Revelation 1:9-20; 3:14-22
Hymn # 463 How Firm a Foundation
Prayer of Invocation
O gracious and holy God, give us diligence to seek you, wisdom to perceive you, and patience to wait for you. Grant us, O God, a mind to meditate on you, eyes to behold you, ears to listen for your Word, a heart to love you, and a life to proclaim you, through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Call to Confession
In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it. Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!
Prayer of Confession
Almighty God, we confess how hard it is to be your people. You have called us to be the church, to continue the mission of Jesus Christ to our lonely and confused world. Yet we acknowledge we are more apathetic than active, isolated than involved, callous than compassionate, obstinate than obedient, legalistic than loving. Gracious Lord, have mercy upon us and forgive our sins.
Remove the obstacles preventing us from being your representatives to a broken world. Awaken our hearts to the promised gift of your indwelling Spirit. This we pray in Jesus’ powerful name. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah said: “I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me.” Know that we are forgiven.
Passing of the Peace
Prayer for Illumination
Lord God, let the words of your servant’s mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer. Through Christ. Amen.
9I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.[g] 10 I was in the spirit[h] on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin[a] of God’s creation:
15 “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. 21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
Note: This sermon is a collaborative effort; it is the work of the Rev. Alan Olson (Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Freehold, NJ), the Rev. Charissa Howe (Pastor, Emsworth UP Church and St. Andrews Presbyterian Church), and the Rev. Rebecca DePoe (Pastor, Glenshaw Valley Presbyterian Church and Mt. Nebo United Presbyterian Church).
Sermon: A Letter for Yinz
In case you don’t understand the title of the sermon this morning, yinz is a Pittsburgh-ism. It’s a plural form of you. In the South, most people say y’all. Around here, some folks might say youse. In western Pennsylvania, many people say yinz. In fact, there’s a certain type of Pittsburgher that’s called a yinzer; this person bears a thick accent and is sort of a caricature of a Pittsburgher.
Charissa: Good morning. As we begin our exploration of the text today, I want you to go on a little journey with me.
Close your eyes for a moment and picture Jesus.
Think about what he’s wearing, where he’s standing, the expression on his face.
Perhaps you are picturing the shepherd Jesus, calm and gentle, in the field with his sheep.
Maybe you see him welcoming the children.
Does your visual go to a picture of Jesus on the cross?
Perhaps, you first see the resurrected Jesus greeting the women on that first Easter morning.
I’m going to take a wild guess and suggest that few, if any of you, went straight to this odd picture of Jesus from Revelation.
Here is Jesus. . . with wooly white hair, wearing a golden sash. Gone are the sparkling, cheerful brown eyes I generally picture. They are replaced with eyes like fire. Huh. His face is shining and he’s standing among a bunch of lampstands. And he’s holding. . . stars.
Also, his feet look like metal that just just come out of a refiner’s fire and there is a big, sharp sword coming out of his mouth.
Betcha not much of that was in your mental image of Jesus. . .
It’s no wonder John fell down on the ground in fear at this picture. This was not the Jesus he was expecting to see.
Jesus is anything but cuddly in this passage. In the Gospels, we get a glimpse of Jesus’ power and justice, but here we see it in its full glory—what he has to say to the churches is so powerful, it’s represented by a sword.
The first thing Jesus says is something familiar: “Don’t be afraid.” And he goes on to explain how powerful and in control he is to our poor, terrified dreamer John. Then Jesus explains that the lampstands he is standing with represent the church. The stars in his hands are the angels or messengers to the church. He holds God’s word to the church and the future of the church in his hand and he stands with the church.
What he has to say isn’t just to seven churches about 2,000 years or so ago. In the context in which Revelation was written, seven was a number of wholeness. Also, at that time, all those different congregations would have felt like they were so far away, they were at the ends of the earth. So, the letters to the seven churches represent letters to all the different kinds of churches all around the world. They were to those specific churches at that time, but they are also to the churches around the world today.
Here in Pittsburgh, we have a local equivalent of “y’all,” it’s “yinz.” English fails us in that it doesn’t have a plural you (here I go again. . . language nerd). So “yinz” is a colloquial way of pluralizing “you.” These letters are community letters that span time. They are to “yinz” and that “yinz” includes us.
This passage should feel uncomfortable. When Jesus lays bare the places we need to grow, it can feel like that double-edged sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth. We are not called to the easy or comfortable. If yinz are taking Jesus seriously, it should be frightening to think about.
Right from the beginning, we are assured of Jesus’ power, the power and even dangerous nature of the Word, and of our part to play in God’s work of redeeming the world. We are meant to be part of the end of the world as we now know it.
We don’t have time to get into all seven of these letters today in one sermon. And we also don’t want to subject you all to the six- to eight-month sermon series it would take to attack every piece of Revelation. So, today we’re going to look at the last of them, one that we feel is very relevant today, and one that is also a good summary of much that is said in the other six.
Rebecca: The church in Laodicea struggles with complacency. They feel that their little corner of the world is doing all right. So, they have no need to concern themselves with the suffering of their neighbors. And this feeling blinds them from following Jesus with all that they are and all that they do. Laodicea was a banking and trade city. Those in Laodicea benefitted from Rome’s thriving economy.
One thing the city didn’t have was good water. Water either arrived hot from Hierapolis or cold from Colossae. By the time it reached Laodicea it was lukewarm. Over time, “Laodicean” came to refer to someone or something that was lukewarm, apathetic, neither one thing nor the other.
Laodicean Christianity disgusts Jesus. Jesus goes so far to say that he is going to spit the lukewarm Christians out of his mouth! Lukewarm Christians disgust Jesus because while outwardly they may look pious, inwardly, they aren’t converted. Other churches in Asia are being persecuted for their faith. They are rebuilding after devastating earthquakes. They are struggling to maintain their Christian identity amidst the threat of Roman assimilation. And here is a church that not only refuses to help, it fails to see how their fate is tied up in the fate of their neighboring churches. As long as they are generally doing okay, they don’t concern themselves with what’s going on in the world around them.
John’s letter to the church in Laodicea invites our church to reflect on its own complacency. Long before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the American church struggled with complacency. I see this most clearly in her refusal to engage with the unchurched. The unchurched includes young people who didn’t grow up in the church. But it also includes older people who were actively involved in the church, but who no longer attend, rather than ask the unchurched what they were looking for in a church community. The church doubled down on the way that she’s always done things.
The coronavirus pandemic laid bare a problem that was already unfolding in American churches. That problem of the church failing to adapt to changes in her neighborhood. The pandemic has forced us to learn how interconnected we all are. That my fate is tied up in the decisions my neighbor makes today, and vice versa. I think this is why Jesus is so angry with the Laodicean church. They aren’t dealing with persecution, earthquakes, or Roman assimilation. They are free to share the love of Jesus Christ with their neighbors, and they are content that their family has enough food to eat, and is going to church once a week. This complacency is an insult to Jesus who sacrificed everything so that we might live.
Alan: My job, in this last portion of the sermon is to find the grace in story that we heard from Revelation, and then show how we can live into that grace in our own lives and in the communities where we live. But that grace can be hard to find when Jesus, speaking through John of Patmos, cries out to the church at Laodicea, “because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
But perhaps it needs to be harsh and scary. The Laodicean church is complacent. They’re going on autopilot. The congregation is sleepwalking as they go through their faith journey. Jesus is grabbing them by the shoulders and shaking them, trying to wake them from their slumber.
The goal isn’t destruction. Jesus doesn’t want the congregation at Laodicea to feel his wrath. What Jesus wants is repentance; he invites the congregation to change, saying: “I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent.” He’s saying, “yinz gotta repent, ‘n’at.”
In fact, that’s true for most of the crazy images that we find throughout the book of Revelation. John is trying to get the congregations of these seven churches to pay attention, and then repent. Today, the crazy images focus our attention, so that we can see the ways we’re like these seven congregations.
In another time, it might be my job to stir the pot a little bit, to shake us out of this complacency. But I don’t have to do that this year. Nor do Charissa and Rebecca. The pandemic has already disrupted our routines. We are definitely NOT going on autopilot!
This pandemic has been truly awful. In this country, nearly 140,000 people have died from COVID-19. Over three million people have been infected by the coronavirus. Millions more have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced because some businesses have closed. And all of us have had our lives seriously disrupted. We have to acknowledge the pain and dislocation.
We also have to keep on living and serving. We have to be the Church in these troubled times. As bad as this pandemic has been, it’s also been a revelation to us; it’s shown us how we can adapt to changing times. We have learned how to worship online. We’ve held Bible studies and Session meetings online, too. Beyond that, we’ve spent our time and energy reaching out to all of our members, making sure they stay connected. You have all reached out with phone calls, notes and cards, emails, text messages.
How many of you now have your own personal Zoom accounts?
How many of you have learned to use some new piece of software to communicate with other people from church?
Those are all wonderful, positive changes. We have been stirred out of our complacency. That’s great! But eventually, this pandemic will end. We have made some good technological and behavioral changes during this time, but we can’t slide back into complacency once there’s a safe and effective vaccine for the coronavirus. We must continue to adapt to the changes in our society so that we can reach the unchurched. At the same time, we have to continue all of the other work to which Jesus calls us: feeding the hungry, providing water to those who are thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners. None of this is easy stuff. Remember, God doesn’t call us to do the easy stuff. As we wrestle with the book of Revelation, let us also see this pandemic a revelation of all the ways in which we need to change, and then let us change. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymn # 452 Open the Eyes of My Heart
Prayer of Thanksgiving
We give our thanks through our talents, our time, and our treasure.
Thanks be to God; whose love creates us!
Thanks be to God; whose mercy redeems us!
Thanks be to God; whose grace leads us into the future! Amen.
Prayers of the People
The Lord’s Prayer
Hymn # 307 God of Grace and God of Glory
Beloved, as you go forth into the world, remember that the truth of God’s love is always being revealed to us. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!