READ : Revelation 3:1-5
It may sound harsh, but if you’re headed for disaster and don’t realize it, the kindest thing someone can do for you is to yell, “Watch Out!”
A man was visiting his friend’s farm once, and was shocked to see him suddenly swing a 2 × 4 at his mule, smacking the animal full on the head. The visitor cried out in horror, “What are you doing to your mule?” The farmer’s answer: “I’m just trying to get his attention.” Apparently it took radical measures to do that, and it was certainly hard on the mule!
Sometimes the Lord also has to come down hard on his stubborn, unresponsive people. He surely did in this letter to the first-century church in Sardis:
And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: these are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars:
I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. Yet you have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Rev. 3:1-6, NRSV
A WAKE-UP CALL
Imagine a church that thinks it’s a vital body of believers, but the Lord calls it “dead”! That’s a heavy blow, isn’t it, a shocking wake-up call! The Lord of the church sometimes has painful words for his people. He loves us enough to tell us the truth.
It’s a sad thing for us when our reputation gets better and bigger than we are, when the impression we give far outshines reality. That had happened in Sardis. These people had a name to be a living church, but the Lord who knew them through and through saw death there. Instead of genuineness, sham; instead of full hearts, emptiness; instead of a garden, a graveyard.
“Watch out!” says the Lord. “Wake up to what is happening among you! Be on guard before it’s too late, and the enemy has completely taken over.”
How strangely fitting that words like these should come to a church in the city of Sardis! The city had twice in its past fallen to invading armies because of carelessness, over-confidence. Sardis had been built on a towering mountain, with an acropolis so high and well fortified that it could resist any attack. The inhabitants of the city could laugh securely when enemies tried in vain to scale those cliffs and take the city.
But in the days when the fabulously rich king Croesus ruled in Sardis, Cyrus of Persia came and attacked the Lydian kingdom. For a month he was frustrated in his efforts. It seemed impossible to scale those heights. But one day a soldier in the Persian army saw a city guard high above him drop his helmet, then scamper down a path on the mountainside to pick it up. In doing this, the guard unwittingly had revealed an opening to the city, and Sardis soon fell to the Persians. Something very much like this happened centuries later when the city was again besieged, this time by Alexander the Great. For a time, they held off the great conqueror, but then carelessness and a false sense of security led again to the city’s doom.
Maybe the members of the first-century church in Sardis knew something about this history. Perhaps it reminded them that the Lord’s command had a special urgency for the church in their city. “Watch out! Be on the lookout, because the Lord may come, and unless you wake up you won’t be ready!”
REMEMBER, REPENT, RESTART
Here’s what that “wake-up call” involves: first remember. “Remember, says the Lord, what you received and heard.” Remember the gospel that was preached to you, and how you responded to it. Remember the beauty it brought to your life then, and how the bloom has faded now. Remember what it was like when you were vital, growing Christians. Remember when the Lord seemed real to you, when you were following him. Your heart was in it then and you weren’t just “going through the motions.”
That’s the first step in waking up, isn’t it, remembering? That’s what touched the prodigal son when he was penniless, lonely, starving in the far country. He thought about his home, his dad, and how even the servants there were treated well. Once he had been sick of living at home. Now he was just home-sick. He remembered.
What about you? What do you need to remember? Can you think of a time when you were closer to God than you are now, more open to his voice, more willing to serve him? Think about it, and maybe you’ll see more clearly what has been happening in your life since.
But don’t stop with memory. That’s only the first step on a long road. You need to listen anew to God’s call, says Jesus, and repent, turn right around. You’ve been moving away from God toward the house of the dead. About face! Do what the prodigal did – get up and go to your Father. Turn your steps toward home.
The Lord sees that there’s still something left in the church at Sardis, some few signs of life, some embers still glowing. He says, “Strengthen what remains.” Wherever there’s a spark left, fan it into flame. Wherever there’s anything left to build on, get busy! Strengthen the things that remain, that are about to die, says the Lord.
What have you got to lose? Anything’s better than the deadness in which you’ve been living. The Lord has been weighing you in the balance, Sardis, and you’ve been found wanting, badly wanting. So listen up! Remember! Repent! Restart!
THERE’S STILL HOPE
But the whole congregation isn’t like this. There’s a godly remnant there. Some in Sardis, thank God, are still holy, harmless, undefiled. They haven’t soiled their garments like the rest. They are alive and awake, and their works are approved by the Lord. He is smiling over them. He calls them “worthy.” They’ll walk in white, he says. Better still, they’ll walk with him!
And – good news – there’s still hope for the rest of the church. If they’ll listen afresh to the Lord, and get back into the battle for him, they’ll wear those robes, too, the garb of forgiven sinners, washed in the blood of the Lamb. And though their names have almost faded from God’s register, his book of life, they won’t be erased. He won’t forget them, won’t blot them out. The Lord will still confess them as his own – in spite of all. They’ll be like the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision, coming back together, coming to life. They’ll be like Lazarus – back from the dead!
When I think of the church in Sardis, it reminds me of the disciples on the night the Lord was betrayed. Up to that time, they had seemed loyal, reasonably courageous, faithful to Jesus. True, they often had faltered, quarreled with each other, didn’t catch on to what the Lord was telling them. But they listened, anyway, and stuck by him. No doubt about it, they were real disciples.
But on that last night, they fell apart. First in Gethsemane, Jesus pleaded with Peter, James and John to watch with him, stay awake and pray. But they acted like men in a stupor, insensitive to what he was going through, unaware of their own weakness and vulnerability. “Watch and pray,” he warned, “that you may not come under temptation’s power. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” But they went to sleep. Later he woke them, warned them again. They turned over and went back to sleep.
When the mob came to arrest Jesus, the disciples put up at first a token resistance, but soon melted away. They left his side and ran for their lives.
Peter and John later found their way to the courtyard of the high priest, but they did nothing there in support of their master. In fact, Peter, who had hours earlier professed a deathless loyalty to Jesus, now denied that he even knew him. When pressed, he denied again. When the crowd became sure that he was one of those Galileans, Peter lost it completely. He swore up and down that he had nothing to do with that Jesus.
But Peter wasn’t the only one. When Jesus was crucified, it seems that none of the disciples except John were even near enough to his cross to encourage him. If they watched at all, it was from a safe distance. And after he died, they simply disappeared, huddled behind locked doors. They had the name “disciples of Jesus,” but no one watching them could have recognized that. They seemed like a pretty dead bunch of would-be followers.
But they did some remembering. When Jesus, passing through the courtyard, looked in Peter’s direction, the big fisherman began to remember. Then, when the rooster crowed that night, all the anguished memories came flooding back.
But it was the Resurrection that awakened them all, brought them to repentance, gave them a new start. Jesus came to them, spoke peace, showed them his hands and side, commissioned them and breathed into them his Spirit. They were like those dead souls in Sardis, now coming to life again.
Isn’t the Lord wonderful? When we’re in such miserable shape, half-dead and scarcely aware of it, he doesn’t forget about us, or cast us off. He comes with a trumpet blast of warning, a 2 × 4 to get our attention, and a marvelous promise, “I haven’t given up on you. You’re back in the battle again, and if you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life. I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Dear friends, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches! Listen to what the living Lord is saying to you. If these words speak to your condition, it’s time to watch out, to wake up, to remember what things were like before, to repent of the ways in which you’ve wandered away from the Lord and to have a fresh start. There’s still hope for you. This church that received such a thundering judgment from the Lord is invited to come back and promised a blessed future. May that be true for you too.