1 "And to the angel of the church in Sardis write,
'These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: "I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 2 Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God.[ a]
3 Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. 4 You[b] have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. 5 He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
6 "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."'
Fred Craddock, probably one of the most influential preaching teachers in the United States, tells a story of when he started out early in his ministry. He went to this church in Eastern Tennessee. The community was having an energy plant being built nearby. This was maybe 50 years ago. The church in that community had a beautiful building. It was all built out of a giant poplar tree, and the church and the building were about one hundred and twenty years old at the time.
Now, like I said, there was this power plant being built outside of town. There was not enough housing in town to hold all the workers. So the workers and their families lived in makeshift trailer parks, campers, and tents. They would be there for a year or two at most while the plant was being constructed.
Pastor Fred decided to approach the church leadership about trying to reach the people in those trailer parks and camps. He talked to them about starting an invitational and calling plan to visit with the people in these areas and invite them to church.
One of the more vocal leaders said, "Oh no, I don't think we will do that. Those people won't be here very long. They're construction workers. They're just temporary. They will be leaving pretty soon."
Pastor Fred, "Well, we should invite them while they are here. Make them feel at home."
The leadership of the churched argued and debated on the issue. The next week was a business meeting of the church. The first motion was that anyone who was going to be a member of the church had to own land in the community. There was a little debate. And the motion passed.
Pastor Fred, who was a young pastor at the time, moved on to another church, then to his teaching and preaching activities with seminaries, then toward the end of his career back in the Southern part of the country. He went back to see that church with his wife, who he had married after that first pastorate.
He had a hard time finding it at first, but then, bit by bit as he searched for it he found that church out in the woods. It was the same building. It was glimmering white in the distance. There were all sorts of cars around it. Motorcycles and trucks too. On the front of that building there was a big sign that said "Barbeque, ALL THAT YOU CAN EAT".
It is a restaurant now you see. All the pews were pushed to the side of the building. There was all sorts of tables in the middle. The kerosene lights were replaced by electric ones.
Pastor Fred sat down. It was getting late after their looking around. It was time to eat. As he dug into the barbequed pork and chicken and ribs he said, "It is a good thing this is not still a church building, otherwise these people couldn't be in here".
When I was in Colorado Springs, and we were looking at starting this new outreach-driven worship service, I was trying to do something to communicate the importance of the task we were embarking on. One day I had an idea, and I went to take pictures of all of the church buildings in the downtown Colorado Springs area that were now housing something other than a church. Within a few blocks I found a hip-hop night club, an alternative, progressive newspaper, a photography studio, and among other things. It was kind of sad really. It has had an impact on me ever sense.
It is, in some ways, an image of what Jesus is telling us through John about the church in Sardis. The Church in Sardis, Jesus says, was the church of the living dead. It was a church full of Zombie Christians, that is Christians that appear alive on the outside, but are really dead. The Christians of Sardis walk around, live their lives, and appear to be upstanding citizens. But from God's point of view they were appearing to be alive but spiritually dead.
This must have come as quite a shock to the people there in Sardis. Sardis was the kind of church that everyone appreciated and respected. This is why verse 1 says that the church "has a name that they are alive, but they are dead".
The Sardis church was a church that everyone wanted to be like. It was a nice place to be. It was a comfortable place to be. People that had good reputations in town were a part of that church family. A good number of people were showing up. There was no record of the church being persecuted by the Jews. There was no record of the church being persecuted by the townspeople or the local government. It appears to have a good financial campaign. Yet for some reason in God's eyes, it was a horrific church. A church that walked around like it was alive, yet was rotting and decomposing and a stinking mess at the same time. It was…a zombie church.
So a letter comes from Jesus as written by John to them. They are not told that their church is being told that their church has bad doctrine. It has not been infiltrated by some heretical group. From the sounds of it the folks have just become lethargic about their faith. They had become apathetic.
Apathy was not unusual for the people of Sardis. Spiritual apathy or any other kind of apathy. The history of Sardis was that it was destroyed over and over again due to a lack of vigilance.
Sardis was a city that was built up upon a hill. Behind it was a mountain. On the three other sides of the city were steep drop-offs, which were then built upon with a series of large pillars called a Parthenon. The drop off to the ground below the main part of the city was 1500 feet down. They felt like their home was inpenetratable. They were arrogant about it. Twice the city was humbled by a sneak attack. First by the Persians. Then 400 years later by the Greeks. Then, a few decades earlier, they were forced to rebuild the community due to a massive earthquake. They were always expecting the easy life, and then getting surprised when bad things happen to them up in their little perch of a city.
Jesus seeks to call them out of their apathy by shouting a number of warnings: WAKE UP! STRENGTHEN WHAT REMAINS! REMEMBER! OBEY! REPENT! IWILL COME UPON YOU LIKE A THEIF! YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT HOUR I'M COMING.
Last night we had a tornado warning. If the tornado would have come through town a siren would have gone off. Many of us would have been running for basements or bathtubs or door awnings. The warning of Jesus is like a tornado warning in a spiritual sense. Wake up. Pay attention. Be ready. You have been apathetic and lazy in your faith and it has corrupted you, he says to the church in Sardis.
Jesus was teaching the church not to live by faith in the attendance numbers, the bank account, or the vague belief that everything will work out in the end.
Sardis teaches us that we can be very religious, look very Christian, and even have a growing church and be spiritually dead. Sardis was. And it serves as a warning to us.
I have spent many years as a youth pastor taking youth to water parks in the summer. In the middle of most of the water parks is a thing called the lazy river. A lazy river is a flow of water where you can just get on the inner tube, float along, get some sun, and stay cool in the water. Without hardly any effort, you can go round and round in this little river. I like that I can get somewhere without much intention or effort.
Being a Christian is nothing like being on a lazy river. Being a healthy church is nothing like being on a lazy river either.
Being a Christian is about consistent, continual growth in the grace of God. Think about the metaphors for the Christian life. Growing in Christ. A Faith Journey. A Spiritual Walk. Maturing from Childhood to Adulthood. Nothing about a healthy spiritual life speaks about floating along, sitting back on our easy chair, doing nothing. Never is lethargy or apathy condoned in Scripture in relationship to our life with Jesus.
Trying to just coast in your spiritual journey is like trying to take your foot off the gas in the middle of rush hour traffic in Denver, putting a blindfold on, and waiting for something good to happen. It won't. And with that approach, it won't be long before at the least you get a ticket, and at worse you make a wreck for yourself and everyone around you.
Jesus speaks this word to Sardis, but Sardis is a warning, even a parable if you will, to people like you and I. Even more, it is a warning to us as a church.
No church can rest on its history and previous accomplishments and expect God to bless it. Every church needs to be vigilant about opportunities for ministry. Each church needs to be vigilant to be faithful. To be standing for Christ. Each church is only as strong as it cares for each other today, as it reaches the lost for Christ today, as it studies the word day to day, as it prays day to day. There is no such thing as retirement in the kingdom of God. God is not impressed with our plans for the future as a church, or our history as a church. He looks at who we are right now. He asks us are we growing? Are we taking steps in the journey?
Neither can we rest on past accomplishments in our personal lives. We are who we are right now. Are we growing in Christlikeness? Can people see the fruit of Spirit in our lives? Or are we just hoping to float along in our spiritual journey, like the lazy river?
You are who you are in relationship with Jesus right now. Have you accepted Christ? Are you growing? Or is the spirit calling out to you like it did the church in Sardis saying WAKE UP! GET READY! You know what God is saying to you. And, you know how to respond. As the book of Revelation says, "Here what the Spirit is saying to the churches."