Look Carefully!
  Revelation 2-3
By Paul Robison

If you recognize the jazz musician in this photo (on projection screen), don't say anything!  It's a sad story.  The picture is of Billy Tipton, who was a part of the Tipton trio.  Billy played piano and saxophone in the big band era of the 1930s.  Time magazine reported some peculiarities of Billy: he never gave anybody his social security number; he never swam with his three adopted sons; he never visited a doctor, even when seriously ill.  Tipton died at the age of 74 in 1989, and it was here that the family discovered why Tipton had some strange ways.  You see, the funeral director told one of the Tipton boys that Billy was really a woman!  Tipton began living as a male in order to play in the big band because back in those days, a woman was allowed to sing with a band but was rarely allowed to play with one.  There are least three lessons from this episode.  First of all, it's sad to see the discrimination against women musicians that led Tipton to live a lie.  Next, when the truth was revealed, it must have been shocking, confusing, and painful to her sons and other relatives.  Next, it created an unrealistic view; Tipton led a double life and presented a falsehood to all those around her.  It's a sad story.  Let's focus on our congregation for just a minute, and here's some questions for your consideration: “Are we looking carefully at our congregation or do we even take time to look at all?  Is it living a double life that will eventually bring pain to others?  Is it fostering an unrealistic view or an authentic one?”  The theme of our lesson today is: “Look carefully!”  And we're going to see several ways that we can do that after seeing how Jesus looked carefully at some congregations. 
The book of Revelation in chapters 2-3 introduces us to seven congregations in Asia Minor.  All these congregations, at the close of the first century, are facing difficult times.  The Romans viewed the Christians as an illegal cult group, and often had local persecutions annual for those who would not worship the emperor.  Let's quickly notice what Jesus tells these congregations.  It is interesting that John uses a certain pattern or format in each of his messages to them: a description of Jesus comes first, then compliments from Jesus are presented, then sins which Jesus explains are given, then instructions from Jesus for each congregation are listed, then promises of a better future conclude each message.  To this pattern, a summary description of each congregation will be added.  Now let's notice quickly these messages.  Christ is called “He who holds the seven stars” in the first message to the church in Ephesus.  Jesus compliments this group because it has resisted evil and false teachers, has persevered, and has shown patience.  Its major sin is that its love for Christ has diminished.  Jesus instructs this congregation to remember where they were, to repent, and to do the first works.  This congregation could be described as a loveless church.  If these Christians will obey, they will be able to eat of the tree of life!  The next congregation is located in Smyrna.  Jesus is described as the First and the Last and the resurrected One.  Jesus compliments this congregation for enduring hardships.  Amazingly, there are no sins given by Jesus for this group.  Jesus instructs them not to fear and to be faithful unto death despite ten days of tribulation where some will be imprisoned.  This congregation could be described as a persecuted church.  If they will be faithful, they will wear the eternal crown of life!  The next church is located in Pergamos.  Jesus is described as One who has a two-edged sword.  Jesus compliments this group for being loyal during testing.  But this congregation also is guilty of several sins: idolatry, immorality, and accepting evil and wicked false teachers.  Jesus tells them simply to repent.  This congregation could be called a compromising congregation.  If this group would live righteously, they would be given hidden manna and a white stone.  Are you seeing the pattern that was explained earlier?  The next church is located in Thyatira.  Christ is described as the Son of God who has eyes of fire and feet of brass.  Jesus compliments this group for its works, love, service, faith, and patience.  But this group also has several sins: they tolerate a wicked prophetess, practice immorality, and eat foods sacrificed to idols.  Jesus tells them to repent and hold fast.  This congregation could be described as a corrupted church.  If these members will obey, they will be given power over the nations as well as the morning star.  The fifth church is located in Sardis.  Jesus is called “the One who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars.”  Jesus compliments them that they have a few members who are remaining faithful.  There sin is presented in very blunt terms: they are dead and have had imperfect works.  Jesus instructs them to remember their blessings, to hold fast, to repent, and to be watchful.  This congregation could be described as a lifeless church.  If this church will change their ways, the members will be clothed in white and their names will be confessed in heaven.  The next church is located in Philadelphia.   Christ is described here as Holy and True and as having the key of David.  Jesus compliments this church by saying its members have kept the Word and have not denied the faith.  He also tells them about an open door they will soon have.  This is the second congregation where no sins are given.   This congregation could be described as a faithful church.  If they remain faithful, these members will be made pillars and will display God's name.  The next church is located in Laodicea.  Jesus is called the Amen, the faithful and true Witness.  This is the only congregation where no compliments are given.  They were lukewarm and also had a very unrealistic view of themselves.  Jesus instructs them to buy from Him (especially eye salve to see clearly), to be zealous, and to repent.  This congregation could be called an indifferent church.  If they will get back on track, the promise is made that they can sit with Jesus.  Jesus looked very carefully at each of these congregations, didn't He?  He saw their strengths and their sins.  He told about threats and opportunities.  He motivated all of them by pointing them towards heaven's blessings.  Look carefully!
Now let's make an application.  What do you think Jesus would say if He were to write a letter to our congregation in 2011?  Of course, all the descriptions about Jesus would still apply; He hasn't changed.  How would He compliment us?  Would He give us no compliment like the congregation in Laodicea?  Would He give us any of the compliments that He gave those congregations in Asia Minor?  Or would He end up complimenting us for something else not found in these chapters?  In a similar way, would He say that we have no sin like the congregations in Smyrna and Philadelphia?  Or would He list some of sins found in these chapters or would He reveal something altogether different?  What would be His instructions to us?  Would they be similar to those in these chapters or would He instruct us to put other actions into practice?  Think carefully on this next one!  What one or two words could be used to describe our congregation?  It would be interesting if you wrote down your answer and then we all compared notes.  Would your answer be more negative or positive?  Of course, all the promises still apply since none of them have been implemented yet, and we are still waiting for Jesus to return and for heaven to become a reality.
Now let's think about five ways that we can look at our congregation carefully.  First of all, we need to evaluate by looking backward.  If Jesus gave each of these congregations evaluations, don't you think it would wise for us to evaluate ourselves.  Both compliments and sins were presented.  You see, in all those churches, Jesus looked backward and talked about their past actions or past character traits.  Maybe we need to look backward over the past few years.  Maybe we need to evaluate if our past actions (or the lack of them) and our past character traits would favor us or condemn us in Jesus' eyes.  After all, He is the true Evaluator who still walks among the congregations.  Look carefully!
Next, we see the need to confront by looking inwardly and outwardly.  Kevin Fitzgerald said when they left Dallas to come here, there was a messy accident which had just happened.  It was not a pretty sight.  Police officers often have to confront brutal realities.  Jesus' words brought about a confrontation for these congregations.  They could no longer hide or be doubtful about their situation.  Jesus had exposed them for what they really were with both the bad and the good.  He showed them their strengths and their weaknesses.  To see our strengths and our weaknesses, we must reflect inwardly about who we really are.  What is golden about our congregation and what is rusty about it?  What do we do well and what do we do poorly?  In what are we skilled and in what do we need training?  Jesus also revealed to some of these churches both opportunities and threats.  To understand our opportunities and threats as a congregation we must look outwardly.  What blue skies are in our environment and what red alerts are there as well?  What “open doors” has God given us and what obstacles could ruin us?  What trends could help us and what conditions could hurt us?  Are we willing to reflect on these questions and confront the brutal realities that they might expose?  Look carefully!
Next, we see the need to improve by looking forward.  Notice how Jesus instructions are almost always looking forward to overcoming the barriers and the sins and to making advancement and doing better.  What was the constant lament of the Jews when they were living as a free people in the desert?  “Oh that we were back in Egypt!”  What were they doing here?  They were looking backward.  Where did God want to be looking?  To be looking forward to the Promised Land.  All seven churches were given instructions that looked forward.  In fact, all were given promises that looked to an eternal future.  Only two of the seven congregations were without sin; the majority needed to repent and to improve.  Brethren, we need to be putting the apostle Paul's advice in Philippians 3:13-15 into practice: “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  Therefore, let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you.”   If we can't confront the brutal realities, then how will improvements be made, how will new actions be practiced, and how will new habits be formed?  Consider these questions carefully: Where is our congregational boat?  In what direction is it going?  What is the purpose that is driving it?  Listen to this interesting observation: “'Don't rock the boat!' is the unofficial motto of many [churches] that have long since lost both their compass and rudder and are gradually sinking in a sea of complacent tranquility” (Wiersbe).  Compare that statement with this remark by a brother in the Lord: “I am more excited about the future of our fellowship than I have ever been in my life” (Anderson).  He went on to explain that we have good church leaders, we have people that are working hard to plant new churches, and we serve a God who always will be full of surprises (Ibid.). Look forward!  Look carefully!
Next, we need to follow by looking upward.  Just as these seven churches, when we look upward, we see Jesus.  “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).  Looking upward unto Jesus.  Jesus must always be our ideal, and He must be the standard for which we strive.  “Oh to be like Thee, Blessed Redeemer, this is my constant longing and prayer.  Gladly I'll forfeit all of earth's treasures, Jesus, Thy perfect likeness to wear” (Chisholm)!  Jesus told all of these seven churches: “I know your works!”  In some ways, that might sound frightening, but Jesus just looks realistically doesn't He?  But reassuringly, did you notice that Jesus didn't send fire from heaven on any of these congregations.  He told five of them pointedly to repent and then He gave them to the time to obey His instructions.  How gracious and patient is the Lamb of God!  “Thus we would go on missions of mercy, following Christ from day unto day: cheering the faint, and raising the fallen, pointing the lost to Jesus, the Way” (Ogden)!  Are we looking upward unto Jesus?  Are we praying that He will help us to look carefully so that we too can see ourselves as realistically as He does?
Remember that wonderful story in 2 Kings 6 where a Syrian king sends a whole army to surround the city of Dothan in Israel?  Why did he do that?  Because there was a prophet there named Elisha who was telling the Jews ever move on the battlefield that Syrian king was about to make.  The king wanted him captured, so he sends his army by night and surrounds Dothan.  Now notice what the text says in verse 15ff: “And when the servant of the man of God rose early and went out, there was an army surrounding the city with horses and chariots.  And his servant said to him, 'Alas, my master!  What shall we do?'  So Elisha answered, 'Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.'  And Elisha prayed, and said, 'Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.'  Then the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw.  And behold the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”  So often, when we find ourselves in difficult, and it looks like there is no way of escape, how often do we ask like that young man: “What shall we do?”  Elisha wants us to change that question.  Isn't not “What shall we do?”, but the question we should be asking is: “What shall we do with the help of God's army and with Christ leading us into the battle?” 
Look carefully!  Look backward to evaluate, look inward to discover strengthens and weaknesses, look outward to see opportunities and threats, look forward to improve, look upward to Christ!  Look carefully! 
Let's pray: “God, we thank you again for your powerful Word!  The judgments of Jesus gives us much to think about.  Help us to look carefully at ourselves and to improve. In Jesus' name, Amen.”
“Pursue peace with all people and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God, lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:14-15).  Here we see that looking carefully for us is not an option.  Have you taken time to evaluate your life?  Have you confronted your own sins, weaknesses, and bad habits?  Are you willing to improve?  Why not look upward unto Jesus?  Don't live a double life!  You can't serve two masters.  Don't be an unrealistic member!  Help our congregation to be an authentic one!  “Lord, open each person's eyes!”  Trust in Christ!