Sermon for Ash Wednesday based on Revelation 2:1-7
Dear church of Christ who will eat of the tree of life: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Christ Jesus, the Lord of the Church, sent seven letters to seven churches. Tonight, we focus on His letter to the church in Ephesus.
Jesus starts out with commending them for their works, especially in recognizing false teachers. He praises them saying, “You cannot bear with those you are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and have found them to be false.”
The church in Ephesus was enduring and bearing up under the great difficulty of having false teachers in their midst. Jesus specifically praises them for hating the false teachings and works of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus says He also hates. The church in Ephesus was clinging to the truth of the Gospel in the midst of trying times and false teachings.
Jesus does have something against them, however. They had abandoned the love they had at first.
When the Gospel had first reached Ephesus, those who believed the Gospel had responded with great love. They loved gathering to hear God’s Word in church. They loved sharing what they had with the needy. They generously gave offerings to the church so that more people could hear the good news that had saved them. They did good works in the community out of love for God and love for their neighbour. They did these good works since they were so filled with love because their sins were forgiven and they had the promise of eternal life.
Over time, however, their love had grown cold. They no longer had the same love for God which they had at first, so they did not do the same works they did at first. They no longer showed love for their neighbour. They no longer showed love for hearing God’s Word.
Jesus warns in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew that in the latter days, “Because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” (Matt. 24:12) This happened in Ephesus already at the time of Jesus’ letter to them.
Lawlessness was great in Ephesus. This is evident from the influence of the Nicolaitans in Ephesus. The Nicolaitans were an antinomian cult participating in offering food to pagan gods and cult prostitution, quite likely connected to the popular goddess Artemis of the Ephesians. There is documentary evidence of the worship of up to 50 gods in Ephesus, but all paled in comparison to Artemis, the temple built to her being numbered among the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Jesus commends the church in Ephesus for hating the works of the Nicolaitans, but these evil works around them still influenced their love to grow cold.
The church had condemned the works of the Nicolaitans, but they still lost members to the cult. They had done outreach to their pagan neighbours, but their neighbours didn’t come to church. They had helped the poor and needy in Ephesus, yet they still had the poor and needy around them. They had taught their children the faith, yet their children were being lost to the world and its enticements. All their works did nothing. Their love grew cold.
It’s not just their love for good works that grew cold. Their love for God grew cold. These are really one and the same. Their love for God grew cold, because they thought He should be doing more in Ephesus. They thought God should knock over the great temple built for Artemis; that God should take care of the poor and needy; that God should bring these worshipers of false gods to a knowledge of the one and only true God.
Because God didn’t do what they expected Him to do, their love for Him grew cold, and they stopped inviting their neighbours to church. They stopped helping the poor and needy and reduced their offerings to God. They stopped teaching their children the faith.
Jesus knows all His churches and all His people. Therefore, He writes a letter to the church in Ephesus saying, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
In the first chapter of Revelation, we heard that the lampstand is the church. Thus, Jesus is saying, if you don’t repent, I will remove the church out of Ephesus. If you do not repent, I will take away my Word and Sacraments from you.
If Jesus wrote a letter to the church in Melville, what would He say? Has our love for God grown cold because of lawlessness that God has not curtailed? Has our love for our neighbour grown cold as there continue to be poor and needy even though we have helped them? Have we stopped doing the works we used to do because our invitations to our neighbours and children and grandchildren to join us in church have gone unheeded?
Christ’s warning to the church in Ephesus is His warning to the church in Melville and to the church in every city in the world. Repent. If you do not repent, I will remove the church out of your midst.
What is it that Christ is calling us to do? Grow the church here? Eliminate poverty? Turn unbelievers’ hearts? No. We can do none of those things. God, and God alone gives growth to the church and turns hearts to Him (I Cor. 3:6-7), and Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you.” (Matt. 26:11)
Jesus is simply calling for us to love Him and trust Him, even if He doesn’t do what we think He should do. And since Scripture teaches that faith without works is dead, that is, it is not true faith (James 2:17), we strive out of love for God to serve our neighbour. Not to earn salvation, for this we can never do, but willingly and joyfully because we are already saved.
Galatians teaches, “Let us not grow weary of doing good… as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Gal. 6:9-10) This does not mean that our invitations to others to come to church will be accepted and our church will grow. It does not mean that our congregational budget won’t be tight. It doesn’t mean that there will be no more poor.
It means that out of our love for God, we do good, regardless of the outcome, regardless of success or failure, regardless of the lawlessness around us.
Jesus promises, “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
Revelation twelve tells us that Satan has been conquered by the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 12:11). Romans eight tells us that we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us (Rom. 8:37).
In Christ by faith, we are conquerors, and will eat from the tree of life in paradise. Adam and Eve did not get to eat from the tree of life which would have caused them to live forever as sinful beings (Gen. 3:22), but when we are brought into the joys of paradise as sinless people, we will get to eat from the tree of life and live forever.
In fact, we already get to eat from the tree of life. Not the one in paradise, but the word Jesus uses which is translated as tree, is more often used to refer to wood which has been cut down, and thus points us to the tree of the cross. The fruit of the cross is the forgiveness of sins, which we eat every Sunday in the Lord’s Supper, and which we eat again tonight. This fruit of the cross keeps us in Christ, so that we are conquerors, and will be strengthened in faith and in good works until we eat of the tree of life in paradise.
Because of the fruit we eat from the tree of life now, we receive the forgiveness of sins. Because we receive the forgiveness of sins, will live forever, and will join Christ our dear Saviour and Lord of the Church in the paradise of God. Christ has made sure of it by shedding His blood on the tree and thus conquering Satan. Christ has made sure that we will eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God by giving us the fruits of the tree of His cross in His body and blood given and shed for us. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.