Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"When the path is too smooth"

Message preached September 5, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Revelation 3:1-6

Order of Worship
  (note: this sermon was delivered without notes. Below is not exactly what was said, but close.)

            Last Sunday I took Caitlin to Manchester College to begin her first year there. The schedule I received read, "3:30-3:45 pm - Parents and family say goodbye and leave." Thatís not exactly an easy thing to do, you know. I wasnít, however, as much of a Ďbasket caseí as I thought Iíd be. In many ways, I started grieving a year ago. Last September was, for me, a rough month. The death of a close uncle, an auto accident in which I totaled our family van, and some other rough places made last fall anything but a Ďsmooth path.í

            Difficult times, though, can be growing times. Think back over your own journey. Some of us have more miles behind us than others. And not all are as able to see our lives as a path, especially when we are younger. Having said that, think back to those times in your life when you grew the most. Were these easy sailing moments, so to speak? Would call the path you trod, smooth? Probably not. If the truth be told, our growth times are often rough. We trip and fall, then pick ourselves up, and keep on going.

            Something about the struggle helps us to grow. A person, for instance, who breezes through school without having to really crack a book, who gets good grades without really trying; has this person really grown? Will there come a time when the path is not so smooth? Probably. That moment may be when real growth happens.

            Itís not that we seek out difficult times. None of really wants to travel a rocky road. Weíd much prefer a smooth path. I know I do. You? However, life - especially a life of faith - is full of stumbling, bumbling places along the way. Itís from these that we grow.

            We just heard a letter, one of seven letters, written to churches under the overseeing care of a fellow named John. Some of these churches were facing difficult times, persecution from the outside or attacks from within. These letters were all written to nurture growth in the faith, to encourage Godís people to follow Jesus right where they were, no matter how much of a struggle that might have entailed.

            John, himself, didnít have an easy time doing this. God had called him to oversee (I prefer "overseer" to "bishop" as a translation of his task, for the latter implies a position more than a relationship) and to help guide these folks, but he was faced with a major impediment. You see, for whatever reason, the powers-that-be had exiled John to an island off the coast of what is today the nation of Turkey. His overseeing had to be done from a distance. Face-to-face leadership was not possible.

            His was not a smooth path, but with prayerful imagination he shared a letter which today brings this book of books we call the Bible to an end - in a way that when we turn the final page we realize it has only just begun. Within the second and third chapters of Revelation, we find Johnís letters to those whom God had called him to oversee, the seven churches of the apocalypse ("apocalypse" being the Greek word we translate as "revelation" - note the connection between Godís calling to "oversee" and the act of "revealing," helping others to see).

            Before looking closer at the fifth letter, let me point out the general format each of these seven letters shares. Every one is addressed in the same way - to the "angel of" that particular congregation of believers. In this way, John was trying to open the door of the prayerful imagination of those people to something bigger than them. Yes, the church is bigger than its meetinghouse. Itís also bigger than the sum total of its members. The church is a spiritual reality before it is a social reality. To address each letter to the angel of that church is to reveal a bit of the bigger picture of who they are. Who, where is the angel of this church? To even ask that question opens the door to growth.

            Spiritual growth involves affirmation. Even when we make mistakes along the way, we each need someone to see the best in us. I dare say that most of us can name a significant person in our lives who believed in us, and told us so. Everyone needs affirmation to grow. However, we also need the truth, especially when their are areas in which we need to grow. We need someone who can name our failing so that we can see it and hear it. Usually, we will not pay attention if this naming is by someone who does not care about us, and if it is done in an unloving manner. It is through "speaking the truth in love," the apostle Paul once wrote, that we "grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (Ephesians 4:15).

            Johnís letters to the seven churches include affirmations and then critiques. Thatís the pattern. A third element is a promise for each. With this promise, they can continue on in the areas they been affirmed, and work toward change in the named areas in which they need to grow. Thus the pattern of each letter is: 1) affirmation, 2) challenge, and 3) promise. Two of the letters, however, include no loving criticisms; and two have no affirmation. This morningís letter is one of the latter.

            Even so, let me point out the positive before naming the negative. First, the letter begins, "these are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars." Seven, by the way, is a significant number. Like the number three it speaks to wholeness, completeness. We lean on the trinity of ways in which God is revealed to us - as Father, as Son, as Holy Spirit. Not separate, but whole. So also the "seven spirits" and "seven stars" touch the wholeness of God. When we feel anything but whole, when our lives are fragmented and scattered, we depend upon the source of our wholeness. In fact, it is the completeness of God that helps us to know our own incompleteness. Itís what keeps us hungering for more.

            The source of our wholeness is present, not absent (thatís good news!). Furthermore, God knows us intimately. Each letter, by the way, includes the phrase, "I know your works." I see you. Now, that can be experience as a threat or as a promise. We may hope there are areas we can keep hidden, even from the Lord. Knowing that God knows about them, can be bad news. Our sin will be disclosed, eventually. God sees. God knows. But thatís also good news, for we may wonder if anyone really cares, if what we do really makes any difference. God knows our work. Therefore, it does matter. Furthermore, weíre not alone. God sees!

            Whether taken as a threat or a promise of growth, John reveals that God knows the works of the church in Sardis, and then focuses upon their growth area, where they are falling short. "You have a name of being alive, but you are dead" ... We care a great deal about what other people think of us. Election day is less that two months away and the candidates are spending massive amounts of money creating an image of themselves. Truth is, though, itís all on the surface. Reputation, what others think of us, matters - more than it should. We can spend our energy creating an illusion. Thatís the way it was with the church in Sardis.

            "You have a name (the reputation) of being alive," the letter says. The truth may be the opposite, however. We can wear masks that say we are alive. Churches can do this, by the way. There are congregations where the parking lot is full every day of the week (which isnít a bad idea). Things appear to be happening. People drive by and think, "Wow! That church must be alive." Maybe they look at their our congregation and think, "Boy, our lot isnít full. They must be alive, and weíre dead."

            In the case of Sardis, however, there was the appearance of being alive. But they werenít. Every church, even today, needs to look at itself and ask, "what is beyond the appearance? Are we truly alive in Christ? Or are we more dead than alive?" Thatís a challenge. Johnís prayerful imagination doesnít go into a lot of detail. The letter just states, "you have a name of being alive, but you are dead."

            So, "wake up!" he says, "and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God." ... Perfect. Itís not that everything isnít to the "T" exactly right. Itís just not complete, not whole. Itís only partial. Perhaps in Sardis the believers never finished what they started, because the path to get there wasnít smooth, it led to persecution from the outside, or division within. The going got difficult, and they gave up.

            How often do we - as individuals or as a church - avoid going much further down a particular road, because itís hard? Pastors can become risk adverse, because Godís people grow restless when things arenít going smoothly, and tend to blame the easiest target. The truth is, though, that the rougher roads are often the pathway to growth. We miss out on the completeness God ("the seven spirits and seven stars") brings into our lives.

            "Wake up!" John said to the church in Sardis, and says to us, ""and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death." Donít compare this to dialing 911 and bringing in the rescue squad. This isnít about CPR. The language isnít about resuscitation. Itís about resurrection. This letter links us to what lies at the heart of our faith. When we give voice to it, it involves the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus died for us, to save us. But the cross was not a closed door. It was not the end. Rather, as our faith reveals to us, Christ rose on the third day. Ever after, we are resurrection people.

            "Wake up!" is a call to rise to new life in Christ. The critique, the challenge to those believers in Sardis back then, to us today, is to open the door and step into a new day, and live it completely. To trust with abandon, even when things donít seem to be going right, even when the road is difficult, when there is persecution from without or division from within, this is the path of growth in Christ.

            Some in Sardis had not forgotten. They walked with Jesus even when the rocks along the way caused them to stumble and fall, to get bruised and bloody, to stain their clothes - not with sin, but with the glory and grime that comes with the journey of faith. An amazing thing, however, is that at the journeyís end, when the path has been completed, the clothes of those who have truly walked it by faith, will be sparkling clean. Thatís the promise for those who would listen to what the Spirit is saying. In other words, donít be afraid of living out your baptism every day. Remember what you received and heard. Wake up! Rise with Christ.

            The call for us is to truly come alive, to stop paying attention to whatís on the surface, and worrying so much about how things appear. Instead of seeking to please everyone else, we are called to please God, no matter how difficult our path may become. "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer" (Psalms 19:14 NIV). The only way we can please God is by living out what we believe, and rising with Christ today.

"You have a name of being alive, but you are dead." So, wake up, and live!   

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Revelation.

©2004 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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