The Message to the Church in Sardis: Waking Up to God’s Story

This audio for this sermon can be found here.

Revelation 3:1-6 and 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Well we have another very light-hearted passage to consider this week… Last Sunday it was about fornication, and this week we get to talk about how some of us can maybe not get our names blotted out from the book of life! I had several good conversations with folks this past week in two of our men’s groups, the Monday morning Bible study men, and then another groups that’s really more of a mentoring group, and one of the themes that has emerged just in light of our on-going study of the book of Revelation is about the subject of Christian hope. And more specifically, the Christian hope in history: What’s the Big Story that Christians believe about History? What is the church’s hope in history?

Because you know there are these other views of history out there, and other kinds of hope; other Big Stories. And I think it’s helpful for us, in our relating to the world and to others around us, to understand what some of these other Big Stories are.

One of the most popular Big Stories today is the story of progress. It’s the story that says, history is going somewhere, and as history moves along, things generally get better. It may be two steps forward and one step back, but there is still the assumption in this view of history that whatever is earlier or older is more primitive and less developed, and that whatever is recent or newer is better, — more civilized, sophisticated. Whether because of science, technology, government, business or whatever, this Story says that there is always a continuously upward, forward movement. C.S. Lewis called this view chronological snobbery.

And what’s going on underneath this story is usually the belief that human beings are, by nature, either good, or at least clever enough to solve their own problems. So even like with capitalism, for example, self-interest and competition will actually bring about the best for humanity within certain limits. The story of progress also tends to often be nationalistic, or seen from the perspective of one particular culture or people group that has the responsibility or destiny to lead the way for the rest of the world. (e.g., “Manifest Destiny”)

Of course there is another story to counter to this progressive one. It’s the Story of Regress, that everything is getting worse. It’s the story of the good old days — idea of a golden age in the past, and human history has descended down from that time to the present. It’s also gaining popularity right now.

Sometimes Christians get caught up in this story as well. It’s the “evacuation plan” story. Whether it’s the world, our country, society or culture in general, it’s headed in the wrong direction. And things are so bad, human beings are so bad, that we just want Jesus to come back right now and fix it or take us away. And this is also what many Christians assume the book of Revelation is about — that Revelation is primarily a book predicting and describing the end of the world when Christ returns. But really, Revelation is less about predicting or literally describing historical, future events, and much more about warning and figuratively describing the significance of current events — current events then, current events throughout history, and current events in the present. Because history and human beings are always going to be struggling with the same thing. Yes, there will be new challenges, but the root of the problem is never going away. It’s our sin, it’s our collective egoism, it’s violence, it’s idolatry.

Ok, but so whereas the 1) Story of Progress tends to stress historical, political hopes and goals — there’s a strong collective identity tied to the Story of Progress — the 2) Story of Regress puts more emphasis on individual and personal hopes, and tends to check out of the realm of public life.

There is a Third Big Story, about history, that I won’t say as much about because it’s not as popular in Western cultures, but it is has been a dominant view in much of the Eastern, Asian and African world. It’s based neither on progress nor regress, but on a view of history that is an endless cycle of history destined always to repeat itself. Some version of this is actually many Greek philosophes believed, and it’s also what most Asian and Eastern religions believe even today.

So what is the Christian Story, then, the Christian view of history that God is calling us to wake up to, to be part of and to live into? Not just historically, but also personally? We can’t separate those two things like some of the other Stories do. They have to mutually inform and enforce each other.

I want to share this quote with you from Reinhold Niebuhr’s book The Nature and Destiny of Man. He says,

“The final majesty of God [in history] is contained not so much in his power within [history] as in the power of God’s freedom over [history]…This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God himself is involved in the guilt and suffering of free human beings who have, in our freedom, and in our sin, come into conflict with the structural nature of reality. ”

Because the structural nature of reality is ultimately determined by God’s nature, and above all, God’s nature is love — the power and freedom of mercy beyond judgment. Sometimes things in history get better, and sometimes they get worse. And as Christians, we do as much as we can to care for creation and society, as God’s stewards of those things.
But history shows us time and time again that the story of God’s love for the world isn’t something that can be legislated. You can’t legalize it. You can’t institute it. In other words, the gospel cannot be the norm of society. It will never be the norm. History is too conflicted. Human beings are too sinful. The gospel will always be countercultural, counterintuitive, and society won’t know what to do with it. The forgiveness extended to Dylan Roof by the surviving family members of the shooting victims this summer is case in point. They showed mercy beyond judgment. And the world didn’t know what to do.

History can’t operate on that stuff (on grace and forgiveness). The only thing that can save history is something achieved from beyond history. The power of God’s love, and the power of the resurrection says that the Kingdom of God can break through at any moment, and it’s not going to be in continuity with what was happening before. It’s on a totally different plane. It’s not an escape, and it’s not a development. It’s a transformation. It is for history, but it comes from beyond history.

Another way to say it is that there’s overlap — between this age and the age to come, because the Kingdom of God has broken in. it isn’t fully here, but it’s available to us now by the Spirit.

Here’s what British theologian and missionary Leslie Newbigin, has to say about the way the Kingdom of God comes:

“There’s is no direct path from here to the kingdom of God. It goes down into the depths of desolation as Jesus did. And out of those depths does God raise up the new creation. The resurrection points to this. There’s no straight line.”

That’s the Big Story Jesus is telling us to wake up to. That Jesus’ death was not the defeat of God’s Kingdom, but its beginning. It’s arrival. And yet, to stop here, merely with the proclamation of God’s power and freedom over history, of mercy beyond judgment, would be to completely forget about the Church and the part it has to play in God’s Story. If we stop with proclamation, we miss the whole next Act in the drama of history. It’s the Act of Sipirt, through the Church! We have a mandate! Not an option, to participate.

And honestly friends, this is where most American Christians do stop. We stop with proclamation. And proclamation, especially when we do it from a safe place, like in this sanctuary, feels pretty good. But when we stop there, then the world the culture around will eventually just tune us out. And I think that’s largely has happened in our culture. Because we’ve made our proclamation, but we haven’t lived into it, so the Church has lost its voice.
Because we’ve said, you know, the world’s a mixed bag, good and evil, and we live in it, so how we can escape it? We compromise. We adjust. We assimilate. We soil our clothes, as Jesus says, to the Church in Sardis. But that’s the very thing Jesus says is going to bring about our judgment. So let’s look at church in Sardis again as we try to tie this all together.

It’s hard to know exactly what was going on in the church of Sardis. We’re not given much detail. The charge brought against them by Jesus is not about false teaching, as was the case in Pergamum and Thyatira, to some extent, which we looked at the last two weeks. Rather, Jesus just accuses them of being spiritually dead and asleep, which is a pretty grim assessment — even if it is kind of vague.

We do know though that Sardis was a famous city for its glorious ancient history. It was once an impressive place. So it was probably still coasting on its reputation from the past rather than experiencing its own genuine revitalization. You probably know some churches like this. I don’t think Saint Peter’s, as a church, has this problem, but some churches in our city probably do. It’s the good old days problem, kind of like the Story of Regress!

At the same time, one commentator has also noted that there was nonetheless evidence or at least the appearance in the church of Sardis of some vitality. We might imagine that it was a busy place, humming with Christian activity, and there was no shortage of money or talent or “manpower” (Stott, 85). So they were making some Progress….

So in Sardis, on the one hand, there is a kind of a spiritual nostalgia. Some had lost touch with the hope of God’s Big Story for history, right now, in the present, not in the past. But then, on the other hand, there was also busyness. They were taking pride in all the good things they had going on. It’s amazing how things can be going in the right direction all around you, while personally, and spiritually, you’re hiding in, or distracted by it. Avoiding repentance! Busyness and spiritually sleepiness tend to go together.

Paul gives the same warning to the Thessalonians. We read that too. us about judgment coming like a thief in the night, or coming when people are saying “Peace and Safety.” This phrase, “Peace and Safety,” was probably one of two things. It could be a Roman political slogan maybe, a chant that promoted the Roman Way of military might and the Story of Progress of this particular empire, this particular civilization! Or, others scholars it was an Epicurean philosophical slogan, like a Story of Regress, that basically, “eat, drink, and be merry, while we have this peace and security, because we only live once, no one knows what tomorrow will bring.” You can easily imagine Paul calling either of these ideas into question, as both were pagan and anti-Christian.

And, look, let’s just be honest about the Scriptures this morning. This doesn’t feel like a forgiving Jesus or a grace-only Paul. No, there’s stern words here about who will meet judgment.

But this is a good example of how we have to interpret Scripture in light of the rest of Scripture, and most importantly, in light of the Gospel, which is the center of our faith as Christians. Not every passage in the Bible has the whole message that God wants to speak to us. We know this, which is why we read more than just one text each Sunday. The Thessalonians passage is addressing much the same issue and says much the same thing that Jesus does, but to another church. But at least in Thessalonians, it says that we’ve been appointed not to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through the love of Christ and by faith in him.

So I think we’re always left in Scripture with this tension between grace and the command of faithful living. But the command to live faithfully and the warning about what happens when we don’t, is not the same thing as legalism. As Neibuhr said, our final hope is in the promise of the power of God’s mercy beyond judgment, but in the interim we continue to wake up to and live into our role in God’s Story.

Listen to what C.S. Lewis has to say about this tension:

“Handing everything over to Christ does not, of course, mean that you stop trying. To trust Him means, of course, trying to do all that He says. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your action, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.”

Lewis goes on to say that, “If you look at history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most about the world to come.” He give the examples of the English evangelicals like William Wilberforce who worked to abolish slavery because their minds were concerned with the Way of God’s Kingdom, and how slavery didn’t measure up to that Way.

Even in situations which seem hopeless, we act in such a way that accords with what God has ultimately promised. We take actions of love, not because we think they’re going to necessarily be immediately effective, but because they correspond to that about which we have been assured.

Ok. So if we really believe this story, if God’s big story of love for the world is the one we’re waking up to and being invited to live in, then I think to close we can make a few practical observations about what we’re doing. If we believe in the Christian Story of history, in contrast to some of these Stories, if we’re awake to that story, and it’s the one we’re tuned into — then how we spend our free time is going to reflect that. And I know some of you, when I use the phrase free time, you’re like, what free time?! If that’s you, I’m sorry. I know people are busy, family, jobs, whatever. Hopefully, it’s just a season, because that’s all it should be, or something may need to change.

But for those of you who do have a little bit of free time, this could take shape in so many different ways, you can do so many different things — based on what you’re passionate about, based on your gifts and strengths.

But there are a few things, I think, if you’re waking up to God’s Story, that you’re less likely to be doing. I would say if you’re waking up to God’s Story that you’re probably less likely to be giving 15 hours of your time each week to Facebook, Netflix and watching football. And you know I’m not picking on football. I played football, I like football. I have a team I pull for, and they’re pretty good. In fact, they’re better than your team. They’re gonna beat your team. Not that I care…

But there’s a man in our church who told me earlier this year, you know, I used watch football all day on Saturday, but I don’t anymore. I still like football, but I just don’t care as much. I know it doesn’t matter. So why would I spend my most of my day watching it? Because for this man, it wasn’t helping him wake up to God’s big Story.

Or, another major media outlet, just getting swept up in the blame-game, fear-based political bantering that’s always going on right now. That’s not our hope. That’s not our Story. And as TJ said earlier this month, Christians are called to be engaged in the public arena, but not like that. Love and humility is the only posture we’re aloud to take! We gotta wake up, make time for the stuff that matters, for God’s story, or we’ll miss it. And judgment comes like a thief in the night.

And I hope we can continue to see as a church, how much living into this Story depends not just on ourselves, but on our involvement with others around us. This is why we have Groups, several of which will be picking back up next month. Individually, and even just as individual families, we’re not equipped. And, you know, some people in our Connect Group tried this last fall, it’s a lot more fun to take a media fast with a group than it is by yourself. So this is just something that we have to keep working on. Let me pray for us.