God morning, brothers and sisters! Welcome to “CSI: Canton.”
For those of you who live in a cave and don’t have cable, “CSI” stands for “Crime Scene Investigation.”
Now, CSI started out as a weekly crime show that literally began at the turn of the century … in the year 2000 … on CBS. The “meta-narrative” or “running theme” for the series is the use of forensic science and techniques by a core of central characters who solve all kinds of bizarre, gruesome, and seemingly unsolvable crimes.
The popularity of the original CSI show gave rise to a number of spin-offs. There’s my parent’s favorite … NCIS … which stands for “Naval Criminal Investigative Service.” Then there’s was “CSI: New York” and “CSI: Miami.” And now … “CSI: Canton.”
So … are you ready for some forensic sleuthing? We’ve been assigned to investigate the death of a church in the beautiful fortress city of Sardis. Our principle or lead investigator in this case is Jesus Christ. His preliminary investigation reveals the possible cause of death as apathy and laziness due to over-confidence … a condition known to affect the city of Sardis as a whole.
Like Smyrna and Pergamum, the city of Sardis was built on a mountain spur about 1,500 feet above the valley floor. In its glory days, it was the former capitol of the ancient kingdom of Lydia and was considered to be one of the greatest cities in the world … but that was in her past.
Beside the protection of being built on a mountain ridge, the Patos River at the base of the mountain formed another natural barrier against possible invaders. The only way to approach the city was by an isthmus so narrow that a handful of men could actually defend it against an army of attackers. Because of its natural and man-made fortifications, Sardis was considered to be impregnable by its leaders and its citizens … and that was its downfall. Its strength was its weakness.
You see … the citizens of Sardis were so confident that their city could not be over-come that they failed to guard its walls or city adequately … a weakness that was exploited by the Persians in the 6th century BC. In the dead of night, a band of Persian soldiers found a way to climb up the sides of the ravine and enter the city … which, to their surprise, was not being guarded at all … even though a massive army had been camped out in the valley below the city for 14 days. The Sardians were so confident that their city was impregnable that they didn’t even post a single guard along the city wall or at the city gates. Unopposed, this small band of invaders simply opened the city gates and let the Persian army in.
And believe it or not … the same thing happened again 400 years later. The Roman General Antiochus sent a small band of soldiers up the ravine and … surprise, surprise … found no one guarding it … and, sadly, for the Sardians, history repeated itself.
Sardis was a city characterized by a complacent spirit … and that spirit of complacency had infected the church. In His official report, Jesus wrote: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive … but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). Apparently there was a time when this church was very much alive and active … filled with people who knew the LORD and were committed to doing good works. Because of that, they had a good reputation within the city … but something changed along the way. They became, as one Bible scholar so poetically put it, “a mild-mannered people … meeting in mild-mannered ways … striving to become more mild-mannered.”
Do you remember what I said about Satan attacking churches last week? He only attacks the good ones, right? Well … he certainly doesn’t appear to be attacking the church at Sardis! There were no Jewish accusers of this church and no friction with the large Jewish population living in Sardis. They were either simply ignoring the Christians because they were of no consequence or they didn’t even know that they were there. There were no false apostles stirring up debate. There were no Nicolaitan trying to impose their doctrines on the Sardian church. There were no struggles … no attacks … nothing … nada … zip … which says a lot about the church and the Christian community in Sardis, doesn’t it? A once energetic, vibrant church had become “The First Zombie Church of Sardis.” … full of living Christian corpses … alive but with no spirit in them.
How can a church that was once so full of life become a white-washed tomb full of dead men’s bones and rotting corpses (Matthew 23:27)? That, my fellow investigators, is our job this morning as “Christian Soul Investigators.” Get it? “CSI” … “Christian Soul Investigators.” [Ba-ta-tump!]
One of the first things that a good forensic scientist or medical examiner should do is to rule out or eliminate the things that are NOT the cause of death. We can rule out an outside enemy, for example, as the cause of death. As we have been talking about the last few weeks, it is easier to kill a church from the inside than it is from the outside. The history of the church has proven this fact over and over again. In fact, attacks from the outside tend to either spread the Gospel or make the church stronger. When the Jewish religious leaders began persecuting the foundling Christian community in Jerusalem, for example, the Christian community scattered throughout the region to avoid persecution … setting up new communities and sharing the Good News wherever they settled. When the Romans tried to destroy the church, it grew stronger and more vibrant and determined … their survival a visible and powerful testament to their faith in Jesus Christ and His promise of a new and eternal Kingdom of which they would be a part.
Every time and everywhere that the church is persecuted the church gets stronger … a hope that all Christians must cling to because there will come a day in this culture … especially if things keep going the way that they have been … that being a “Christian” will cost you something … and I know that this will sound strange … because I certainly don’t look forward to it and don’t want anyone of you or this church to go through persecution … still, would it be such a bad thing in the grand scheme of the Church or our church if our faith were challenged and we were made stronger in the process? As the church in Sardis proves … the church … any church … is only as strong as its members because the heart and the soul of the church is not the buildings but the heart and soul of the people who make up the church, amen?
So … we can rule out an outside enemy or force as the cause of the Sardian church’s death. We can also rule out suicide. The church in Sardis did not die on purpose. There was no deliberate or definite break with Jesus Christ. The members of the church hadn’t called a meeting and passed a resolution that may have read like this:
“Whereas we have become disenchanted with the Christian life … and whereas we have found that the promises of Jesus Christ are not worthy to be taken literally … be it resolved from this day forward that we do renounce all allegiance to … and faith in … Jesus Christ and His church.”
Let’s see … so far we’ve ruled out assault and suicide. We can also rule out death by neglect or abandonment. God did not neglect this church. We read in verse 4 that not everyone in the Sardis church had lost their love and passion for God.
So … if it wasn’t assault … and it wasn’t suicide … and it wasn’t neglect or abandonment … what did kill the church at Sardis? I hate to say it but it looks like we’re going to have to do [pause] … an autopsy! You up for that? I mean, this could get pretty gruesome … rummaging around in this church’s guts … trust me … it’s not for those with weak stomachs or faint hearts!
Okay … you’ve been warned. Scalpel! Rib spreader! Suction!
Ewww … gross! Look at this! It’s pretty obvious what killed this church! … “pneumanecrosis.” “Pneuma” … the breath … the “spirit” of this church … is necrotic … it’s dead.
The death of the church in Sardis came about because the Holy Spirit was no longer in the house. When your spirit or soul leaves your physical body, guess what? You die. And when the Holy Spirit leaves the church, guess what? The same thing happens … the church dies. Just as physical death can result from the separation of the soul from the body, so pneumanecrosis … or spiritual death … can result from the separation of the Holy Spirit from the Body of Christ … which is the church. A church can be physically alive but when the Spirit of God is no longer the sustaining power in that church … pneumanecrosis can set in and the church will begin to rot from the inside out.
John Stott … one of the great expositors of our times … described how a church can be alive on the one hand and be dying on the other: “We administer great projects, and we create impressive committees, but we often leave the Holy Spirit out. The Holy Spirit has rightly been called the ‘forgotten member of the Trinity.’ Only when the Church of Christ is filled with the Spirit of Christ can spiritual death be banished and a name for life have any reality behind it” (“The Message of Acts.” Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1990; pg. 64).
In other words ... if you go to a church or are part of a church where the Holy Spirit of God is not present … that church is either in the process of dying or is dead already.
Well … time to close up the body. There’s nothing more we can do at this point … [pause] …
Oh, wait! What’s this? Do I detect a faint pulse? Could it be that there is still some life left in this dying church? Jesus was right. In His report He said there were “still a few persons in [the Sardis church] who have not soiled their clothes” (Revelation 3:4) … some … a few … who have not yet capitulated to the times … who have not caught “pneumanecrosis.” There is chance … a hope … however slim … that this church can still survive.
To these tiny embers of life, Jesus makes three promises. First … that they would be clothed in white if they continue to stay spiritually healthy. White is the color of purity and righteousness. Those in the Sardis church who have kept themselves pure and holy were promised that they would one day stand with Christ before God and all of Heaven clothed in white robes.
Second … their names would remain in Jesus’ “Book of Life.” Every city of that day kept a registry or log of all of its citizens. If any citizen or resident of that city conducted themselves in a treacherous or scandalous manner, they were publicly dishonored by having their name erased from the town registry. If, on the other hand, a citizen distinguished themselves by performing some loyal or brave act on behalf of the city, they would be honored by getting their name written over in gold ink!
Jesus’ words to the few embers of life in the church at Sardis are emphatic! In the Greek, He is literally saying: “I will never, ever, by any means, blot out your names from my Book of Life.” That goes for all the names in the Sardis church … but those who have not soiled their clothes … those who have kept the faith while their church succumbed to the apathetic creeping of pneumanecrosis … their names will be written over in gold!
How about you? Is your name in Jesus’ Book of Life? Have you confessed your sins and given your heart and life over to Jesus Christ? If you have, then your name is forever written in Jesus’ Book of Life. If you believe that Jesus took on flesh and came for you … if you believe Him when He tells you that God loves you more than you can image … if you believe that His Kingdom is at hand …if you believe that He died on the cross for you … if you believe that His blood … His precious, redeeming blood … was shed for you and has washed away the crimson stain of your sin and made your sin … your soul … as white a snow … then you can be assured that your name is written in the Lamb of God’s Book of Life … and He will never, ever, under any circumstances blot out your name. I don’t know about you, my sisters and brothers, but that’s a promise I can hang my faith on, can’t you?
And third … Jesus promised those who remained pure … who remained spiritually healthy … that He would confess … or testify … on their behalf when the time came for them to stand before His Father, Almighty God. “If you conquer … I will not blot your name out of the Book of Life, and I will confess your name before my Father and before His angels” (Revelation 3:5). Imagine standing with the saints before God in your white robe and hearing God proclaim to the very Heaven: “These are my soldier. These are my sons and daughters. They are dressed not in the righteousness of their own acts and deeds but in the righteousness of my Son, Jesus Christ, who has witnessed to me on their behalf!” I pray that I will get to see that day and I truly pray that you will all be with me when that day comes, amen?
There is hope for this church. She is not completely gone … not yet. There is a spark of life remaining. Jesus’ advice is to strengthen what remains … to blow on these few embers of life and fan them into flames that will ignite the whole church on fire for the Lord again. There is hope for every dying church because of the One who is writing this letter … Jesus Christ … the One whose holds the seven spirits, the seven stars of the seven churches in the palm of His mighty right hand … which includes the spirit or star for the Sardis church. If you remember, Jesus explained the mystery of the seven stars. The stars represent the angels of the church. In His hand, He holds the light, the spirit, the guardian angel for the church in Sardis.
The reason that the Sardis church was dying was that its “light” … its “spirit” … its “angel” had been removed from any kind of place of influence in the church except for the hearts and lives of the few who did not soil their clothes (Revelation 3: 4). Even though their star, their spirit was growing dim, it was still being held in the powerful right hand of Jesus who stands amongst the lampstands of His churches and Jesus promised to revive and restore their light, their spirit, their angel if the church in Sardis would do three things.
First … they had to wake up! They had to wake up and they had to stay awake. “Awake,” Jesus commands them. “Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Ephesians 5:14). In verse 2, Jesus ordered the church at Sardis to “wake up” … which can also be translated as “be watchful.” The Greek word that He used is a compound word that literally means “to chase sleep.” In other words, He was telling the church in Sardis to wake up … to be watchful … and not chase sleep and drift off to Lala Land. He commanded them to wake up before it was too late and they couldn’t wake up. If they wanted to stay a vibrant church, they would have to stay awake … they would have to be alert. They couldn’t become complacent. They would have to stay alert, vigilant in case the enemy tried to slip in through unguarded doors and gates like the Persians did in 600 BC and the Romans did in 200 BC. They would have to stay alert, they would have to stay vigilant and resist the temptation to doze off while they were on guard duty. They would also have to be alert … they would also have to be vigilant because Jesus might show up at any time (Revelation 3:3) and catch them asleep on the job or at their post … which anyone in the military can tell you is a serious, serious offense. Falling asleep on guard duty can put your whole unit or your whole city or your whole church in grave danger. Be aware of the possible in-roads of sin into your life and into the life of our church. Be careful … be alert … stay awake … stand guard at the door of your heart and at the door of our church. Sound the alarm when something is wrong or you see something unusual.
Which leads us to the second thing that the church in Sardis must do if it was ever going to return to its former life and vitality … it must repent! “Remember then what you received and heard,” Jesus commands them, “obey it and repent.”
Another way of thinking about “falling asleep” is to think of it as “denial” … which, like falling asleep, is the inability to acknowledge or accept the truth that’s right before your eyes, amen? If you are asleep, you don’t see the danger at all. Denial is seeing the danger but refusing to acknowledge what you’re seeing or that what you’re seeing poses any real danger. The city of Sardis was in denial about the danger they were in even though they could see the armies of the Persians and Romans camped out in the valley below them. There was no doubt that they were there. There was no doubt what their intentions were … but the citizens of Sardis refused to accept the danger that they were in because they believed that there was no way the Persians or the Romans could cross the isthmus and breach their city walls.
The same was true of the Sardis church spiritually. They didn’t see the danger they were in or they chose not to see it. They were doing good work. They had a reputation of being an up-and-coming church … so what was the problem, amen? There was no need to be on guard. There was no need to be vigilant. They were in denial about the creeping decline that was happening in their church.
Repent! Jesus gave the same command to the church at Pergamum (Revelation 2:16). He’s saying the same thing to the church in Sardis … and He is saying the same thing to us this morning. Repent! Turn away! Turn away from the things that are killing us … killing our church. “If you or your church are dying spiritually,” says Jesus, “then repent! Stop doing the things that are hurting you or your church or start doing the things that you did when you were alive and on fire for me. Wake up! Open your eyes. See the truth of your situation.” You have to see the truth of your situation before you’ll turn away and do anything about it, amen? I mean … there’s nothing to do … nothing to turn from … if you or your church are convinced that there’s nothing going on, am I right?
We have to be alert. We have to be on guard. And when we start to fall asleep … we have to ask Jesus to shake us and wake us up. We have to get back to His Word. We have to put the Holy Spirit back in control of our lives and our church. When we do that, I promise you … better yet, Jesus promises you … that you will conquer … our church will conquer and we will be clothed in white and our names … and the name of this church … will be written in gold in His Book of Life and He will testify on our behalf before God on the Day of Judgment. Man, I don’t know about you but that sounds absolutely glorious and divine to me!
The third thing that Jesus commands the church at Sardis to do is “hold fast” … to “obey” … depending upon your translation. “Remember then what you have received and heard; obey … hold fast … and repent” (Revelation 3:3). “Obey” or “hold fast” to what? Well … Jesus is telling them to hold fast or obey what they had received and heard … which is what? The Word. The Word of God, amen? He’s talking about holding fast to the Word of God. He’s telling them to “obey” … to “keep” … the Word of God. Now … let’s pause here. This is an important clue to the source or symptom of the Sardian church’s pneumanecrosis. They had gotten away from hearing and obeying the Word of God. When Jesus calls them to repent, He’s telling them to turn away from the neglect of the Word or their spiritual disciplines. He wants them to turn … or re-turn … back to what they had received and heard before the pneumanecrosis set in … so that they can once again be a vibrant and active and effective church.
He’s just not telling them … and us … to read the Word or hear the Word but to obey it … to live it. Allow the
Word of God to be what governs your life and the life of this church. Let the Word of God be the center of your life and the center of the life of this church, amen?
He is telling us to obey it … to live it … to hold on to it as if our very lives as Christians and the life of our church depends on it … which it does. And this, my brothers and sisters, is exactly what Jesus is talking about. There may be some of you here who think that all this is just a bunch of hyperbole … some over-the-top hype to get you to read the Bible … well … great if it works. But the truth of the matter is that this is not hyperbole or over-the-top hype. If you abandon the Word of God … if the Word of God is no longer the central authority for our church … then we run the risk of sooner or later becoming a spiritually dead Christian or a pneumanecrotic church. The Word of God is like food for our soul. The Word of God is like air to the body of Christ. We need the Word of God to keep our spirits alive and well. When we stop eating physical food or we don’t eat a healthy, balanced diet, what happens to our physical bodies? Well … the same thing goes for the Spirit as well. When we stop feeding on the Word of God and we stuff ourselves with secular junk food we … and our church … become unhealthy and may eventually develop pneumanecrosis and die. If there ever comes a time when the Word of God is no longer central to this church or central to your life, you and this church will begin spiritually dying a long, slow death. When the Holy Spirit is ignored, neglected, or cast out … when the Word of God is pushed aside or replaced with worldly things … eventually we, who literally make up the body of the church, will die or disappear unless we heed Jesus’ warning and wake up … repent … and hold fast to His Word.
So … here’s our final report. The church in Sardis was dying because it relied on its past reputation. It was dying because the majority of its member were falling asleep or in denial. They were holding fast to their past reputation as a busy church, a happening church instead of holding fast to the thing that made them a dynamic and impactful church. The community thought well of them and they came to think well of themselves. They were sure that they had arrived. They were content with themselves. They had become a beautiful church on the corner of Self-Satisfaction Avenue and Complacency Street. The church, like the city of Sardis itself, was sure that nothing could touch them and they were slowly falling asleep and slipping away … succumbing to the slow rot of pneumanecrosis.
There were some in the church who hadn’t soiled their clothes … which suggests that the majority of them had, in fact, gotten themselves covered in dust and dirt and mud. Beneath the polished reputation of the church in Sardis was secret sin. The church was dying because it was not sensitive to the sin in its membership … it didn’t schedule regular check-ups with their Great Personal Primary Care Physician.
What a tragic story … a church that thought that it was alive only to be told by Jesus that it was dying. Their fate was similar to that of the once-great luxury ocean liner the “Queen Mary.” After four decades at sea, she was finally retired to Long Beach, California, where she was going to be converted into a museum and a floating hotel. During her conversion, her three massive smokestacks were taken down to be scraped and painted. When the construction crew detached the three smokestacks and set them down on the dock, all three smokestacks crumbled. Nothing was left of the three-quarter inch steel plate that made up the three smokestacks. The only thing left of the smokestacks were the 30-plus coats of paint that had been applied to the smokestacks over the years.
How many of you know that it is possible to have a good coat of paint and still be dead as a door nail spiritually? What was true of the Queen Mary’s smokestacks can be just as true for us and for our churches, amen? When Jesus called the Pharisees “white-washed tombs” (Matthew 23:27), He was saying that they had all the outward appearance of devout Jews but inside they had no depth, no substance.
Once again I would like to remind you that WE all have a responsibility as God’s people … as the living, breathing body of Christ … to make sure that THIS church is alive and well and doesn’t suffer the same fate as the church in Sardis did … and we do that by serving God with all our hearts … by reaching out to the lost in our community … by encouraging all our members to get involved in service and some form of ministry … by touching and impacting the people of our community who don’t know Jesus … by sharing our testimony … by worshiping God with joy and excitement … but most importantly by hearing and obeying … holding on to … God’s Word.
Wake up, my brothers and sisters. Stay alert. Watch out for any signs of pneumanecrosis so that we can root it out before it spreads and affects the whole body of Christ. Take care of the church’s spiritual body by taking care of our physical and spiritual bodies. If we keep Jesus and His Word at the center of our lives … if we stay alert and don’t allow sin to make inroads into lives … then we, as a church and as a community made up of spiritually healthy Christians, will continue to serve God, to serve Christ, and be a home for His Holy Spirit … and that, my friends, IS how a church stays alive.
Let us pray: