Saturday 1 October 2011

Where everybody knows your name (Revelation 3:1-6)

What are you looking for in a church?

This week twenty thousand students are back in Cambridge for the start of a new academic year. And this Sunday morning, many are visiting churches for the very first time - looking for a new community of Christians to be a part of or just out of curiosity.

If that’s you, “Welcome!”

But I wonder: What are you looking for in a church? What do you expect? Maybe nothing at all; you are just passing through; it’s something to do before Marks and Spencer opens. If you are Christian, maybe you are looking for a church like the one back home - where they sing the same kind of songs; where people have the same kind of background. Maybe that’s why you are here today at the Chinese Church.

But whatever the reason, I dare say that a big influence would have been what you have heard. What your friends have told you about this or that church. What you’ve read online on a blog or a website.

“Go to that church - they have got a lot of students.” “The pastor of that church is really famous.” Or, “I heard that the Chinese Church always has food!”

Today we are looking at the church of Sardis and it is a church with a reputation. In other words, it’s a famous church. Everyone is talking about this church. But Jesus says to this church in Sardis, “You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”

Jesus is saying it is very possible for a church to be well-known - to be popular and even famous - and yet, from God’s perspective, to be spiritually dead. Why is that? Well, let’s start from the beginning of Chapter 3 and find out together.

You’ve got mail

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.
Revelation 3:1

Jesus is sending out seven letters to seven churches in seven cities. And what we have been doing each week is opening and reading someone else’s mail. Now, that might sound sneaky (if not, a little bit creepy). It’s like the new Facebook live feed that lets you stalk your friends online: “Along’s been trying to cook chicken with beansprouts!”

But in this case, what we are doing is OK because Jesus says at the end of every letter, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” That is, we are meant to read what Jesus is says to these other churches and apply to our own church; and apply it to our own lives.

Reputation and reality

Jesus begins by saying that he holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. That is really important because Jesus knows what is going on in each of these seven churches. The seven spirits refer to God’s spirit that dwells in each church (Meaning: this was a gathering of God’s people) and the seven stars are angels (We know that from Revelation 1:20 where Jesus tells us, “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches”). Together they symbolise the heavenly reality and the earthly church.

There is a connection: Things that happen here in a local church, in the mundane, daily life among Christians have a eternal consequences. You come today expecting to hear from God in the bible; you come to sing praises to God in heaven, yet the bible is saying, the way you talked to the person next to you; the way think about the people around you right now (“That guy is so loud; She’s just annoying; This speaker needs to mind his own business!”) has implications on your relationship with God and might be a reflection of what you really think of God.

Here in Sardis they cared more about what people thought of them than what Jesus saw in them. “I know your deeds,” Jesus says. “I know what’s really going on in this church.” “You have a reputation of being alive,” (Everyone is saying how active and vibrant your church is) but the reality is this: “You are dead”.

There was a big difference between the reputation of and the reality in this church.

Wake up!

Now it is very important to understand what Jesus does not mean by “death” in this church. It doesn’t mean that this was a boring church. It doesn’t mean that people aren’t coming for church, or that people aren’t serving in this church. From the outside, this church looks alive. It is buzzing with people, with activity, with busyness.

Rather, this is a slow death - not by car accident, but by cancer. It is slow. That’s why Jesus talks about “What is about to die,” in verse 2:

Wake up! Strengthen what remains is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.
Revelation 3:2

The Christians in Sardis do not realise the trouble they are in. Everyone around them is saying, “You’re OK. You’re awesome.” Jesus says, “Wake up!”

It is complacency. When things have been going well for so long. When you have made a name for yourself and now others are looking to you for guidance and advice, “How do we become like you?” they say. When everyone has a job to do - missions, evangelism, serving tea, leading worship; that’s when we’re tempted to think, “We’re doing OK.”

And yet the scary thing is this: Isn’t Sardis the model of a successful church?

We have prayer meetings to solve problems. We pour resources into programmes - we call it ministry. We want as many people as possible to join our Sunday service and bible study groups - and call that evangelism.

And this letter is here in the bible to teach us that it is very possible to have this Sardis model of success and to be spiritually dead. “Wake up!” Jesus says. “I have not found your deeds complete” - meaning: You haven’t finished what you started.

Now what is Jesus talking about? What hasn’t been finished and is incomplete? Or put it this way: If you looked at our church today and had to comment on just one thing that could be improved - that really needs work - what would it be?

Worship? (“We need more lively songs! We need more slow songs! We need less songs!”) The building? (“We need a bigger place! We need another place! We need our own place!”) Leaders? (“We need more people in Cantonese, Mandarin, English, council, children’s ministry”)

These are all real, valid, godly concerns. The elders and deacons work hard and pray earnestly over all these concerns.

But what is that one thing - that compared to all other things - must be done? Over the years, I get all kinds of suggestions, advice and complaints about things we are not doing here in the Chinese Church, that we must get done here in the Chinese Church.

But the real question is, what does Jesus say these guys haven’t done and really need to wake up and finish? It is his word.

If you do not wake up

Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
Revelation 3:3

You’ve received it. You’ve heard it. Now obey it and repent.

Jesus could have easily said, “Obey me. Hear my voice.” But instead he says, “Obey it”. “It” can refer to God’s word in the bible. But more precisely, “it” refers to “what you received and heard”. It is the gospel.

Here in the Chinese Church, we like to go through the books of the bible every Sunday. Chapter by chapter, verse by verse. We do this because we believe that God has inspired this book - the message in this book, but also each and every word in this book - and we want to do everything we can to let God set the agenda. We want him to tell us how we need to be relevant to him, and not come to the bible and tell God how Jesus needs to be more relevant to us. That is why we are going through Revelation, week by week, chapter by chapter.

But I need to clarify, that is not what Jesus means when he says to finish what you started. He isn’t talking about a sequential bible reading programme.

What he is talking about is the gospel - the message of Jesus Christ crucified on the cross; taking the punishment of our sin upon himself and pouring out forgiveness to all who trust in his sacrifice.

It is such a basic thing to remind ourselves of the gospel - “Jesus Christ died for you, to pay for your sins, to bring you to God.” It is so simple: kids can understand the gospel. Kids can tell the gospel.

And yet it is adults who often forget the gospel. “Remember what you received,” Jesus says to remind us. “Wake up!” These are the kind of things you say to someone who knows and thinks he knows the gospel, but will reply, “You don’t need to tell me. I’ve been a Christian longer than you. I’ve eaten more communion than you’ve swallowed rice!” “Give me something new; fresh; something I don’t know,” they might say.

But Jesus says, “Remember.” Jesus says, “Strengthen what remains.” You have heard it, you know it. What you need to do is obey it and repent.

A problem-free church

The way the Christians in Sardis had abandoned the gospel was this: they simply moved on from the gospel. Out of all the seven churches addressed by Christ here in the book of Revelation, Sardis didn’t have any record of false teaching. It didn’t have persecution. It didn’t have sexual immorality. It didn’t have idolatry or temptation.

In other words, Sardis was a problem-free church. Isn’t that what we wished for the Chinese Church sometimes? No more issues. No more sticky situations. No fires to put out. No worries.

That’s Sardis: A problem-free church. But also, Sardis was a gospel-free church.

And out of all the seven churches addressed by Christ, Jesus does not have a single good thing to say about Sardis. Not one thing. Ephesus had perseverence. Smyrna had faithfulness. Pergamum had boldness in evangelism. Thyatira was growing in faith, service and love.
Sardis had nothing but it’s reputation. And Jesus says, “You think you’re alive, but you have a cancer.”

You have abandoned message of life: The gospel.

Follow the few

Well, what about us? What would we do if we found ourselves in a church like Sardis?

Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.
Revelation 3:4

I suspect our natural instincts would be to abandon ship: To move to another church that doesn’t have these sticky issues. In some cases, that may be wise and essential, especially if the gospel is at stake.

However, notice that here Jesus commends the few Christians who remain faithful to him by remaining faithful in his church. There are just “a few people”. Everyone else is asleep. Everyone else has compromised the gospel. But Jesus points to these few Christians and tells us to be faithful like them.

It means that you might be sitting there, and in your mind, going through a list of problems that need fixing in this church - the leaders, the community, the preaching, the worship - and you may be absolutely right.

But what about your faithfulness? Have you been contaminated in the process? Have you “soiled your clothes” and compromised the gospel?

Jesus has already said that he will deal with the church. He warns the Christians in Sardis, “If you don’t wake up, I will come like a thief”. That’s a clear warning on judgement. If they do not repent, they will not know what hit them.

That’s them in Sardis, but here Jesus is talking to you. Will you be faithful even when everyone else around you isn’t? These few Christians in Sardis were. Jesus calls them “worthy”.

Clothed in white

I find it interesting that Jesus uses here the picture of white robes - clothes that have not been stained (verse 4). I mean, it’s not as if we’re talking about sin and immorality - unlike the churches we saw the last two weeks, in Pergamum and Thyatira. In those situations of sexual sin, I would imagine the purity of the white robes would be a powerful reminder against succumbing to temptation and idolatry. Why then are white clothes used here in a context of faithfulness to the gospel? Revelation 7 gives us additional insight:

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Revelation 7:13-14

The reason why they are white is not because of the individual believer’s goodness but because of Jesus’ righteousness. “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”.

Christians fully know that they are sinners who have rebelled against God, who fully deserve his judgement. But trusting in the saving work of Jesus on the cross, they are clothed in his righteousness. They are made clean through the blood of the Lamb.

Where everybody knows your name

He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Revelation 3:5-6

I grew up in the eighties watching a TV sitcom called “Cheers”, which was a name of a bar in Boston. Every episode and every scene was shot in this bar, the atmosphere of which is captured in the theme song:

Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away? Sometimes you want to go...

Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

In particular I remember that one of the characters, named Norm Peterson, would come into the bar every day, and as he walked through the doors, everyone in the room would turn to him, lift their glasses and shout out, “Norm!”

“Everybody knows your name and they are always glad you came.” It’s not talking about popularity, but about belonging. And that’s attractive. To walk into a room where you know you will be welcomed.

I do hope the Chinese Church can be that for you. But you know what? Jesus promises something even better.

He says your name is written the book of life. He says he will bring you into heaven before God and his angels. And there everybody will know your name.

Isn’t that where it really matters? To have your name known In heaven; written in the book of life.

Remember my name - Fame!

The success of talent shows like X-Factor reveal how ours is a generation that craves fame. More than success, perhaps even more than money, we want to be known, admired and adored. Whether it’s the number of “likes” on a Facebook post, or followers on your Twitter page, fame is the new commodity in world that is always connected, always updated and always entertained.

But what is so bad about being famous? Well, perhaps it’s not really fame that’s the problem.

You see, the problem with Sardis was not so much that they were famous but that they were delusional. Blinded by their reputation, the church is Sardis could not recognise the reality of their weakness and eventual death. Like Oprah Winfrey once said, “If you come to fame not understanding who you are, it will define who you are.”

What about you? If you are here in Cambridge, studying at the university on a scholarship for a PhD, with every prospect of a good career ahead of you, having done your parents proud by earning a place in one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world - be honest now, don’t you crave for more? Your college will tell you it’s a good thing. Your sponsors will remind you it’s the right thing. Isn’t fame simply a recognition of the hard work and accomplishments you have achieved?

Jesus says, “He who overcomes … I will never blot out of his name from the book of life.” He is not talking about overcoming temptation to sin sexually or morally. It’s overcoming the temptation to compromise - to trust in the approval of man instead of the Son of God.

It is particular reminder to those of us who have walked with Christ longer than others, not to take the gospel for granted. These are Jesus’ words to a church that wants to make a name for itself - to focus on the gospel and complete the work of preaching the gospel.

This is the heavenly reality for all who turn to Christ. There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner that repents than ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to. Your name is secure in the book of life. Jesus will bring you into the presence of God and the angels and there, in heaven, everybody will know your name.

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