Philadelphia was a city built at the juncture of three ancient nations: Phrygia, Lydia and Greece. Built as a showplace for Greek culture, it was one of the richest and most powerful cities in the entire ancient world. But in the year AD 17 an earthquake hit the city. All that incredibly elaborate, powerful and wonderful masonry tumbled down around their heads. It was unsafe to go inside any structure. An additional problem was that the aftershocks of the earthquake continued for months. So these people had to live in tents outside the city walls.
That would be bad enough, but remember that this was the ancient world. When you were outside the city walls you were subject to marauders, invaders, and wandering bandits. It was not like going camping out at the lake. Thousands died in those months, killed by the invading bands to which they were now vulnerable.
Saint John was writing this letter to a small church in that traumatized city. By the time they received this letter, the city had been rebuilt, but the citizens were still traumatized because of everything that had happened to them. As the Christians received this letter, John said to them in effect, “You are doing well, but I have one word for you: don’t be so afraid.”
Let me suggest to you that their situation was extraordinarily modern, and John’s word extremely relevant. What were they afraid of? Their’s was a small church trying to live out Christian values in a non-Christian culture. It was a Greek culture. Everybody here who thinks our culture is consistently Christian raise your hand! It’s tough living out Christian values in our culture.
In addition, they were a small group of Christians trying to live out their faith against the power of Rome. That Greek culture was now within the Roman Empire, and Rome was very anti-Christian. Everybody here who thinks the political policies of our nation are always Christian raise your hand! I don’t mean we have a bad nation. I love our nation, but you know as well as I do that, although it was founded on Godly principles, so often God’s principles are not the rule of the land. So, the church had to live out the Christian faith in an alien culture with an often non-Christian power structure.
Plus, they were living on land that often seemed at war with them. They could be struck down at a moment’s notice from an earthquake. Everybody here who has never seen the world do terrible things raise your hand! The Philadelphia situation was as current as today’s headlines. Every one of us knows what it means to tremble in fear at all that is before us.
So, listen to what John said to that church. He said, in effect, “You are doing wonderfully! You are keeping your integrity. You are sharing your faith with others. You are standing strong for your Lord. You are teaching sound doctrine. Just be aware of one thing: you are so focused on what is against you, you have forgotten the One who is with you. By forgetting Him you are letting yourselves be paralyzed by fear. God has set before you an open door in the midst of all your tough times. As you are willing simply to walk through that door with God as your ally, no one on earth can shut the door God has opened.”
Isn’t this a word for every one of us here? There is not a person in this room who does not know what it means to be paralyzed with fear, There is not a person listening to the sound of my voice who does not know what it is to wake up in the morning at 3:00 when everybody else is asleep and wonder how in the world you are going to face the coming day. John is saying that if you will listen to Christ, He will guide you and guard you and take you through. I want to lift up the extraordinary power we receive when we are willing to listen to His direction and simply keep on going even when we are scared.
I discovered this truth while my wife and I were living in New England. I was attending Yale Divinity School and I worked in the summers as a YMCA counselor, taking the kids out backpacking and canoeing. We had one group that was really advanced. We wanted to take them white water canoeing. It would not be serious white water, not the type that could actually hurt somebody, but we wanted to give them a taste of what it meant to hit really exciting waves. We found a place on the Housatonic River where the water narrows underneath an historic old covered bridge. It looks like a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and under that covered bridge there were no hazards or rocks. Nobody could get hurt, but the waves were wild. The water just foamed and fumed and it was extraordinarily exciting. I thought, “The kids will love this.”
I took them up them river and I put them in a line. I put the two biggest boys in the front canoe. I mean these were good looking guys. They were strong. They looked like they stepped out of a GQ magazine. I figured if the first canoe went through OK, all of them would get through OK. I looked at those guys and said, “Now, all you have to do is point that canoe straight down the river. Go right under the bridge. I am going to be calling out instructions and advice while you go under the bridge. Just listen to me, do what I say, and point the canoe straight down the river. Don’t worry about anything. You will be fine. Can you do it?” They said, “Count on us, Steve! We’re ready.”
I got them all in the river in their canoes. I ran down the bank and got up on the bridge so I could shout instructions as they came past. I cried, “Come on down!” They looked so good. The boys in the front were paddling their way down the river in perfect form. Then, they saw it. They saw the white water. When you are in the canoe, your eyes are only two feet above the surface of the water. You can’t see what is coming at you until you are right on it. But now they were there, and it looked like Niagara Falls! I mean, the river just dropped away. It wasn’t dangerous, but it looked horrifying.
I saw the look of fear in their eyes, so I started shouting, “Don’t worry! Don’t worry! Just paddle.” And they did. They started back-paddling as hard as they could. The problem was that they were already in the current. When the river narrows it forms a “V”. If you go into that current, the river is stronger than you are. Once you are in the “V”, you can’t get out. They were in the “V” so when they started back paddling, they just succeeded in turning the canoe in circles! They just started spiraling down toward the white water. This wasn’t good. I knew that. So I shouted at them, “Stop! Don’t back-paddle. Just steer. Just try to steer the canoe!”
Do you remember the air raid training schools used to do with kids? The one in front threw his paddle away, put his head down between his knees, and covered his head! I guess he thought, “If it works for a bomb, it will work for the river.” So, I shouted at the one in back, “Just use your paddle like a rudder!” Then, he stood up! He stood up! He didn’t use the paddle to steer. Instead, standing there, he reached up to hand it to me! He was quite a distance from me, but I guess he thought I was going to catch it!
And that is how they went through the white water: spinning in a circle, the one in front ducked over and the one in the back yelling, “I want to go home!” Of course, they capsized.
They were not hurt. I would never have put them someplace they could be hurt. They just floated on down through the white water into the river beyond where it smoothed out. But all their gear was lost and that aluminum canoe was pounded into tin foil at the bottom of the river. You could have wrapped sandwiches in that canoe.
As a YMCA counselor, I was responsible not only for the kids, but also for the equipment. After being sure that the boys were okay, my next thought was that I might have to pay for that canoe, so I was worried. I looked up to see the other kids coming behind them. Apparently, this had been a bad idea. The next canoe behind them was already in the “V”. It was already in the current and I could not stop it – and in it were the two skinniest little girls you could ever imagine. They were the smallest kids in the whole group. I said, “Oh no! I am going to be bankrupt by the time we finish this! I’ll have to pay for all these canoes!” But I could not stop them, so I just started shouting to them, “I know it’s going to look scary. I know it’s going to look fierce, but just paddle! Keep on paddling. Do what I tell you to do. It’s OK to be scared! Just do what I tell you! Just keep on paddling!”
I could see it in their eyes when they saw the water. I could see the fear. I could see the blood drain out of their faces. I could see their eyes get large. But you know what? They kept on paddling. Scared to death, shaking like leaves in a winter wind, they kept on paddling. They went into that white water, and then they were down and up, down and up, and finally down and out! They went sailing through, screaming for joy, having more fun than they had ever had in their lives! They came through soaking wet and absolutely triumphant! And then those two little girls went paddling on down the river to pick up the boys.
What is God saying to the church at Philadelphia and to you and me this morning? “Keep on paddling!” I know it is scary. I know it can be turbulent. Some of you are facing incredible white water episodes right now. Remember that God does not ask us not to be afraid. He gives us permission to shake like leaves, but He says, “Keep on doing what I tell you. Keep on paddling! As you do, the day will come when you break through to smooth sailing.”
Very quickly, let me give you a couple of things to remember when you face white water episodes. Every one of us has times when we can get paralyzed by fear. If you say you have never been terribly afraid, I will say you are a liar or a fool. So, here are some ideas for handling the white water with God.
Here is number one: embrace the challenge before you. In 1 Samuel 17:32, David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of Goliath: I will go out and fight with him.”
Do you remember the Bible story? Goliath, the giant, was threatening the army of Israel. Not one of the Hebrews wanted to deal with him. They all stood around kicking their sandals in the dust. David said, “Well, somebody has to fight him, so I will.” When you face a problem, take it on! It does no good to stand around kicking your feet in the dust. It does no good to stick your head down between your legs. It might work in a bomb shelter, but it is not going to work in life. In addition, it does no good to stand up in the back of the canoe and say, “I want to go home!” You can’t leave life.
You can’t bail out, and that tendency inside to want to bail out, to avoid, to say, “Somebody else ought to fix this,” just makes the problem worse. Maybe your problem is finances. Maybe your problem is relationships. Maybe God is making you aware of things that have happened in your past that created either great guilt or great wounding. Whatever the situation, now is the time to deal with it! If you try to avoid the white water, the eventual crash just gets worse.
Number one: embrace the challenge before you. When you face the white water, go straight into it.
Number two: embrace the weakness that is within you. It is OK to be weak. It is OK not to have all the answers. It is OK to be scared. Letting it be okay to have moments of weakness in a paradoxical way opens your life to strength. In 2 Corinthians 12:10 Paul says, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Why could he say that? He was one of the most powerful and effective human beings ever to walk the face of the earth. He could say that because he discovered that when he was weak, shaking and not having all the answers, he was willing to listen to God and the people of God, and get the advice and direction he needed.
Let me tell you something very true. As long as you think you know it all, God can’t tell you a thing. Is it OK for you to feel weak at times? Is it OK for you not to have all the answers? Do you have people in your life, Christian brothers and sisters, who you will let be your friends? Will you let Godly people help you and give you advice and hold you accountable to be your best self? When we talk about Bible studies and Sunday School and small groups in the church, they can help you when times get rough. The questions is, when you get into rough times, do you know that you don’t have to have all the answers? God through His people, His Word, His Spirit can help.
Number one: embrace the challenge before you. Number two: embrace the weakness within you.
Number three: embrace the power God will give to you. In Judges 6:12, the angel said to Gideon, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”
That is one of the most ironic verses in the Bible, because the angel was talking to a trembling coward when he said that. God wanted Gideon to go forward and meet invaders of Israel and defeat the enemies of the people of God, just as God wants you to defeat problems that otherwise would sabotage you or your loved ones or the Kingdom in some way. Gideon didn’t want to do it. He was scared to death. So the angel said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” Then, because Gideon trusted that God was with him and let God help and guide him, he became that which the angel said he was, a mighty warrior.
That is what God will make of you: a mighty warrior for the Kingdom. As He does, your life becomes victorious.
That is what happened in Philadelphia. It was a little church facing a terrible situation. They were so scared, but they took this letter to heart. John said at the very end of the letter, “If you will let God guide you through, God will make you a pillar in the temple of God.” That means, He will make you a part of the very presence of God. He won’t just put you in His presence. He is going to make you a pillar in God, a part of God’s presence. How can He do that? Because God puts Himself within you. As you are willing to hold fast to God, He puts himself within you. He gives you His heart and suddenly you become new. You find the courage you need.
“Courage” comes from the French word for heart, couer. As you let God put a new “heart” within you, you may still be scared in many ways, but you find a courage that is beyond yourself and you become triumphant. That is what the people in Philadelphia found. That is what you will find, as you are willing to let God put His heart within yours so that His power is going with you into the world.
Let me be clear about what I mean. That picture I gave you of the kids going down the river is a good image, with one exception. When you face the white water times, God is not just up there on the bridge shouting down instructions. No, He is guiding you, and if you learn to listen you can hear Him and He will guide you through. But there is something He can do for you that I could not do for those kids. Through His Holy Spirit, He is also within you. He is in the canoe. He is helping to paddle. He is giving you a power that nothing else on this world can touch or take away.
As a witness to how true that is, let me tell you what became of that little church in Philadelphia. Remember that I said they were a small church. They actually were the smallest of all the seven churches named in Revelation. After they received this letter, they decided to go through that open door God had given them, and they went on to become the largest of all the seven churches. In fact, in the generations to come, they became a church so vibrant and strong that the people in Philadelphia began to turn to that church to lead them. Over the next 1,200 years, led by that church, that city of Philadelphia survived marauders, invaders and barbarian tribes. While all of the other fortified cities fell, Philadelphia survived as it was led by that local church. Finally, in the year 1,300 AD, Philadelphia fell. When it did, though, the church still survived.
If you go to Aleshir, Turkey, today you will find the church there still fully functioning, still on fire for Christ, still making disciples for the Kingdom, still supporting ministries all over that part of God’s earth. It is the oldest surviving Christian congregation on earth – because that little-bitty group of scared believers walked through the door God had opened.
God wants to do the same for you and me. No matter where you are this morning, no matter how scared or alone or defenseless you feel, let God put His heart within you. Listen to Him, follow him, let Him make you a part of Himself – and give you a future.
Steve Wende is Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Houston, TX. He is a Contributing Editor of Preaching.