Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Challenge of Thyatira: Sermon on Revelation 2:18-29

With doom around the corner, the Queen-Mother of Israel took a deep breath, steadied her nerves, and finished applying her make-up. She'd use every trick she had to make it through this alive. After she'd dolled herself up and slipped into her most revealing outfit, she slinked to the open window and watched as the horses carried the hot-headed general Jehu and his top soldiers within sight. The queen-mother tried her best to seduce and entice him. But he wouldn't listen. So she taunted him, reminding him of another general, Zimri, who'd murdered his way to the throne and lasted just a week. But Jehu would be neither seduced nor intimidated. Yet she stood in a firm fortress, surely safe and secure, until he called out for any supporters within the fortress to help him. From behind, she felt the familiar hands of three eunuchs grab her roughly. Her balance toppled, her heart rate soared as she tumbled out the window. As the ground approached so fast, her life flashed before her eyes.

She'd been born not quite fifty years before, in a city in her Phoenician homeland, when Ashtar-rom, the third of four brothers, was king over the city of Tyre. Her father Ithobaal was the chief priest of Ashtart, the fierce goddess of war and fertility and sexuality. She, his daughter, remembered flickers of those days – how her father oversaw the temple where men and women would come, fulfilling religious vows by offering their bodies to any comer. But she was still a young girl, and her brother Baal-eser still a young boy, when she remembered the news that King Ashtar-rom's brother had killed him and seized the throne. Her father had at first tried to make peace with the new situation, but he saw his chance and went for it. Ithobaal, that cunning man, himself carried out the assassination and became the new king. Baal-eser became a prince. And as for Jezebel, it was her turn to be the princess. She was raised in luxury. Her people had a lock on half the sea trade of the whole Mediterranean, exporting not just that rare commodity purple dye, but wine, glass, cedar wood, and slaves. In her pre-teen years, she remembers what it was like to be part of the Phoenician elite. The upper class – people like her and her father and her brother – gathered in what they called marzeh societies, where they held meals of fellowship with plenty of wine and sacrifices in honor of the dead. A wonderful excuse for a party.

Jezebel was a teenager when Ithobaal took her aside one day and talked about the importance of strengthening diplomatic ties with their southern neighbor, a country called Israel. They had a new king there, Ahab, whose late father Omri – like Ithobaal himself – had wrenched power away from a king before him. And to make the two powers allies, Jezebel was to be married to this Ahab. She remembered the splendor of their wedding day, though she had to admit that her new husband proved to be weaker in will than she expected. Not respectable – but certainly manipulable. With her alluring girlish charms and crafty politicking mind, Jezebel also brought a deep and heartfelt zeal for the gods her father had taught her to love, Baal and Ashtart and the rest. And to her new country she was accompanied by a large entourage of fellow devotees, with whom she promised to keep the spirit of the marzeh feasts alive by hosting these prophets at her royal table with plenty of food and wine.

Jezebel found it wasn't too hard – not with her looks, not with her temptations – to bend her husband to her will. At her request, he built shrines and altars for her gods, putting up a dressed stone for Baal and wooden asherah posts to mimic Ashtart's sacred grove. She had little interest in her husband's country's God; she would keep to her own, though she conceded to a few token compromises, like honoring his God in the names of their children (of whom she gave him plenty). But she hated dissent, and when her gods were blasphemed by spokesmen for the God of Israel, it boiled her blood and then made it run cold. Bringing to bear all her parents taught her, she arranged the deaths of those she could catch. One day, after three years of drought, her husband rushed home ahead of the relieving storm, to sheepishly admit to her that he'd accepted a challenge from Elijah and brought her prophets to Mount Carmel, and that Elijah had gotten the mob on his side in a contest of gods, and that he'd put her prophets to death just like she'd done to all his friends. Furious, her threats chased Elijah into the desert.

In time, her husband came to her in their palace in the royal capital Samaria, sullen and disappointed. Naboth, a land-owner in Jezreel, neighbor to their palace-fortress there, wouldn't sell his vineyard to be Ahab's garden. It exasperated her to see her royal husband fold so quickly. Slipping away, she dictated letters in his name and sealed them with his signet ring, ordering the elders of Jezreel to hire unscrupulous men to falsely accuse Naboth of blasphemy and treason, so that they could hold a show trial and stone him to death. Easy. Once it was done, she told her husband the problem had been dealt with. Elijah predicted doom. Jezebel scoffed.

Three years later, she got the fateful news. Her husband, in his wars against the Arameans, had been shot by an arrow. They'd hosed his bloody chariot off by the pool. He hadn't made it. Her eldest son Ahaziah rose to the throne, and Jezebel transitioned from queen to queen-mother. Two years after that, Ahaziah fell through some weak construction and was badly hurt. He sent messengers to Ekron to ask the god Baal what would happen, but Elijah intercepted them and spoke death. When Ahaziah died, his younger brother Jehoram took the throne. He'd always been her problem child, rejecting her religion. He tore down the standing-stone of Baal outside her palace, and he had a grudging respect for Elisha. In time, Jehoram went to war against the Arameans again, and he was hurt in battle and withdrew to Jezreel to recuperate. That's where she and he were when a commander named Jehu, gone rogue at Elisha's bidding, stormed Jezreel, killing Jehoram and then marching on the palace. Then it was all the tumble out the window, the bloody scene sprinkling the wall and ground, the final sensation of horse hooves trampling over her and the sound of thirsty dogs barking as they run over from the alleys. In the days to come, Jehu would execute all Jezebel's children, bringing a brutal end to the predicted judgment against the faithless queen-mother and her notorious bewitching and violence. Her brother Baal-eser, by then king of Tyre, wasn't long for life either, though Jezebel's nephew and grand-nephew would be next for power.

Shift the scene, nine centuries later, to an obscure town nestled by a small river in the heart of a broad valley, flanked by gentle hills. Notoriously vulnerable, it had been captured and recaptured with every shift in the wind and had only gained stability with the rise of Rome. Ethnically and religiously mixed, the city was a swirling concoction of languages and philosophies, all blended smoothly and jumbled haphazardly together. The city I mean is Thyatira. And under the Roman peace, it flourished. Where Jezebel's Tyre had been filled with marzeh societies, Thyatira was filled to overflowing with the synergasiai, guilds tying together those in the same line of business. And Thyatira had more active guilds than any other town. We have inscriptions from dyers, leather cutters, leather tanners, linen workers, launderers, bakers, potters, coppersmiths, athletes, entertainers, slave-merchants. Without being unionized as part of the guild, good luck getting by in Thyatira – you might as well throw in the towel. And just as the marzeh societies of Tyre met for their raucous fellowship-meals, so too did the ancient guilds of Thyatira meet for guild dinners, which included sacrifices in honor of their chosen god. And dinners could readily end with sexual entertainment provided by slave-boys and slave-girls. That was simply normal. Pagan worship and sexual libertinism were woven into the vibrant diversity of local industry.

Late in the first century, John took down a letter as Jesus dictated one to the church in Thyatira. And Jesus had some intensely positive things to say about them. “I know your works,” he said: “your love” – that's certainly good – and faith” – that's good, too – and service” – that's remarkable – and patient endurance” – the list keeps going on – and that your latter works exceed the first” (Revelation 2:19). While most of the churches hearing Revelation are commended for many one or two things, the Thyatiran church is overflowing with great things. They have the patient endurance of Ephesus and Philadelphia, but unlike Ephesus, they aren't forgetting the love. They have the faith of some in Pergamum. They have service, which nobody else is said to have. Yet unlike Ephesus, which had been a church on the decline, the Thyatiran church is actually getting better at all these things – they're like a church in the midst of revival, ascending from grace to grace and glory to glory! It really is looking up for the Thyatiran church, which seems like an astonishing model.

And yet Jesus does bring up one complaint. As it turns out, there's a prominent and prosperous businesswoman in the Thyatiran church – perhaps she's the patroness who sponsors a house church meeting in her home. She's fashionable and trendy and charismatic, and forceful and opinionated and articulate. She's the sort of woman everybody wants to get to know. Not only that, but she seems like she has spiritual gifts – she at least presents herself as a prophetess, standing up on a Sunday to give words she claims to have received, and no one dare bid her sit back down. But she was also, controversially, involved in her business's guild. And in her oracles, she proclaimed a lot about Christian freedom – how those who had real spiritual insight, those who knew the secrets and 'deep things,' could see that there's nothing wrong with participating in guilds and their meals and whatever goes on at those meals. After all, she said, it isn't what the body does that matters, it's what the heart does; and if the heart knows the truth, then the body can insincerely offer incense or pour out bowls of wine, can even take part in the sexual excesses of the drinking parties, and those things have no power over the free believing soul.

An inspiring message, maybe, from the sound of it. But Jesus takes a different view. As John presents us with his message, Jesus labels this woman a new Jezebel. Just as the old one seduced Ahab and Israel into corruption and idolatry and looser living, so does the new one. “I have this against you,” Jesus says to the Thyatirans – “that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (Revelation 2:20). It's an influence on the church that's as foreign as a Phoenician princess slipping into the palace to become queen.

Jesus does not at all agree with this new Jezebel's view of the body and the heart. God gave humans the gift of sexuality to allow us to form living parables of the fruitful harmony of Christ and the Church – parables we call marriages. But debased and deformed sexuality, like the frivolously misdirected sort encouraged by Jezebel, can preach only lies and deface the creation of God. It cannot call out with a clear voice to beauty, goodness, and truth. (One Christian sociologist remarks that sex outside the context that God defines as healthy is like stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and taping it to the wall of an unhygienic public restroom: Its beauty is desecrated by its wrong context, so who can still appreciate it for the masterpiece it is?) And for the same reason Jesus disagrees with Jezebel about sex, Jesus also disagrees with Jezebel about conscience and loyalty and liberty and idolatry and table fellowship and witness. And in all such disagreements, Jezebel is wrong, for Jesus is supremely right. Jesus offers so much more than the thin permissiveness of a Jezebel. His ways are good news, even if we sustain some bumps and bruises along the steep and narrow road.

Faced with a 'New Jezebel' in the Thyatiran church, John and other church leaders have tried before to talk to her, to correct her, to teach her rightly. Out of love, they've tried to shepherd her into repentance. But there are always some in a church who refuse to hear any authority besides their own thoughts. And this woman is like that. She's gained followers, swept away some in her house church and the other house churches in the city. She's proud. She's insistent. John's told her that all she'd have to do, all those duped by her would have to do, is repent – just turn around, drop the rationalizations, and come back to the pathway of life, and they'd be restored brand new, any of them, even her! But, as Jesus says, “I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:21). Her heart is unyielding as stone in the face of correction.

In the days of the prophet Jeremiah, his Judah was a lot like Jezebel's Israel. Those people were devoted to their own “altars and asherim,” just as Jezebel had induced Ahab to build for her (Jeremiah 17:2). Faced with the people's addiction to their fertility rituals under the green trees and on the high hills, and knowing the vastly different outcomes of faith and faithlessness and the way Judah wavered between them, Jeremiah had cried out, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick – who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). To which God had answered the prophet back: “I, Yahweh, search the heart and test the kidneys, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:10). And now, in a city where Jezebel has claimed to know the 'deep things,' Jesus answers that he knows the real depths – the depths of the murky human heart. Because Jesus is the God of Israel whom the original Jezebel fought. And Jesus, with his “eyes like a flame of fire” (Revelation 2:18), can say, “I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (Revelation 2:23). He is the God who spoke to Jeremiah. He is the God who sees and scrutinizes, the God who evaluates from the inside-out, the God who measures out what matches.

The first Jezebel did not meet a good end. The prophet Elijah had warned that it would come, and so Elisha told Jehu to “strike down the house of Ahab your master, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets and the blood of all the servants of Yahweh, for the whole house of Ahab shall perish, and I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. … And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and none shall bury her” (2 Kings 9:7-10). And so Jesus promises that, if this woman in Thyatira wants to be a New Jezebel, then he'll be the New Jehu: “I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation (unless they repent of her works), and I will strike her children dead” – that is, those who are hopelessly devoted to being her disciples instead of Christ's (Revelation 2:22-23). Jesus has just one thing to blame the Thyatiran church for, and it's giving her a platform. The believers of Thyatira, on the whole, may be right-thinking and right-doing, but when it comes to this particular woman and what she's saying, they're spineless for tolerating her. If a church meets in her house, they need to move. If a church relies on her offerings, they need to learn to do without. Because she should have been formally disciplined long ago.

See, I'll let you in on a secret. We pastors have a way of talking sometimes, and there's a phrase some of us use when somebody leaves the church after being a hindrance to the church's ministry and harmony for a while. It's what we call a 'blessed subtraction' – the church growing in blessing by the subtraction of someone who just was not helping. And, well, the Thyatiran church needs a big ol' blessed subtraction when it comes to Jezebel and her acolytes, and Jesus warns that he'll do it himself if he has to. Yet most of the Thyatiran church, while they may hesitate to confront Jezebel, nonetheless don't buy what she's selling. “To the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the 'deep things' (of Satan!) – to you I say: I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come” (Revelation 2:24-25). Just keep on-track yourselves, live in real holiness of faith and love and service and endurance, keep progressing in those things and don't slide back, and Jesus asks them only to stand clear of Jezebel and let him work.

But maybe you're wondering what this passage has to say to us. But it's actually pretty familiar. We live in a world today where authority is accorded, not to those who have qualifications, but to those who can present themselves in a certain way. Self-appointed 'influencers' are heeded because of their personal experiences or their persona. Some have called it “the death of expertise.” All sorts of people are writing books and articles about their version of the Christian faith and what's wrong with the others – and whether people listen to them has little relation to whether they actually know and agree with the Bible. (Who writes the devotionals and books we read and the songs we hear on the radio? Why should we accord them authority?) When we consider what Thyatira and its own self-appointed influencer might have been like, it's familiar.

One might think, for instance, of the late Rachel Held Evans, an ex-Evangelical who became a progressive Episcopalian. She published an assortment of books about her take on Christian life and the Bible, and she celebrated those who thanked her writings for tickling their ears in just the ways they wanted. She regarded the church's teaching about sexuality and marriage to be an injustice, and she vocally favored loosening those teachings – to, among other things, affirm homosexuality. (Other popular influencers like Jen Hatmaker have trod the same path.) Why did people listen to her? Her experiences, her persona, her writing style, and the fact that she tickled their ears. Many of her readers reacted very angrily to her death – for earlier this year, Evans had a bad reaction to medication, was put in an induced coma, and died on the day of my wedding.

Among the other trendy influencers in her orbit is Nadia Bolz-Weber, a foul-mouthed Lutheran ex-pastor of a church in Colorado. Her latest book is the first since her divorce, and in it she attacks what she calls the “stale and oppressive sexual ethic” of the church. She calls the church to “reach for a new Christian sexual ethic” that would affirm people as “sexual beings in endless variety” and would make allowance for things like “ethically sourced porn[ography].” Her summons is one to what she describes as “shamelessness.” How does she deal with the Bible? In her book, she tells the story of a friend who ripped a Bible apart, kept the Gospels, and threw every other page into a fire. Approving of the story, Bolz-Weber remarks that “we can decide for ourselves what is sacred in the Bible and what is not.” And from there, Bolz-Weber frees herself up to teach what our passage labels “the deep things of Satan.” Self-appointed influencers in today's church teach the same things that were seducing Christians in Thyatira, and they have their avid defenders today, too, like Jezebel's children.

Maybe we're tempted to think that, well, of course we'll hear about that from the mainline churches – everyone knows what they're like, you might say. But can anyone honestly say that we Evangelicals haven't also been seduced? After all, we hear last week how 12% of Evangelical Christians refuse the notion that the Bible has any authority to tell them what they must do. One sociologist reports the results of assorted recent surveys, and the figures are dire. He observes that up to 41% of Evangelical adults say they see nothing wrong with sex outside of marriage; that 86% of never-married Evangelical adult women have had at least one sexual partner since age 18, while a full 57% have had three or more. And if we focus on the younger crowd, it gets worse, as emerging adults – even professing Christian ones – tend to believe that moral authority comes from the heart.

The sociologist found that among unmarried Evangelical teens ages 15-17, more than four in ten had already been sexually active – and of those four in ten, about a third had had four or more sexual partners. In the older set, aged 18-22, 74% had been sexually active, and of those who'd had sex, a little less than half had four or more sexual partners. And while it's true that weekly church attenders did better, between a quarter and a third of young Evangelicals hardly ever gather with the church. And even among young Evangelicals who are in church on a Sunday each week, the figures aren't good: among 18- to 22-year-old never-married Evangelical youth who attend at least weekly, a little over half have had sex outside of marriage already. Even of those Evangelical youth who do remain abstinent, when asked their reason, only about half mention God or morality.

Those are kids like your grandkids. That is the rising generation of the Evangelical church. They will be discipled, but are they being discipled for Jesus or for Jezebel? It's a symptom of a problem that touches every generation in the Evangelical movement today. With figures like these, it's no wonder there should be many among us searching for a Jezebel to tickle our ears about what's already tempting. Because we can't forget that, in Thyatira, those who let the New Jezebel dupe them were mostly responding to very natural temptations. They wanted to keep their social roles, and stay in business, and keep their friends, and unwind at parties, and cut loose a little. It wasn't all depraved lust. They were complex motivations not so much different from what motivates you or I daily, perhaps. They just wanted to keep their standard of living and enjoy themselves, and so any twisted theology that showed them how to rationalize what they felt – well, it was a bestseller straight out of the box. They did not want following Jesus to seem like being stifled.

But what they and we have to know is that the Jesus who stands, arisen from the tomb, on “feet like burnished bronze,” is the Jesus whose “eyes like a flame of fire” surveyed every sinful mind and heart from the cross and said, “Send it over here; pin it to me; I'll carry it and show you a better way.” This is the Jesus whom God gloriously claims as his own Son, and to whom God has given all authority in heaven and on earth (cf. Matthew 28:18). This Jesus is the king to whom God offers the nations as a heritage and the ends of earth as a possession (Psalm 2:8), the Jesus whom God has enthroned on his holy hill – from Calvary to the heavenly Zion (Psalm 2:6). This Jesus is a star and a scepter, exercising dominion and issuing edicts of life (Numbers 24:17-19). He says what things must be. Purity is what Jesus says it is. Holiness is what Jesus says it is. He speaks it by his apostles and his prophets. And they do not mean the lies that Jezebels new and old may teach.

Following this Jesus may well cost us our sexual autonomy. Following this Jesus may well cost us our political preferences. Following this Jesus may well cost us our economic lifestyle. Following this Jesus may well cost us our vacations or our extra vehicles or our pet projects. Following this Jesus may well cost us our popularity. Following this Jesus will be freeing but may feel stifling in the hour of temptation. For following this Jesus must surely cost us our sin. Some look at the universality of sin and say, “We're all sinners, so it must not really be a big deal.” But authentic Christian faith looks at the universality of sin and cries out desperately for Jesus and his deep holiness. Oh, how the church needs Jesus! How we each need Jesus, each and every day! For the Jesus who spoke to the Thyatirans is the Jesus who paces amidst the lampstands of American churches today, inspecting us all with burning eyes that penetrate the innermost guts of all things and cast light on the darkest nooks and crannies hidden in the heart. He knows what we tolerate and why – what sins we'll make excuses for, what sins we'll rationalize. Our motives, impermanent as putty, melt before the heat of Jesus' gaze. Jesus sees.

But to those who avoid the influencers and who resist the sexual and economic temptations, those who cultivate hearts to pass Jesus' inspection, he offers a share in his rule. Just as the Father says to Jesus in Psalm 2, “You shall rule [the nations] with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel” (Psalm 2:9), Jesus offers the persistently pure believer “authority over the nations, and he will shepherd them with a rod of iron as when earthen pots are broken in pieces … And I will give him the morning star” (Revelation 2:26-28). Keep to Jesus, not to Jezebel. In a world broken by seduction and temptation, a world riven by idolatries and impurities, Jesus is good news enough. His grace is costly, but the cost is grace. “Only hold fast what you have” – the way Jesus taught you to love, the purity and holiness he lavished upon you. “Let goods and kindred go,” desires and possessions, middle-class American comfort and conformity. Only hold fast to Jesus, the Holy Son of God.

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