Monday, May 03, 2010

Sermon on Revelation 2:18-29, for the 5th Sunday of Easter, "Easter Letters: Hold Fast!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today is part four of the sermon series, “Easter Letters,” and focuses on the church in Thyatira. Last week we heard about the church in Pergamum that was enticed by the rampant idolatry around them. They were called away from false worship at Satan’s throne to the true worship at the throne of God, and His hidden manna that sustains. Today we come to the longest and perhaps most difficult letter to understand, to the church in Thyatira. This was the least remarkable of the seven cities, the one for which we have the least historical background. We do know this was the city where the faithful believer Lydia, a seller of purple cloth, was originally from. She and her household were baptized by Paul on one of his missionary journeys. Today we’ll hear how the church of Thyatira and us are called to “hold fast” to their faith in Christ until the end. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

As Christ addresses this church and us, He is described as the one with eyes like flames of fire, and with feet like burnished bronze. Further on He says that He is the one who searches hearts and minds and gives to each according to their works. Those eyes of fire see into every heart and mind just like the two-edged sword of God’s Word from last week discerns sin in our thoughts and intentions. This is to say that nothing is hidden from God’s piercing gaze. His feet of burnished bronze stand firm and immovable, as He is the One who rules the earth with all authority. His searching eyes saw something shocking in Thyatira—a promiscuous woman had taken great prominence and influence within the Christian church. She styled herself as a teacher or “prophetess,” and was seducing people into idolatry and sexual immorality. Apparently there was a significant number within the church who’d been lead astray into these sins.

Thankfully we have no such “prophetess” leading people into promiscuity in our congregation. But this doesn’t mean that we’re clear of any such danger—the temptations of the world are a “Jezebel” to us, that would try to change what we hold fast to, and substitute all of the idolatry and immorality of the world for Christ. The way of Jezebel ultimately leads to death for her and her followers, but by contrast the way of Christ leads to eternal life for all who follow Him. The title “Jezebel” echoes back to the wicked queen of Israel who promoted widespread idolatry and incited her husband King Ahab to much evil, including murdering innocent Naboth and many of God’s prophets. The name Jezebel still carries that connotation of someone wicked and shameless. It’s striking that she was already given time to repent, but refused. God apparently had given an extended opportunity for repentance to this unknown woman and her followers. We might even consider this letter as one last warning to her and her followers. Could Jesus forgive even such a sinner as her? Certainly in His ministry, Jesus encountered such sinners, and He extended to them the forgiveness of sins, when they repented. Yes Jesus will forgive even such hardened sinners, but only after they repent and turn from their sin. But here, to cling to such sin and defy repentance, and even openly leading others to do the same—there was no forgiveness for this.

This is not an easy lesson, and it’s difficult to say there’s been much progress over time in our readiness to repent. The same sin-born tendency to cling to and protect our sins, and excuse them away, is present in each of our lives. The more pleasurable and comfortable the sin, the more other people are doing it, the less we feel obligated to repent and acknowledge that its wrong before God. But suffering and consequences may follow such unrepentant sin. Jesus said He would give to each according to his works. A man reaps what he sows. Indeed there’s only one way to escape the eternal punishment that we deserve, and that is by repenting of our sins and clinging to the innocence of Jesus. Letting our sins be condemned at the tree of the cross by repenting of them, and putting the sinful nature to death—so that we might stand un-condemned, covered by the innocence of Jesus that’s counted to our favor by faith.

Yet despite one of the strongest calls to repentance for all the churches, Thyatira also received one of the strongest commendations for those who held fast to the faith in that church. “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.” Here was a church that had made much progress in faith and good works up till now. They are commended for excelling beyond what they had done at first. In regards to their love, faith, service, and patient endurance, they were a model church. It was their tolerance of Jezebel that was their great sin of which they needed to repent. Yet He spoke encouragement to those who did not hold to her false teachings or learn the so called “deep things of Satan.” Those who avoided the immorality and false worship promoted by some within the church.

Here at Emmanuel, as a church that strives to hold fast to Christ’s Word, we know that we’re far from perfect, and that we’re in constant need of repentance. There’s no room for complacency or self-congratulation. We need always to consider whether we display love, faith, service, and patient endurance. Do we reflect those qualities to our community? While we’re not judged on what other people think of us, but by whether we hold fast to Christ, nevertheless we’re to strive for godliness in all things. Even if we face slander or misunderstandings, people should still be able to see in us the kind of godly love and service that sets us apart as the body of believers, the church.

Christ calls us to “hold fast” to what we have. What can that command refer to? I’ve already begun to say that we’re to hold fast to Christ and to hold fast to faith. To hold fast is to have a tight grip, that won’t let go. To cling to something with tenacity is to have such a fierce determination that you won’t let anything get between you and what you’re holding on to. Like the way a mother bear protects her cubs. We’re called to hold fast to what we have, so that nothing the world throws at us will get between us and Christ. That we won’t lose our grip.

Several passages of Scripture help us to see what we are to “hold fast” to. In the explanation of the parable of the sower, Jesus describes the good soil as being like those who hear the Word of God and hold fast to it with a good and honest heart, and so are able to bear much fruit with patience (Luke 8:15). This would be the kind of person Jesus saw in Thyatira, whose love and faith and service and patient endurance were the fruit of holding fast to Christ and His Word. God’s Word will bear fruit if we hold fast to it in our hearts. The transformation within us may not always be so immediate and dramatic, the way a plant grows and matures slowly over time from a seed. So also with patience, God’s work will be evident in our lives.

Elsewhere Paul tells believers to “hold fast” to the word that was preached to them—the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:2). By holding fast to this good news, we’re saved. He calls believers to test every prophecy they hear, and to “hold fast” to what is good, and abstain from what’s evil (1 Thess. 5:21-22). Again the Christian is called to discern what’s right and wrong, and to hold fast to what’s right in the face of pressure to do wrong. And one more example comes from Hebrews, where we’re told to “hold fast” to the confession of our hope, because He who has promised is faithful (Heb. 10:23). Here we’re told to cling to our confession of hope—that hope we confess in the creeds, for example. Confessing that we believe in the one Holy Christian and apostolic church, we acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We confess that hope in the forgiveness of sins and the promised resurrection to life that we have in Jesus. And we can be confident of that hope, because we know that the one who promised is faithful.

This is a crucial point for us to consider. The foundation for our confidence is the faithfulness of God. Everything around us may be shaken, may fail, may prove unreliable—but God alone is immovable. He has the longest track record of faithfulness, and has shown His mercy to generation after generation. When we’re called to hold fast to Him, we know that He alone can deliver us. I mentioned earlier the tenacity of a mother bear guarding her cubs. Think now of God as that mother bear, and how protective He is of His cubs. How you would not want to be the one robbing Him of His precious cubs, or stealing them away. Our salvation is secure if we hold fast to Christ because Christ holds fast to us with tenacity against the devil, but gentleness toward us. As we heard last week in the passage about Christ the Good Shepherd, Jesus promises this to His sheep: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:28-30).

Our security in salvation rests in the power and the faithfulness of our God to deliver what He promises. He protects all those who hold fast to Him. Those who repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ seek His protection from all that would lead us astray. He promises that in the end He will give believers authority over all the powers that currently hold us in subjection. Finally there will be deliverance for the persecuted, and all oppression will end. He gives an additional promise to the one who conquers: that Christ will give them the morning star. He is that bright morning star, and to all who hold fast to Him by faith, He is our sure and certain possession.

Ultimately we are called to hold fast to what we have, because clinging to Christ and His promises in the Word will never let us down. He never fails, because He holds fast to us in love and grace. He embraces the repentant sinner, He guards our foot from stumbling, and He fights against the evil one who would try to snatch us out of our Father’s hand. He’s watchful like a good shepherd for all that would cause us harm. It’s in His strong arms that we find refuge. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Thyatira was an army post and center of commerce where vice and immorality were rampant. We know little from history or the Bible except that Lydia, a convert, was from there (Acts 16:14-15).

2. Identify the following in the letter to Thyatira: (these basic features are repeated in each letter)
Image of Christ:
Local detail about the church:
What Christ sees: A) Good B) Bad
Call to Repent:
Promise to the One who Conquers:

3. Look at parallels to the image of Christ here. Daniel 10:6; Jer. 17:9-10; 11:20; Ps. 7:9ff; 2:8-9; Rev. 22:16; Num. 24:17; Dan. 12:3.

4. Who was Jezebel in the Old Testament? 1 Kings 16:31-33; 21:25-26; How is she a fitting comparison to the “Jezebel” of Thyatira? What must all who are caught in sin do? How does God respond to the repentant? The unrepentant? Ezekiel 18:21-24; John 7:53-8:11.

5. What should we “hold fast” to? Luke 8:15; 1 Cor. 15:2; Col. 2:19; 1 Thess. 5:21; Heb. 3:6; 10:23; Cf. Hosea 12:6; Psalm 46

6. Who is the “morning star”? Cf. Rev. 22:16; 2 Peter 1:19; Num. 24:17; Daniel 12:3. How does the believer receive this?

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