Barry Unwin, St Gabriel’s Church, Hanley Swan, 29 October 2017
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right handand walks among the seven golden lampstands. 2 I know your deeds,your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, 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 the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far 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 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
Before we have our reading, let me say a word of introduction. I’ve been praying and reflecting on how best to use this chance we have when we all come together, and I felt God pointing me to use our next few benefice services to preach through the letters to the seven churches that you find at the beginning of the book of Revelation. They’re full of encouragements and challenges, and I hope our eight churches can be blessed by the letter to the seven churches.
But before Pam brings us our reading, let me set the scene a little. The historians reckon Revelation was written around 90AD, so about 60 years after Jesus, and the early church was pretty confident it was written by the apostle John, the same John who was one of Jesus’ original disciples, and who wrote the gospel of John.
John eventually became bishop of the church in Ephesus, which was a big thriving church, loads of people being converted, and the church was very busy and active in the city – they’re probably running soup kitchens, and orphanages, and making a real difference among the poor and the needy So much so that the Roman’s found them a nuisance, and to nip things in the bud they arrest John and ship him off to Rome to be executed in the Coliseum by being thrown into a vat of boiling oil.
The trouble is, John’s a tough fellow, with an even tougher God. The early church historian Tertullian records how John emerged unscathed from the oil, so the Romans ship him off to a prison island called Patmos. And its there one Sunday morning, as he’s praising God, that he gets a vision of Jesus, who gives him these letters to the seven churches, and the one we’re going to look at today is the letter to the church in Ephesus.
Bill – not his real name – had a problem with spiritual dryness. When I first met him he had a real lively faith. He loved to tell people about Jesus, loved doing kids work, was really involved in his church, and was also on the PCC. And he had a family and a day job. And when you add all that together, it was too much, and he began to struggle. He was so busy serving Jesus that for a while he managed to lose touch with Jesus. Spiritually he was all dried up.
And it’s not just individuals that suffer from spiritual dryness, it can happen to whole churches too, like the church in Ephesus.
Look at v2, this is a busy church,
I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people…and [that] you have endured hardships for my name.
The churches in this period did a lot of social action projects, they’d feed the hungry, heal the sick and set up orphanages. But their deeds went way beyond social action – they’re also out preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. And when false teachers turn up, they’re not afraid to tackle them, and to endure the hardship that comes as a result.
And yet despite all the good going on in the Ephesian church, there’s a problem. Just like with Bill – all this focus on work work work is drying them out spiritually. To such an extent that Jesus says to them in v4,
You have forsaken the love you had at first.”
That’s spiritual dryness. Being so focused on church work that you lose touch with Jesus.
When you say it like that it sounds ridiculous. Yet we do it in other areas of life. Think of marriage. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, marry, start a family, buy a house, push on in their careers to afford a bigger house, have another kid, outsource the childcare so they can work even more hours to afford an even bigger house, and ten years down the line, in all the busyness of career and family life and children and sports fixtures, the woman says to the man, “We never talk any more” because they’ve neglected the very relationship that sparked it all off. They’ve forsaken the love they had at first.
That might be how you feel about the Lord right now. That the best days are all behind you, the joy you once felt is just a dim memory in the past, and you’ve been doing church responsibility for so long you’ve forgotten why. You’re spiritually dry. The well of your soul has dried up.
So what we’re gonna do this morning is think about how to refresh the well. Because Jesus never points to a problem like spiritual dryness without also helping us towards a solution, and I reckon there are five ideas here which can help.
Some of you are probably thinking “how can I remember five things?” Well they’re on the noticesheet for starters, but really the key is to do something about the ones that particularly speak to you.
Others of you are maybe thinking – I don’t feel dry. Fantastic – here’s how you can make sure you don’t dry up – and how you can help those who are.
So let’s see how Jesus can refresh our dryness. And let’s start in v5,
Consider how far you have fallen! Repent.”
Repent is a command to take stock, to admit there’s a problem and do something about it.
So here’s the first thing we need to do to deal with spiritual dryness.
1) Take a time out.
If you’re feeling spiritually dry the single most important thing you can do is recognise the problem and decide to do something about it. There are two ways we do this.
One is to rest. Rest is so important in the Christian life God put it at number four in his top ten most important things we need to do list:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
That’s about resting from work so that we have time to be refreshed. Rest is the first way to take a time out.
The second, is to take time to listen to God speaking through his word, the Bible, and talk back to him in prayer. We should be doing that daily anyway, but sometimes it’s helpful to take more time over it. Perhaps to give up a special day to do it, a retreat day or a quiet day. Worcester Diocese has a retreat house and I understand its possible to book a day there where you can just go and be quiet and listen to God.
But it doesn’t have to be a quiet day. Why not go for a long walk instead? Along the Malvern Hills. Use it to think about your spiritual dryness: What’s the cause, how did it begin and so on. And each time you get to the top of a hill, or a cafe, take time out to talk to God about what you’re learning on the journey. If you want to be spiritually refreshed, you need to take time out from your routine.
2) Rediscover the love you had at first.
The clue to how to do this is there in v5,
Consider how far you have fallen!”
This is about looking back in your life and trying to reconnect with the joy you felt when you first understood that Jesus died for you.
For me that was when I was 16 and for months I’d been carrying a burden of guilt and shame in my life over some stuff I’d done. And when I heard the good news of Jesus – that he’d died to take all the guilt and shame and sin in my life away from me – well that was wonderful. Amazing. It was like being reborn. Which of course is what God did to me then. So whenever I’m feeling dry now – I look back to those early days to remind myself of my wonderful Saviour who died for me.
And I start to sing the songs I sang then. It was 1987, and in 1987 we sang Graham Kendrick songs. Some of them are pretty naff. I keep thinking about sticking them into services and I chicken out.
So that’s how I look back and reconnect with the love I had at first. What about you?What point in your past do you have to look back to to rediscover the love you had at first?
3)Fight against your competence!
That’s there in v5, where Jesus tells us to
do the things we did at first.”
It’s a warning against substituting competence for reliance on God.
Let me take primary school assemblies as an example. Over the last 13 years I must have done over 100 of them. Certainly more than enough so that I’m not frightened by them anymore.
And in some respects that’s good. But in other respects its a weakness, because as we get more competent at doing things, there’s a temptation to take short cuts. A temptation to rely less and less on the Holy Spirit and more and more on me.
Did I spend as much time praying about assemblies now as I did about my first ever school assembly? Probably not. Which means that somewhere along the way something has been lost.
What about you? Is your growing competence causing you to depend less and less upon God’s spirit? Then you’re in danger of becoming spiritually dry. So fight against your competence!
4)Remember Jesus values your work even when no one else does.
One of the most draining things about church work, particularly things like committee work, is that it feels so unappreciated. You can be slogging away looking after a fairly major legal responsibility, but you never get the recognition or the thanks you deserve. That dratted vicar never says thank-you, and so on. And when that happens, you get tempted to throw in the towel.
They never noticed me when I was here, let’s see if they notice me when I’m gone.”
Well sad to say, in this life no one may notice what you’ve done. But please don’t let that make you despair, because Jesus has noticed: verse 1, He’s walking among the seven golden lampstands”
– the lampstands are the churches He’s is actively monitoring what’s going on in his churches. He’s been wandering around his churches in Worcestershire for hundreds of years. He knows what we’ve done, The dozens of unappreciated good deeds, and all the times when we’ve refused to compromise our consciences to the spirit of the age.
That’s why v2, he can say,
I know your deeds.”,
You have this in your favour: you hate the practices of the Nicolatians, which I also hate.”
The point is – Jesus has noticed what you’ve done. He values and appreciates it. And one day all our work will be vindicated. So please don’t despair, don’t dry up, Jesus values what you’re doing, even if no one else does.
The final way to deal with spiritual dryness is to:
v)Look forward to the prize
That’s there in v7,
To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
What does it mean by victorious? Well if you’re feeling overworked and underappreciated, the temptation is to quit. Walk away from all your church responsibilities. That might feel a form of victory but really its only a temporary respite. And it’s certainly not the lasting victory Jesus is talking about.
The victory Jesus is talking about here involves keeping on doing your good deeds, your church responsibilities, keeping on persevering in the battle. But– to turn it into victory, you’ve also got to take steps to deal with your spiritual dryness.
If you like it’s about learning that we can only give out to others if we first learn how to receive from Jesus. In other words, victory involves overcoming spiritual dryness.
And if we can learn to do that, there’s a prize,
I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
Eating from the tree of life is a metaphor for eternal life. That’s the prize Jesus holds out to us – eternity in the paradise of God. That’s our great hope for the future.
You see no matter how tough things get now, the future is better. The future is brighter. The future is perfect. Things can only get better.
So persevere! Let your hope for the future keep you joyful. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and look forward to the prize.
We overcome spiritual dryness:
- By resting and taking a time out
- to rediscover our first love.
- By fighting against competence.
- By remembering the value of our work
- And by looking forward to the prize,
eternal life in the paradise of God.