A Church for Y2K: Have You Lost It?

First in a series on What Christ Thinks of the Church,
Delivered April 26, 1998 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Revelation 2:1-7
1 To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him
who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden
2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you
cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be
apostles but are not, and have found them false.
3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not
grown weary.
4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.
5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you
did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand
from its place.
6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans,
which I also hate.
7 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.

Pulled up behind this bumper sticker last week, “Sorry I missed church. I was busy studying witchcraft and becoming a lesbian.” And like I’m sure the driver intended, I felt wounded and sad. I began to pray, “Lord, draw that person to Yourself.” But at the same time, I found myself saying, “How have we, how has the Church, how have I, failed that person?” Some of us desperately care about what those outside of the Church, think about the Church. Some churches care, so much so, that they actually have surveyed the culture outside of the church, asked people what they like or dislike about the Church, and then tried to design their church to attract different people from outside.

Here at Central Church, we care very seriously about what those outside of our walls think about what goes on in here. For most of us, how you and I personally feel about the Church is what carries the most weight in our lives. You are here this morning. You have joined Central Church. Perhaps because, Well, it is conveniently close. I like the worship style. I like the music. It meets my needs. My children are ministered to in the Youth Ministry. I feel comfortable here. And certainly, how you and I think about the Church, how we feel about the Church is very important. This congregation wants to meet your needs. We want to minister to you. We want to build you up. It is very important how you and I feel.

But what does Christ think of the Church? What does Jesus think about Central Church? Isn’t that what’s ultimately most important? Isn’t that the real question? What does Christ think of the Church? Your Session (board of elders) is presently involved in a process where we’re asking this question in a number of different ways. What kind of church does Christ want Central to be in Y2K, the year 2000, the new millennium? How should we act? What kind of programs should we have? How can we best minister to people? What does Jesus want us to do and be?

How in the world would we even have any idea of what Christ thinks of us, or what he would like us to be like? You can entitle chapters two and three of the book of Revelation, “What Christ thinks of the Church.” And so today, we are beginning a seven-week sermon series going straight through those two chapters, as we look at Jesus and his message to seven churches in first century Asia Minor. And in those seven messages to those churches, what I believe is happening is that Christ is creating a mosaic of what he wants the church to look like. A mosaic that can be a guide and a guard to any church at any time, in any place in human history. If Central is going to have the vision for being the church that Christ wants her to be, that vision has got to emerge out of the Word of God. Let’s see if we can catch a glimpse of that vision this morning. Turn with me in your Bibles, and let’s look together at verses 1-7 of Revelation chapter two. Revelation the second chapter beginning to read at the first verse, this is the Word of God. This is Jesus’ message to the early church at Ephesus.

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lamp stands:

Now wait a minute, let’s stop right there. What are the seven stars, what are the seven golden lamp stands? Jump up to the previous chapter, the last verse, the last part of that verse. It says the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. The seven lamp stands are those seven churches. So Jesus is addressing these seven churches. And then He goes on in verse two.

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: 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 will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 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.

Join me as we pray: And now Father as my words are true to your Word, may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your Word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

The book of Revelation, notice I did not say Revelations. It is singular, not plural. The book of Revelation. We often look at that as being such a complicated, confusing piece of literature. Filled with all kinds of wild and hair-raising imagery and symbolism. Friends, let me tell you this. Two things I’d like you to take away this morning about the book of Revelation.

  1. The message of Revelation is extremely simple. In fact, I can reduce it to two words. God wins.
  2. Secondly, in the book of Revelation, you and I are given a portrait of Jesus Christ.

A unique portrait that we get nowhere else. And so, anytime we look at the book of Revelation, we ought to be asking ourselves this question. What is this text teaching me about Jesus Christ?
Let’s put that question up against the text we just looked at. What is this text teaching us about Jesus Christ? Immediately we see in verses 1 and 2 that we can learn at least four things about Christ; especially as to how He relates to His church.

The first thing we realize, is that Christ communicates with His church. We are told that He here issues a message to the church at Ephesus via angelic messengers. Christ is not silent. He is not aloof from His Church. He communicates continually with His Church. He reveals Himself and His will to His Church.

The second thing we learn about Christ is that He is sovereign over His Church. We are told that in His hand He holds the seven stars of the churches,. In other words, the Church is completely, totally, in the hands of Christ. Those early-century Ephesians needed to hear that message. They who lived as a marginalized minority in a very religiously plural cosmopolitan city, such as Ephesus, with over a quarter of a million people. And Ephesus also was the possessor of one of the great wonders of the ancient world: the temple to the pagan goddess Diana. And questions that were on every Ephesian Christian’s mind were questions like this: Is our church going to be able to survive in this overwhelmingly pagan hostile culture? And can our little weak marginalized church possibly, in any way, make the slightest dent in this overwhelmingly pagan culture? Jesus’ word to those Ephesians here in this text is “Yes!” For the future of the Ephesian church and her power and her influence and her ability to make an impact on the culture did not lie in her hands.

Now, the seven golden lamp stands. Jesus is not a god who is just out there, aloof. He is Emmanuel. God with us. And here in this text He reiterates His great promise to you and me that we find in Matthew 28, verse 20, “I will be with you always.” And the truth is if you are a believer, you can’t go anywhere without Christ. And the flip side of that is, you and I can go anywhere with Him.

The fourth truth that we learn about Christ in this text we find there at the end of verse two when He says, “I know your deeds”. Christ is intimately acquainted with His Church. He knows what’s going on. Good and bad, He knows you and me inside out. He knows where we’ve been, where we ought to go. He knows what He wants His Church to be like. He knows what He wants it to do as we go into the year Y2K. He knows. He has an agenda for His Church. What is that agenda?

Let’s begin to take a look at this Ephesian church and see if there might be just a few clues there for us here in Baltimore in 1998. At first glance it’s obvious that this Ephesian church is an evangelical Presbyterian congregation. You’re saying “Where do you get that, Ron?” Look at verse two of our text. Christ says I know your deeds. I know your hard work. I know your perseverance. Everybody knows that we Presbyterians are basically Type A personalities. We work hard, we’re always busy, we’re making lists and checking things off.

This Ephesian church is a going show. They’ve got a lot of programs, they’re open seven days a week. A lot of good stuff is happening there. They’ve got a lot of hard workers. Of course, never quite enough hard workers. In the typical hard working church, it’s still 20 percent of the horses running 80 percent of the races. Someone has likened the church to being like a football game. You’ve got 22 people out on the field desperately in need of rest, surrounded by 50,000 people in the stands desperately in need of exercise. But Jesus praises them for their hard work, their perseverance. Especially perseverance made that much harder by the fact that they are in the midst of a culture that’s anything but supportive. A culture that’s even hostile.

And we see that this is obviously an evangelical church. They’re orthodox theologically. They’ve sniffed out those false teachers, those false apostles in their midst. That’s ’cause they knew their Bibles. They were theologically astute, they were on target. And then lo’ and behold in verse two we see that Jesus violates one of the – well possibly the highest virtue of our present day culture. The virtue of tolerance.

Look at what Jesus says in verse two: He praises the Ephesian Christians for their intolerance of false teaching in their midst. What kind of false teaching? Look at verse six, Christ says that He hates the teachings and the practices of the Nicolaitans. Well who in the heck are the Nicolaitans? We don’t know that much about them except that they were a group within the church that confused the Christian liberty of grace with the unchristian license to idolatry. They were the ones within the church who wanted to be religiously pluralistic. They wanted to compromise the faith and hook up with the surrounding paganism. Also, they were the ones who compromised on sexual purity. They were the ones saying, “Hey, my body’s mine, I can do with it whatever I want and still be in good standing with God.”

That sound familiar? The Church is not to tolerate aberrant theology or sexual immorality in its midst. Not because Ron Scates says so. Not because the Presbyterian Layman says so. Here you have Jesus saying He will not tolerate that kind of stuff in the Church.

This is a great church, folks. They’re hard working, they’re theologically on target. They’re busy. They’re doing all kinds of stuff. And yet, something is awfully, awfully wrong. Look at verse four. Jesus says that word that we never want anyone to say to us: yet. “Yet, I have this against you.” And now this uncomfortable intolerance of Christ emerges once again. This time on the other side of the coin. He says “you have forsaken your first love.”

What’s the first love of a Christian? Duuhhh. Jesus. Jesus is the Christian’s first love. And Jesus says, but you’ve forsaken your first love. “Now wait a minute, Lord, all this hard work, all this busyness, all of this theological orthodoxy, it’s all for you.” Remember when you first fell in love with your spouse? What that felt like? And then the years go by in marriage and that kind of dies down, plateaus out. Right? You know what a good marriage is? A good marriage is falling in love again and again and again and again. Except with the same person each time. You need to rekindle the passion.

Remember when you first fell in love with Jesus? Remember what it was like? And then the years go by and what happens to you and me? We become domesticated Christians. We’re active in the church, we’re on a lot of committees, we’re involved in social justice projects, we are teaching Sunday School, we’re doing all kinds of stuff. But are we doing it out of a passionate love for Jesus Christ? Or are we doing it because we’re in a rut, out of habit, out of loneliness, out of guilt, status seeking? Or, you know, somebody’s got to do it? When you and I lose our first love, then our zeal for Jesus become superceded by things like new buildings, church politics, ecclesiastical power, wanting to be up front and seen. All kinds of good things.

And when you and I lose our first love, then you know what we’re left with? Religion. Did you know that Christ hates religion? Religion is orthodoxy gone dry and stale. Religion is worship turned into entertainment. Religion is being busy but going through the motions. Religion is when you believe all the right stuff on the surface, but you’re really leading a double life. You’ve got your life at church and then you’ve got your other life over here. Religion is when the church turns from being a missionary society into the spiritual annex of the country club. Religion is when your zeal for making disciples devolves into making yourself comfortable. Jesus hates, despises, religion. When you and I lose our first love that’s what we’re left with. And so Jesus comes before you and me today through this text as our loving adversary. He confronts the Ephesians and he confronts the Christians in Baltimore. And says, “You better wake up. You may be theologically orthodox, your church may be lively and growing, but if you’ve lost your first love, you’ve lost it, period. Get your act together. He who has ears let him listen.”

And then in verse five He gives us two pointers on how to get our acts together if that’s what we need. First He says, “Remember. Remember the height from which you’ve fallen.” You know friends, the most privileged, highest perch that a human being can ascribe to is a lively, growing personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The only trouble is there’s only one place you can go from there and that’s the fall down.

Remember what it was like when you first fell in love with Christ? Jesus says remember. Remember what it was like. And then in verse five he goes on to say, “Repent.” Turn around, head back in that direction. Remember what it was like when you were passionately in love with Christ? Go back to doing things like you did it then. Out of your heart.

Central Pres – who is your first love? Jesus of course. Of course Christ is our first love. But have we lost it? Have I lost it? We need to rekindle the passion all the time. The Bible calls you and me to continual repentance. Turning back around. Renewing our faith and commitment to Christ. If we don’t we’re going to be left with a lively, but a very religious, church. And that’s not what Christ wants. He says “I’m giving you time to do that. Remember. Repent. Turn back. Rekindle the flame.” But if you don’t then Christ says He’s going to come and remove our lamp stand from its plate. What in the world does that mean?

Here’s one possibility: after he recently retired as pastor of Central Church, Dr. Joseph Smith (you can look at his plaque on the wall when you go out) wrote a book. In 1899. It was entitled 80 years: Embracing the History of Presbyterianism in Baltimore. And in that book, which I have a copy of, he writes short sketches about all the Presbyterian churches in Baltimore in 1899. Churches like Third Church, Fourth Church, Fifth Church, Constitutional Church, Broadway Church, Westminster Church, Twelfth Church, Tone Street Church, Lafayette Square Church, Boundary Avenue Church, Fulton Avenue Church, Church of the Covenant, Bohemian Church, Park Church, Ridgely Street Church, Crisp Memorial Church, Reed Memorial Church. Those names familiar to you? Of course not, they don’t exist anymore.

100 years ago those churches were going shows. Probably a third theologically on target. What happened? I’m not sure. But one thing I am sure about. In verse seven of our text, it says that eternal life, that reward of you and me being granted to eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God, depends not so much on you and me being a part of an active, growing, theologically orthodox congregation, as much as it does apparently depend on you and me as individual Christians and as a congregation making sure our spiritual love life is in right order.

I work hard as your pastor. Preparing to preach and doing pastoral care and teaching. I work hard at being involved in the renewal movement of the Presbyterian Church USA: taking on what I think is heterodoxy in our Presbytery and beyond. But you know what? I get so immersed in that stuff that sometimes I step back and realize that I’ve forgotten why in the world I’m doing it. And I need to rekindle my love for Jesus Christ. My first love.

Jesus’ word to you and me this morning: Remember. Remember the height from which you’ve fallen. If you’re a Christian here this morning, remember what it was like? It can be that way again. Ask Christ to stoke those fires once more. And say “I’m going to do everything I do because I love Christ, not because I want to look good in people’s eyes, or make a name for myself, or just ’cause somebody has to do it. I’m going to do it out of love for Jesus.” And if you’re here this morning and your first love is yourself or your car or your job or whatever, and you’ve never made Jesus your first love. I would invite you to do that this morning as we pray:

Lord God, you make us uncomfortable. We like to keep you at arm’s length. We find our niche, our comfort zone, and we want to stay there. O Lord, shake us up this morning, move us outside of our comfort zone, back into a passionate, growing relationship with you. Help us to recover that first love that you desire. And Lord, if there are those here this morning who have never fallen in love for you. I pray that you would go ahead of them, regenerate their hearts, draw them into a saving relationship with You. Lord, we are in your hands. We thank you that the Church is in your hands. And that you’re a loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering God, whose patience outlasts our rebellion against you. Lord, draw us to yourself. Make us the men and women, boys and girls you’ve made us to be. And may it all be to your honor and glory. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

© 1998, Dr. Ronald W. Scates
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145