Energy: Keeping Our Fire Burning

Energy: Keeping Our Fire Burning

Revelation 3:1-6


There’s a kind of person I just don’t understand, no matter how hard I try. And I suspect there are some here this morning. Where are our morning people this morning? Now I’m not talking about people who are ABLE to get up early if the HAVE to for work, or to get the kids off to school, or whatever. I’m talking about those insane individuals who LIKE getting up early. The ones who hop out of bed bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to tackle the day. Some of us who get up early are like, “Oh, yeah, that’s not me.” Some of us, just by nature, are more active at night. It has to do with the way your body works, when certain hormones are released, that kind of thing. We’re the normal ones. The people who hop out of bed smiling and ready to go at 4 am are nuts.


So we have our early birds, and our night owls, but the truth is, most of us probably fall somewhere in between these two extremes. We aren’t early birds. But we aren’t night owls either. We’re more like some kind of permanently exhausted pigeon. How many of us, that describes us? Most of us CAN get up early if we HAVE to, but we don’t LIKE it. And we certainly don’t pop out of bed bright eyed and bushy tailed. We drag ourselves out of bed and slowly wake up as we go through our morning “getting ready” routines. Most of us with the assistance of quite a bit of coffee. We start out almost sleepwalking and slowly come to over time.


This fall we’ve been looking at the seven letters that Christ sent to seven churches in Asia Minor through St. John, the seven letters to the churches recorded in chapters 2 and 3 of the last book in the Bible, the book of Revelation. And we’ve called this series “Building A Healthy Church,” not because we think we’re an unhealthy church. In fact, we think we’re quite healthy. But we also know that left to themselves, things tend to wind down, to fall apart. Without purposeful effort and maintenance healthy cars break down, healthy houses fall apart, healthy bodies get sick, and healthy churches start to die. And we see that most clearly in Christ’s letter to the church in Sardis. Turn with me to Revelation 3:1-6.


Unlike Christians in the cities Smyrna and Pergamum who were experiencing extreme poverty and persecution because of their faith, followers of Christ in Sardis were quite comfortable. Actually, everyone in Sardis was quite comfortable. The city was located on a cliff, completely inaccessible from three sides, the only access point a narrow strip of land that could be easily fortified and defended. As far as locations for ancient cities went, this was the perfect spot. Accessible but easily defensible. And the climate was amazing. The economy was healthy. There was great wealth in Sardis. And a lot of culture too. There was a lot of entertainment, things to see and experience.


And it was an important city. Once severely damaged by an earthquake, the Roman Emperor himself paid for the rebuild. Like Traverse City (except for the months of March and November), it was a great place to live. It was a comfortable place to live.


And the church in Sardis was a lot like the city in Sardis. The people were comfortable. Things seemed to be going well. People were coming. Their worship services were well-attended. The people were wealthy and the church was well-financed. On the surface, things couldn’t have looked better. To human eyes, this was a healthy church in a great place to live. But Christ wasn’t looking at this church with human eyes. He saw through the façade, and he didn’t like what he saw behind the façade. Look at the last sentence of V. 1. You look like you’re doing well. You seem to be filled with vitality and good things. Everyone around you thinks highly of you and thinks you’re doing well. You seem very alive, but you’re actually quite dead.


They weren’t facing persecution like the Christians in Smyrna and Pergamum. They weren’t dealing with heresy like the churches in Ephesus and Thyatira. They could worship freely and without fear. The teaching was sound. They weren’t accused of losing their love for one another in their zealous pursuit of truth the way the Ephesian Christians were. From the perspective of most, this was not only a healthy church, is was maybe the posterchild of healthy churches. More churches should try to be like the one in Sardis.


But under the withering gaze of Christ, the one walking among them, seeing how they were doing, their life was revealed to be a façade. They were really dead. Not because they had accepted false teaching. They hadn’t. Not because they had stopped loving one another. They hadn’t. Not because they were facing poverty and persecution because of Christ. They weren’t. They had simply lost their sense of purpose, their spirit, their energy. They were the perfect model of inoffensive Christianity. They did nothing, absolutely nothing, to rock the boat in Sardis.


In the late 1940s, famous Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen made a public profession of faith in Christ, and his new Christian friends were elated. But as time passed, they began to wonder why he didn’t leave his gangster lifestyle. When they confronted him with this question, he protested, “You never told me I had to give up my career. You never told me I had to give up my friends. There are Christian movie stars, Christian athletes, Christian businessmen. So what’s the matter with being a Christian gangster?


If I have to give all that up – if that’s Christianity – count me out.” He gradually drifted away from Christian circles and ultimately died alone and forgotten. Chuck Colsen wrote this about him: “Cohen was echoing the millions of professing Christians who, though unwilling to admit it, through their very lives pose the same question. Not about being Christian gangsters, but about being Christianized versions of whatever they already are – and are determined to remain.”


Instead of living simple, uncluttered lives that were radically different than the lives of the rest of the Sardinians, or Sardines, or whatever they called themselves, they lived lives that were no different at all. They looked just like everyone else. They acted just like everyone else. They weren’t forced to worship Caesar or the gods of the trade guilds. And they didn’t. But that was it. Otherwise, they were just the same. And to Christ, that was unacceptable. How were they going to shine the light of Christ, to attract others into the life of Christ, if they looked just like everyone else?


On the surface, the church looked great. One of the primary ways we evaluate the health and success of a church is through what has been called the ABCs – attendance, building, and cash. People coming, thriving children’s and youth ministries. Lots of small groups. A building that is attractive and completely functional and an asset to the community. And the cash needed to completely maintain the building and fund ministry and pay the pastor and staff a good wage. Attendance, buildings, and cash. Like the fig tree that Jesus and his disciples happened upon in Mark 11, the tree that looked great, had lots of leaves, but no figs, no fruit, a church can look good, appear to be alive and vibrant, but have no fruit. The church in Sardis had it all, as far as their community and culture was concerned. Their reputation: That’s a vibrant church! Attendance, buildings, and cash are the façade, and behind the façade, they were dead. More like asleep. Look at V. 2.


Wake up! In Mark 5, a Jewish leader named Jairus whose daughter was very sick, almost dead, came and threw himself at the feet of Jesus, and Mark tells us he IMPLORED Jesus EARNESTLY, he was desperate, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live” (V. 23). And as they went to Jairus’ house, someone from the house met them on the road and said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But Jesus kept walking toward the house, and when he got there, he found a house that had gone from hospital to funeral home. The people gathered were weeping and wailing loudly. And Jesus turned to them and said, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping” (V. 39). Now, the truth is, the child was dead. Her heart wasn’t beating. She wasn’t breathing. But the deeper truth is that to Christ, death and sleep are no different. He can awaken the dead just as easily as we might awaken one who is sleeping.


So Jesus looks at the church in Sardis and says, “Your vitality is just a façade. An illusion. The reality is, you’re dead.” And then he turns around and says, so “Wake up.” A more literal translation would be “Be watchful!” “Pay attention!” That’s one thing the sleeping, and the dead, aren’t doing. You aren’t finishing what you start. You are leaving things undone. There are people around you who need the light of Christ. It isn’t that they weren’t living right. It’s that, as a church, they were passive. “Wake up! Start looking!” And those would have been very striking words for the Christians in Sardis.


The people of Sardis were comfortable. Maybe too comfortable. So comfortable that they had lost their edge. It had happened in the past. Sardis was nearly impregnable. It was impossible for a mighty army, with chariots and horses and foot soldiers to access. But there was a weakness. A mall crack up the face of the cliff. And while an army couldn’t scale that cliff, a small group of highly trained commandos, the ancient version of Navy Seals or Army Rangers, could use that fissure in the cliff to both scale the cliff and hide their movements from the people of Sardis.


But because the people of Sardis had such a good life, and were so comfortable, and so protected, they weren’t watchful. And TWICE. Not once, but TWICE, the city had been conquered not by a frontal assault, which was impossible, but by a small group of unseen soldiers scaling the walls of the cliff through that tiny fissure. An unexpected attack. “Like a thief.” And the church, as is so often the case, took on the characteristics of her culture, instead of the other way around. And so Christ says, Wake up!


Now, look at V. 2-3. He didn’t just wake them up. He told them to get moving. STRENGTHEN what you do have before it dies, and REMEMBER what you received and heard from those who led you to Christ, and REPENT of being asleep. In other words, GET MOVING! What’s the best way to wake up? It’s to get moving, right. I might be groggy when I grudgingly climb out of bed, but by the time I’ve gone out to the barn and fed and turned out the horses, something has happened. I’ve awakened. If I get up and then just move out to the living room with a cup of coffee and just sit there, I’ll probably fall back asleep. If I don’t get moving, I won’t stay awake.


For many years, Max Depree was the CEO of an innovative Fortune 500 company called Herman Miller. Depree has written classic books on leadership and anchored the board of trustees at Fuller Seminary for 40 years. Max is asked to speak a lot about leadership, and at one session somebody asked him what the most difficult thing was that he personally had to work on. This was Max’s response: “It’s the interception of entropy.”


Entropy is a term from physics that has something to do with the second law of thermodynamics and the availability of energy. It speaks to the fact that the universe is winding down. It’s the idea that everything that is left to itself has a tendency to deteriorate.


Entropy. It’s not only one of the great enemies of the universe; it’s one of the great enemies of the human spirit. A person becomes apathetic or complacent or settles for the path of least resistance in some area of life. Dreams die and hopes fade. A terrible thing happens: a person learns they can live with mediocrity.


Entropy is a great enemy of the human spirit, so the writers of the Book of Proverbs have a lot to say about it. One thing they say is that the wise person is always on the lookout for early signs that entropy is setting in. Proverbs 27:23-24 shows us the picture of someone who has livestock and how they need to monitor its condition. Though the words speak of livestock, they are true in any area of life: “Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations.” Every day you have to be on the lookout for entropy. Though things might have been okay yesterday, that doesn’t mean they stay okay forever. Put any important area of your life on autopilot, and risk entropy that is both subtle and destructive.[i]


Look at Vv. 4-6. The death, the slumber hadn’t overcome everyone yet. But some were doing what all should have been doing. And entropy grows. It passes from one person to another the same way that one person’s yawn will cause others to yawn. Christ’s message to the church in Sardis: Stop being passive. You LOOK beautiful and alive. But you’re sleeping. Stop waiting for things to fall in your lap. Stop waiting for people to just show up. Get out there! Start looking! Stop looking so much like everyone else. Start living!


In Nazi Germany about 7,000 of 18,000 pastors in the state church opposed the Aryan clause that excluded Christians of Jewish descent from working in the church. In time, the Confessing Church, a reform movement within the state church, formed to protest the state church’s compromise with Hitler. Sadly, Hitler gradually began to woo even the Confessing Church. He allowed some of their distinctives and provided legitimacy for them if they would simply acquiesce to his expansionist plans. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great theologian and pastor who helped found the Confessing Church movement, fought this compromise, but became an increasingly isolated minority even within the “Confessing Church.” He claimed “that the failure of German Christians to resist the Nazi rise to power stemmed from their lack of moral clarity.” And we all know what happened soon after. By 1945, roughly 6 million Jews, 2 of every 3, had been killed in concentration camps, and another 80 million soldiers and 55 million civilians died fighting in World War 2. Why? The church was there. She was present. She looked good. She loved her country. She waved the national flag and said the pledge. She looked good, but she was asleep. Bonhoeffer wasn’t. He was arrested for his role in an attempted assassination attempt aimed at Hitler that failed, and he was hanged literally hours before Allied forces liberated the camp at which he was held. Wake up! Get moving! Shine brightly! Live differently! Love radically!


From the Ephesian Church: Are we loving one another as we hold tightly to truth?


From the church in Smyrna: What are we willing to risk for the sake of Christ?


From the church in Pergamum: Are we still holding on to truth, even when it costs us something?


From the church in Thyatira: Are we trusting who Christ is and what Christ says about us as our solid foundation when life gets uncomfortable?


And from the church in Sardis: Are we awake yet, or are we still sleeping?


“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”




[i] John Ortberg, in the sermon Intercepting Entropy,