We continue this morning with the fifth in a series of messages based on Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Asia found in Revelation 2-3. Remember what we said a few weeks ago. Revelation is an apocalypse which is an unveiling. In it Jesus pulls back the curtain to show us something that we need to know. Revelation is also a prophecy and the main purpose of any prophecy is to call us back to faithfulness. The book of Revelation calls the people back to faithfulness and reveals how this is accomplished in times of persecution.
Today the postman enters the city of Sardis, 50 km. south east of Thyatira. This is a city with thick walls and strong gates. It is, in fact, one of the most fortified cities in Asia Minor. Its claim to fame, however, is that despite its immense fortifications, it has been conquered twice. In both cases, the city was given up almost without a fight. The enemy simply sent a small group of soldiers to scale the wall at night. They got in, overwhelmed the guards at the gates and opened them up for the rest of the army to enter. This happened because the soldiers defending Sardis had become over-confident in their mighty fortifications and grown complacent. And so the enemy snuck in and defeated them.
There is a message here for us today. If we in the church are not vigilant, we might just find ourselves overpowered by the enemy before we know what has happened. Indeed, there is more here than meets the eye.
JESUS HOLDS THE SPIRITS AND THE ANGELS
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. (verse 1a)
Through the angel, Jesus once again says something about himself. He is the one who holds the seven spirits and the seven stars. Last week, we learned that the number seven is a special number in the book of Revelation. It represents completeness and wholeness.
When Jesus says that he holds the seven spirits, he is saying that he holds all of the Spirit by which he means the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that he sent to be with us. Jesus is saying that the Holy Spirit belongs to him but he has given it to us as a gift. It is his to share with us and he does.
He also says that he holds the seven stars. In Revelation 1:20 we learn that the seven stars are the seven angels that watch over the churches. Remember that the number seven is the number of completeness. When Jesus says that he holds the seven angels, he is really saying that he holds all of the angels. They are all under his control, subservient to him to do his bidding for the churches. They will deliver his message to his Church.
I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. (verse 1b)
This letter is a bit unique in that, rather than moving into a commendation for the church, Jesus moves right into his condemnation, his complaint with the church in Sardis. But Jesus’ complaint is short. He criticizes them because, while they have a reputation for being alive, they are dead.
When Jesus sees their deeds, he sees a very busy church. He sees people who worshiped regularly, break bread together, reach out into the community, feed the poor, probably have committee meetings every night of the week. There is a ton of stuff going on in the church in Sardis. So why does Jesus say that they are dead?
In Sardis, the congregation is doing all the right things but it is doing them for all the wrong reasons. Sure the church is busy and it is doing good stuff. But what it lacks is the Holy Spirit. That’s why it is dead.
Here’s something that is not going to surprise anyone. There are all sorts of dead churches in this world. There are all sorts of congregation that look great from the outside. They have beautiful buildings that are maintained to the highest standards. They worship at the usual time on Sunday morning. They have lots of programmes. At first glance, they look very alive. But they are dead. They are dead because they have forgotten something. They have forgotten why they exist. Why do they exist? They exist to equip Christians to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. That’s it. It’s not hard. It’s not complicated. But when we forget that, we die because we grieve the Holy Spirit.
Too many churches don’t understand this simple thing. Unfortunately, too many congregations think that their prime purpose is to keep their building in good repair. Churches love their buildings. They keep them in immaculate condition. They are busy raising money to fix the roof or put in new windows. But where is the Spirit?
I will never forget hearing Paul Bwalya a few years ago. Paul was a missionary from Zambia who came to Canada through the support of United Church to share his stories of the Church in Africa. Paul told us that United Church missionaries went to Zambia 120 years ago to share the Gospel. They told the African people about the atoning blood of Jesus that washes away their sins. They told them about how the Holy Spirit would fill their lives and empower them for ministry. They started small village churches. Paul is the minister of one of those churches today except that like most churches in Africa it grew. In Paul’s church, on an average Sunday there are three choirs that sing at least two anthems each. The sermons need to be at least forty-five minutes long. People bring their lunches. There are baptisms every Sunday for new converts. Usually, there are between ten and fifteen. His church is vibrant and alive. It is growing in leaps and bounds and, most importantly, it is filled with the Spirit.
When he looked around at many United Churches, he saw aging congregations with buildings that were too big and budgets that were too small. He saw a lack of life and vitality and then he asked a pointed question. “What is it,” he said, “that the missionaries from Canada told the people in Zambia that they forgot to tell the people in Canada?” Jesus said, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” Are you getting the picture? Things are not as they seem.
Like so many churches today, the church in Sardis is a spiritual graveyard because it has forgotten about Jesus. Whatever it is doing, no matter how vibrant it might appear on the outside, it is dead because there is no Spirit. Jesus, however, has a remedy for their problems. Let’s hear what he has to say.
Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, 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. (verse 2-3)
In these verses, Jesus tells them what they have to do to revive spiritual vitality. In fact there are five things: wake up, strengthen what remains, remember, obey and repent.
Wake up! Rise from you slumber! Remember the city of Sardis. It was twice defeated by the enemy because the guards fell asleep at their posts. Jesus warns us to be vigilant or we too will fall asleep and be overwhelmed by the enemy.
Second, strengthen what remains and is about to die. All is not lost. Despite the fact that Jesus says that they are dead, there really is still a glimmer of life in the church. There is something worth saving and that’s the place to start. We don’t know what they are still doing right but Jesus tells them to start there.
Third, Jesus tells the church at Sardis to remember what you have received and heard, the simple straightforward gospel. Forget the complicated theology and the over-the-top ramblings of philosophical wannabees. Quit arguing about what the gospel says. It’s abundantly clear. It’s a Gospel of life for all who put their faith in Jesus Christ. Get back to those basics and share that message of Christ with the world.
The fourth thing that Jesus tells them to do is obey. Don’t only hear and teach the Gospel message, do what it says. It does no good to pay lip service to the Good News. We need to let it transform our lives. Jesus doesn’t just want you to say the right words. He wants you to live your life in obedience to him.
The fifth and final thing that Jesus tells the church in Sardis to do is repent. To repent is to turn your life around, to allow the Spirit to change the direction of your lives so that you live the way Jesus wants you to live. “Revive your dying spirits,” Jesus says, “and follow me.”
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. (verse 4)
It Is not all bad news for the Christians in Sardis. Jesus finally gets around to something good to say. There are still a few faithful people in this church, who are spiritually alive. They have not been soiled by the stain of mediocrity but have pressed on with a vitality that is lacking in the rest of the church.
God always leaves a faithful remnant who walk with him. Throughout the Bible, God always found someone or some small group who had remained vigilant and did not let the enemy sneak in. It was with those faithful few that God rebuilt his people.
In Genesis 6 God saved Noah and his family from the flood. When Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed (Gen. 19), God saved Lot and his daughters. Of all of the people who were part of the Exodus when God rescued the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt, only two men, Joshua and Caleb, were allowed to enter the Promised Land because they alone trusted God (Num. 13). God always leaves a faithful remnant. God still does.
Have you ever wondered how Jesus might rate your church? Is it dead or alive, awake or asleep? I’d like to suggest three questions that every church should ask itself from time to time to help assess its own spiritual vitality. Question one: What place does Jesus occupy in the life of our church? Is he central or is he on the periphery? If he is central then everything that we do is impacted by him: our sense of mission, our community outreach, how we use our volunteer and staff resources, and how we form our budget. If something is more important than Jesus, we have a problem because our God is a jealous God and insists that we give him first place in our lives.
Question 2: If Jesus were to take away his Spirit, what difference would it make? The truth is that, in many congregations, they aren’t even sure who the Spirit is. But as the people of God, we are called to move forward prayerfully and faithfully, guided by the Spirit in all that we do. We are not primarily concerned with money or stained glass windows or pipe organs. Our primary goal is to seek the Spirit’s will and then do it.
Question 3: When was the last time someone made a new decision for Christ in your church? Here’s an interesting statistic. Despite all of the money that churches spend on staff and buildings and programming and outreach, fewer than 10% of churches report even a single new convert to Christ in the last year. Why is that? It’s because many churches don’t train their people how to share their faith. And faith is best shared not at church during the Sunday sermon but one on one at the kitchen table. The seeds of faith are best sown when individuals tell their stories of the difference Jesus has made for them. We have the greatest message on earth. We have the Good News that leads not only to the best life now, it leads to eternal life before God. It is a message of hope that needs to be shared and, if we don’t share it, no one will. It is up to us to wake from our slumber and be alive for Jesus.
Those are three very interesting and challenging questions that speak to the vitality of any congregation. Things are not as they seem. There is more here than meets the eye.
He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will not blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (verse 5-6)
Jesus already said that the remnant in Sardis will be dressed in white. In verse 5 he says that the same will apply to all who are vigilant and hold tight to a living faith in Jesus. Not only does he promise that they will be dressed in white, he also explains what that means. It means that their names will be written in the book of life.
What a wonderful promise that is. Those who overcome will not only live this life with spiritual vitality, they also will taste the sweet nectar of eternal life in the mansion that Jesus has prepared for those who wake up and put their faith in him. It is our choice whether to receive it or reject it. We are called to choose. Do not slumber. Do not be lulled into complacency because the enemy is at the gates. Stay alert. Keep awake. Choose Jesus and live by his Spirit.
Those who have ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Holy God, we walk this earth day by day receiving blessing upon blessing. We offer our thanks for your many gifts given freely to us out of your generosity and grace. We praise you and thank you for the beauty of summer, for bright flowers and rustling leaves, for clean water and refreshing swims, for lemonade and ice cream.
We are grateful for our freedom and for the privilege of living in this great nation. But so much of the world seems to be in turmoil right now. Whether it be pandemics or racial justice or just plain anarchy, we ask that wiser and calmer heads prevail. We also pray that we may resist the temptation to judge all people on the poor actions of a few.
We also ask for your wisdom and blessing as we look to re-open in two weeks. Help us to be safe and faithful to your word and your way. Give wisdom not only to our church but also help people to be discerning as to whether they are ready as individuals to return. We have learned some valuable lessons in the past few months about how to be the church differently. Help us to remember those lessons and move forward in faith.
We lift up in prayer those who are graduating this year and will miss the usual graduation activities. But thank you for their accomplishments which are not lessened by the events of this time. We also pray for them as they look into the uncertainty of what happens next year.
Our prayers go to you for those who are sick this day or recovering at home or hospital. We remember especially Richard, Gary and Neil. Bless them, O God, with your healing presence.
Keep us always mindful, O God, of your presence. Keep us ever faithful to your word and your truth. Keep our feet upon the path of your making and when we wander, bring us back. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
June 21, 2020 / Pentecost 3
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Matthew 10:40-42; Romans 6:12-23
CALL TO WORSHIP
Out of the depths, we call to our God who hears our pleas and answers our cries.
Out of the depths, we wait for our God whose love is unfailing and mercies endless.
Out of our need, we seek the one who meets all need.
Into our lives, the Saviour comes.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
Holy God of Earth and Heaven, we come into your presence seeking words of encouragement and blessing. We are so thankful that you have extended your grace to us though we have neither merited or earned your favour. By your grace, we live life on earth to the very fullest. By your mercy, we accept the renewed hope of eternal life. Rain upon us with your unfailing love as we bow before your throne of glory. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
In the midst of your blessings there is the reality of our sinfulness. We were made good but we fall far short of your perfection. As we grow more mature in you, we will not be deceived, for your truth will become ever stronger within us. Expose everything that we do to the light of your word, correcting any areas of sinfulness, and strengthening the rest. Help our lives to be lights and beacons of your salvation.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
The great deceiver is set to bring us down from the grace of God. But nothing in heaven or on earth has any power to separate us from God’s love given to us in Jesus Christ. Hear the Good News of redemption. Receive the life that only Jesus brings. We are forgiven. We are free. Alleluia!
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. The heavens are filled with the wonders of God. Our lives are gifts given to us by God our Creator. Our offerings to God are in gratitude for the countless blessings that come to us every day. We thank you, O God. Amen.
The great and wonderful love of God moves in our hearts. It shines through our words and actions. May we so live that all that we do and say will give glory to the One whose glory is everlasting. Let us go and live our faith to the fullest.