“Marks of the Church: Life & Growth” November 16, 2008
SI: We’re studying the seven letters in Revelation 2 and 3.
These are letters from Jesus Christ to seven churches in Asia minor,
written by the Apostle John as they were revealed to him.
Studying these letters makes us wonder:
What would Jesus say to us if he wrote Christ Covenant a letter?
What things would he praise us for?
What would he warn us about, what would he rebuke us for?
What promises would he make in his letter to us to stir us up and encourage?
Let’s read his letter to the church of Sardis.
INTRO: These are good times for Alabama fans. 11-0. Ranked #1.
Seems like most afraid to get too excited about prospects of national championship.
The Florida game looming on the horizon.
And before Florida there is another team Alabama has to play that’s not very good,
but everybody knows that team would like nothing better
than to spoil a perfect season.
Nevertheless, these are good times because a team that was once great,
and that has had some hard years, is being rebuilt.
No true fan of any team would ever say—
I’m fine just remembering that championship 20 years ago.
I’m perfectly content to live in the past, and remember glory days.
I don’t care if we’re winning now or not.
True fans, whose teams have fallen on hard times are always hoping for revival.
How can we strengthen this program once again?
And once it gets strong again, how can we make it stronger?
They want that great old feeling back of pulling for a team
that year after year is a contender for the championship.
They want their sons and daughters to be just as proud as they were
and to enjoy the same sweet victories they enjoyed in the glory days.
That’s how true fans think. They love the past. They love the glory days.
But they never rest in it. They want their team to be winning now.
If it’s not, they hurt and hope and pray. If it is they rejoice and want it stronger.
That’s how Jesus wants us to be as a church and as believers.
He wants us to glory in our past victories and experiences of grace.
He wants us to remember times when as a body and as individuals
we were especially close to him and growing and joyful in Christian life.
But he never wants us to rest in the past and lose our desire to grow now.
If we’re doing well, he wants us to want to be better.
And if we’re in a slump, he wants us to be unhappy with where we are.
Whatever we do, he wants us to do it because we love him
and are motivated by the Gospel.
He doesn’t want us to just do it out of a comfortable religious habit.
The church in Sardis had a reputation for being a lively church
That tells us this church had some glory days.
Great things had happened to build this church up to where it was.
This also tells us that this was a busy church—it had lots going on.
Because when people looked at it they said—That church is alive!
Look at everything that is going on there.
But Jesus looked below the surface and he said:
“You have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains
and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.”
This church had quit moving forward.
It had quit growing and building a life of faith.
The things that had once excited them and worried them didn’t any more.
The fight of faith that had so motivated this church in the glory days,
that had helped it grow and given it such a strong reputation—
that fight had just worn down into a comfortable way of doing church
and doing the Christian life.
Jesus says: You’re dead. Well, you’re not quite dead, but heading there.
At this point the symptoms of your spiritual death aren’t visible
because there is so much activity in your church,
but if you don’t do something now you are going to die.
What Jesus says to this church he also directs at individuals.
It is entirely possible for a person to have a great, lively time of spiritual
growth, incredible experiences of God’s grace—and then to settle into
a complacency that kills his or her spiritual life.
So we see the grace and love of Jesus in this letter.
If he didn’t care, he would just let you drift away into this spiritual death—
but instead he says to Christ Covenant and to you—Wake up!
And we have to do that.
Look at this letter under two points:
1. The path to spiritual death.
2. The power for spiritual life and growth.
MP#1 The path to spiritual death
There is a church in our Presbytery that had a revival 40 years ago.
I don’t mean they put up a sign that said: Revival This Week.
And then held a series of special services.
I mean that according to those who were there the Holy Spirit came in a powerful
and unexpected way and this old Presbyterian church was revived.
Christians began to confess their sins and rededicate their lives.
They started witnessing to their neighbors.
And the church began to grow explosively with new converts
It was packed on Sunday mornings and Sunday nights.
There were prayer meetings springing up.
A number of young people who were in the youth group at the time said that
God was calling them to foreign missions and to the pastorate.
In fact, there are several prominent ministers in our denomination
today who were in that youth group during those revival days.
The church started a Christian school, it had an impact on the city.
It had a reputation for being alive.
Today this church is a shadow of its former self.
The congregation is small and elderly and dying.
They ran off their last full time pastor about six years ago.
They can’t keep a regular pulpit supply pastor.
Over the past few years they’ve wasted a lot of energy fighting over a steadily
shrinking endowment fund. A big part of that fund was given to the church back
during the revival days and the donor’s wishes were that it be used to pay for
the seminary training of young men from that church who were called to ministry.
But there hasn’t been a young man in that church for a long time.
And in a few years, the last person in this church will die, and doors will close.
This story has been repeated countless times through history.
Churches that were once great, that experienced the Holy Spirit’s power—
but now you look at them and they are just a shadow of what they were.
And when you wonder how this happened, and look back over the years—
you see that there wasn’t a big disaster in the church’s past.
People didn’t leave in a rush because of controversy. They just faded away.
That’s the path to spiritual death described in this letter—fading away.
A wise pastor said this about churches that fade away:
“Each generation grows smaller and weaker. They become a shadow of a true Christian
church and a shadow cannot produce a shadow. Only the sunshine can produce a shadow.”
A shadow cannot produce a shadow—He is saying that glory days, even days
of true revival cannot sustain a church over the long haul.
There has to be sunshine—there has to be a daily infusion of the warmth
and light of Jesus Christ for a church to stay alive.
Do you remember studying entropy in your high school physical science class?
Entropy is the law that things are running down, decaying.
Unless energy is put in, a system will run out of it and everything will
eventually become cold and motionless.
This same law is at work in the spiritual world.
There is a tendency in every soul toward spiritual entropy.
Every soul that is left to itself never moves closer to Jesus and sunshine—
it always moves the other way. It loses spiritual energy.
It becomes disinterested, unengaged, complacent, powerless.
The love of some grows cold.
Even if you have experienced grace in a powerful way,
and even if you feel incredibly alive, if there is not a regular infusion
of light and heat and nourishment into your soul—
then your soul will grow gradually colder, and then inactive,
and then motionless, and then dead.
And what is true for the life of the soul is true for the life of churches as well.
Churches are a community of souls.
We think things will be fine, that they will continue as they are—but they won’t.
They will decay unless effort is made to ensure they do not.
There is one particular detail about the Sardis church that should get our attention.
Did you notice how, compared to the other churches, there were no problems.
There was no persecution.
No Jewish accusation.
No Nicolaitans No false teachers.
No pressure attend idols feasts.
It was an easy place to be a Christian.
You didn’t get persecuted in Sardis for going to church like you did in Smyrna.
You weren’t looked down on in Sardis and blackballed for not going to pagan
temples like you were in Pergamum.
The church had a good reputation.
People, even pagan people thought well of them.
And because it was easy to be a Christian in Sardis,
it was easy to substitute the motions of Christianity for growing in Christ.
Easy to cover up spiritual complacency with busyness and a good reputation.
There were no visible symptoms that this church was dying. But it was dying.
And Jesus was basically saying—
if you wait until symptoms become visible—it will be too late.
your church will die and the next generation will be lost.
That should get our attention because Cullman is like Sardis,
It’s easy to be a Christian in Cullman.
California, elderly woman carrying cross attacked by anti-Prop 8, cross destroyed.
That would never happen in Cullman. And I’m glad for that.
But that also means that living here makes it easier to fade to spiritual death.
We could much more easily lose the next generation in a place like Cullman.
Because in a persecuted church,
young people watch their parents and church leaders suffer for their faith.
They see that it costs them even to go to church on Sunday.
They see the heart of Christianity is communion with Christ.
But in a place where it’s easy to be a Christian,
they might see that it’s mostly religious busyness and no heart.
And kids are more consistent than their parents.
They will say—why bother with that rigmarole?
We can’t be content with the motions of Christianity or with past experiences—
If we do we will slowly fade to spiritual death, and next generation will follow.
How do we keep from doing that?
We need power to come in from the outside to keep us from fading away.
That brings us to next point . . .
MP#2 The power for spiritual life and growth
It’s in verse three:
“Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.”
The power that keeps you from fading away, the power that keeps you growing
and alive comes from remembering the Gospel and working it out in your life.
What is the Gospel?
I like the way Jack Miller put it.
The Gospel is that I am more wicked and sinful than I ever dared to admit, but at
the same time, I am more loved and accepted in Christ than I ever dared to hope.
I’m more wicked and sinful than I ever dared to admit.
We are always covering up.
We like to say—I’m not perfect. I’ve done some bad things.
But deep down I’m a good person. I’d give you the shirt off my back.
The Gospel calls that pride and crushes it.
All our righteous acts are like filthy rags in terms of merit with God.
It exposes the depth of our sinfulness.
But then the Gospel turns around and lifts you.
I’m more loved and accepted in Christ than I ever dared to hope.
It gives you an acceptance and love that seems impossible.
God knows you, knows every skeleton in closet, every dark corner—
and he totally accepts you in Christ.
And that’s the key—In Christ.
By faith you are united to Jesus Christ. So God looks at you and sees Jesus.
He sees his Son’s suffering and death and applies that to your sins.
And he sees his Son’s righteous life and applies that to your life.
So you are completely accepted by the Father and a forgiven and righteous person.
All through what Jesus has done and your union with him by faith.
That’s the Gospel and Jesus says—Remember that.
The reason he says “Remember” is that we tend to forget.
Our default mode is self-righteousness.
Even as believers we push against the Gospel and God’s grace, and say,
I’m not that bad. I can do good and God owes me.
It’s second nature for us to think we make ourselves right and acceptable to God.
How do you remember the Gospel? Something have to deliberately do.
One of the most important ways is worship.
Submitting yourself to the weekly rhythm of worship that the Lord has
established and wants his people to follow.
Worship is not a bunch of people getting together to sing and drink coffee.
It’s being summoned to enter the presence of God
and to hear and see the Gospel again and again.
In worship we hear the Gospel read and preached.
We sing it. We eat it and drink it at the Lord’s Table.
And if our hearts are open, it goes down deep, nourishes us.
You know the name Charles Spurgeon? The great 19th century Baptist preacher.
Story is told that he went to visit a man in his church. This man had made a
profession of faith in Christ some years before. And for a time he was growing
and praying and worshipping, active in the life of the church.
But then he started to fade away—not as diligent in seeking nourishment,
not as concerned for his growth, drifting away, in worship less and less.
Spurgeon went to the man’s home.
Man said, I know why you’re here. I want you to know I’ll be fine.
Spurgeon, who was the most eloquent man of his time didn’t say anything.
Walked over to the fire, with the tongs, took out a glowing coal, put on hearth.
Then he went and sat down. And in that dim London apartment, both men
watched as faded from yellow to orange to red to black.
Spurgeon did not believe that bare church attendance had power to nourish soul.
But he understood that God has established corporate worship as one of the
primary ways for the Gospel to be pressed home to Christians over and over
and over again. And to neglect it is to starve yourself of light and heat.
Remember the Gospel. That’s a command to each of us and to Christ Covenant.
We have to be a church that remembers the Gospel.
Then Jesus says, obey it and repent—work it out in your life.
Remember the Gospel and get to know it so well that all of your obedience
and all of your repentance is motivated by the Gospel.
Our default mode is self-righteousness.
We obey because think that will make God bless us,
and we repent because we think that will keep God from getting us.
That’s not the Gospel. How do you respond to suffering?
Do you get angry or bitter or depressed when you suffer?
If you do, it’s because of your underlying self-righteousness.
If you get mad at God when you suffer—
it’s because you think you’ve lived right and you deserve better from God.
I’ve obeyed, and God owes me.
If you get down on yourself and depressed when you suffer—
it’s because you know you haven’t lived right, so God must be punishing you.
Think if you can punish and flagellate yourself enough, God will leave you alone.
Both of those responses reveal a fundamental self-righteousness.
It’s up to me to make myself right and acceptable to God and earn his favor.
Jesus says—Remember the Gospel and work it out.
Gospel enables you to look at your suffering and say:
This is not what I deserve, I deserve much worse.
I deserve the awful wrath of God that Jesus suffered on the cross.
And because Jesus suffered for me, and I am united to him by faith,
I can also look at my suffering and know this is not God’s punishment.
It’s his will for me now. I may not know why.
But this I do know, the one who suffered my punishment is with me,
and I can trust him and know that he is doing all things well.
How do you discipline your children? With shame and guilt, or with grace?
How do you treat your enemies? Write off as unredeemable, or reach out?
How do you spend your money? How do you plan for the future?
Big things in life have to be motivated by the Gospel. Takes thought to work out.
Takes active participation in a church community. Listen and learn from others.
The Lord wants us to be Christians and a church that loves the Gospel,
and works it out, and motivates people to obey and repent by grace.
That is ultimately what will keep us from being a Sardis-type church.
The Gospel will keep us from trusting in past experiences of grace,
or in our spiritual reputation, or in our religious busyness.
Instead, we will trust in Christ, and he alone, and his Holy Spirit,
will give us the power to be the people and church he wants us to be.
CONC: What happened to the Sardis church? Did they wake up?
Did they remember the Gospel and get back to focusing on the right things
and growing in grace?
The good news is that they did.
Church history tells us that in the middle of the second century,
there was a man named Melito who was the bishop of Sardis.
He was a godly man, those who knew him said he was full of the Holy Spirit.
Some great church fathers like Tertullian and Eusebius mention him
and his eloquence and the books he wrote—although none have survived.
One book we know he wrote was a commentary on Revelation.
Wouldn’t it be fascinating to be able to read his commentary on these verses?
How did the Christians in Sardis respond to Jesus when he said—
Wake up, strengthen what remains and is about to die.
We don’t know much about this man, but this we do know—
that 50 or 60 years after John wrote Revelation,
this was a faithful congregation, full of spiritual life.
It had awakened. It had remembered the Gospel.
And it has obviously passed that on to the next generation,
and was still a light and witness in Sardis.
We don’t live in Sardis. We live in Cullman.
But just like Christians back then, Jesus wants us to be alive and growing.
He wants us never to rest on past experiences,
never to substitute working out the Gospel for religious motions.
Let’s take this letter to heart so that 50, 60 years from now,
when many of us here now are dead and all the rest are old and grey—
that there is still life, and children, and baptisms, and singing
and love for Jesus and the Gospel.