Advent Theme: Strength
Here’s a question: What should I do when it’s hard to read the scriptures? I mean, I understand the words, but the images and phrases are complicated and then my eyes are moving, but my head is somewhere else.
Answer: Firstly, you’re not alone. When I was in seminary and we had to read hundreds of verses a day to keep up in class, we often complained to each other. Professor Carolyn Sharp once said, “Remember, when you are serving a congregation, how hard it is to read the Bible and show kindness and sympathy to the people who are looking to you.”
Secondly, almost the entire Bible was written for the ear, not the eye. It is a visual presentation of an auditory message. Read it out loud to yourself or, better yet, use an app or a recording to listen to the Bible. I do that! I use the app “NRSV Bible for Everyone” on my phone (iPhone) because that’s my preferred translation. You can find almost any translation via app or CD, tape, or audiobook for download.
Third and last, pray before and after you read. God has given the gift of the scripture in the vernacular, our own regular language. Ask this same God to help you understand what you can handle at this time and to grow your understanding throughout your life.
Now, let us soldier on to chapter 3 and the churches at Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. The people at Philadelphia have remained faithful, despite struggle; however, followers of the Way of Christ in Sardis and Laodicea have slipped off the path. In Sardis, the Christians have abandoned the work of discipleship. The Philadelphians have become lukewarm, rather blah and blasé about Jesus.
You may have noticed the use of the word “conquer” quite frequently in these passages. In some church traditions, the phrase “overcomers” is also associated with Revelation and the members of these churches. What is being conquered or overcome if one remains faithful to life in Christ?
The Holy Spirit strengthens the faithful in bearing the spiritual fruits that Paul mentions in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When we bear these fruits, through the Spirit, we overcome their opposites- the withering weeds of hate, despair, war, frustration, meanness, pettiness, infidelity, harshness, and lack of restraint. Carrying the fruits of the Spirit into the world strengthens a believer to resist the pull of consumerism, impropriety, and idolatry. When we successfully resist, we overcome! We conquer for Christ!
Jesus, through John’s revelation, is speaking to the leaders of the churches, reminding them of the importance of their witness. They are meant to shine a light of hope and truth into a culture that treats the emperor like a god and orients all commerce, worship, and activity toward him (the emperor). That kind of idolatry is not acceptable if one has truly embraced the lifestyle of Christianity. The churches at Sardis and Laodicea must overcome the temptations to take what seems easier, yielding to the pull of the world’s priorities. They must refocus on God’s call and renewal, overcoming their dissipation and living a life that shows forth the joy of their salvation!
Potential takeaways: We are not really that different from these early Christians. The shape of modern life, particularly in the Western world, can pull us toward wanting more stuff, being busier, and creating idols of political, social, and entertainment figures that do not actually have any interest in our wellbeing. What do you need to do to overcome the temptations that are in your life? Are you lukewarm in your discipleship or faith? Are you weighed down with grief or doubt and need help to overcome? The same Christ who offers help to the churches in Revelation can help you and me- probably through one another. (Definitely through one another.)
Holy God, all glory and honor belong to you. Through Jesus Christ, the pioneer of our faith, you have forged a path of joy and peace for me to walk. This path will take me to places where you have gifted me the ability to serve the needs I will meet. Your Spirit will also meet my needs on this journey. Strengthen me to overcome my own fears and world-weariness, that I may continue to find hope and good in this world, even as I know it has been established in the next. In Christ’s name, Amen.