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Seven Letters to Seven Churches: The Letter to Sardis

March 3, 2013
Sermon:  Seven Letters to Seven Churches:  The Letter to Sardis
Text:  Revelation 3:1-6


Most students of American history know that people who were seeking freedom of religion started the original thirteen colonies. Basically the Puritans settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony because they wanted to worship freely.  Mostly Quakers and later people now known as the Amish settled the colony of Pennsylvania.  People primarily of the Roman Catholic faith settled the colony of Maryland.  They, too, sought religious freedom.

If you have studied South Carolina history, you know that this state, however, was a business proposition.  Eight lord proprietors considered this state a business venture, an investment.  They wanted to turn a profit and welcomed anyone they thought would be beneficial to them.  A great diversity of people came into the colony of South Carolina.

When you visit Charleston, you can see various churches of all faiths in the area.  One of the first Roman Catholic churches in the South and the second synagogue in the United States were built there.  A French Huguenot church, a Scots-Presbyterian church, a very old Methodist church, and the first Baptist church in the South are all located in Charleston.

My grandfather used to make a joke about the people of Charleston, saying that they ate a lot of rice and worshipped their ancestors.  He also said that many of them came from the Far East though I do not know if that statement has any truth.  Oftentimes when people have a long, proud history, they tend to spend more time looking back rather than looking forward.

The church in Sardis, the fifth of the seven churches we are considering in this series, is one such example.  We see some churches here in this state named Sardis.  I do not know why any congregation would choose that name after reading today’s Scriptural passage and understanding the problems the church in Sardis experienced. 

We turn to Chapter 3 in the book of Revelation, beginning at Verse 1.  Hear now the Word of God.

 To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

Both Charleston and Sardis are old cities proud of their history.    Fortunately, Charleston has a bright future.  The mayor serving in recent years has led the residents forward with great boldness and innovation.  Not so with Sardis.  That city continued to be so proud of its heritage and history that it became stagnant.

Both Charleston and Sardis have a citadel.  In Charleston the Citadel is a university named for the building in which it was first housed, a 19th century fortress.  In Sardis the citadel was a fortification built on top of a high plateau.  That structure gave the inhabitants a sense of over-confidence.

Sardis, at one time, was one of the greatest cities in the world.  It served as the capital city of the ancient kingdom known as Lydia as far back as the 6th century B.C.  The king, named Croesus, was said to have been one of the wealthiest people on earth.  Does that mean that he was the king of the Sardines?

So confident of his prowess, Croesus told the oracle of Delphi that he was considering invading the land of Persia, ruled by King Cyrus II the Great.  When Croesus asked the oracle for some prognostication about what would happen if he invaded Persia, the oracle foreshadowed, “If you cross the river a great kingdom will be destroyed.”  Croesus mistakenly thought, of course, that the oracle meant that the Persian kingdom would be destroyed.

Once Croesus crossed the river, he and his army were soundly defeated.  They retreated to the citadel and took refuge inside, thinking that they were safe, that the fortress would not come under siege.

An interesting story tells of a Persian soldier seeing a helmet fall from the parapet in Sardis.  He watched to see what would happen to that helmet.  Under the cover of darkness a man appeared out of the rock fortress, retrieved the helmet, and disappeared.  The Persian soldier realized that a crack in the rock provided a hidden passage into the fortress.

Very narrow way to be sure, the crack allowed one soldier at a time to enter the city.  Throughout the night the Persian army filtered into the fortress, soundly defeated the people, and destroyed Sardis.

The city lay in ruins for 200 years before it was rebuilt.  Later the Greeks attacked, entering the city through a crack in the rock and destroying the city just as the Persians had done.  Sardis thought it was beyond defeat, that no army could ever penetrate the fortress; nevertheless, the Persians and Greeks assaulted the city twice.

John sent this particular letter on behalf of the risen Christ to the church in Sardis.   All outward appearances indicated that Sardis was a good church, but the risen Christ informed them, “I know your deeds, your works, but those works were done to impress people.  They were not motivated by the right reasons.  You have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead.”  Could anything worse be said about a church than “You are dead”?  I suppose we could call it the First Zombie Church of Sardis.  They were all dead.  They had no life at all.

A poem describes the church:

            Outwardly splendid as of old
            Inwardly lifeless, dead and cold,
            Her force and fire all spent and gone,
            Like the dead moon, she still shines on.

Dr. William Barkley writes, “A church is in danger of death when it begins to worship its own past; when it is more concerned with forms than with life; when it loves systems more than it loves Jesus; when it is more concerned with material than with spiritual things.”

A church dies when it becomes self-absorbed, wrapped up in itself.  The same possibility could happen to Morningside.  Making the assumption that 897 South Pine Street is the center of the kingdom of God would be a death knell for the church.  If we ever think this is all about us, if we ever think that we can be a church on our own, we are on a road to death.

The church of Sardis was so devoid of life that it actually faced no struggles.  Notice that Sardis is the only church that the risen Christ offered no form of commendation.  Christ gave it only condemnation.  Compare this church to the others in the series.  The church had no Jewish accusers even though a large Jewish population lived in Sardis.  We see no false apostles here, no word about domineering Nicolaitans.  No seducers were creating problems at Sardis, as at Thyatira.  We see no evidence of idolatry or Caesar worship.  Nothing opposed the church, so why beat a dead horse?  The church was dead.

At the scene of an accident, a paramedic immediately checks the four primary vital signs:  respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature.  A paramedic first establishes that a person can breathe, the heartbeat is normal, the blood pressure is high enough or low enough, and the body temperature is near normal.  Then the medical worker considers other factors:  What pain level is the patient suffering?  What is the patient’s blood sugar level?  Are the patient’s pupils dilated?  What kind of emotional distress is the patient experiencing?  Is the patient disoriented?  Is the patient able to function?

We have seen Jesus always coming to each of the churches in this series in a different way.  At Sardis, we read that he came with the “seven spirits of God,” which we read about in the first chapter of Revelation.  Added to that are the seven stars.  Remember that seven is the perfect number.  The “seven spirits” are symbols of the perfection of the Holy Spirit.  Christ came with the fullness of the Holy Spirit and told Sardis, “You are dead.  You have no vital signs.”

If we want to determine whether a church is living or dead, what vital signs must we consider?  If we understand the fullness of the Spirit, perhaps we can do no better than go back to Galatians 5:22-23 and look at the fruit of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-discipline.  A church with those operative traits is healthy.  A church devoid of those qualities needs some sort of death knell because it is dead.

The greatest need of the church at Sardis was an infusion of the Spirit of God.  Jesus could have said, “I am through with you.”  You will notice, however, that he did not give up on the church.  He spent enough time in this short letter to provide the steps of recovery.

Some years Clare took away my barbershop privileges and told me I could no longer pick my barber.  One day after I had gotten a bad haircut she asked, “What in the world happened to you?  It looks as if somebody cut your hair with a lawnmower!  That’s it.  You cannot choose your barber anymore.  From now on I will pick your stylist.”

Clare has chosen a fine barber for me, one who does a great job though I do pay more for a cut now.  That shop has not one single Field and Stream magazine, not one Sports Illustrated, nothing I enjoy reading while waiting on a trim.

I was in an old-fashioned barbershop several years ago on a hot summer day, looking through some magazines.  I picked up a winter edition of an old Outdoor magazine about two years old and read the remarkable story about a man who had fallen, with his snowmobile, through the ice on a frozen lake.  Fortunately someone saw the accident and was able to pull the man from the frigid water.  Blue, cold, and unconscious, he was rushed to the hospital and presumed dead.  The physician who checked his vital signs detected a faint heartbeat, a slight pulse, and a shallow respiration.  Very slowly the doctor resuscitated the man.

Jesus wanted to do something similar to the church in Sardis.  He wanted to bring it back to life.  In order for that to happen though, there is a sense in which death had to occur.  Let me explain.  Jesus said in Matthew 16:26, “If you want to save your life, you have to be willing to lose your self.  If you lose yourself for my sake, you will save your life.”  These comments sound like a riddle in English.  In the Greek language, however, the remark makes a play on two Greek words.  Auton, the word from which we get autonomy and autonomous, is the selfish part of ourselves.  Pseuche, which comes into the English language as psyche, is sometimes translated self, life, and soul.  Jesus was saying, “If you want to save your pseuche – that essential part of yourself – you have to be willing to lose your auton.  If you will lose or give up your auton – the selfish part of yourself – you can save the pseuche – your life, your soul, your very self.”  A church must die to itself.  Our very life as individuals and as the church comes when we give up that selfish part of ourselves and surrender to Christ Jesus.

Jesus offered Sardis a five-step plan of recovery.

First, a dead church must wake up and become aware that being a church is not something we can do on our own.  How many times have we repeated, “Faith honors God.  God honors faith”?  A church that is alive must operate on the basis of faith.  It must live by faith in Christ Jesus.

Second, a church must strengthen what good qualities remain through prayer.  He told Sardis in Verse 2, “Your deeds are imperfect in the sight of God.”  A church must pray because a church advances on its knees.  Without prayer we cannot abide in Christ.  Jesus said, “I am the vine; and you are the branches.  If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  That abiding is the life of prayer.  It does not consist of a few prayer warriors.  Neither does it consist of an occasional five-minute prayer.  That abiding is a church committed to the life of prayer, a church that takes seriously prayer as a part of its ministry.

Third, a church must remember to stay true to the message, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Great Commission.  A church that is alive has a passion for missions and knows the importance of evangelism.  A relationship evangelism, telling people the good news of Christ in the context of interpersonal relationships, seems to be a far more effective way of reaching someone for Christ.  If all of us were actively involved in telling others about Christ and what he has done for us, we would become a much stronger church, a more vital church.

Fourth, a church must recover hope.  That hope is not just hope “in the sweet by and by,” though that is certainly part of it.  It is not just the hope of heaven.  It is the hope that is ours in Christ, hope that fully believes that our commitment to Christ can bring a better future.  We live in a world that has basically lost hope.  We must not lose hope.  We are the people of the covenant.  We are the people of Christ.  We know, “If God is for you, who can be against you?” (Romans 8:31).  Our hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ, in the power of his resurrection, in the promise of life eternal both now and later.

Fifth, the church must be people of love.  Do you remember Paul’s words in I Corinthians 13?  “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels…though I have the gift of prophecy…if I can fathom all mysteries and knowledge…and even if I have faith to move mountains but have not love, I am nothing.  I am like clanging brass or sounding cymbals.”

Sixth, the church must follow the example of the faithful.  The risen Christ says to Sardis, “Some of you have not yet soiled your clothes.”  White garments are a sign of redemption, salvation by the grace of God.  Most dying churches have at least a few who are faithful.  Jesus instructed the church, “Follow the example of the faithful.  If you will become like them, I promise that you will be dressed in white, clothed in purity.  Your names will be inscribed in the Lamb’s Book of Life.  I will acknowledge you before my Father in heaven.”

One January our son Kris and I traveled to London, England, where we went to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey.  Something that struck me is the large number of people buried in these churches.  The floor is covered with markers inscribed with names.  You have to wonder if anything is happening in those churches among all the dead.

Kris and I also went to St. Martin’s of the Field in Trafalgar Square, a church that has the largest ministry to the homeless population of London.  We saw literally hundreds of people flocking into that church on a cold, rainy Wednesday to eat a warm meal, to escape the damp weather, and to observe Communion together.  It was a time of real worship for Kris and I.  St. Martin’s was very much alive.

You can determine if a church is alive by examining its vital signs, by considering evidence of the fruit of the Spirit.  Does the church live by faith?  Does the church have hope?  Is the church bonded together in love?  Does the church pray?  A church having those qualities is very much alive.

Do you know Christ as your Savior?  If you have not acknowledged him, could we extend an invitation to you to accept him as the Lord of your life?  We invite you to make a decision to join the kingdom of God.

Kirk H. Neely
 © March 2013

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