Tonight we come to the letter of the risen Jesus to the church in Sardis. On the Sunday evenings of this session, we are looking at the words of Jesus to the churches of Asia Minor, now part of modern Turkey. They are recorded for us at the beginning of the book of Revelation. These churches were churches in an important part of the ancient world. But Jesus words aren't just for ancient historians. That is because the churches of Asia Minor are so similar to churches today. There are lessons in these letters for each one of us to learn, all these centuries later. We will be looking, therefore, tonight at Rev 3.1-6. I want to be very simple. I just want to focus on first, THE PROBLEM the church at Sardis was facing; and then on secondly, THE REMEDY it needed. But let me begin with some words of introduction about Sardis and its church. The city of Sardis had a glorious past. It had been the capital of the old kingdom of Lydia. King Croesus had made it famous. That was before the Persian period in the 6th century BC. Sardis then saw hard times in the centuries that followed. So the church in Sardis seems to have been like the city of Sardis itself. It was a church living on its past. It was, therefore, a church criticised by Jesus. In fact this is one of the harshest of these letters to the seven churches. But what was said, needed to be said. There was a serious problem. So first, THE PROBLEM. Look at verse 1:
"To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.
Here was the problem in a nutshell. You've got an active church with a lot going on. There were "deeds". There were no doubt programmes, councils, social action, organisation and all sorts of other things. The church had a "reputation" - and a "reputation of being alive". The outside world thought this church OK. It may have been a fashionable church to go to. But in reality, says Jesus, the church was "dead". It was alive in name only. For all its activity, like a dead corpse, it could achieve nothing. For all its reputation, like a dead corpse, it was quietly rotting away. What, then, was wrong? Look at verse 2 (the second half):
I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.
Literally the word "complete" means "fulfilled". There was an "emptiness" if you saw what was really going on. And God saw what was really going on. The church at Sardis could fool the people around and in other churches. They couldn't fool God. There is that little phrase, "in the sight of my God." That was important then. It is important today. Hebrews 4.13 says:
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
How are you "before the eyes of him to whom we must give account", or, in the words of Jesus here, "in the sight of my God"? God saw that so much at Sardis was all froth and show. It was outward, not inward. You see, God sees your motives. He sees your thoughts and your desires. He sees that it is perfectly possible to appear to be spiritually alive, while being spiritually dead. Jesus quoted Isaiah to people in his day:
These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
Jesus taught that outward religion was not enough. Many of you will be going on holiday soon, no doubt, to a sea-side resort. If you look carefully on the beach you can find sea-shells. They can be very beautiful. You perhaps will bring some home. But one thing the shells you pick up have in common is this. They are all quite lifeless. The living organism that was once inside is now dead and gone. Jesus says some Christians and some churches are like those shells. They may be attractive as holiday souvenirs. But they are lifeless. They are dead or nearly dead. However, look on to verse 4. There were, we are told, a few people that ...
... have not soiled their clothes.
That, of course, means most had! And this is something of a surprise. It would seem that the church at Sardis was not noted for heresy or immorality. They weren't full of the followers of Balaam and the Nicolaitans as in Pergamum, or the followers of Jezebel as in Thyatira that we thought about last week. Perhaps that is why the church at Sardis had a reputation. But this verse shows that the reality was otherwise; most of the people in the church at Sardis, Jesus says, were "soiled". We know from the Greek historian Herodotus that there was sexual immorality in Sardis. It is possible that these Christians were morally compromising without seeming to be so. They pretended to be moral while in reality supporting immorality. And don't you still get that sort of thing today? You get some Christians today saying in regard to sexual morality that "marriage is the ideal" but immorality is OK if you can't manage the ideal. They may be living morally themselves but they are soiled by teaching error and confusing others. And so, you read in verse 3, unless things changed, they would be under judgment:
I will come [says Jesus] like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
It will be like the robbers around Sardis who made their moves when no one was expecting an attack. Christ will come, when people are not expecting it, and remove the lampstand - the church. So there is a serious problem at Sardis. The problem is the problem of nominalism - having a name only for being alive. The New Testament calls it "hypocrisy" or play-acting. Jesus here describes it as spiritual death. Now, perhaps some of you tonight are thinking that this letter to Sardis is not relevant to your situation. You call yourself an evangelical Christian. You're not a nominal Christian, you say. You say, evangelical Christians are tempted to be more like the church at Ephesus - the church the first of these letters was written to. The problem there was the loss of their "first love". That might be your problem, you say. So this letter to Sardis is not relevant to you or indeed an evangelical church like this one. It might be relevant to the wider Church of England. But not to evangelical Christians. You have to be careful. Jesus doesn't let you off the hook so easily! The problems of all seven churches in Revelation 2-3 are potentially in each one of us and in this church, Jesmond Parish Church. That is why Jesus doesn't say in verse 6:
"hear what the Spirit says to the one church that most nearly fits your case."
No! He says:
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches [ie all the churches]."
We all need to listen to the problem of Nominalism at Sardis and then to the suggested remedy. That brings me to my second heading tonight. Secondly, THE REMEDY. Look at verse 2:
Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.
The metaphor has changed. These Christians are not now described as dead, but as "asleep". They need to wake up to reality. It is as though the alarm is going off. Imagine one of those cold, dark mornings. It is vital that you wake up - you have an important engagement or a train to catch or an exam to sit. Jesus is saying it is like that but to the "nth" degree for these people. Eternity is at stake, not just a train or an exam. They have to wake up to the fact that there is a massive problem with eternal consequences - literally the difference between heaven and hell. It is so easy for people like those in the church at Sardis to be in a state of denial - to say that all is wonderful and fine, when it certainly isn't. So the first part of the remedy is to "wake up" and face the facts. Secondly, the church at Sardis has to "strengthen what remains and is about to die." For all the emptiness and nominalism at Sardis there is a little "remnant" - referred to here in verse 2 as "what remains". But it appears to be very weak. It, too, is "about to die". It needs to be strengthened. This remnant is referred to, more fully, in verse 4:
Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes.
So the hope for Sardis comes not from the top, but from the bottom, from a faithful group who are spiritually alive. Probably they have no great reputation. In fact some in the church at Sardis may think them narrow and divisive and bigoted - they are too "keen". But this is where the hope for the church at Sardis lies - with this small group of faithful believers. All this is nothing new. The history of the Old Testament, the New Testament and later church history is one catalogue of faithful minorities. It was so in the time of Noah, in the time of Lot, in the time of Elijah, in the time of Isaiah, supremely in the time of Jesus and the apostles, at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, and today. True, the Old Testament warns that you can think this "remnant" is smaller than it really is. Elijah, for example, thought that he alone was the remnant. God had to remind him that there were 7000 others who had not bowed down to Baal. So if you think you are on your own being faithful in your situation, be careful. There are probably a good number of others like you. You just need to find them. The people in the church at Sardis, therefore, must focus on this remnant which is right there before their very eyes. And they are to strengthen that remnant. How do they do that? Well, one way is for the numbers in that small group to grow - for more people to become like those "who have not soiled their clothes". How does that happen? How do people in similar situations today take the necessary action? Perhaps there is someone here tonight and you know that you used to be spiritually alive but now it is all formal and outward. The reality seems to have gone. What do you do? Look at verse 3:
Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent,
Memory is so important in the spiritual life. But what has to be remembered? Answer: "what you have received and heard?" There are, therefore, two things to be remembered - what has been received and what has been heard? So what have you received, if you are a Christian? What had these folk at Sardis received? Answer: the Holy Spirit. He is the great gift that everyone receives when they trust in Jesus and obey his word. "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit," Peter preached at that first Pentecost (Acts 2.38). God gives the Spirit; you receive him. He then, so to speak, lives in you. Paul says, 1 Cor 6.19:
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own.
And God is transforming you as the Spirit lives in you. God wants to see those fruit of the Spirit in your life. Nor do you sit back and do nothing. Of course, not. Rather you live and work with the Spirit. It is still a struggle; but you now have his resources. So it seems that these Christians at Sardis needed to remember the Holy Spirit. Look at the introduction in verse 1:
"To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. [I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.]"
The Church at Sardis needed to remember that Jesus "holds the seven spirits of God". Who are the "seven spirits of God"? Undoubtedly this strange phrase refers to the Holy Spirit. In verse 4 of chapter one, there is that opening Trinitarian greeting:
"Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ."
The seven spirits are linked with the Father and the Son as the source of "grace and peace". But that is the Holy Spirit. He is spoken of as "sevenfold" perhaps because seven is the number in Revelation for perfection. Or it may be seven is the number of the churches here, and each of them has the Holy Spirit. Whatever the reason, it seems that the church at Sardis needed to remember and refocus on the Holy Spirit. He alone, as we say in the Nicene Creed, "is the Lord, the giver of life". It is the Holy Spirit who makes dead churches alive and spiritually dead individuals alive. Is there someone here tonight who has never received the Holy Spirit for new life, because you have never gone to Jesus the one who gives the Spirit? You have never said to him,
"Lord Jesus I need your Holy Spirit to open my eyes to see that I need your forgiveness and your salvation; and I need your Holy Spirit to give me new strength and indeed new life."
Why not do that tonight? Or perhaps you have grieved the Spirit. You have received the Holy Spirit; you do trust Christ. As in the church at Sardis he has not gone away. But you have "put out the Spirit's fire" (1 Thess 5.19). It is possible to do that. So you need to hear again that message of Paul to "be filled with the Spirit" (Eph 5.18). You have the Holy Spirit, but does he fill your life? Is he just someone for "Sundays" or religious meetings? What about Monday morning? You see, being filled with the Holy Spirit is not a one off experience. Literally Paul is saying: "go on being filled". Everyday you need to renew your commitment, your repentance, your obedience and your faith. Everyday you need to pray for the Holy Spirit to be with you as you go out into the world. The Christians at Sardis needed to remember "what [they] had received" - the Holy Spirit. They also needed to remember what they had "heard". They needed to go back to the apostolic gospel. And how important that is! Where is that apostolic gospel? Answer: in the Bible. As you go back to that apostolic teaching in the Bible so you learn the truth about the Holy Spirit. That is especially important. Some people when they refocus on the Holy Spirit, follow experiences and not the Bible. That can be disastrous. The Christians at Sardis needed to focus again on the Holy Spirit - to remember what they had received - but also they needed to remember what they had heard - the apostolic teaching. The Holy Spirit and the word of God must go together. So that is the remedy for anyone who has a reputation of being alive when really you are dead. You need, says Jesus, to "remember what you have received - [the Holy Spirit] - and heard - [the Apostles teaching]." You then needed to "obey .. and repent". I must conclude. But there was hope for the Church at Sardis. So there is hope for you and me. Look at verse 5. Jesus says:
He who overcomes [who obeys and repents] will, like them [the remnant], be dressed in white [the colour of heaven]. I will never blot out his name from the book of life [he can have full assurance for eternity], but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.
So Jesus concludes, and I will repeat the words again (verse 6):
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.