July 19, 2020
Uncertain Times…Christ-Centered Churches – Rev 2
Opening question-who likes job reviews? Who looks forward to getting their performance review? Or if you’re a teacher or a similar profession maybe you get your annual observation followed by the performance review. But does anybody eagerly look forward to sitting down with their boss saying-Tell me how I’m doing! How can I improve? Where am I not meeting expectations and underperforming? What steps can I take to do better? Anybody excited for that conversation? Probably very few of us! Or how do you respond when someone says-Can I give you some feedback on that? Do you say-Yes, please do. I have been waiting for some feedback! Probably not-because when someone asks to give you feedback you’re not hearing the word feedback-you’re hearing that person say-Can I tell you how terrible that was and why you should do it my way? We don’t tend to be people who willingly or eagerly embrace feedback-especially when we fear that it’s going to be negative. That’s what we’re trying to avoid! But the more proper term is constructive criticism. Who likes constructive criticism? Who soaks that up and can’t wait to hear it? Tell me how I could have done that so much better? It’s certainly a couple of polar opposite terms-constructive is good, criticism is not. But I think we can safely say that we’ve all been on the receiving end of some bad constructive criticism in our lives but hopefully on the receiving end of some profitable constructive criticism. And who hasn’t had to give some constructive criticism where there isn’t anything very constructive to say-and you’re trying hard to come up with something so you don’t crush the person? I can still remember my preaching classes from seminary-and we had to give sermons in front of our classmates-which was nerve-wracking in itself-but then after the sermon our instructor would ask the class to provide constructive criticism. Tell us what things our brother did well in his sermon. Tell us where our brother can improve in his sermon. And that was always the hard part-you had to brace yourself-okay, here it comes-let me have it-how bad was the sermon? But I can remember one poor guy in our class who stood up to give his sermon-and with hands in his pocket, head down, staring at the ground-he spoke a mile a minute and after 5 minutes-Done! We had no idea what he said-and we had no idea what to say when our instructor asked how we could encourage our brother-what do you say to that? But this one guy in our class raised his hand-and said-I like your down-home style. And we were all so relieved he said something positive and constructive!
Well this morning as we resume the series we started last week, that’s exactly what Jesus is going to do-not necessarily complement us on our down-home style-but provide the constructive criticism we need to hear as a church. We’ve entitled this series-Uncertain Times…Christ-centered Churches. And as we said last week, the first half of that title isn’t a question but a statement. We all know that we’re living in uncertain times-that’s the one thing we can be certain about-that uncertainty is all around us. What’s in question is whether we’re going to be a Christ-centered church. And that’s what Jesus was addressing to the 7 churches in Revelation nearly 1900 years ago-and it’s what He’s addressing to us today. And who better to give us constructive criticism, who better to give us a performance review as a church and tell us where we need to make some changes and improvements, than from the One who loves us, who gave Himself up for us, and who’s entire goal is to make us more like Him. If there’s anyone who’s constructive criticism is coming from a constructive place it’s Jesus. He’s not out to crush our spirit with negativity and point out everything we’re doing wrong so we feel like losers. He’s out to transform us so that we function like the beloved people He’s called us to be. So while we may be hesitant or nervous or afraid to hear the constructive criticism from others and even question their motives in sharing it, we can confidently embrace what Jesus has to say to us.
So open your Bibles to Rev 2 as we continue our series-our we’ll have it up on the screen. But this is where the first letter begins-Rev 2:1. And we mentioned last week that the seven stars are the angels, meaning the messengers of the churches-so this is referring to the elders/pastors of the churches. Jesus has authority over them as He holds them in His hands. He raises them up to serve-and then Jesus walks among the seven lampstands-which are the seven churches. And we made the point last week that Jesus isn’t off to the side of the lampstands, He’s not behind them or next to them-He’s right in the middle, walking right among the lampstands, right in the midst of the church. And that reveals Jesus’ great care and concern for the church. He’s in the center-it’s all about Him. That means the church exists to glorify Jesus and make His name known-just as Jesus loves the church. If you remember what it says in Eph 5:25-27. What an incredible passage! Jesus’ entire goal is to cleanse and sanctify the church. He’s getting rid of all the stains and wrinkles-makes me think of doing laundry! Whose clothes haven’t had stains and wrinkles! But Jesus’ goal is for a radiant church! That certainly fits with the lampstand analogy! Is the church radiant in our world today? Are we a radiant church? That’s the entire reason why these 7 letters to 7 churches exist in Revelation-so that the church can be radiant as Jesus intends.
And it’s also noteworthy that the first of the 7 churches we’ll look at is the church in Ephesus-the very church where these words were written. Now Ephesus was an important city both for the church spiritually but also culturally in its day. So here’s Ephesus-pic-and maybe some of you have been here. It’s on my bucket list. But Ephesus was along the sea and provided the greatest harbor in Asia Minor as 4 different trade routes went through the city. It had over 250,000 people. It had a theater, a stadium, a marketplace, a magnificent library as you can see here. Strolling through downtown Ephesus would have been like the 5th Ave of it’s day. But it also had the Great Temple of Artemis-pic. This is a recreation that stands in Istanbul-but when the temple was built in Ephesus it was double the size of the Parthenon in Athens, contained the great statue of Artemis and was one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Here’s an artist’s rendering from the day-pic. But now it’s nothing more than the ruins of the foundation and a single stone column-pic. How ironic that this once great center of worship is gone, the city is gone-it’s nothing more than crumbling ruins that tourists can visit and post pictures of-and yet the church is still alive today. While the ancient city of Ephesus is just a memory in the history books-the words written to the believers in Ephesus still exist and still challenge us today. When I see pictures like this I’m reminded of Isa 40:8. And that’s exactly what we’re going to see as we dive into Jesus’s words to the church of Ephesus.
So look at how He begins-Rev 2:2. So at the beginning Jesus’ words are sounding good! He’s recognizing and complementing their hard work and toil. He’s pointing out their patient endurance and how they refuse to tolerate evil and those who claim to be believers but really aren’t. And just like the church today, the Ephesians lived in a hostile, sinful, materialistic culture. It was a tough place to endure for the name of Jesus. In fact, the book of Acts describes the hostility and riots that were taking place there-Acts 19:23-28. This was the battleground between the pagan, false gods of Greece versus the truth of Jesus and the gospel. Ephesus was known as the guardian city of the temple of the great Artemis as it later says in Acts 19. Artemis was their goddess and heritage and major source of income. So Jesus is telling the church in Ephesus that they have faithfully stood against that evil and have faithfully endured for Him which is great. Listen to how He continues-Rev 2:3. Which would have been very easy to do in a place like Ephesus. It would be very easy for us to do in our culture and cities today-to grow weary, give it up and throw in the towel. To retreat as the church, say the culture is too against us, too hostile, time to lick our wounds and head home. But the church in Ephesus didn’t do that. They are patiently enduring for Jesus’ name-but they’re missing something very important about Jesus. And that’s where the constructive criticism comes in-Rev 2:4. Somehow at this juncture in their history as a church they have lost the primary thing that the church is all about.
Ask yourself this question-what does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean for you to be a Christian? Is it primarily about the things you do? A lot of people would probably say that. It’s about trying to honor God, go to church, give to the offering, read my Bible, say my prayers, treat others well, give to the poor, serve on a committee, try my best to be a good person. But notice what Jesus is saying here-that despite all the good things they have done as a church, all the ways they’ve patiently endured and stood for Him and not grown weary; that despite all that doing, they lost sight of who they were supposed to be-and that’s a people who know and love and walk with Him. That’s what a Christian is, that’s what the church is. So Pt1:Doing all the right things for Jesus isn’t a substitute for being in a right relationship with Jesus. That was the mistake the church in Ephesus was making-they were all about the doing but forgot about the being. They made Christianity about achieving, performing and accomplishing for Jesus rather than loving, worshipping and abiding with Jesus. What did Jesus say about the Pharisees in Matt 15:7-9. They were all about the doing-keeping all the rules and saying all the right things-but their hearts had drifted far away. Or think back to Jesus’ encounter with the 2 sisters-Mary and Martha. When Jesus shows up Martha is scurrying about the house cleaning up, cooking dinner, setting the table and getting everything ready; while Mary is simply seated at Jesus’ feet, in His presence-Luke 10:39-40. Now Martha thinks her case is watertight-Jesus, tell my sister to help out with the chores and do her fair share of serving! Because if anybody is about serving it ought to be Jesus, right? He’ll tell Mary to get back to work. But that’s not what He says-Martha, Martha-you are worried and concerned about many things, but Mary has chosen what’s most important-of course that’s being in a relationship with Jesus not just serving for Jesus. The one sister is about the doing, the other sister is about the being. And that’s what Jesus is telling the church in Ephesus to be about, that’s what He’s telling us to be about. Back to Pt1. Where are you on that spectrum? What’s been the emphasis in your life lately? Are you more about the doing or more about the being? Or ask yourself this question-are all the things you’re doing for Jesus resulting from your relationship with Him? Which they should! Or is it the other way around-you’re doing lots of things in place of actually walking with Him and loving Him. That by doing lots of things you feel good about your spiritual life-but deep down you know that you’ve grown distant from Jesus and lost your first love as the passage says. One commentator said-Good works and pure doctrine (which are good things) are not adequate substitutes for that rich relationship of love shared by those who’ve experienced the redemptive love of Christ. That incredible, amazing, forgiving, steadfast love of Jesus should fuel your relationship with Him.
What did Jesus Himself say about this in John 15:5-6. Now that’s a scary thought! But Jesus is speaking truthfully because He’s saying that if you’re trying to live your Christian life apart from Him, if you’re trying to follow Him in your own strength, through your own effort or based on your own good deeds, it’s not going to work. You’ll just shrivel up and die like a branch lying on the ground that’s been cut off from the vine. You have to stay connected to the vine in a relationship with Him. Because what’s the use of a dead, lifeless branch-no fruit is going to grow from it-may as well use it for kindling! And that’s what Jesus is saying to the church in Ephesus-Rev 2:4-5. If you’re not going to be a church that walks with Me and knows Me and loves Me, then there’s no point in being a church. There’s no reason for you to keep going. You exist for the sole purpose of loving Me-and if that’s not happening than your light, your lamp isn’t going to shine. And that’s Pt2:A faithful past for Jesus doesn’t guarantee a faithful future for Jesus. They had done well in the past, they served well and followed well because they loved Jesus well-but that wasn’t a guarantee for the days ahead. Jesus wasn’t saying that their past love was sufficient in order to compensate for their lack of love in the present. He wasn’t saying to just remember the past and call it good, He’s telling them to repent. In fact, He’s telling them there’s a great danger of having their lamp snuffed out if they don’t. What about us as a church? What about you? Are you relying on your love and faithfulness to Jesus in the past? Lord, you remember my devotion to you years ago, you remember how on fire I was for you, how much I loved you and walked with you? I’m sure that still counts today, right? Are those the things you’re saying to Him? Is the past what you’re banking on and appealing to? Go back to Rev 2:4. That’s not easy to hear-but that might be the constructive criticism from Jesus you need to hear this morning.
So there’s a couple of questions to reflect on-Q1:Where has my relationship with Jesus grown stale or comfortable? Where have you drifted from Him? Where have you lost sight of Him or let your focus shift to other things? Maybe you’ve grown bored in following Him. Somehow the excitement isn’t there like it used to be. Or maybe you’ve been wounded or hurt somewhere along the way and so you’re fearful of coming back to Him and opening up your heart so you’ve kept a safe distance from Jesus. Or maybe you’ve been distracted by other things-like Martha got distracted. Life, schedules, family, kids, work. All good things-but because you’ve gotten so wrapped up in them you’ve forgotten the best thing which is Jesus. Back to Q1. Reflect on that. Don’t be afraid to identify it. And then I love what Jesus tells us to do-Rev 2:5a. Notice how He’s not saying to not do good works. He’s saying to serve Him and do lots of things-just like you used to-but to do them for the right reason, for the right motivation. Which is not to make yourself feel good that you’ve done so much-but instead as response to your Savior who loves you so much! And listen to His command-Remember the height from which you’ve fallen. Remember how much you used to love Me and seek Me and worship Me-how you knew that one day in my courts, one moment in My presence was better than a thousand elsewhere. Remember that height of love you had for Me as you see where you’ve now fallen.
I don’t know if anyone’s had a big fall-but I can remember painting the outside of our house a few years ago. We had a roof that extended over the front porch and so I stood on that roof to paint the second floor. But the roof sloped in the corners and so it was very hard to reach the top corners of the second floor-and I didn’t want to rent a lift for the day just to paint those two spots that we’re just out of reach. So I got the kid’s step stool from the bathroom and I stood on it while I grabbed the gutter with one hand and then reached with my other hand to painted those corners-even standing on my tip toes to reach it. But I was precariously leaning over the edge of the house and down below was the cement driveway-so not a soft landing if I fell! And that’s what I kept thinking-don’t fall, don’t fall. I’m too high up, don’t fall! But are we that concerned, that worried about a spiritual fall-that tremendous height from which we’ve fallen in our love for Jesus? I ask myself that question as I remember looking down at the driveway thinking this won’t end well if I fall. But do I realize, do we realize that it won’t end well if our love for Jesus falls? And He’s telling us to not let it happen. To not plummet into a cold, mechanical faith that just goes through the motions-that’s not what it’s about at all. But instead to remember how amazed you were by a Savior who loves you no matter what-with all your flaws and mistakes and bumps and bruises-that you have a Savior who never gives up on you, who’s love for you never grows cold-and who continues to shower you with grace and forgiveness and countless blessing you don’t deserve but desperately need! So that’s the other question to ask yourself-Q2:How was my heart set ablaze by Jesus? Reflect on that-remember that-and let it rekindle your love for Him in the present! Your lamp doesn’t need to flicker and fizzle out. Our lamp as a church doesn’t need to flicker and fizzle out. Instead it can burn brightly as we love the One who has first loved us! I think it’s only fitting to end with the words from Ephesians-the letter that was written to this church 30 years before-Eph 3:17-19. To know the one thing that’s unknowable-but can fill your hearts-and that’s the love of Christ. It’s bottomless-and lasts forever!The love of Christ will surround you forever, for all of eternity-so let your love for Him now not grow cold or burn out-but instead burn brightly as it once did!