“Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the final chapter of Paul’s second letter to the church in Thessalonica. Dear friends in Christ, once I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Jesus is coming: Look busy!” Apparently you can goof off behind His back, but when you see Him coming, you better pretend to be busy, because He is quite literally bringing the wrath of God. There is some truth there: Jesus is coming, and He doesn’t want us to be idle as we wait. In fact, just after our Gospel lesson, Jesus warns us to be well-prepared for that day: “Watch yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” Jesus is coming: be prepared! He is surely coming, and He is coming as a thief in the night, at an hour that we do not expect, and so our task is to work while it is day, for the night of judgment is coming, when no man can work. How are we to wait? Jesus tells us: “Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all the things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” We wait in prayer, in worship, and in our Epistle lesson, Paul tells us another way we are to wait: by working!
“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” Jesus is coming: don’t be idle! We are called to spiritual labors like prayer and worship as we wait for Christ’s return, but also physical labor. Paul commands us to work in these latter days, to stay away from laziness and avoid idle people. He has little patience for those who are able to work, who are able to earn their own living, but yet do not. “Even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Those who can work should work. Now, we shouldn’t make Paul say more than he is saying. He isn’t condemning those who cannot work because of disability, disease, or age; he isn’t giving us political fodder for debates about welfare and food stamps. He is simply giving us the principle: Christians who can work should work.
This is fundamentally a seventh commandment issue: “You shall not steal.” What does this mean? “We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.” The seventh commandment is all about work, the earning and management of possessions and money. Laziness steals from others, especially those writing our checks, and we do this even when we are full-time workers. I’ve been an hourly employee: I know how it goes. Even as your pastor, I humbly confess before you today that through mismanagement of my time or just plain laziness, I myself have sinned against you in this way. Idleness steals from your neighbor, because you can work, but don’t, relying on what others earn through their labors, or else when you work, through laziness you steal time and resources from the one who hired you.
Lazy, idle hands are, as the saying goes, “the devil’s playground.” Idle hands lead to many sins. Idle hands get us into much trouble. “We hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.” You all know what a busybody is: someone who doesn’t have enough of their own things to do, so he or she intrudes on the business of everyone else. Not only is idleness stealing from your neighbor, in violation of the seventh commandment, but idleness can lead you into violation of nearly all the rest. Idle hands have led many into violation of the sixth commandment—“You shall not commit adultery”—and even into disobedience to the fifth commandment—“You shall not murder.” A busybody is often a gossip; add the eighth commandment to the list: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Meddling in the affairs of others, busybodies speak when they should be quiet. No wonder Paul says, “Such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”
If they will not listen, if we will not listen, then Paul’s instructions to the Church are clear: “We command you brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” As with any other sinner, those who are idle busybodies are to be admonished and called to repentance, along with any who steal from their employers through laziness. If they repent, rejoice and forgive, for you have gained your brother or sister. But if they persistently refuse, Paul says to ‘keep away’ from them, that is, they are to be put out of the fellowship of the Church, both so that they will not corrupt others and also so that they will see their great sin and be brought to repentance.
Your hands were created to give to others, not simply to receive. Even Paul himself, who was entitled to receive pay for his proclamation of the Gospel, didn’t exercise that freedom in order to set an example for the Thessalonians and for us. “You yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any one of you.” Paul didn’t act as if he were entitled to a free meal—in fact, he never ate in Thessalonica without paying for it! “It was not because we did not have the right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.”
We are called upon to follow Paul’s example, to work, to labor, not for our own good, to fill our own checkbook or belly, but to serve others. That is what work is for—you work not for yourself, but for the good of those around you. Your neighbors need your labors: the person who you serve or who buys the product you produce, and the family you provide for with your paycheck. God gave you hands to give to others, not simply to receive. Those who can work should work, not being a burden on others, but seeking to serve others, providing for those who truly cannot work for their own bread. Jesus is coming, and we are called upon not to look busy, but to serve others as we are able, putting the gifts God has given to us to work for the good of our neighbors.
Repent of your laziness, repent of your idleness, repent of being a busybody. Repent and throw yourself on the mercy of the One who labored, who worked for you. Jesus Christ was not idle, he was not lazy, but he willingly and tirelessly put in the work that was necessary for our salvation. He lived a life in accord with all the commandments, laboring to fulfill each and every one of them on your behalf. Then He faced the whip and the scourge, He carried His cross out of the city and up the hill, and finally He endured that cross, scorning its shame. His labors were all for you and for me, to pay the price for our sin, to eliminate all that stood between us and God. He labored to win forgiveness for your idleness; His bloody work atoned for every time that you are lazy and steal from your neighbor. You are forgiven by the shed blood of Christ! His labors were excruciating, but He didn’t shrink from the terrible work he had to undertake. And then, having accomplished His labors, having finished His work, Jesus, like His Father, rested on the Sabbath, only to come forth from the tomb on Sunday victorious over death itself. Now He sits at the right hand of the throne of God, from whence He will return on the Last Day.
We wait for that Day working in service to others. Someone once asked Martin Luther what he would do if he knew that Jesus was coming back the very next day. He answered, “Plant a tree.” His point was that we simply go on living, laboring, serving others in every way that we can, even as the day of our Lord’s return comes ever nearer. Christians serve others in imitation of Christ’s greater service toward us. Christians serve others in eager anticipation of His return. We serve others with an eye watching the horizon for our returning Lord, with an ear cocked to listen for the final trumpet.
“Jesus is coming: Look busy!” the bumper sticker says. I would alter that slightly—“Jesus is coming: Rejoice!” That coming Day is a day filled with joy, as God proclaims to us through Malachi: “For you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You will go out leaping like calves from the stall.” We rejoice on that Day because it is the day of victory, the day when Christ gives to us the eternal inheritance that He has prepared for us, all that His labors have won. On the Last Day, Christ’s empty tomb finds its completion in our empty tomb; His rest from His labors becomes our eternal rest from our own. On that Day we will find rest, having labored in this world in service of others, carrying the burdens of our neighbors. In the new heavens and the new earth, there will be work, but it will no longer be a burden, instead a great joy, for all things have been made new in Christ.
We are prepared for that day by the forgiveness that Christ won; only by His grace are we made ready for His return. Neither our physical nor even our spiritual labors can make us ready, for all that we do is stained by sin. We don’t place our trust in our work as we approach the Last Day, we place our trust in Christ. His blood-bought forgiveness makes you ready, for it cleanses you from every stain. It is His labor, not ours, that prepares us to receive Him when He comes in glory. Having been forgiven, having been cleansed, having been prepared by His gifts, we need not fear the coming final day. Instead, we can follow the words of Jesus in our Gospel lesson: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Our redemption is drawing near, won by the labors our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. He is coming soon—Amen! Come Lord Jesus!