Well, yesterday was Groundhog Day – a silly ritual we have where about a million reporters gather around some poor little animal, shine enough spotlights on him to roast the poor thing, and then make predictions about the weather based on his behavior. Let me note, however, that the groundhog has an 80% accuracy rating – better than most weathermen! This year is the first time I can remember hearing that he didn’t see his shadow, which is supposed to signify an early spring. I try not to believe in superstitions…but it did hit 80 degrees while I was out training for the 5K race I’m running in next month…so maybe there’s something to it, after all. Another thing that date brings to mind is of course the movie, “Groundhog Day”, starring Bill Murray as a weather man covering this very event, and getting trapped in an endlessly repeating cycle of living February 2 over and over again. After hundreds, maybe thousands of repetitions, he finally learns how to overcome the dead-end nature of the life he has been living, escapes the loop, and emerges a far better person than before. I hope that you will leave here a better person for having this experience today, but I promise that I will not repeat it over and over thousands of times to get us there, OK? You have my word!
The last time I was privileged to speak before you, I shared my thoughts on the story found in John 21, of how Peter was redeemed by Jesus after denying Him before men three times, and re-instated into the service of the kingdom of God. I told you how I feel the commands that Jesus gives to Peter, in the form of parables about caring for sheep, comprise a pretty fair job description for a pastor, a word which has its roots in the name given to the person who cares for herds of animals, especially flocks of sheep; Jesus uses this word, which we see translated as “shepherd”, when describing Himself in John 10:14 –
“I am the good shepherd; I know My sheep and My sheep know Me.”
I ended that message with the statement that none of us are exempt from those duties; that each one of us who claims Jesus as our Lord and Savior is expected to bring new lambs into the fold, to guard and watch over one another in our day-to-day lives, and to help each other find the “good pastures” of nourishment in God’s Word, so that we may continue to prosper and grow in Him. Now, while all of that is still true (it better be, that was only two weeks ago!), I also said that the Lord calls some to be especially gifted in these areas: persons who become great teachers, or powerful evangelists, or trusted leaders within a particular body of believers. There is nothing wrong with that – we can all be more effective with someone out in front, leading the way. We see God use strong leaders throughout the bible story: whether it be Moses, bringing the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt; or Joshua, heading up the army of God in conquest of the Promised Land; Zerubbabel, who led the first wave of exiles back to Jerusalem from Babylon, or Ezra, who followed and helped re-establish the covenant relationship between the Jewish people and their God. In the New Testament, the best examples might be Peter, whose stirring sermons after Pentecost brought literally thousands in to the newly forming church; and Paul, whose missionary work carried the Gospel of Jesus throughout the entire known world. These men had the Holy Spirit directing them, and were completely submitted to the will of the Lord, right?…or were they? In truth, didn’t they have some of the very same shortcomings as many of us do today? If you read the stories closely, you will in fact see some very human things going on…in Acts 11 we see Peter dealing with racism and prejudice from some of the Jewish Christians against the Gentile believers – disagreements over what kind of people would be allowed into the church, and how they would have to behave – ideas Peter had probably shared, until the Lord sent him a vision to change his mind. Later, in Acts 15, we see Paul and Barnabas having an argument over the staffing for a mission trip, which leads to them breaking up the team and going two separate ways! How many times have we seen similar things take place, sometimes even bringing the work to a stop? None of the troubles we have today are anything new are they? And neither are their sources…merely the human constants of pride, self-assurance, and self-righteousness.
We have a tendency to put these heroes of the bible up on pedestals, and pretend they could do no wrong, and so make them examples of the best we can ever be; but we do them – and ourselves – a great injustice in this; I touched briefly on this tendency as well, when I spoke about how we can get distracted by looking at these men and judging our efforts against theirs…we tell ourselves that we can’t possibly do the job as well as they can, so why don’t we just sit back and let them do it? This is a subtle trick of the enemy, and it’s pretty effective – he doesn’t have to spend nearly as much energy to destroy us, if he can get us to take ourselves off the battlefield, does he? And don’t ever forget: this world IS a battlefield; even though we know the fight is already won, sin and death have been defeated by the victory of Christ on the cross; we must remember that Satan cannot see into the future and realize he is already defeated. He may know the Word of God, but he does not believe it, so he fights with all the determination of one who still thinks he can win (or at the very least, cause as much damage as possible on the way down, I’ll give you that much)…and we are his best and clearest targets. He cannot strike against the One he really wants to destroy, can he? So he injures us to cause God to grieve for us – and sometimes, unintentionally, we help him do it; sometimes we ourselves cause God to grieve. How do I know this is true? Because the bible tells me so, as the old song goes. According to 2 Timothy 3:16-17,
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (emphasis added)
All of this would not be necessary if we always did what we are supposed to do, now would it? But we don’t…sometimes we need some reproof, sometimes we need some correction, and the bible is here to do that very thing for us, praise God.
Today, I am thinking in particular about the book of Revelation, where Jesus appears to the Apostle John, late in his life, and gives him a glimpse ahead of things to come. In Chapters Two and Three, the Lord dictates a series of letters to the churches in Asia Minor – some of the very churches we see Paul planting and ministering to throughout the later part of the book of Acts. Let me give you a little context with that – Paul’s missionary journeys took place during the 50’s and 60’s, some 20-30 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry; John is commonly thought to have composed this narrative of his visions around 96 AD. This span of 30-40 years certainly would have been long enough for many of the indictments raised by Jesus in these letters to come into being: time, after all is the great enemy of all human endeavors; as William Butler Yeats says in “The Second Coming” –
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”
Many of us are simply afraid of the book of Revelation, because much of it is confusing and difficult to interpret, I admit that…but these two chapters are as straight-forward and clear as anything else in all of Scripture, and should be considered a “maintenance and repair manual” for churches. I feel we can simply read it for what it plainly says, and be better off for doing so; the author of the book would agree with me, according to 1:3 –
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
I would like to skim through these seven letters and see what we can learn about how we follow Jesus; some of the ways we can – and do – fall short of what He expects of His children, ways we bring grief to our Lord; and then perhaps we can glean a few ideas about what He wants us to do about it. There is some good and some bad in nearly all of these churches, and the same is true for all of us, as well. Now, this may not seem fair, but in the interest of time, I am going to focus on the “bad” stuff, and skip over the “good”; however, I encourage you to spend some time reading over these letters on your own. Notice the pattern Jesus establishes with each of the churches: first, He acknowledges their strengths; then He may point out a particular weakness, and indicate the necessary correction; He spells out the consequences if they do not take the necessary action; and finally leaves them with a word of encouragement. I believe you will agree that we all fall short in at least some of these areas, and could use a little nudge in the right direction; by highlighting how Jesus responds to these situations, that’s what I hope to do. So, here we go.
We start off in chapter two, with Jesus speaking to the church at Ephesus; let’s look at verses 4-5 –
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
Verses 14-16, to the church at Pergamum –
“But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of My mouth.”
Verses 20-23, to the church at Thyatira –
“But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing My servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am He who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”
We move into Chapter 3, v. 1-3 and the church at Sardis –
“I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of My God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.”
Verses 15-20, to the church at Laodicea (perhaps the most famous example)-
“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of My mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with Me.”
Let me just mention that the other two churches – Smyrna and Philadelphia – get by without a specific reproach, but they aren’t exactly having it easy either. The church in Smyrna is enduring heavy persecution and slander; Jesus tells them He is aware of this, but relax…soon enough, things will get worse! Then He instructs them in 2:10 –
“Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”
The church at Philadelphia receives what some might call a left-handed compliment: Jesus tells them in 3:8 –
“I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept My word and have not denied My name.”
That’s five of the seven churches to whom Jesus says, “I have a problem with you!” Let’s summarize the failings first, then I will address them individually. These churches have:
- Abandoned their “first love”; falling away from how they began
- Honored idols
- Engaged in sexual immorality
- Been tolerant of false teaching
- Refused to repent
- A hollow reputation
- A tepid, bland, complacent attitude
- A high valuation of themselves
When you look over that list of faults that Jesus finds with His churches, (and we do remember that they are His churches, not ours, right? He has every right to call us out for our failings, and we have every obligation to sit and listen!) we see that many of these condemnations stem from the very same things we talked about last time, don’t we? Peter denied Christ before others from a desire to blend in with them, to appear like everyone else so he would not face persecution or pain. That is the essential complaint that Jesus has, when he points out those churches who are eating food offered to idols, or practicing immoral behavior – they are simply doing what everyone else around them is doing. A little more cultural background may be helpful here: these churches existed in pagan cities – places of international commerce, where every “god” from the known world would be represented. Worship of these pagan gods would very often become a matter of ostentatious show, where the larger the “sacrifice”, the more favor the worshiper could expect to curry. Thus, enormous offerings of rich foods, especially meat, would be made, and the priests in the temples, not being able to eat it all themselves, would see an opportunity for profit, and sell the excess to the public, with the funds going back into the temple (and their pockets, of course). By going into these pagan temples, and buying this “meat offered to idols”, the Christians were sinning in two ways: they were putting their money onto the altar of a foreign god, and they were giving implicit approval to the offerings themselves! Likewise, the issue of sexual immorality is twofold: not only does God prohibit any and all sexual activity outside the confines of marriage, but the world seeks not only to excuse, but also to justify these immoral acts, by covering them in a veneer of worship (as with the temple prostitutes, both male and female), or entertainment, or “natural desire”, or any number of other reasons. The problem is, we who would follow Jesus are called to a higher standard. Remember Paul’s words in Romans 12:1-2 –
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.
If we claim to be “Christians”, yet say and do the same things as everyone else, what exactly is the difference that Christ has made in our lives? If we live together without being married, or allow our churches to sanctify (?!?) same-sex unions; or we watch a TV show like Dancing With the Stars, (which I really did enjoy, but have stopped watching) that tells us that entertainment requires women to be nearly nude; or buy tickets for movies with explicit sexual content and situations; or any number of other things that God’s Word tells us He is displeased with, but we find reasons to make them “OK”…who are we fooling? Who indeed? The world doesn’t believe us – we don’t behave any different, so our beliefs must not have any real impact on our lives; or worse, we’re a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites, condemning the very things we ourselves are doing. We certainly aren’t fooling Jesus, who says over and over in these letters, “I know your works,” We aren’t really even fooling ourselves, or else we wouldn’t be so miserable, wondering why our lives are in the condition they are, why we don’t feel close to God, why nobody wants to come to our churches…why would they, when they can’t see anything here that they can’t find a thousand other places, doing what they already do, where they already are? If there is no reason to change, there will be no change. (Click here to tweet that.)
Hand in hand with this, Jesus condemns the churches for allowing teachers and leaders who tolerate, or even encourage these behaviors. So many today would hide behind the excuse, “I’m only doing what I was taught, it’s not my fault.” Well, who hired the teacher? Who selected the preacher? Who called the pastor? It’s the church, the body of believers, the people, who have the responsibility for their leaders. You hold us accountable, and there is one clear standard you are to use for that – the Word of God. Look with me in Acts 17: Paul has been traveling and spreading the Gospel of Jesus. It was his custom to preach first at the synagogues, where men studied the Scriptures, and already knew of the One True God, and thus should have been more receptive to the Good News of Jesus. This was not always the case , but see verse 11 –
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (emphasis added)
The believers at Berea did not merely accept what they were told, they checked it against the Scriptures. If every gathering did that, the careers of many so-called men of God would come to a short and sudden stop, amen? So why doesn’t that happen? Well, how many of us want to hear that we are in the wrong, that we need to change? Isn’t that one of the things I listed earlier, a refusal to repent, to turn away from the direction we are going? We do what we do because we think it will get us what we want, to steal a quote from Dr. Phil McGraw (I don’t agree with everything he says, but this is pretty much on the mark, isn’t it?) And we choose leaders who will tell us what we want to hear, even if it isn’t the best thing for us, don’t we? Scriptures repeats this truth to us, 2 Timothy 4:3-4 –
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
Tom Landry, the legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys football team, (hey, it’s Super Bowl Sunday, there’s got to be some football in here somewhere!) spoke to the opposite side of the coin –
“Leadership is getting someone to do what they don’t want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve.”
Almost anyone will tell you they want to achieve happiness; those who believe in heaven will say they want to get there some day; people who follow Jesus will tell you they want to meet Him face-to-face in the end. But are we willing to make the changes necessary, to do the things it takes to achieve these goals? Ask yourselves, brothers and sisters: What is it you want to achieve? Then select leaders who will really help you get there.
The last few items that Jesus holds against the churches also have a common thread, which I have addressed before – sometimes we stop looking at Jesus, and instead look at others to compare ourselves to them, or look into our mirrors, to admire our own beauty. Either one will only give us a distorted view of reality, leading us to believe what others say about us, and become proud of our reputation, thinking that WE have made something of ourselves, and therefore have the right to be proud. This pride can often cause us to coast along, riding the wave of past successes, past glory…and forgetting our first love. We become like Peter: Jesus asks us to agape love Him, to sacrifice everything for His sake; but the best we can do is phileo, to have some good feelings for a little while, but then fade back into what we were doing before. Jesus gives us the remedy to all of this, not just here in this text, but in the heart of the Gospel message – Repent, return to ME, He says; confess your sins and be healed; then, go and sin no more.
You may have noticed that I titled this message “How we follow Him”, and spent most of my time talking about leaders? Well, isn’t that one of the major decisions we make in life: deciding who we are going to follow? Of course, the Sunday-school answer is that we ALL follow Jesus, and this is the correct answer; but what is the mechanism for that? Most of us are not blazing a trail for ourselves in the world; that is a hard, thankless job, and perhaps there is much wisdom in finding gifted leaders to help us along the path. Jesus told His disciples – the men and women who followed Him – to go and make more disciples; those who, in the words of Paul –
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
We, as disciples of Jesus, have this same two-edged sword in our hands: we must follow Christ as hard as and well as we can, so that others can follow after us in His footsteps; and we must be sure that those we place in positions of leadership are likewise following only Him, and not some other agenda. We must search the Scriptures daily, to see if the things that are taught are true; and we must pray to God daily, that He will continue to guide and direct us by His Holy Spirit into the ways that are pleasing to Him; to renew our minds, to consecrate our bodies, to offer our whole selves to Him, as our true and proper worship. I invite you to come to the altar, right now, and ask the Lord to examine your heart, to call you out for the things He has against you, to repent of your sins and be forgiven…come, He stands at the door and knocks – will you answer?