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Sunday, June 23, 2019

Stubborn (Revelation 2.18-29)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; June 23, 2019; Revelation 2:18-29

:: Sermon Audio (link) :: Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

::: Music ::
Come, Ye Sinners (Indelible Grace, Matthew Smith)
All I Have is Christ (Sovereign Grace, Kauflin)
His Mercy is More (Boswell, Papa)
Cleanse Me (MORECAMBE)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: This manuscript represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

I have to admit: this text is hard, specifically the verse about killing the children of Jezebel. But if I avoided the hard verses or verses we didn’t understand, I wouldn’t really be doing you any favors. So we’ll try to work through that together.

We are in the fourth letter in Revelation, the fourth letter to us. I realize we don’t match up point for point with all the churches and all the issues, but I do believe that since people make up the church, we can learn something from each of these letters.

Today we’ll rely again on the basic structure I identified in the first week of our series. And out of that we will see today’s primary theme of STUBBORNNESS, and how God deals with it.

I’ll also note that the first four churches represent a kind of range. One was high in knowledge, low in love and action. One suffered persecution and was simply encouraged to persevere. One was a mixed bag of faithfulness in persecution and over-participation in the excesses of the surrounding culture. Today, with Thyatira, we find a church that swings even further toward love and enculturation, and away from truth and purity. It is a dangerous error, especially when mixed with a refusal to repent, change, and grow.

Dear Thyatira, I Know You (vv.18-19)

As with the other letters, this one opens with Jesus identifying himself as the author, with imagery pertinent to the situation at hand. In this case, he says he is “the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and feet like burnished bronze.”

Thyatira featured worship of Apollo, Artemis, and the Roman Emperor, who often referred to himself as the “son of god.” The city was also a military garrison and home to a bronze-worker’s guild, though it was better known for its trade in cloth and dyed fabric. Jesus’ identification as “the Son of God” and his use of imagery here and throughout this letter may be both to “speak the language” and challenge the local customs of those receiving the letter in Thyatira.

I the “I know you” section emphasizes the loving deeds, which “of late are greater than at first.” In contrast to Ephesus, who had the corner on the truth but had lost their “first love,” this church was long-suited in love and action. It may be what contributed to a tolerance of dangerous teaching, as if they were too loving to define and cling to truth vs. falsehood. Again, kind of the opposite of Ephesus, demonstrating that God’s desire was a healthy balance of truth and love rather than one extreme or the other. It is also commendable that they were GROWING in love and deeds. But a danger had arisen within the church.

I Have This Against You (vv.20-23)

And now we get to Jezebel. She was apparently a real woman in the church, either taking or being given the name of an infamous character in the Old Testament. Both Jezebels led the people of God astray with similar invitations to partake in the temptations of the surrounding culture. In the time this letter was written, and as we talked about last week, temples to Greco-Roman gods like Apollo or Artemis were not just places to pray or meditate. They were places where food, sex, and magic were all believed to be inter-twined. For the local Christians to take part in these things were the antithesis of everything Jesus and the scriptures taught about godly behavior. It wasn’t that food or sex or worship were bad, but that God had given good and safe boundaries for all of those and the local religion crossed all those lines and then some.

And here’s the kicker: Jezebel was part of the church in Thyatira. She claimed to be a prophetess and directed church members to take part in the practices of the local religions. It also appears that she promoted the occult and learning “the deep things of Satan” (her terminology!). So, this is no casual or ordinary vice or sin.

The specific thing Jesus has against the church in Thyatira is that they tolerated Jezebel’s teaching. They allowed it to go on and on and even got drawn into it. And here’s where STUBBORNESS fits in. God gave her time to repent, but she continued, drawing more and more of the church into her destructive behavior.

And here’s where things can get confusing. Though she is a specific and real person, much of what is then said about her becomes symbolic rather than literal. Those who “commit adultery with her” are not primarily doing so literally (though they may be), but committing spiritual adultery against the Lord by worshiping, following, and serving other gods. It’s the language of the Ten Commandments and gets at the very core of what sin against God looks like. Likewise, the children named in verse 23 are not literal children, but all the spiritual children borne of her false teaching and sin against God.

It all sounds incredibly harsh and unloving to our modern ears, but it is the essential opposite of trusting in and following God. It is open rebellion against God, who not only would forgive and welcome her and her followers home, but had apparently invited and given time to repent and do so. There is a part of us that just wants everyone to be saved and reconciled to God – and in fact, God wants that as well! But in the end, in the final reckoning, those who insist on rejecting God will die. And it would hollow out God’s love, justice, holiness, grace, and salvation to expect a loophole or end-run around God’s invitation to life. Nonetheless, it is and remains a hard thing to come to terms with.

At the end of this “I have this against you” section Jesus provides the reason for the judgment. He says it is so all the churches will know him as the one who “searches the mind and hearts and will give to each one according to your deeds.” God will not be mocked or fooled; Jezebel claimed to hold the secrets to knowing God, but God knew her inside and out.

Now all this seems to be in conflict with what we said last week about our sin not determining our salvation, but Jesus’ faithfulness doing so. Last week we talked about the dangers and unhealthy of clinging to heavy burdens and getting tripped up by entangling sin.

I would say these things are in healthy tension with each other. Indeed, there is no burden or sin that can keep us from God if we trust in Him. God’s mercy, forgiveness, and grace are wider than the sea and certainly bigger than our worst. Yet, we also read of Jezebel, who stubbornly refused to repent, refused God’s call to turnaround, and boldly rejected God and the truth about God. I fully believe God would forgive and welcome her at any point, but God will also not force believe and repentance on her. So, in the end, we also see the consequence of refusal to trust God. And it is spiritual judgment and death.

For the Rest, Who Overcome (v.24-28)

There are also those in the church in Thyatira who do NOT follow Jezebel’s teaching. Jesus exhorts them to “hold fast until I come.” Stay the course; don’t get entangled; keep your eyes on Jesus.

Those who do this “overcome” and will share in the rule of Christ. This seems to tie back in to the imagery with which Jesus introduced himself and in contradiction with the “son of God” who ruled in Rome (i.e. the emperor). In his earthly ministry Jesus did not fight against the power of Rome, but for eternity the Kingdom of God would be the ultimate and eternal power, with Jesus ruling with justice, power, and love.

Said another way, Jesus is urging the Christians in Thyatira to put their hope in God’s rule, not Roman rule, to trust in God’s gracious blessing not the favor of the gods that could be traded in the market for money, food, or sex. On one hand it sounds so ancient, barbaric, and foreign. On the other hand, it’s frighteningly contemporary!

APPLICATION: Who Has an Ear?

So do we “have an ear to hear what Jesus is saying to the church… saying to us?” Do we confuse and commingle our faith and following Jesus for the idols and temptations of our culture? Are there powers in this world that we serve in order to curry their favor, though it may put us at odds with obeying God and following Christ?

I’m not sure what is going through your head, but it’s an emphatic and certain YES to me. One frightening large-scale example is when the church of any stripe sells its votes to a political party rather than its first allegiance being to God. And that happens on the left and the right.

But it’s also personal. I may be no Jezebel, but I can cling to ungodly thoughts and habits with a frightening amount of stubbornness. And ultimately, while today’s text does raise questions about salvation and eternity and who will be saved, I don’t want to miss the more immediate and pressing question: Are there things of which I need, but refuse to repent?   

The letter to Thyatira serves as a sobering warning that, though God is patient and loving, we cannot rebel indefinitely. And as a side note, refusal to repent becomes easier the longer we do it, until we hardly think about it anymore. This letter is a good wake-up call… Will we hear it? Will we answer it? With God’s help, we can!

Come, let us worship and bow down
Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For He is our God
And we are the people of His pasture
And the sheep of His hand.
Today, if you would hear His voice,
Do not harden your hearts…
                                   ~Psalm 95:6-9


Sunday, June 16, 2019

Mixed Bag (Revelation 2.12-17, Hebrews 12.1-6)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; June 16, 2019; Revelation 2:12-17; Hebrews 12:1-6a; Psalm 24:3-6

:: Sermon Audio (link) :: Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

::: Music ::
Breathe On Us (Jobe, Cash)
Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary (Thompson, Scruggs)
Holiness (Underwood)
OFFERTORY: Near to the Heart of God/Children of the Heavenly Father (Susan Slade, flute)
Take Time to Be Holy (HOLINESS)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: This manuscript represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Spiritually, emotionally, realistically, we are such a mixed bag of good and bad, mature and immature, strong and weak. There is a notable passage in Romans where the Apostle Paul himself bemoans the warring nature within of doing what he doesn’t want to do and not doing what he does want to do. And it runs the gamut from “I don’t want to eat those cookies… I’m going to eat those cookies” to the “same lips praising God and cursing others” to those who earnestly want to serve the Lord sometimes consciously turning away in continued rebellion and sin. At least that’s been my experience with myself and the people I know… and scripture seems to back that up. So what are we to do? Do we just give up and give in? Is there a standard of goodness we are to reach and then we’ve made it?

Today I want to offer an example, an illustration, and some words of hope. They all come from the different texts we’ve heard today and my hope is that we will leave with a realistic understanding of the resources and limits of our humanity and God’s gracious provision in the midst of that.

Example at Pergamum (Rev 2:12-17)

In the third of the letters to the churches in Revelation, Jesus speaks a message to the church in Pergamum. First he identifies himself as “the One who has the sharp two-edged sword.” (v.12) Like the surgeon’s scalpel, the Word of God can open us up for truth, restoration, and healing and also cut away the malignancies of sin. It cuts both ways, and Jesus’ Word here is going to do that very thing. Like the Christians in Smyrna which we looked at last week, the Christians in Pergamum are suffering persecution for their faith. Jesus commends them particularly for their faithfulness in such a difficult context.

But these same faithful and courageous Christians also are doing something which Jesus has against them. They are being led astray by several false teachers. Some are dabbling in the pagan worship that sacrificed to idols and engaged in immorality associated with that pagan worship. Others were following the teaching of the Nicolaitans, a group mentioned in the first letter from two weeks ago and thought to find the pagan sexual rituals permissible in an extreme form of anti-legalism.

Jesus charges them to repent in the face of coming judgment. He holds out the hope of victory, signified by the white stone given like a medal in contests of the day, and he holds out the hope of a new beginning , signified by the new name written on a stone.

It’s an example set in an early church context, but which I think has personal and modern application. We too may desire to follow Jesus and even do so in some commendable ways. But it is so easy to let deception or sin sneak in. We can believe lies we hear in the culture, lies whispered by the evil one, or even lies we tell ourselves. And the next thing you know we are doing the things we don’t want to do (or at least that we know we should not want to do).

Consider where you may be led astray or tangled up. And let’s turn to the illustration in Hebrews to consider some of the resources available to us.

Illustration: the Road Race (Hebrews 12:1-6a)

In Hebrews 12:1 there is a helpful illustration of the challenges of following Jesus. It is like a race – picture something like a cross country race. We have a “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on and witnessing our race, but it is also easy to get slowed down or tripped up by two different types of challenges. One is encumbrances, burdens which are not part of the race. Picture someone running a race with a heavy backpack on. Now it’s one thing if you are training for the Army, but in a standard foot race it would be foolish. Yet – and here’s the point – so often we cling to something in our life that is not part of following Christ and, in fact, weighs us down on that spiritual journey. It may be a habit or addiction, or unresolved issues from the past, or an over-dependency on our own strength over those of God. It is particularly tragic when one of Jesus’ most memorable invitations is “Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”

The second challenge in following Christ are the things that would entangle or trip us up in this race. Such things are specifically tied to sin and paint a vivid picture of how sin can trip us, injure us, even take us out of the race for a time. Sin is nothing to be casual about; it directly affects our ability to follow Christ well. Note that it does not prohibit us from trusting Christ or following Him; Jesus die that our sin might not separate us or disqualify us from God. But if we don’t deal with it, lay it aside, and avoid it, it can still be major and dangerous entanglement in our lives.

The contrast to encumbrances and entanglements in the race illustration is to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.” (v.2) Not only does that keep our focus in the right place, he is a resource to us, having faced the same challenges of temptation and sin and done so victoriously. We are also reminded that it’s not an easy thing – again, like running. A good coach will train, encourage, and even discipline the athlete in order to overcome obstacles. The last part of the Hebrews 12 text speaks of the Lord’s discipline with this wonderful (and challenging) sentence: “For whom the Lord loves He disciplines.” (v.6a)

Jesus is our inspiration, our coach, our helper, and our physician. God has provided all the resources needed to follow Christ well, if we avail ourselves of them! And that is the theme of Psalm 24, our final text this morning.

The Lord Provides (Psalm 24:3-6)

There is an interesting dynamic going on in the “race” of following Jesus. We are to avoid sin and yet we are sinful. We are to lay aside burdens, but we are people prone to carrying them. It’s the whole “mixed bag” phenomenon going on at Pergamum and with us, if we are honest. Like Paul, we do the things we don’t want to do and don’t do the things we do want to do. It’s fine to say that following Jesus involves laying burdens down and avoiding sin, but really, who ever does that well?

Psalm 24 puts a finger right on that tension and points us toward the answer that is Jesus Christ. The Psalm asks: “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place?” (v.3) And before we have a chance to wonder if we might qualify we read the answer: “The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood and has not sworn deceitfully.” (v.4) And with that I immediately realize, “Not me!” And yet, only a verse later we read “This is the generation of those who seek Him, who seek [God’s] face.” (v.6) So, it’s impossible and yet it’s what God desires of us.

And Jesus is the one who makes it possible for weak, injured, burdened, sin-prone racers like us to not only enter into the race, but complete it victoriously. He has gone before us and, as noted, he goes with us as encourager, physician, coach, and example. That’s the role he is in with Pergamum, and it is the role he is in with us.

* * *

Back at the end of the words to Pergamum in Revelation, Jesus asks for repentance. He offers victory and a new start. And that is just what he offers us. His desire is not that we struggle with burdens alone; his desire is certainly not that we would be tripped up or taken out by sin. Rather, he says “Look to me; run after me, and I will help you grow in purity and faith, holiness and joy.”

Consider again the things that burden you or trip you up. Practically, tangibly, prayerfully, how might you release those and fix your eyes on Jesus? What steps could you take to do so? What new habits do you need to build; what old habits do you need to stop. Are there places or people that tangle you up? Are there places or people that build you up in faith?

Here’s the essential message for us to Pergamum: you are a mixed bag. God does not require you to be perfect, but does desire for you to grow. He’s given you spiritual resources to that end and challenged you to run the race of following Jesus Christ. Answer the call! Amen.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Suffering (Revelation 2.8-11)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; June 9, 2019; Revelation 2:8-11

:: Sermon Audio (link) :: Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

::: Music ::
It is Well With My Soul (Spafford/Bliss)
Trading My Sorrows (Evans)
Sermon: Always Good (Peterson)

Sermon: After the Last Tear Falls (Peterson)
Offertory: My Life Flows On in Endless Song (arr. Austell/VanderHeide)
I Have a Shelter

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: This manuscript represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

**the sermon audio has me singing, but I've embedded Peterson's versions in youtube videos in the manuscript below

We are looking at a series of letters written to early churches about two generations after the time of Jesus. These were spoken to John in a vision and written down. Today we are looking at the letter to the church in Smyrna. It was a harbor city in the Roman Empire known for its dedication to Rome and to the Roman mother goddess. It is one of only two of the churches in Revelation for which Jesus does not “have anything against them.” But the Christians in Smyrna were struggling with tribulation. They are suffering for their faith. Today I want to focus in on suffering and dig into the hope Jesus offers.

And I want to do that a little differently this morning. I want to sing two different songs for you, each dealing with suffering and with hope. This is not all that can be said about suffering, nor is it all scripture says about suffering. But I think it is a kind of hope that we don’t often rely on and one that I hope we can receive.

Both songs today are by Andrew Peterson, who wrote “Behold the Lamb of God” that we did here for a number of years. The first song I want to share is “Always Good.” It reminds me of our first scripture reading, from Corinthians. The one that says we have this treasure in earthen vessels. We are so finite and weak. There is so much in this world that can crack and chip away at us. In Corinthians, Paul talks about God’s power being shown in our suffering: though afflicted, we are not crushed; though perplexed, we are not despairing; though persecuted, we are not forsaken; though struck down, we are not destroyed. That’s what the Christians in Smyrna were facing and it’s what some of you have or will face to varying degrees. Whether persecution or cancer or physical or emotional losses of all kinds, God doesn’t promise us a pain-free life, but does promise His presence, His hope, His strength, and ultimately that death is not the final word. In the song “Always Good” Peterson reminds us that Jesus sees and knows our grief, that we don’t always understand what is going on, but that in and through it all, God is always good, always good. God does not cause our suffering, but God is at work in all things to bring about His purposes, which are compassionate and holy and good.

Andrew Peterson © 2018 Jakedog Music (Admin. by Music Services, Inc.) CCLI License # 94754

Do you remember how Mary was grieving
How you wept and she fell at your feet
If it's true that you know what I'm feeling
Could it be that you're weeping with me
Arise O Lord and save me, there's nowhere else to go

You're always good, always good
Well somehow this sorrow is shaping my heart like it should
And you're always good always good

Well it's so hard to know what you're doin'
So why won't you tell it all plain
But you said you'd come back on the 3rd day
And Peter missed it again and again
So maybe the answer surrounds us
But we don't have eyes to see

That you're always good, always good
This heartache is moving me closer than joy ever could
And you're always good

My God my God be near me
There's nowhere else to go
And Lord if you can hear me
Please help your child to know

That you're always good, always good
As we try to believe what is not meant to be understood
Will you help us to trust your intentions for us are still good
'Cause you laid down your life and you suffered like I never could

And you're always good, always good
You're always good, always good

I have had that song on repeat in my car for more than a year now. It encourages me when I don’t understand what is going on or even what God is doing. It, like the passage from 2 Corinthians, helps me to look for what God might be teaching me and what God might bring about, though like Peter I may miss it again and again. It is helpful to hear that refrain again and again, that God – the God I love and trust – is always good. God, help us to trust your intentions for us are still good.

That song and the passage in 2 Corinthians help us to look for God’s good purpose and meaning in the midst of suffering. But sometimes we don’t get to experience resolution or see the final result in this lifetime. There is war and sickness and death. And it can be so discouraging and hopeless to think that in the end death has the final word. But that is not the Christian hope. That is what Jesus spoke to the Christians in Smyrna, who were experiencing severe suffering and persecution. They were unlikely to find relief from that even if they did find meaning. And what Jesus held out was after the seeming last word: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10)

We want and need words of hope in the present. For some, hope in eternity is no hope at all. But for those who believe there is a good God holding all things in His hands, there is hope beyond death and it’s one that reaches back into this life. In the song “After the Last Tear Falls” Peterson sings through a litany of some of the hardest things we face in this life, many of which seem like they just have no resolution than death or the end of the world. And in this song’s refrain, he sings of love. I suppose you could hear this as a sappy appeal to “love, love, love” but I’d challenge you that the love that Peterson sings of is the same that Jesus holds out in Revelation, a love that the Song of Solomon says is “stronger than death.” Many waters cannot quench or drown it; it is God’s eternal love. It is love that was present all along, weeping and involved in the suffering of this present life. And in a phrase that is very Peterson-esque, he sings that one day, in the ocean of that love, the sufferings of this life will be “old tales” – distant stories now answered and covered and healed by the power and presence of God’s love. I’ve had this one on repeat for a long time, too. I hope it encourages you as it does me.

Andrew Peterson / Andrew David Osenga © Universal Music Publishing Group, Capitol Christian Music Group

After the last tear falls, after the last secret's told
After the last bullet tears through flesh and bone
After the last child starves and the last girl walks the boulevard
After the last year that's just too hard
There is love – love, love, love; there is love – love, love, love; there is love

After the last disgrace, after the last lie to save some face
After the last brutal jab from a poison tongue
After the last dirty politician, after the last meal down at the mission
After the last lonely night in prison
There is love – love, love, love; there is love – love, love, love; there is love

And in the end, the end is oceans and oceans of love and love again
We'll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms of the Giver of love and the Lover of all
And we'll look back on these tears as old tales

'Cause after the last plan fails, after the last siren wails
After the last young husband sails off to join the war
After the last, this marriage is over
After the last young girl's innocence is stolen
After the last years of silence that won't let a heart open
There is love – love, love, love; there is love

And in the end, the end is oceans and oceans of love and love again
We'll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms of the Giver of love and the Lover of all
And we'll look back on these tears as old tales
'Cause after the last tear falls there is love

I’ll say to you what I think Jesus was saying to the church at Smyrna: God sees what you are going through; God weeps with those who weep; God is always good and loves you more than you can know. Amen.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Lost Love (Revelation 2.1-7)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; June 2, 2019; Revelation 2:1-7

:: Sermon Audio (link) :: Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

::: Music ::
Light the Fire Again (Doerksen)
Open Our Eyes, Lord (Cull)
I Love You, Lord (Klein)
More Love to Thee (Prentiss)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: This manuscript represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Over the next eight weeks or so we are going to be looking at the letters to the churches in Revelation. You heard the set up for this in the first scripture reading today. John had a vision of Jesus and in that vision Jesus spoke a message to seven different prominent churches in early church. This was a generation or two after the life and ministry of Jesus. Churches had been established across the Greek and Roman world. Paul had written the epistles in the New Testament to a number of them. And this is set slightly later than that. In fact, our first letter is to the Church in Ephesus, one whose founding is described in Acts and to whom an epistle (Ephesians) was written. There were also several letters to Timothy, one of its first pastors. And we’ll see even 40-50 years into its existence, the church in Ephesus continued to struggle with similar things as in its early days.

So in this series I want to look at the messages to these early churches. I think that’s valuable from a historical and biblical perspective, to know what things the early church struggled with and what needed to be prioritized. It’s valuable to look at these for our own church life together, to consider what we struggle with and what needs to be prioritized. And finally, since the church isn’t a building or even a location, but people – specifically you and me – I think these letters are valuable to consider what we struggle with and what needs to be prioritized as individual followers of Jesus.

Each letter follows a similar five-fold pattern:

1.    Description of Jesus: the description has some correlation to what’s going on in that church.
2.    I know you: describes something good about the church (if there is something)
3.    I have this against you: describes an area of sin or shortcoming
4.    Consequences: the result of not addressing the sin or shortcoming
5.    If you hear and overcome: the path to repentance and restoration

We’ll look at that each week for the church in Revelation and then look for application to ourselves.

Who is Jesus? (v.1)

Jesus begins his message to Ephesus with this introduction: “The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this…” (v.1) In other words, Jesus is Lord of the Church… not only Ephesus, but the whole Church. He is speaking, he knows what’s going on, he is the righteous judge, so listen up!

I Know You (vv.2-3)

What does he have to say? “I know you…” “I know you; I know your deeds and your toil and your perseverance… you are some hard workers; I know your work, how hard you work, and how hard you work at working hard!” What is it they work so hard at? They cannot tolerate evil men, and they test those who would teach falsely and find them to be false.

And then it is noted some more how hard they work at this and persevere in it. It’s the Truth that they have latched on to, and they have made it the #1 thing for them. If you asked them what it means to be the Church, they would answer, “Truth!” They are diligent and careful and test all things against the Word and Spirit and they will not stand for any falsehood.

And they are right for doing so. They are right according to Scripture and they are right in keeping with what Paul urged their parents and grandparents to do a generation earlier. Except… that’s not all he said. They have worked exceedingly hard at one-half of a whole. It’s like learning how to swing a tennis racquet but never using a ball. And they have practiced and practiced and practiced the swing over and over and have it down. But no ball; no game; no tennis.

And note that Jesus didn’t say, “Well done; you’ve really excelled at truth.” He simply says, “I know you, about your truth.”

I Have This Against You (v.4)

Jesus continues, “But I have this against you… you have left your first love.” Let’s consider what “first love” might mean.

Broadly, it sounds like the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the first and greatest of the Commandments. This may well be what is in view.

More specifically, I believe it refers to the love they had “at first.” To understand that love I would return to Ephesians, the letter written to this same community a generation earlier. In chapter four, in the midst of the section about how the grace of God in Jesus Christ builds the church together in unity in order to build them out into mission, Paul writes this – listen for ‘love’:

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

Did you hear it? “Walk worthy of your Christian calling… showing tolerance for one another in love.” I believe this, too, is the “first love” that the Ephesians have lost. They have so focused on truth that they have forgotten the love that unites and binds in Christ. It’s interesting that the word “tolerate” is found here and in Revelation. They know how to not tolerate evil people, but they have forgotten how to show tolerance for one another in love.

What they have persevered in doing is not supporting or “carrying” (perhaps even ‘enabling’) evil people. What they have forgotten is how to “endure” or “bear” with one another for the sake of Christ and the Gospel. Something has been lost in the Ephesian church, and it flows out of Christian grace and love.

Remember… (vv.5-7)

So when Jesus continues and says, “Remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first… or else!” I look to again to that same passage in Ephesians, where we can read about what deeds they were doing at first. There I read about living out the faith with “all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love, and being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (vv. 2-3)

That is what has been lost and that is what Jesus says they must rediscover as their first love.

Hear me clearly; I am not saying that truth is not important. I think that’s why Jesus circles around and does hold up the rejection of the Nicolaitans, a pagan false teaching of the day that involved worship of idols. Truth is important. It is entirely possible to distort love by forgetting the truth, so that one takes on a “do whatever you want” attitude, saying that “God will look the other way.” The truth is that God is a pure and holy God, piercingly righteous and true. But just as surely as people can forget truth and err, so they can forget love and err, and the letter to the church in Ephesus shows just how grave that error can be.

Jesus doesn’t commend their diligent pursuit of truth and tell them just to loosen up a little. If they don’t remember and REPENT and rediscover the love they had and showed at first then they do not have a place in His Kingdom. That’s how critical love is in the Christian Church.

This is a hard word for lovers of truth. Ironically, it is a word of truth for lovers of truth; and it is one filled with grace, for it summons us to repentance and rediscovery of the full Gospel of Jesus Christ. Then, to those who overcome cold truth alone, repent, and rediscover that first love – of truth and others – they will eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God. The alternatives are a church whose light goes out or a church that lives and participates in the life of God.

For Those With Ears to Hear

To further explain, listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew. And listen to the context: he is talking about the future, as the end draws near. It’s the same kind of context for which Revelation is written.

Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:11-14)

Did you hear that? When lawlessness is increased, love will grow cold. But it is precisely that Christ-filled love that will cause Gospel truth to penetrate into a lawless world. Pure, cold truth will not do it alone, but faith lived out as love – embodied and incarnated in our lives. That is our testimony to the nations, to the culture around us.

The purpose of truth is not to “win” or feel morally superior, but as God’s loving best, offered in love to the world. It is Good News worth sharing, not to be hoarded among the faithful or used to whip the unfaithful. Rather, the Gospel of love and truth is to be lived out one conversation, one encounter, one life at a time in the places you live and move and interact.

Where have you lost the balance between truth and love? What would it look like to restore that balance in your own life?

I won’t connect all the dots for you today. You are smart enough to do that. I believe this teaching has great application for our witness as Presbyterians, as members of the Good Shepherd family, and as individual believers trying to live out our faith in an increasingly polarized culture in dire need of some hope and help.

As Jesus said, “For those with ears to hear.” Amen.