Text: Revelation 3:1-6; Psalm 130:5-7
You are listening to the lecture in history class and the teacher’s voice is droning on and on. Your eyelids start getting heavier and heavier. The room is warm and you start to drift off. Minutes pass and your thoughts are wandering. Are your eyes even open? It’s hard to remember. Then all of a sudden you hear your name and jolt awake. The teacher is looking at you, obviously having just asked you something. You try to rewind and play it back, but there’s nothing there. The adrenalin is surging, but you are caught flat-footed and embarrassed. “Wake up and pay attention!” the teacher says, and goes on with the lecture.
That’s something many of us have probably experienced in one form or another. And, while it’s just an illustration, it captures a bit of what is going on in the letter to Sardis today. This is the 5th of seven letters in the first few chapters of Revelation. They are letters from Jesus to the church, which means they are letters from Jesus to you and to me.
Are their ways in which we have fallen asleep as Christians? as a church? That’s the question raised by today’s text, and it comes with a strong caution about the importance of staying spiritually awake and alert, both to God and to the world around us.
Wake Up: strengthen what is incomplete
The church in Sardis had a good reputation. Jesus said so: “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive.” But the reality is a bit different than the reputation. Jesus continues, “…but you are dead.” But then he backs off a bit. Not unlike one of my favorite scenes in the classic movie Princess Bride, the church is evidently not all-the-way-dead, just mostly dead. Because Jesus goes on to say, “Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die.” There is still hope; there is still some possibility of life!
Jesus tells them to remember what they have received and heard… and KEEP it, and REPENT. So, they have the information, the training, and the mission. They just haven’t finished the work God has given them to do, and they seem to have dozed off at the wheel. And I don’t mean to sound light-hearted about it; it’s a life and death matter for the church. But Jesus, as with the other churches, holds out hope and a way forward.
There are some at Sardis, he says, who have not fallen asleep. They will walk with Jesus in the Kingdom of God. And there is still hope to repent and overcome; those, too, will be clothed in white and walk with Jesus in the Kingdom.
And so, Jesus charges the sleepy saints at Sardis to wake up, pay attention, re-engage, and complete their mission. Do you ever feel like you are spiritually sleepy? I want to look at two other passages with you to illustrate how to wake up and stay alert and engaged spiritually. Then, in response to Jesus’ usual “for those with ears to hear” I want to consider what it means for us to be alert and awake in our day.
Alert and Sober (1 Thess 5) – illustration/analogy
In a letter to the Thessalonians a generation or two earlier, the Apostle Paul wrote a similar message. He wrote that the timing of the Lord’s return was unknown, but would be sudden, catching many off guard. He offers two specific analogies, warning the Christians in that city to be awake and sober. In contrast, he notes the ways that sleep or drunkenness dull us to what’s going on around us. His point is that just as we can be alert and sober with our bodies, so we can be with our spirit. And therefore we can be looking out for God to work or hardly aware of it at all.
But Paul goes beyond the analogy to offer some specific and practical ways to be alert and sober. Using imagery he also uses in Ephesians, he talks of spiritual armor, something we have to consciously “put on” in our life. He names a breastplate of faith and love and a helmet of salvation. It is in wearing faith, love, and our salvation in the world that we are prepared for what we will face. He also instructs us to “encourage and build up one another.”
What does it mean to be spiritually alert and sober? It means consciously covering ourselves in faith and love, living out of the reality of our salvation. Picture, if you will, a soldier of the time standing guard at night. But as the hours get long the soldier takes off his armor to more comfortably sleep. He will be neither alert nor ready if an enemy or thief approaches. That’s the kind of imagery Paul is drawing on here and Jesus is in the letter to Sardis. If you are of the Church, if you are of Christ, then remain “dressed,” alert, and ready spiritually. Don’t sleep; don’t leave the watch half-done; be diligent and faithful.
More than the Watchmen for the Morning (Ps 130)
Our call to worship in Psalm 130 drew on this same imagery. It both describes the alert and ready watchman and the spiritual illustration found therein. This illustration of being an alert and ready watchmen was particularly powerful for Sardis, as it was a supposedly impregnable fortress city that had twice been sacked in history because the night watchmen fell asleep. The people of Sardis knew well the dangers of falling asleep and Jesus words would have rung powerfully in their ears.
In Psalm 130 the watchmen who is both diligent and eager for the morning is compared to the human soul. It is a spiritually ‘awake’ individual who writes:
“I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning; indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord; for with the Lord there is lovingkindness, and with Him is abundant redemption!” (vv.5-7)
So add hope to the description of being spiritually awake. This is hope in the Lord’s compassion and redemption, for something after the darkness of the night. Put it all together and what Jesus desires for his Church and his followers is an alert and ready faith, prepared to watch and serve the Lord with faith, hope, and love and thriving together in spiritual community. To fall asleep at that calling is to leave the mission incomplete and miss the power and joy of faithful obedience and participation in God’s work.
Ears to Hear
I want to offer two specific “I’m listening” points of application for us as Christ-followers today. The first has to do with faith and the second with politics.
Don’t put off what is most important. When Jesus speaks of a faith that is awake and watchful, he is not talking about church attendance. He is talking about knowledge of and a relationship with God through himself… one that manifests itself in our inward thoughts, outward actions, and hope in God.
Don’t put off taking faith seriously until you are older or need to pray a desperate prayer or have some sort of dramatic experience of God. You don’t have to have all the answers or live a perfect life to take faith seriously. You don’t have to have a perfect faith, but Jesus does invite you to take faith seriously.
And here’s where I’m going with “politics.” As our country has become more and more polarized around politics and issues, I have increasingly felt like the Church has fallen asleep at a critical time. Instead of speaking and acting with Christian faith, hope, and love into a very needy world around us, we line up our talking points with our party of choice, even when – on both sides – that conflicts with our faith.
What is immediately pressing on my mind and heart is the plight of the children being held at the border. Whatever your position on immigration policy, that should stir our hearts to grief, prayer, and action. I feel like many are sleeping through a humanitarian crisis because the politics around it are complex and contentious. But here’s the first step I want to offer you today, and I hope it is a helpful application of today’s text.
It is not only possible, but desirable, for a Christian to sometimes disagree with one of the two parties. It is not only freeing, but would be incredibly healthy to be able to say, “I voted for President Trump, but I disagree with his action or words here because Christ leads me to say or do this.” It would be freeing and healthy to say, “I always vote Democrat, but I don’t agree with the party on these issues because Christ leads me to say or do this.” It would not only work against the dangerous polarization in our society, but would also be a faithful and healing witness to our neighbors and the world. It is entirely possible to say “I think we should have strong borders, but we must take care of the children responsibly.”
I know it’s hard to go against the polarized spirit of the age, but I’d challenge you the next time you hear a news report or talk to someone of similar or different political views, to ask yourself in the moment (or even afterward) how your faith leads you on the topic. Is it a multi-part situation that needs deeper reflection than “I’m for it” or “I’m against it”? Are there ways that we can be awake to God’s Spirit such that we actively clothe ourselves in faith, hope, and love, and seek to encourage and bless each other and the community in which we live?
For those with ears to hear… Amen.