Revelation 1:1-3, 9-20; 2:1-7

We were having our weekly staff meeting Thursday morning when I mentioned that I had been reading in and was planning to preach on Revelation. Chuck Lemmon said, “I remember that you once said that people make the mistake of getting bogged down in the details of the book; that in order to grasp its significance, we should instead focus on the big picture which is that in the end, ‘God wins!’

But can a fellow change his mind? I have always had difficulty in understanding how the seven letters to the seven churches fit the remainder of the book that contains the apocryphal vision of John. It had seemed to me, as to many, that those seven letters in chapters two and three were at one time a separate book that was later joined to the vision that begins in chapter four and runs through the end of the book. But after re-reading the book several times, I think I finally figured it out.

To be sure the book of Revelation serves to remind us that in the end God wins, but I have come to the conclusion that the main purpose of the writing is to both ‘encourage’ and ‘warn’ the church to remain firm and faithful to the cause of Christ.

I say that because in those seven letters, The Risen Lord Jesus first ‘encourages’ by pointing out something positive, as in the case of the church Ephesus [Revelation 2:2-3]. But then He quickly follows with a warning [Revelation 2:4-5]. And then in chapter four, He tells them ‘why’ they better get their act together: because there is a spiritual battle being waged for the eternal souls of humanity! And yes, in the end, God is going to win, but before He does there is going to be much tribulation upon the earth, in which even God’s people are going to be tested and sifted to see if they are authentic Christians ‘those who endure unto the end.’

No wonder that each of the seven letters contains not only an ‘encouragement’ and a ‘warning,’ but also a call to faithfulness (and I quote) ‘turn back to Me’ (2:5b), ‘remain faithful even when facing death (2:10b), ‘repent of your sin’ (2:16), ‘hold tightly (2:25), ‘wake up and strengthen what little remains’ (3:2), ‘hold on to what you have’ (3:11), ‘so be diligent and turn from your indifference’ (3:19).’

And each letter concludes with, ‘Anyone who has ears to hear must listen;’ in other words, ‘Best not let this go in one and out the other.’

With each re-read of the Revelation, I became more troubled about the church in general, about CrossPointe and my own commitment to Christ.

I say the church in general because 90% of the 350,000 congregations in America are in decline and are not being very successful in reaching new people for Christ. Much of this decline is due to the fact that Christians in America are becoming less and less faithful in practicing their faith.

The Pew Research Center published some data earlier this month on what the average Christian in America values as essential in their everyday Christian lives. Belief in God, being grateful for what one has, and forgiveness tops the list of what it means to be a Christian, those 3 being embraced by 70%. Most of us would be included in that 70%.

However, only 35% think that regularly gathering for worship services is essential to express their Christian faith. Indeed, over the last 40 years, the number of Americans who regularly attend worship services has dropped from 40% to 20%. Even what it means to ‘regularly’ attend worship has changed: 20 years ago people would place themselves in the ‘attend regularly’ category if they attended three Sundays out of four. Now that figure has dropped to one Sunday in three. In addition, only 25% of Christians say it is important to help your congregation by getting involved in the life of the church in some fashion.

Clearly, interest in and commitment to the organized church in America is waning; the very thing that the Revelation warns against. Is any wonder that we should be concerned when we read the Book of Revelation? What would Jesus say to the churches of America? What would He say to us?

I think if the One who holds the seven stars in His right hand were to speak to us today He might say something like:

‘I know that most of you have discovered There’s No Greater Love than the love I offer you and that you made a commitment of faith to the sacrifice I have made on your behalf. And that consequently you consider yourselves to be My disciples and that It Is the Cry of Your Hearts to Follow Me in becoming more forgiving, more giving, more kind, more loving.’

‘I applaud you for remaining faithful to My call upon your lives to gather for worship every Lord’s Day to praise My name, to stand in awe of My never-ending love.’

‘I commend those of you who have remained faithful to My Church even through the times of rough sailing; times when some gave up the ship while you remained steadfast.’

‘I know that you do a good job of obeying my most important command: that you must love one another as I have loved you. I am gung-ho about the grace you extend by accepting people for who they are for it is plain to see that you have quite a cast of colorful characters who make their way to worship here on Sunday mornings.’

‘I praise You for having big compassionate hearts, for when a need of a sister/brother is made known . . . you go all out to meet it. And don’t think I didn’t notice that when the Church at the Lake asked for help with their food pantry, you folks helped fill it to overflowing!’

‘I love the way you have been making greats strides in your ministry to the community in which I have placed you. You have made real inroads in these last five years letting your light shine in such a way that people will see your good works and ascribe them to our Father in heaven.’

‘I salute those of you who give of yourself and your resources generously, regularly, and sacrificially, so that My Church will not only continue to exist but to thrive.’

‘But I have this against you,’ and I believe the Lord would say to the Church in America and perhaps to some of us what He said to the Church at Laodicea: ‘I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!’ (Revelation 3:15-16).

All of us know what an unacceptable experience it is to make a nice hot cup of coffee to get our morning going but then to become distracted with something else before grabbing that cup of joe, putting to your lips and swallowing only to find that revolting taste of tepid, lukewarm liquid wash over your tongue. Why, if we weren’t so well-mannered, we would probably spew it out, right?

The Risen Christ also is not a fan of lukewarm. Lukewarm-ness implies being complacent, content, lazy, self-assured, self-satisfied, taking faith for granted. So Jesus says, ‘I wish that you were either cold or hot.’

Stanley Hauerwas, in his book The Secularization of the Church, in which he address diminishing loyalty in the church, calls this ‘lukewarm’ phenomenon ‘practical atheism.’

Atheism, as he describes it, ‘is not necessarily an explicit denial of God but living as if God does not exist. Many of those who ascribe intellectually to the idea of God or even those who have given their hearts to Jesus go about their 24/7 without their words, thoughts, decisions, deeds or wallets impacted in any way that would suggest authentic Christian faith.

I believe, as he does, that this is the most serious issue facing the church in North America today. And despite those items I just commended us on a few moments ago, the Revelation challenges all of us to consider how authentic our commitment, our dedication, our loyalty, our steadfastness to the Church of Christ really is.

I have been watching these commercials featuring prominent Cleveland television personalities boldly declaring, “I’m all in for the Cavs!” I sat with my son, Brian, Thursday night and watched as 20,562 people at the ‘Q’ were ‘all in’ for the Cavs. Brian and I we were ‘all in’ too.  And I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us are ‘all in’ for Christ and His Kingdom. I had to ask myself whether or not I’m ‘all in.’ And if so,  what would that look like?

The truth is that because of many variables it would look slightly different for each one of us. But on the other hand, there are some things we would all have in common if we were ‘all in.’

If we were ‘all in,’ all of us would attend worship every Sunday barring health, safety or job issues. And I understand when we travel to spend time with family or go on vacation. But beyond those, if we were ‘all in,’ we would be here. If it were a choice between attending worship and going to a Cavs game, there would really be no choice if we were ‘all in’ for Christ.

If we were ‘all in,’ we wouldn’t allow the hustle and bustle of life to stop us from spending at least some time with the Lord every day in the Bible and talking to Him in prayer.

If we were ‘all in,’ we’d all be serious about what the Bible says about giving a certain percent, dare I say 10, of our financial resources to the church as an act of worship and devotion to Give Thanks to Christ for what He has done for us.

If we were ‘all in,’ we would be devoted to the unity of the Spirit and all get behind the Church whenever we engaged in a church-wide ministry – Gather to Scatter, for example.

And if we were ‘all in,’ we would take seriously the Lord’s command to reach others for Him. I received Thom Rainer’s blog this week that indicated that American Christians are lax and becoming more so as it concerns reaching others for Christ. I believe that one of the reasons for this is that it is not PC to talk to others about faith in Christ. That might offend someone! And surely, we don’t want to offend anyone!

If we were ‘all in,’ we would re-examine and reset our priorities, if needed, to reflect what God in Christ is calling us to be and to do.  Speaking of priorities, I have heard people say, ‘I put God first, then my wife, children, job, hobbies, etc.’ However, the Bible says “In everything you do, put God first.” Putting Christ first is not putting Him at the top of our list, but putting Him in every item on our list. He should be first, not only on Sunday but also on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. He should be first in how we relate to our spouses, our kids, and our jobs. If He were here (and by the way may I remind you that He is) He would say, ‘If I am not Lord OF all, I am not Lord AT all!’

Listen again to the Lord’s admonitions from Revelation: ‘turn back to Me’ (2:5b), ‘remain faithful even when facing death’ (2:10b), ‘repent of your sin’ (2:16), ‘hold tightly’ (2:25), ‘wake up and strengthen what little remains’ (3:2), ‘hold on to what you have’ (3:11), ‘so be diligent and turn from your indifference’ (3:19).’ ‘Anyone who has ears to hear must listen.’

This past May, Gail and I stayed a night in Ithaca, New York and were told by locals to have dinner at The Boatyard Grill located at the southern tip of Cayuga Lake. The timing was perfect, for as we sat down at our table by a large window, we noticed the sculling teams for both Cornell and Ithaca College taking to the water for their evening practice sessions. Both of us noticed how remarkably the rowers were able to move their oars in perfect symmetry as they glided, seemingly effortlessly, through the water. Do you know how they are able to do that? It is because of the one person not rowing: the leader, technically the ‘coxswain,’ on board, directing every movement. The rowers have their backs to the direction of the race; the coxswain sees and knows what the paddlers do not.

Everyone must keep their eyes and ears open to the direction and encouragement of the coxswain because only he or she will guide them to victory. Only she/he can keep the boat moving straight, giving signals when they drift out of their intended lane until they cross the finish line. The coxswain’s job is to direct the race. The paddler’s job is to remain focused on the coxswain.

Obviously, Jesus is the coxswain and we are the paddlers. When we focus with laser-like intensity upon on Him, when we pay attention to his encouragement to keep going in the right direction and when we heed His warnings when we are about to stray He keeps us on course to victory and will lead us across the finish line.

“So let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author, and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

Why? Because we will be blessed if we do. “God blesses the one who reads the words of this prophecy to the church, and He blesses all who listen to its message and obey what it says, for the time is near” (Revelation 1:3).

How will we be blessed? Among many other blessings, beyond the scope of this message, how about this one from Revelation:

Because you have obeyed my command to persevere, I will protect you from the great time of testing that will come upon the whole world to test those who belong to this world. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take away your crown. All who are victorious will become pillars in the Temple of my God, and they will never have to leave it. And I will write on them the name of my God, and they will be citizens in the city of my God—the new Jerusalem that comes down from heaven from my God. And I will also write on them my new name. (Rev. 3:10-12).

Even more importantly than those reasons, because Christ alone is worthy.

Then I saw a scroll in the right hand of the one who was sitting on the throne. There was writing on the inside and the outside of the scroll, and it was sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel, who shouted with a loud voice: “Who is worthy to break the seals on this scroll and open it?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll and read it.

Then I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll and read it. But one of the twenty-four elders said to me, “Stop weeping! Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David’s throne, has won the victory. He is worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered, but it was now standing between the throne and the four living beings and among the twenty-four elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which represent the sevenfold Spirit of God that is sent out into every part of the earth. He stepped forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one sitting on the throne.

And when he took the scroll, the four living beings and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp, and they held gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song with these words: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and break its seals and open it. For you were slaughtered, and your blood has ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. And you have caused them to become a Kingdom of priests for our God. And they will reign on the earth.’

Then I looked again, and I heard the voices of thousands and millions of angels around the throne and of the living beings and the elders. And they sang in a mighty chorus: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered—to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.’

And then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea. They sang: ‘Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.’ And the four living beings said, ‘Amen!’ And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped the Lamb. (Revelation 5:1-14).