Have you ever been to a place because of its reputation or reviews or recommendations and been disappointed by its reality?
Maybe a restaurant that people rave about but when you go the service and the food are not up to scratch… and the decor seems faded, out dated. You’ve been told a film is really, really good and you’ve just go to go see it…so you’ve gone and well…really …really…it wasn’t that good at all… Or maybe a hotel, that didn’t live up to its glossy slick advertisement, or a beach or a shop, or a show… or yes even a church and the reality was nothing like its good reputation. Sardis was a church that had the reputation of being alive but in Jesus eyes it was dead; It was a zombie church full of the walking dead. It needed a wakeup call… a resurrection.
We’ve been working our way through the seven letters to the seven churches at the beginning of the book of Revelation. Looking at what the spirit has to say to the churches. Churches that face problems from without and issues from within. Craig Keener summarises our journey so far like this...
"the Glorified Jesus oracle to Ephesus challenges a loveless church, His oracle to Smyrna encourages a persecuted church, His oracle to Pergamum addresses both persecution and compromise, His Oracle to Thyatira challenges compromise, But Jesus words to Sardis challenge a sleeping church to wake up."
What is the Spirit saying to the churches, what does the spirit want to say to us? Do we too need a wakeup call?
The city of Sardis reminds me of some of the surf safaris I used to go on when I was younger, you’d always turn up at a beach and no matter what the waves were like if you talked with a local they would say… yeah it’s Ok but you should have been here yesterday… Sardis was a city that you should have seen yesterday. In the sixth century BC it had been the capital of the kingdom of Lydia and ruled by its famous king Croesus, who was legendary for his wealth. It was built of a high acropolis at the end of a fertile river valley protected by sheer cliffs on three sides; making it almost impervious to attack. Several inland trade routes meet there so it was important for trade. It had been destroyed by an earth quake in 17 AD and had been rebuilt by the kindness of the emperor Tiberius. Rebuilt because of its historical value, it had applied to be the city in Asia to be granted the right to build a temple to worship the emperor Tiberius and its submission, kind of like competing to host a modern day Olympics, had been based on that historical value but it had lost out to Smyrna that was of more importance to the present and future of the region. Sardis may have been called a great city but by the time of the book of revelations it was more a city with a great past and a great reputation.
The church at Sardis seems to have taken on some of the characteristics of the city itself. Of all the churches so far this is the only church that the glorified Jesus does not have anything positive to commend the church for. It may have responded to the gospel in the past, and we don’t know anything about the origins of the church there, but now it sat back and thought the job was finished, but it wasn’t. Sardis was a centre for pagan worship and of the deified empress Lydia and was known for its large Jewish population; in fact the biggest synagogue in the ancient world, about the size of a football field, was built in the centre of the city, but unlike the other cities in the region there was no conflict or persecution from these groups. The Church seems to have been able to be accommodated in the city; it had blended in with its society. It was a church at ease. With that ease it had fallen asleep.
They like the city thought they were alive and vital but the one who holds the angles of the seven churches in his hand says they are dead. It had all the outward trappings of a church but that was a hollow shell, a good show the life had gone. It was the first church to be filled with what would call nominal Christians, a term which is defined by the Lausanne Committee of world evangelism as people who are may be practicing or non-practicing church members. They may give intellectual assent to basic Christian doctrines and claim to be Christian. They may be faithful in attending liturgical rites and worship services, and be an active member involved in church affairs, but not have come to a place of personal repentance and salvation in Christ Jesus, it is a condition that is a problem in churches as they move past the first generation of believers. They live out of a past move of God. It’s like they wear their faith like a mask and it does not go heart deep, and the word for that from Greek theatre is hypocrite… to put on an act.
There is a poignant scene in the 1972 film ‘brother son Sister moon about the early days of the ministry of St Francis of Assisi that demonstrates what may be at the heart of the problem at Sardis… Francis and his band of monk have rebuilt an old church and gather the people to worship, they are the common folk and the poor, as they walk into the church people stop and you can see that they encounter the presence of God, it moves them, in the movie this is spliced with the gathering in the town church, which is beautiful and grand full of historical significance, and all the important people are there, but it is still and silent and they look disconnected and even worried. The director Franco Zefferelli, sums up the difference in a poignant way. In the chapel in the country side a lamb is bought into the church and placed on the communion table, as it comes in the place starts to be filled with song and life and joy, then we are taken back to the town church to a beautifully embroided silk cushion on the communion table. A wonderful piece of art but the lamb is not present.
The risen Lamb of God, the glorified Christ speaks to the Church in Sardis and calls it to wake up and strengthen that which remains. It is a warning to wake up or Christ will come like a thief in the night and catch them unawares. We might think that this use of a thief in the night is just quoting some gospel terms about Jesus second coming. But for the church in Sardis they would know the significance of what is being said. Two times in history the city had been captured by a foreign army, the Persians and then the Greeks and both times it was because the city had become lax and comfortable, the armies had sent people to climb the cliffs that were thought unscalable and thus took the city by stealth. While the NIV uses the words Wake up! The image is of a watch man on the city walls staying awake and watchful, and making sure that he keeps the watch fires burning, he may have dozed off and let them burned down to an ember but they need to made bright again. The city and the church may have been focused on their idealised past, but they were to fix their eyes on the future and be ready for the coming of Christ.
The Spirit speaks to the church and tells them how to waken from their slumber, to rise from the dead. Firstly they are to remember what they have received. It might seem strange to think that a church in city that was so caught up in the past is being asked to remember. But it is not their idyllic and lofty past they are to remember. It is interesting most churches have an idealised past they look back to… and I often joke that which church you want to attend often depends on which time warp you want to jump through. One of the ways the church is talked about is an institution, institutions are set up to protect the gains made by past movements and reforms. It holds on to things that have been done in the past, but in doing so can forget or disregard what the spirit is doing now. Sardis is not being asked to remember its past history, no matter how great it was, but to remember what it has received.
It had received the gospel of Jesus Christ, the one who stood amongst the churches was the one who had come in the flesh and to all who received him he gave the right to become the sons and daughters of the most high God. To those who over come in this letter Jesus says he will not blot their names out of the book of life. In Asia citizen records were kept, and for people from Sardis it would have been important to be recorded as a citizen of that significant city, it was a connection with the great past, but Jesus is saying that he offers a greater citizenship one in the new Jerusalem that Revelations speaks of being established, a citizenship of the coming kingdom of heaven, not the faded kingdoms of this world.
But it is to hold on to the whole gospel… and Jesus had introduced himself to the church in this letter as the one who held not only the seven angels of the churches but the seven spirits of God as well. Again John writes in code and the seven fold spirit is a reference to Isaiah 11v2 where the messiah is said to be filled with the spirit of God, a spirit described in seven different ways. So here we see that the Glorified Jesus is seen as the one who has the Holy Spirit, the spirit that the people of God received at Pentecost, the spirit that gives life to the church, the spirit of God that raised Jesus from the dead and can raise us to life in Christ. The church is to remember and fan into aflame again the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit in their midst, in our midst.
On Thursday it was Remembrance Day. The celebration of the end of the first world war, made all the more significant by the fact that we are remembering 100 years since that bloody conflict, that embroiled the whole world and saw war and slaughter on an industrial scale for the first time. Part of that remembrance is a striving and working for peace in the world today.
Likewise it was not enough for the church at Sardis to remember they were also called to hold it fast and to repent. There remembrance of the past had to result in action in the present. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus teaching on waiting for his second coming finishes in four parables, that talk of what we should do to be ready. Right after he has said he will come like a thief in the night Jesus tells the parable of the unfaithful servant; that we are to keep on showing justice and love to one another. The parable of the ten virgins, waiting for the bridegroom, a story that reminds us that we are to make sure we keep our lamps full of the oil of the Spirit. The parable of the talents, where the people of God are called to use the gifts God has given to see a return for the returning king to invest in the kingdom of God. Then the parable of the sheep and the goats that we are to show love and care for the least, and in doing so for Christ himself. This is what it means to hold fast and repent. To turn from our ease and to focus again on the person and things of Christ: To live ready.
In the end Jesus does acknowledge that there is a faithful remnant in the church at Sardis who have kept their clothes unsoiled, who have not compromised their faith, in even the deadest of churches you can find people who are like beacons of hope. But in the ancient near east people would not wear their normal street clothes to the temple, they would change into spotless white or linen garments. Here Jesus is saying that for those who persevere they will be welcomed into his presence. They will be with him when he comes into his kingdom.
One of my favourite movies is the 1999 cult classic ‘the matrix’ its science fiction and tells the story of a future world where the world is run by machines, machines that are run off the electrical impulses in the human bodies. Humans are seen as nothing more than batteries. We are plugged into a matrix a computer simulation of earth at the end of the twenty first century at the peak of its civilization to keep us docile and useable. The film tells the story of a man called Neo, who comes in contact with a group of people who have been freed from this matrix and now live and fight for a place called new Zion, the film tells the story of Neo being woken up. In fact the first time we meet him on his computer screen those very words are typed… Wake up neo… The pivotal moment in the movie comes when he meets Morpheus a leader of the free humans who offers him two options, embodied in two pills. A red pill and a blue pill. He can take the blue pill and go back to sleep and tomorrow believe anything he wants, or he can take the red pill and wake up and see just how deep things go. What is the spirit saying to us today! Well it saying the same thing we need to wake up and become alive again in the spirit of God. to remember what we have received and to allow the spirit to lead us into life again. But in the end it’s up to you. You can take the blue pill and well believe what you want or you can take the red pill and see where Christ leads us.