Sermon: Vocab Rehab

Words go in and out of fashion like everything else, but there are some that we can be grateful that people do not use anymore. A long time ago, when I was a teenager, if you didn’t like something or thought it wasn’t too good, you might say that it was ‘whack.’ Yes, whack. W-H-A-C-K. And if you liked something or thought it was good, you might say it was ‘dope’ or ‘off the chain.’ We can be glad no one says this anymore. Particularly, my 29 year old self is embarrassed my 15 year old self ever utter such things. But I did.

We might be glad that some day people will no longer feel salty, say ‘bye felicia’, or call someone else ‘bae.’ Some words we won’t miss.

But other words need to be recovered. Some necessary words fall out of favor, fall into disuse, or get reinterpreted in unhealthy ways. Some words need recovery, rehabilitation. Sometimes, we need vocab-rehab. In our passage this morning, there are two words it would be good for us to recover into our biblical vocabulary, that will help us live Christianly in this world. They are tolerate and repent.

Our passage this morning is Revelation 2, beginning in verse 18. Revelation is the very last book of the Bible, so if you are anywhere else, you need to go a little farther. This is the fourth of seven letters to the seven churches contained in the opening chapter of Revelation. Before we hear God’s Word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write:

These are the words of the Son of God,

who has eyes like a flame of fire,

whose feet are like burnished bronze.

I know your works –

your love, faith, service, and patient endurance.

I know that your last works are greater than the first.

But I have this against you:

you tolerate that woman Jezebel,

who calls herself a prophet

and is teaching and beguiling my servants

to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.

I have given her time to repent,

but she refuses to repent of her fornication.

Beware, I am throwing her on a bed

and those who commit adultery with her,

I am throwing into great distress,

unless they repent of her doings,

and I will strike her children dead.

And all the churches will know

that I am the one who searches hearts and minds,

and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.

But to the rest of you in Thyatira,

who do not hold this teaching,

who have not learned what some call ‘the deep things of Satan,’

to you I say, ‘I am not laying on you any other burden,

only hold fast to what you have until I come.’

To everyone who conquers

and continues to do my works until the end,

‘I will give authority over the nations,

to rule them with an iron rod,

as when clay pots shatter’

even as I also received authority from my Father.

To the one who conquers, I will also give the morning star.

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. (You may be seated)

Thyatira was a community characterized by love. The first thing that Jesus says about them is I know your works – your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. Love is the first thing mentioned. This is what Jesus commends as being first and foremost in their hearts. They loved and that love overflowed into acts of service. Not only this, but they were growing in love. It says, I know that your last works are greater than the first. They didn’t just begin in love or continue in love, but they grew in love. They were more loving now than when they began.

What a beautiful picture of the church. What would it be like if the church was known as the people who loved sinners, as the place where the broken and hurting could find solace and compassion? What if the first thing people knew about the church in Stout was that we were loving? Would that not glorify our Lord and Savior, who loved us and laid down his life for us?

What a contrast between Thyatira and Ephesus – the first letter we hear in the book of Revelation. Ephesus was known for holding fast to the truth – they discerned truth from falsehood and rejected false teaching at every turn, but their love for God and neighbor had cooled. The church in Ephesus had truth, but not love. Thyatira, however, had love, but not truth. They were known for their love, but they refused to separate truth from error, holiness from wickedness, faithfulness from folly. They had love, but not truth. Both churches faced warning from Jesus. Ephesus was threatened with the removal of its lamp stand – a loss of its identity and witness for the kingdom of God. Thyatira was threatened with severe judgment on all who tolerated this false teaching.

TOLERATE

This brings us to the first word we need to rehabilitation this morning: tolerate. Verse 20: But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel. The indictment against Thyatira is that this church tolerates what it should not. A simple image of tolerance is to refuse to head out to battle – to refuse to fight.

Tolerance is to refuse to head out to battle.

This word needs rehabilitation. We have seen a rise of intolerance in the world. Extremism, bigotry, violence, and hatred are being vomited out across this land and much of creation. Narratives are spun that this nation or that nation was once strong and vital, but has been tainted by outsiders. If only we got rid of those other people and focused on our people, life would return to normal. People who look and act differently are excluded and derided. This intolerance has, at times, crept into the church and been baptized as being in the name of God. It is used to justify marginalizing the poor, the weak, and the alien.

Yet in this same world where intolerance and xenophobia is on the rise, we have seen in this country, the institutionalization of a particular brand of tolerance. Tolerance has become an end in itself, a untainted and unreserved virtue. We must tolerate any and every preference, habit, or opinion. No judgments can be made as to the health and value of these choices, their contribution or detriment of the common good, their faithfulness to God, or their moral character in any way, shape, or form. Tolerance has become, in our culture, good all of the time. That is, unless you claim that any belief or way of life is actually true, actually conforms to reality, or is actually the way we are called to live. Then, tolerance rears its ugly head and bites back.

But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel. Not all tolerance is good. There is a place in the Christian life to say ‘No.’ But where? What does it mean to tolerate and what should we tolerate?

To tolerate something is to refuse to head out to battle. It is letting go of your own claims for the sake of peace. In this sense, tolerance can often be a good thing. It is a common practice in healthy marriages and healthy parenting. How many of you have asked yourselves – ‘is this a hill worth dying on?’ If not, we let it go, we let it slide, even if it is not what we want or the way we would prefer things.

In this way, tolerance can be a step toward love. Scripture constantly urges us to love one another, to consider others better than ourselves, to seek each other’s good. Jesus also warns us strongly about hating each other as a veil for murder. In order to be a fellowship of redeemed sinners, we need a certain level of tolerance. We need mercy and forgiveness. If we kicked out all the sinners, the church would be empty.

But tolerance is also refusing to head out to battle. In Thyatira, the problem was not that there were people in the church struggling with sin, but that they were not struggling. But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.

The church in Thyatira deems acceptable what the Lord has condemned, names good and faithful what the Lord calls folly and wickedness, calls Christian what the Lord calls sin. The charge Jesus lays against them is tolerance.

For all their love, they tolerate Jezebel. I, along with most Christians throughout history, do not believe that the female prophetess in Thyatira was actually named Jezebel. Instead, she is being likened to Jezebel from the Old Testament.

Jezebel was the most wicked woman of the Old Testament. She was the pagan wife of Ahab, King of Judah. After their marriage, Ahab began to worship the false god Baal and his consort Asherah. Ahab and Jezebel persecuted the prophets of God, until only Elijah the Tishbite was left. After the famous showdown on Mount Carmel, where God proclaimed himself as God and Baal as an idol, Jezebel vowed not to rest until Elijah lay dead. Ahab and Jezebel murdered people and stole their land. They led people the people of Judah to abandon the Lord and worship Baal. As it usually does, this false worship went hand-in-hand with sexual practices that violate the revealed will of God.

This was Jezebel and, inspired by the Spirit, John likens the female prophet in Thyatira to this woman. And he proclaims in the name of Jesus that the Lord stands against this church because they tolerate her. The charge laid against them is tolerance. The problem is not that the church in Thyatira had people in it who struggled with sin – even idolatry and sexual sin. Far from it, for people struggling with sin, the church is exactly the right place to go. The problem in Thyatira was that they were not struggling. They refused to go out to battle – or worse, they didn’t even know battle needed to be waged.

This Jezebel, whoever she was, taught and beguiled them to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. She was teaching them to do this. She was encouraging it as, at best, not a big deal or, at worst, something that is part of Christian freedom and faithfulness to God. When confronted, Jesus says I have given her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication.

The sins that are the fruit of her teaching are fornication and idolatry. Fornication is the broad, biblical word for any sexual activity that takes place outside of the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. In the beginning God made humans male and female, Adam saw Eve and said, this is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh and we are told for this reason a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and the two become one flesh. Sex is a gift from God, but a gift that is to be enjoyed in the context of that one flesh union between a man and a woman.

Fornication is what happens when sexual activity takes place outside of that union. Whether it is before marriage (pre-marital sex), outside of marriage (adultery), or in unnatural unions (homosexuality, bestiality). All of it is under the same umbrella – fornication. It is, in one sense, lying with your body. It is saying you are one-flesh, when you are not. It is saying one thing with your body but something else with the rest of your life. It is trying to experience the joy and gift of God on our own terms and in our own way, not in the way that God has given us to experience it. Jesus goes even further to say that even looking with lust falls into this category. Just because you don’t get a chance to act on your sinful impulses, doesn’t make them less sinful.

The other fruit of Jezebel’s teaching is eating food sacrificed to idols. The practice itself and the New Testament’s response to it is complicated, but here in Thyatira, particularly in the naming of this woman as Jezebel, we are being told that eating food sacrificed to idols was a precursor to idolatry. It may have even been part of the act of worshipping another God, but at the very least it was a gateway to compromising our allegiance to God.

The twin sins of fornication and idolatry are paired together over and over again in the Bible. To compromise with our body and lie with our body is deeply connected with compromising our heart for God, lying with our heart before God. Scripture considers worshipping another God or trusting in anything alongside of or instead of God as a form or spiritual fornication. It is unfaithfulness of the highest order.

The problem in Thyatira was not that people were struggling with these sins. It was not that there were people in the congregation who had sinned – sexually, spiritually, or otherwise. This is true of every church. The problem was not that the church extended forgiveness to these people. That, too, is right. The problem was this Jezebel had taught them that there was no need to repent of these sins. She had taught them to tolerate it, to refuse to go out to battle and reject that old way of life, that old self, those oft-besetting sins, and instead told them to embrace it.

To tolerate is to refuse to go out to battle. There are times and situations where we should not fight, but when it comes to sin itself – cosmic treason that it is – tolerance sets us against Jesus himself.

But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.

It was unintentional that this passage, which speaks about tolerating sexual sin and even embracing it as standing against the will of Jesus – it was unintentional that this passage came during the middle of General Synod. It was unintentional on our part, but it has been on my mind all the same.

I have had difficulty hearing this passage and not thinking that there are churches which desperately need to hear this word of the Lord. I have difficulty hearing this passage and not lamenting for congregations that have been told they do not need to struggle against their sins, that God is not grieved and offended by their sins, and, in fact, that they are not sinning at all.

I have difficulty hearing this passage and not thinking that the struggle of Thyatira and Ephesus is very real in the church in North America, even in our denomination. The struggle hold both truth and love – and to hold them both in the way that God has called us to – is threatening to rip our denomination apart.

I know this. I grieve this. I struggle because I read this passage and others and it seems so clear that God calls us not to tolerate our sins, but to repent of them, bring them before his throne and trust that he will forgive us and make our hearts new. I read this passage and others and it seems clear that God is not indifferent to our sins. The price of our sins costs the Son of God his blood on the cross.

I read this passage and it seems so clear how somebody else needs to hear the word God is speaking in Revelation 2. Then I stop. I think I know how somebody else should hear this? What about me? Let anyone who has an ear hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. That means us. That means me.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

REPENT

The second word we need to rehabilitate is repentance. Repentance means to turn in a different direction. I have giveen her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication…but those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great misery, unless they repent of her doings. If I am heading east, it means turning west. If I’m heading north, it means turning south. A complete change of direction. Over and over in this passage, we hear the call to turn from one way of life to another. To turn from seeking God’s gifts on our terms and for our ends toward the God who gives us everything. 

Luke’s gospel tells us that the message of Jesus Christ is ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins.’ Repentance and forgiveness go together. It is not one or the other. Being forgiven and turning from the old life, struggling against it, and trusting the finished work of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, all these go together.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

The question for each of us this morning is this: What sins do we tolerate in ourselves?

It might be easier to see the speck in our neighbors eye than the log in our own, so the question for us is what sins do we tolerate?

Maybe it is the ones named in our passage. Maybe we have grown comfortable with stray thoughts of this boy or that girl. Maybe we have resigned ourselves to the shame following nights bathed in the cold blue of the computer screen.

But maybe it is something else. Maybe it is an anger problem rooted in a fearful heart that justifies snapping at our coworkers. Maybe it is mistrust in God that leads us to try and control every situation. Maybe it is spending money on indulging ourselves instead of others, or how we hoard our time and money, never letting it out of our grasp.

What do we tolerate in ourselves? What vices or areas of disobedience do we refuse to go out to battle? or refuse to lay out before the Lord? What do we hide or justify to ourselves?

I see too much of myself in what we have just named. Even for someone as demanding on myself as I can be, there hides in me a sinful heart, like all of us. I am bend and broken in my own particular ways, just as you are.

The word for us today is repent. Whatever it is that we are hiding and justifying, turn from it toward the Lord and place it in his hands. Christ has conquered sin and death and he will work out redemption in us.

And the promise to Thyatira will be for us as well. And to the one who conquers, I will give the morning star. Revelation 22:16 says, I, Jesus, have sent my angels to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root of the offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star. Jesus is the morning star. Jesus is promising to the church in Thyatira, to all of us who cling to him, that Jesus will give us himself.

Scripture promises that at the end of all things, we get Jesus. We are given Jesus, who is better and sweeter than anything else, than all the pleasures or power we look for in our sins. Jesus is better than all that is promised to us in all the other places we look for joy, hope, and happiness. Jesus, who laid down his life for our sins and took it up again in victory, gives himself to us.

So friends, with our whole hearts, let us trust in the one who gives himself to us, Jesus Christ, the Lord.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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