160619 Revelation 2:1-7

Last Updated on Sunday, 19 June 2016 Written by Pastor Pagels

Text: Revelation 2:1-7
Theme: From The Savior With Love

When was the last time you wrote a letter, when you actually sat down with a blank piece of paper, filled up the page (and maybe even went on to the backside), addressed the envelope, affixed a stamp and put the letter in the outgoing mail? Because of rapid advances in communication technology, because of the speed and convenience of email and text messages and social media, letter writing has become a lost art form. I don't know about you, but the rare times when I hand write a letter are reserved for what I consider to be very special occasions.

The apostle John did not have internet access while he was in exile on the island of Patmos. He didn't have an email address or a Twitter account or a smart phone either. When John lived two thousand years ago letter writing was the most advanced and most common form of communication, but the letters Jesus dictated to him are still very special.

In the opening chapters of Revelation the Lord used a series of seven letters to communicate with seven congregations in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), and through this inspired correspondence the Spirit still speaks to the church today. That means you and I need to read these letters carefully. We need to accept their pointed criticisms. We need to hold on to the encouragements to remain faithful. And we need to remember that every word of our Savior is motivated by love.

"From The Savior With Love" will serve as the theme of our summer sermon series, and we begin today with the letter Jesus wrote to the Christian congregation in Ephesus...

FROM THE SAVIOR WITH LOVE: EPHESUS

"To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God."

Like many letters this one begins with an identification of the author and its recipients. But unlike most written correspondence the author does not identify himself by name. Instead he refers to himself as "him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands" (1).

The book of Revelation is filled with symbolic language, and some passages are very difficult to decipher. There are a few symbols, however, that are easy to understand because they are clearly explained in the text. In the verse that comes right before this letter, Jesus gives us one of those explanations. He says: "The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches" (1:20).

The Greek word for "angel" means "messenger," and the chief messenger of a congregation is its pastor. So when Jesus tells us that he holds the seven stars (or angels/messengers/pastors) in his hand he wants us to know that he protects them and takes care of them because they belong to him. The lampstands Jesus walks among are the churches themselves, which are made up of Christian men and women the Lord calls to "let their light shine" (Matthew 5:16) by putting their faith into practice.

The Christians in Ephesus did put their faith into practice, and Jesus was quick to acknowledge that in his letter. He wrote: "I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false" (3).

There was no Protestant church in the first century AD, but the church in Ephesus did have a Protestant work ethic. They didn't sit around and wait for someone else to do what needed to be done. They didn't give up when the going got tough. When they faced challenges they met them head on. And when they were confronted by false teachers and false teaching, they didn't back down.

As the letter continues, so do the commendations: "You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary" (3). The Ephesians could feel the weight of the cross Jesus described in today's gospel lesson. Believing in Jesus didn't make all of their problems go away. Far from it. Like Joseph (in today's First Lesson) they had come to understand the meaning of the phrase, "No good deed goes unpunished." Following Jesus meant that they would have to endure hardships, but the daily struggles and stresses they faced had not destroyed their faith. Again, far from it. They had not grown weary. They were standing strong. They were standing firm. And Jesus praised them for it.

One of the benefits of this sermon series is that when we take a closer look at the seven churches in Revelation, we can also compare those congregations with our own. So how does the Christian church in Ephesus compare with St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Oconomowoc? So far I can see a few similarities. Most of us come from the hearty stock of the upper Midwest. We know how to roll up our sleeves and work hard. We can be stubborn too, and I mean that in a good way. We don't pick up and run at the first sign of trouble. We stay at it. We stick with it. We persevere.

Thanks to our Lutheran heritage, we also have a healthy respect for the Word of God. "In its truth and purity" are words we like to use to describe our preaching and teaching. By the grace of God we confess with confidence what we believe to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And because God's Word does not change, what we teach doesn't change either. Even if we are criticized, even if we are demonized, even if we are persecuted because of our faith, we will not grow weary. We will not allow ourselves to be bullied. We will endure.

But...you probably knew that there was going to be a "but," didn't you? But if we can apply the favorable words Jesus wrote about the church in Ephesus to our own church and our church body, we need to be willing to accept the criticisms too. The Lord had only one complaint about the congregation in Ephesus, only one cause for concern, but it was a big one: "I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen" (4,5a)!

Jesus doesn't provide any more detail. He didn't make an itemized list of sins that threatened the congregation, perhaps because there were no specific sins to address. Instead of condemning them for any scandalous actions, he found fault with their loveless attitude. Maybe the Christians in Ephesus were beginning to take God's grace for granted. Maybe they were forgetting to take each other's words and actions in the kindest possible way. Or maybe the joy of serving Christ had been replaced by a grudging sense of duty or obligation.

If those Christians could fall into those sinful habits, if they could fall into temptation, if they could fall so easily into Satan's trap, so can you. If you walked around all day with a Christian love meter on your chest, what would it read? How would it read right now? Do you love God with your whole heart, or are your loyalties sometimes divided? Do you always love (and treat) others as you should, or can you think of times when you put what you wanted before the needs of others?

You don't have to answer those questions because I already know the answer...because it's my answer too. We need to accept the truth, even if it hurts. We need to heed our Lord's call to repent. We need to confess the many times we have forsaken our first love. And we need to acknowledge that the Lord has every right to remove our lampstand and leave us in eternal darkness.

But...you probably anticipated that there was going to be another "but," didn't you? But instead of forsaking the Christians in Ephesus, instead of giving them what they deserved, instead of treating us as our sins deserve, Jesus gives us a promise: "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God" (7).

At first, this promise might not sound like much of a promise because there appear to be conditions attached to it. It sounds like the Lord is saying: "I will allow you to eat from the tree of life, I will restore you to the perfection Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden...if you are able to overcome." And I can't do that. Instead of overcoming my spiritual enemies, I am far too often overwhelmed by them. Instead of being filled with Christ-like love, my head and my heart are filled with hate. So where does a sinner like me fit into this promise? Where can I find comfort? Where in Jesus' words can I find hope?

In that little word, "paradise." The Lord used that word only one other time in the entire New Testament. Do you remember the setting? The Son of God was dying. He had been beaten beyond recognition. He was being taunted without mercy. The weight of the world's sin was pressing down on his shoulders, and Jesus was talking about paradise. With a man who was getting what his deeds deserved. With a criminal whose crimes could be described as anything but loving. And yet when this man asked Jesus to remember him, all the sins of his past had been forgiven and forgotten. He was hours away from death, but it wasn't too late. He wasn't too far gone. And he held on to Jesus' promise that they would be reunited in paradise.

But...it's the last one, I promise. But the thief on the cross and the Son of God will not be the only ones in heaven. Because we put our trust in the same promises, because we enjoy the same forgiveness, because we have the same Savior, one day you and I will join them in paradise, where we will sing God's praises, where we will bask in God's glory, where we will reflect God's perfect love forever.

It's a beautiful picture, isn't it? But it is not the final thought I want to leave you with today. Because you don't have to wait to experience that kind of love. You and I are on the receiving end of that love right now, and every day we have opportunities to put Christ's love on display in our lives. So my encouragement for you is the same encouragement Jesus gave to the Christians in Ephesus: Remember your first love. Remember who loved you first. Live in his love, and let your light shine. Amen.

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Compelled by the love of Christ, St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and School seek to reach out to our families, community and world, using Law and Gospel to make disciples, growing and nurturing them in their Christian faith and life.

 

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