Theme: keeping first love
Sermon prepared by Rev. John Pasma, Edmonton, Alberta
The book of Revelation is a fascinating book. It attracts and frightens us at the same time. There are all sorts of wild and weird images of beasts, dragons, angels and plagues. There's war between heaven and earth. It's powerful, scary, and yet inspiring.
Who can't be inspired by the final picture of "…the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride, for her husband."
We are going to turn to this book because it is Jesus' last word to the church. In chapters 2 and 3 Jesus himself addresses seven churches in Asia Minor (Turkey). The number seven is to be taken as a symbol of completeness so these letters are really for every church. Every church shares characteristics of what goes on in them.
At the time Revelation was written, the cult of emperor worship was growing in Rome. There were persecutions. So around (probably) 95 AD this book was written to encourage the believers. There is going to be a showdown between God and Satan, between good and evil so hang in there. God is going to win.
The book of Revelation unwaveringly proclaims that Jesus rules and that he is in control of history. In fact Jesus walks among the churches. He calls on John to write to the churches—Jesus has some messages for them. The letters are directed to the angel of each church. It's like we get to read over the shoulder.
So what does Jesus think? What is Jesus seeing? What should we be aware of? What would Jesus say about our church? Jesus is not simply being critical; Jesus is ready to help us to be better Christians, better churches. And when we are, it means we will be more joyful, more centered, more at peace, and more committed. Today we look at the church in Ephesus.
Listen as we read the scripture: Revelation 2:1-7
Listen to these lyrics:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
for your love is more delightful than wine.
Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
your name is like perfume poured out.
No wonder the young women love you!
Take me away with you—let us hurry!
Do you know what song these lyrics are from?
These are the opening words of the Song of Solomon. The beloved is speaking to her lover. The Song of Solomon celebrates the love between a man and a woman. These are the passions of first love.
You get a sense of this love in other parts of the Bible too. Jeremiah 2 says, "I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness… Can a girl forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire? Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number." You get a sense of first love, how passionate it is, how it consumes us. It brings the heights and depths of poetry into our lives. Jeremiah pictures God as a lover who has been spurned.
So does Jesus. In this first letter to the seven churches, Jesus zeroes in on the first love the people had for God and for his church. He says, "You have abandoned the love you had at first"--the love that caused you to drop everything and to follow me into the desert. This is the love that captures your heart and colors every moment of every day.
This kind of love is what a church is all about. This kind of love defines the church. If this love doesn't exist, can a church even be a living church? Is it then just a pretender? Jesus is saying to the church; this kind of love has to be in your DNA. It is central to the church; it shapes the church. You are missing the core component if you don't have this love.
So what happened? What went wrong?
Ephesus was a bustling commercial center of western Asia when the church was founded there around 60 AD. If you came to Ephesus, a city of about 250,000, you would see a wide main marble thoroughfare, the Arkadiane. The street was edged with marble pillars some of which still stand today. There were public baths along this street, a library, and temples. Carved in a sidewalk leading to a building is a bare foot, the ancient sign of direction to a house of prostitution. Elsewhere carved into the steps is a menorah, telling of a Jewish presence. On one end of this main street was a theatre mentioned in Acts 19 which would hold more than 24,000 people. Prominent on the outskirts of the city was the temple of Artemis: 128 meters (400 ft) long, 73 meters wide and 60 meters (200 ft) high, supported by 117 columns. It was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The temple was the most sacred of the temples in the Mediterranean world.
The Ephesian church lived in a bustling pagan culture. You can imagine some of pressures that the people would face trying to be Christians. I think we deal with some of the same issues today.
Jesus is pleased with what he sees. "I know your hard work, your patient endurance." I know you've been faced with false teachers and you have found them out. You've talked to them, you tested them. And that's why they hated the Nicolaitans. People aren't really sure the Nicolaitans are. Nicolas might have been an early deacon who taught that idolatry was ok, possibly immorality too. "You have not grown weary," says Jesus. They were orthodox: they believed the right things and did many of the right things. They were an active church. The deacons helped the poor; the elders made family visits and gave spiritual direction. The members visited each other. They had small groups. They had sufficient teachers for church school. Everybody pitched in to make it an active solid church.
But something was wrong. "You have abandoned that love you had at first." The passion of a lover was lacking.
What does this look in a church?
First a little bit more about first love. We see that first love in Jesus. He gave up being God and he came to this earth as a human being. He sought out his disciples. He sought out people to preach to; he had a love for the people of Israel who were as sheep without a shepherd. He would not put up with hypocrisy. He was always very closely connected to his Father in heaven. He prayed; he read the Scriptures. His love for the people and his connection to his Father went hand in hand. He willingly went to the cross for people, disregarding its shame because of the joy that was set before him (Heb 12).
That love is best described in 1 Corinthians 13 where Paul writes: "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,? but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
Only Jesus makes this kind of love possible. Jesus' love is self-sacrificing. It is personal; it is people centered. Only he validates this kind of love. Without this love we can be the most upright church. We can have great programs, we can have great services, we can have great insights, but if we have not love we are nothing.
Sometimes, I'm afraid we begin to fall in love with the institution. Our vision of the church in our mind becomes more important than our love for Jesus and our love for fellow church members. We are more connected to the church than we are to Jesus.
When this happens we think to ourselves things like: If this church were only more traditional it would be better. Or if this church was more relevant it would be better. Our ideology, our ideas about how things should go and be, becomes more important than our love for Jesus.
Or sometimes our work in the church makes us resentful and we build barriers. We work hard on programs and projects that we think are important. After a while we don't detect the kind of support we think we need or deserve. Slowly we become resentful. Slowly a barrier starts to build in our hearts. We begin to feel a little bit like that older son in the parable of the prodigal son. He becomes so resentful of his younger brother who discovers what he lost. We let go of the joy and the connection to Jesus.
Or maybe we are hurt by someone or some people in the church and we let that hurt crowd out the person of Jesus who is really the head of the church. We can so easily develop issues between one another. In the church we can easily lose that first love.
So how do we turn this around? How can we recapture that first love? Can we even do it? Isn't that a gift from God?
Jesus gives us the answer: "Remember then from what you have fallen; Repent; and do the things you did at first." The answer lies in doing three things: Remember, repent, resume (as John Stott says).
"Remember then from what you have fallen" Think back. What was it that caused you to become a Christian in the first place? What excited you about being a Christian?
Here's the story of one Christian: "To this day, I clearly remember sitting in a Christian high school classroom. The teacher went on describing how Christ's love touches all of life. That gave me an exciting picture as I began to envision the city I lived in reflecting Jesus' love. Imagining the main street of the city where businesses would put Christ's love into practice was thrilling to me. Even today I think of what life will be like when the 1 Corinthians 13 kind of love is able to shape a car company. What would that kind of company be like; how will it be organized where service to people and care for the environment and love for Jesus comes first? What will our transportation industry be like? What will cities look like? What will the local run-down section of our city look like when Jesus comes again? How will it be different? What will the Alberta Tar Sands look like when they are developed from a 1 Corinthians 13 perspective? What will true community look like? What will I look like? How wonderful it will be when the Holy Spirit, who has already been given to us as a deposit for what is to come, changes us into the people God means us to be. And already now we are to work at this. This vision brings hope and excitement into my life. It energizes me. It has shaped my life. It's so good to think about it."
Remember then from what you have fallen? What is it that excited you about becoming a Christian?
Then comes the second thing: Repent. The spotlight is on us. To recapture that first love we must make a decisive commitment to change. It's each one of us who must take the responsibility to turn things around—now. We are called to practice the love of 1 Corinthians 13. We each have our own responsibility to put it into practice in our lives and in our church.
Our allegiance belongs to Jesus, the head of the church who has made room for us and is bringing all things together for us. So we are called to focus not on our hurts, not on whatever it is that has sapped away our love; we are called to walk with Jesus, to journey with him, to let his presence and his vision and his work fill us with all sorts of excitement and energy. This is really where it begins. So Jesus says "get on with it now;" Repent.
Then comes the final instruction for regaining that first love. Resume: "Do the works you did at first" Resume.
So how can you make it work?
First: we "do." You simply begin to do things in the church and in the kingdom of God because you know they need doing. You get involved in things where you know you can help and where you see the needs. In the meantime, you discover gifts and things about yourself you never knew before. You fulfill your calling in many ways as you dedicate your life to the service of God.
Secondly, we pray. We open our hearts to God and we pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit. We ask for the Holy Spirit to fill our lives and to help us in our service. And Jesus has promised to give the Spirit to us, when he said in Luke 11, "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" Or another verse from John 16 reads, "Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. (John 16:23, 24).
With God beside us we can work through the challenges that come our way. We can let things go, and we can work with a lighter hearts. You always find that when you do this out of love for Jesus you will be blessed.
That doesn't mean things always go smoothly. All of us know there will be times of frustration working in the church and in God's kingdom. We will have issues with our fellow congregation members. There will be times we make mistakes. We say things we shouldn't, we do things we shouldn't; we miscalculate. But armed with a spirit of prayer and repentance God will bless our work and he will renew us; he will keep that love fresh. Sometimes it may even be appropriate to step back from something and take a break and work on something else. So resume. "Do the works you did at first."
Jesus finishes with two statements:
One: If we don't do this we can lose it all. I will "remove your lampstand." There is downward momentum (very scary). The church can be abandoned. There are many examples of empty churches.
Second: Very promising, Jesus says, "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God."
Order of Worship
Gathered to Worship God
Gathering Hymns: "Come All You People Praise Our God" #242
"I've Come to Tell" #250
Call to Worship
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
there is no end to his greatness.
One generation shall praise your works to another
and shall declare your power.
All your works praise you, Lord,
and your faithful servants bless you.
They make known the glory of your kingdom
and speak of your power.
My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord:
Let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever.
—based on Psalm 145:3-4, 10-11, 21
God Greets Us
Hymn: "Beautiful Saviour" #461
God Brings Renewal into Our Lives
Prayer of Confession
You asked for my hands,
that you might use them for your purpose.
I gave them for a moment, then withdrew them,
for the work was hard.
You asked for my mouth
to speak out against injustice.
I gave you a whisper that I might not be accused.
You asked for my eyes
to see the pain of poverty.
I closed them, for I did not want to see.
You asked for my life,
that you might work through me.
I gave a small part that I might not get too involved.
Lord, forgive my calculated efforts to serve you—
only when it is convenient for me to do so,
only in those places where it is safe to do so,
and only with those who make it easy to do so.
Father, forgive me,
renew me, send me out
as a usable instrument,
that I might take seriously
the meaning of your cross. Amen.
(Worship Sourcebook, Faith Alive Christian Resources)
Words of Assurance
The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.
But the steadfast love of the LORD is from
everlasting to everlasting
on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children's children,
to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
—Psalm 103:8, 13-14, 17-18, NRSV
Hymn: "Not What My Hands Have Done" #260
God's Will For Our Lives: Galatians 5:13-26
Hymn of Dedication: "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace" #545
God Speaks Through His Word and Spirit
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture: Revelation 2:1-7
Sermon: "Back to First Love"
With Singing: "My Jesus I Love Thee" #557
With our Congregational Prayer
With our Offerings
God Blesses Us on Our Way
As you leave the sanctuary today,
may you know the hope to which God has called you,
experience the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,
and trust his incomparably great power for us who believe. Amen.
Closing Hymn: "Let All Things Now Living" #453