Awakening a True Spiritual Community
On many mornings I hear a lovely lady’s voice speak the most unpleasant words on earth: “Wake up!” When you’re lost in the alternate universe of dreamland, playing on the merry-go-round you don’t want to stop. I’ve seen many kids throw a fit when their parents pull them from the playground to go home for dinner and a bath.
Jesus’ letters to the churches have all been wake up calls, but the one we’re going to look at this morning is unequivocally so. He’s sounding a call to repentance. He’s saying, “It’s time for a change of mind.”
Once when my daughter was a baby I put her down for a nap and went to the kitchen to makes something and the smoke alarm went off—that happens when you’re a horrible cook. What was amazing—and I’ve told this story a lot because it’s so amazing—is that she didn’t wake up. I was shocked, I had to check if she was still alive.
The message we’ll look at today is to a church that is so deep in sleep—playing on the merry-go-round—that it’s dead. Do you know what that means? It doesn’t mean they’ve budget or building problems; nor does it mean they’ve got membership or doctrinal problems. It’s possible that they budge, building, membership, and stated doctrine are just fine. “Deadness” means they’ve lost the inner reality of faith.
There’s a story in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus is surrounded by a crowd after healing many people and an impressed scribe says to him: “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” That’s when another man pipped up and said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” To which Jesus blanked the guy, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” (Matt 8:18-22).
Jesus, that’s cruel … hasn’t the bloke just lost his dad?
Nope! According to the customs of the day, the man wouldn’t even have been listening to Jesus if he’d just lost his dad. The burial would have taken place very quick and the son would’ve been full of responsibilities. “Let me first bury my father,” was a common phrase back then, meaning when all my responsibilities are fulfilled and I’m free to do as I please, when I don’t have anything else better to do, I’ll see if I’ve got some time to fit you into my schedule.
Jesus is looking for those who will follow, who will give up whatever holds them back: comfort, home, family, friends, school, career, work, entertainment , prejudices, grudges.
When faith is alive, when trusting the Lord is real you consider those things, but they’re not allowed to be barriers—they don’t control. When those things control Jesus gives the diagnosis that one’s heart is dead—there’s no faith present, no follow-through possible.
And … that’s the situation in the church in Sardis.
Revelation 3:1–6, ESV
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
“‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. 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. Yet 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. The one who conquers 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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
1. True Spiritual Communities Realize Complacency Kills
Sardis was famous for having an impregnable fortress on top of a 1,500 foot hill that overlooked the valley where the city lay. When the citizens felt threatened they’d run to that hilltop fortress. They were safe up there. At least until one night when the Cyrus the Persian sent special ops troops the side of a cliff to attack the fortress. An attack from the cliff side was never expected. But in 546 BC Sardis was conquered, and the city learned its lesson: complacency kills.
That’s a lesson that Jesus wants the church to learn. The church has a reputation for being a strong and successful; it’s an institutional success, but something fundamental is missing: spiritual life—they’re “dead” (Rev 3:1).
It’s really easy for churches to get caught up in counting the chairs, committees, courses, and the number of times the Apostle’s Creed is recited and communion is taken and come to the conclusion that they’re alive. But all of that is religion. And all of that leads to a deadly confusion in the church, namely, the tendency to “confuse sanctimony and saintliness” (Steve Brown, “The Problem with Religion,” 03/27/2017).
I’m reminded of the story of a young boy who went on a European vacation with is parents one summer. Part of their trip included touring some of the great cathedrals, he was impressed by the massive stained glass portraits of the disciples and of other saints as he stood in their great empty halls looking through the beautiful stained glass windows.
Upon returning home, he was asked by his Sunday School teacher what he had liked most about his vacation. As he thought, those great churches and their grand windows came to mind, and said, “I loved the sense of awe and the hugeness of who God must be, and I loved the stained glass windows with their images of the saints.”
“And what is a saint?” his teacher asked.
Again, his mind reflected on those beautiful windows and he said, “A saint is a person the light shines through.”
A saint is simply someone who reflects the light of Jesus because Jesus is their refuge, their shield and defender, their portion and prize. A saint is someone who is in authentic relationship with Jesus himself.
2. True Spiritual Communities are Internally Alive
That’s truly what Jesus cares about. Sardis has got all of the religion, but Jesus says, “You’re dead. Why? Because I don’t know you.” Jesus is concerned with the inner reality of our hearts.
In Deuteronomy, Moses reminded the people of all that God had done for them before they went into the Promised Land, and at one point he says to them: “The LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deut 10:15–16).
What’s he telling them? He’s saying, “God knows you’re imperfect people, but chose you anyway. Therefore, don’t be willful and obstinate, but trust and follow and yield and wait on him.
Search your own heart this morning. Where are you refusing to trust that God is enough, that God is in control, that God’s timing is perfect and you’re willing to wait on him, willing to yield your way to his? What’s the Spirit bringing to mind?
I wonder: Do we trust that he’s set his heart on us? What difference would it make if you really believed that, really leaned into it, really trusted it?
Our passage doesn’t exactly say what the origin of the church’s problem was. But we can read between the lines and get a pretty good idea.
- First, Jesus mentions no difficulties with persecution or false prophets.
- Second, Jesus asks them to remember the gospel message they’d received, and how they’d kept it early on.
- Third, Jesus promises that he will confess before his Father the name of those who conquer, i.e., remain true.
I think these points triangulate on the problem, there is an absence of the gospel in the church. Hearts aren’t being transformed by it; people aren’t being evangelized by it. Sardis is dead because the gospel has gone missing. The church might recall the words of the gospel, but it’s not hearing the music. They aren’t dancing with the Trinity or causing anyone else to tap their toe. If the gospel was infecting the heart of the church, then I think we could’ve expected to hear about some persecution from either outside or inside the camp.
3. True Spiritual Communities are Hungry for the Gospel
Did you know that often when a baseball hitter gets into a funk and just can’t hit the ball, coaches will often bring in a sports psychologist who hypnotizes the guy and speaks words of sweetness to him, “You’re great. You can hit 30 home runs this month. You’re the greatest ball player that ever lived.” The philosophy is: get them believing their great, and they’ll act like it.
I’ll admit it … I’m really attracted to people who believe in me and tell me how great I am. I’d probably be weird if I didn’t like that. I like it so much that I’m pretty convinced that that’s what real love looks like. But I’m when I get thinking like that I’m very wrong!
It was said that Martin Luther was observing a painting of the crucifixion of Jesus and was so deeply moved by it that he said: “My God, my God … for me, for me!!” When I first saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, I teared up and said those same words. Why? Because that’s love. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
God’s approach is very different. God doesn’t blow smoke at us, he tell us that we’re great and we’re gonna hit 30 home runs. God says, “If you want to recover, if you want to be strong in faith, then humble yourself. Decrease in your own eyes, so I can increase; see yourself, so I can be your prize.” That’s how true spiritual communities begin … in a humility that revels in singing Hallelujah because of Jesus. True spiritual communities have a hunger for the gospel.
There are a “few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy,” Jesus says. God doesn’t throw-out the remnants, he perseveres them, he “rejoice[s] over [them] with gladness” (Zeph 3:17).
Last week I spoke of the wicked Queen Jezebel. Well, the prophet Elijah confronted her and her false priests and it didn’t go well for him. He got so afraid of Jezebel’s threats that he ran for his life, hid in a cave, and bellyached to God: “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” Do you know how God responded? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Rom 11:3–4). 7,000 was no more than a tenth of Israel. God restarted with that remnant.
God makes great things out of remnants. I think that’s why Jesus said, “Strengthen the things that remain” lest they also die. Jesus doesn’t want to see religious strengthening; he wants to see relational strengthening. Saints live my repentant faith. Saints see them selves and they’re going back to the beginning, back to gospel and hitting the refresh button a thousand times a day; they’re camping out at the foot of the cross; they’re seeing Jesus as their portion and prize.
4. True Spiritual Communities are Confirmed and Encouraged by Jesus
Steven Spielberg made a movie in 1993 about a German businessman called Schindler’s List. The movie told the story of Oscar Schindler who rescued Jews during World War II by hiring them to work in his factor. To be on Schindler’s payroll was life; it was to be saved from the Nazi death camps. Oscar Schindler sacrificed his fortune and profit to hire more and more workers.
The Lord Jesus places names on a list too. Revelation calls it “the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 13:8; 17:18; 21:27). In that book of life, Jesus puts the names of those who know their own need for him, for the sacrifice of the lamb.
As I think about it … I think it would have been special, sweet music for the remnant to hear John’s Revelation read aloud in the church and know that Jesus’ words were about them. He’s confirming them, authenticating the truth they’ve clung to, the person they’ve trusted in.
I don’t know where the Lord Jesus is calling you to “Wake Up!” this morning. I don’t know how he is telling you to trust, and follow, and yield, and wait on him, but I pray that you will. And I pray that you’ll also be encouraged and empowered to do so by his grace.
Let the one who has an ear, hear what the Spirit says.