This is not the first time I have spoken to this church. When I agreed to give the talk this morning, I wondered how long it had been since I last did this. Looking back, I would guess that it must be getting close to 10 years. That means some of you, have not heard me before. That makes it very interesting: perhaps not for you – but it does for me!! It’s interesting because as I stand here at the front of the church this morning, I can look around and see how things have changed in those 10 years. And boy, it has certainly changed!!
The first thing to have changed is what I have already said: there are some of you here this morning who have not heard me preach before. There are lots of faces here that I would not have known 10 years ago. Perhaps even as much as half of the people here I would not have known 10 years ago. That says something good about the life of the church in those 10 years. It tells us that the church has been blessed. It tells us that this blessing has worked its way out by expanding the numbers of people who now count themselves amongst the regular members of the congregation of Great Harwood Christian Fellowship. We are not here to count numbers, but it is great that year in, year out, new faces come to this church. In that way we surely have been greatly blessed. Praise the Lord for that!
The other major change, of course, is that 10 years ago I would have been speaking to you, without the aid of a microphone from the assembly hall of Western County Primary School. We didn’t’ have our own building at that time: Now we have this wonderful, building, renovated to meet perfectly the needs of that growing Church.
And we see it in our other activities during the week. At the Prayer Meeting at the beginning of this month it was almost a case of “standing room only”! I think the Prayer Meeting is of the same proportions as the main services 10 years ago. That’s wonderful! What power is there in that!!
So we see God’s blessing in the last 10 years in both the tangible – in the physical building- and in the intangible – in the lives of saved men and women and in the lives of those who are at least enquiring, even if they have not as yet accepted the Lord Jesus as their Saviour. Wow, what a blessing we have had in those years! … And now you get me: where did it all go wrong!!
In many ways we are in exactly the same position as the Church in Ephesus to whom the letter set out in the first 7 verses of Revelation Chapter 2 was written. The letter starts out on such a positive note: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perserverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men.”
Undoubtedly one of the reasons why the church has changed in the ways I have mentioned is that fact - that it has acted in just the ways that the Ephesian Church had: Our deeds and hard work speak for themselves, and we’ve carried on through all kinds of hardships: we’ve got where we are today because we have been uncompromising in walking in the way of the Lord and have not tolerated any practices that would have lead the Church away from the Lord. Week in, week out, so many people have worked tirelessly for the congregation, whether it be in preparing and presenting the worship, cleaning and setting out chairs, making sure the bibles and hymn books are in place, making and serving the tea and biscuits and last, but certainly not least, presenting the Services and the Word of God so faithfully. We are so blessed to have Keith as Pastor and to have others such as Ray and David who are willing and able spokesmen of the message. For them we can be truly thankful.
And yet, even though the Ephesian Church could say just the same things, the warning given to them here in the Book of Revelation, is a startling one – they are warned that if they don’t change their ways, the Lord will come and remove their lampstand: The church will no longer be the light to the people it was, it will lose it’s power, it will die. That’s a sobering thought. Could it really happen? Surely not? How could it ever happen. Not our Church, no way! No, you must be talking to someone else!
I think the first thing to note here is that the Lord is giving a warning to the Church. He is not giving a warning to individuals as solitary persons. He is giving a warning to the church as a whole. He is not saying to any one individual that he is going to take away their salvation. He is saying that he is going to take away the life of the church. My friends, as individuals, you can rest assured that you will never lose your own individual lampstands. They may not burn quite so brightly, but you will never lose it. Once lit, the torch of the Lord will remain shining in your hearts for the rest of your lives. There are many passages in the Bible that clearly give this assurance. Paul, for example in Romans 8:38 writes “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In the Old Testament too, God promises to protect and keep his chosen ones. Take Ezekiel 34:12 “As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep.” And continuing in verse 16: “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays”.
My friends, rest in the assurance of this – God knows those who are his. No-one can take away your salvation from you.
But the Church can lose its lampstand. That’s the difference. You see, the Church is not a building. This building that we are meeting in this morning is not a church. The people who are here – that’s the Church. The life of a church is not in the glories of its building but in the walk of its people. And although its people may be saved people, although they will be together in glory, they may, as a whole, have drifted away from their first love (as it’s described here in the letter to the Ephesian Church).
That’s why it’s so sad to see so many of these old church buildings that now only stand as a monument to a foregone age. When Pat and I go on holiday we often see lovely old buildings like this. Often they are in the most remote places and you wonder how the people ever managed to get to them. They must really have had the fire of god inside them to build them where they did. You go inside and you can imagine the terrific services they must have had. Praising the Lord and worshiping his presence amongst them. And yet now all that remain are a few crumbling stones. These are like gravestones marking the lives of the former saints that passed through their doors. But they pass through no more because the church there is dead – they have lost their lampstands.
Do you think any of these people imagined that it could end like that? “Not us” I think they would have said!
Any Church will die if its people do not continue to burn brightly for the Lord. This Church will die if we do not keep our torches burning brightly. That’s why here in Revelations in the letter to the Church at Ephesus we are admonished to return to our first love.
Have any of you fallen in love? Of course you have. All you men who are married, do you remember falling in love with your wives? All you women, do you remember falling in love with your husbands? Some will have to have pretty long memories to remember those days. Some, such as me have had the good fortune to have a much more recent experience of falling in love.
But it’s not always easy, is it, to keep the same feelings thriving as the years go by and familiarity and routine set in, and trials of all kinds are met as we go through our lives?
My experience is that the same is true of our Christian walks. We start off as lovers and gradually, almost imperceptibly, we drift into routine and remain comfortable in the familiarity we have become accustomed to. If there is one thing I have learned in the last 10 years is that is not always easy to keep to that narrow path that leads to glory.
It’s not that we do it purposely: No converted soul would purposely turn away from his beloved Jesus. It’s more subtle than that. The process can be so gradual that we don’t even notice. Our boat just starts drifting. We don’t perceive the current that lies beneath that is slowly, gradually, unnoticeably pulling us away from the coast until suddenly we look up, arise from our slumbers and see to our horror that we are out on the open sea, so far away from our loved ones.
What are we to do about this? The first thing to note is that we must do something about it. We must run the race that the Lord has set before us, we mustn’t start jogging or walking. That’s how the Church will lose it’s lampstand. We musn’t be content with just meandering our way along: We must run passionately and resolutely towards our goal which is Christ Jesus. Let us not become complacent about these things. Let us remain firm in our faith and energised for the work set before us.
The second thing is to realise what we once had. We need to recall what that first love meant to us. We can then see where we are going and determine to rekindle that first love that so worked its wonders within us. That’s why the Psalmist cries out in Psalm 51:12 “Restore to me the joy of your salvation”.
I’m sure that this “first love” works its way out in different ways in different people just as it does in the natural world. For me, the thing that characterised my life when I first came to know the Lord is that I yearned to know more, and more and more. Starting with the Bible I read book after book. There seemed no end to this yearning to find out more and more about this Jesus who had given his life to save me.
That’s not surprising. I was just coming up to 30 at the time. In the decade and a half of my adult years I had become a convinced atheist. To find the scales falling from my eyes when I became a Christian allowed my eyes, and therefore my mind, to see a whole new world: and who wouldn’t want to find out about that wonderful world that the Lord of creation now lay before me? So there I was, doing what I really enjoyed anyway and that was sticking my head in a book at every opportunity and gourging myself on the treasures that lay within.
It’s the same in the natural world, or at least that’s my experience: you fall in love and you can’t help but want to know more, to spend day after day, every possible hour with this loved one. Everything else seems to pale into insignificance compared to this bright shining light that has lit up your heart.
Do you remember those times in your life? Think back to the time of your conversion. Remember the feelings you had at that time. As Pat has said, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have those bottled up and be able to open them whenever you wanted in order to experience them all over again! Well, you can’t exactly bottle them up, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep these days in your memories. Look back in your minds on these days regularly and determine in your hearts that you are going to rekindle the power you had in those days and you are not going to let go.
I think that brings me to third point I want to make: the power you had. When we are converted, we are given power from on high: the Holy Spirit comes and lives in us. Indeed it can be no other way: without the Holy Spirit we are like cars without petrol or mobile phones without a network. As it says in Romans Chapter 8:7 “The sinful mind is hostile to God.” That’s what we are without the Spirit living within us – not simply non-believers, we are “hostile to God”. Whether we realise it or not, when we are unconverted we act as God’s enemy. It says the same thing in the Old Testament too. In Psalm 51, for example, the Psalmist says “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
A couple of weeks ago Pat and I went to a musical and during the performance one of the main characters announced: “God has left the building!” On hearing that the audience cheered! Can you believe that! The audience actually cheered!! That’s how far we are away from God before we are converted. We are separated from him not merely because we are not interested in him. We are separated from him because we are actually hostile to him. We consider him, whether we realise it or not, as our enemy. But this enemy of ours is an enemy who loves us. In Romans 5:8 we are told “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we come to realise this when we are converted. This is the great work of the Holy Spirit in us – to bring us to redemption. But the Holy Spirit has other work too. The Holy Spirit is there also to give us the power we need to be true servants of God.
Just dwell for a moment on the Apostles. I think it is fairly obvious that the Apostles were converted before the day of Pentecost. But you don’t need to believe me on this. As Keith has said a number of times, test what I am saying in this book. It’s what the Bible says that matters. And the Bible tells us that the Apostles were converted even whilst Jesus was still with them. In John 15 when Jesus talks of himself being the true vine, he says in Verse 3 “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” Do you see it? They had already been cleansed of their sins. They were already converted. They were already born again, already born of the spirit.
But when the day of Pentecost came, they received the Holy Spirit in a different way, they received real power in their lives. From being cowardly individuals huddled in an upper room they became great spokesmen for God. They suddenly and fearlessly proclaimed the word of God, first in Judea, then in Samaria and even to the ends of the earth.
See how the church moved and developed in those times. It exploded in the way it did because of the power of the Holy Spirit moving in individual men and women of God and that’s what we need today if our Church is to make a real impact on the world in which we live. It’s not good enough to become complacent. That will only result in the removal of our lampstand. We need to constantly call upon the power that is available to us.
The Lord can achieve great things through us if the power of the Holy Spirit works in our lives. The story of Howell Harris has always filled me with amazement at what God can do if he has a willing helper. You may not have heard of him. He was born in Wales in the 18th Century and came to play a very major part in the Evangelical Awakening of those times. He was a great friend of George Whitfield and John and Charles Wesley who are the more well-known personalities behind this period of revival.
What amazes me about Howell Harris was what happened after he was converted. The first thing he began to do was to visit people who were sick and to read to them out of certain books which he had found to be of help to him. A book called “The Practice of Piety” was one of them. But he read with such power that people were profoundly affected. After a while, whenever it was heard that he was going to read out of a book in any sick room or anywhere else, people crowded together to listen to him; and this went on in a cumulative manner until eventually the crowds became so great that he began to preach to them in the open air and large numbers of people were converted. And that was just from reading from a book and not even from the Bible!! Just imagine if that happened at this Church. Sandra reads from the Scriptures beautifully week in week out. But just imagine if the power of the Holy Spirit showed itself in these readings: People would come to this church just so they could hear Sandra read, and Sandra’s readings alone would bring them to love God – is that not amazing? But it can happen.
It’s our lives that stops it happening. If we really want to see revival in the Church we must see revival in our lives as individuals. It has been great to see the developments in this church over the last 10 years, but we must not be content with that. I for one will declare here and now that I have become complacent … and there must be others here too who, if you are honest, would have to admit that you’ve not been walking as closely to God as you know he would want you to.
But God is a loving God. He knows the struggles we have with our human natures and so he promises us this, as it says in Malachi 3:7 ‘“Return to me, and I will return to you”, says the Lord Almighty’. Return to me, and I will return to you. God wants us to return to him, to return to our first love. Or as it says here in the passage that we are looking at this morning, “Repent and do the things you did at first”. I plead with you to do this. Make this the day you turn back to your first love. Come back to those days when you were first born again. Feel once more the power of the Spirit moving in your lives. Pat mentioned about drifting and rowing your way back to the shore. I say get the Spirit in your lives and that will give you an outboard motor to power you back to the shore!!
Make Jesus the centre of your lives once more. I ask this for myself and I ask it for each of you. Make Jesus your guiding light.
In the pre-electronic age mariners, at night, would look to the stars to guide them. They would look at the Pole Star in particular and use that to determine that they were proceeding in the right direction. There are many stars in the sky and they all twinkle and look beautiful against the black carpet of night. But there is only one Pole Star. Jesus should be our pole star. There are many other stars in the sky but only one which will guide us surely and certainly along the right path. Many of the other stars are attractive in their own way, but only the Pole Star is worth following, all the others will lead us astray. We need to keep our eyes, our thoughts and our minds fixed on Jesus our Pole Star.
I want to finish with a poem I’ve loved for many years. It’s a little-known poem written by Emily Bronte when she was just in her early teenage years. I won’t read it all, it’s the last few lines that encapsulates what I’ve wanted to say to you this morning.
It talks about the things in this world that might seek to pull us off and divert us from that first love we once had: that first love that the Ephesian Church had lost despite their good deeds, hard work and perserverance. And then it ends like this –
“That pure light changeless and strong, Cherished and watched and nursed so long; That love that first its glory gave, Will be my pole star to the grave”.
That love that first its glory gave, Will be my pole star to the grave.
My friends, if there any of you here today that have never experienced for themselves the love that the Lord gave to us all on the cross of calvary, make today the day that you allow that love to work in your heart and change your heart so that you no longer live as an enemy of God, but as his friend and servant. And to those others have the love of God shine in their hearts, to those who have cherished it, watched it, nursed it for so long, let us allow the Holy Spirit to move in our hearts afresh. Let us move out of our complacency and work with power as true subjects in the Kingdom of God. Let us commit ourselves once more this very day, let us renew our vow – may the love that first its glory gave be to each one of us our own pole star guiding us through this life and remaining bright to the very hour of our death:
"That love that first its glory gave, Will be my pole star to the grave."
Let us pray.
originally preached by David Talbot in Great Harwood, Lancashire on 18th November 2007