One of the most famous verses in the Bible is Revelation 3:20, where Jesus gives a message to a local church in what is now Turkey. The Book of Revelation was written many years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and he is now speaking to the church through his prophet, John, the author of this book. Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. This has been illustrated by a famous painting called ‘The Light of the World’. In the painting Jesus stands beside a gate in a garden wall. He’s wearing a crown of thorns on his head, and in one of his hands he holds a lantern. The other hand is raised, knocking on the gate. The gate is overgrown and has obviously not been opened for a long time, and there is no handle on the outside; it can only be opened from the inside.
This verse has been used in evangelistic talks for centuries, to illustrate the way a person becomes a Christian. Preachers have talked about how Jesus is standing outside our lives, knocking on the door, waiting for us to open up and let him in. But he is a perfect gentleman and won’t force his way in; he waits for us to open the door to him. So to become a Christian is to open the door and let Jesus into our lives as Lord and Saviour.
I know there are hundreds of thousands of people over the years who have responded to this illustration and prayed a prayer opening the door of their hearts to Jesus and letting him in. But this verse has more to say to us than that; in fact, I believe that there are things the Lord wants to say to each one of us tonight through this verse, as we gather together for this Ash Wednesday Eucharist.
You see, in its original context this verse was addressed to a church, a group of Christians in a place called Laodicea. The members of that church had allowed their love for the Lord to grow lukewarm. So Jesus speaks to them, and this is part of what he has to say:
“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing’. You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked… I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:15-17, 19-20).
So this passage makes clear to us is that it is possible to be a genuine Christian – a person who knows God personally through Christ, a person who has opened the door of their life to Christ and committed themselves to him their Lord and Saviour – it is possible to be a genuine Christian and then to somehow let our light burn dim, so that Jesus is no longer welcome in the centre of our lives. We get distracted by other stuff, like those Christians in Laodicea, who were rich and prosperous and thought they needed nothing. Maybe, like the seed that fell among the thorns in Jesus’ parable of the sower, we find that even though we have heard the word of God, still ‘the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing’ (Mark 4:19).
This probably isn’t something that happens because of a major decision we make to disobey the commands of God and the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s far more likely to be a series of small things, so small that we barely notice them. C.S. Lewis talks about this in his superb little book The Screwtape Letters. Do you know that book? It’s a fictional series of letters from a senior devil to a junior devil on the art of temptation. In one of the letters Screwtape, the senior devil, cautions Wormwood, the junior devil, about his desire to persuade his ‘patient’ to commit some huge sin. The danger in that, Screwtape says, is that it can so easily backfire; the patient will wake up, see what he’s doing, and repent. It’s far, far safer to tempt him into a series of seemingly harmless and insignificant actions and attitudes that have the gradual effect of taking him out of his orbit around God. Screwtape says, ‘Adultery is unnecessary if cards will do the trick’.
We may not agree with Lewis’ assumption that playing cards could be a sin, but maybe we need to ask ourselves what other seemingly harmless habits have had that effect on us – gradually taking us out of our orbit around God, so that the Saviour who was once the joy of our lives slowly, imperceptibly, becomes ‘old news’ to us. Adultery is unnecessary if blogging will do the trick! All that matters to the enemy of our souls is that we slowly fall out of love with God. If he can persuade us to do that without noticing it, all the better for him.
So Lent is a time for us to wake up to our true spiritual condition and to do something about it. In our epistle for tonight Paul writes to a group of Christians in Corinth, all of whom had at one time or another heard the gospel message and responded to it by committing their lives to Christ in baptism; presumably, they were already reconciled to God. And yet he finds it necessary to say to them in 2 Corinthians 5:20: ‘So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God’. In other words, ‘Wake up! Realize that even though you thought you were still close to God, in fact you have moved away without even realizing that you were doing it. Turn around and come back to God, because he is ready and willing to receive you back’.
That, of course, is what Jesus said to those Christians in Laodicea as well. ‘Be earnest, therefore, and repent!’ (Revelation 3:19). In other words, ‘Be serious about this! Turn away from your lukewarmness and your little compromises, and come back to your first love for Jesus and his gospel’.
In our service tonight, in a few minutes I will read these words from the liturgy:
We begin this holy season by remembering our need for repentance, and for the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I want to suggest to you, in the light of these scripture readings that I’ve shared with you tonight, that this repentance isn’t primarily about individual sins that we commit, in and of themselves. It’s primarily about our attitude toward God, and toward our Lord Jesus Christ. Has our love for Jesus gone lukewarm, so that it makes him feel like spewing us out of his mouth? That’s the big issue for us, isn’t it?
We know how that works in marriage. We fall in love with someone, and they become the centre of our world. We spend every waking moment thinking about them, and we begrudge every hour we have to spend apart. We look forward to the day when we can commit our lives to each other and live together as husband and wife.
And at first, our expectations are fulfilled; we can’t believe the privilege we have of sharing our life with this wonderful person who we love so much. But then, as the years go by, our love starts to cool off. Life goes on; we get jobs and lose jobs, kids come and take up our time and attention, we have to pay a mortgage and do daily errands and so on and so on. And before we know it, we’ve lost sight of the love that gave us so much joy when we first discovered it. We start to take each other for granted, and to skip our times together and the long conversations we used to enjoy so much.
So let me ask you: have you done that with Jesus? Have you allowed your love for him to grow lukewarm? Have you allowed yourself to neglect your times together? Have you become complacent about doing things that you know are not pleasing to him? Have you become slow to do the things that bring him joy?
Yes, you have – and so have I. That’s why we’re here tonight, and that’s why we have this season of Lent. It’s not to kick off our annual time of giving up chocolate or coffee or sugar in our tea or whatever. Rather, it’s a time for us for us to wake up to our spiritual condition, to repent of our lukewarmness, and to consciously change course so that, once again, our life revolves around the one who loved us and gave himself for us, our Lord Jesus Christ.
We know – because we’ve experienced it before – that this road leads to joy. Repentance is hard, but the motivation is the best – the joy of knowing Christ and enjoying fellowship with him. When we try to get the best of both worlds – living as a Christian but keeping our foot in the old life as well – we end up getting the worst of both worlds instead. But when we learn to live the new life of Jesus, we’re learning to live in harmony with the way God created us in the first place. And when we live with Christ at the centre of our lives, we’re fulfilled God’s original intention for us. This is a hard road, yes, but it’s also a joyful road.
Jesus says, ‘There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’ (Luke 15:10). And so he says to you and me tonight, “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. His greatest desire is for us to live in fellowship with him. He created us for the joy of knowing us, and he will not be satisfied until we also experience that joy.
So - shall we open the door?