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Sermon for Lent 4 -Vespers

Note: parts of this sermon were adapted from Revelation for Lent, published by CPH in 2006.

25 Sermon for Lent 4 – Vespers mp3 audio

The Letter to Sardis: Lethargy—Slow Death

Isaiah 29:13–16; Revelation 3:1–6; Matthew 24:42–51

Theme Verse

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

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The letter for the church in Sardis was written by John but spoken by Jesus Himself.  He speaks to them and to us.  Wake up and take notice!  Remain alert with a watchfulness that translates into devotion and good deeds—things we have been lacking.

Jesus speaks to the Christians at Sardis to give them a wake-up call.  They seem to have become complacent, lazy, lethargic.  Their faith could be likened to the history of the city: Sardis, once glorious and wealthy, was, by the time of this letter, a poor backwater town, ignored by those in power.  Like Thyatira, it was a working class city filled with hardworking people making beautiful cloth and jewelry, but things in Sardis were in a state of cultural and economic decline.  Croesus, who in his day was the richest king in the world and whose palace once graced the city, would hardly recognize Sardis now.

Nor would the apostles have recognized the faith of the Christians in Sardis.  The apostles—all of whom but John have been martyred for Christ—died rather than compromise the truth of the Gospel.  But the Christians in Sardis have chosen an easy faith and an easy morality in order to fit in with the pagans around them, becoming barely identifiable as Christians.  There was in the city and in the area around Sardis the home of an ancient Greek mystery religion, the cult of Cybele.  At one point her temple was destroyed and a temple to Artemis was built in its place, but to most folks, Cybele and Artemis were one and the same.

This kind of thing crept into the church too.  The Christians in Sardis, thinking like their pagan neighbors probably saw the strong resemblance between Cybele, the mother goddess, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and I think it affected how they thought about God and the truth of the teaching of the apostles.  Cybele was the mother of the god Attis.  This is not all that different from the teaching that Mary was the mother of the God-man, Jesus.  Therefore, they thought, Mary should be worshiped as a goddess.  Attis was supposed to have killed himself and been resurrected which is not all that different they might think, from Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Cybele and Attis had sacrificial meals in their honor; so does Jesus.  The resurrection of Attis was celebrated in the spring; so is the resurrection of Jesus.  It can really be easy to think that it’s all the same.  And that leads to the idea of relativism and so one person follows this god, another that god, but each path has the same goal: eternal life with the god of one’s choosing.  If you think this cannot happen today, let me remind you that of all the Christian churches in the world there are only two who are still do missionary work based on the idea that people are dying without knowing about Jesus:  us and the Southern Baptist Convention.  If all moral paths lead to heaven, no wonder people have lost their zeal for Christ.  No wonder we care so little whether our neighbor has heard of Jesus, of His life and death for sinners.  No wonder we have lost our sense of urgency, the fire in your hearts for a holy life and the conversion of our friends and relatives.

These ideas are not new.  The history of religions people have been talking about the similarities for ages.  But it never occurs to them that the superficial resemblances between the cult of Cybele and the faith of Christ are more than just one religion borrowing from another and are instead intentional deceptions of the devil.  I’m not using the devil as a boogeyman here.  As we saw back at the beginning of Lent, the devil is real and he is engaged in tempting people away from the truth of Christ.  And so isn’t it odd that historically, just when the Good News of salvation in Jesus was being proclaimed everywhere, all these mystery religions have a resurgence in popularity and claim to offer the same benefits? Just a few years into the future from the writing of this letter to the Church in Sardis, the Church Father Tertullian will say that Satan is the author of these deceptions, and he will be right.

I’ve said in these Lenten sermons that we can directly apply much of what we read as a letter to the Christians in Sardis to ourselves.  So, I say to you, have we allowed some of the thoughts of the word to creep in and reshape what we believe?  I meet people all the time who say, and they seem to take great pride in saying this, “I’m a Christian but I don’t believe much of what churches teach.”  Now that I’m a little older I’ve had a little more success in saying, “So how is it that you think can deny major teachings of the Christian Church and still claim to be a Christian?  It sounds like you’re something a lot closer to a Deist, which, by the way, is not Christian.”  Has your Sunday School faith failed to thrive in a world where the attacks on the truth of Scripture and the teachings of Christ are everywhere?  Are you really more of a Deist?  Jesus has a bracing word of cold water for you, “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of My God,” says your Lord.  “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent” (Revelation 3:2–3).

I have to tell you, as a Christian and as a pastor in the Lord’s Church, I am unsatisfied with a great deal of what passes today for a Christian life.  Sporadic church attendance if at all, a nonexistent prayer life outside of church, children who are not taught to even say grace at the table much less the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, no family devotion times.  No thought towards baptismal life.  Communion at the Lord’s Table is merely an add-on to the Divine Service and best avoided because it makes the service go long.  And what has the church done over the years?  Tried to accommodate these folks!?!  And so the services get less frequent, chopped up and the sermons become sermonettes, the whole time preferring something vaguely “spiritual” over the revealed holiness of God.  And how does it that attitude bred in these kinds of services affect the rest of the life of the church?  Doctrine is not taught.  Confirmation instruction is done over a weekend retreat.  Adult instruction is done on a Saturday morning.  Anyone can be a baptismal sponsor.  Church discipline is non-existent.  We value too lightly what we receive too easily.  This is the Christian religion lowered to the point where it is just barely Christian.  An equivalent would be what has happened to food and cooking.  Most food we eat today is fast food.  You may have heard of the slow food movement.  These are people who are concerned about what it does to us as a people that we would rather just grab something to eat and eat it by ourselves in our cars rather than dine together.  I’m so glad we meet together during Lent and eat together and talk like people.  So, yes, I’m a proud member of the slow church movement.  Because there is no such thing as fast faith.  Faith, grows and develops and matures and ripens.  And so the Christian faith is not just something we do on Sunday for as short a time as possible before the race starts.

The Christian life today is not so much a life based on faith but rather habit and culture.  And what we have is what we have inherited.  Look around.  Where are the people of this congregation in this season of preparation and fasting for Easter.  And just because we’re here, doesn’t mean we’re here.  The body might be here but the mind might be far away worried about how to get it all done.  The yard needs mowing, the house needs painting and the groceries need to be picked up.  That’s my list.  Next Sunday, look around and find for me the next generation of Augustana.  Where are they and why are they not here?  Can we honestly say that they’re not here because we didn’t water the faith down enough for them we didn’t make it relevant enough for them?  Or rather did we do or say or model for them over the course of their upbringing that church was really necessary and therefore not necessarily where God was?  This is not just you; this is a problem with the wider church, with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and with the Christian Church broadly speaking throughout the United States.  And the answer from many of our church leaders for a generation has been to make the message accessible and make it relevant because we’ve got to reach these people.  We may very well have reached them but what have we reached them with?  The church today is statistically the same from those who are unchurched.  That is we have the same statistical rates for all of society’s ills as does the wider society.  If the Christian church is going to impact society in a positive way ever again, it will begin by getting our own house in order, getting serious about hearing God’s Word and obeying it.

I have to tell you, this is personal for me.  I’m not happy with my own prayer life.  I struggle with the discipline it takes to wrestle myself into a place to be still and quiet and listen to God in His Word and say to Him all my needs.  But here’s the thing, we don’t solve the problem by saying, “Hey, we live in grace; we don’t have to do that so stop beating yourself up over it.”  That can so easily lead to a callous attitude towards God’s Word and the word He has set before us to do.  No, every word of the Scripture remains in full force; Jesus came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.  We need to understand it far better than we do, far better than I currently do, if we are to understand and grasp the more firmly the gift we have been given in Christ.  We need to stop settling for a lowest common denominator brand of Christianity.  And this is why, because of the great gift of God’s Gospel is Jesus Christ.  “Remember therefore what you have received and heard; obey it and repent.”

The Lord Christ is jealous for you because He has invested Himself in you.  In the agonies of the cross, He spent His life’s blood for you.  He gave His life to forgive your sins.  He rose again to give you new life in Him.  He will not share you with another.  Jesus is yours, and you are His.  Now, in Jesus, you stand before God as innocent and undefiled as He is.  Of course, you are sinners, but God has declared you righteous because of Jesus, who was innocent but was declared guilty for the purpose of your redemption.  All your sins are now washed away, including the ones of which I admonish you.  So wake up, I say.  Welcome the Holy Spirit of God that stirs the flame of faith within you, and put away these evil things.  This is the will of God.  If you ask for His help, He will give it to you.  He will enable you to repent, to put away false doctrine, and to turn to Him in faith and love.  Alive by His grace alone, you will eat at the Lord’s Table, receiving His body and blood.  You will not eat at the table of Cybele, the table of demons.  By grace, you received in Baptism a new life of righteousness in Christ and rejected the false and immoral values of the world.  Christ will not share you with another.

What does a Christian life built on this foundation look like?  Well, I shared with the Sunday Bible class a quote from Richard John Neuhaus.

[T]he churches, and Lutherans in particular, need to find fresh ways to proclaim the sacramental and communal nature of Christian existence.  The sad truth is that many, if not most, of our Lutheran people believe that a personal relationship with Jesus is what really constitutes being a Christian, with Baptism, Eucharist, Confession and Absolution as perhaps helpful addenda.  The idea that being a Christian means most essentially sacramental incorporation into the Body of Christ and discipleship in a committed community is, let us admit it, frequently absent from Lutheran piety.

What would our congregational life look like if everything we did proclaimed the sacramental and communal nature of what it means to be a Christian?  Well I can tell you, the previous pastor here, Pastor Wandrey, as much as I may disagree with him in other matters, he led you all in a giant leap toward it by re-establishing the practice of having the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day.  I say re-establishing not because at one time you used to do it, but because for about 1600 to 1700 years that was the practice of the Christian Church.  He merely went back to the practice of the Early Church and to Luther and the Lutheran reformers.  It’s hard to be in a sacramental life together if you don’t have the sacrament as the center and focus of what you do.  Another thing is that for the most part, baptisms here are celebrated in the regular Divine Service.  When one is baptized, one is brought into the Church and is given a place around the altar.  What I am still working on is getting Christian instruction to first prepare a person to be a part of a sacramental community and then reinforce and strengthen their participation in it.  We’ve got to think in these terms about everything we do together.  What we still need to do is restore opportunity for regular private Confession and Absolution, not like you see in the movies, but as our Lutheran Confessions describe it and as the Lutheran reformers practiced it.  All these things we have been given.

And another area we need to be more intentional about is acts of mercy.  We do them and we do bunch of them but we need to have a place for all to be a part of them and we need to make it clear that engaging in acts of mercy is just as important as any other aspect of being a Christian.  Some of these things I’m not entirely sure how to do because I was not shown how to do them.  We will have to figure how best to do them together because we are a community.  The church is a community in which Jesus Christ works in His sacraments to bless us and strengthen us for the work we are given to do in this world.  That is a completely different vision of the church than the place where I can find a place to get me what’s mine, after all it’s only about my personal relationship with Jesus.

And we will know that the attitude about church has changed here and in the wider church when the announcement that Lent is beginning actually means something to people.  When the beginning of Lent is more important to Christians than opening day for baseball, when Lent is seen as more than just “extra church.”  Then we will have begun to turn the corner.

Jesus says it’s time to wake up.  “If you do not wake up,” says Jesus, “I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (Revelation 3:3).  The day of Jesus’ coming is known only in heaven, but it will be soon, very soon.  By faith you will be among that blessed company that is “dressed in white” and walks with Jesus, the company of those made “worthy” by faith.  To be ready is to believe in Christ and to act on the basis of that belief.  Yes, it is difficult to go against the world and the culture of the world that has crept into the church, doing and believing what is right, standing up for truth when so few stand with you.  Jesus and the blood of the martyrs can attest to how difficult this is.  But Jesus promises that He will help you.  He will give you every gift of His sevenfold Spirit.  He will enable you to join with Him in heaven’s victory celebration.  “Wake up! Strengthen what remains.  Remember what you have received, (Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Absolution).  Obey .  .  .  Repent” (Revelation 3:2–3).  This is exactly what I am confident you will do.  The Lord did not shed His blood for you for nothing.  By grace, you will heed His Word.  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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