Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 21st July 2013
21 July 2013 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
The Book of Revelation, Sermon Two
“Let anyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”.
That is a sentence which occurs seven times in the first two chapters of the book of Revelation.
This month in my sermons at Matins I’m looking at this book ~ the last and strangest book of the Bible. Last week we examined briefly the authorship and date of the book and thought about the nature of apocalyptic literature; and next week we’ll look in more detail at that literature and at what we might take from it in today’s world.
This morning though I would like us to focus on the messages given to those seven churches in chapters two & three.
A few weeks ago a group of people from here were fortunate enough to go on pilgrimage to these seven churches of Asia ~ Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
So what are those sites like today? What did the writer of the book of Revelation have to say to the Christians who were living there towards the end of the first century? And as we think about those messages, what might the Spirit be saying to us, the Church of the Twenty First Century?
So first then, when you visit the sites of the Seven Churches today, what do you find?
Well, they are incredibly varied. Smyrna for example is now re-named Izmir and it’s a huge vibrant city by the coast, densely populated and quite industrialised, with just a few ancient ruins tucked in between modern buildings and market places.
Pergamum on the other hand is an amazing archaeological site set at the top of a steep hill overlooking a small modern town and the site itself is now reached by cable car.
Philadelphia and Thyatira like Smyrna have now been renamed ~ Ak-hisar and Aleshir, and they are just small towns with ruins of ancient churches at their centres.
Laodicea Ephesus and Sardis, like Pergamum are all large archaeological sites where much reconstruction has taken place in order to give the visitor a taste of the architecture as it would have been in ancient times.
As we visited each of these sites during our pilgrimage, we read the message sent to the Church in that place and it is amazing how those messages relate to what is now known of these cities from the evidence uncovered by archaeologists.
So let’s look at what was being said to those Christians of the early church.
It’s important to note first that what is clear from the messages in Revelation is that the Christians in these cities were suffering during a time of persecution.
This was likely to have been either during the reign of the Emperor Nero in around 68 - 69AD or the reign of the Emperor Domitian about 30 years later.
The letters to the churches are all quite distinct and yet they do have things in common. For example they all begin with the formula: “To the angel of the Church of wherever write …” They all start by saying something good about that church e.g. I know about your patient endurance. However, this is nearly always followed by a criticism which begins, “But this I have against you”.
Hot on the heels of the criticism comes a warning such as “Repent then. If not, I will come soon and war against you with the sword of my mouth”.
The messages don’t finish though on a negative note, there is always encouragement to change and a promise of a reward if they do.
So what are some of the more specific messages to each of the places?
Perhaps the one which is best known is to the Church in Laodicea which begins:
“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot.
So, because you are lukewarm … I am about to spit you out of my mouth”.
The message goes on to criticise their riches which have made them feel self-assured, and calls upon them to turn from reliance on worldly wealth to love a different kind of “gold” ~ the richness that comes from opening ourselves more fully to God’s presence.
As we visited Laodicea we saw how the city was a little way from natural hot springs from which, hundreds of years before, water had been piped into the city. However, by the time it reached Laodicea it was no longer hot, but lukewarm. Archaeological evidence and historical documents also show that Laodicea was a financial centre back in ancient times.
So we can see here how the writer to the people of that city spoke directly to their situation and used their everyday experiences to both challenge them and to enhance their spiritual awareness.
In other messages such as that to the church in Pergamum we come across an issue of which St Paul writes in a number of his letters ~ that of the question of whether Christians should eat food which has been sacrificed to idols. This draws our attention to the kind of world in which the early Christians were living. There was a multiplicity of pagan practices around and so it was easy for those converted to Christianity to fall back into their old ways.
The message to the Church in Pergamum and to the Church in Thyatira where the Christians were in danger of falling back into their practices of sexual immorality is to repent of their back-sliding and to encourage each other to hold fast to the teaching of Christ.
The other outstanding messages found in a number of the letters to the Churches are ones of encouragement.
We were reminded earlier of how the Church at this time was being persecuted. To these Christians there are words of hope ~ for example those in Smyrna are told, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer … be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life”.
And as with all the messages it concludes, “Let anyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”.
So as we think about those messages to the Christians in the first century, what might the Spirit be saying to us the Church in the twenty first century?
I think there may well be very similar messages to us.
There are many, many things in the Church today to be encouraged about: churches serving their local communities; churches reaching out to the poor and vulnerable; churches challenging secular society to value human life and dignity; churches being faithful in the study of scripture and in the offering of prayer & worship and above all churches witnessing to Christ as the Saviour of the world.
But the church today also needs to hear the call of the Spirit to repent.
Like those early Christians it’s all too easy for us to be seduced into the ways of the world around us ~ to be too materialistic, to ignore or be blind to the needs of others, to be greedy or selfish, and to be inward looking.
However, perhaps the thing we need to repent of most is our inability to respect, understand and trust each other and so to fulfil the prayer of Jesus to be one as he and his father are one.
As last week, I finish by encouraging you to read the book of Revelation, and today especially the first three chapters, and as you do that, think about what the Spirit is saying to you.