Is God Ever Going to Act?

Proper 28, Year C

Isaiah 65:17-25 [or Malachi 4:1-12]
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Sermon thoughts on Isaiah and Thessalonians, beginning in each case with the text and exegetical/translation notes, followed by a few background comments and sermon suggestions.

Isaiah 65:17-25

17  For I am about to create new heavens
        and a new earth;[1]
     the former things shall not be remembered[2]
        or come to mind.[3]
18   But be glad and rejoice forever
        in what I am creating;
     for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
        and its people as a delight.
19   I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
        and delight in my people;
     no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,[4]
        or the cry of distress.
20   No more shall there be in it
        an infant that lives but a few days,
        or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
     for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
        and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.[5]
21   They shall build houses and inhabit them;[6]
        they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22   They shall not build and another inhabit;
        they shall not plant and another eat;
     for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
        and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23   They shall not labor in vain,
        or bear children for calamity;[7]
        for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD
        and their descendants as well.
24   Before they call I will answer,
        while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25   The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
        the lion shall eat straw like the ox;[8]
        but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
     They shall not hurt or destroy
        on all my holy mountain,[9]
says the LORD.[10]

[1] “The opening metaphors use creation language, a favorite theme of the exilic Isaiah traditions (e.g., 42:5, 43:1, 45:7, etc.). The Hebrew word “create” (Heb: barah’) is a theological word, and only has God as its subject in the Hebrew Bible. Only God can create. That in itself is a significant theological affirmation. Any genuine newness that can and will come, will not be the creation of the people, no matter how righteous they might be. Any newness that emerges in this community’s future will be God’s creation” (
[2] “Former things shall not be remembered.” This is the first of ten negatives in the passage. See a parallel in Ezekiel 18:24; 33:13, 16.
[3] “Come to mind.” (lēḇ:) Translated “mind” here, but could as easily mean “heart,” as the Hebrew consciousness collapsed the two into one. The importance of noting this is that “mind” sounds abstract and intellectual. “Heart” rightly indicates that behavior is an act of the will. God will intentionally not remember our former things. “[I]t usually refers to some aspect of the immaterial inner self or being since the heart is considered to be the seat of one's inner nature as well as one of its components.” Spiros Zodhiates, ed., The Complete Word Study Dictionary (Chattanooga, TN, AMG International, Inc.): 1992. Note that the same sense is found in 65:16b, “the former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from my sight.” Both of which are based on Isaiah 43:18, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” However, 43:18 suggests a complete makeover of creation, while here the newness will be within the existing creation. Cf. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Old Testament Commentary, Tr. David M. G. Stalker (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), p. 408.
[4] “Weeping” (beḵiy) Noun, masc. More than mere crying, this indicates full throat wailing in grief and mourning (Est 4:3; Jer 31:9, Jer 31:15); humiliation (Isa 22:12; Joe 2:12); and profound bitterness (Isa 22:4).
[5] The sense here, in this magical imagined world, is not just that there will be more old people, but that their lives will be abundant. They will feel “a youth.” The promise is for abundancy, not (altogether) longevity. “The theologian Paul Tillich suggested that we rethink our notions of “eternal”: we should not think of it only as infinite in length (the person who dies at 100 years of age shall be “reckoned as a youth”), but as infinite in quality. This means meaningful work and restful and stimulating retirement. Stephen Breck Reid in Roger Van Harn, ed., The Lectionary Commentary : Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 401.
[6] Cf. Amos 5:11 “People will build houses but not live in them, plant vineyards but not drink from them.”
[7]Calamity” (behâlâh). The nrsv note has “Or sudden terror.” Panic, destruction, terror. nrsv note has, “sudden terror.” From bahal, to tremble inwardly. Cf. Jeremiah 15:8, “Their widows became more numerous than the sand of the seas; I have brought against the mothers of youths a destroyer at noonday; I have made anguish and terror fall upon her suddenly.”
[8]Endzeit equals Urzeit.”  What happens in God's eschatological future will be a restoration to the conditions at the beginning of creation.
[9] The phrase “my holy mountain” also occurs in 27:13; 56:7; Joel 3:17; Ezekiel 20:40.
[10] Cf. Isaiah 11:6-9, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”

A few thoughts and Comments on Isaiah 65:17-25
Life in Jerusalem in the years after the return from Babylonia was not good. While there had been much rejoicing at the arrival of Cyrus the Great of Persia, the release from captivity, and the return to Judah, life on the ground was destitute and nearly hopeless. Not all who had been held in captivity returned and those who did, not only saw a destroyed and decaying city, they also met with resistance from those who had stayed behind and had not been taken to Babylonia.

After their arrival, decades passed and not much changed. The temple was slowly rebuilt (see the passage of last week in which Haggai encourages the rebuilding), but it was just a shell of its former glory. The biggest things they did were to restack the stones that had been torn down, put thatch on the roof and sweep out the interior. Compare the following numbers. Solomon, in first building the temple:
30,000 Israelites cutting and transporting timber,
80,000 stonecutters,
70,000 laborers, and
3,300 supervisors (1 Kg 5:13-18).

The total of Solomon’s workers came to about 47,000. Compare that with the “new” Jerusalem, the entire population of which was only about 20,000. There is no way that they could ever rebuild the temple to its former glory.[1]

But here comes a prophet, known only as “Third Isaiah,” who pronounces that things only look bad. In reality a new “New Jerusalem” is about to emerge. The old one was bricks and mortar, the new one will be in your hearts. It will be an almost mythical place where there will be no weeping, no crying; a place where one hundred will be considered young and babies will not be born still born. And mortal enemies in the animal world (wolf and lamb, lion and ox) will live together in peace (Cf. Isaiah 11:6-9).

The key verb form that sets the pace for this passage occurs only in Second Isaiah, with echoes in Third Isaiah (Isa. 40:28; 42:5; 43:15, 18; 57:19; 65:17, 18). The verb is bara˒, which we encounter for the first time in Genesis 1, is connected to God’s unique work of creation. The form here is a participle, whose predominant use is to connote a continuing action. So the JPS translates this, “I am creating.” However, the same form can indicate imminent action. Hence the NRSV uses the phrase “I am about to create.” The task of the preacher would not necessarily be to decide in favor of one or the other of these two functions, but to play into the question of whether this creation is continuing action or imminent action.[2]  Is God about to act, getting ready to act, or is God actively acting right now?

[1] Dennis Bratcher, The Voice: Biblical and Theological Resources for Growing Christians, Christian Resource Institute, (
[2] Reid, Lectionary Commentary, p.  400.


2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

6Now we command you, beloved,[1] in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers[2] who are[3] living in idleness[4] and not according to the tradition[5] that they[6] received from us.
7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us;[7] we were not idle[8] when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day,[9] so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate.[10]
10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.
11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies,[11] not doing any work.[12]
12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.[13] 13Brothers and sisters,[14] do not be weary in doing what is right.[15]
14 Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, [16] so that they may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.g

[1] “Beloved.” (ἀδελφός, adelphos) “Brothers.”
[2] “Believers” (ἀδελφός, adelphos) “Brothers.”
[3] “From Believers who are” The Greek has from every brother who is.
[4] “Living in idleness” (ἀτάκτως ataktōs) Adverb. While “Idle” is possibly close to what Paul has in mind, Disorderly, irregular (morally), disruptive, deviating (from the norm or rule), are also accurate translations, and much more frequent in other translations. The NIV (2011) translates it as both “idle and disruptive.” The NET has “walking in an undisciplined way.” Mounce has, a “disorderly manner” or to lead a “disorderly life” (Mounce Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament ed. William D. Mounce [2011]). nasb, “unruly.” tev, “meddlers.” Holman Christian Standard Bible, “irresponsibly.” Robertson says that this is a military expression meaning to be “out of ranks” (Word Pictures in the New Testament [Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933]). Or my favorite, from Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel, has “one who bucks out of the harness.” Louw/Nida (and the nrsv) disagrees with these interpretations, arguing that, “Traditional translations have often interpreted ἀτακτέω in an etymological sense of ‘not being ordered’ and hence with a meaning of ‘to behave in a disorderly manner,’ but this is quite contrary to the context” (Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains [New York: United Bible Societies, 1996], p. 768). Were they being lazy or disorderly? It could go either way, but Louw Nida believes that the context points to “lazy.”
[5] “Tradition” (παράδοσις parádosis) gen. paradóseōs, fem. noun from paradídōmi, to deliver up in teaching. A tradition, doctrine or injunction delivered or communicated from one to another.
[6] “They” Is it according to the tradition that you received” (παρελάβετε, parelabete) or “they received” παρελάβοσαν (parelabosan and παρέλαβον (parelabon)? According to the NET notes, the external manuscript evidence is fairly evenly divided, but the internal evidence leans toward “they”: “Given the second person reading, there is little reason why scribes would intentionally change it to a third person plural, and especially an archaic form at that. There is ample reason, however, for scribes to change the third person form to the second person given that in the prior context παράδοσις (paradosis,“tradition”) is used with a relative clause (as here) with a second person verb (see 2Th 2:15). The third person form should be regarded as original.
[7] “How you ought to imitate us” (pōs dei mimeisthai hēmas). Lit., how it is necessary to imitate us. From mimos (actor, mimic).  See also 1 Corinthians 11:1 (“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”); Galatians 4:12; Philippians 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6.
[8] “We were not idle” (ἀτακτέω ataktéō). Verb form of átaktos (see above on v. 6). Following the alternative translation of this word, the phrase could just as easily be translated, We were not out of order, or disorderly. We did not act out of line, or in an unruly, disruptive way. Mounce: “Disorderly lives.”
[9] “Night and day.” There are two forms of this expression in the manuscript evidence. One is νυκτὸσ καὶ ἡμέρασ (“throughout night and day”) preferred by the KJV and most older translations, and another is νυκτὸς καὶ ἡμέρας (“night and day”), preferred by most modern translations. According to Metzger, the latter “is in conformity with Paul’s usage in 1 Th 2.9 and 3.10” and the former “appears to be a heightening of the apostle’s statement, by emphasizing the duration of his labors (“throughout night and day”). Bruce Metzger and United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), p. 569.
[10]But in order to give you an example to imitate.” (all' hina heautous tupon dōmen humin). Literally, but that we might give ourselves a type to you. Purpose with hina and second aorist active subjunctive of didōmi.See also 1 Corinthians 9:4-5. There, Paul does not insist on imitating him in his right to be supported while at Corinth. In Luke 10:7, Jesus tells the seventy he sends out to spread the good news that they should depend on their hosts for sustenance, “for the laborer deserves to be paid”. In Galatians 6:6, Paul says that students should share with their teacher materially” (Haslam).
[11] “Busybodies” (περιεργάζομαι periergázomai); fut. periergásomai, from perí, concerning, and ergázomai, to work. To work all around, bustle about.
[12]Mere busybodies, not doing any work” (μηδὲν ἐργαζομένουςπεριεργαζομένους mēden ergazomenous alla periergazomenous). A play on words, hard to translate. Sort of like “Not being busy, but being busybodies.” “Pumpkin Cottage” has, “busybodies instead of being busy” ( Vincent says, “Not busy, but busybodies.” (Marvin R. Vincent, Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957) Ergázomai, to work, allá, but occupied but busybodies (i.e., doing everything but doing nothing).
[13]Earn their own living” ( heautōn arton esthiōsin). Literally, “eat their own bread.”
[14]Brothers and sisters,” the Greek (as with similar instances above) has Brothers.
[15] In Galatians 6:9, Paul says: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right ...”. See also Ephesians 4:28
[16] “have nothing to do with them”: In Romans 16:17, Paul says to his readers: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them”.
g “Believer” (ἀδελφόν) a brother

A few thoughts and comments on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13:

V. 6, “living in idleness”
“Idleness” has been the key word in this passage as it has been used and abused over the centuries. The NRSV has made a philosophical decision as to the meaning of this passage and has translated it accordingly. To them, the meaning of the word ataktos is “idleness,” and whenever it is used here—that and its other form—is the way they consistently translate it. The result is that Paul, in this passage appears to be castigating people for being too idle. Stay away from people who are idle, we were not idle when we were with you, and imitate us (in our non-idleness). However, the majority of other Bibles translate the word and its other forms as something like “disruptiveness” “unruliness” “disorderliness.” Robertson says that is actually a military expression, which means to be “out of rank.” So, the nrsv says that Paul is against idleness, when it is probably a better bet that he is against disruptiveness.

V. 10 “If any would not work, neither should he eat.”
The first thing to point out is that it is an old(er) Jewish proverb which Paul appropriates. And as occasionally happens to any of us when we pull in a thought from outside, Paul somewhat misapplies it. Paul doesn’t mean that when someone doesn’t work, they don’t eat (that implies work on the outside life), but he means if someone (in the church) doesn’t work (for the church), then don’t let them eat (of the church food--probably the agape meal). The first use means something like, if you don’t grow crops then you don’t have anything to eat. The second has to do with how the church should treat slackers who don’t pull their own weight in the church.

The interesting thing for me about this verse is how it is so often misunderstood. There are a lot of examples, of people using this passage, but both the right and the left have misquoted it. Marx and Lenin both used it back in the establishment of the Marxist Socialist state. Lenin called this verse the “first principle of socialism.”[1] Marx called it the “first phase of communism.” They addressed it to the wealthy, who live off of the labor of the poor. The elite sit back and idly enjoy the spoils of their wealth, allowing the working classes to produce for them. The rich were not working, and therefore idle, and the poor were like bond slaves, working endlessly. They used this passage to show that the Apostle Paul was against the rich. It’s even in the 1936 Soviet Constitution.[2]

On the other hand in more modern times political (and especially religious) conservatives have used it to show why we should not have a welfare state. They say that when you pay welfare you create an idle class that just lives off of the work ethic of the rich. They use the Apostle Paul to prove that God is against paying for food stamps and school nutrition programs. Senator Strom Thurman, South Carolina, Jesse Helms, Senator North Carolina are examples from an earlier generation. It was also quoted often by members of Congress in 2013, to justify cuts in SNAP.

Both of these positions are interesting, but the most important thing to say about them is that both are actually wrong. The interesting thing is that, as I noted above, the Greek word underneath “idleness” is actually something more akin to “disorderly” or “undisciplined.”
The following are examples of how various Bibles translate the word, adapted from my textual notes above:
  • The NIV (2011) translates it as both “idle and disruptive.”
  • The NET has “walking in an undisciplined way.”
  • The Mounce Interlinear NT and Dictionary has, a “disorderly manner” or to lead a “disorderly life[3]
  • NASB, “unruly.”
  • tev, “meddlers.”
  • Holman Christian Standard Bible, “irresponsibly.”
  • Robertson says that this is a military expression meaning to be “out of ranks[4]
  • Or my favorite, from Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel, has “one who bucks out of the harness.”

Now, these thoughts toward a sermon on this text are not a subtle way to say (as we all have) that there are complainers or disrupters in the church, or at least not in my church. We have a good group who are actually pretty congenial on the pleasantry scale. But I do want to say that in every church there are people who do not pull their own weight. They may not be the disrupters that Paul was talking about, but they don’t help the church move forward. They come, they sit, they smile, but not much else.

Pulling your own weight: The story of the mule teams.
Here is a colorful illustration of that that I found somewhere ages ago, but it still works:

In Death Valley there is a mineral called Borax, which is an ore used to make soap (those of you of a certain age will remember the fifties TV show, “Death Valley Days,” sponsored by “Twenty Mule Team Borax”). It’s found naturally on the floor of the valley in chunks called “cottonballs.” In the 1880s someone invented a way to extract the grit and dirt from the cotton balls to produce borax soap. The problem was that the nearest train stop was 165 miles away. So they devised a complicated mule team process to pull the stuff up out of Death Valley.

They had 20 mules pulling three wagons. The first two wagons were specially built for this process and weighed 7,800 lbs. each. Each wagon held ten tons of borax ore. In back of them was a water tank that held 500 gallons of water (it was Death Valley, after all). When all was linked up together the entire train weighed 36.5 tons!

To pull all of this they had to get a lot of mules, twenty in fact. The first two were the “leaders.” Chosen for their special training and intelligence.

The next ten mules were called the “swing team.” They were the major muscle in the middle. They just responded to “pull” “stop,” and other simple commands. Behind them were pairs called “pointers,” “sixes,” and “eights.”

In back of them were the last and biggest of the mules (in fact often were substituted with Draft Horses) called “Wheelers.”

In all of the years that this happened, they never lost a single mule and never lost a single load.
The reason was—to paraphrase the Apostle Paul—they all pulled their own load.

[I would pause at this point and say a few words about how this analogy applies to my local church. It shouldn’t be too difficult.]

Finally, Paul does not say that people—the people whose bodies are busy complaining—should be shunned or thrown out of the church, or banned, or have their membership revoked or anything. (By the way, I’ve actually served a church that tried to do that and it literally destroyed the church.) He calls them brothers and sisters in Christ. He calls them believers. What he does say is that the rest of the church should not be close to them. Don’t sit around the equivalent of the Thessalonian parking lot or the water cooler and listen to them. The important thing is for the people in the church to pull their own weight, not to argue or duke it out with the people who don’t.

He closes by saying simply, “brothers and sisters, do not grow weary in doing what is right.” We can all differ a bit about what that means in practice, but we can all agree that it’s good advice. Don’t give up. Don’t tire of trying to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and make the world a more humane and loving place.

Here are some examples of people misusing the passage.
  • I once found an article that quotes this passage to prove that the Bible is against Gambling. The thought being that you should never get something for nothing and gambling is getting something for nothing. Hmmmm. I don’t approve of gambling, but using this passage to say that seems to me to be a bit of a stretch.
  • Brandon Craft in an article, “The Effects of the ‘Welfare’ State”[5] uses it to condemn people on welfare. He claims that the verse is actually about someone not working for a living and taking care of his family.
  • The Autobiography of Amos Kendall (p. 442), quotes the verse to try to prove that human beings were created for the purpose of working in hard labor, and not working was a violation of our creation.
“Thus we find that man was doomed to work, that he was commanded to work, and that he ought to have nothing to eat if he will not work. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread said God to Adam Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work said God to Moses ‘He that will not work neither should he eat said Paul to the Thessalonians.’”
  • Todd Strandberg representing the far right, said, “Would Jesus Vote Republican?” (hint, Yes) says, “Catering to a welfare class -and that means people who refuse to make a genuine effort to work, even though they are healthy--violates a basic precept of God's Word, the Bible.” And then he quotes 2 Thess. 3:10.[6]
  • It’s occasionally also used by socialists on the far left, with the message that it is the Bourgeoisie who are lazy and that they are the ones who live off of others, in this case, the labor of the working classes.
I mentioned Lenin above. He says that “He who does not work (meaning the idle rich), neither shall he eat” is the first principle of socialism. Through this slogan Lenin explains that in a socialist society (which Karl Marx termed "the first phase of communism") only productive individuals would be allowed access to the articles of consumption.
Since the bourgeoisie lives off the labor of others, it is incapable of producing anything. In socialism, the bourgeoisie would either starve to death (literally and metaphorically) or begin to work beside the proletariat in the factories and farms.

The principle would not apply to those who could not work, such as the elderly or the lame. These groups would have a right to society's products because they were not at fault for their condition. The elderly, furthermore had worked during their youth, and so could not be denied life’s basic necessities.

This, by the way, is the logic behind today’s debates on whether to increase taxes on capital gains or “carried interest.” In neither one do the people who are receiving income (sometimes called “rent”) actually do anything to get their money. They just receive the gift or the interest, without work. So, the logic goes, you shouldn’t just receive the money without doing something in return, so therefore we will at least tax it a bit so that it’s not just totally, absolutely free. And most of the money you are receiving was created once upon a time by real people who did real labor and who are now paying you through your investments with their mortgage payments or car loans.

And so on. It’s an interesting case to make, but I’m not sure how many of us have enough financial verbal dexterity to get into it in a sermon and not either alienate your wealthy (which Paul would have done without blinking) or just simply boring them.  

And finally, I’ll close with Art Kohl’s famous checklist for finding a husband. I’ve shortened it somewhat, but left number eight in full, because he quotes 11 Thessalonians 3:10 in it. If you want to see the entire list, updated, go and click on the link, “How to Find a Husband.”[7] I especially like, number 9, “Is he sensible, Does he have common sense? If that’s the requirement, marriage would die out within our lifetimes…

How To Find A Husband:
A Ten Point Checklist To Help Dads & Daughters
Faith Bible Baptist Church                      
Pastor Art Kohl
1. Is He Saved?
2. Is He Sanctified?
3. Is He Serving?
4. Is He Spirit-filled?
5. Is He Singing?
6. Is He Soulwinning?
7. Is He Stable?
Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, let your daughter marry an angry man!
8. Is He Security?
Is he a hard working, industrious man? Will he take care of your daughter all the days of his life? Will he be willing to work overtime or have an extra job so your daughter will not have to work outside the home?
He should be well established as a faithful, hard working man long before he is married. Security is one of a woman’s most important needs.
II Thessalonians 3:10, “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.”
Will he promise to take care of you in your old age? This is God’s social security plan. Don’t give your daughter to him if he will not.
9. Is He Sensible? Does he have common sense?
10. Is He Strong?

[1] State and Revolution (1917). Found online somewhere… J
[2] “In the U.S.S.R. work is a duty and a matter of honor for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat.’”
[3] Mounce Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament ed. William D. Mounce [2011],
[4] Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933).