The Sleep of Death

Do you sometimes wonder how the Christian church can have such a prominent presence in our country yet our culture be in as bad a shape as it is? In a 2015 Gallup poll, 75% of Americans self-identified as Christians. That is not as high as the 80% in 2008, but it is still high. Of course, we discount many of these professions of faith, and rightfully so. However, the Christian church still looms large in our country. In towns and cities across our country there are multitudes of Christian churches of every different stripe, but we don’t see righteousness prevailing in these same towns and cities. Even in my own city, which boasts one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the world, has one of the largest evangelical churches in the country, has hundreds of smaller evangelical churches, and is occupied by a majority of Roman Catholics, we are not very Christian in the way we conduct our cultural business. What is up with that?

Could it be, that when we get down to the root of the matter, that those inside the church share some of the same fundamental views of the place of the church and faith in society as well as our personal lives? Could it be that any cultural engagement that we have had has become cultural assimilation; that is, we have the same basic understanding of where life should be centered (e.g., in what makes me the most happy and comfortable), that my personal faith shouldn’t interfere with work or government, that I exist primarily as a consumer and all things in which I participate must serve me in the way that I want to be served, that participation in the church is pretty much like participation in any other charitable organization in the world (i.e., it is an important but non-essential part of life)? Could it be that the church in America has little to no influence on the surrounding culture because we share too much culture with those outside the church? Are we slapping a fish symbol on the prevailing American culture and calling it the church?

The angel (pastor) and his church in Sardis seemed to have been lulled into a cultural assimilation through the comfort and wealth of the city of Sardis. They weren’t an overtly rebellious church, it seems, tolerating the likes of Jezebel as Thyatira did. The angel and church had become slothful. This sloth led to compromise, and this compromise led to an overgrown, unfruitful garden with the walls broken down (cf. Prov 24.30-34). Now, the angel and church have a name that they live, but they are dead (Rev 3.1). They are a nominal church. They bear the name of the living one, Jesus Christ, but they are dead.

Jesus tells us the nature of this death: he has not found their works full, complete, or mature before his God. Again, they weren’t tolerating Jezebel or the Nicolaitans. Their sin was much more subtle. They weren’t pressing to maturity. They weren’t cultivating the garden of the church to make it more fruitful. They weren’t investing the money Jesus left with them so that it would grow in interest (cp. Matt 25.14-30). They were satisfied with where they were.

Life was comfortable in Sardis. And comfort for Christians can be a greater danger than persecution. Comfort lulls us to sleep. Comfort can make us soft so that when the difficult times come ... and they will come ... we are tempted to do whatever it takes to maintain our comfort. The angel and church in Sardis did that. They refused to keep pressing forward in their spiritual disciplines and maturing. Instead, they refused to compromise their comfort, assimilated to the prevailing pagan culture, and soiled their baptismal garments. The name of Christ in which they were clothed in baptism (cf. Gal 3.27) was still discernable, but many were so soiled that Jesus considered them dead. They were Christians in name only.

Jesus calls the angel and church in Sardis to wake up; shake off the sleep, clear their heads, and repent. They need to realize what is going on and snap out of it. If they don’t, the consequences will be eternally horrifying.

As Christians in America we have the temptation of comfort. We can easily be lulled to sleep, assimilating to the church around us. We can share prevailing anti-Christian thinking without even knowing it. We, in the church, may rail against no-fault divorce marriages. However, we will share with the world the belief that marriage is primarily about personal fulfillment, which is the foundation for no-fault divorces. We (rightfully) protest abortion in our country. However, we will refuse the blessing of children in our marriages because we can’t afford them or because they are inconvenient, getting in the way of what we want to achieve. That is the same kind of thinking that promotes abortion. We are a part of a church and the world isn’t. However, we view the church like the world views other social or charitable organizations; important, but basically non-essential.

On and on I could go. What is needed to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2Cor 10.5). We need to think about where we might be being lulled to sleep, where are works are complete because we have compromised. Then we need to wake up and get about the business to which Jesus has called us: to bear his name faithfully in the world.