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The Sardis Factor

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The Sardis Factor   -    Revelation 3:1-6

Is it possible for a church to be dead and not know it? The answer is clearly “Yes”. Jesus himself says this about the church at Sardis. It is a frightening reality to be considered by us as a Church.

But before we get to the detail, let’s remind ourselves of the context of this letter to the church at Sardis.

Revelation as the word suggests is all about God lifting the corner of the tarp and given John a look at what was happening in the world from his perspective. And what John saw was a real revelation, a real eye-opener.

And the first thing going on in the world that took his eye was Christ’s church, 1:9-20. It was a real eye-opener for John that Jesus and the church that from a human point of view looked weak, insignificant and under threat of complete collapse was actually rock solid. Jesus was really Lord of the whole world, and Lord of his church, and passionate about protecting and prospering it.

And it was a real eye-opener for John that Jesus was determined that his saved people should be as passionate in and about the church, as he was. Hence Jesus dictates a series of challenging letters, symbolising the dangers churches in any period of history face, thus making them equally relevant for the Christian church today.

And as is true in all the letters to the various churches, local history and events in Sardis are assumed in the text, giving the letter, as a whole, more impact.

Sardis was legendary in the ancient world because it had been the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia and King Croesus, who was proverbial for his wealth. At the time this letter was written, Sardis was still associated with the notion of wealth and the good life, but nothing like it had been in the past.

In fact the city was going backwards, it was slowly dieing at the expense of other nearby growth areas. And the reality was that the city of Sardis, at the time of this letter, was not the original city. The original site was all but deserted and this was really a new city altogether.

But the local people were very proud and in lots of ways lived in the past. They enjoyed the reputation of being a place of wealth and the good life. In many ways it was a masquerade or a delusion because the facts didn’t match their thinking.

But Sardis was also legendary in name. It was known in history as Sardis the impregnable because the original city was built on top of a hill that had sheer cliffs all around except for a narrow neck of land that was easily defended.

But the reputation was contrary to fact. Twice in its history it had been captured at night by enemy troops climbing the unguarded cliffs, considered to be impossible to climb. That this was allowed to happen twice revealed their arrogance and stupidity, trusting in their reputation rather than being alert to the facts.

And in A.D 17, Sardis was almost totally destroyed by a large earthquake that struck without warning. Once again their reputation of being indestructible was shown to be just that, a reputation at odds with the facts.

Friends, it would appear that the churches in Sardis, like the city in general, were living on past glory. It was a ‘has been’ church living on the reputation from the good old days. It was a real reputation but no longer deserved. It was all a masquerade or a fancy dress looking like a healthy church, while really being dead.

Lets examine what I have called the Sardis Factor, the factors that allow a church to die, without noticing they are dieing and in fact still think they are very much alive.

1. A church dies because it’s not measuring the right ‘vital signs’ of life. A doctor determines life on the basis of pule or heartbeat, breathing and brain function. These are called the vital signs.

What are the vital signs we need to look for when it comes to our church? How do we measure the life or aliveness of a church? Is it our heritage? The Sardians appeared to believe this, living on past achievements of the good old days when the church was started and grew quickly.

Perhaps it is the number of small groups and good teaching each week and lots of evangelism and other programmes happening. Perhaps it is meeting or doing better than budget in giving or the number of people on staff?

Sardis had a great reputation for all these things, but Christ says the church is sinking into spiritual oblivion. Listen to verse 2. The activity of the church that people took as a measure of life was in fact just the death throes of the body and evidence of death.

They had measured the wrong things. Listen to verse 3. The evidence of real life is a passionate, whole of life response to Jesus as when first converted. When they lived obediently as those who knew they had escaped hell and damnation and bowed in new allegiance and commitment to the Lord after a lifetime of ignoring and rejecting him.

In other words they are to get back to the basics or turning away from sin, trust and obedience in Christ as their only hope of heaven and their driving force in this life, and godly Christian living.  Each generation of the church needs to do this for themselves.

Older people, we cannot live on the past achievements of years in this church. Young people you cannot coast on what your parents are doing now in this church. No matter how many good things there are in this church now, they mean nothing unless you are trusting Christ and passionate in obedience and godly living.

2. A church dies because it’s aiming primarily for a comfortable, quiet existence.  In spite of their reputation, verse 2, it would appear that like the city itself, the church had settled into what they thought was the good life. They were comfortably well off. They were happy as a little church, enjoying each other’s company, meeting regularly, untroubled by heresy or persecution.  Jesus screams at them to wake up!

Why weren’t they persecuted? Perhaps because they were not a threat to the worldview and lifestyle of unbelievers they lived among. Perhaps they were so comfortable in their little club they called church, but were not passionate enough about Jesus and proclaiming his name that they were no threat to anybody.

I think this is a great danger for us. We are keen to be in this church, but the temptation is to sink to a comfortable level, a quiet existence that does not put much demand on my time or energy or money or relationships with family and workmates.

We affirm the need to evangelise and be taught, but we only want this at a level that doesn’t hurt us or put pressure on the other aspects of our good life. We say we want to see people converted and Christ honoured and the church to grow, but we still want a comfortable, quiet existence. That is the greatest threat to most churches after 20 or 30 years. It’s called middle age death.

More and more I hear people say I’m too tired to do this or I’m too busy to do that. The workload seems to fall to the same few each time. We are increasingly protective of our homes and possessions, rather than known for open doors and hospitality.

I am not saying that home, family and relaxation is not important. What I am saying is that if we are genuinely passionate about serving Christ and living for him, then we will clash with lifestyles and world views around us.

Philip Jensen says that the decision to grow as a church is the decision to put ourselves under pressure and pain financially and emotionally and physically. Are we enjoying the reputation of being alive while being committed to ease and a quiet existence?

3. A church dies because it’s not recognising the signs of imminent danger. Even more awful than their slackness was the arrogance of thinking they were indestructible. They thought their church was very alive. Other churches seemed to agree with their view. Only Christ was able to see and expose them for what they were.

And Christ delivers a terrible warning to them. Their experience as a church will be like the city of Sardis. Listen to verse 4. Unless they awake and get the guards back on duty and start to act like an army facing a threat from their enemy, they will be done for.

But how would judgment come? Listen to Verse 3. Most probably this means through continued slackness. Christ’s judgment on them for slackness and going to sleep would be more of the same, more of the very thing they aimed for. This would be consistent with history for the church at Sardis quietly disintegrated and died.

Could that ever be said of us as a church? But we are a reformed Baptist church standing for the truth of the bible and salvation by grace alone. Surely we are indestructible when our history is so faithful and honourable?  

Friends we must never allow ourselves to think that we have a good thing going here that could never fall in a heap. We must be alert and on our guard so that we don’t simply die by degrees of slackness while enjoying wonderful fellowship together.

4. A church dies because it’s not hungering for heaven. There is a bright spot on the horizon. Verses 4-6. Christ still has people in Sardis who have not lost the plot. And the promise is that both they and others who follow their lead will be welcomed and accepted into heaven by Christ.

But that is part of the Sardis factor. The Christians have lost sight of what being a Christian is really about. It is not about having an enjoyable and pleasant existence here and now. Being a Christian is about being made acceptable to God and equipped for heaven, about being in the book of life.

Their problem was that they were not hungry enough for heaven. They had lost sight of themselves as undeserving sinners. They had lost sight of their indebtedness to God’s grace that shows in seeing themselves as a humble servant engaged in a life of service, in response to God’s gracious pardon of their sins.

So let me conclude by urging you, if you are a Christian, to hunger for heaven recognising your indebtedness to the Lord. This alone will motivate you to live passionately and obediently for the Lord now rather than just be part of a nice club.

And let me urge you if you have been in the church a long time, but are not sure if you are a Christian. You will never get into heaven by association or by having a reputation as a nice person. Because you are involved in this congregation, you might think you are bound for heaven. But nothing could be further from the truth.

And let me urge you if you know you are not a Christian to see that Christ’s judgment is imminent and absolute. The only way to get your name into his book of life is by recognising your own inability to get to heaven by your own efforts, by embracing Jesus as your only hope of heaven and by living a life in obedience to him.

Otherwise you are simply a dead man walking. You might live and breath, but you are under God’s condemnation and as good as dead.

But the same Christ who alone was able to expose the church at Sardis for what it was, is the same Christ who holds the life giving spirits in his hand. If you are still dead in your sin, he can make you alive if only you come to him for his life-giving touch.

If we are to avoid being alive through reputation only, we must draw near to Christ through his word, praying urgently for eyes to be alert to the danger signs, and working hard together to keep up our guard and keep up our passionate service of Christ.


Last Updated on Monday, 07 March 2011 19:43  

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