Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Earlier this past year Japan experienced two earthquakes,
first in February and then again in March.
Both earthquakes, thankfully, did not result
in too much damage or loss of life.
There was nothing like the devastation and tragedy caused
more than a decade earlier on March 11, 2011
when a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami left
almost 29,000 people dead or missing on Japan’s northeastern shore.
Many more lives and homes could have been lost
had it not been for the hundreds of so-called tsunami stones
– some more than six centuries old – dotting the coast of Japan.
Crafted and left by generations past,
these stone tablets have but one message carved onto their face:
“Do not build your homes below this point!”
In modern Japan, many who felt assured that advanced technology
and higher seawalls would protect any vulnerable areas,
chose to ignore or forget these ancient, silent warnings of the past.
It was a decision they soon came to lament and regret when the waves
of the 2011 tsunami elevated to new, previously unrecorded heights
and erased hundreds of miles of the Japanese coast.
But other, smaller, more remote villages in Japan heeded the wisdom and warning of their ancestors and built their households on higher ground.
In one case, all the homes in a particular village in Japan
stayed safely out of reach of the lethal waves of tsunami by only 300 feet.
Such stories like these remind us that messages from the past
serve to instruct those living in the present – that those
who forget to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
This is a good and helpful framework for our reading of the seven letters
in the book of Revelation.
But instead of messages from unknown ancestors,
we have correspondence from Jesus – letters dictated by Christ
through the apostle John to seven local congregations
in the 1st century A.D.
Messages intended not only for them
but for every generation of the Church
– to warn us, to correct us, – and in the case of today’s particular letter
– to encourage and reassure us – especially when we find ourselves
most vulnerable and lacking strength in the journey of faith. (TEXT)
Jesus, as we just heard, writes a letter to a church in Philadelphia.
“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write…” -Revelation 3:7
Now most of us think of Philadelphia as a city on the east coast,
part of the great state of Pennsylvania
– the spiritual heart of the American Revolution
– the home of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall
– the place you want to go to get a proper and delicious cheesesteak.
But of course, that’s not the same city
on the address of this letter being sent by Jesus.
No, this letter is postmarked to the original Philadelphia
– a city founded long ago in the province of Asia Minor.
As we probably remember,
the name “Philadelphia” means “brotherly love.”
The original city, founded to Hellenize – to bring Greek culture and thought to that part of the known world – was so named
in reference to an interesting piece of ancient history.
You see, in 172 B.C. when Eumenes, king of Pergamum
was returning from a visit to Rome, a false rumor arose
that King Eumenes had been assassinated.
As a result, Eumenes’ brother, Attalus II assumed the throne.
When, however, Eumenes returned, instead of demanding back the crown, he invited Attalus to reign with him as co-regent.
A few years later, in 167 B.C. when the Romans pressured Attalus
to betray his brother, Eumenes, and forcibly take the throne for himself,
Attalus repeatedly refused.
And so, Attalus gained the nickname “Philadelphos”
and later when the city of Philadelphia was established it was so named
as a memorial to the well-renown love between the two brothers.
Nicknamed the doorway or gateway to the east
because it occupied a key position on the trade route
that ran eastward from Rome, ancient Philadelphia
was located on the ridge of highly active volcanic area.
The upside of this being, thanks to the ash from these volcanoes,
the city possessed very fertile soil – particularly for growing grapes.
We might think of ancient Philadelphia as the Napa Valley of Asia Minor!
However, the downside of being built on an range of active volcanoes was that the city often experienced frequent, dangerous tremors – earthquakes.
The ancient historian, Strabo once called Philadelphia
“a city full of earthquakes.”
In fact, in 17 A.D., a massive earthquake toppled the city.
There were so many aftershocks from that one earthquake, most of
the population ended up living outside of the city for some time – in tents.
After the earthquake of 17 A.D., the emperor of Rome removed
Philly’s obligation to pay tribute to the Empire for five years
so the citizens could recover economically and rebuild the city.
Out of gratitude as much as a Faustian obligation,
Philadelphia renamed itself “Neocaesarea,”
which means “new or young Caesar” and became yet another
in a string of cities consecrated to the worship of
both the emperor and the empire of Rome.
And in the midst of all that seismic activity,
in the throes of all the physical instability
and spiritual insecurity of that city, there was a little church
– a small but budding extension of the Body of Christ.
To this church residing in the city of brotherly love, Jesus writes,
“I know your deeds…” – Revelation 3:8
As we’ve discovered by now through reading these letters,
Jesus always begins with this – the fruit, the works of each community of faith — the witness of their abiding in the vine – in Him.
For by our fruit, not our professions of belief,
but by our fruit rooted in the grace, love, and truth of the Gospel
– the Word and Spirit – Jesus will know us.
A tree is known by its fruits, Christ previously taught us,
and in this case, the church in Philadelphia is commended for three things:
- Keeping the word of Christ – following Jesus.
“you have kept my word” – Revelation 3:8
- Not denying the name of Christ – worshipping Jesus alone.
“and have not denied my name.” – Revelation 3:8
- Keeping Christ’s command to endure patiently.
“You have kept my command to endure patiently,” – Revelation 3:10
The Greek word translated as “endure” here
also can be translated as either “wait” or “stay.”
This fleshes out specifically the third element Jesus is affirming
– that the Philadelphian Christians are not trying to control their lives
but are instead waiting upon Christ – staying in the presence of Jesus
and in so doing, are trusting that Christ will act –
will give them whatever they need to carry on, to move forward.
Collectively, these commendations by Jesus reveal that
things were not easy for the Christians in Philadelphia.
Clearly, the church there was facing constant pressure, opposition,
and repeated persecution.
Added to all of this in Christ’s acknowledgement in verse 8, that
the church in Philadelphia is a community with “little strength or power.”
“I know that you have little strength,” – Revelation 3:8
This is not a criticism.
No, if we read carefully, this one of the few letters in this collection
in which Jesus has no word of rebuke or correction.
Like the letter we read previously to the church in Smyrna,
Christ only has words of unqualified praise and encouragement
for these Christians in Philadelpha.
Jesus isn’t critiquing here.
When Christ speaks of them having “little strength” we know
he cannot be referring to a lack of spiritual power
because in the same breath Jesus praises
this community’s uncompromising faithfulness and steadfastness.
This isn’t a rebuke. It is an acknowledgment of the reality of
the church in Philadelphia’s vulnerability
– her lack of earthly or worldly power.
In other words, this is not a community that is boastful about
what a great church they are – finding its strength in numbers
or leveraging some kind of influence in the wider city.
Seemingly, this is a community that is small in number,
economically poor, and politically without any representation or power.
This is a church struggling even to make a footprint
– let alone a massive impact – in the city.
If we pay close attention and read between the lines
of the repeated door imagery in this letter,
these are Christians who are being shut out and denied access,
placed on the outside looking in and turned into social outcasts.
More pointedly, the inference by Jesus appears to be that
even the doors of worship and fellowship have been closed to them
“I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.”
– Revelation 3:9
– as the Jews in Philadelphia have banned all Christians
from participating in the local synagogue.
And yet, despite all of this, the church in Philadelphia remained
a faithful and unwavering outpost, an embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven,
a refuge for those seeking life and salvation in Christ.
Do we come here today perceiving we have little strength?
Do you find yourself in a place of vulnerability today?
Are we acutely aware of our weakness within ourselves,
within our marriages, within our families, within our other relationships?
Or does the very mention of any such vulnerability or powerlessness
make us defiantly angry and resentful
or possibly sick to our stomachs with embarrassment?
For ours is a world driven by success.
Ours is a society that rewards strength and despises weakness
– that looks down on being powerless.
Acknowledging our weakness and powerlessness is equated with inadequacy – and admitting our inadequacy – any inadequacy
– both individually and collectively – is not unacceptable.
Instead, we are told to claim and take back our power.
We are taught to toughen up and strengthen ourselves.
We are rewarded, we are labeled as successful –
for building and maintaining our brand, our reputation, our worth.
And yet, despite all of this conditioning,
despite our repeated denials, that nagging sense of our weakness,
our powerlessness, our inadequacy lingers and refuses to go away.
We can feel inadequate physically because our body isn’t working
the way it’s supposed to – because we are wrestling with
some kind of ongoing sickness or disease.
We can be haunted by a growing sense of our powerlessness
either in our youth – of still being too young to yet accomplish anything
or of being too old and believing we have little left to meaningful contribute.
We might be tormented by financial insecurity – struggling to make ends meet or frustrated that we don’t have as much as the people around us.
We may be plagued by insecurity and weakness socially – not perceiving how we fit in with everyone else – where we can find and make lasting connections with others – and thus believing something is wrong with us.
And this sense of our weakness, our powerlessness, our inadequacy
isn’t just an individual matter; it’s a communal and corporate one too.
After all, it’s people who form a community, a company, a fellowship.
Insecure people breed insecure communities.
Those who collectively refuse to acknowledge their weakness
often form associations and alliances aimed at convincing themselves
and others that they do indeed have power and are strong.
Even Christians can form or shape churches driven more by wanting to be perceived as healthier, larger, and influential rather than they actually are.
Beloved, no matter how much economic power, cultural appeal,
and political influence may be desirable to us,
is gaining the whole world worth more than the exchange of our souls?
Does being successful profit us more than being faithful to Christ?
Are we willing to be weak, to admit that we are powerless,
to confess our inadequacy?
Because denying our weakness, refusing to face our powerlessness,
and rejecting any suggestion of our inadequacy
either personally or corporately as human beings
– moves us away from Jesus rather than towards Christ.
The invitation and assurance of the Gospel is realized and received
only as we confront our powerlessness, admit our weakness,
and together confess our inadequacy and seek and look alone to Christ.
Part of the message Jesus is giving to the church in Philadelphia
and by extension to us is the lack of our strength
and the absence of any sense of our power is not a bad place to be
– they are exactly the right place to be because this is where we become fully open and completely available to the power and strength of Christ.
Once again, Jesus is not rebuking this church
for having little strength or power.
Jesus acknowledges the reality of their weakness and powerlessness
in order to remind and assure them that their identity, their security,
and their destiny does not depend upon themselves
– their own power and strength.
The identity, security, and destiny of the church in Philadelphia
depend solely on the power and strength of Christ
at work both within and through them.
And so it is for us – the deep and profound truth of the Gospel.
That for we, who follow Jesus,
no matter how vulnerable or weak or inadequate we recognize we are,
we need never believe or say that we are forgotten or forsaken by God,
for our God in Christ gives power to the weak
and to those who have no might, He increases strength.
“He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint. -Isaiah 40:29 – 31
For those who wait on the Lord,
their strength shall be found and renewed
– they shall mount up with wings like eagles.
They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.
Beyond these beloved words from the prophet Isaiah,
let’s look at how Jesus describes the power – His power –
that he offers to us – as well as the promises backed by His power.
Jesus introduces Himself to the church in Philadelphia,
by referring to himself as the One
“who is holy and true, who holds the key of David.” – Revelation 3:7
In the ancient world, keys and locks were a symbol of power.
Someone who was in charge often visibly wore
a key around their neck or shoulder as a symbol of
their authority to grant or limit access to others.
Jesus, in this case, has the “key of David.”
The key of David is the means of access not to David’s kingdom
but to the kingdom that the Lord promised to bring
through the line of David – His Kingdom, the Kingdom of God.
All the psalms – many of which were written by David,
and all prophets who came after David
– invoked this image of the keymaster in their anticipation of
the arrival of the Messiah – the One whom they described as
coming with total and absolute power – over all people
and over all the world and opening the door to
God’s promised redemption and renewal of all creation.
That long-awaited Messiah was and is Jesus Christ
– the same Jesus who professed not only to have the keys of the Kingdom but to Himself be the very door – the narrow gate – to our salvation.
In the same way that the city of Philadelphia controlled access to
the Eastern trade routes in Asia Minor, Christ here presents Himself as
– the only way to come to the Father, the truth and the life
for which we have always longed and hoped for.
And Jesus goes on to declare,
“What he opens no one can shut,
and what he shuts no one can open… See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” – Revelation 3:7-8
“what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open”
…that he has placed before us “an open door that no one can shut.”
Christ’s words of assurance here echo
the longstanding promises of God to His people.
To a people who watched their homeland fall,
to a people who found themselves taken captive and on their way to exile, to a people who were about to be thrown into the raging fires of an oven
or the seeming slaughter of a lion’s den, God promised that
He alone could and would open and shut the doors of our salvation
– the means to carry us through to the other side.
And one day coming down in the person of Jesus Christ
– living among us, dying for us all on the Cross
and then through the empty tomb of the Resurrection,
God opened once and for all, always and forever,
the greatest door no human being has or ever will be able to open
– the doorway beyond death to everlasting life.
God opened the doorway for His own Spirit
to come and for the Body of Christ to rise anew through the Church,
to fill our hearts and minds together and lead us home – into the kind of life we were meant to live, into the kind of world it was always created to be.
And now to a little church that could in Philadelphia
and to congregations like ours, this holy and true King reassures us
no matter how left or shut out we find ourselves,
even though every other door of access or opportunity
may be closed to us – slammed in our faces
even though we may perceive ourselves on the outside looking
in terms of every measure of worldly power, strength, and success
– the only door that matters has been opened to us
– our salvation, our transformation, our opportunities in Christ –
and no one can shut or reverse what Jesus has opened for us.
Because Christ alone has the keys – going back to the first image
we are given in the book of Revelation – that Jesus alone holds
the very keys of death and hell – nothing cannot turn back or close off
– the forgiveness, the victory, and the empowerment
Christ has opened for us all.
To we who follow Jesus and yet are ridiculed
or perhaps even ourselves worry that we have very little power,
very little influence, very little ability, Christ reminds us
that His grace is sufficient strength for us,
His power is made perfect in our weakness,
that God shall supply all our needs according to His riches
in glory by Christ Jesus.
It’s important to highlight what Jesus promises to the church in Philly
– “to keep them from the hour of trial that is going to come on
the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth” – Revelation 3:10 is not an exemption from facing any difficulties or trouble;
it is the promise of Christ being with us every step of the way
– of not abandoning or neglecting us – but rather of upholding
and carrying us through to the other side.
The certainty of this is declared in what Jesus promises next
– to make us pillars in the temple of God.
“The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it.” – Revelation 3:12
As always, Jesus is not offering comfort to
the church in Philadelphia through some random imagery.
Pillars as the means of strength and support for a building
were symbols of strong and secure leadership.
After the devastating earthquake in 17 A.D.,
the only thing left standing in Philadelphia
were the pillars of all the pagan temples.
Against the backdrop of a citizenry that had to flee their city and live
in countryside because of the insecurity and instability of the land,
Jesus reinforces His promise of stability and permanence
– that nothing will separate them from His love and grace.
Those who follow Jesus will stand secure in the promises
– in the Kingdom of God.
But let’s appreciate the fullness of this image
– of becoming pillars in the Temple of the Lord.
Jesus’ promise that we will never be shaken or brought down
is not just for our own comfort and security.
To be made, by the grace of Christ, pillars is to understand
we are being crafted to support and enlarge the house of the Lord.
In other words, entering through the door of salvation in Christ
leads to walking through the door of opportunity for serving others
in the name of Jesus – for the sake of building the Kingdom of God.
Beloved, Jesus moves us out of the instability and insecurity
of this fractured world – a world that continues to be suffer from the tremors and aftershocks of sin – so that we will become the building blocks
– the pillars – of a new creation – so that we will testify to
the truth and life of Jesus – so that we together incredibly as the Church, as the Body of Christ – will support the weight of God’s glory.
We seemingly without power will become, by the grace of God,
pillars that hold up the Body of Christ.
We will become means of support to each other
that even mighty Samson could not break.
Jesus goes on to add that part of our being remade,
repurposed into pillars – tangible signs of God’s firm and secure
presence and promises, is that he will write names upon us.
“I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name.”
– Revelation 3:12
And this makes sense if we think about it.
Most of us when we buy something new, we put our name on it
– to identify to anyone else that it belongs to us.
Even when we purchase things digitally, in a sense, we are
putting our name on it – attached ourselves to the possession of that item.
Likewise, Jesus, in claiming and possessing us body, mind, and soul,
and in the spirit of making us new, writes His name on us.
Christ identifies to anyone else that we belong to Him
– that He belongs to us – in three ways.
The first name Jesus etches on our hearts is the name of God
“I will write on them the name of my God…” – Revelation 3:12
– the Triune God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
The name was branded upon us from the moment of our baptism into
the life of the Father, the work of the Son, and the power of the Spirit.
But Jesus also inscribes a second name upon us
“I will write on them…the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God…”
– Revelation 3:12
– the name of where our true citizenship is found
– in the City of God, the New Jerusalem.
This world as it is, is not our home but this world
as it is being changed into a new creation – a new heavens and new earth – the Kingdom of God – this is where our place of residence is
and always shall be.
And finally, Jesus promises to engrave His name upon us
“…and I will also write on them my new name.” – Revelation 3:12
– His name as the faithful and true witness,
His name as the Light of the World that the darkness cannot overcome,
His name as the One who forgives and sets people free,
His name as the One who is victorious and everlasting.
To bear the name of Jesus means what is said of Christ is also said of us.
To keep rather than to deny the name of Jesus is to reflect Christ to others so that when they look at us, they clearly see Jesus – both at work in us and lovingly encountering and serving the world through us.
As we digest this encouraging letter to a church of
no apparent significance or influence
– whose witness isn’t performative, perfect,
or even powerful in the eyes of the world,
let us have ears to hear this is exactly the kind of church
we are called to be – a community single mindedly and wholeheartedly
in Christ – a people who are uncompromising in finding and declaring
that our faith, our love, and our hope are forever found in Jesus alone.
To all those with little power.
To all those with little strength.
To all our youth who perceive themselves as too young
and to all our elderly who’ve convinced themselves they are too old,
and to everyone in between who dares to confront their vulnerability,
their weakness, their powerlessness, and their inadequacy,
rest easy and be comforted for you are
exactly where Jesus wants you to be.
We are right where Christ finally can do some work both in and through us.
For this is the moment, the state when we can see,
when we can walk through the door Jesus has opened for us
– the door that invites us to to believe, to belong and to become,
– the door that promises to forgive and to save us once and for all,
– the door that beckons us to exit the life we’ve known
– of uncertainty and insecurity and to enter into the life of promise and potential that is more than we could ever have imagined or asked for,
– the door that cannot ever be barred or closed or shut to us by anyone or anything in all creation,
– the door of welcome, of finally coming home, of discovering the power and glory of God in Christ that we get to point and lead others towards.
Jesus stands at this door – calling, knocking, inviting, welcoming, beckoning us to come through, let us together without fear or worry, without distraction or hesitation, daily enter in. Amen.