I thought about calling this sermon “Zombie Church,” and then I thought: what would Dan do with that when he prepared the slides? I decided I didn’t want that on my conscience, so I stayed with this more theological, if less vivid, title. Either way, you get the picture: this was a church that appeared from the outside to be alive, but was dead on the inside, where it mattered. As such, this is quite a harsh letter, with no praise for the church at all. There are a few people left who have remained faithful to Jesus, and they will be rewarded; for the rest, there is only a stern warning to wake up and repent before the judgment of God falls.
This warning is expressed in extraordinarily vivid and powerful language. If we get the sense that the church in Sardis was living off their reputation, off the accomplishments of the past, this was no less true of their city. Before Ephesus rose to be the great city of the Anatolian peninsula, what we now know as Turkey, Pergamum was; but before Pergamum, and far greater, was Sardis, one of the most famed cities of the ancient world. The city was founded some time around 1200 BC, about the time the Israelites were coming up out of Egypt; the heart of the city, its acropolis, was a natural stronghold like that of Pergamum, only far more so. The upper city of Sardis sat on a small plateau 1500 feet above the valley of the Hermus river—a plateau bounded on almost all sides by sheer cliffs. Only at one point, where it connected to Mt. Tmolus, was there any access at all by road, and that road was narrow and steep. Even at the time of the Revelation, to capture Sardis was proverbially to do the impossible.
Sardis was the capital of the kingdom of Lydia, which we’ve mentioned several times in this series, and the security it gave its rulers is one of the reasons for their rise to power. The other is that the Pactolus, a small river that flowed through the lower city, had gold in its bed, which was the foundation of the kingdom’s great wealth. The first king of Lydia, King Gyges—who may have been the “Gog” mentioned in Ezekiel, and referred to again in Revelation 20—used that wealth and his impregnable fortress-capital to build a powerful kingdom. He and his successors allied themselves with powers like Sparta, Egypt, and the Phoenicians; it seems likely they were the kingdom known to the Israelites as Lud, mentioned several times in the Old Testament.
And then King Croesus declared war on Cyrus and his advancing Persian empire. Croesus invaded, fought a couple battles, then withdrew to Sardis and sent his allies home for the winter, thinking Cyrus would never follow him—but Cyrus did, and launched a sneak attack on the city. Croesus abandoned the lower city, pulling his troops behind the walls of his citadel to endure a seige, confident that it could not be taken; but after just two weeks, Sardis fell, because Croesus’ soldiers didn’t bother to keep watch. They knew that no one could possibly climb the cliffs to the acropolis, so they didn’t notice when someone did; that someone then opened the gates and let the Persian army in. Ironically, a few centuries later, that story repeated itself: in another war, during another siege, the enemy climbed the walls and opened the gates, and Sardis fell.
Up until that point, the city had retained most of its importance—it had been, for example, the western capital of the Persian empire; but after it was taken by force the second time, it began to fade, and was soon eclipsed by the rising power of Pergamum. It continued to be a prosperous city, but one which lived on the glories of the past rather than on hopes for the future.
From that point on, not much changed in Sardis until 17 AD, when a terrible earthquake struck the area. Sardis wasn’t the only city affected, but it was by far the hardest hit; Pliny the Younger called it the worst disaster in human memory. The great problem was that the mountain spur on which the upper city was built wasn’t rock, it was just ordinary soil, and not even particularly dense soil at that; and it appears that the earthquake caused a large portion of the acropolis to collapse. This, incidentally, is why I didn’t show you a picture of Sardis as I did of Pergamum; what remained of the plateau has been further reduced by 2000 years of erosion, and there just isn’t much left. They did rebuild the city and put up new walls on what remained of the acropolis, but the disaster was a tremendous blow to Sardis’ economic health.
We have, then, a city which should never have been taken by force, but which had been—twice—because its defenders failed to keep alert, and thus failed to notice when their enemies came upon them like a thief in the night; and we have a city that had been struck by disaster and lost much of what had made it great, and had been forced to rebuild and strengthen what remained to it in order to keep going. And we have a church in that city which needed to learn the lessons of that history, for it too was living in the past, failing to pay attention as its strength crumbled. They had been so polluted by the idolatry of their culture that they were all but dead spiritually, and they didn’t even know it.
This is why there’s no hint of persecution in this letter—the spirit of compromise that was tempting the church in Pergamum and had taken root in the church in Thyatira had completely conquered the church in Sardis. It may well have been a different compromise, for the Jewish community in the city was large and powerful—the synagogue was not only huge, it was part of the complex of buildings that made up the cultural center of the city. Whatever the content of their compromise, however, what mattered was that the church had sold out the gospel in order to accommodate themselves to their culture. They had no price to pay and no sacrifices to make for belonging to the church, because they’d gotten comfortable with the world; indeed, they’d settled down quite nicely and gone to sleep, and were in real danger of never waking up.
For us, it’s easy to take this and say, “This is our former denomination, this is why we’re leaving”; and that’s true, as far as it goes. The main line of the Presbyterian Church in this country has a long and honorable history, but its leadership has gotten comfortable with the world and gone to sleep, and the life is bleeding out of the denomination. That said, if we stop there, we’re kidding ourselves, because the temptation to get comfortable with the world, to just give people what they want and tell them what they want to hear, is there for every church.
It’s a particularly insidious one in our fractured culture, shot through with subcultures—that’s why “find a target group and give them what they want” has been a popular church-planting strategy over the last few decades. It’s easy for us to tell ourselves that we’re standing boldly against the world when we’re opposed to someone else’s culture, and never notice the ways in which we’ve compromised with the culture in which we actually live. It’s easy to focus on all the things in God’s word that don’t make anyone here uncomfortable, and just ignore everything that might. It’s easy to coast on what we’ve already accomplished, which is why the seven last words of the church are “We’ve never done it that way before.” Our church in Bellingham was only seven years old when we joined it, but it was already getting that way; which is why it no longer exists.
Look what Jesus says to the church in Sardis: “Be vigilant. Remember what you received and heard; keep it, and repent.” “What you received and heard”—the gospel of Jesus Christ. Repent of putting anything else at the center of the church, repent of following anyone else; return to Christ, remember who he is and what he has done for you. The only thing that keeps the church alive, the only thing that keeps us from sliding into compromise with the world, is to be vigilant to remember—to continue, over and over again, to re-center ourselves on Jesus Christ and his gospel of grace, to focus ourselves on him and allow his Holy Spirit to shape everything we do.