Over the Christmas and New Year holiday, my family and I had the chance to get away and we went up to a cabin in the mighty metropolis of Hot Sulfur Springs.  My whole family was there and we had a great time.  We had planned this pancake breakfast for New Year’s Day.  There was no shortage of texts messages back and forth about the kind of pancakes we were going to eat.  Oatmeal pancakes.  Banana pancakes.  We got up on New Year’s Day with sleep in our eyes and deprivation in our souls because we had stayed up past midnight.  We made the pancakes and were keeping them warm in the oven.  We started putting them out when someone in my family asks, “Did anybody bring the syrup?”  Here’s the question: What do you do when you have a pancake breakfast prepared and you forget the syrup?  Here’s three options:  1) You try to make syrup out of something else.  2) You don’t eat the pancakes.  3) You eat the pancakes plain.  {Ryan has congregation discuss it.}   In my opinion, number three is the only non-option.  You CANNOT eat pancakes plain.  They taste disgusting!  You don’t notice it when you put syrup on it, because syrup makes it all better.  It covers a multitude of sins.  The only reason we have pancakes is so that we can get syrup into our mouth!

I want to talk to you about syrup this morning.  About the one thing that changes everything—with it everything falls into place and without it, nothing else matters.  Open your Bible to Revelation 2.   You’ll remember that we’re starting a series and journeying through the first few chapters of Revelation, where Jesus is writing, through the Apostle John, to specific churches in his day.  He’s giving them encouragement, he’s writing to the context that they’re in uniquely, and he’s got a word, both of commendation, of correction, of instruction for the churches he writes to.  Listen as he begins these letters with a letter to the church at Ephesus:  To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:  ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.     Remember, last week we saw Jesus lifted up, we saw Jesus reigning above, we saw Jesus advocating for, and we saw Jesus walking among the churches, and John wants to reiterate that as he writes to the church at Ephesus.

Ephesus was this city that was one of the preeminent cities in this region of Asia Minor in the ancient world.  If you were to walk down the streets of Ephesus in 90 AD, when John is writing this letter, you would have seen a number of things.  You also would have known your history.  The church at Ephesus had a rich history.  It was begun by the Apostle Paul as he walked into this city and met different people.  He saw demons cast out.  He saw jailers freed.  He saw amazing things in the city of Ephesus.  This church was planted by Paul himself, but it had history, it had attachment.  It was attached to people like Timothy, who Paul writes to; Aquilla and Priscilla spent time there.  John even went back to live there and he sort of used Ephesus as his hub, as a way to pastor and reach all these other churches in the region.  In fact, tradition would tell us that Ephesus is where the Apostle John came to live with Mary, Jesus’s mother, after he began to care for her.  It’s the place where the Apostle Paul spent more time than he spent anywhere else.  For over three years, he spent ministering in Ephesus.

You can see that it’s located down on the sea.  It was the greatest harbor in all of Asia, the biggest harbor.  Which meant that it was also one of the wealthiest cities.  Merchants coming in and going out.  One Roman writer said that the city of Ephesus was ‘the light of all of Asia.’  It was also home to not only a church that was birthed around 40 years before Jesus writes this letter through John to this church, it was also a city that was rampant with idolatry and worship of pagan gods.  Ephesus was home to the temple of Artemis.  She was the Greek goddess of hunting, so you could often see her with her bow and arrow pulled back.  She was also the goddess of fertility and children.  Ironically, the goddess of virginity too.  Artemis was worshipped all around the world at this time.  People would come and flock to Ephesus in order to pay tribute to this goddess.  The temple was 425 feet long and 220 feet wide.  It had 120 columns that were each 60 feet tall.  Can you imagine what it might have been like to come and worship in this place?  Ephesus was also home to the temple of Domitian. A number of cities in the ancient Roman world bid on the ability to create and build the temple where the emperor would be worshipped.  Ephesus won that bid.  It tells you something about their political landscape, does it not?

Ephesus was also, as we said, a bustling town, and it was filled with overachievers.  They had hot and cold running water.  They had a theater that seated 25,000 people.  Can you imagine what it might have been like to go there?  They also had a library, built shortly after John writes this letter, but it tells you something about Ephesus.  One of the greatest libraries in the ancient world, probably only eclipsed by the library in Alexandria.  If you were to walk in the market, you would have held a coin in your hand—-unique to Ephesus that had a picture of a honeybee on it.  For two reasons—-the temple prostitutes that serviced people at the temple of Artemis were considered to be the priestesses and were called honeybees.  But also, Ephesus prided itself on being a hard-working, fast-charging city.  They were ‘busy bees,’ if you will.   And their money proved it.

So when Jesus writes to this church uniquely, after roughly forty years of being a church and trying to follow the way of Jesus in a city like Ephesus, there’s some things he wants to say to them.  There’s some instruction that he wants to give them, and, I think, as we listen to what he says to them, there might be some things that he wants to say to us.  Here’s the way this passage continues (Rev. 2:2-4) — I know your works, your toil… {Just a quick time out.  This word ‘toil’ is the most emphatic way you can say that you’re trying to get something done, in the original Greek language.  So you’re putting your heart, your sweat, your soul, and your mind in accomplishing this.}  ….and your patient endurance,  {In the Greek, it’s this word ‘hupomone.’  It means you live under the weight of something and you continue to move forward.  You’re working your hands to the bone and you’re remaining under the weight of all the outside things that are pushing in—the temple of Artemis and the temple of Domitian, and the busy bee society.}  …and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not,  {It was commanded by Paul to the elders at Ephesus  that they would do this.  You can read about it in Acts 20:9.}  …and found them to be false.  {Man, you are sniffing out the heretic and you are kicking them out of the church!  Good work!}  I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.

Good deeds?  Check.  Good discipline?  Check.  Good doctrine?  Check.  Good determination?  Check.  We’ve got it all!  At this point, the Ephesian church may be going well, where’s the confetti?  Let’s raise our glasses, we are nailing this thing!  Praise the Lord!  Make no mistake about it, all of these things are really, really good things.  In fact, all of these things are very, very commanded things….the things they’re told they have to do.  But they’re pancakes.  They’re pancakes….without the syrup.  They’re not a whole lot of good.  Which is why Jesus then follows it with this one word…..this HUGE, short word…..BUT.  Like, you’ve stuck the dismount on all of these things, but you’re in the wrong event.  Without this one thing, everything else sort of falls to the wayside.  Nothing else really matters if you don’t get this one thing.  It’s the syrup for the pancakes, if you will.  It’s this word in the Greek, allá, which means it’s setting a contrast.  It’s like an emphatic conjunction.  Like, okay, you did all these great things, but….but I have this against you.  Which you never want to hear.  It’s like Jesus is saying look up at me, write this down, don’t miss this.  I have this against you.  I died for you and I have this against you.  I walk among you and I’ve got this against you.  You’ve abandoned, you’ve walked away from….    But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. (v. 4)  The love that you had for God, the love that you had for others, the love that defined you, the love that shaped you, the love that you held to as the greatest command, some how got on the same level as everything else.

So hear Jesus’s words, but hear his passion, hear his love in saying I’ve got this against you.  There’s this sickness of heart, there’s this cancer that you can’t see that’s eventually going to kill you.  You’ve grown cold.  Maybe they lost their love for evangelism, maybe they lost their love for a lot of other things, but before they lost their love for anything else, they lost their love for other people, and they lost their love for God.  Here’s what we start to learn about the way that Jesus is calling us to live in this world — God didn’t create us to be duty-driven robots, he designed us to be passionately loving people.  {Ryan asks congregation to say it together with a mirror down in their soul to question whether they’re duty-driven or passionately loving.}  So, why in the world does God redeem you and I?  Is it so that we would have good deeds, good doctrine, good discipline?  That’s part of the story.  He wants us to live as a light on the hill.  He wants us to hold to things that are true, and to shape our lives around reality, not some farce that’s a lie and like a weight around our shoulders.  More than anything else, he loves us so that we might love him and others in return.  That’s at the heart of it all.  I love the way C.S. Lewis said it: “Every Christian would agree that a man’s spiritual health is exactly proportional to his love for God.”  I think part of what happened might be that they confused the gospel with response to the gospel, and they started to worship the response rather than the news itself.

This passage hit me afresh this week as I was thinking about the absolute, astounding nature of the statement Jesus is making.  You’ve probably heard it.  You may have heard it at a wedding.  You may have read it at a renewal of a vow or something, but listen to what Paul says to the church at Corinth — If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, {So I have wisdom from below and from above, and what I’m saying is true.} …but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  {Did you know that whether or not people actually hear the words you say is not solely determined by the content of what you say, but the affection and the heart with how you say it?}   And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  {He goes if you want to have influence—and we think influence comes from our understanding and our knowledge and our faith—LOVE.  It doesn’t matter what else you do if you don’t love.}   If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1-3)

So here’s the deal, friends, I spent a lot of time trying to think through how, how, HOW could this happen to a church like Ephesus?  I also wanted to ask the question:  How can this happen to a person like me?  How can this happen to a person like you?  There’s two things that stood out to me.  One is TIME.  Have you ever noticed the way that consistency has the ability to erode curiosity?  Or that faithfulness has the unique ability to erode wonder?  I’ve done a number of weddings, and I’ve seen people stand in front of each other with this glazed, sort of puppy dog look in their eyes.  They pledge their devotion, and they make a commitment, and they enter into a covenant.  Every wedding I do now, I encourage people to just pause and to remember that the magnificence of this moment will one day be normal.  You’ll wake up next to each other the next morning and that’ll be like oh my goodness, I can’t believe I get to wake up to this person that I love, and we don’t have to say good-bye anymore, and we don’t have to talk on the phone anymore, praise Jesus….    And one day it’ll become normal.  Why?  Because consistency erodes passion over time.

The other thing that happened to the Ephesian church, I think, is that they were living in a society where they had to continually fight for their faith.  They were pressed in on every side, it says.  They walked through pain.  Sometimes when you’re walking through pain, you do everything you can just to make it through.  One foot in front of the other.  It’s a coping mechanism.  We just shut down places of our hearts so that we can continue to make it.  And they made it.  Good discipline, good deeds, good doctrine, good determination. . . . .they made it! But they lost a piece of what made them.  Pain and time have the unique ability to turn us into duty-driven robots, because loving, over time, when God’s faithfulness and love is so consistent, we can lose sight of it.  Or maybe it’s just walking through pain and we’ve just got to get through it.  {Can I encourage you to write this down?}  Our affections determine the effectiveness of our actions.

Over the next few minutes, I just want to dive in and say how might this have happened?  Let’s dive into the drift and dissect how does it happen for them and how might it happen for us.  Here’s the first thing that probably happens for the Ephesian church — Good things supersede ultimate things.  Had heresy hunting killed love?  Had hard work for God substituted life with God?  Was orthodoxy achieved at the expense of fellowship?  I don’t know if the bee symbolizes Ephesus and the Ephesian church, but I think a lot of us can relate to this idea of good things superseding ultimate things, because we live in a busy society and a busy culture, don’t we?  It can be easy to fill our life with as many things as we want to fill our life with.  You ask somebody now, “How you doing?”  The response used to be, “Good. How are you?”  Now, it’s “Busy! How are you?”   I had to remind myself that the busy life is not necessarily the productive life, number one.  Busyness and productivity are two very different things.  But also, the busy life is the distracted life.  We’re just letting everything push in on us and everything becomes important, and if everything’s important, nothing is.  I think that might be what happened to the Ephesian church.  They got busy being ‘the church.’  They got busy doing church.  I don’t know about you, but in taking kids to sporting events, maybe it’s even going to things at church, or going to things in your neighborhood, or working to the bone in order to keep things afloat financially. . . . .can it be easy to lose our heart in a noisy world?  Maybe, just maybe, let me throw out a practice you could try this week if this is something you wrestle with.  Maybe this week, you choose one day and you take a media-fast day, and you say, “I’m just going to quiet the noise, and I’m going to try to get back to the things God’s inviting me to that stir my soul, that feed my soul.”  The ancient Hebrews had a way of doing this.  Every morning and every evening they would say the Shema — Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God….. Every morning.  Every evening.  These are the anchors and bookends in their life.  This is what we’re about.  We’re about loving God.   Maybe we need those same bookends.

Here’s the second thing that happens.  Religiosity supplants (or takes over) intimacy.  We move towards religiosity because it’s a lot easier to control God than it is to connect with God.  Let me say it again because I think it’s important to us.   It’s a lot easier to control God than it is to connect with God.  There’s two ways that I’ve seen myself, at least, maybe you’ve seen yourself in this as well, try to control God.  Or maybe it’s even control God and the people around us.  Here’s trap number one:  It’s called the performance trap.  That’s what religiosity tells us.  It’s PERFORM.  Do all the things — good deeds, good doctrine, good discipline, good determination.  Yes!  Triple axle and he sticks it!!  Perform!  Religion says perform and produce, Jesus says abide and rest.  You can have one or the other as the focus of your life, but you cannot have both.  We use religiosity and we use performance as a way to protect ourselves.  The question in the back of our mind is “Am I good enough?”  Do I add up?  So we protect ourselves from pain.  We protect ourselves from being let down by others.  And if we can play the part, no one has to see our heart.  Right?  You want a litmus test. . . . .We know we’ve fallen prey to performance when we’d rather be praised than known.  Listen to the way that Jesus talks to the Pharisees:  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.  So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matt. 23:27-28)  His invitation is just drop the mask!  That’s the performance trap.

There’s a programmed (faith) trap.  This is the approach to faith that says if it works for me, it should work for everyone else.  You just plug into the equation.  If you would get up every morning and read your Bible for a half hour, THEN you would. . .fill in the blank.  Works for me, so it should work for everyone else.  Here’s the deal, friends, the spiritual journey that you and Jesus and the people around you get to walk is as unique as every person in this room.  There’s some things we can put in place, certainly, that the Bible invites us to have in our life, but the reality is that you’re going to connect with God a little bit differently than I do, and that’s okay.  We’ve just got to keep the end in mind.  The end is Jesus.  It’s why Jesus will say to the Pharisees:  You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39)  Jesus is saying that you can read all the Bible you want, but if you don’t have the right goal in mind, it will not do you any good.  He’s going, “It points to me!”  In fact, the longer you go in on this ‘just study, just study, just study,’ probably the colder you get.  The invitation is to Him.

Here’s the third reason:  We forget the why behind the what.  Simon Sinek did a TED Talk (I believe it was in 2009) called Start with Why that has had 25 million views over the last number of years.  Because he’s hitting on something that’s transcendent within all of us.  We know we should begin asking the question “Why?” but it’s so easy to just land on “What?”   Let me just push on you a little bit.  You know it’s easy to go home without being home.  We forget the why.  We disconnect, we disengage.  We know that it’s easy to physically be in a place without actually being present there, don’t we?  We forget the why behind the what.  That’s a great question to ask, every time you walk through these doors, “Why am I here?”  Why gather on a weekly basis, why build this into the rhythm of my life and my soul?  Why am I here?  We know that it’s easy to have a child.  It’s not easy to be a parent.  There’s a why behind the what.  Sometimes we lose sight of it, don’t we?

If you’re thinking maybe that’s me, here’s a litmus test for you.  How do we know if we’ve maybe drifted to the same place that the Ephesian church drifted?  Is it hard for you to experience joy?  Maybe you’ve drifted.  Are silence and solitude things that you avoid like the plague rather than pursue like a lifeline?  Can you go through a worship time like we had this morning and be untouched and unmoved?  Do you find yourself resistant and exhausted by times of serving rather than seeing that you’re connected to the greater mission that God is inviting you to live?  Do you feel under-appreciated, unappreciated, maybe a little bit bitter, a little bit cynical, a little bit judgmental?  Do you see people in need and remain unmoved by it?  I think maybe what may have happened to the Ephesian church is that they were far more interested in being right than they were about being loving.  Something happens over time—-people become a problem to solve rather than an invitation to step into.  They drifted.

Jesus doesn’t just hang them out to dry and go you should try harder and do better.  He gives them very specific instruction.  Remember, commendation:  good deeds, good doctrine, good discipline, good determination.  Then condemnation:  You’ve left your love you had at first.  Then instruction:  Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.  If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Rev. 2:5)   He gives them three things to do.  We’re going to press into these today.  I’m going to invite you, at the end of our service, to say, “God, will you fall afresh on me?”  Let’s open ourselves up to God doing that, because I think there’s probably some of us that need to go through this process.  If we can admit, man, I’ve grown cold, God will meet us in that place.  But if we continue to wear the masks, we’ll continue to hold him at arm’s length.

Here’s what he says first:  Remember the height from which you’ve fallen.  Ephesian church, remember?  Remember when you’d take your scrolls and you’d take your idols and you’d burn them?  Thousands of dollars worth of scrolls and idols burned in the city streets, because you were so ferociously passionate about Jesus? Someone’s great programs replaced passionate faith.  Remember.  I just sensed God saying to me this week, Ryan, remember when you used to walk onto high school campuses, unashamedly, and shared Jesus with whomever you made eye contact with?  Remember that?  I have this old NIV Study Bible; I got it out this week just to look at it and smell it to remember what it was like as an 18-year-old high school graduate to fall in love with Jesus at my table at the house I grew up in.  Man!  What was it for you?  Do you remember?

Then he says repent.  It’s a change of mind.  There’s maybe some baggage you picked up along the way.  Like, maturity means boring.  Right?  So in order to be mature I have to leave the joy that I had at first; I’ve got to become polished and professional and I’ve got to have it all together.  Repent of that.  It’s from the pit of hell.  It’s a change of mind.  Maybe through time and maybe because of pain we’ve started to carry some baggage that Jesus didn’t intend for us to carry.  This is a beautiful word.  It means that because of however cold you’ve grown, there’s an invitation home.  So change your mind.

Then Jesus says, okay, those things you used to do?  Do them again.  Whatever those were, do them again.  Maybe this week, you just take some time and you think back through. . . . .if you’ve been walking with Jesus for a while, you think back what were some of those things?  Maybe you flip back through an old Bible or an old journal and you go, what was going on inside of me when I first started to walk with You?  Maybe you ask some people who you were journeying with during that season of your life, “What did you see in me when I first met Jesus?”  They may say, “Oh man, I saw somebody who was legalistic and I saw someone who was struggling.”  Can I just say. . . . .You don’t want to go back to that place.  Maybe there’s some beautiful things that they saw and maybe you just take a few minutes this week and write down some of those things.  Maybe God’s inviting you to repent, to change your mind.  To change your mind from playing religious games rather than walking with the person of Jesus.  If that’s you, can I encourage you, maybe this week, to choose not to embellish the truth in order to make yourself look better.  We do this all the time!  Maybe you choose not to go there this week and to think through it first.  Maybe people have become a problem to solve rather than an invitation from God to step into.  What if this week you found one way to generously express care to somebody who’s different than you?  Maybe even to someone who’s frustrating to you?  Maybe somebody who you’ve walked past for the last however many weeks, because generosity is one distinction of being a loving person—loving God, loving others.  Maybe this week you share your love for Jesus with somebody. . . . . rejecting having a private faith.  It doesn’t have to be weird or awkward.  If it’s real for you, it’ll come out in a real way.  Which one is it?

Here’s the way Jesus closes this letter — Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  To the one who conquers {To the one who overcomes.  To the one who fights the tendency to grow cold, who stokes their spiritual fire through remembering, repenting, and redoing. . . .to those people, the overcomers, he says….} I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.   Real quickly, then we’re going to land the plane.  The Ephesians would have seen a ‘tree of life’ as something that was in the temple of Artemis.  They had trees of life.  They were trees of salvation, they were trees of hope.  There was a deification of these trees and Jesus has this sort of play on images. . . . . You want to go to that tree or do you want to go to the eternal life tree?  He’s going, “That’s my tree.”  In Revelation 22:2 it says:  The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  So this is Jesus’s invitation — Return, return, return to your first love.  Without love, nothing else matters.  With love, everything else falls into place.  

I’m going to have Aaron come out and lead us in a song.  We’re going to pray it and ask God to stir our affection for Him.  I’m going to invite our prayer team to be available around the room.   I’d like people to be able to say, I want somebody else to pray for me; I want to enter into this journey of saying, “God, there’s some things I believe about you, there’s some places I’ve grown cold, and I just want you to stir in me.”  As Aaron and I were coming back from Africa, a few weeks ago, we had the chance to spend a few hours in Paris.  We walked around and saw these beautiful cathedrals.  We walked into Notre Dame and we’re like, “This is not South Fellowship Church!”  But I’ll tell you what, there’s more people gathered here today than there are there.  The outside looks great, but the inside’s grown cold.  It doesn’t just happen in buildings, it doesn’t just happen in movements, it happens in people too.  Maybe for you, the outside looks great, but the inside is sort of being hollowed out.  It’s grown cold.  I want to invite you to be honest, and then to be responsive.  To say, “God, if your invitation is that there’s a road home here, I want to walk it.”  We’re going to use the last few minutes of our service to just ask God to minister.

I’ll invite you stand up. . . . .or maybe you can get down on your knees.  I’m going to invite our prayer team and elders to get in place, and if you’d like somebody to pray with and for you, I’m going to encourage you during this last song to make that step and say, “God, I want you to move in my heart again.”   Let’s do some business with God.  Spirit of God, it’s a beautiful thing that you don’t just want us to be duty-driven, robotic, perfectly-behaved Christians, but you want us to be passionately loving people.  We want that too.  So would you stir us up?  We’re open.  Would you stir us up?  Would you show us where we’ve gone off course?  Would you invite us back?  We pray it in the name of Jesus.  Amen.