The Churches of Revelation: Ephesus - The Loveless Church | United Church  of God

A sermon on Revelation 2:1-7 by Richard Keith on Sunday 19 March 2023

I can still remember when my brief honeymoon with soccer came to an end one wet Saturday morning. I was playing for my local team. We were playing in division 5. And in the pouring rain, a driving southerly gale making our shirts cling to our scrawny bodies, we went down 7 nil. And I was the goal keeper.

No one said anything, but I knew what they were thinking. It was all my fault. My father tried to reassure me. “Don’t blame yourself, son. Crikey, they had to get past the other 10 players, before they got to you.” But I didn’t believe him. And it didn’t matter. The magic had gone. The honeymoon was over. Such a shame that I was 7 years old and it was only my first game.

Sadly, it is the natural cycle of things. Beginning something new can feel like falling in love. Whether it’s a new game, or a new hobby. A new house. A new job. A new political leader. A new friendship. The relationship begins as sweet as honey. But that initial magical period doesn’t last forever. I don’t know if it can.

It can happen too in our relationship with God. The new convert, who experiences that wonderful gift of forgiveness, who can for the first time in their life look back without guilt and forward with hope, experiences a honeymoon period in their relationship with God. They smile, when they used to worry. They laugh out loud for no reason at all. And they love to tell their friends about Jesus. It is just a precious time when the world seems full of love and joy and the wisdom of God.

But it doesn’t last. I don’t even know if it can. The old bad habits creep back in. The old fears. The old doubts. And the passion of their devotions in reading the Scriptures, in prayer, in meeting with other Christians, in sharing the word with others, becomes a chore.

A new church can have the same experience. Whether they’ve finally built their first church building, or whether they’ve called their first minister, or whether they’ve planted a new church in a new town or suburb, initially there is that period when everyone gets on and they are all united in spirit and purpose.

But again it doesn’t last. Worship services settle into a comfortable routine. People go missing for weeks and nobody cares. They struggle to find Sunday School teachers and fill the cleaning roster. And they argue over unimportant things. Individuals can lose that feeling of love. And so can churches because that’s what happened in Revelation chapter 2.

Revelation chapters 2 and 3 are maybe not what we’d expect from this mysterious book. We expect tales of woe, dire predictions of fiery hail falling out of the sky, images of beasts with two heads and twelve horns. But what we find in these two chapters are letters. Messages from the Lord Jesus to seven of his churches in western Turkey, not far from the island of Patmos where the author John had been exiled. It may not be what we’d expect, but these seven letters are the core of the message of this book. Because this book isn’t a collection of obscure prophecies like the predictions of Nostradamus. This book is God’s message of comfort and hope to his suffering people, of which these seven letters in chapters 2 and 3 are an integral part.

This morning we are looking at the first of these messages in Revelation chapter 2, verses 1 to 7. It begins,

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 …

Each of the messages to the seven churches begins in a similar way. The opening lines identify the church it is addressed to. In this case in Ephesus, one of the most important cities in New Testament times on the western coast of Turkey. A thriving centre for trade and famous for its enormous temple in honour of the goddess Artemis. Now in ruins but which once would have been magnificent.

We know Ephesus from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in the New Testament. Acts chapter 19 tells us that Paul himself stayed in Ephesus for two years, preaching the gospel and founding the church. This message in Revelation chapter 2 came to them a generation or two later.

The next part of the message recalls some part of John’s vision of the risen Lord Jesus in chapter 1. Where John writes among other things,

I turned and saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was one like a son of man. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword.

We talked about what that meant last week. The seven lampstands are the seven churches in Turkey. They are lampstands because they shine the light of Christ into the darkness of the world. Jesus stands among them because he is with his church. And in his hand he holds every heavenly power they need to shine brightly.

The church has not been left on its own. It has not been left struggling while Jesus is on holiday in heaven. Jesus is not absent, leaving us waiting for him like he is late for an appointment. Instead, the Lord Jesus is among us. He shares our victories and our suffering. He shares the church’s journey of faith. The Lord Jesus truly is the only King and Head of his church. He rules it through his word. And he gives it his Spirit’s gifts. No matter what we go through, no matter what hardships we experience, no matter what mistakes we make and what temptations we succumb to, the Lord Jesus is here, as he promised, where two or three are gathered in his name.

In the next part of the messages Jesus begins, “I know…” “I know your afflictions,” or “I know where you live.” To the church at Ephesus he said,

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.

The Lord Jesus praised them for their diligence, their labour, their doggedness. He particularly admired their love for the truth. The church was troubled at its very beginning, as it has been in each generation since, by those who have had their own revelations, who have wanted to teach others what Jesus “really” meant, who have tried to share their own version of new, improved Christianity. But the Ephesians wouldn’t have any of it. They knew the truth. And because they knew the truth, they knew a lie when they heard it. So when men came to Ephesus claiming to be apostles of a new and better way to heaven, the Ephesians listened to them, tested their words against what they knew, tested their lives against the example and teaching of Jesus, found them wanting and showed them the door.

The Ephesians showed they were a card carrying, Bible believing, “straight as a ruler” kind of church. They would never have prayed to our Mother who art in Heaven. They would never have said that Jesus was only a man who found the Christ within. They would never have believed that the Holy Spirit was just a force which God used to achieve his ends.

And the Ephesians weren’t just orthodox, isolated from the troubles of the world, but had experienced hardships and had suffered for being Christians and had never given up.

“Yet,” begins verse 4. Like a big but in capital letters. The Lord Jesus praised the Ephesians for their faith, and for their endurance. But, he had one thing against them. One thing that needed improvement. One thing that would bring them back on track. “Yet,” he said,

I hold this against you. You have forsaken your first love.

At the very beginning they had had that spark of devotion, that zeal for the Lord, that passion for his will, that love that the Lord desires and commands from us, that love that loves him with all their heart and with all our mind and with all our strength. That love for God which isn’t just busy for God but which enjoys God for his own sake, the love from which flows our joy our hope and our peace. The honeymoon was over. They were orthodox. Straight as an arrow. But it was a dead kind of orthodoxy, stripped of its heart and soul.

Do you know a church like that? Where they sing the great hymns of the past, but don’t care for the church’s future. Where they grin and bear it, but nobody really smiles. Where they work hard, but have forgotten who or what they working for. Where they preach the truth, but nobody lives the truths of grace and mercy and forgiveness.

Is our church like that? Are we as straight as a ruler, and just as hard and dry and stiff? Is the honeymoon over?

Or are you like that? Can you recite the Lord’s Prayer, but have forgotten who you’re talking to? Can you teach the Bible to others, but have stopped learning yourself? Have you memorised the Bible, but others can’t see its values in your life? Have you lost your first love?

People talk about falling in and out of love. They fall in love. They live in this magical world where their loved one can do no wrong and they believe they will live happily ever after. And they marry. And have a family. And are confronted by cold, hard reality. Toilet seats left up. Drinking straight from the milk carton. Forgetting their five month anniversary. They lose their first love. And many couples drift apart or break up. Because the honeymoon is over.

Which is sad, because I like to believe that when couples lose their first love it’s an opportunity to discover a better kind of love. A love that doesn’t live in castles in fairy tale land, but in the real world of sudden surprises and bitter disappointments. A love built on commitment and mutual admiration rather than feelings. A love that promises not happily ever after, but till death do us part. A love that not only hears the minister say for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, but actually believes it and rises to the challenge when needed.

Losing that first love can be a chance to discover a better kind of love. And it can be true in our relationship with God. We can discover that love that is expressed in service not just in feelings. Where we experience the joy of not just being forgiven, but of being able to forgive. Where we can not only smile all day, but sit and weep with those in trouble. It doesn’t feel as good as that first glow of conversion, but it is in many ways better.

In verse 5 the Lord Jesus said to the Ephesians,

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.

The first step to regaining that spark you have lost is to realise what you once had and are now missing. Jesus said, “Remember the height from which you have fallen.” Relive it in your mind so that you can live it again.

The next step back to the place from which you have wondered away is to repent. That decision of the mind that things can’t keep going the way they are. That something has to change. And that something is yourself. It’s a change of attitude that leads to a change in behaviour.

If you are struggling with the routine of religion, if church is a chore and your devotions are non-existent or uninspiring, if you are afraid you have not only lost your first love for God but have no idea how to get it back, let me make three suggestions.

Firstly,  pray. Because prayer reminds us that God is not a power to fear or to appease, but a person to love and to serve. So pray. Talk to God. Thank him for things. Confess your sins. Admit your doubts and your worries. Ask him for things and see if they come. Expect miracles and tell everyone you know when they happen. Pray.

Secondly, meditate on the life of Jesus. Don’t just read the Bible. Start with one of the Gospels and read about Jesus and think about his life and teaching. Hear him speak as if he was talking to you. See him act in the Gospel accounts as if he was showing you how to live. Become his thirteenth disciple and live what he says.

Thirdly, hang around with newer converts. Because loveless religion is draining, but enthusiasm is contagious. And if you’ve lost your first love, they haven’t. Their zeal might be the spark that fires up your heart for God. Don’t treat them like they won’t really belong to the church for another 50 years. Treat them like they already belong, because they do, and like you’ve got something to learn from them, because you do.

The seven messages in chapters 2 and 3 end with a promise. In verse 7 the Lord Jesus said to the Ephesians,

To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

It is a promise of heavenly blessing. The one who overcomes is the one who remains true their whole life long. Who is not seduced by false teaching. Who does not give up because of hardship. Who does not yield to a life of sin. Or in the case of the believers in Ephesus, those who do not just go through the motions of a loveless religion, but rediscover their love for God, and live in love for others. They may not live in castles in fairy land. Their lives may not be all happy and carefree. Because they live in the real world and overcome real obstacles, but it is the only way to live happily ever after in the paradise of God.

My love affair with soccer ended during the first game. But I was able to find a better reason to play. In the same way the magic of our first love with God doesn’t last. I don’t know if it can. I don’t even know if it should. In fact losing it can be the chance to find a better kind of love for God and for others. A love built on Christ. A love strengthened by hardship. And a love expressed in grace and mercy to others. Rediscover your first love for God in a living relationship with his Son Jesus Christ. Become his thirteenth disciple and learn to live and love again.