12/14/2020 11:47:34 AM
Seven Letters to the Seven Churches: Sardis
Pastor Kyle Bitter - The Third Sunday in Advent - Sunday, December 13, 2020
What you wear on the outside sometimes covers up what’s on the inside. I saw that truth illustrated in a humorous way a couple of years ago when I was coming back from a wilderness camping trip with my brother and some friends. What you wear on the outside sometimes covers up what’s on the inside. We were really close to being back to our vehicles, and we crossed paths with a young couple who were on their way in. It was their honeymoon, they said, and they seemed really excited. And had they ever dressed for the part! The latest in brand new, light weight, camping friendly clothing. Shiny new equipment. Not a speck of dirt or mud, and a big fluffy white dog following closely behind. It looked like a photo-op for an outdoors magazine…but one didn’t have to watch them tiptoe around the puddles for long to start wondering if they were as ready on the inside as they appeared to be on the outside! As you can probably imagine, wilderness areas of our country are some of the most beautiful places to visit, but they can be harsh. Sometimes it’s cold. Often it’s wet. Usually it’s dirty. Rain was in the forecast on that day, and our group wondered how that young couple’s trip ended up turning out!
Kind of a funny story to imagine, but maybe it’s a helpful way to envision the problem that the first century church in Sardis struggled with. John’s letter indicates that appearances of what was going on in Sardis were very positive! Now, as has been the case with many of the other first century churches, we can only speculate about what that meant. Was this congregation blessed with a lot of really talented members? Was this congregation particularly large and active? Had they experienced a lot of visible success? Maybe all of those were true. Whatever the case, that outside appearance didn’t match up with what was underneath. The letter describes it like this: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Revelation 3:1b – NIV84). A bit later he describes the problem with more specific words: “I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.” (Revelation 3:2b – NIV84). Whatever it looked like, it sees that these Christians had gotten so caught up in doing the right things that some of them had forgotten why they were doing them!
The first half of the letter makes it clear that this was a very dangerous path: “To the angel (that is, the messenger, likely the pastor) of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. (In other words, these are the words of Jesus) I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” (Revelation 3:1-3 – NIV84). It was a warning and a call to repentance that the Christians in Sardis needed to hear. But they weren’t the only ones.
Today’s first lesson, from the writings of the prophet Malachi, started with a similar warning, “Surely the day of the LORD is coming, it will burn like a furnace…every evildoer will be stubble!” (Malachi 4:1 – NIV84). Why should the people in Malachi’s day be concerned about the Lord’s coming? Previous chapters show God’s people doing what looked like the right things – bringing offerings and making sacrifices – but underneath there was all kinds of wickedness. Malachi points out that rather than
giving from hearts filled with thanks, many of God’s people were bringing offerings that were the leftovers, the sickly animals, the extra little bit they didn’t need or want! Instead of love for God, it had become just something that you do for the sake of doing it. Certainly, there was need to repent!
Fast forward to the time of John the Baptist and today’s gospel. Many people of his day were so intent on obeying the laws of the Old Testament that they even made extra laws to make sure they didn’t even get close to breaking God’s laws. Sounds like a very godly thing to do, but in the process of trying so hard to do the right things they forgot why God had established the laws that set up the Old Testament lifestyle of God’s people – to focus attention on what he was going to do in sending the Savior! John’s message of “Repent!” and “Make straight the way of the Lord,” was badly needed!
Might that same warning need to be sounded again today? Are there times when we find ourselves more focused on the things we do than on what God does for us? As a congregation, God has certainly blessed us in many ways. Tons of talented people, a beautiful school, wonderful musicians, all kinds of dedicated called workers and volunteers doing all kinds of things, and we have the opportunity to do a lot! But, could we ever get so caught up in what we do, both as a church and as individuals, that we start to forget why we do it and slowly drift into danger? Here’s one possible example you might be able to identify with. What has your reaction been to planning for Christmas this year? Clearly, lots of things are going to be different. Family gatherings might be smaller, or might be canceled entirely. Christmas worship services will be a series of smaller services instead of the massive gatherings we are accustomed to. Financial struggles and the stress connected with them have hit hard for far many more people than usual. Christmas traditions and events in our communities have been canceled, or if they are happening they are so heavily modified that many of them are barely recognizable!
Maybe you find yourself looking at all of that and thinking something along these lines: “Christmas just isn’t going to be Christmas this year.” In a phrase like that, you can see what the temptation is. Now, don’t misunderstand. There’s nothing wrong with missing beloved Christmas traditions – in fact it would be kind of surprising if you didn’t. But, if we find ourselves thinking that Christmas can’t be Christmas without our activities – be they family traditions, customs in society, or perhaps more to the point here, the things that we do together at church, without the right worship services and the right music Christmas can’t be Christmas, then we probably need to repent too. Christmas isn’t something we do for God – it’s a celebration of what God has already done for us in sending Jesus! Getting that turned around is the very same problem that was going on in Sardis and puts the focus on us instead of where it belongs – on God. Perhaps our preparation for Christmas does need the message of John the Baptist, and the message of the Apostle John to the Christians in Sardis: Repent! Turn back to Jesus!
Repent! Jesus Clothes You!
And for those who do turn to him, Jesus promises tremendous blessings. You can see that in the second half of John’s letter to the Christians in Sardis. It’s not all gloom and doom – despite the dangers posed by sin, they were not dead yet! Listen to the second half of the letter. “Yet, you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:4-6 – NIV84). The good news is, there were some in Sardis who had not succumbed to this problem. John describes them as people dressed in clean clothes, people who are worthy!
So what was their secret? It wasn’t anything that was special about them or what they had done. John had encouraged the people earlier, “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent!” (Revelation 3:3a – NIV84). Remember what had started the congregation in Sardis. It hadn’t been their vibrant ministry or their dedicated volunteers or the money they raised or the traditions they followed. The congregation existed because the people there knew and trusted what Jesus had done for them. That was their only reason for existing, and that was their only reason for doing any of the things that gave them such a good appearance. And for those who understood that and remained focused on Jesus? Jesus promises even more blessings! John uses language the pictures reminiscent of a wedding. Only at this wedding, you don’t need to worry about what to wear or how other people will see you, because Jesus has already dressed you with clothing perfect for the occasion. There’s nothing you need to do to improve upon that, because what Jesus has given you isn’t just an outward covering that hides what’s within. Rather, it works the other way! The clean clothing Jesus gives you shows what God has created inside of you – a person who is completely pure and completely forgiven, all the way through and through. In Jesus, God doesn’t see the ugly sins – they’re gone. Replaced by deeds that are complete in the sight of God, to use John’s phrase. Not deeds done by a you, but the perfect deeds completed by Jesus as your Savior!
Repent! Jesus Welcomes You!
This spiritual clothing guarantees you additional blessings. With Jesus, you never have to worry about being left out of the wedding celebration. The clean garments he clothes you in are an indication of your place – he’s got a spot reserved for you, and it’s for you alone and no one can take it away. John described it using the strongest possible terms in the Greek language. For a person who is with Jesus: “I will never blot out his name from the book of life” (Revelation 3:5b – NIV84). Never. Not under any circumstances. If you are with Jesus you will be in the wedding feast, which is John’s way of describing heaven.
John invites us to take the picture still one step farther. So complete is Jesus’ forgiveness for you that he considers you to be the closest of friends at this wedding. Not just someone who was invited because you knew the right people. Not just someone who happens to be in heaven but is only one face among the millions. Jesus considers you to be someone he wants with him personally! He can’t wait to see you there. He can’t wait to introduce you to the angels, to the Father, to other Christians. Jesus describes it like this: “I…will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.” Jesus can’t wait to introduce you! “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:5b-6 – NIV84).
And so, as we prepare for Christmas, may we too hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Repent! Don’t get lost in what we can or cannot do this year. Instead, let’s turn back to what we have received and heard. Let’s turn back to the foundation of our relationship with God, the foundation of our congregation – the good news that on Christmas, no matter how it’s celebrated or what it looks like, Jesus came down to be our Savior. Regardless of what appearances might seem to be, Christmas is still Christmas. Jesus came. Nothing can change that. And he’s going to come again, to take you home to be with him, and nothing’s going to change that either! Amen.