Rev 3:1-6, Amos 2:4-12, 5:16-20, 6:1; Isaiah 42:3
And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of the One possessing the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain and are about to die, for I have not found your works fulfilled in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Guard it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not defiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed in the same way in white garments, and I will never blot that one’s name out of the book of life. I will acknowledge that one’s name before my Father and before His angels. Let whoever has an ear hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (Rev 3:1-6)
Jesus’ words to the church at Sardis is full of negatives—what they are not, what they have not fulfilled, what they do not know, the few who have not defiled their garments, the name that will not be removed from the book of life. There are also strong positive commands: Wake up! Strengthen! Remember! Guard! Repent! Hear! There are reminders: what they used to be (alive!), what they have heard and received, the garment of righteousness they have been given in baptism. And there are words about they future: He will come suddenly like a thief in the night, some will conquer, some will walk with Him, He will acknowledge names at the Last Judgment.
This is perhaps the most dramatic of the messages to the seven churches, because of these features. Negatives, reminders, imperatives and aspirations mark it. It functions as a kind of air-raid signal, jolting the church out of unwarranted complacency. In the Old Testament, of course, it was the prophets who fulfilled this role—warning the people of both the North and the South, and even those pagans who would hear or read the words, to attend to God’s word and plans. Some more tolerant-minded readers today find the prophets a bit much to handle, and by their strong words characterize the whole OT as full of gloom and doom. Especially forceful are the words of regarding the “Day of the Lord” and its unexpected advent, as declared by the prophet Amos:
Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of hosts, the Lord:
“In all the squares there shall be wailing,
and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas!’
They shall call the farmers to mourning
and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation,
and in all vineyards there shall be wailing,
for I will pass through your midst,”
says the LORD.
Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why would you have the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, and not light,
as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it? (Amos 5:16-20)
Amos, of course, was speaking especially to those in Israel and Judah who considered themselves righteous, and who were yearning for the day of the LORD to come and vindicate them, showing all the pagan nations around them to be in the wrong. They looked to that day as a time of rescue from pagan control or harassment, but especially as the moment of judgment, when the LORD would act against others—against their enemies. Few of them dreamed that there would also be an inner accounting, that the danger was not simply from foreign “bears” and “lions,” but from “snakes” inside the very household of God: “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him.” They assumed that their eyes would see the brightness of the LORD, when for them He would bring also judgment, darkness. They were seemingly not aware that their loyalty was mostly lip-service, and not from the center of who they were.
So the prophet uses a strategy to get their attention. He gives the judging word of the Lord against all the nations before finally levelling with Judah and Israel in the north. Then he says of Judah that “their lies have led them astray’ (2:4). And, turning to Israel, where Amos mostly prophesied, he says that they have “trample[d]the head of the poor into the dust of the earth…turn[ed] aside the way of the afflicted,” acted immorally, and drunk the wine of their gain even in the house of the LORD (2:7-8). The southern land of Judea around Jerusalem is marked by deceit, and the northern land of Israel by hypocritical worship that neglects the poor. And they behave this way, despite all that God has done for them— bringing them out of Egypt, giving them the promised Land, raising up prophets and holy men from their midst: “Is it not indeed so, O people of Israel?” (Amos 2:9-11). And so God warns them all: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion [that is, in Jerusalem] and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria” [that is, in the northern Kingdom] (6:1), for the Day of the Lord will judge them, as well. God knows the hearts of those who pretend to worship him but show in their living that this is a sham.
The judgment of Jesus that John repeats to Sardis is not quite as colorful as the prophetic words of Amos. Yet it is every bit as clear, and it is in harmony with another passage of the New Testament, where the apostles remind us that judgment will begin with the house of the Lord (Hebrews 12:4-11; 1 Peter 4:17). His people are, says Jesus asleep, nearly dead, forgetful, filthy, and unmindful of all they have been given. Only a few possess names, at least at this point, that could be justly left in the “Book of Life.” The purpose of Jesus’ declaration is clear—that they might wake up, be revived, remember, be made clean, and guard all the treasures of the life in Christ. Christ has already given everything the Church needs, including this strong warning. And so they, and we, are called to “strengthen the things that remain.”
By these impassioned words, Jesus shows us that God does not desire the death of anyone. We are reminded, indeed, of the description of God’s Servant in Isaiah, repeated in the gospel of Matthew as a way of talking about Jesus’ own great acts of mercy: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he faithfully brings forth justice….” [or] “brings justice to victory” (Isaiah 42:3/Matt 12:20). God’s purpose in warning is to bring about healing, not merely shame.
I am reminded of a striking vignette in the masterful extended parable by C. S. Lewis, entitled The Great Divorce. There he pictures a mother who so wants to dominate and possess her child that she has barely any love for him, only self-centered passion that she calls “Mother-love.” A bright spirit who has met her on her trek towards God’s own country is trying to get her to recognize that her love, as she has practiced it, is toxic, because it is not in order, and does not first honor God. Her predicament is described as showing some hope: “There’s still a wee spark of something that’s not just her self in [what she calls her love for her son]. That might be blown into a flame.” The LORD’s aim is not to snuff us out, or to break what is bruised, but to call us to wake up, remember, repent, and be revived. And we are to participate, “strengthening the things that remain,” and not simply assume that God will do this against our will. Are we careless, falling asleep to what is truly going on, as the disciples did in Gethsemane—let us strengthen our desire to watch for the LORD by doing standing in His presence together, frequently, and habitually.
Do we have a broken leg, spiritually speaking— well then, give it a splint, by practicing discipline so that it can heal, and act effectively for the good of others. Are our muscles of adoration atrophied or strained? Well, then, let us meet with others who love to worship, and join in as we can. Have we lost love for those around us? Well, then, let us repent, ask the LORD to open our hard-hearts, and ACT in love towards others, knowing that God will soften us as we do so. The Church has many practices that will help us to strengthen those things that remain—confession, fasting, study together, feasting together, the saying of Psalms, worship, alms-giving, service to others. These are things we do not only for our own personal spiritual health, but for the benefit of the entire Church, as we live and strengthen things together. Let’s remember that Jesus’ words to Sardis are directed towards them as towards one person, an organism that acts together. We work together, each bearing the other’s burdens. And as human creatures, we are not left without help, but know that as we engage in these age-tested actions, the Holy Spirit will work in us, as Jesus promised to those in Sardis, renewing our “white clothing” of righteousness, making us worthy to walk with him, making us alive in reality and not just in name, helping us to guard all that we have been given, and remembering our names for all eternity.