” you scoff. The gods are mighty, they live on that mountain over there up in the clouds, safe from the vagaries of human existence, safe from hunger and pain. Then, you hear this foreigner talking about this same God who also died on a cross. “Preposterous!” you think! God becoming human is bad enough, God dying on a cross is just dumb. Who would want to pray to a god like that? Who would want to honor a god that died when you could have a god that lived forever on that mountain right over there? Who would want to honor a god that got hungry like you? That got thirsty like you? Who would want a god that died when you could have Zeus who, perched on Mount Olympus, was safe from all that?
But then something happens. You learn that this man was named Paul. Paul was preaching right there in Thessalonica, with Mount Olympus in the background, and he was stirring up trouble. Paul was always doing that. Eventually, Paul starts a riot. Paul makes everyone so mad they try to beat him up and then the crowd beats up the people who are with Paul.
You’ve lived your whole life in Thessalonica, honoring the gods of Mount Olympus. In that port city you see all sorts of people from all sorts of lands; you’ve seen all sorts of people practice all sorts of different religions. But never, never, have you seen someone talk about a god like this. Never, never have you seen somebody willing to stake their life on what they were saying. Never, never have you heard about a god who sacrificed his blood for you, instead of you sacrificing to him. You’ve spent all your life sacrificing to the gods, and then you hear about this God that sacrificed for you. And one day you come to the realization that no matter how many bulls you offer to Zeus, he will never be satisfied. No matter how much wine you pour out to Athena, she will demand more. No matter how many oxen you dedicate to Poseidon today, you will have to dedicate more tomorrow. And so, you decide to follow this new God-man, this Jesus Christ. You turn your back on Mount Olympus and turn to embrace the cross. You become a Christian.
This, essentially, is how the ancient church in Thessalonica began. We know this because we read about it in the Acts of the Apostles. Pagans, who once worshipped those old gods decided to follow Jesus. They decided to gather as a community of Christians to worship not an idol, but a living God. They gathered not to offer endless sacrifices, but to eat and drink bread and wine as a way to thank God for the sacrifice that God had made for them. This is why Saint Paul is so joyful in his letter back to the Thessalonians. He says, “how can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” They have stayed the course, they have remain committed to Jesus. They have turned their back on the old gods. They have turned their back to Mount Olympus. They have decided to follow Jesus.
And so we return in our mind’s eye to Houston, the modern Thessalonica. A type of Mount Olympus, still looms on our horizon. Though we do not pray to Zeus and Athena and Apollo, we still pray to the pagan gods - the gods of money, the gods of conspicuous consumption, the gods of stuff, the gods of status. Mount Olympus is the stock market, Mount Olympus is the next neighborhood up, Mount Olympus is the newest gadget. And like those old gods, these gods demand our sacrifices. And these gods will never be satisfied. They demand more and more. The house will never be big enough, the car will never be new enough, the clothes will never be stylish enough, you will never feel safe enough. And we will continue to make decisions that keeps money in our pockets to the detriment of our community. Sure, we’ll keep that money, but we’ll most likely fritter it away on pumpkin spice lattes. I tell you, these gods of consumption and stuff are just as bad for us as the gods of Mount Olympus because all they want is more. And even when we have given everything, it will still not be enough.
You scoff when the Church says that we should give away 10% of our income. But you don’t bat an eye when the world demands that we spend 110% of our income at the mall or at the car dealership or for season tickets.
Yes, there is a Christian sacrifice of Sunday worship, of praying daily, and loving your neighbor as yourself. And many of us find those sacrifices too much. But we have no problem sacrificing ourselves to our credit cards, the true god of our modern world.
I tell you, we need the gospel more than ever. God has sacrificed everything for you and is satisfied to call you a beloved child. I tell you, Mastercard will never, ever, be satisfied with your sacrifice to them. They will always demand that you sacrifice more. The choice is before us - we can rejoice in the blood that was shed for us on the cross. Or we can bleed ourselves dry in worship of the gods of money.
As we begin this Advent season together, I beg of you, return again to the Lord Jesus. Turn your back on those gods that suck your life and soul away. Turn your back on the Mount Olympus that looms over your soul. Turn your back on all those places that demand more of you, and turn to Jesus Christ who sacrificed himself for you. Like that ancient Thessalonian who heard Paul’s message for the first time, hear again the good news of Jesus Christ, scandalous though it is. Hear again that God became like one of us, he was born, lived, laughed, cried, ate, drank, and died like one of us. But more than that, as preposterous as it sounds, that same God rose from the dead, for you, and that is enough. I know, I know, it would be much easier to continue on with the old ways. It would be much easier to pour out our offerings on Amazon.com like everyone else, it would be much easier to read more about the Dow Jones than about the living God like everyone else.
But please, for the love of God, do not be like everyone else. The world is trying to tell you right now to spend more, more, more for Christmas. I will say it plainly - that is blasphemy. Saint Paul puts it best: “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” True love is shown, not through gifts underneath a tree, but through kindness, gentleness, and compassion on one another.
Do not spend these four weeks of Advent just getting ready for Christmas by shopping and buying things that no one really wants anyway. I ask you, turn your back on those gods. With Saint Paul, I pray that “God so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” This Advent turn to the living God and remember, remember that when our Lord Jesus comes again, your bank account, all your toys, your gadgets, your car, your house will not be the measure of your net worth. The blood of Jesus upon the cross will be your net worth. And that is enough.