Besides celebrating the Protestant Reformation next Sunday,
it’s also the observance of Halloween
– a day widely known for tricks and treats – all against the backdrop of acknowledging and playfully confronting our universal fear of death.
Especially around this time of year, as some dress in costumes,
one of the more recent cultural fascinations has been with zombies.
From television shows to movies to novels
– zombies have become the monsters of the moment.
Just in case these fictional creatures are not your thing, zombies are human beings who have died that somehow have become reanimated.
And yet zombies aren’t alive. But then they also are not lifeless.
Hence zombies – these animated corpses –
have often been labeled as the living or walking dead.
You may be wondering what in the world
this could possibly have to do with today’s message.
Well, as we return to the Book of Revelation
and the seven letters written by Jesus to specific local churches
in the 1st century A.D. – messages that speak not only to each of them
but also beyond their particular situation and time
to all of churches in all periods of history,
and as we come to shortest of those seven letters,
Jesus essentially will be describe a church in a place called Sardis
in this very way.
Zombie-like. Seemingly alive but pretty much dead.
So let’s huddle close together and hear something of a scary story.
A frightening account of how the Body of Christ
can end us as little more than an animated corpse.
A prophetic word for all churches so that we can avoid
becoming without realizing it – the living or walking dead. (TEXT)
About 50 miles inland from the Aegean Sea,
was the ancient city of Sardis.
Insert map (previously submitted)
Long before it came under Roman rule,
going as far back as the time of the Judges,
Sardis was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia
– a realm that stretched across all of Asia Minor.
At the crossroads of five major trade routes,
Sardis was acclaimed throughout the then-known world
as a busy, wealthy center of traffic and trade.
Part of Sardis’ claim to fame was for being the most well-protected
of all the cites in that region.
The typical ancient city was almost always built around
a single mountain known as the acropolis.
On the top of the acropolis, one would then find
the most important buildings and city centers that needed protection.
By situating the heart of the city on a mountain, one forced their enemy
to both literally and metaphorically fight an uphill battle.
The city of Sardis, however, was uniquely built around two mountains.
Situated on a 1500 foot high plateau with perpendicular
and therefore almost unscalable rock walls on three sides,
there was only one major access route into Sardis
– a steep ascent on the remaining south side that was easily guarded.
By the time Sardis became part of the Roman Empire, in the 1st century after Christ, the city only possessed only a hint of her former greatness.
Both an earthquake in 17 A.D. as well as the march of progress, diminished both the longstanding prestige and significance of Sardis.
The high plateau on which the city was built found itself too small
and too inaccessible for housing an expanding governmental center.
And so, over time much of the population relocated to the plain below Sardis – that came to house the authority of the power and prestige of Rome – the city we looked at two weeks ago named Pergamum.
As for the church in Sardis, all we have to go on
is what Jesus details in this letter.
There is no biblical account of when or how or by whom
this church was established.
But however this community came into being, this church, somewhere along the way, had acquired the reputation of being a lively congregation.
The word on the street in Sardis was “This is a church that’s alive.”
By appearances, this community gives
every indication of health and vitality.
There is no identification of any opposition or persecution
being brought upon this church.
There is no talk of them having to wrestle with
the presence of Balaam or Jezebel type of figures.
There is no mention made of this community
being plagued with idolatry or false teaching.
Nothing seems to be wrong with the church in Sardis;
and yet, everything is wrong.
For all that glitters is not gold. Appearances are deceiving.
Because despite what everyone else perceives,
the way Jesus sees it, the church in Sardis has flatlined.
In what is one of his harshest criticisms in these seven letters,
Jesus says of the church in Sardis: “I know your deeds;
you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”
– Revelation 3:1
Something that stands out about this letter from the other seven is
the fact that Jesus offers no affirmation of this church whatsoever.
Typically in his message to each church Jesus begins by identifying
and commending a particular strength of the community before then moving on to raise a concern – to point out a needed growth area.
However, in this letter, all the fellowship in Sardis has going for it
is a good reputation in the neighborhood
– as an active, flourishing, and successful church.
But even that, Jesus declares, is without basis or merit.
The only possible compliment Jesus gives to the fellowship in Sardis
is that of “knowing their deeds” – of acknowledging this community
is a beehive of activity – with something always going on.
But what sounds like a compliment is really part of
Jesus’ critique of the church in Sardis because,
despite all their activity, Jesus insists their deeds are not as they seem:
“…for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.”
– Revelation 3:2
Before we unpack the particular problem of the church in Sardis,
let us be sure to notice how often Jesus keeps bringing up
in these letters “the deeds” of these various churches
– what they as a community are doing or not doing.
As an extreme reaction to legalism, there has long been a tendency
within the Protestant church to deemphasize or even negate
the role of good works in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
And so it has been drummed into many Christians
that because we are saved by grace and faith alone
– and nothing we do – our deeds, our work don’t matter.
But this is a flawed understanding of our relationship with Jesus Christ.
To be clear, while indeed the heart of the Gospel is that
we cannot and do not deserve, earn, or merit
God’s forgiveness, healing, and salvation by our good works,
our good works still matter to God.
Jesus saves us by grace but Jesus does not save us
so we can sit around and just profess our belief in God
and how God saves people.
Jesus saves us by grace so that we can follow Him
– so that we can serve God by serving others
– by extending the love and grace He gives to us.
While we are not saved by our works – what we do,
our salvation must always be accompanied by our good works
because that is what we were created for, that is what we are saved for.
because our work reveals not only what we truly believe
but who or what we ultimately follow.
Hence, in these letters, we witness Jesus addressing the deeds
– the work of each church – as the key indicator of
not only of their professed belief in Him – but whether or not
– out of the grace God gives they are actually following Him.
Relating this back to the church in Sardis,
the issue isn’t that this community of Christians isn’t doing anything.
Again, this is a church with a reputation for doing lots of things;
the problem is everything they are doing had nothing really to do
with Jesus – the will and work of Christ.
Their deeds, their works were incomplete in the sense
that while whatever the church in Sardis was doing
may have had the label of Christianity slapped on it;
none of it was pointing others to Christ, advancing the Kingdom of God,
– sharing the Gospel.
In other words, the church in Sardis was just keeping up appearances.
Claiming the name of Christ,
but upon closer inspection looking nothing like Jesus.
Perpetually busy so as to give the impression of being vibrant
but not animated at all by the Spirit of Christ
and therefore, without much of a pulse and functionally dead.
What haunts the zombie-like church of Sardis is a long-standing problem that is raised throughout the Bible.
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel struggled with very same issue
– of reputation over reality, of appearance over authenticity.
The people of Israel knew how to look good for God
but neglected to do good as a reflection of their commitment to God.
Israel knew how to put on a show
– to get caught up in all sorts of ritual activity and worship production.
But time and again, the prophets of the Lord would cry out to them,
like Jesus does in this letter, stating what was obvious to God
but to which everyone else remained in denial.
Here’s a sampling of the words of the prophet, Isaiah,
“These people draw near to me with their mouths.
They honor me with their lips yet their hearts are far from me in vain, do they worship me.” -Isaiah 29:13
Or consider what God declares through the words of the prophet Amos,
“I despise your festivals. Your gatherings are a stench to me,
away with the noise of your songs.” – Amos 5:21-22
Centuries later, when Jesus walked before us on this earth,
in the same vein of the prophets and with a similar indictment
to the one we read in this letter, Jesus would decry the religious leaders
of his day as being nothing more than the walking dead, saying:
“You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” -Matthew 23:27
The church of Sardis was a church more focused on their reputation
rather than the reality of their relationship with Christ.
The church of Sardis was a congregation going through the motions
of religious duties instead of embodying and reflecting
the way, the truth, and the life of the Kingdom of God.
The church of Sardis was a community that prided itself
of giving the outward appearance of believing in Jesus
without having an internal integrity
– any authentic movement or action in following Christ.
As always, these letters to these churches serve as a mirror
for reflecting upon our own health and condition as a community of faith.
And what do we see, people of Grace, when we look within
– as we peer first within ourselves as individuals
but then also look wider upon ourselves as a congregation?
Are we still living in the past – living off the reputation of our former glory and slowly becoming nothing more than a vacant reminder of better days?
Or are we living for the Kingdom of God in this present moment
– seeking to follow Jesus – pointing to and sharing Christ
– where Jesus is moving and working in our world today?
Is all our activity together – what we are doing
– nothing more than a social club
– a singular effort to try to maintain what we have
– to protect the institution of Grace – or are we aiming to continue to grow
– to mature in our identity and calling in Christ?
Are we willing to go beyond being a friendly and welcoming church
– to a community that dares to take our hospitality
out into the neighborhood
– to love and to serve those who may not
show up on Sunday – who may never become a part of Grace?
Are we striving to add members or to recruit missionaries?
Are we content to attract consumers
or are we committed to developing disciples of Christ?
Are we, as individuals, as a community,
coasting when it comes to our faith in Jesus?
Because there is only one direction a person can coast.
We can’t coast uphill; we can only coast downhill.
In a healthy relationship, there is no coasting.
Once we stop abiding in and following Christ,
our relationship with Jesus stops growing.
And when we cease to grow in our relationship with Jesus,
we stop living and start dying. When we no longer choose to live by the Spirit of Christ, we become what we were before Jesus came into our lives – an animated but ultimately lifeless corpse.
By all external appearances
– by all the measures of worldly reputation and success –
we may look alive and kicking but the truth will remain
that we’re just another zombie – a dead man walking.
Our lives are not our own.
We don’t bring ourselves into this world
and despite how we may try to outrun our mortality,
we can’t avoid one day coming to the end of the line.
Jesus’ warning to the church in Sardis is applicable to us all.
In response to those who are content to live by appearances
– to put on the air of belonging to Him
but not actually, functionally following Him,
Jesus cautions that he will come unexpectedly
like “a thief in the night.”
“I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time
I will come to you. – Revelation 3:3
Christ reminds us that our lives are in His hands
– that one day – not in our timing but in His
– he will take back what He has given to us – our life – our salvation.
If we have chosen to live as those we were dead,
then death will be our future.
But if we have chosen to live for Christ, then death will become nothing more than a transition into the fullness of everlasting life with Jesus.
If we are searching for some good news
in the midst of the horror story of this letter,
we discover it – as always – in the Gospel
– in the enduring hope we have, we are offered in Christ.
If death were the final word for the church in Sardis – for us
– then Jesus would have nothing else to say.
But talk is never cheap with Christ.
Beloved, we worship a God who creates by speaking.
Despite whatever we do or don’t do,
thanks to the lingering, ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit,
there always is a sign of life even when the Church is in critical condition.
And so Jesus issues a series of commands to the church in Sardis.
But Jesus doesn’t bark out a bunch of orders for us
to pull ourselves together by our own will and strength.
Out of the same power of God that raised Him from the dead,
Jesus directs us towards living out of the Gospel
– of being resurrected anew by the possibility and promises of grace.
The first command Jesus gives is the most important: Wake up!
“Wake up!” – Revelation 3:2
With this initial instruction it becomes clear that the church in Sardis
isn’t so much dead yet as about to die in their sleep.
Based on the history of Sardis,
Jesus’ choice of words here seems intentional
– intended to provoke some familiar associations
for the Christians who lived in the city.
Do you remember what I shared about
the strategic location and layout of Sardis?
Because of this, Sardis had something of a reputation
– prided itself even – on being an impregnable city.
The city was never taken by direct military assault.
And yet – on not just one – but two separate occasions,
the city of Sardis was successfully captured.
In 549 B.C., the ancient Persian ruler Cyrus managed to find
a chink in Sardis’ armor as one of his soldiers steathily scaled the perpendicular walls of the fortress and discovered a small access hole.
Once he made his way into Sardis, this climber opened the gates of the city from within and Sardis was overtaken while its citizens slept soundly.
As crazy as it seems, the very same thing happened again in 218 B.C.
as the Greek king, Antiochus the Great captured Sardis pretty much
the same way – again as the people of the city were fast asleep.
In the poetry and wisdom of the day, Sardis became a symbol
– a cautionary tale on the dangers of pride and overconfidence.
Jesus is tapping into this lesson of history and applying to His Church.
In fact, an even better translation of this admonition by Christ
would be “Stay alert! Keep on being watchful!”
Jesus isn’t just calling us to wake up after having fallen asleep.
Jesus is calling us to stay awake – to remain vigilant and watchful.
We fall asleep without knowing it for one of two reasons.
First, in trying to do everything in our own strength
rather than engaging our work out of first abiding or resting in Christ,
we exhaust ourselves and burn out.
We are no longer able to keep our eyes open.
And thus the practices and tools of our faith just become
rote, religious chores/duties rather than a means of relational intimacy
– of having authentic life in Christ.
Beloved, there is a difference between doing things for Jesus
– and living in and through Christ.
One way drains the very life out of us;
the other fills us with new, everlasting life.
The second way we can fall asleep is by becoming complacent
– self-satisfied in our relationship.
Rather than perceiving ourselves
as works in progress but for the grace of God,
we convince ourselves we’ve arrived.
We’re all grown up when it comes to learning from Jesus.
Many of us who are listening and watching right now
have a lot of mileage in terms of professing faith in Christ,
but how far have we gotten in following Jesus?
Let us ask ourselves – listening to the Spirit – are we a mile wide but little more than an inch deep when it comes to our relationship with Christ?
We’ve been busy amassing loads of knowledge about Jesus
but how deeply are we experiencing and sharing
the presence and power of Christ in our lives?
We’ve been a part of a flurry of activities in the name of Jesus
but how much growth have been experienced
in becoming who we are in Christ, in reflecting Jesus to others?
Do we think we are alive, but in reality, we are dying?
Have we become either exhausted or stagnant in our faith?
Is this wake-up call from Jesus for you? For us?
Jesus goes on to tell us how to stay awake.
We remain alert and vigilant by
“remembering what we have received and heard.”
“Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard…”
– Revelation 3:3
What we choose to remember informs how we live in the present.
A good, healthy, right memory is essential to our perception of the future.
This is why – not just in this letter – but throughout the scriptures,
we are repeatedly encouraged to remember all we’ve been given
– by whom and for what purpose.
When we believe life – getting through each day is all up to us,
once we convince ourselves that we’ve arrived,
we forget where we’ve come from.
We forget whose we are, who God is,
how we ended up apart from God
and all that God has done and continues to do for us
in order to close that divide forever.
Jesus’ charge for us to remember dovetails beautifully
with his additional call to “hold fast” and to “repent.”
“Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard;
hold it fast, and repent. – Revelation 3:3
Another way to understand what repentance is
as turning around or thinking again is remembering
what we have chosen to forget.
To repent is to keep remembering to reorient ourselves to our true north
– to being rooted in the word of God, to being centered in the Spirit,
to moving in the direction of where Jesus is.
To remember, to repent – not just in the case of emergencies,
not only when we’ve eliminated all other options, we need to hold fast
– not to let go of all that we’ve received and heard.
Jesus doesn’t ever let go of us but we can let go of Him and forget that He’s there – with and for us even as we stumble blindly in the dark.
To hold out to the Gospel we’ve heard
and the Word and Spirit we’ve received is not merely
to possess it and file it away but to cherish it, to chew on it,
to embody it, to reflect it every which way we can.
Not in this moment when we are gathered for worship
but as we go about our day-to-day lives,
have we forgotten the Gospel we have heard?
What is the defining narrative that drives our lives?
Is it the good news of Jesus Christ
– that we are so much more than whatever we earn or accomplish?
– that we don’t have to live to prove ourselves or justify our existence?
– that we can live out of the freedom and assurance of
love that is unconditional, of hope that is eternal, of a God
who believes in us even when we don’t believe in Him
– of faith that is a gift?
Is part of the reason we are so tired, so burned out,
that we’re just sleepwalking is because we have forgotten
we have received the Holy Spirit – the very life of Jesus?
It’s the Spirit of Christ that brought us this far.
It’s the Spirit of Jesus that raised us from our spiritual deadness.
We are born of the Spirit. We are filled with the Spirit.
And we can, we must live by the Spirit.
Who – what voice, what power, what wisdom
– is directing and shaping our thoughts, our words, and our actions?
Is it the Word and Spirit of the living God?
Are we walking by the Word and the Spirit?
Worshiping in the Word and the Spirit?
Praying through the Word and the Spirit?
Are we being transformed by the Word and the Spirit?
Is the presence and power of Christ animating us
– bringing forth the Kingdom of God through us
or are we still trying to please God, to serve others,
to satisfy ourselves through our strength and will?
Hence, the other command Jesus extends to us is
to “Strengthen what remains and is about to die…”
“Strengthen what remains and is about to die…” – Revelation 3:2
In other words, Christ is directing us to get back to the heart of worship
– to abide in the Word and the Spirit and out of the grace – the strength and direction that comes from the Word and the Spirit – to follow Jesus again.
Beloved, there is a difference between telling ourselves and others
we believe in Christ and actually following Him.
Fitting Jesus into our lives is not the same thing as yielding to Christ, abiding in Jesus and letting Jesus integrate our lives into his life.
The dynamics of the life to which Jesus calls us, invites us, promises us, cannot be experienced via a perfunctory to-do list; it is realized by
living in Christ, with Jesus through the Word and the Spirit.
And yet, when it comes to being a part of the Body of Christ,
we have a tendency to view our participation as “paying our dues”
rather than growing in Christ.
Whereas once we actively served – when we were younger
– we’ve retired from the ministry of the Church.
In our minds, we’ve done our part and now others need to pull their weight.
And so, we choose to simply occupy a pew
– to take a back seat and rest on what we’ve accomplished for the church.
More often than not, this marks the beginning of a decline
in one’s spiritual life.
Whatever we do in the name of the Lord is not primarily
for the sake of the Church – but for OUR growth and maturity in Christ.
When this is not our motivation and means of serving the Body,
we will falsely come to the conviction that we’ve arrived
– that retirement is a viable option in our discipleship with Jesus.
But the minute we stop progressing, we stagnate.
And stagnation almost always leads to regression – to losing all that we have gained – to finding ourselves no longer alive to the things of God.
Beloved, faithfulness is more important than appearing to be faithful.
It’s a humbling moment when we realize
that we are not something that we thought we were,
that we are not all that we claim to be.
But such a realization need not be a cause for despair.
For, by the grace of God, there is still life in us yet.
Better to be sleepy than to be dead.
Just as Jesus declares in Sardis,
“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.” – Revelation 3:4
in the history of the Church,
there always has been a faithful remnant –
a modest few, who thanks to the Holy Spirit,
raise the alarm and beckon the majority
not to go gently into that good night.
It’s time to wake up Church.
Let us be among those who rise like Lazarus at the call of Jesus.
Let us remember and hold fast to the Gospel we have heard.
– to the Word and Spirit we have been given
Let us hold fast to the Word and the Spirit we have received
and continue to grow and mature in Christ.
Let us, instead of pulling up our sleeves and gritting our teeth,
find our strength down on our knees as we yield and abide
first and only the presence and power of Jesus.
Let us strengthen what remains by reflecting Christ to and for each other, by sharing Jesus in word and deed in our neighborhoods, by representing the love and truth of the Kingdom of God in our families, our marriages, our workplaces, our communities, and our world.
Let us stop playing dead and instead go forward
with gratitude and thanksgiving that our names
are written in the Book of Life
“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.” – Revelation 3:5
– that we are our future victory in Christ is not in doubt.
Clothed in the white robes of our baptism into
God’s mercy, forgiveness and grace,
“The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white.”
– Revelation 3:5
we are not the living or walking dead – ours is the glory of everlasting life as we keep following Jesus. Amen.