Advice for the Love-Lost (“The Frog Sermon”)

Eighth in a YAFI (You Asked For It) Series,
Delivered July 25, 1999 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
lampstands:
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.

I was quite surprised and delighted when you all took that worship survey last year and I took your suggestions for sermons. This is the end of that series, and one of the sermons you suggested was a sermon I preached over six years ago, affectionately known as, ‘The Frog Sermon.’ I didn’t preach that sermon for the first time here at Central Church. In fact, I preached that sermon for the very first time over a dozen years ago on June 14, 1987 when I was still the Youth Minister at the First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio, Texas. That sermon became known as my most memorable sermon in that congregation. In fact, after serving there for ten years, in the going away celebration, two elders — who were also on my Youth Ministry staff — presented me with a plaque. It has a real frog on it that has been stuffed and it says, ‘In honor of your most memorable sermon, with warmest affection, Tom Hawkes and Bill Ruhmann.’

To show you the reality of God and that God has a sense of humor, I next preached that sermon after I had been at Central for four years. It was on May 23, 1993, and as I came into the pulpit at the 11 o’clock service, low and behold I looked down and there was Bill Ruhmann, one of those elders, sitting right there. He was in DC on business and decided that he would drive up and surprise me here. I don’t know who was most surprised.

I think that sermon has made an impact on people in San Antonio and Baltimore, not because of the frog story that you are going to hear a little bit later, but because this text that I am about to read is possibly the one text a church like First Presbyterian, San Antonio or Central Presbyterian, Baltimore needs to continually hear above every other text. In fact, you and I as evangelical Christians need to hear this text over and over and over again. It is a tough love reminder from Jesus himself, that you and I can be busy with all kinds of church work, we can be orthodox theologically, and yet not be Christ-centered, which is what being a Christian is really all about.

I would invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Revelation. Keep them open during the sermon to the second chapter as we wrestle this morning with the first seven verses of that chapter. This is the Word of God:

To the angel in the church of Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks amongst the seven golden lampstands: 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: Now Father as my words are true to your Word, may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from you Word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Any time that you and I look at a passage of Scripture, be it in the Old or the New Testament, one of the questions we ought to be asking ourselves all the time is, “What is this text telling me about Jesus Christ?” If you look at verses 1 and 2 of the text that we have just read, you see that we learn three things about Christ.

We are told first of all that he holds the seven stars in his right hand. If you jump up to chapter 1, verse 20 of Revelation, you see that symbol explained. The seven stars symbolize the seven angels of the seven churches in the Mediterranean area nearly 2,000 years ago. That is a reminder to you and me that Jesus Christ is totally Lord and sovereign over His Church. He holds His Church in His Hand and He will not let her go.

Secondly, we are told that Jesus walks among the seven golden lampstands. Again in chapter 1, verse 20, those lampstands are explained as symbols of the Church. So what we learn here, is that Jesus is not way out there somewhere. He is not aloof. He is in the midst of his Church. He walks among us. In other words, he is accessible. In fact, he wants to have an intimate personal relationship with each one of us.

Thirdly, we learn that Christ knows His Church. He knows it inside out. There is nothing that gets by him. There is no way that you and I can ever fool him. He is well acquainted with all the big things that are going on in your life and mine. He also is completely familiar with all of the little things that are going on. Now imagine for just a moment, if before I continued to speak a special delivery messenger came running down the aisle of the church thrusting in my hand an envelope. On the envelope it has a return address – “Jesus, Heaven”. And in big bold red letters in front of the envelope:

EVALUATION OF CENTRAL CHURCH ENCLOSED.

OPEN IMMEDIATELY AND READ ALOUD DURING WORSHIP.

How would you be feeling if this was an actual evaluation from Christ about Central Church and I was going to read that evaluation? This is a great church. There are all kinds of wonderful things going on here. Gosh, we’ve got a new building. We are preparing to get another building on line in a couple of years. Our Children’s Ministries and Youth Ministries, and Seniors Ministries are booming. Our budget is over a million dollars. We have people coming to Christ. We have got a missions program that is probably not the equal of any church in our denomination of our size. Things are happening around here.

When I travel, I often times am given compliments. People know what is happening in this church all across our nation, and across the world. They say good things about Central Church. Most of you are happy with what is going on around here, or you wouldn’t be here. But we need to stop at this point and ask a very important question. Does that really matter? Isn’t what really matters what Christ thinks of this church? Isn’t that the only opinion that really matters?

Imagine that you were a member of Central Church Ephesus nearly two thousand years ago. The text we have before us is Jesus’s actual evaluation of that congregation. If you look at verses 1-3, it is a great evaluation. They are holding their own in the midst of a culture and an area that is totally pagan. There in Ephesus, Christians are being persecuted. They are a small minority. Ephesus was the site of temple of the fertility goddess Diana. In fact, her temple was one of the seven great wonders of the ancient world. It is tough to be a Christian in Ephesus. But Jesus compliments them. He says they don’t tolerate wicked people. They are theologically sound. In fact, they sniff out false teachers and preachers and apostles that try to force themselves on that church.

And they are a going show! They have got ministries going. They are having people come the Christ. Things are happening at Central Church Ephesus. Christ’s evaluation of them in verses 1-3 is simply superb. What a great church to be a part of! They were doing everything decently and in order. Do you see what kind of church Christ is describing here? He is describing a model Presbyterian church.

But then look at verse 4. Suddenly the bottom drops out. Christ, not gentle Jesus meek and mild, but Jesus Christ who calls a spade a spade, who calls sin sin, whose judgment can never be separated from his love, whose justice can never be separated from his grace, nails them. He says, ‘You have forsaken your first love.’ And with that leveling phrase, he delivers a crushing blow to all of their illusions that as a church they had arrived and had it all together.

You have forsaken your first love. What does that mean? First love is that something, whatever it is, that you and I give ultimate allegiance to. First love is that something that you and I order our lives around. First love is that bedrock foundation that you and I build everything else in our lives upon. And love always refers to relationship. And so first love is that someone above every other person who merits our supreme devotion. First love is that someone that we are passionately in love with to the point that we would even give our lives for them. And Jesus turns to those Ephesian Christians and says, ‘You are doing a whole lot of great stuff here, but you have missed the boat! You have lost your first love.’

Now what has happened here? Have they rejected Christ? No. Are they worshiping Diana? No. But somewhere along the line their first love has drifted out of the picture. What Jesus is saying here is that you become a Christian, falling in love with Him. And then you remain a healthy growing vibrant Christian when you keep that love on the front burner. Ephesian Christians, in the midst of all their good stuff had slid it to the back burner.

As believers in Jesus Christ, as a congregation that really wants to do God’s will, you and I need to deal with reality. We need to deal with the reality that when you and I fall in love with Jesus, the very real danger out there is that we, like the Ephesians, will slide that love onto the back burner. Not reject Christ. I am not talking about that. I’m not talking about overt rebellion against God. I’m not talking about running after idols. I am talking about incrementally allowing Jesus to be pushed to the sidelines of our lives and substituting a lot of religious stuff, church-ianity, good works, you name it … Things that in no way can substitute for a passionate personal relationship with Christ.

Here is where the frog comes in. A frog is a cold-blooded animal. That means that he can adjust his body temperature to the temperature of this environment around him. So please kids… In fact, in San Antonio somebody dropped a note in the offering plate scolding me: ‘You are going to have all the kids in our church running home and trying to do this!’ So please, do not try this at home.

But you can take a frog and theoretically put him in a pot of room-temperature water and he will adjust his body temperature to that. And then, you can incrementally degree by degree, turn the heat up, allowing time in between for him to adjust, to the point where you boil that frog.

How does that play out in the life of a believer? Remember when you first came to Christ? When you first fell in love with him? How exhilarating it was? There was nothing you wouldn’t do for Christ, no matter how difficult or inconvenient. You were into prayer. Into the Word. Worship. Ordering everything in your life around this new found love. This supreme love.

And then, you don’t know exactly when or where or how; but, you began to grow up and you began to become more “respectable” in your faith. Maybe you became a church leader. And maybe it was because of your great giftedness and leadership abilities; or maybe it was because you want to be like everybody else. Or maybe it is because the pressure is so great living in the vortex of church politics and all that other stuff. But somewhere along the line, something has gone wrong. You have drifted. Not a big drift. But a subtle shift has occurred in your life. Suddenly, you are more enamored by organization than you are with the gospel.

All of the sudden, your real love has been captured by the machinery of the church. Rather than a passion for seeing people come to Christ, you get caught up in power politics and weighty decisions. Suddenly you realize that you have forgotten why you are doing what you are doing. Or who you are even doing it for. What used to be a passionate fire in your heart for Jesus Christ has been replaced by religion and religious activity, and a lot of other good things that need to happen and need to be done. But they have occupied the place that only rightfully Jesus himself can occupy.

Little by little, you realize that you have lost your first love. The fire is out. The hundreds of pursuits that you have been after have created a breeze that has cooled off your passion for Christ. The flame has died. And you wonder, ‘Can I ever gain it back again?’

Jesus loves the church at Ephesus. He loves you and me too much to leave us like that when we drift. And that is all of us. It is all of us at various times in our lives. No matter how much we love Christ, we are sinners. That means that if there is an authentic way to walk, and real live people like you and me to walk it, we are always going to stray from it. And so Jesus gives those Ephesian Christians and us Baltimore Christians a prescription. A prescription for renewing our faith. A prescription for restoring our first love. I want you to look at it. It is in verses 5-7 of our text. This is a life-long prescription because you and I are sinners and always will be until we are translated into eternity. This is the prescription we will always need to be coming back to and taking until the day we die. It is that important. In fact, if you don’t think it is that important look at verse 5. Jesus says that if you don’t heed this prescription, he says ‘I am going to come make a visit to your church. And I am going to remove its lampstand from its place.’

What does that mean? In 1995, I was in Glasgow Scotland. I was living in a Center City Hotel. One morning I got up and decided that I was going to jog over into the south side of the city of Glasgow. I ran across the river Clyde on a bridge, and as I jogged through the south side of Glasgow I was impressed. Corner after corner, and on those corners sat big beautiful stone gothic Presbyterian churches. They all had one thing in common. They were all boarded up. And I remember thinking, ‘What happened?’ I fantasized, ‘What was Christmas Eve like in 1901 in that church?’ I bet they were packed out. I bet you this was a going show. What happened between 1901 and 1985? I don’t know. Christ removed their lampstand though.

At the end of World War II, Christ came this close to removing the lampstand of Central Presbyterian Church. This close. And he can come and do that again, if we should ever get so presumptuous. If we should ever get so enamored with all of our good stuff that is going on here to the point where we let our first love slip to the side.

Let’s take a look at this prescription in verse 5. It has three parts to it. Very simple. The first thing Christ says to the Ephesians and to us, especially if you are here this morning and you know you are one of those people who have lost their first love. He says, ‘Remember. Remember the height from which you have fallen.’ The supreme height, the apex of being a human being, is a passionate first-hand, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. So in one sense when you become a Christian there is no where else to go but down. And we all do.

Remember what it was like when you first fell in love with Christ? The excitement? The exhilaration? The passion that was there? You couldn’t pray enough. You were into the word. You were witnessing. You were going to worship. You were doing acts of grace and forgiveness.

But what happened? Where did you fall from? How did I get here? How did I become like the man who said, ‘I’d like to buy three dollars worth of God please. Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a warm cup of milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of him to make me love a black man, or picks beets with a migrant worker. I want ecstasy, not transformation. I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the eternal in a paper sack. May I have three dollars worth of God please?’ When you get to that point, remember. Remember the height from which you have fallen.

The second part of the prescription, Jesus says is repent. Nothing mind-boggling about repentance. There is nothing complicated about it. The word literally means in the Greek, turn-around. Wake up. Face the other direction. Face Christ. Begin to move in that direction where Christ can once again be the center of your life. Christ will not tolerate a peripheral position in my life or yours.

You want to know what genuine repentance looks like? In the 1903 Welsh revival, largely amongst coal-miners, these big burly guys fell head-over-heels in love with Jesus Christ. And when they did, do you know what happened? Coal production in Wales plummeted. Why? Did these guys quit their jobs? No. Did they not work as hard? No, they probably worked harder. Back in those days the coal was brought out of the mines in carts pulled by mules. For decades those mules had been trained to move by being cussed and beaten. And here these miners had fallen in love with Christ. They didn’t cuss any more. They refused to beat the animals. They couldn’t get the coal out of the mine. Repent, turn back.

And then finally Jesus says, ‘Do.’ Do the things you did at first. If you have lost your first love, remember, turn back, and think about what were those things that you used to do when you were passionately in love with Christ? You had a quiet time. You were into the word. You prayed. You worshiped regularly. By the way, if you are wondering whether or not you have lost your first love, a symptom is that the dominant question in your life as a Christian becomes this, ‘How can I get my needs met?’ Rather than, ‘How can I best serve Jesus Christ?’ That is one of the symptoms that you are on that track.

Do those things you used to do. But here is the catch. Most people go, ‘Okay. I’ll wait until I feel like I need to do those things…’ No. Don’t wait for feelings. Like Nike says, ‘Just do it.’ If you want to restore passion in your marriage, act passionately. Don’t wait to feel passionate. It is no different here. Feelings follow behavior. Just do it.

Often times people will come to me and say, “God doesn’t seem real. He is far away.” The first thing I say to them is “Tell me about your quiet time.” Inevitably they say, “Well, I don’t have one.” At that point I want to say, “Next.”

God is not going to seem real. Your love is going to die down if you are not cultivating, fueling, a passionate personal relationship with Christ through the Word, through the prayer, through worship, through working for Christ out in the world. Just do it. The passion will reignite.

Central Presbyterian Church is a church that is unashamedly in love with Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is our first love. But let me bring it home. At this very moment, who or what is your first love? Is it Christ? If you and I have never fallen in love with Christ, or if we have, and then slid it to the back burner, then not Ron Scates, but Jesus, says you are in great danger. If we as a congregation become so enamored with bodies, bucks and buildings; and we get caught up in all the great stuff that we are involved in to the extent that that begins to shove Christ out of the center onto the sidelines, then not me, but Jesus says that this congregation is in great and grave danger.

I would invite you this morning to fall in love with Jesus. Think about it. He made you. He died for you. He offers you nothing less than eternal life. If you are not passionately in love with the person who made you, if you are not passionately in love with the person who actually went to hell and back so that you would never have to, if you are not passionately in love with the one who offers the infinity of eternal life that we cannot even begin to describe (because look at verse 7, if you restore your first love the result is that you eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God. That is fancy language for eternal life); is you are not passionately in love with this Jesus, there is something wrong. He who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit says to Central Church.

Join me as we pray:
Father, your undying love for us has lead Christ to actually die for us. O Lord, continue to renew us as a congregation that your Holy Spirit might continue to flow through this church, that people would continue to be moved toward Christ, and come to Christ, and surrender to Christ, and grow up in Christ. So that this evangelism candle would continue to be lit and missionaries continue to be sent. And the kingdom — your kingdom — continue to be advanced through this church. And so that justice and righteousness might continue to characterize us as your children. We pray these things in the name of and for the sake of the one who alone is our first and our last love, Jesus. Amen.