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Sermon blog: Get back to where you once belonged!

July 6, 2014

 Revelation 2: 1 – 7
Get back to where you once belonged!
I am reading through Revelation at the moment. Edging my way, bit by bit, through the early chapters of what is one of the most challenging books in scripture. Challenging in just about every sense of the word!
In the first chapter John, who is on the island of Patmos, in solitary confinement for his faith, sees an astonishing vision of the risen Jesus. He falls at the feet of the one who was and is and is to come, the First and the Last. And at least at the outset, Jesus seems to be dictating a message to John. The message is for the church.
Revelation is another New Testament letter in one sense, but it is nothing like any of the other epistles. John addresses himself to 7 churches dotted throughout the province of Asia. Revelation brings a specific message to those 7 church fellowships, but as with all scripture, it speaks to us today.
We know John well. Initially as one of the disciples. He was a fisherman, along with his brother James, working for the family business, Zebedee & Sons. They left everything to follow Jesus. Jesus nicknamed the brothers the Sons of Thunder. Maybe they could be a little bit explosive. Certainly they were ambitious. They wanted positions of power in the Kingdom of God, missing the teaching of Jesus that the last shall be first. But James & John remained in Jesus’ inner circle along with Peter. They were indeed most privileged to be so closely involved with the Messiah, Immanuel, God with us.
Love
John wrote his gospel, his biography of Jesus, setting out his case so that people would believe. Carefully choosing events; miracles, teaching, confrontation. One of his major themes is love. Take John 3:16. He never names himself in his narrative, maybe modesty does not permit. He refers to himself as “the one whom Jesus loved”. Of course in that sense he was not unique. All the disciples were loved by their master, but it seems that the thing that stood out to John about his relationship with Jesus, is that it was more than a relationship of teacher and student, it was a relationship of love.
Ultimately John is a witness to the crucifixion and to the empty tomb.
So when John comes to write his New Testament letters, the inescapable theme running throughout them is love. Love for God, demonstrating itself in love for each other. It was a nonsense he said to claim to love God but not to love our brothers and sisters in the church. The one was the outworking and true test of the other.
Indeed tradition has it that when he was old he would say the same few words at every church gathering – “Little children, love each other”.
Shining like the sun
There is one incident that John does not include in his gospel, but he James and Peter were there. The other gospels tell us that Jesus was ‘transfigured’ on the mountain and was joined by Moses and Elijah, representatives of the Law and the prophets. Transfiguration is not a word in common usage today, and the descriptions of this event do not appear to do it justice. What we are told is that Jesus’ clothes became as white as the light. But his face “shone like the sun”.
Somehow those disciples were witness in some part to Jesus glory. Jesus lived as a man among his people, but the disciples caught a glimpse of his deity in that moment.
So when John was confronted with the risen Son of Man, with a face that “was like the sun shining in all its brilliance” did he fall to the ground out of fear, or was it in worship to the one who loved him? Rather than the fear of the unknown he now saw face to face. Reunited. And what he saw in part on a mountain years ago was fully revealed.
How do you see Jesus?
When you and I imagine Jesus, do we see him in his earthly ministry? Perhaps mostly we think of him as the one who suffered on the cross. And of course it is right that we remember him in that way, for that was the very centre piece of his rescue mission. Perhaps less often we try to even see a poor shadow of his risen glory. We cannot begin to imagine so maybe we do not try. Or like Moses do we even dare to ask to see just a small piece of the glory of the risen Son?
He is risen! And he is risen in glory! His divinity is no longer hidden. And one day we will see him. In fear? Yes, but maybe also like John, reunited with our friend and saviour.
Ephesus
As we start to read chapter 2 of Revelation, Jesus has specific messages for John to record and to pass on to each of the seven churches.
Again it is widely thought that John was one of the founders of the church at Ephesus, possibly the same church that Paul wrote to. So as he prepared to take dictation, his ears would have pricked when the first church to be addressed was the Ephesian church.
The letter is said to be written to the angel of the church in Ephesus. A reminder that God’s protection is over his people.
Imagine the Ephesians slitting the envelope in their church meeting. “It’s news from John. Our founder!” But the opening words make it clear that this communication comes with a higher authority. Ultimate authority.
He sees
These are the words of Jesus himself. The first the last and the living one. The one who holds the seven church angels in his hand and who walks among the lamp stands. So they certainly needed to listen.
It had been explained to John, that the lampstands were the 7 churches to whom the Revelation letter was written. And Jesus walked among them. And he still walks in the midst of our churches today, by the working of his Holy Spirit. He is not distant from us, but he walks with us. He sees us. If we are ever tempted to think that he doesn’t care about us and the things we do, we can take comfort, and also be challenged, in the fact that he is here. He sees. He loves. He protects.
And it is what he sees that feeds the message that he has for them. I wonder if in that split second John wondered what Jesus would say to Ephesus. His baby. Perhaps he felt some pride in where they had come from, in their achievements. And if that was the case the words would have given him great comfort.
As the Ephesian elders started to read to their congregation there was encouragement for sure. Real positives. Maybe even for them too a sense of pride that the risen Jesus had noticed them.
Deeds
“I know what you do!”
“You work hard. You keep going. You don’t put up with wicked people. You can tell a false teacher when you hear one. You have suffered for my name. And you are not tired”.
A good end of term report isn’t it. If you had that you’d be pretty pleased. You are busy doing things as a church. You believe all the right things. You keep going even you suffer in the name of Jesus. Who could ask for any more?
That sounds like a picture of a church that is doing well, but Jesus goes on to pull the rug firmly from under their feet.
“You are doing so many good things, but you are a disappointment to me. There is something wrong. Fundamentally wrong. You have forgotten how you once loved me”.
They are doing so many good things, but that is not enough. They have fallen out of love. And in all their busyness, maybe they hadn’t even noticed. But Jesus walks among them, and, with eyes like flaming fire piercing the darkness, he sees the truth.
They are running on empty.
How do we judge our churches? Is it by how busy we are? How many people’s lives we touch? Is it about believing all the right things? Having a better understanding of Jesus than some of the other churches that meet nearby?
Do we judge our success by how big we are? How many meetings we have? Do we stretch ourselves to the limit, because that is what we are called to do?
When I was a student, I remember standing outside church at the end of the service with my housemate. An elderly man who may have spoken to us previously, but if he did, I don’t remember it, walked up to us and spoke 4 words out of nowhere. That’s all. Just 4. “We have the truth”. Now of course as Christians we have the truth. I agree. It’s true! But I strongly suspect he was not saying that. He was looking at his church, one smallish expression of church life, and was saying. “We are right. The others are wrong”. That’s a dangerous way to think.
See we can be doing all good things. And it is important we seek to model truth in our churches. But Jesus says that can all be empty if love is not the foundation, love for our saviour Jesus.
Motivation
So why else do we do the things we do? Maybe we work for Jesus and his church out of duty. Maybe we do it because we are seeking to gain God’s favour. We imagine that we can work to earn God’s blessing in our lives. But we need to be reminded that there is nothing you or I can do earn our salvation. We do not remain in our salvation because of our busyness. Just as there is nothing you or I can do which will cause God to love us less, so there is nothing more we can do which will make him love us more.
We can be secure in him. He loves us. He loves us enough to become one of us, to die for us, to take on the punishment of our sin, to give us eternal life, to send us his Holy Spirit, and to walk among us. And to come back one day to take us to be with him eternally.
That is truth. That is certainty, Jesus Christ has done it all for us. So if you or I are trying to earn his favour forget it. He has paid the price of our righteousness.
Get back
If our motivation is duty or guilt then Jesus would remind us, as the Ephesians, that there is a better way. And it is a way they once knew. And that you and I once knew. He invites the Ephesians to look back. In fact to look up, for they have fallen so far from where they were. They are DOING all sorts of things, but they need to do the things they did at first. In the words of Lennon and McCartney it was time to “Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged”. And perhaps it is time for you and me too.
Remember that first love? As someone who came to faith at a very young age I can’t really remember having sense of ‘first love for Jesus’. But through the years I can think of times when that love came alive. When there has been a real love. A real excitement. A joy in spending time in God’s word. A fervour and expectation in prayer. Love expressed through worship – alone and with my brothers and sisters.
Do you remember?
What saddens and frustrates me sometimes is that it can all seem a long time ago. A different world to the one I walk in now. Maybe you feel that too. I am sure that like the Ephesians, Jesus would be asking us as individuals and as church fellowships, to look up, and get back.
We all know about repentance. We invite people we come into contact with to repent. We repent ourselves when we know we have got it wrong. Maybe we compromise what we believe in and we know it. We know that confession will meet with forgiveness – that’s a promise.
The Ephesians did not compromise. Jesus commends them too that they had nothing to do with the Nicolaitans, who it seems had brought idolatry and immorality into the early church. The Ephesians were good people.
But they needed to repent. Not for immorality or laziness, not for giving up, but for allowing themselves to fall out of love with Jesus.
And perhaps you and I, if we recognise that dryness in ourselves, if we see that in our churches, need to repent. Which of course means to turn around. To get back.
It seems this is not something we can work up. It’s not about whipping up our feelings. It’s about getting back to those practices which fed our love for Jesus. Back to his word. Back to prayer. Back to seeking him to work among us powerfully. Back to love and joy and expectancy.
For the Ephesians there is a chilling warning. “If you don’t do this I will remove the lampstand. And that will be the end of your church. Your light will go out”.
I find those words challenging. It’s not about the size of our churches. It is not about our perceived successes. It is not about our growth. It is about love. A church may seem insignificant but be full of the love of Jesus. A church could be doing well on the surface, but be loveless on the inside. That small church will remain. That large church could disappear. By Jesus’ decision.
Open ears?
As I share these words of challenge this evening I am not sure what Jesus is trying to say to us. Is he seeking to encourage us that we are a loving church and that is what counts. We are not judged by the world’s standards of success. Keep going. God’s pleasure is on you.
I suspect we will know if God is challenging us to love again. As individuals or as church fellowships.
Are we going to listen? Are we hearing?
Because it is going to be worth it. It seems sadly to be the case that the Ephesian church did perish. They did not listen and paid the price.
But you and I are called to be overcomers. Our churches are called to overcome. For we have a future. An eternal one.
Long ago in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from the tree of life. One day we will be given the fruit freely and will live eternally in paradise. In the presence of the first the last and the living one. Whose face shines like the sun. Indeed in that place he is the sun.
Let’s be people and churches who listen. Let’s be people and churches for whom the motivation in all we do is our love for Jesus. Who first loved us. Get back to where we once belonged.

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