Sunday, February 17, 2013

What the Spirit is Saying to the Churches

The first of our series on the Book of Revelation

What the Spirit is Saying to the Churches
Revelation 1:3-11
February 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry
Revelation 1: 3-11
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,  and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.  Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.  "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.  I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, "Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea."

As I said at the beginning of worship, the Book of Revelation has been represented by certain Christians as a prediction of the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus to take away some people and leave others behind. As we start this journey into this highly misunderstood book, the last book of the Bible, it will be helpful to consider what we are NOT going to do.

Revelation is a book that is filled with strange visions and surreal images, and there are moments in it that are violent and scary. We are not undertaking to make every word of the book intelligible. We will lift up some of those symbols, especially when our understanding of other scripture, points us to a symbol or image that is familiar to us. We are not going to try to dissect Revelation as a prediction of the end times, with a cast of characters and a series of events that correspond to places or events in our time.

Prophecy is not prediction, and nowhere in the Bible will we find one-to-one correspondence between prophecy and subsequent events. Revelation is a book of the first century, written for Christians in that time, with references which they would understand and associations they would readily make. But there is much in the book for us, in this time, and for all Christians for all time.

Revelation is not a threat. It is not as if God would give us a Bible that contains 65 different books assuring us of God’s love, mercy and grace, and then smack us down with a 66th book that threatens us with hellfire and brimstone! That kind of God is not the God of Scripture, not the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.

Revelation is a letter; it is a book of prophetic visions to reveal God’s purpose; it is a book that bears witness – both in the legal sense of the word, as a courtroom testimony, and in the original sense of the word, μάρτυς, the source of our English word, “martyr,” one who suffers persecution and death for refusing to renounce belief.

Most importantly, Revelation unveils the sovereignty of God, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, and the centrality of Jesus Christ, the one who was and is and is to come, and the promise, fulfilled in him, that one day heaven and earth will meet, and that one day God will set all things right and redeem all of creation.

Although the opening words promise blessing to one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, we are going to read only selected parts of this book. I encourage you to read the entire book at home, and of course you are invited to attend the adult studies of Revelation which take place on Sunday morning during Christian Education Hour and also at our Tuesday morning adult Bible study. Participating in either or both of these studies will help you as you read.

But now, let’s listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches in chapters 2 and 3. The churches are named: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. 

Each of the seven churches is known to God, and their strengths and challenges are described. Five of the churches receive stern warnings, and it is comical how many websites you can find that attempt to link those five “bad” churches to modern day denominations, and one of them is ALWAYS the Presbyterians! Following the words of praise and critique, there are warnings and encouragements to each of the churches.
The churches have certain strengths in common: they work hard and endure, and have withstood tests of their faith. They are tireless, and faithful, even though some among them have been put to death. They have been persecuted and slandered, but they have kept God’s word and have not denied the name of Christ. They are praised for their works, their love and faithfulness, their service and endurance.

Five of the churches, though, have issues. They have left their first love – the Lord Jesus Christ. They have fallen into idolatry and immorality, been unfaithful. They have listened to false teachings. Two of those churches come in for criticism and warning only: their crimes are simple but serious– one is dead, spiritually, and the other is lukewarm, as good as dead – neither hot nor cold. Those are the two that some of our Christian brothers and sisters identify as the Presbyterians! (Just as a side note, it’s interesting, that the preachers who are so keen on figuring out which church is which denomination never think their own is the one that is lukewarm or spiritually dead!)

All seven of the churches are called to faithfulness, and given promises. And each address ends with these words: Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

To understand the power of these seven messages, let’s go back to the first century, sometime between the years 60 and 90AD. The Roman Empire has spread across all of the world then known, Paul has completed his missionary journeys and traveled the Roman roads.

Although Jews and Christians had been tolerated, things changed during the last few decades of the first century. When there was a Jewish uprising in Judea in the year 66 AD, the Romans crushed the rebels, utterly demolished the temple, and desecrated all of the holy artifacts by parading them through the streets. Only the western wall remained, and it stands to this day. The synagogues then became the center of Jewish life and worship.

As for the Christians, after Rome burned in 64 AD, Nero blamed the Christians in order to divert attention from himself – as the city burned,  he was rumored to have been singing – not fiddling, but just as bad! At Nero’s urging, Christians were hunted down, burned at the stake and otherwise tormented, publicly and very cruelly. In fact, only the official religion of Rome was lawful – the religion that allowed for all sorts of shrines and temples, but ultimately affirmed that Caesar is Lord. To affirm, for example, that Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar, was to risk arrest and prosecution.

For Christians after Nero, active persecution waned for a time, but to be Christian was to be always subject to prosecution, at any time. The name Christian was both complaint and crime, with punishment meted out by the local governor. Loss of land, loss of property, and loss of life could result for those who would not renounce the name of Christ.

It’s easy to see, then, why faithfulness, endurance, and holding on to the name, were specified as particular strengths of the churches. And it is easy to see how, if you were a member of one of these seven Christian communities, if you had seen fellow-Christians suffer for their beliefs, if you were willing to die for your faith, you would have no patience for those who were spiritually dead or lukewarm. And you would be anxiously awaiting the promised return of Jesus. You would be waiting with hope for God’s new kingdom to come to earth, to replace this oppressive, violent, cruel regime under which you lived. Like a prisoner in a concentration camp, you would await the coming of justice, for you, that you would be set free, and for your oppressors, that they would pay for their crimes. You might know in your heart of hearts that grace and mercy are God’s desire, even as you yearned for retribution and punishment for those who had made you suffer. You might earnestly desire that Jesus would come back and slaughter them. And you would most certainly be keenly aware of the uncertainty of life, and the excruciating truth of your own frailty, your own mortality.

This past week, as we observed Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, we gathered here in the church for the imposition of ashes. We affirmed our mortality, and our utter dependence on God’s grace. Imposing the ashes on the foreheads of the people of this church is very difficult for me emotionally. As I say the traditional words,  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” inside I am thinking, “I hope you never die!” Even as I affirm the finitude of each person, I resist the reality of death. I think we all do that, to some degree. But the gift of Lent is the message to Christians, and to the church, that death is not the end, and that there will come a day when Christ will come again, not to rain hellfire and brimstone down on an unsuspecting world, but to arrive in glory,  to bring a new heaven and a new earth.

The messages to the seven churches are a call to every church, a call to stay faithful to our first love, and to persevere, in spite of the challenges that we face. Those challenges are many – we live in an age when a different kind of empire threatens us, when the culture around us tempts us to succumb to materialism, or to thoughtless consumption and greed.

The doomsayers around us would have us voraciously consume every natural resource, since the end of time is near. The death deniers would have us please only ourselves, since there is nothing else but this life. The lure of the easy thing is always there— the temptation to embrace a kind of vague civic religion, and avoid the risk of truly living the Christian faith – to avoid the difficult path of following Jesus in a life of simplicity, non-violence, generosity and love.  We are constantly tempted to give mere lip service to our beliefs, to be tepid, lukewarm people, people without passion, without heat, who are unwilling to let our lights shine out in the darkness.

But the message to the seven churches offer something more than that shallow self-serving life of pleasure, more than a life as a consumer demographic, more than a credit card and a mortgage, more than a carbon footprint. The churches are called to faithfulness, even as we are, and with that call comes a promise - a promise from Christ himself.

We will sit with Christ upon his throne.
We will be given the morning star.
We will be clothed in pure white robes.
We will have the name of God written upon our hearts, and in the book of life.
We will receive a white stone with a new name written upon it.
We will wear the crown of life.
We will eat from the tree of life.

You remember that tree? It’s the tree that was in Genesis, in the first book of the Bible, and here it is now, except it is not forbidden, not a symbol of the fall, not a marker of exclusion and expulsion. That tree was planted in the garden in the beginning, where Jesus walked in the cool of the day, and it will be there in the end, in the new heaven and the new earth. Now, that tree is given to God’s people, for them to eat from its fruit. That tree will blossom and bear fruit when all creation is restored and renewed, and we will gather, robed in white, and in our hands we will hold the morning star, and a white stone with a new name given to us by God.

We will be held in love, held in love forever by the one who was and is and is to come. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the one who created us in love and will recreate us in that same love. There is nothing to fear, and everything to hope for.

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Amen.

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