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Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2011

Augustana 2011

Note: this sermons is adapted from Revelation for Lent, published by CPH in 2006.

Revelation 2:1–7

Click here for mp3 audio

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Today begins the 40-day season of Lent.  By way of a theme this year, we’ll be hearing the seven letters written to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation.  In all but one of these letters Jesus calls the Christians in those churches to repentance and this call to repentance remains a call to all Christians throughout the Church today.  This then, is a suitable theme for our Lenten journey this year.  Before we get started, I just want to remind folks, especially those who find it hard to get out at night, the sermons preached on Sunday night will be preached again in more or less the same form on Wednesday morning at Morning Prayer during Lent.

The book of Revelation was written by John, the Apostle of Jesus.  In the minds of many people there’s a great deal of mystery surrounding the Book of Revelation.  It’s probably the most frequently cited book of the Bible in the supermarket tabloids.  In the past two hundred years or so, many preachers have stoked the fires of popular imagination reading into John’s book all sorts of doctrines like the rapture that are simply not in there and are of no help to Christians today.  All of this would die rather quickly if folks would simply read it instead of listening to the carnival flim flam artists read it but it seems many folks like the “oogey boogey” more than they like straight talk from one of the Lord’s trusted men.

After chapter one which contains the initial vision of the Son of Man, Jesus begins to speak to John and to tell him to record seven letters for seven churches in Asia Minor; this is modern day Turkey.  Many of them are churches that John had started and for whom he was bishop, that is John oversaw the life and doctrine of the ministers and elders in those churches.  Perhaps if we had bishops like John today, we Missouri Lutherans wouldn’t be so afraid of them.  So this is the setup.  Jesus wants to get word to seven churches and John is to record it and the seven angels of the seven churches are to deliver these letters.  We will be spending Lent hearing these letters because they are strikingly relevant to Christian congregations today.

Before we get to the first letter to the church in Ephesus, a little more about John.  As I said, he’s in exile on the island of Patmos.  He was put there by the Romans who thought his preaching inflamed the people against Roman rule.  By the time John writes down the Revelation, he is nearly a hundred years old; he is the last surviving apostle and he is the only one of the eleven not killed by persecution.  Instead he is exiled from his churches and his home congregation in Ephesus.  In many ways for John, it’s a fate worse than death.  John cares deeply for the people in the churches for whom he was bishop.  He knows they are surrounded by pagan idolatry as well as false teachers leading them away from the truth of Christ.  The letters to the churches could be seen as something of a last will and testament from John remembering of course that they are holy and inspired by the Holy Spirit and are the direct message from Jesus that He speaks to the churches.  It’s interesting to note that John would only speak to the churches what Jesus would speak to them.  Now that’s a good bishop.

Now to the letter itself.  First is the good news.  Ephesus is a remarkable congregation.  They are the oldest and biggest church in this part of Asia.  This is as it should be because Ephesus is the Roman provincial capital, wealthy and populous.  We talked about this in Bible class Sunday.  Did I mention Bible class?  We’re taking an in-depth look at each of these letters and the learning about each of the cities on Sunday mornings.  It’s not Discovery channel quality, but I do have pictures and we cover a lot more than what I can squeeze into a little sermon.  Really, you should be in Bible class.  The Christians in Ephesus have struggled since the beginning when St. Paul was there and started the church but they persevered.  Eventually, the apostle John came to live among the Ephesians as pastor and bishop. Under John’s shepherding the church there flourished. Even at the time of this letter, they are still an example of good works and Christian faithfulness. Other churches without a pastor might become lazy, neglecting works of charity.  They might become morally and doctrinally lax with no one to encourage them, but not Ephesus.  They have shown themselves to be different.

John writes these words of Jesus to them: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.” (Rev 2:2–3). Moreover, Jesus says: “You hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” (Revelation 3:6). It’s not entirely clear who exactly the Nicolaitans were.  But it’s pretty clear in other writings from the early church fathers that these people taught that sexual immorality was okay because grace covers sin.  Sound familiar?  People think the churches today are just wracked by sinful corruption, and they are, but this is nothing new.  If you think the immorality you see on television is bad, and it is bad, it still has nothing on the debauchery of people in the Roman world.  And like some Christians today, the Nicolaitans were trying to get the church to sanction their sexual immorality.  The Christians in Ephesus were not only believers of the old time religion, that is the teaching of the apostles, they did not hesitate to expose those who would mislead others in the congregation and excommunicate them.

But Jesus has a problem with them.  It may be imperceptible to some but is a creeping cancer that will destroy the church if it is not removed.  Their hard work and good deeds, their doctrinal and moral purity will count for nothing without love for Christ.  Jesus says this hard word to them: “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 [Jesus] will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” (Revelation 2:4–5)

I said that these letters are remarkably applicable to the church today and I think also to this congregation.  Through these letters, Jesus himself is speaking to modern Christians in churches today not just people who lived in a far off place a long time ago.  Most Christians, and most churches for that matter, could probably stand to be motivated to greater good works and lives of Christian faithfulness but not the Ephesian Christians.  Jesus is instead concerned that they have the wrong motivation for all that they do.  He’s warning the good folks, the folks who are always there doing everything.  He’s talking to the folks who show up at church on a Wednesday night to put ashes on their heads in order to be seen, and in order to be thought better than those who are not here.  He’s talking to pastors who can get so caught up in the words and elements of liturgy that main point of Jesus is lost.  The danger is that all good works count for nothing without a heart that loves Jesus who first loved us.

As John wrote in his first letter, “We love because he first loved us.” (1Jn 4:19)  And how did Jesus love us first, John records for us Jesus’s words in the Gospel, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). With His own life’s blood, He has poured out His love for you. Oh, the agony of soul and body Christ endured for you in His prayer at Gethsemane, in His trials before priests and politicians, and most of all on His cross. Oh, how He loves you! Dear Christian friends, Christ our Lord has loved you with an everlasting love.  He has given you faith and filled you with the Holy Spirit.  “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.” (Revelation 2:7)  Respond to His love for you with your love for Him.  Our lives are meant to be a balance of prayer and work, a balance of worship and faithful service.  We can’t just do one without the other.  We can do all the right things in the right ways, but if we do them for the wrong reason, they are not the good works that God intends for us.  And so we must repent of any coldness of heart, of any selfish or sinful motivation for doing even good things.  All of us always must be on guard.

We in the Missouri corner of Lutheranism need to take special note of this.  We have book after book of pure doctrine and dogma and teaching.  I have shelves of them; there is nothing wrong with that.  But what can go wrong is that we focus on the doctrine of things, rather than in the doing of them.  We can focus on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper instead of eating and drinking the fruits of Christ’s tree of life, the cross.  The doctrine of the Lord’s Supper does not give life.  The body and blood of Jesus gives life.  The doctrine helps us to understand more about the life we are being given but the understanding of the thing is not the thing itself.  And so we have in the midst of our broader church, otherwise faithful Lutheran Christians, even pastors who know the sixth chief part of the catechism by heart, and will rightly fight tooth and claw against any false notion of the real presence and yet unbelievably reject the Lord’s invitation to eat and drink His life and salvation as if they’re afraid they could get too much of a good thing.  This is not the way of the early Christians, because it was not the way of the apostles, because it was not the way of Jesus.  John himself records these words of Jesus, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  (Jn 6:51)

In His body and blood shed for you, Christ gives himself to you out of His great love.  He invites you to come to his table to eat and drink, something not even God’s holy angels are invited to do.  Jesus does not love the angels the way He loves you.  Jesus did not die to redeem the angels from sin, death and hell.  Jesus’ body and blood gives you life; it increases love; it builds and sustains His church.  Without love there may still be zeal.  There may be a wealth of ritual and form. There may be clearly defined and fervently defended doctrine.  But unless Christ’s love—received and given—is the wellspring for that zeal and doctrine, there is only spiritual death, and faith and the true church fades away.  Lent then is a time to remember.  Remember who has loved you. Return to Him and receive life.  Life, the greatest and most precious gift, life that never perishes—this is God’s gift to all who receive His love in Jesus.

This is straight talk from Christ’s trustworthy man, John.  If you’re looking for “oogey boogey” you better stay home next time and watch WHKY.  These are the words point us to the truth.  There is no new thing in Revelation, but rather encouragement to endure patiently and bear up for Christ’s name’s sake, and not to grow weary.  “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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