Today we read about two churches with a significant contrast of characteristics. One thinks it’s alive but is dead, the other feels as good as dead but is alive.
Sardis was a sophisticated city and perhaps that was the reason that persecution against Christians wasn’t such a problem as it was in places like Smyrna and Philadelphia. It seems that the Jewish population of Sardis was well accepted despite the fact that they rejected pagan worship and that acceptance may have rubbed off on the Christian church since it was considered just a sect of Judaism.
In fact the Jewish synagogue in Sardis was one of the largest synagogues in the ancient world. And it may be that the Jewish people in Sardis had so integrated into this pagan, Gentile society that their tolerance of difference even extended to the Christian church unlike other cities in the region.
In any case there’s no hint here of any persecution against Christians. In fact the description seems to imply that this was a flourishing church. They have a reputation of being alive.
You can imagine what this might have been like. What would a church like this look like? It’s reputed to be alive so you can imagine their meetings overflowing with worshippers. Their social welfare program would have been extensive, perhaps mimicking the distribution of aid carried out by the seven deacons in the early Jerusalem church. They may have had numbers of groups meeting in homes around the city. Their worship band would have been a professional ensemble. Their preachers would have been top notch. Their children and youth programs would have been extensive. This would have been the sort of church that people hear about all over the country, that visitors seek out whenever they’re in the area.
But what’s the reality beneath the veneer of success? In reality they’re dead. Their works don’t actually match their image. They’re like the daffodils in my garden a the moment: plenty of green, but not a flower in sight. Their productivity as a church is minimal. The outward form seems OK but the fruit isn’t there.
Mind you they’re not quite dead. There’s still time for them to recover. There are still some who remain faithful. But they need to wake up, to recognise the crisis they’re in and begin to strengthen what remains alive.
Those of you who are fans of Lord of the Rings may remember the scene where Gandalf and the remaining members of the Fellowship of the Ring arrive at Rohan, the home of the horsemen of the plain. They discover that the king, Theoden, has had his mind polluted by an evil counsellor, Grima Wormtongue, to the point where he’s just waiting for death. Gandalf manages to overcome the evil influence of Grima and convinces the king to strengthen his arm again, to lead his people to fight for their freedom.
That’s what this church is being called to do. Flex your muscles again. Rediscover your gifts. Stop taking life for granted and begin to produce the fruit that Christ expects of you.
Do you remember me suggesting that the church suffering persecution is more likely to produce fruit than those living in comfort? Well here’s a good example of the latter. There’s no suffering mentioned but no fruit either. Instead they seem to be coasting along, taking for granted their status as God’s people.
At the same time there are those in this church who remain faithful, who haven’t soiled their clothes. I take that to mean these people haven’t succumbed to the temptation either to compromise, as we saw last week, or to simply withdraw from active ministry into coasting along as a Christian.
As in other letters there’s a severe warning given to those who are asleep or nearing death: Jesus will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour he will come to you. This was part of Jesus’ warning to his disciples about the unexpected nature of his return, remember. But here it’s in the context of him coming to judge their inactivity. In fact the warning is heightened by the promise of reward to those who are still remaining faithful. Look at v5: "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." The implied threat of course is that those who fail to persevere will be blotted out of the book of life, will lose their inheritance. It was the practice in some places at that time for citizens who were to be executed to have their names erased from the register of citizens, just before their death.
So this deathly inactivity on the part of the majority in the church in Sardis was a real danger as far as their long term future was concerned.
Philadelphia by contrast was the exact opposite. By outward appearances it was struggling. It’s strength was minimal. You can imagine the people gathering each Sunday and thinking to themselves "How can we keep going when there are so few of us?" "How can we stand up against the pagan world around us when we don’t seem to have any great orators to take up our defence?" "Everything we try seems too hard." "Even our Jewish brothers and sisters have excluded us from the synagogue."
But Jesus sends them this message: He’s the one who holds the key of David, the one who opens and no-one can shut, who shuts and no-one can open. That is, he’s the one who determines who will come and go in God’s Kingdom. Philadelphia appears to be having the same problem with opposition from the Jews as they were at Smyrna. That description, "synagogue of Satan" is used again here. Maybe the Jewish elders were refusing entry to the synagogue to anyone who professed Jesus as the Messiah, but Jesus comes to them to reassure them that only he has the authority to decide who’s part of God’s people, or more importantly, who enters God’s presence and who doesn’t.
But then the idea is taken further. Not only does Jesus open the door for them to enter his presence, but he also sets before them an open door for ministry.
Yes, they’re weak, but they have his power. The forces that are opposed to them will discover that they’re outmatched. In the end they’ll stand before these Christians and bow down to them, because they’re Jesus’ loved ones. Now for anyone who’d studied the Old Testament this would have rung loud bells. Listen to what Isaiah predicts about the last days when God restores the glory of Israel: (Isa 60:14 NRSV) "The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel." And now Jesus is applying this image to the Church, to these beaten down, weak Christians, whose only strength is the fact that they’ve kept God’s command of patient endurance.
What does this say to our modern mindset of success and power as a church? If I were to ask you what are the successful churches in Melbourne, which would you think of? One of the huge mega-churches with their thousands of members? One of those churches that politicians pay attention to these days? One of those churches where the minister or pastor is well known in the media? Perhaps a multi-staffed church with lots of programs running for the full range of age and demographic groups? Or would you think of a small church that’s maybe struggling to keep going, but nevertheless maintaining a focus on obeying God’s word in whatever they do? That’s the sort of Church we find here in Philadelphia.
And notice that there are no criticisms here, no warnings. All there is, is a promise of reward; a promise of an end to their suffering. "10Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth." A time was coming when God’s judgement would begin to fall on the peoples of the world. Various descriptions of this judgement are given, beginning in chapter 6. There’s war, pestilence, famine, natural disaster, all meant to warn people of their foolishness in not worshipping the true and living God, of the folly of self-reliance. But sadly, at the end of ch9, we discover that all the things that have happened have had no effect on those who are disobedient. They just ignore it and go one with their sinful lives as though nothing has happened. All that’s been happening, of course, since the day that this was written. And nothing has changed in all that time has it? But here the promise is given that this church will be protected through this time of testing. Their faithfulness to God’s word will be rewarded by God’s protection.
Still, they need to persevere like all the other churches. They have to make sure that no-one seizes their crown from them. That is, that no-one leads them astray so they fail to finish the race.
The promised reward is extended: "I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name." Their Jewish opponents may have been trying to exclude them from the synagogue, but Jesus will make them an integral element of God’s presence. They’ll have his name written on them as a sign that they’re his. They’ll be a pillar in his temple. A pillar is something that can’t be removed without damaging the entire structure. It has a sense of permanence. They’ll be integrally connected with the worship of God, that is. And again we have here a reference to the promises of Isaiah about the last day. Listen to what Is 56 says: "Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." 4For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. 6And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant-- 7these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." (Isa 56:3-7 NRSV)
So here we have two churches, one that thinks it’s alive but is in fact dead and one that thinks it’s as good as dead but in fact has plenty of life in it. So what can we say about this in a modern day context?
I guess the first question it raises is what is our church like? Are we truly alive? Are we bearing the fruit of a healthy Church? If we feel like we’re still small and weak, have we taken into account the power of God and God’s presence with us?
There’s also a warning against the way we tend to judge the success of churches. As I said earlier we so often judge the success of the church according to some secular benchmark - finances, numbers attending, popularity, quality of the music, how well known the minister is and so on. But here the question is more to do with how well they’re maintaining their faith in God, how reliant they are on God’s word and on his power, what fruit they’re bearing for the gospel. In particular in a context where we’re in the minority, where the secular world is clamouring for us to compromise, to give way under their loud protests, the test is whether we stand firm for the truth of God’s word, whether we hold on to the truth of the gospel, whether we refuse to compromise on the central issues of Christian belief.
The next issue that’s raised is what do you do if you find yourself in a church that’s slowly dying, like this one in Sardis? Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell those who are still remaining faithful to leave this church and start a new one. Rather he commends them for their perseverance. His call to the church to wake up and strengthen what remains, in fact, depends on these few who still have the strength needed to maintain their Christian witness. There may be cases where it’s better to get out and go somewhere where you’ll be strengthened and encouraged but it may also be the case that you’re the ones that God is depending on to bring life back to his church, to work at waking up the sleeping majority.
Finally there’s a real encouragement to Christians in small churches to persevere, to work hard at being the best we can be. The real encouragement is the reminder that it’s God who supplies all our needs, who protects and defends us from the attacks of the enemy, who goes before us to enable us to serve him even in a world that’s opposed to his rule.
And of course that encouragement includes the promise that when this life is over and the struggle is past we’ll live in his presence for eternity. Always in Revelation the future glory of God and his people is placed before us as an incentive to persevere. The victory belongs to God and to the lamb. For those in a position of weakness the lamb of God is a potent symbol of power through weakness. Jesus appeared to be weak as he was led off to be crucified, but his real power became obvious when he rose from the dead and a few weeks later ascended to the Father in heaven. That power of life and death is what he offers to us. He holds the key of David, the key to entry into God’s presence.
We may not avoid opposition in this world, but God will see us through to God’s presence if only we persevere in our trust and faith in him.
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