Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Challenge of Sardis: Sermon on Revelation 3:1-6

The times were old. Ezekiel had been gone twenty years. Daniel, in his seventies, was living out his senior years in Babylon. But far away from them, in what people said was the strongest spot on the face of the earth, the king of the Lydian empire surveyed the destruction of a great kingdom: his own. Croesus, crowned with a wreath and clutching a scepter, poured out a libation from his throne on the pyre, as his servant Euthymos, at his bidding, carried forward the torch that Croesus hoped would wipe away his defeat and help him rise to heaven, made immortal in victorious smoke. Croesus lamented how foolish he'd been in misunderstanding. He'd made a grave mistake in picking a fight with another great empire, far-away Persia, when they'd absorbed the Medes. But Croesus had gone on the warpath, following the Royal Road with his armies to Pteria. And Cyrus had, from the Persian side, done the same. And there they'd fought it out to a draw. A ruinous stalemate of wasted lives and mangled dreams. In the aftermath, Croesus had retreated to his capital city, the place whose Pactolus River running with gold had made him fabulously wealthy. For the autumn and winter, he released his foreign soldiers so they could tend to their fields, and he sent word to his allies in Egypt and Babylon and Sparta to join him in five months so they could triumph together in the spring. And Croesus thought all would be well.

But what Croesus hadn't counted on was that Cyrus had not given up the fight and gone back to Persia. No, in a sudden twist, Cyrus and the Persian army showed up at Croesus' gates. Croesus sent out the Lydian cavalry, but Cyrus spooked their horses with his camels. Croesus was forced to retreat into the citadel that loomed over the lower city. And Cyrus camped around, laying siege to the capital of the Lydian Empire. Yet Croesus wasn't at all worried, and neither were the Lydian soldiers. After all, their citadel was the strongest and safest place of all. Around city and citadel alike, the walls were thick and high, and the citadel on three sides was set atop sharply sheer vertical cliffs. Its reputation preceded it: it was the fortress that could never be breached, never be taken. And so Croesus and his men rested securely.

Or, at least, they did until the Persian soldier Hyroeades suddenly appeared in the fortress. For he, the previous day, had seen a Lydian soldier climb all the way down the cliff to fetch a fallen helmet, and then climb back up again. So he'd spotted the footholds. And Hyroeades, with others following, had ascended the cliff and the wall to the citadel. And, trusting vainly in their reputation, the Lydians had made no preparations to guard that spot by which the Persians came in. If they had been watching from atop the walls of their spot of great confidence, it could have saved their empire. Instead, it condemned it to the dustbins of history. For the great kingdom of Lydia fell in the loss of its capital city: Sardis.

A third of a millennium passed. From Persian hands, the city of Sardis was handed over to Alexander the Great without a fight, and then when his vast empire split at his death, his general Seleucus took the corner where it lay. In time, his great-great-grandson Antiochus came to power, and was away fighting when his own uncle Achaeus rebelled and set up his throne in the citadel of Sardis. And so Antiochus, rightful king, had to come to lay siege against the city where Uncle Achaeus was cooped up. But a year passed, and more. Achaeus and the Sardians were safe inside their impenetrable defenses. They had enough supplies to weather a lengthy siege. It seemed as safe and secure as anything could be. The Sardians enjoyed their reputation for impregnability. It was the strongest spot on earth, after all.

But one of Antiochus' soldiers, a man from Crete named Lagoras, watched the patterns of the vultures as they rested after meals atop the wall between the citadel and the lower city. And he reasoned that if those walls were guarded, the guards would never tolerate the vultures. So in the night, Lagoras and some friends carried ladders and propped them up. And at daybreak, while Antiochus' main army created a diversion by attacking a gate on the opposite side, Lagoras and his team snuck like thieves up the ladders, crept through the city, and helped to saw another gate open from the inside while others worked it from the outside. And before Achaeus could even realize what was going on, he'd lost the lower city of Sardis to Antiochus.

Golden Sardis, you see, had a reputation, ever since it was the capital of a mighty empire. It had the reputation for being impenetrably defended. And yet, two occasions over the years exposed the reputation as hollow, for on those two occasions, the defenders of Sardis were so wrapped up in their reputation that they neglected to keep watch over the places they thought were safe and secure. And in the failure of their vigilance, in the pride that led them to neglect their vulnerabilities, Sardis was twice invaded and conquered by Cyrus and Antiochus. Over the years that followed, Sardis stopped being a major power. The gold supply mostly dried up, cutting off its immense wealth. The city lost all its political significance, and by Roman times, the proud residents found themselves living off the nostalgia of an obsolete reputation – a great name that no longer matched the reality.

Over six centuries after Cyrus took Sardis and over three centuries since Antiochus did the same, we find – as we eavesdrop on a letter from the Risen Lord Jesus to the church meeting within those thick, high walls – is that what was true of the city had become true of the church, as well. The church of Sardis had once been golden, and its fame had gone out far and wide. It was like the name 'Alive' was emblazoned on its forehead and trumpeted with bugles and fanfare through all the churches of the land. It was a lively and bustling church, safe and secure in the gospel. But now, while the name 'Alive' is still tattooed across the church's face, it no longer seems appropriate. “I know your works,” Jesus tells them. And we expect it to be followed by a compliment. Jesus adds, “You have a name that you are alive” (Revelation 3:1b). “But...”

But it doesn't fit any more. The real recent history has belied their name, their lively reputation. Their pride has drawn them inward. The church in Sardis has become a quiet, tame, domesticated bunch. They are no longer spiritually lively. Their praises are mumbled. Their prayers are rambling. The clock ticks down, and they see it go by. They're no longer evangelistic. Church punctuates their week but doesn't define it. It's just an event and a place. They put together a decent front when visitors from the other churches pass through town. But in truth, their works are incomplete in God's sight. Jesus himself says it: “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (Revelation 3:2b). Everything they do is left at half-measures. When it comes to spiritual things, the church isn't giving it their all. Maybe they think they are. But they've forgotten when being a church is all about. They've forgotten that it's life and power and heavenly thunder. Instead, the church in Sardis is a dried-up husk of a church, their glory and life stolen away. They bear the name of Christ, but they don't really confess him before others (cf. Revelation 3:5c). They acknowledge Christian truth in theory. But they aren't leaning on it. They don't really believe Jesus could be present in their midst – I mean, what are they, religious nuts? How embarrassing! So, having domesticated the whole church experience, we find that Jesus says most of them have “soiled their garments” (cf. Revelation 3:4a). Unclean, unfit for polite company.

In fact, Jesus goes so far as to tell them, “You have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1c). Some of the most chilling words Jesus can say to a church: “You are dead.” Dead, and they haven't read their own obituary! Dead, and they haven't spotted their tombstone! Dead, and so delusional they can't even grasp it! Theirs is a zombie spirituality, soulless but shuffling through the motions while rotting away. It's been allowed to dry up and decay under their very noses. They're coasting on the easy road to defeat, and yet they're too drowsy and inattentive in their spiritual lethargy to even notice their fatal fall.

We can readily imagine them shuffling drowsily to church and then drowsily to lunch each Sunday. In the week drowsily earning their keep, drowsily watching their movies, drowsily enjoying their vacations, drowsily seeing their kids and grandkids themselves grow to mature zombiehood, all drowsily settling down and settling in with the world around them, shuffling their way through a hollow string of days and years. Oh, we will be discipled, we will be formed, either with the stream of culture or in defiance of it – there is no third choice. And as one wise man said: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”

The believers in Sardis, together as a church, used to be a living thing! They used to be able to swim upstream! They had originally received and heard a living gospel (Revelation 3:3a). But they forgot its life. They forgot its vitality. And now what they're left with is the collapsed shell of obsolete godliness, a mere powerless form, left behind like the exuvia of molted cicadas, still stuck on the bark of the tree, still looking as if it could move, but utterly empty of anything alive.

Pride and Inattention are a toxic marriage. They give birth to the twins Laxity and Complacency, and the whole family allows the house of God to fall into disrepair around them. From there, only a fraudulent facade can be put out to give the illusion of substance, masking the mismatch of their name with the hollow void where life should have been – but isn't. It's like a Potemkin village. The story goes – and it's mostly untrue, but the old Russian story is – that Grigory Potemkin, a Russian governor, wanted to impress the Empress as she came to see how he'd rebuilt a devastated province. So as she was traveling by barge down the Dnieper, each day he would have fake houses and fake storefronts built to look like a village, and a team of peasants would pretend to live there each day as the empress sailed past; and then when she'd moved on, they'd tear it all down and hustle down river and build the village again, to make another fake village for her to see. A Potemkin village – just the looks and the name, but a mere front and a fraud. How many Potemkin churches litter the American landscape? How many of our lives have become spiritual Potemkin villages by which even we ourselves are often fooled?

What I'm talking about is what we've come to call nominal Christianity. It's nominal in that it has the name, but the substance doesn't measure up. It's Christian existence in name only. And it is a problem. Forty-five years ago, Billy Graham spearheaded an effort to call together thousands of Evangelical Christian leaders from across the world to meet in Lausanne, Switzerland. From that pivotal meeting, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization was born. Six years later, in June 1980, that committee sponsored meetings in Thailand to explore the plight of nominal Christianity in each of the big traditions of the Church: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. In the papers they produced, they defined a nominal Christian as “one who... would call himself a Christian or be so regarded by others, but who has no authentic commitment to Christ based on personal faith.” They identified five types of nominal Christians, including “one who attends church regularly and worships devoutly, but who has no vital personal relationship with Jesus as Savior and Lord.”

By December 1998, the Lausanne International Consultation on Nominalism met in England and produced what they called their Statement to the Churches on Nominality. They stressed that even churchgoers can be nominal Christians, saying: “Many people attend church whose faith may be described as nominal in that it has little influence on their daily lives, habits, or personal devotion. Others attend, but their conviction or commitment is weak.” And nine months shy of twenty years later, in March 2018, the Lausanne Global Consultation on Nominal Christianity met in Rome and produced a Statement on Nominal Christianity:

Nominal Christians can be described as follows: People who identify with a Christian church or the Christian faith – (i.e., the 'name') – but are in contradiction with basic Christian principles with respect to becoming a Christian, faith, beliefs, church involvement, and daily life. … Without repentance and faith in [Christ], turning from sin, trusting him alone for our salvation and transformation, and obeying him as Lord, there is no authentic Christianity. … The reality is that nominal Christians may be found in every congregation, every denominational tradition, every theological stream, every generation, every cultural context, and every diaspora people.

How easy it is to slide toward nominal Christianity, and not even realize it! How easy it is to think you're alive but really be dead. We can readily assume, on the basis of past events – a prayer we said one time as a kid, a track record for Sunday School attendance – that our continued motions mean continued life. But they don't. It is perfectly possible to become a nominal Christian without noticing – we forget what living faith looks like.

Sardis is everywhere. Sardis is across the globe. Sardis is down the street. Sardis is maybe in this sanctuary. If the original Sardian church stays as they are, then they're in danger. If there's anything their history should have taught them, it's what happens when Sardis loses focus and coasts on a reputation! It's that kind of thinking that let Cyrus come and break the Lydian Empire. It's that kind of thinking that let the ladders of Antiochus go up and reclaim the city. Sardis knows what it means when kings come and sneak in like thieves through cleverness instead of direct force – it means the city has been exposed and must fall. And now Jesus warns the church of Sardis that in the same way, “If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (Revelation 3:3c). If the Sardian church doesn't react, Jesus will slip in and pull the plug and call time of death. And everything they really trust in can't keep a sneaky King out.

But that isn't what Jesus wants to see happen. He doesn't want to have to come like a thief. He doesn't want to come against them at all. He doesn't want them to be dead! He can't bear the thought of a dead church! He's in grief as he looks at churches thinking that their spasms of rigor mortis are the stuff of healthy Christian living. And yet that's the delusion we so easily hold, which lulls us into our cozy complacency. To churches like this, maybe like us, Jesus yells in our ear, “Wake up!” Wake up, get alert, pay attention, be watchful! Recover your vigilance, leap into action! “Strengthen what remains and is about to die!” (Revelation 3:2a)! The church is in the emergency room – the church needs drastic resuscitation, and there's no time to waste, because the patient is dying – and the patient is them! Every second counts before the last glimmers of hope for revival fade away!

And the only intervention that stands a chance is this: “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it and repent” (Revelation 3:3a-b). Get back to the living gospel you heard at the start. Cling to it, sustain it – don't keep it around as a taxidermied mantelpiece, but go back and recover the beating heart and heaving lungs and sizzling neurons and flexing muscle fibers, and embrace the living gospel and don't let it out of your arms this time. Don't be shipped to the morgue. Don't be shipped to the taxidermist. Let this shocking word be the defibrillator that resets a rhythm of repentance and breathes life back into faith. But how? What do we have to do? In 1980, the Lausanne Consultation on World Evangelization said this:

Today's churches must develop patterns of organization that both gather their members together into the presence of their heavenly Father and also release them to be the salt of the earth. Worship will therefore be a high priority that we need in the churches. We need a worship that is scriptural in principle and truly indigenous in its expression. We need a worship that is for joyous participants rather than admiring spectators. … The ministry of the Word will be equally important … The churches we need will be churches where prayer is central. … The churches we need will not allow a passion for the lost to be relegated to an article of faith, but rather to become the motivating force that leads God's people out to evangelize expectantly. … We pray for the Holy Spirit to do a new thing in all of our hearts, so that our churches will become communities that reveal something of the loveliness of Christ to our fellow-men.

Eighteen years later, the 1998 Lausanne Statement to the Churches on Nominality had more to say, and I quote:

In ministry to those who attend churches..., churches should be encouraged to help Christians discern and resist the relentless pressures of the modern world, consumer cultures, mass media, and self-centred values. Christians should be encouraged to review their use of time and money, attitudes to relationships in family and community life, and their service of others, particularly those with special needs. … Churches should also encourage the demonstration of faith in unconditional love, non-manipulative friendships, and unselfish care. … The prayer of the Consultation was that God would revitalize the whole Church, transforming the cultures and societies of the world, placing the Good News of the faith before all people, and drawing nominal Christians to a life-transforming faith in Christ.

And twenty years later, the 2018 Lausanne Statement on Nominal Christianity gives us a few final pointers:

We call the churches we represent, and all churches everywhere, to:
  1. Pray for all those who are Christians in name only, that they might come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.
  2. Pray for a spiritual awakening of nominal Christians, a strengthening of the weary and struggling, and a renewal of our commitment to disciple all those who bear the Name.

Recognizing the commandment of Jesus to make disciples of all peoples, we urge our church communities to:
  1. Prioritize a holistic discipleship that brings all believers to maturity in Christ.
  2. Proclaim the biblical gospel with clarity and boldness but always attending to the context so that the message of Christ is properly understood.
  3. Plant new churches and work for the renewal of existing churches – churches that embody the joy of the gospel, that reflect the character of Christ in their community life, and display the power of the Spirit in transformed lives, to the glory of God.

That last bit is crucial. Can there be such a thing as a Christian who goes beyond just a name? Yes! Jesus goes on and praises a few 'names' in Sardis who retain a living faith and who keep themselves pure from the laziness of worldly compromises: “You have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:4). Those people are not nominal Christians – they are the real deal. They haven't “soiled their garments.” They “are worthy” to “walk with [Jesus] in white” – the white robes of a triumphant army, celebrating a victory they all share. Living faith is the condition, the qualification, to walk with Jesus, to share his victory, to be justified and sanctified in union with him, and so to have a real relationship with him and not just a theoretical one.

For a church like Sardis that seems to have accepted nominality as normality, I'm sure these 'few' seem like they live an unattainable standard. I'm sure they seem odd and off-kilter. I'm sure a church like Sardis, confronted with these words, may wonder whether it's even possible to come back to life from the dead. Can there be hope for the cold campfire of a church, all dull gray? Is there anywhere Jesus could poke that could revive a spray of orange sparks to brighten the dusky air? Or have the embers all burned through to dead ash?

Questions like those are why Jesus presents himself the way he does. When he opens each letter, he introduces himself in the way that church most needs to hear. And what the church of Sardis most needs to behold in Jesus is this: that he's “the One who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (Revelation 3:1). The Jesus who died and lives again is the Jesus who holds the angels, the planets, and the fates in his hand. Nothing can slip by him, because everything we think governs the course of events is flowing through the scars of the nails. And from him flows a sevenfold Holy Spirit – a Holy Spirit wide enough, rich enough, diverse enough to reach every one of these seven churches, which signify every church on all the earth. The Holy Spirit has enough life, the Holy Spirit has enough power, to whip ashen embers into flame, to electrify and revivify, every church from pole to pole. The Holy Spirit is more than up to the challenge of Sardis. If only they'll turn back to the living gospel with a living faith, the Holy Spirit will breathe life back into the Sardian church and into every Sardian Christian. The sevenfold Spirit of God has life enough for Sardis – and life enough for us.

Jesus hasn't given up hope for Sardis. Jesus hasn't given up hope for us. And to those who overcome through a living faith, Jesus has some promises: “The one who overcomes will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels” (Revelation 3:5; cf. Matthew 10:32). To you with a living faith, Jesus offers victory and his companionship. To you with a living faith, Jesus offers a permanent place for your name. To you with a living faith, Jesus offers his very own lips to brag about you where his Father and all the court of heaven can hear. Jesus is not ashamed of any believer and any church who keep to a living, breathing, evangelizing faith.

Where does that leave us? Jesus ends his letter by saying, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:6). This letter and its warning and its hope was never meant only for a single city in the first century. The words of Jesus fly on the Spirit's wings to every church across space and time, and they reach us here as well. If “the Spirit says” these things “to the churches,” then the Spirit says them to us – but do we have ears to hear it for ourselves? Will we hear it, really hear it? Or will we nod politely, shuffle out, say “Fine sermon, preacher,” and then continue the routines of the dead and dying?

Jesus is talking to me. Jesus is talking to you. Where do we fall between the name and the substance? Where do we settle between life and death? Are we awake and alive? Are our works complete before God? Is each of us worthy to walk with Jesus in the pure brightness of a living faith? Are we strengthening and fortifying those places where we just assume we're okay? Nominality must not be our normality! Oh, may we welcome the sevenfold Spirit from the hands of Jesus, and may we awaken anew to a living gospel and a living faith! Amen!

No comments:

Post a Comment