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Finding Freedom

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Discover how Paul's life at the workbench gave him freedom from self, freedom from status and freedom to be in the moment

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FINDING FREEDOM (Paul at the Workbench) Many of us remember our Dad's workbench or mom's special drawer of tools-a corner of the garage, basement, or kitchen where a cobbled together table sat under an array of hanging tools or maybe it was a cluttered drawer in one of the kitchen cabinets. As little kids, we were fascinated by it. As we grew up, we probably learned to ignore it. But chances are that somewhere along the way you learned---by way of hammered thumbs and painful slivers-how to fix some things. My Dad did have his toolbox and taught us how to hammer a nail, while my Mom, who is a wonderful seamstress, made many of our clothes and seemed to always have something to fix. Even as adults with families of our own we pass our sewing repair projects to her willing and capable hands. She had her sewing machine and boxes of thread, buttons, etc., -- tools of the trade--for making and fixing the never-ending repairs to our clothing. Hammering a nail, holding a saw, repairing or altering clothing, fixing stuff around the house-chances are you learned these skills by watching. You watched hands at work, not just telling you, but showing you how the work was done. Much of the apostle Paul's writing was to people he knew well. These weren't just people who had heard of him or respected him as a church administrator. They knew him. He had founded those churches in person and discipled these people firsthand. He didn't just tell them about the gospel, he lived it in front of them. He didn't just describe the fruit of the Spirit, he displayed the various attributes-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control-he displayed these in the way he lived. He gave people an example to follow-sometimes with words, always with actions. Our passage today is from 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, ESV. "For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers." One of the ways Paul lived out the gospel was by working with his hands. Through much of his missionary career, Paul worked as a tentmaker, a fact that is known so well that people in bi-vocational ministry today, like our pastor Craig, are often called "tentmakers". Paul grew up in Tarsus of Cicilia, a place that exported the goats-hair fabric used in tents. He grew up around the trade and probably learned when he was very young. This was the solid, sweaty work of his hometown. Tentmakers, like everyone else in those days, worked constant hours-sunup to sundown. He preached in the synagogue on the Sabbath, but he probably did a lot of discipleship and teaching at the workbench. "Hold this rope, let me tell you about Jesus... Pull this tight and I'll tell you about the Messiah while I stitch this seam." One great blessing we have on our blueberry farm is the opportunity to talk to people. Craig and I have had many wonderful conversations on our blueberry field when we're harvesting side-by-side with pickers or sorting berries at the tables. We always try to engage our customers in conversation too, so they know we are interested in them as people, not just paying customers. A friend called this, "blueberry evangelism." We look for opportunities to be generous with the bounty of the harvest, but also with the joy that comes from knowing and sharing and living out the gospel. Let's sit with Paul at the workbench for a while. Imagine him at work and consider what we can learn from his actions as a tentmaker. Let's look at how that profession-which he was called to do as part of his ministry-gave him certain freedoms. God can use anything for ministry; He can use anything to shape us into the image of Christ. We will observe three ways Jesus was able to use Paul's calloused hands and swollen knuckles as another way to bring his message to the world. Then let's ask how these same freedoms, which God has also given to you, enable you to use your work and home environment to share the good news with others. Here are three freedoms Paul experienced as a result of his career as a tentmaker: * Freedom from self * Freedom from status * Freedom to live in the moment FREEDOM FROM SELF I Thes 2:9-10 "For you remember, brothers, our labour and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers." These verses are nestled among metaphors of Paul's care for them and relationship to them. In this chapter he says he was like a father to them, in others he says he was like a mother, then a child with them-all expressing intimate relationships to share not only his message but also himself with them. There was another aspect here too of the three-dimensional witness of Paul. Unlike Paul, who was an itinerant speaker and communicator with a purpose-filled message, most orators did not do manual labour like this! In that society, speakers and teachers would have been supported by their disciples, by a wealthy patron, or by the believing community. It was considered beneath someone like Paul to work with his hands. Remember, he was called a Pharisee of the Pharisees, having studied under the famous Gamaliel. Why was he working as a tentmaker, sewing and probably selling his goods at the market? People didn't go to workers in the marketplace for wisdom and theology. Yet there he was, right between the fish-sellers and con-artists, stitching fabric and telling people about Jesus. HIS WORK GAVE HIM FREEDOM FROM SELF. God used this simple trade to help shape Paul into the image of Christ. The speaking and preaching, which he was trained for, and which seemed to come naturally to him, was not his calling for making a living. There's an interesting irony here. Peter, who was a rough-cut professional fisherman, was thrust into the role of speaker and teacher and was supported by the communities he ministered to. Paul, who was a professionally trained communicator, was called to make ends meet by doing work that was considered demeaning. Imagine sitting in a lecture hall-walls inlaid with mahogany, chairs finished with the finest leather. The class is about to begin, and a string quartet delivers a rousing introduction. Then the janitor walks up to the podium, clears his throat and proceeds to give the most brilliant lecture you've ever heard. It's a bit like that. Paul's work, which brought him down in the eyes of society, gave him a freedom from self that let him preach the gospel with joyful abandon. I think in 2020 we are in the midst of a far more dangerous pandemic than COVID 19. It's the pandemic of selfishness. I have a confession to make. For all my life I've been at war with my own selfishness. It's my natural propensity, my automatic default, to think of myself first and foremost. I believe it's my greatest weakness, working hand in hand with its best buddy, pride. Satan is selfishness' greatest cheerleader, and perhaps it's never been easier to be enslaved by selfishness. The culture keeps telling us that life should be all about us. We hear: Find your way Discover yourself Celebrate your voice Be all you can be If it feels right, it must be right for you Find your truth Me-time Our culture says, "Life should be all about ME--my fulfilment, my happiness." This is Satan talking! Jesus tells us that when we DIE to ourselves, we find true freedom, peace and joy. There's a movement, especially in the wealthy western world, that tells us we should just look within. Determine yourself who you are, create your own identity, then conjure up the energy and the effort to get there. It's completely inward focused, and if you buy into this selfish perspective, you'll wind up exhausted and disappointed because in a sense, you are making yourself god, but you are certainly not! This desire for self fulfilment, the enslavement to selfishness, has even crept into the church. Satan is relentless, pushing his amoral agenda through the sexually-obsessed media like a dripping faucet you can't fix. You know his lie, right? You can't be happy unless you're sexually fulfilled--expressing yourself in a sexual relationship, and any sexual expression will do. Rather than a beautiful act of love and unselfishness between a man and woman in marriage, sex has become cheap and loose with its primary purpose being self-gratification. This thinking has even crept into the church, where Christ-followers have taken scriptures out of context, out of the whole message of the Bible to support their belief that Jesus and Paul were OK with same sex relationships. Don't get me wrong. These are well-meaning Christians, forgiven sinners like you and me. If you have a similar religious experience to mine, you yourself have been subject to this kind of faulty reasoning and bad religion. Don't forget Satan's other lies: You can't be happy until you have this... do this... achieve this... or feel this... God wants you to be happy, so do it.... You can find peace, joy and happiness within yourself. Ironically, it's when we are truly free from ourselves, living unselfishly, dying to ourselves and living for Christ, that we will find the joy and fulfilment we are seeking. One great example of this is Henri Nouwen. He was a famous priest and professor who had spoken all around the world and written best-selling books. Yet the only place he finally found true rest, and thus lived out the remainder of his life, was in a community of special-needs people. In the humbling environment of working with those who had Down syndrome, autism, and mental illness, at the workbench with these folks who had no idea he was famous, Nouwen found the freedom that he was looking for. What does God use in your life to give you freedom from self-freedom from your own ego and self-focus? For some of you, it might be your actual work. It's difficult when you find yourself out-skilled and out-worked by others, sometimes younger workers. Can Jesus use that discomfort to give you freedom from the trappings of your ego, from the unquenchable appetite of status-seeking? If you are a senior, perhaps it's your need for help from others that is giving you freedom from self. Maybe there are tasks that you can no longer do, perhaps you aren't able to live independently any more. Perhaps you find yourself in relationships or circumstances you cannot control where God is freeing you from your own ego and self-focus. You are not God. You are not in control, making things happen or changing the hearts and thoughts of others. Paul's humble job as a tentmaker gave him freedom from self, and that gave him a wonderful opportunity to not only live the gospel, but to share it too. Here's the second lesson from Paul at the workbench: FREEDOM FROM STATUS Let's look again at that first verse again: For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:9 ESV) This is something Paul mentions in several places. In a different letter, he tells the Corinthians: If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn't we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. (1 Corinthians 9:11-12) You hear this in Paul's dialogue with different communities. He didn't burden them financially and was specific about avoiding that. In Jewish society at the time, the Rabbi was supported by his community as a matter of course. There was no question about where his cheque was coming from, as it was part of tithing to your local synagogue. Paul wouldn't participate in this. He didn't want the status of being the rabbi to become an obstacle between him and the people, hindering the gospel message. We also have to remember the other half of Paul's audience: the Greco-Roman society. That culture had some similar practices, but the motivation was very different. Teachers, with bands of disciples following them, weren't uncommon in that society; teachers in Athens or Rome were well-known and we still follow some of their ideas today (remember the Pythagorean theorem from geometry class?) They were so well-known that it became a status symbol to have a thinker on the payroll. Paying your very own playwright or actor or philosopher was a bit of ornamentation to keep up with the elite. If you were wealthy, you had your own property and a large house and slaves and horses and whatever, but if you were really wealthy you had your own sage in the house. Paul walked away from all of that and sat there at the workbench. He stepped out of the discussion entirely. Nobody could accuse him of preaching a new message so he could make money; no one could call him the rich man's pet. This was his freedom from status. He wasn't interested in that; he was driven entirely by the mission God had given him. Has your faith ever brought you to this kind of freedom? Has it brought you to where you can stand away from the constant vying for status and center-of-attention? Social media can be a wonderful thing, but Satan can also use it powerfully to reinforce his gospel of selfishness. Did you know that you can make your own YouTube channel and stream videos all about you? On Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and the like we can update, in lightning-fast real-time, all aspects of our lives and then wait anxiously for a meager harvest of approval and attention. Our culture is telling our young people, our children, it's telling YOU that it's all about YOU. Your identity is what you do, where you belong, what you have, how you feel... But Jesus tells us that we are loved, cherished, and destined as children of the living God. He reminds us that our worth isn't a matter of our works or smarts or looks, but of his grace. Paul wasn't tempted or distracted by these positions of status-being a stately Rabbi or a famous philosopher; he just sat down at the workbench and was free. The workbench gave him an even more amazing opportunity to share the gospel with others disappointed and desperate for hope. Here's our final lesson from Paul at the workbench: FREEDOM TO BE IN THE MOMENT For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 ESV) The Thessalonian church was a flashpoint in Paul's ministry, as discussed in Acts 17. His preaching almost resulted in a riot. Believers were alienated from their cultures, whether Jewish or pagan, and the tension was bad enough to cause violence. Paul and Silas were hidden by the community and then released at night to the next town. Then people from Thessalonica found out they were there and chased them down. In this kind of environment, disowned from their families and cultures, it is no surprise that the Christians fixated on the end times. They became focused and obsessed with the second coming to the point that some of them were even quitting their jobs and disengaging from life. They were simply watching the sky and letting their lives fall apart. Paul at the workbench stood in stark contrast to this. Instead of a kind of apocalyptic obsession, he participated in one of the most consistent rhythms of human life: work. Listen to his explicit instruction to the community in Thessalonica: Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12) What a shocking thing to say to a doomsday community! Here they were hiding in bunkers, waiting for their deliverance to come and Paul says, "Come to the workbench. Live a quiet life, work with your hands. Let that be your witness." He doesn't offer them fireworks and drama; he offers them a life well lived in the moment. Because you know how it's all going to end, you can live more fully in this moment. Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles didn't offer them (or us) a wait-for-it end-times scenario, but gave them and us the key to living a different life, every day, even in the details of the workbench. The gospel life calls us to the daily work of maintaining harmonious relationships. It calls us to the difficult journey of helping the poor. It calls us to the seemingly endless grace-work of Christ being formed in us. The gospel is not an escapist doctrine that relieves us of the responsibilities and tensions of life-it gives us strength to press further into life! Karl Marx derisively called religion the "opiate of the masses," when the truth of the gospel is meant to wake us up! Paul at the workbench gives us the great example of someone who is holding two realities in tension. On one hand, he isn't blinded by the world and Satan, trying to make heaven on earth through self-fulfillment, business dealings, influence and status-seeking. On the other hand, he isn't watching the skies and obsessing over "signs" of Christ's return. He is in the real world, living every day in the light of eternity, dying to himself and therefore able to FULLY LIVE every day. May you know the freedom of being a fully loved child of the God who will one day make everything right. May you follow Paul's example, not necessarily to make tents, but to be free from status-obsession, end-times fixation, and the ultimate slavery of living for yourself. For the Son has set you free, and IN HIM you are free indeed! Closing Prayer Help us remember who we are and WHOSE we are. You tell us that we are your children, your masterpieces, created in Christ Jesus to do YOUR good work. Help us recognize Satan's lies and cling to the truth Help us not to be enslaved by our own agendas, our own selfishness, our sinfulness, and help us in the joy of saying yes to you Jesus, accepting the grace and undeserved forgiveness you offer and denying ourselves, find the great joy in sharing the gospel with others not only in what we say, but how we live every day. Thank you for the freedom from self, freedom from status seeking, and freedom to live in this moment. Jesus, I want you to be the focus of my life, on the throne in every circumstance and every second of every day. You are more than enough!
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