Sermon for August 29th, 2021

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Revelation 2:1-28; 3:1-21 (NT p.245)

Scripture reading incorporated into the sermon.

Revelation: 7 Letters to 7 Churches, Part 2

A ship, sailing past a remote island, spots a man who has been stranded there for several years. The captain goes ashore to rescue the man and notices three huts. “What’s the first hut for?” he asks. “That’s my house,” says the castaway. “What’s the second hut for?” “That’s my church.” “And the third hut?” “Oh, that?” sniffs the castaway with an air of bitterness. “That’s the church I used to go to.”

The second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation are all about churches: Beautiful, messy, so divine, and yet so flawed churches. If you've ever spent any time participating in the life of a church--beyond just sitting in the pews on Sunday morning--then you already know this. Churches may be inspired by God, meant to be places of holiness and love, but the reality is that churches are made up of (and made by) very human, very imperfect people. Every church has a spirit, an ethos that grows and changes through the years, sometimes closer to God's ideals, and sometimes far from it. And so, when we read these chapters, we can see a lot ourselves and the churches we've belonged to through the years.

At the same time, and keeping with Revelation's theme of past, present, and future--the letters that John of Patmos writes to these churches are intimate and personal, wrapped up in the complexities of the past, and difficult to understand fully unless you are familiar with the concerns and conventions of Jewish and Roman culture in the second century. We're going to take a look at some of those messages today. There are seven, but we'll examine a few of them today in detail, looking for patterns and insight for our own spiritual lives in community.

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands: (that's a reference to John's vision of Jesus in the first chapter) 2 “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3 I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.

Past, present, and future. Through John's words, God praises the present strengths of the church, their loyalty to good teaching, and their patient endurance through some challenging times. But then he reminds them of their past, of the "love you had at first" and how far they have fallen from that ideal. He calls them back to that love, and predicts both future consequences (if they keep their current trajectory) and future rewards (if they are able to turn themselves around). This is a pattern we'll see in almost all of the letters to come.

In 2017, I had the opportunity to visit the ancient city of Ephesus, along with James Holt and Michael Simants. These pictures give just a small sense of the grandeur it once possessed. Ephesus was one of the most famous and prosperous cities in the Roman Empire. But when you're on top of the world, so to speak, it's easy to forget where you came from, and the God who *really* controls the universe. When John speaks of "removing your lampstand from its place" he's talking about taking Ephesus down a few pegs, on a metaphorical level. But this probably has another meaning, too: The city of Ephesus was an important harbor, and on several occasions the waterways would fill up with silt and debris, requiring the entire city to change its position, to literally be "removed from its place." Just a small reminder that no matter how magnificent the buildings and cities we build, God is still ultimately control of the forces of nature we depend upon.

8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life: 9 “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.

There are a lot of contrasts in this short message: first and last, dead and alive, riches and poverty, those who claim to be Jewish but are not. And the history of the city of Smyrna was indeed a roller coaster ride. In the first century it was a thriving city, a faithful ally of the Roman Empire, and the beautiful buildings on a hill at its center were called the "crown of Smyra." But the city had been completely destroyed twice in its history--once by an attack from the neighboring Lydians, and once by an earthquake. In the second century, when John likely wrote Revelation, it was probably in a rebuilding phase, hence the reference to its affliction and poverty. It was a city that had been first and was now last, alive and now all but dead. The message to Smyrna is to give your allegiance and loyalty to God, not to the Emperor. You may be tested in this, or even imprisoned, like John himself was. But if you are faithful, in place of your ruined crown (your buildings) you will receive a crown no one can take away from you--a crown of life.

12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword: 13 “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication. 15 So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.

There is a lot of war-like imagery in the message to the church of Pergamum: the sharp two-edged sword, the threat that God will make war against them, and the promises made to those who "conquer." Pergamum was the capitol city of the Roman province of Asia, where all seven of our churches were located. It was the Washington, D.C. of its region, hence its designation as the "place where Satan lives." Rome was very much a war-driven empire, and so this message speaks in terms that probably made a lot of sense to its inhabitants.

For the second time we hear about the "teaching of the Nicolaitans" as something objectionable, and there's a further reference to the teaching of Balaam, who was a prophet in the Old Testament, and an enemy of Israel. In order to understand what the problem is here, it's helpful to know that the year 50, the earliest Christians held a council in Jerusalem. Their new religion was spreading quickly--although they didn't consider it a new religion. They still thought of themselves as very much Jewish, they just believed that Jesus was their promised messiah. But a lot of non-Jewish people were declaring their allegiance to Jesus, and they wanted to know if that meant they had to become Jewish as well. So the council of church leaders in Jerusalem decided that all the new converts had to follow two simple rules: Don't eat food that had been offered to pagan gods, and don't engage in activity considered sexually inappropriate. That's because these two things, more than any other, were the things that Romans did as part of the government sanctioned religion: They offered food in the temples to the Roman gods, and they engaged in sexual intercourse with temple prostitutes.

These two rules sound really simple and reasonable at first. But if you didn't go to the Roman temple and do the things that Romans did, you ran the risk of being seen as a threat to the Roman rule. You could lose your job, your reputation, and even your life. Enter the Nicolaitans. We don't really know a lot about them, but the guess is that their leader, Nicolaitus, was teaching early Christians that it was okay to follow both religions at the same time--to act like a Roman on Monday through Saturday, and then act like a Christian on Sunday. I suspect we all know people who follow that philosophy today: On Sunday they sit in church and talk about loving their neighbor and turning the other cheek, but on weekdays they go about the business of exploiting their neighbors for profit, pleasure, and personal gain. And so the message to Pergamians in every age is this: If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword. Instead, for those who "conquer" that tendency (pun intended by John), God promises manna from heaven, in other words, food provided by God instead of food from the pagan temples. God also promises a white stone inscribed with a new name. I don't think this is a pebble-sized stone. When we visited the ruins in Ephesus, there were countless large, white slabs of stone (like this one), often engraved with the name of a builder or a patron who financed the building. I think this promise is a way of saying that if you put your faith in the builder and patron of the universe, he will put his name (and therefore his blessing) on the foundation of your life.

The next message, to the church at Thyatira, is in many ways similar--although with its own specific references to people and circumstances that its original audience would have well understood. We're going to fast forward, however, to the next chapter, and to one more message.

3 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. 3 Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 Yet you have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. 6 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Sardis was one of the oldest cities in Asia, dating all the way back to 1200BC. It was once the capitol city of the Lydians, the people who had destroyed the city of Smyrna. But by the time of Revelation, it was a city in decline, a city on the point of death, as the message indicates. Twice in its history, it was the victim of surprise, night-time attacks from neighboring armies--this is what the message alludes two when it says "If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you." The claim to fame in Sardis was the wool industry--the Sardians invented the process by which wool (in other words, clothing) was dyed into different colors. So there's a great play on words when God, through John, says to them, "You still have a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled (or dyed) their clothes," whose clothes are still white (un-dyed). It continues in the promise that for those few, I will not blot (or dye, or color) your name out of the book of life.

Just like in the message to Ephesus, Sardis is reminded of its former days: "Remember then what you have received and heard." You still have a great name, a great reputation, but you're not living up to it.

Of all the messages to the seven churches, this is the one that most hits home for me, as I consider the past, present, and future of First Presbyterian Church here in El Paso. Founded 139 years ago, we are one of the oldest churches in the city, and at one time we were easily the largest church in the city, the church all other churches looked to for leadership and inspiration. We built Providence Hospital. We built the city's very first accredited pre-school. We built this sanctuary--the largest of its kind when it was built (and in my opinion most beautiful). And for a time, we filled it to the brim with generations of El Pasoans who were baptized, raised, married, discipled, and ultimately commended into God's hands, right here in this place.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it: We are now a church on the point of irrelevance, obscurity, and death. Look around right now, and that fact is pretty obvious. As much as we'd like to blame Covid 19 and believe that "people will come back when it's safe" the truth is, we've been in a pattern of decline for the last three decades. Covid just accelerated that process.

I've only been a part of that decline for the past nine years, and most of you here today much less than that--so it would be easy for us to say, "that's not our fault." That may be true, but we're not entirely off the hook. God says to the church at Sardis, you still have a FEW people who walk with me--and it is precisely to THESE few that the message is addressed. YOU are the ones who have the power today, in the present, to "wake up, and strengthen what remains." If you don't, the name of this church, its history, its legacy, and its capacity for good will eventually be blotted out forever. That's a prophecy. But it's not the only prophecy--there's always a promise:

If you conquer--and the Greek word for conquer here is νικῶν; it means to actively overcome; it's where the name brand Nike gets its name from. In other words, if we JUST DO IT (and I'm not even sure what exactly "it" is, but that's never stopped creative and passionate people before--if we OVERCOME the past and the present trajectory that we are on, then our name will NOT be blotted out in the future, but instead will be proclaimed in the heavens before God and all his angels. I think that's a promise worth leaning into, worth living into, and worth our time, our energy, and all of our efforts. But it's up to us. Wait, who? Reach up and touch your ear--right or left, it doesn't matter. Who?

Revelation 3:6. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches."