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Loved By Jesus

These are tough days for churches. Attendance is down. Churches are shrinking. Some are closing. It seems like the light of the church is slowly going out.

Many of you remember a day when the church was thought of very favorably. That can’t be said with absolute certainty anymore. A survey was done several years ago about why people in American don’t go to church. Almost three-quarters of those who had not entered a church building in the past six-months say that the reason they had not is because the church is “full of hypocrites.”

Even more of them consider Christianity to be more about organized religion than about loving God and people. Too much process and not enough people. Listen to this: almost half of those surveyed agreed with the phrase, “Christians get on my nerves.”

There is something about church that has turned off many, many people. Some churches don’t even want to call themselves churches anymore. Now we have fellowships and worship centers. Or we will find some other catchy name with the word “church” in small print or in parentheses somewhere.

Church, for many people, has gotten a bad name and is full of negative connotations. How can this be? Isn’t the church the body of Christ? The household of faith?

Yes, I have seen pastors and churches that have really messed it up. The church is frustrating and sometimes looks like anything but a loving, serving group that is bringing blessing to the world. And it isn’t just the past few years. There are times throughout history when the church has really gone off the rails.

When the church professes one thing but lives another people get disappointed, wounded, and feel let down.

Martin Luther was the leader of what we call the Protestant Reformation. Our church is part of the Protestant wing of the Christian Church. Well Luther – a bible teacher, a church man, and a spiritual leader - was never one to be shy to tell it like it is. He recognized the imperfections of the church said of it, “She’s a whore, but she’s my mother.”

That kind of capsulizes how we might feel about the church. Even though the church makes us shake our heads sometimes, we love her. I mean, here we are. And though I have been frustrated with church many times, I was nurtured in the church, was born to faith in the church, and have received untold blessings from the church. She is my mother.

You see, Jesus loves the church. In Ephesians it ways “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Christ “nourishes and tenderly cares for” the church.[1]

If you want to know where our Lord is with his church then go to Revelation. Revelation is one of the most fascinating and one of the most intimidating books in the Bible. Unfortunately, certain preachers have abused Revelation, doing all kinds of strange things with it, scaring people away from it. But Revelation is a magnificent and beautiful part of the Scriptures. Its message is one of triumph, hope, and the glory of the Lord.

The book of Revelation is a revealing from Jesus Christ (hence, the name “Revelation”) made known to the disciple John through an angel sent by God. It is a book to the church and about the church. Right from the fourth verse we are told John writes all of this to the seven churches in Asia, which today is the Mediterranean world. In verse 11 those churches are named.

And while this was first given to these particular ancient congregations it is also for all churches. In the Bible the number seven symbolizes completion and totality. Think of seven days to complete creation. Seven days complete a week. Seven years complete certain events.

There were more than seven churches in this area in the first century when John received this, but in Revelation numbers are significant. So it is Revelation’s way of saying that what is written to the seven specific churches mentioned is also written to all churches.[2]

Revelation begins with John hearing a voice. When he turns to see who is speaking he sees a vision. It is a vision of the risen and exalted Lord. But the first thing John sees is seven golden lampstands.

The book of Revelation is sometimes hard to get because it is filled with symbols. We get confused when we start reading the symbols literally. Most often there is another reality behind the symbol that we need to pay attention to, not the symbol itself.

Revelation 1 is a rare instance where we are told what the symbol of the golden lampstands means. The risen Lord tells John that the lampstands are the seven churches, the seven churches to whom John is to write the message that Jesus is giving him.

One of the keys to understanding Revelation is understanding that much of it is built on things found in the Old Testament. There are well over 200 allusions in Revelation to things in the Old Testament. And golden lampstands were part of what God told Moses to make and keep in the tabernacle. These lampstands were to always be lit so that there would always be light in this place where God’s presence could be found.

When John turns to see the voice, it says he sees Christ “among the lampstands.” This is to show that Christ is with and in the midst of his churches. He isn’t separate but right in the middle of his churches.

In chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation Jesus will give a specific address to each of the seven churches. The first words Jesus speaks to each of the seven churches in these messages is, “I know”. This is always followed by commending them for the good things they are about and/or warnings for the things of which the church needs to repent of and change.

Jesus knows his church. He knows every church. Intimately. He is the chief shepherd who walks amidst his people. One of the things we find is that these churches were not perfect. There were problems, failures, issues. And Christ points out that he knows this about each of them.

How does Christ see American Fork Presbyterian Church? The Presbyterian Church? The larger church in the United States? He knows us exactly as we are, all the good and all the bad.

But Christ does not divorce himself from his church. He never says, “That’s it, I’ve had it with them.” “I can’t take their sinfulness anymore.” “Time to start over with a new and improved church.”

These seven churches in Revelation – which represent all churches throughout the ages – were also going through trials and sufferings, struggles and disappointments. Sometimes they overcame and sometimes they failed. Christ loved them and walked with them.

We are the body of Christ but we are not perfect and the Bible never gives a picture of the church as perfect. In the Bible the church is always a visible community of people, gathering to meet in specific places, sometimes with problems. The church is not some spiritual, other-worldly group of advanced-placement Christians who have it all together and live on some higher plane with Christ.

The churches in the New Testament often look shoddy and quite unimpressive: Corinth with its divisions and open sexual immorality. Galatia with its legalism. Philippi with people fighting and being divisive. Colossae with its hyper-spirituality.

The late pastor Eugene Peterson rightly said, “There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church, because there’s sin in the church. But there’s no other place to be a Christian except the church.”[3]

After two-thousand years we can probably all stop idealizing the church and start getting real about it. But how many of the people who separate from the church do so more because of their unrealistic, quite-unbiblical expectations of church? Or because of their own spiritual immaturity?

In fact, maybe I am a part of the church because I am a hypocrite. I know my own sinfulness, my own selfishness, my inability to love like I should, my faithlessness. I need this place and you people to help me on this journey with God. I need to hear about God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness because I am prone to fail. I’m glad that I have to be here every week because I need to hear and be reminded of my need for God and God’s grace every week.

The only place we are ever going to learn the love that is essential to being a follower of Christ is to be a part of all the struggles and problems of the church…as well as be part of the hopes and mission of the church.[4]

It is right smack dab in the middle of these seven churches and all churches with problems that Jesus is found. Our Lord does not leave us. He is “not an absentee landlord”.[5] He loves the church and gave his life for us.

And he is working through the church. It is because of the church that schools, hospitals, orphanages, shelters, soup kitchens, housing, food ministries, and so many other good things have come. It is because of people living for Jesus Christ that the lost have been found, addicts have become clean, prisoners have been visited, those far from God have been brought near.

The fallibility of churches is only part of the story. Churches are alive with Christ because there are churches that get their cues from Jesus tend to be full of his life and grace.

I would hate to see what this world looks like without the church. And for all the wailing about churches, many people turn to the church when they are in deep need.

Why are the churches symbolized by lampstands? Because the people of Jesus are the light of the world. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[6]

In Philippians it says Jesus’ people shine like stars in a dark world.[7] We look up at the night sky, so dark, but we see the stars and marvel. They stand out. You might be the light of Jesus in your family, in your workplace, in someone else’s life.

We get our light not from ourselves, but from Jesus who is the light of the world.[8] The more we seek him, come to him, surrender to him, the more his light shines in us, and the more his church is a golden lampstand.

This is a story from a woman named Marj Carpenter, a Presbyterian Christian who had a career as a journalist for the Dallas Morning News, who then dedicated her life to traveling the world to report on what Presbyterian Christians were doing in missions all around the globe.

One time she was part of a group of 22 people who were bringing food to people and churches in the African country of Ghana. Each person had a case of food they brought. They knew it could be tricky getting this food through customs. Sure enough the woman at customs shouted at Marj Carpenter to open her trunk of food and sternly asked her who she was and what she was doing there.

Marj explained that she was part of a group of Presbyterian Christians bringing gifts to their friends in Ghana. All of a sudden the woman’s countenance changed. She shared how she went to a Presbyterian Girl’s School.

She asked if all the trunks had food. When Marj Carpenter said yes, the woman warned her that people will kill for that much food in Ghana. She arranged for them to hire an armed guard and a truck and sent the food on its way.

The rest of the group were picked up by Ghanian Christians in an old, beat up van. After it broke down three times, Marj Carpenter began to keep track, and before they got to their destination it broke down a total of 37 times.

It was a horrible trip. It was well over 100 degrees. Some people were crying. The military stopped them three times and told them if they were not in by midnight they were going to see the Ghana jail.

They finally reached where they were going, a girl’s school, about ten minutes before midnight. Marj and several other women were sent in the dark to a dormitory.

The building had been built by the Church of Scotland, so it had a tall winding staircase in the middle. There was no electricity. No plumbing. No outside light. It was pitch black. They were scared, tired, and in a very unfamiliar place.

As they banged along trying to get up the stairs with their bags they came to a kerosene lamp on the landing. They were told to take it with them to give them a little light in the night.

People around the world stand in lines for a lot of things. In the United States we stand in line for iphones, rock concerts, and sporting events. In Korea they stand in line to get into churches for prayer meetings. In Russia and Sudan and Somalia they stand in line for food. In Ghana they stand in line for long hours for kerosene.

When Marj saw some women standing in a line for kerosene the next day, it dawned on her that some woman had probably stood in line all day long so that these American women could get upstairs, have some light and go to bed.

She said that that lamp became a symbol of the church to her. It wasn’t much light, but it was very comforting to her and the other women that night.

The church is still the light of the world. Sometimes it doesn’t burn very bright. Sometimes its light can be pretty dim, but it’s better than no light at all. And it’s very comforting to know it is there.

And just like that lamp for those women the church is here at very great sacrifice by somebody. It’s here because of Jesus Christ who loves the church and gave himself for the church. And the church is given fuel by many people at great sacrifice to them.[9] It is strengthened by people who love, serve, give, forgive and bless.

Churches are golden lampstands burning all over this world. There is tremendous love, hope, healing, and life radiating from churches. And that is happening because the living Lord Jesus Christ is in our midst.

He hasn’t given up on us. He hasn’t walked away. No, indeed, he loves his church. Our Lord is with us and by his grace the church will shine.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, you are our Lord and we are your people. Give grace to your church on all seven continents, so that we can shine your light. Thank you that you don’t abandon us but that you are living right in our midst.

For our particular church here in American Fork, make your presence known, and help us to be a faithful lampstand. Amen.

[1] Ephesians 5:25,29 [2] In 2:23 part of the message to the church in Thyatira is so that “…all the churches will know…” not just that single church. [3] Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons, article in Christianity [4] From Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness, p.28 [5] Breaking the Code, Bruce Metzger, p.26 [6] Matthew 5:14-16 [7] Philippians 2:15 [8] John 8:12 [9] I heard Marj Carpenter tell this story at a meeting of the Philadelphia Presbytery, but it is also recorded in “To The Ends of the Earth”, pp. 67-70

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