Christ’s Letter to the Church in Sardis

Sermon for Midweek Lenten Service based on Revelation 3:1-6

Dear conquerors who will be clothed in white garments, whose names will never be blotted out of the book of life, and whose names Jesus will confess before His Father and before His angels: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The church in Sardis was the big church with a full schedule every week. Moms and Tots on Mondays. Quilting and youth group on Tuesdays. Free suppers for the homeless on Wednesdays. Serve your neighbour Thursdays. Clean up the city Fridays. Men’s groups, ladies’ groups, young adults’ groups, youth groups, children’s groups, family groups. You name it, they had it. They thus had the reputation of being alive.

They had the reputation of being alive because of all the works they did in their communities, all the help they offered to the needy, all the funds they raised for relief efforts around the world. They had the reputation of being alive because they had the numbers – big attendance numbers, big event numbers, big dollar numbers collected in offerings.

Yet, Jesus says they are dead. The reputation they had before men was a lie. Men judge by outward appearance; God judges by the heart (I Sm. 16:7).

Hebrews 11 tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God (v. 6). Romans 14 tells us that whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (v. 23). We also heard from John chapter fifteen where Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (v. 5) This means that even works that are excellent and praiseworthy in human eyes are sin before God if they are done without faith. Without being in Christ, we can do nothing good; we can bear no fruit.

The church in Sardis got completely wrapped up in every imaginable purpose except matters of faith. The church had become a community club where the members gathered to do things, but they did not gather for the purpose of hearing God’s Word and receiving His forgiveness. The church came to have a life of its own, apart from life in God, and thus Jesus said that they are dead. They were dead branches cut off from the vine.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. Churches that have been around for a long time can forget their reason to exist. Churches can even be started for the wrong reasons. People go to church, they attend services, but they don’t know why they’re there. They go through the motions. They say sing the hymns. They say the responses. But their hearts aren’t into it. Their minds are preoccupied by other things.

Christ says, “Wake up!” Don’t get distracted or caught up in events and programs and groups and committees. Come to church to hear God’s Word. Yes, in church you hear the very words of God Himself written for you and spoken to you. Come to church to receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. This is where sins are forgiven and removed from you as far as the east is from the west. This is where God takes your sins from you and throws them into the depths of the sea.

Don’t even get caught up in good works. Yes, those who have been reborn and renewed by the Holy Spirit are obligated to do good works. In fact, they cannot help but do good works because they have been freed from the slavery of sin and have been filled with love for God and for their neighbour. God Himself has prepared good works for us to do (Eph. 2:10). Abiding in the vine, the branches will bear fruit.

However, let your focus always be the Gospel – the forgiveness of sins Christ has won for you and gives to you freely. It is Christ’s death for you that gives you eternal life. It is His Word and His body and blood that strengthen you through the trials and tribulations of this life to eternal life.

It is also the Gospel that motivates you to do good works. The threats of the Law may get you to begrudgingly do what it demands, but these are not good works before God no matter how much men may praise you for them. The threats of the Law may compel to a full schedule of events and programs to help others, but without faith it is all sin. Without faith, even works that are excellent and praiseworthy in human eyes condemn to hell. Without faith, you may have the reputation of being alive, but Jesus says you are dead.

Do not turn inward, however, to try and find faith. Faith does not come from within us. Faith comes from outside of us. Faith comes from God.

Faith comes from God when He tells you that He has clothed you in white through Baptism, covering all your sin. Faith comes from God when He tells you that He has written your name in the book of life and He will never blot it out. The devil cannot blot your name out because he’s been thrown out of heaven. Your sins cannot blot your name out because you are clothed in the white robe of Christ’s righteousness. Your name will never be blotted out of God’s book of life, because no one can snatch you out of God the Father’s hand since He is greater than all (John 10:29).

Finally, Christ says He will confess your name before His Father in heaven and before the angels. He will shut down every accusation against you. Clothed in the robe of forgiveness, Jesus will claim you as His own. He will confess and acknowledge that you belong to Him, and you will thus enter the holy city, which comes down from the new heavens to the new earth (Rev. 21:2).

You are alive. Not because of your busyness with programs and events and good works or because of your reputation before men. You are alive because you abide in the vine, Jesus, in whom you will bear much fruit. You are alive because you are in Christ, and He is alive, and because Christ is alive and will live forevermore, you are alive and will live forever. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.