7 Letters to 7 Churches: Live Awake & Alert!
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Revelation 3:1-6 ~ Sunday, Oct 6, 2016
There once was a young boy who went out for a football team. He got a brand new white jersey and pants. His helmet was nice and shiny. His parents took his picture in his new uniform, and he was so excited about being on the team. But the day of the game, heaven opened and rain fell making the field all muddy. The young boy didn’t want his jersey and helmet to get muddy and dirty. So he told the coach, “I can’t play. I don’t want to get my jersey dirty.” The little boy lost sight of the game. He was supposed to get dirty. He could wash his jersey afterwards.
Ironically, there was another boy his teammate, who was eager to play and didn’t mind getting his jersey dirty at all. As a matter of fact, he loved it! He loved it so much that he couldn’t help but play around in the mud. But instead of paying attention to the ball or helping the team, all he did was look at how dirty his jersey was.
Christians and Christian churches are drawn to these kinds of extremes too. Though the extremes look different, they originate from the same root issue: obsession over the optics, motivated primarily by appearances, what the eye sees.
This really is the heart of the issue for the church at Sardis. Jesus himself diagnoses the problem: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” The congregation at Sardis is known in their community as a hotbed of activity and thus, supposedly a place on fire with spiritual life and in good spiritual health. But that reputation wasn’t rightly earned. Ministries may gain a lively image for constructing lots of buildings and gathering more and more people and adding program after program, but “the LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Jesus judges a church’s liveliness not by the amount of hustle and bustle on campus but by the health of each member’s faith. He told the people at Sardis, “I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.” Faith without works is dead. But supposedly spiritual works without faith are hypocrisy.
What does that mean for you and me? Why do you what you do as a Christian? Do you want to look busy because you believe the busier you are the more faithful you must be? It is true that the Lord equates laziness with wickedness. But activity for the sake of activity isn’t exactly the end goal that God is after. Think of the super hyper child that gets on the basketball court for the first time and is running and dribbling all over the place. The coach loves his energy, but he needs to harness it so that the child can actually cooperate with other teammates and working together win the game. How prone are you to thinking that being really busy with good things equates with being more spiritual?
Another more sinister version of such busyness is making sure to appear active and get “caught” doing good things when the eyes of others are paying attention. The motive for such do-gooding isn’t glory for God but garnering people’s attention and admiration for oneself. Take for instance the busy family man. He posts on social media about the things he’s doing with his children, how he’s taking them here or going there to this activity with them. He finds ways to bring up in conversation all the things he’s busy doing around the house or for his wife. From what others can see, he is a picture of what a husband and father should be. He’s so busy doing for his wife and kids! Most wives might think to themselves, “I wish my husband did half as much as he did.” But his own wife sees the story differently. Sure he does some things but its those things that will get him noticed by others. He can always find the energy to do good things when someone else will notice but behind closed doors his enthusiasm for his wife dries up. He posts flowery words about his affection and adoration for his wife but in private his modus operandi is to turn any issue in the relationship back on her, convincing her that she is the cause of their problems. He keeps this kids under this thumb too, compelling them to keep up appearances for him lest they break the holy law of God by talking with anyone about what life is actually like inside their home. He wants to be SEEN as a good husband. But actually BEING one, well only if others will notice.
Perhaps you have a reputation of being spiritually alive. Going to church will probably make that happen. But most of us realize it’s much easier to get here than to “be” here. Being here in church is rarely the problem. “Being” here in this moment often is. We easily recite the creed instead of believing it. We auto-pilot through the song of praise. We mentally prance through afternoon plans while we pray. We pay close attention to the clock, but little attention to the Word. Sometimes our lips move and eyes blink and hands fold, but we lack a spiritual pulse. We’re here, but we’re not here.
This is what the situation is like at the church of Sardis. They were so wrapped in DOING things to build up their status in the eyes of their community that they had lost touch with the most fundamental, most important status of all! Their standing before God. And that standing had nothing to do with what THEY did.
That’s why Jesus says, “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die” (v. 2) How? Jesus says, “Remember!” This is the key: the cure to overcoming a fixation on the optics and wanting to keep up appearances based on our performance, is to remember—not what tremendous Christians we used to be, or what great things our church once accomplished, but rather what we once were. What were we? We came into this life: lost, condemned creatures, without hope and without trust in God. So Jesus calls us to remember what we’ve “received and heard.” And what is that? God spoke and by his Spirit’s power, raised up lively faith in our hearts. The Spirit revealed Jesus to us, showing us his perfect life, innocent death, and triumphant resurrection, filling us with the confidence that Jesus did all this for us. And the reason he did this was to give us good standing before God that brings new spiritual life from God!
This new life brings a new why for doing what we do. Our lives no longer need to be about keeping up appearances, trying to look like someone we’re really not. Why not? Because the Holy Spirit has given us a new and better view of the way spiritual life actually works. Instead of trying to cover up our sins and keep them hidden, the Spirit moves us to bring them out into the open and confess them. Hiding sin because we want to try and fix it on our own only gives it more room to keep on doing its deadly work on our souls. But confessing it, turning it over to Jesus, drawing the power and freedom to turn away from our sins from him rather than our own effort to fix ourselves, that’s what makes a person, a congregation of people truly alive!
Listen and remember what you have received from God! Walk daily in the way of repentance and renewal given to you by God! Take to heart this promise Jesus makes to you: “They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 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.”
Before he died in 2007, famous tenor Luciano Pavarotti shared the life-changing advice his father had given him. God had blessed Luciano with a stunning voice and the chance to study under a professional from his hometown. However, Luciano also loved to teach and got a degree in education. After graduation, he asked his father, “Shall I be a teacher or a singer?” “Luciano,” his father replied, “if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. You must choose one.” And his son did. Pavarotti later shared, “It took seven years of study and frustration before I made my first professional appearance. It took another seven years to reach the Metropolitan Opera. And now I think whether it’s laying bricks, writing a book—whatever we choose—we should give ourselves to it. Commitment, that’s the key. Choose one chair.”
Whenever we come to church, stop to pray, or open our Bibles, both God and the devil offer us a chair, a place to sit. God’s chair is meant for focused attention, spiritual growth, and life. The devil’s chair is for afternoon plans, silly daydreams, and death. Our minds might want to multi-task, to sit on both chairs, but Pavarotti’s father was right. If we try, we’ll fall to the ground. We’ll be here but we won’t be here.
Sit on God’s chair. Fight for his Word. Remember to “be here” during every song, every lesson, every prayer, every confession, every blessing. Don’t come to church to relax. Come to church to work. Take sermon notes. Study the hymns. Apply the prayers. Bring your own Bible and highlight, circle, and underline. When your mind strays, turn it back to why you’re here: “Faith comes from hearing the message.”
One example--Just think of the familiar words we’re about to hear. But don’t just hear them. Be here to hear them. “On the night he was betrayed...if I was about to be betrayed I would be angry…Jesus took bread. And when he had given thanks…Jesus thanked God in the midst of his betrayal…he broke it and gave it to his disciples…he gave a gift to those messed-up, sinful men…and he said, ‘Take and eat. This is my body. Take and drink. This is my blood of the new covenant…The new covenant? Isn’t that God’s promise to forgive and forget every single one of our sins? ...which is given for you…for me?!? God personalizes this gift for me?!?...Go in peace…How could I not go in peace? I’ve been forgiven and dressed in pure white by the body and blood of Christ!”
Our services are filled with moments just like that. Every time you open your Bible is filled with words just like that. Sit on God’s chair and you’ll see it. Listen to it and your soul will wake up from drifting off and drifting away. Commit to listening to it with living ears and you’ll soon see how It changes you day-by-day for the better. Because it does, you no longer live to keep up appearances, or fake it until you make it. Instead you get live as the person God calls you to be: his dearly loved child who freely reflects that love in all you think, say, and do! Amen.