REVELATION: Part 10

Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan

Confronting Mediocrity (Rev. 3:14-18)

She was sentenced to 100 lashes and death by hanging for her faith in Christ. Hours before the lashes were to be administered, Mariam Yehya Ibrahim’s sentence was revoked. She, along with her toddler son and newborn daughter, were free to return home where her husband waited. Hours later, authorities again detained Ibrahim as she and her family attempted to leave the country. That was three days ago.

There is nothing passive, lukewarm or mediocre about Ibrahim’s faith. She is willing to die for it, be tortured for it, or leave her home and land for it.

Jesus’ letter to the last of the seven churches mentioned in the book of Revelation is a handbook on this kind of faith — and the lack of it. Have we read it?

“These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.”

That’s it. No consolation. No pats on the back. No excuses for passivity and mediocrity. Jesus is appalled at the juvenile attitude and behaviors His people in the church of Laodicea are displaying. They are happily complacent with material wealth, social acceptability, and various other sorts of immediate gratification. Like drinking tepid coffee or warm iced-tea, there is no pleasure for God in communing with laissez-faire followers.

Fortunately, Jesus offers counsel to remediate the problem, because the problem sounds strangely familiar. It’s not familiar to people like Mariam Yehya Ibrahim who is willing to give up everything she holds precious to stand up for Jesus, but maybe it’s familiar to us in the West. We are not likely to admit it aloud, but most of us have slipped into a level of mediocrity, haven’t we? It is so comfortable to be a Christian in these parts. We have our own schools, our own radio stations and music, even our own political party (at least the atheists think so).

Let’s be honest for a moment and ask ourselves if we are maybe even a little bit lukewarm in our faith. Would the Sudanese government consider us Christians if we lived where Ibrahim lives? Or have we become so adept at camouflaging our faith that we’ve evolved to become more like the culture around us than like Christ?

These are the clues: Are we poor in daily relationship with God, more comfortable on social media than in prayer? Are we blind to the unseen spiritual kingdom of God our lives are designed to promote? Are we naked of the love of Christ He longs to pour out on those with whom we come into contact?

His solution confronts the miserable mediocrity of our lives and replaces it with robust vitality: Admit that Jesus can do more for you than wealth can (“…assign your nuggets to the dust…then the Almighty will be your gold.” Job 22:25). Apply the salve of meditating on His Word to the eyes of your worldview (“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Col.3:2). Dress each day in the garb that gives you His identity (“…faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” I Cor. 13:13).

A loved one recently cautioned, “Don’t be a self-righteous fool!” While the words sting, we who are truly followers of Jesus must be willing to accept the diagnosis, fill the prescription, and apply it daily. The flame of the Spirit is ready to heat up our lives to a temperature none could call mediocre, if we let Him.

Come, Holy Spirit. Revive us.

(Photo Uncredited)

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REVELATION: Part 9

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Ruin The Shoes (Rev. 3:7-13)

Sometimes we need a little encouragement to keep going. The first century A.D. church of Philadelphia, in what is now western Turkey, needed that kind of encouragement. They were a people who had embraced the redeeming work of the risen Jesus and had been joyfully sharing the good news with others. Sometimes their hearers were open and hungry for the truth – doors seemed wide open to their message; other times, the Good News was seen as an offense and doors were slammed in their faces. It could be discouraging.

Jesus speaks a few words to His followers who find themselves in similar shoes: “These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name… Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God.”

Jesus gives each of us on planet earth the opportunity to embrace Him; some do and some don’t. That choice God respects. But the choice does come with its related consequences – the relationship of cause-and-effect is a reality that applies to more than our material world. It is universal in the spiritual realm.

When we reject Him, considering ourselves atheists, agnostics, humanists or any other label, spoken or not, excluding Jesus from being Lord of our lives, we are making a choice. We are stepping through a doorway that ushers us into a defined direction; the cause directs the effect. Our beliefs lead our feet step by step toward a Godless existence. It’s what some people want.

The other option is to accept Jesus and all that entails. It means leaving behind our natural tendencies toward the pleasures of selfishness and pride, much as we’re attached to them in their socially acceptable forms, and walking, stumbling or limping through a door flung wide for us. It’s the challenge every true follower of Jesus struggles with daily: overcoming the temptation to cling to the old ways where our own plans and paths take precedence over His.

I heard a story on the radio the other day. Max, the caller, was describing his experience of visiting Haida Gwaii, Canada’s westcoast grouping of islands inhabited by first nations people. He was being driven to his destination when his chauffeur asked him if he wanted to see the ‘most beautiful park in the world’. Given the affirmative, the driver took a detour from the highway, drove a few minutes along an uneven dirt road, and stopped at a log-barred trailhead. Heavy clouds overhead began to release a drizzle of rain as the two well-dressed men stepped out of the car.

Looking uncertainly at his chauffeur’s fine leather shoes, Max asked, “Do you really want to ruin your shoes?”

Without a moment’s hesitation the chauffeur replied, “What a place to ruin shoes!”

Much as we are prone to enjoy the pleasures of this material life, there comes a time when each of us must decide if it’s the shoes we care more for or the destination. Our finely crafted footwear will be ruined if we go the distance through the doorway Jesus has opened. The mud and drizzle appear daunting when our eyes are fixed on our feet. The limo looks so inviting on those days. But if we choose to lift our eyes toward Him, the Lover of our souls, overcome this moment’s temptation to turn back, and take today’s steps on the Jesus-path, He will give us strength. Don’t give up. There’s a crown waiting. We’re pillars being sculpted. We’ve got more in our sights than a comfortably chauffeured ride to a barren hotel. We’re heading to a place that’s out of this world for beauty, and we want nothing holding us back. Let’s ruin the shoes on this journey.

(Photo Credit: David Hitchman)

REVELATION: Part 8

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Wake Up! (Rev. 3: 1-6)

The historic school near my house is only a shell of its former glory. Demographics have changed and there aren’t enough young families in the area to fill its aged halls. So it sits amid its un-mown lawns, a magnet for graffiti artists and dog-walkers. Until recently. Huge vehicles have begun arriving, filling the old school’s parking lot, unloading strange-looking equipment. Peaks and skylights have been attached to the roofline and children’s artwork has arisen on the windows of one classroom. A movie is being filmed here.

Like that school, Jesus’ revelation to Sardis, the fifth-mentioned church in His letter-dictating spiel, speaks of empty facades. He sounds concerned.

“I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.”

The Christians in this ancient city, Sardis, are a shell of their former glory. Little remains of the fire of enthusiasm that used to mark their lives. Any acts of love that still flicker are but a vestige of what they once were. Jesus is warning them that their recent activity is nothing more than a movie set. Inside, they are hollow, empty and decaying.

We can be the same, can’t we? The rhythms of life sometimes leave us in troughs of spiritual emptiness. Failing to rely on God’s Spirit to inspire every breath, we find ourselves occasionally floundering, gasping for fresh air, or worse, satisfied with the stale ether of empty living. Riding on the crests of previous spiritual highs will not do. As Jesus describes it, we are more dead than alive.

He goes on to picture his followers in white robes, a depiction used throughout scripture to illustrate righteousness; through the redeeming work of His death and resurrection, Jesus washes His followers’ souls clean and pure to their depths – no façade here. Yet, some, He says, have soiled their clothes. They no longer walk with Him. They have not overcome the temptation of the world to disown the lover of their souls. They no longer acknowledge His name and authority over their lives. This is a serious problem. If the robe fits, we need to heed Jesus’ warning here. His call to ‘Wake up!’ is powerful enough to refit the soul with life and breath and fire if we have ears to hear and a heart to respond. Living life on this earth is living in enemy territory. The devil will use any method deemed useful to induce spiritual lethargy; sometimes it takes very little to wheedle us into sluggish apathy – surely a childhood decision or yesterday’s devotion will do for today, we tell ourselves. We’ve secured our salvation so now we can live as we please, we reason.

Listen to the intensity of Jesus’ words to us: “Wake up!” “Remember…obey…repent!” When was the last time we remembered a command of Jesus, like “love your neighbour” and it changed our behavior? When was the last time we made a different choice than we would have preferred because we wanted to obey Him? When was the last time we fell to our knees and repented of something we realized was sin? Neither you nor I are perfect, so it’s a given that there are things in our lives every now and then (more now than then for some of us…) that need repenting from.

Let us, who love Jesus, the glorious and Almighty One, rise from our beds of slumber. Let us live with the lively, faith-filled purpose of those whose names are written in the Book of Life. Then our deeds will match our inner conviction; our reputation for housing the invincible Spirit of God will be authentic. The inner life will be simply bursting to express itself in our outer life. Listen to Jesus and wake up to a new day, today.

REVELATION: Part 7

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Limits of Tolerance

We in the West are a culture of tolerance. We love to hold undefined tolerance in the highest regard as a value of the utmost good. At least, we Canadians do. Tolerance is the epitome of twenty-first century political correctness. Any display of the lack of it is definitely not tolerated. Even our Charter of Rights and Freedoms upholds it, doesn’t it?

Jesus has sent messages to the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum in the book we call Revelation. We have seen how we can learn some truths from those messages. Now He adds Thyatira to His list of recipients, and He has a few thoughts on tolerance He wants to express. Listen to His opening words:

“These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” That’s a powerful self-description. Those blazing eyes are able to burn through superficial appearances, into the depths of our motives and core beliefs. Those solid feet are set as an immovable foundation of truth and authority. That is His brand.

“I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.” Jesus knows everything going on in everyone’s lives. You and I are not faceless, nameless beings in a sea of humanity. He knows and notices everything going on in our lives, above and below the surface. He recognizes our feeble attempts at faithfulness as of eternal value. That is His way.

“Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.”

Jesus is not duped by deception. He is not fooled by flattery or misled by monikers. He is not bound by some mindless code of behavior that demands tolerance toward those whose schemes are at cross-purposes to His intents. In fact, He is distressed when people are willing to tolerate those who mislead others into godless behavior. This is no new twist on tolerance; we have it inbred in us. What child tolerates his toys being snatched away by another? What student tolerates a teacher who unjustly awards low marks? What parent tolerates a sexual offender abducting her child? What employee tolerates his contract being deliberately ignored or broken? We all have an inherent intolerance toward these injustices, because we understand they are abuses of power, dangers to lives, or work against the common good of society.

The menace of this self-proclaimed ‘prophetess’ Jezebel was in her influence over others. Her behaviors directly or indirectly taught others godless behaviors. Godless behaviors lead to godless mindsets, and godless mindsets to self-destructive lives. Jesus wanted the lives of His followers in Thyatira to be marked by sexual purity, spiritual health, and emotional joy; He wants as much for our lives too. Only He knows what is truly good for us. He engineered us; surely He knows what will bring us ultimate fulfillment.

“I am he who searches hearts and minds”, Jesus reminds us. There is no hiding from Him. That’s good news, knowing he will not misunderstand our motives – if they are good. But it’s bad news if we have been tolerating unsound beliefs, unwise teachings, or ungodly behaviours.

This news should be no stranger to us. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes limitations on certain rights. We don’t mention it often, but it’s there in black and white: the principles of fundamental justice prevail over individual rights. We are not to tolerate behaviors that obstruct fundamental justice. (See Part 1, Section 7: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/const/page-15.html#docCont). Tolerance has its boundaries.

So let’s be tolerant when it involves the good of others. But let’s not forget Jesus’ warning to stand up against the people and practices that obstruct principles of fundamental justice and human goodness. Jesus loves individuals, not propagandist hype. May we not use the concept of tolerance to disguise disrespect for the high and noble standards to which our Creator calls us.

(Photo Credit: Toby Hudson, Wikimedia Commons)

REVELATION: Part 6

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Symbiotic Drift

It starts out friendly. The bird lands on the backs of large African mammals like zebras, elephants and hippos and relieves her host of ticks. What works for the oxpecker works for the ox. It’s what scientists call symbiosis: a mutually beneficial relationship between two creatures. However, it turns out the oxpecker soon turns vampire, sucking the blood from the open tick-wounds on her host’s back. The partnership has deteriorated into a parasitism that is friendly only for the oxpecker.

Jesus’ third letter, dictated to John, is directed to the church in Pergamum. Situated on the coast of Asia Minor, the Greek city of Pergamum was named using two Greek words: pergos (high tower) and gamos (wedding or marriage). Jesus speaks words to His followers that are piercing – He calls them “the sharp, double-edged sword” words. The purpose of these words is to cut through the dross of rhetoric and reveal a problem that has crept up on the unsuspecting Pergamum-livers.

He says His people have been beguiled into a marriage, a symbiotic relationship with the local culture. The group of believers that had accepted their role as the ‘bride of Christ’ had some members who were luring them into practices Jesus viewed as a dangerous compromise. The food Greeks had offered to idols was being resold to Christians at a discount. While that food was innocent enough in itself, food-buyers were also being encouraged to participate in the sexually immoral practices associated with the city’s idol-worshiping culture. The symbiosis was becoming parasitism.

It’s a delicate balance we tread, living on this earth in the popular culture of our time. We, too, find it difficult to know how to be in the world but not of the world. Haven’t we found ourselves caught up in something that at first was a help to us, but has now become a hindrance to our spiritual health? The physical necessity for healthy food becomes an obsession for overindulgence; our faithful relationship with the spouse of our youth becomes fraught with lack of forgiveness, barbed words, perhaps even the temptation to divorce; healthy exercise becomes an obsession of extreme pursuits. On and on it goes. What starts out good the enemy of our souls tries to use to destroy us.

It was that way with Pergamum. Jesus pictures for His listeners Satan sitting on the throne of Pergamum’s temple-culture. He says Satan lives there. In other words, open your eyes! Don’t be blind to the perils careless living inflicts on its victims.

Jesus’ sword-words are meant to release us from the symbiotic drift we all succumb to at one time or another. Our task is to repent (vs.16), hear and apply His teachings (vs.17), and be overcomers (vs. 17) rather than be overcome. The double-edged sword of God’s Word in the power of His ever-present Spirit is the only resource that can accomplish the task.

Are we reading the Word of God daily? Are we learning to distinguish truth from error by filling our minds with the values, encouragements and spiritual supports God has supplied us in His Word, the Bible? Unless we are deliberately taking in Christ’s teachings, we will be unable to sense that the bird on our back has shifted from symbiote to parasite.

It’s time to dust off the Bible on your shelf. Find a contemporary version that is readable, absorbable and applicable. Download it, open it, and mull over it. Start with the book of John, same fellow who wrote Revelation. The Gospel of John is a recollection of the life of Jesus, His interactions, His early followers, and His words. Find out what Jesus wants for humanity, for followers like you and me. Then let’s go do it. That’s the way to combat the symbiotic drift of this life. Farewell oxpecker. Hello Jesus.

 

REVELATION: Part 5

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Time, Truth, and Human Existence (Rev.2:8-11)

The second letter Jesus dictates is written to a church called Smyrna. He speaks with an air of authority to these believers that rings true to our experience too. He describes Himself as having authority over time, truth and human existence. The letter to Smyrna is a letter to each of us, because, admit it, we all have issues with letting someone else, even God, have authority over us.

“These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell, you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.”

Jesus is the Time Authority. He calls Himself, “The First and the Last” in the realm of time; He brought time into being, sustains the world within the parameters of time, redeems time for His glory, and is the host who will usher us out of time and into eternity one day.

At its root, Smyrna’s problem is time-related. The church is suffering, and the suffering seems to be endless. The believers in Smyrna are in constant pain, dire poverty, and their very lives are at stake because of their faith. The political climate is not a healthy one for these faithful few; the social stigma and price to pay for their faith is high and is not about to end soon. Jesus admits it. So if Jesus is the authority over time, why does He allow these trials to go on and on?

We know how the Smyrnans felt. Some of us have suffered interminably too: we’ve lost friendships, educational opportunities and job prospects because our faith has called us to be people of integrity. Time hasn’t changed. Pop culture has always attempted to silence those who speak of God’s authority. Jesus encourages us to “not be afraid”, but to “be faithful”. We mustn’t quit. He has time and us in His hands, and it will all come out right in the end. Jesus promises.

Jesus is also the Truth Authority. He calls Himself “The First and the Last” Word. He created the world with the first of words and he has the last say in everything. He knows truth so intimately, nothing and no one can deceive Him: not Satan nor his demons, not those who hide their evil behind facades of false piety, not even the lie that tempts us to think all roads to truth are equal. He alone is Truth. Allowing His Spirit to reveal truths to us through His Word, the Bible, is His exclusive right; the slander of those who seek to destroy is nothing but lies. As we suffer the corruption of truth in our culture of relativism, he who has the authority of truth calls us to endure. Hold fast to truth. His ways are right and one day all will be made right. We have His word on it.

And thirdly, Jesus is the Human Existence Authority. He is the “one who died and came to life again”. He has experienced everything the Smyrnans or we can ever experience, but without sin. He has lived the gamut of life and death experiences; there is nothing in living that surprises Him. Do we have pain? He did too. Have we been disappointed? He knew it deeply. Have we felt joys? Deeper still are His. Again, Jesus says don’t quit: don’t quit believing Him, don’t quit finding identity in Him, and don’t quit living life fully for Him. Jesus, the authority on life, has more life to give us than we can imagine.

Time, truth and life are all under the authority of Jesus. That’s what Revelation 2:8-11 reveals. While culture likes to intimate that there is no ultimate authority, that it’s all relative, Jesus speaks a different message. Don’t be intimidated, He says. I am there for you through all of life and truth and even beyond time into eternity. I give you authority to overcome every obstacle if you are faithful. I am with you. Our response to this challenge determines our outcome. Let’s take the risk, submit ourselves entirely to Him and see what He will do. Isn’t it high time we truly start living?

REVELATION: Part 4

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Zeal versus Love (Rev. 2:1-7)

Quivering in his sandals, John is looking at a magnificent Jesus: not the fatigued Jesus who rested in a fishing boat during a storm to make up for sleepless nights praying; not the brutally scourged and crucified Jesus releasing his Spirit to satisfy God’s righteous wrath; and not the early-risen Jesus, mistaken for a gardener in the burial grounds of Gethsemane. There is no mistaking this magnificent Jesus. He is literally glowing, and he has a message for the church, the body of believers meeting in the Asian city of Ephesus. He has chosen John to take notes.

Jesus starts with the good news: the Ephesian Christians have been focused. They have persistently, doggedly routed evil from infiltrating their ranks. No trespassing! has been their mantra. Perhaps the list of ‘do nots’ has grown in the time since Jesus returned to the Father, “but wasn’t that a necessary defense to grow a church in the midst of the evils of idolatrous Ephesus?” John can almost hear the Ephesians argue. Every ounce of energy was going into building an edifice that would keep evil out.

We do that too, don’t we? We have our pet peeves of worldliness we have a zeal to resist: immodest fashion, violent movies, inhumane slaughtering of animals, reckless abuse of the environment, the infanticide of the aborted. We could list many more. Each represents an aspect of the earth’s fallen condition we feel the need to resist. Perhaps it is Jesus’ Spirit of justice in us that urges us to persevere in these causes against evil. But lest we begin patting ourselves on the back too enthusiastically, Jesus has a word to add. It’s the bad news.

“You have forsaken your first love”, he challenges.

“What?” we gulp, blinking in surprise. We look over our shoulder and around to see if He is meaning someone else. But His eyes are looking directly at ours. We know who He means by our first love. He means Himself. But have we forsaken Him? Haven’t we been on our bandwagon for Him?

Then slowly, we hear Jesus calling us to think back to what drew us to Him in the first place. Remember those early days? It was about love. With God, it’s always about love; God’s love, in and through Jesus, toward us – magnificent, thorough, engulfing, forgiving, hopeful love. And our response was to love Him in return – tentative, trusting, growing, accepting love. It was the kind of love that overflowed to others around us, like a fountain flooding its tile walls and seeping out in all directions. That is what Jesus means when He speaks of the Ephesians’ first love. And that is what the Ephesians and we have gradually allowed to fade in the fervor of our zeal to avoid evil. Maybe, just maybe, we can relate, if we are honest. Would others looking at our lives say we are driven by love? Is the object of our acts of devotion a cause or a person? The former will gradually harden our hearts to the Spirit of Love; the consequences of that aren’t pretty – Jesus urges us to correct our heading before we become shipwrecked.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”

Jesus prescribes a solution if we have ears to hear and a will to do it: we must reopen the shutters of our soul to let Christ’s Spirit of Love blow through us again. We must come to Him in repentance, hungry to love like He does, asking Him to do whatever it takes to make it happen. Our first love, the transforming love of Jesus, must always take precedence. We are, first and foremost, children of God’s love. This must define us. From this source flows authentic love for others.

Jesus, first love, fill me today with your love. Let it overflow to those around me in authentic love for them. Amen.