Picture the scene with me as it unfolds every year. You’re in the middle of massive crowd that has been called together from all over the country and world. A melting pot stirred throughout the night creating a confluence of cultures, symbolism, and customs. With each breath, your nostrils are assaulted by the smell of friend foods, alligator off the grill, and Cajun spices. Working through the crowd requires patience, twisting and turning, as each face looks the same with masks covering them. With eclipsed identity and anonymity a controlled chaos ensues. The music hits your ear as a strange concoction: country music, saxophone, and trumpet Jazz. Some dance, others looked drunk or drugged as the processional works its way down Bourbon Street. The shops that line the street are filled to capacity and their neon lights add to the parade of vivid colors, confetti falls, beads rattle, as street vendors peddle their wares. From the second floor balconies people watch the festivities, yelling loudly into the night. Beer bottles and trash litter the surrounding like decorations. For a moment take it all in, you are in a world within a world—all that is Mardi Gras playing out before you in the last waning hours until FAT TUESDAY gives way to ASH WEDNESDAY.
Today, we are going to look at a world from 1900 years ago, that could play out in New Orleans. It was late 90’, AD, not 1990’s, and the Apostle John, once a young and vivacious follower of Jesus has become an elderly pastor sitting in exile, after being boiled alive in oil, on the Island of Patmos off the Aegean Sea. There his life ebbed away within the darkened cave he called home. Yet for the man who saw the young Messianic figure, who experienced first-hand the miracles, who was on the mountain top of transfiguration, who endured Christ’s bitter end and new beginning of resurrection—there was one last miracle to be had. In our new sermon series called CHURCH SHOPPING, we see through a divine vision in Revelation, Christ’s 7 letters penned by John to the 7 churches all now inside present-day Turkey. As we go on a tour to the different churches, we get a chance to move closer to being the church that Christ calls us to become, join me as we travel to Ephesus. No airfare or passport needed. (Based on the work of 7 Churches of Revelation by Joseph Stowell)The parade in Ephesus had its own precursor to Mardi Gras. Each year like clockwork the people would gather together to celebrate the god whose temple they housed, Artemis, the goddess of fertility. As a coastal city, it had become a hub for international travel, banking, and a clearinghouse for customs and cultures as diverse as the people. As the masses assembled each person would be carrying a picture of the goddess as the processional made its way down to the water front where her statue would be dipped into the water, ensuring her perpetual virginity before the orgy ensued back at the temple grounds—so large it was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world! Yet, Ephesus had one more thing going on; it was also the home of a giant temple honoring the current Caesar Domitian. Despite the melting pot mentality of previous leaders—this guy Domitian wanted to be worshiped as divine—the one link which he hoped would hold together a diverse and widespread empire.
It is in this setting that a group of Christians lived with an ever present question: Domitian as Divine or were they only going to yield to Yahweh. The ramifications were real, without Domitian there was no ability to sell in the marketplace; move up in the workforce, no chance to be part of the social fabric, tortured and jailed.
As we look at the heart of the first letter and step inside the walls of the first church at Ephesus—we find a message which surpasses the centuries—we get to see the STATUS OF CHRIST, (1:14-19) 12 I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man,[d] dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. 17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. 19 “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. 20 The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels[e] of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Don’t let the imagery of Revelation’s opening chapter throw you off, we get a picture of Jesus in the fullness of his identity—powerful, mighty, eternal—the source of life, the spoken word that brought about existence, the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. Jesus is holding in his right hand—the seven stars—which we don’t have to speculate about, he tells us they are the seven angels which can also be translated as messengers or church elders/ John the Baptist was described with this same word and Jesus is walking among the seven lampstands, which we are told are the churches, intimately involved, intricately invested in the movement of His bride, engaged with its direction, and within his control.
When you know Christ you have all you need. The answer to life is in a person. Art was his life. He had plenty of money and circled the globe to collect the very best. His more than adequate house was filled with Monets, Picassos, and many of the world’s finest treasures. But after years of having it all, he found his world shattered when cancer took his wife. To memorialize his love for her, he decided to gather an even better collection in her honor.
The collector’s love became focused on his son. They did everything together, and he took pride in all that his son accomplished. It was a sad day when his son went off to fight in the Vietnam War. But not as sad as the day when the news came that his son had been killed in battle. The man was crushed. He lost all interest in collecting. His life was reduced to lonely memories of days gone by with those he loved.
Years later, a knock at his door found him standing face to face with a rather common, slightly tattered person who was holding a picture under his arm. The visitor told the collector that he had been his son’s best friend in Vietnam and now made a living as a street painter. He explained that while he was in Vietnam he had painted a picture of his friend and wanted to know if the father might be interested in it. The old man took the picture in his hands and immediately noticed the clear resemblance. The sparkle in his son’s eyes brought back a flood of memories. No one would have said that it was great art, but he took the picture tearfully and gratefully. He immediately hung it above the mantel where his favorite picture had hung since before his wife had died.
When the old man passed away, his entire collection went to the most prestigious auction house in London. Needless to say, this created quite a stir among museum curators and wealthy people from around the world. On the day of the auction the room was crowded with the who’s who of collecting. The gavel sounded as the hushed crowd that jammed th auction house watched the first picture being unveiled. To everyone’s astonishment, it was the picture that the street painter had given to the old collector. The auctioneer waited for a bid. No one moved. He explained that this was a picture of the collector’s son who was killed in Vietnam. As the crowd grew restless, the auctioneer explained that the instructions in the will required that this picture be auctioned first.
Finally, to get the bidding started, the auctioneer offered the painting for fifty dollars. Still no one responded—until a voice came from the back of the room from a man who said he was that soldier’s friend and the painter of the picture. He said he would bid the fifty dollars to get the picture back. The auctioneer called for other bids and, hearing none, gaveled the bids closed as the crowd settled in for the real action.
But to everyone’s surprise, the auctioneer gaveled the auction closed. The crowd protested in disbelief. To which the auctioneer replied, “It is in the old man’s will: ‘Whoever takes the son gets it all!” (Joseph Stowell)
“We can say the same thing: Whoever takes the Son gets it all!” Peter T. Forsythe was right when he said, “The first duty of every soul is to find not its freedom but its Master.” A lot of the time we think we need more to be free—more time, when we need a better use of our time. We think we need more money, we just need to use what we have better. We think we need Christ plus something more, but we just need what has proven itself to be better! Our master hasn’t been left to the grave, but is readying us for the goal line. Gregory of Nazianzus,(A.D. 381) an early church father declared his supremacy:
He began His ministry by being hungry, yet He is the Bread of Life. Jesus ended His earthly ministry by being thirsty, yet He is the Living Water. Jesus was weary, yet He is our rest. Jesus paid tribute, yet He is the King. Jesus was accused of having a demon, yet He cast out demons.
Jesus wept, yet He wipes away our tears. Jesus was sold for thirty pieces of silver, yet He redeemed the world. Jesus was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, yet He is the Good Shepherd. Jesus died, yet by His death He destroyed the power of death.
It can feel like we are the dented can in the grocery store—dented by political correctness, a misguided sense of tolerance, we can feel overpowered, outnumbered, and out of place—we can feel like we need more power, more of a voice, yet instead of needing more, we have been given better! We serve the same Christ who is walking among the church’s lampstands and given the same mission which has passed the millenniums: Be the Light of the World.