Chuck Swindoll in his book Hand Me Another Brick told the remarkable story of Thomas Edison. Edison had invented the microphone, the phonograph, the incandescent light, and more than 1000 other things. You probably recognize his notable line, “I haven’t failed, I simply found 10,000 ways that it didn’t work.” He was famous for his innovation and creativity, but in December of 1914 after working for 10 years on a storage battery he was feeling the finance strain of trying to come to a breakthrough. This particular evening spontaneous combustion had broken out in the film room. Within minutes all the packing compounds, celluloid for records and film, and other flammable goods were in flames. Fire companies from eight surrounding towns arrived, but the heat was so intense and the water pressure so low that the attempt to douse the flames was futile. Everything was destroyed. Edison was 67. With all his assets going up in a whoosh (although the damage exceeded two million dollars, the buildings were only insured for $238,000 because they were made of concrete and thought to be fireproof), would his spirit be broken?
It was the same situation my dad found himself in one day driving home from work. He saw the smoke rising over the hill. As he got closer, that pit in his stomach grew worse, and finally as he rounded the last corner, his worst fears were realized, everything he had worked for was gone in a heap of ashes from the flames. Those are moments in life that many of you have probably endured, moments that have the potential to leave you with nothing, to break your spirit.
Today, in our sermon series Church Shopping, we visit the church of Philadelphia that like Edison has seemingly every reason in the world to give up. Yet, Jesus begins in the ashes reminding them of His:
Strength In the Midst of Weakness (Revelation 3:7-8) To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: 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. 8 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. Every door seemed to be slammed in their face. A natural disaster in the form of an earthquake devastated the city. A man-made disaster devastated the economy when Emperor Domitian deciding the fertile volcanic ground was producing vineyards that rivaled or surpassed Rome ordered the burning of their fields, and Jesus alludes to their religious disaster. Then came a spiritual closed door. The Jewish synagogue pushed the Christians out the door (they were early on considered a sect of the Jews). Jesus in response focuses first on his character and then on their circumstances. He describes himself as fulfilling the role in a royal house of majordomo–the bearer of the keys. The one who despite their appearance could lock or throw open any door.
I had an experience with a modern-day majordomo in high school. I was a freshman going out for the baseball team. Tryouts started on Friday and went well, afterwards, I had gone back to the locker room, cleaned up, put my stuff securely in the locker, and off I went ready for the next day of tryouts. I went home had some dinner and went to bed. At 7:00 a.m. I started to panic–the locker room wasn’t open on Saturday. Suddenly, making the team all was riding on a person I rarely spoke to, you didn’t have a fancy title, but who held all the power in this moment, the janitor.
Jesus taking on the role as a descendant of the line of David was sending a clear message in the midst of their crummy conditions: there was no emperor decree, no amount of persecution or flames that could cause the door to be shut to the salvation he offered. It is what Isaiah wrote about (40:29): He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. God is the source of our sustainment.
The late author and pastor John Stott shared about his 1958 outreach to a university in Sydney, Australia. The day before the final meeting, Stott received word that his father had passed away. In addition to his grief, Stott was also starting to lose his voice. Here’s how Stott describes the final day of the outreach: It was already late afternoon within a few hours of the final meeting of the mission, so I didn’t feel I could back away at that time. I went to the great hall and asked a few students to gather round me. I asked one of them to read … “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness,” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). A student read these verses and then I asked them to lay hands on me and … pray that those verses might be true in my own experience. When time came for me to give my address, I had to get within half an inch of the microphone, and I croaked the gospel like a raven. I couldn’t exert my personality. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t use any inflections in my voice. I croaked the gospel in monotone. Then when the time came to give the invitation, there was an immediate response, larger than any other meeting during the mission, as students came flocking forward …I’ve been back to Australia about ten times since 1958, and on every occasion somebody has come up to me and said, “Do you remember that final meeting in the university in the great hall?” “I jolly well do,” I reply. “Well,” they say, “I was converted that night.”
Pastor Paul David Tripp remarked, “Remember, it is not your weakness that will get in the way of God’s working through you, but your delusions of strength. His strength is made perfect in our weakness! Where does the delusion of strength creep into your life? Into your financial situation, your faith, your plans for the future? That delusion destroys God’s design. Francis Chan tells the story of working with a gang member who after months of work, teaching, and prayer decided to give his life to Christ. A few months later he came back to Chan though confused and said, “I thought joining the church would be like getting jumped into the gang, not just shaking hands at greeting time or an hour meeting on Sunday, but an instant family.” We have to live life together beyond just an hour on Sunday. A gang shouldn’t be a better picture of family than the family of Christ. This week, why not find a way to invite someone over for a meal, sit down for a conversation over coffee, write a note, or ring them on the phone.