Sermon: "A Church for Y2K: Asleep at the Wheel"

Fifth in a series on What Christ Thinks of the Church,
Delivered May 31, 1998 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates
Other sermons in this series - 1 / 2 / 4 / 5 / 7

Sermon Text: Revelation 3:1-6
1 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.
2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.
3 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.
4 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.
5 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.
6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

A few years ago, a lady was in England taking a tour. She was an elderly lady. She wasn't your typical tourist. She didn't wear a camera around her neck. Her wallpaper-patterned dress was clean, but looked kind of like she slept in it. She visited Westminister Abbey as a part of a tour group and as the tour guide took the group around, he was aware that this little old lady was somewhat different than any tourist he had seen before. Oh, she listened to all of his explanations of everything. She looked at every stone, she read every inscription. But there was something in her eye that told him that she just wasn't very much impressed. In fact, at one point she finally spoke. She interrupted his banter, and took him aback, and left him groping for words. Gesturing to the whole of Westminister Abbey, that great stronghold of Christian heritage, that storehouse of things commemorating the mighty acts of God and Jesus Christ, that little old lady said, "Young man, young man. Stop your chatter and tell me. Has anyone been saved here lately?"

Take that little old lady and transport her back almost 2000 years to the early church in a city called Sardis, and let her ask that same question at that church. And then bring her right here into the hallowed halls of Central Pres, and let her ask that same question of you and me. Because you see, that is the question that separates alive churches from dying churches: Has anyone been saved here lately?

What kind of church are we to be as we enter Y2K, the year 2000? Well let's take a look at this early church in Sardis and see if there might be a few clues for us. Turn in your bibles to the third chapter of the book of Revelation, and let's take a look this morning at verses 1-6. Keep your bibles open during this sermon as we will be referring back to the text. Revelation, the third chapter, beginning to read at the first verse. This is the Word of God.

To the angel of the church of 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, buy 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. 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. 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. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never erase 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.

Join me as we pray: And now Father as my words are true to your Word may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your Word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I'm sure that most of us here this morning have never thought of Jesus in terms of being somewhat of a holy thief. A sanctified second story man. And yet as we come to this text before us this morning and ask the question, "What is this text telling us about Christ?", that is one of the pictures we get in verse three, where Christ tells this early church at Sardis, "Hey, if you don't wake up, get your act together and turn around, I'm going to come like a thief in the night and I'm going to make off with your church." This felon of faith, this robber of religion.

Have you ever met Him personally? Have you had your heart stolen? Stolen by Jesus, to the extent that you are head over heels in love with Him? If you never have, then though you might call yourself a Christian, basically you are really a nominal Christian. In name only. A Christian is a person whose heart has been captured and stolen by Christ, and set aflame by Christ's Holy Spirit.

Have you met this holy thief? Have you? Have you encountered Him? If you don't know Christ personally you had better watch your wallet when you are around him. You never know what might happen. This church at Sardis, they were packed out with nominal Christians. Christ says you had better turn around and wake up, or I am going to come like a thief.

Something is wrong here. Something is wrong with this church at Sardis. There is no theological heresy mentioned here. There is no immorality like we have seen in some to the other churches we have looked at in this sermon series on Christ's word to the seven churches in Revelation. What is going on here then at Sardis?

Well, John Steadman in his book Harvest of Humanity, tells a story about World War II. He writes, "A German soldier was wounded. He was ordered to go to the military hospital for treatment. When he arrived at the large and imposing building, he saw two doors. One marked for the slightly wounded, and the other one for the seriously wounded. He entered through the first door, and found himself going down a long hall. At the end of it were two more doors. One marked for officers, and the other for non-officers. He entered through the latter, and found himself going down another long hall. At the end of it were two more doors, one marked for Nazi party members, and the other for non-party members. He took the second door. And when he opened it, he found himself out on the street. When the soldier returned home his mother asked him, "How did you get along at the hospital?" "Well mother," he replied, "to tell you the truth the people there didn't do anything for me. But you ought to see the tremendous organization they have."

Folks, when the Church of Jesus Christ is alive, it is then that it remembers that it is primarily a living organism and not just an organization. The church at Sardis was well organized. Man, they had a great reputation as a church. They had done great things in the past, don't get me wrong. They had all the plaques and monuments to prove it. Why they even had a Sardis Saints Hall of Fame. But Jesus sees through all the hype. The word on the street is that the church at Sardis is alive and a going place. But Jesus sees through all the smoke and mirrors. Acting like the county coroner, he issues them a death certificate. He comes right out and says it in verse one. "You are dead. You're dead."

Wow! They are kind of the opposite of that Maryland man -- did you read about him few months ago? - who faked his death in order to avoid a bunch of traffic tickets, and he is really alive. Well, Sardis is kind of the opposite of that: they are faking their life, and they are really dead.

Do you remember that silly movie a few years ago, Weekend at Bernie's? It's about these guys, who get to go on this vacation, only if their boss goes with them. Well, the boss dies. So they can go on the vacation, they take their dead boss with them. They put sunglasses on him, and they dress him up in different clothes every day, and they put him on water skis, etc trying to create the illusion that Bernie is still alive, when he is dead.

Christ says to the church at Sardis, 'You are dead.' Now I've got to say something here about our temptation sometimes to look at a church and say , "Oh, that is a dead church." Hear me - that is a right reserved only for Jesus Christ. You and I should never look at another church and say that church is dead. Remember Christ says, "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them." And my experience is that even with the most apparently dead of churches, there are usually more than two or three authentic believers still there. So be careful, don't ever call another church dead. That is a right reserved only for Jesus Christ.

In fact, in verses 2-4 of our text, Christ somewhat backs off of the death certificate. He gives it to them, but he doesn't act like the undertaker here. He doesn't dig a grave for them. In fact, in verses 2-4, he presents the church at Sardis with somewhat of a great and gracious promise to them. He says, 'Hey, not everything is totally dead here. There are some embers that are still glowing.' There are some believers in Sardis, that Christ says have not soiled their garments. And so he says, there is some hope here. It is not a totally bad situation. What the real problem is that not so much that they are hopelessly dead, that they are basically asleep. They are asleep at the wheel.

Have you ever fallen asleep at the wheel? On a clear June morning in 1971, I had that wonderful experience. I was driving from Franklin, Louisiana to Houston. I had just finished my first 6-day hitch as a roughneck for Texaco working on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. I would work for six days, and then I would be off for six days. I worked the night shift. I would go out at 4 pm in the afternoon and work until 5 am in the morning. Then, during the day, I was supposed to sleep in this camp out on the water. Only trouble is my biological clock never did kick in that whole summer. I never learned to sleep during the day, so I basically had a couple hours of sleep every day and then I would go and work a 13-hour night for 6 nights in a row. Then after that first hitch I had to make the 2 1/2 hour drive back to Houston. And somewhere around Beaumont, Texas, I was awakened as my car was bouncing along in the middle of the median of Interstate 10. You talk about scared to death. The rest of the summer, I took a bus from Houston to Franklin. Asleep at the wheel.

This church at Sardis, they have a great reputation, but what they are really doing is they are sleep-walking through the Christian life hoping that their reputation is going to carry them. They are asleep. And so Christ issues them a wake up call. He says, "Wake up! Turn around! Get your act together, or things are going to be pretty rough for you."

Christ comes with that same wake up call to you and me, right here, this morning, in this sanctuary, if we are spiritually asleep. You and I need to hear that wake up call. If we live our spiritual life primarily in the past, you know, "Hey, I remember when I was a youth leader, and I was a Sunday school teacher." "Yeah, I was an elder back in 1953, but you know, I've done my time." "Oh man, back in 1985, I was so on fire for Christ. But you know, I have matured and mellowed." You and I need to hear Christ's wake up call, if programs have become more exciting than people. You know programs are necessary and vital in the life of any church, but when they become more important than people coming to Christ. In the economy of God's way of looking at the world, what is more important? Five hundred people packing out an event, or one person coming to life-saving, life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ?

And you and I need to hear God's wake up call if we are more in tune with material stuff than spiritual stuff. When finances, bricks and mortar occupy our attention rather than seeing people discipled. You and I need a wake up call if we are busy trying to construct a faith that's convenient, and comfortable and non threatening, rather than radically sold-out for Jesus Christ. You and I need a wake up call if we find ourselves coming to worship looking for entertainment rather than for Jesus. Then we need a wake up call.

We need to hear God's wake up call, if we have fallen in love with traditions more than we have with Jesus. When you talk to people about Central Church, do you find yourself talking about the buildings and Presbyterianism, or about what Christ is doing through the life of this church to touch people's lives?

Do you need to hear God's wake up call? Do I need to hear God's wake up call? I don't know. Do we? People in Sardis needed to hear it. They were asleep at the wheel, cruising along.

This past week I read a description of what burden you carry when you go through life as a nominal Christian. A pastor writes this, "I'm convinced that there are many in our churches today whose religioun is a burden, not a blessing. A weight, not wings. A load, not a lift. Simply because it is rote not real. For them worship is little more than the recitation of mere forms of speech. They do not enjoy it, they simply endure it. They have memorized certain phrases of devtion, but their worship is not personal and vital and therefore it is not exhuberant and joyful. They recite the Creed but are not moved by its majestic meanings. They repeat the Lord's Prayer, but are not inspired by its implications for their lives. They sing halfheartedly the hymns, but never catch sight of their beauty and power. But still, many of them go on, year after year, dragging themselves through the routine of a religion that is rote, not real. They stick to it because they belive that there is something right about it, but they are burdened, bored and beaten. They missed the very place in life which should be most hallowed and meaningful."

Worship, the Christian life -- these things are always going to be boring until you've met Jesus Christ firsthand. Until the Holy Spirit has come into your life and broken open your heart and set you free in the wonder, the sheer grace of a God who loves you, whose gone to every length and height and depth to bring you and me alive - not just now but also eternallly.

So what kind of Church does Christ want Central to be in Y2K? I'll tell you this. He doesn't want us to be a church like Sardis, that's for sure. Central's got a great reputation, but again, our reputation is only as good as we are alive today and in the years to come. And let me throw out two things that I think will ensure that Central maintains a great reputation as we go into the next millennium.

And the first is, individually, you and I need to look at our relationship with Jesus Christ. Do we call ourselves Christians? And the next question to ask is "Do I know Christ as something more than second-hand?" If not, you're really spiritually asleep. You're really a nominal Christian. We need to keep that relationship with Jesus vital. Through daily prayer, reading of the Word, being a servant.

Then secondly, corporate. In a dead church, if the Holy Spirit pulls out, about 98 percent of the programming just goes on like usual. If we really want to insure that Central stays alive as we go into the 21st century, then we need to move out and do stuff and risk stuff as we're led by the Holy Spirit. Risk stuff that if there ain't no Holy Spirit, it just ain't going to happen, folks. Moving past our financial comfort zones. Moving past what we know we can do merely by our human resources. To do the stuff that there's got to be a God out there if it's going to happen.

If you're alive in Christ, Jesus ends this text in verse five by saying, there's some rewards. In fact He lists three of them. Let me close by ticking those off. One of the rewards, if you and I as individuals and as Christians, are alive in Christ, is that you get to be a slave. Doesn't that excite you? He says you get wear a white robe. Sardis was a garment production center. They produced woolen robes and they used to dye them different colors. If you were a person of status and wealth then you wore a colored robe. You know who wore the white robes? Slaves. Wow, isn't that great, we get to be a slave! Steven Job of Apple Computers, called John Scully, who is the CEO of Pepsi and said "John, I've been thinking about you, do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugar water or do you want to do something to really change the world?" Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugar water or do you want to do something that will change the world? The highest aspiration you and I can have as human beings, the top of the ladder, is to be a slave of Jesus Christ and wear a white robe.

The second reward that you and I are promised is that our name will be in the Book of Life. Have you ever been on vacation? You've made your reservations for motel someplace and you've driven all day and all night, finally you get to that motel, you're dead tired, you get the family our of the car, you go in there, "Reservation for Scates." "I'm sorry, we don't have that name here. And we're full." You know how upset you get about that. Imagine one day, as time comes to a close and eternity really begins and you're standing before Almighty God (as we all will), and they go "I'm sorry, you're name's not here." If you're alive in Christ, you don't have to worry about that. There's a reservation there for you. Your name will be there in the book of Life.

If you're not looking at your Bibles I want you to notice this last thing. Look at this, when one day you and I stand before God, look at what Christ says is going to be the third reward: "I will acknowledge his name before my Father." Imagine, when you are there on the judgement day, it'll be Jesus Christ who steps forward on your behalf and mine, if you are alive in Christ. I like the way Tony Campolo put it, he says it's more like somebody's going to say "Ron Scates. Jesus, do you know him?" "Do I know him?" He's going to pull out his wallet and my picture's going to be there and he's going "That's my boy!" "Jean Bender?" "Look, that's my girl!"

Are you asleep spiritually. If so WAKE UP! He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches and to you and me.

Join me as we pray:

Father, we thank you for your Word, We thank you for your Holy Spirit who in dwells this church, who in dwells our hearts as believers. Who is giong on ahead of us as a congregation and orchestrating a world-changing future for this part of the body of Christ. Lord, we know your Holy Spirit's going ahead of Eric Huber and his family. And we're thankful we can partner with you and with believers around the world in lifting up the name of Jeus Christ in advance of your kingdom. And we offer ourselves to you Lord, as your slaves. In Jesus' name. Amen.

© 1998, Dr. Ronald W. Scates
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145
www.centralpc.org