The Church of the Living Dead
A Sermon About Apathy
By Dave Redick*
“I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”
(Read Revelation 3:1-6)
According to Jesus, if we have ears, it is important for us to hear what the Spirit of God is saying in these verses. In them He tells John to write some things to the church at Sardis – a church of Christ that existed in that ancient city. Since most of us probably know very little about Sardis, I want to tell you her story. It is really a remarkable tale.
Seven hundred years before this letter was written Sardis had become one of the greatest cities of the world. Ruled over by the king of Lydia, it had magnificence and luxury and nearly unlimited wealth.
Sardis was also a great military power, which is really no wonder when you understand that it stood in the midst of a river plain on a plateau some fifteen hundred feet above the valley. The sides of the plateau were sheer cliffs. An enemy could be seen approaching for miles all around. The city was nearly impregnable. Looking at Sardis from a distance was like looking at a gigantic watchtower above the Hermus Valley.
Sardis grew until it could no longer fit on the plateau and the building spilled over into the valley below. Now it became a two-tiered city – upper and lower Sardis. A river that was said to contain gold bisected Lower Sardis. The greatest of the kings of Sardis lived at the time of the discovery of this gold. His name was Croesus.
Croesus and his people were extremely rich, but their wealth brought them down. As they settled more and more into lives of falsely secure luxury and splendor, they became soft and flabby. Their society was degenerate. Smug in their self-confidence, they thought their wealth would last forever.
In his haughtiness, Croesus recklessly declared war on Cyrus of Persia. In order to get to the armies of Cyrus, he had to cross the Halys River. He took counsel in one of the idol’s temples about the battle and was told, “If you cross the River Halys, you will destroy a great empire.” He never considered that the empire destroyed would be his own.
Croesus was routed when he crossed the River, but he was not worried. He simply had to retire to the citadel of Sardis, recoup, refit, and fight again. But Cyrus laid siege to the city. He waited fourteen days, then offered a special reward to anyone who could find an entry into Sardis.
One of soldiers in the army of Cyrus noticed that the composition of the rock on which Sardis stood had cracks and faults in it. One evening as he stood watching the wall above, he had seen a Sardian soldier drop his helmet off the edge. The soldier made his way down what appeared to be a crack below the wall, emerged outside, retrieved his helmet, and disappeared back inside. The watching warrior reasoned that there must be a crack large enough to let a man through the wall. The next night he led a party of Persian troops up through the fault in the rock. When they arrived they found it completely unguarded and the soldiers of the city asleep. Under the cover of darkness, he and his men opened the gates of the city and Sardis was sacked that night.
A city with a history like Sardis would certainly understand what the risen Christ was talking about when He said, “Wake up!”
That isn’t the end of Sardis’ story, though. The city disappeared from history under Persian rule for two centuries until it fell to Alexander the Great and became a Greek city. It has been said that any people who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. History did repeat itself in the city of Sardis. After Alexander died, his generals fought each other to determine who would become the new ruler of Greece. One of the rivals, Antiochus, became the ruler of the area that included Sardis. At war with another of the rivals, he sought refuge in the city of Sardis. For a year he managed to defend the city, then one of the soldiers of Antiochus repeated the exploit of Cyrus. At night a band of soldiers crept up the steep cliffs and entered the city through a crack. There was no guard. The Sardians had forgotten the lesson. The city fell again that night because they were not watching.
In due time the Romans came. Sardis became a Roman town. In A.D. 17 it was hit by an earthquake and demolished. Tiberius the Emperor made Sardis tax-exempt for five years and donated money to rebuild the city. Sardis recovered the easy way.
By the time John wrote what Jesus told him to write to Sardis, the city was again wealthy and severely degenerate. Once again, the Sardians were soft. Twice the city had been lost because its inhabitants were too apathetic to keep watch. Once again an attitude of smug apathy prevailed. Within the city was a church, the church of Christ of Sardis. It too reflected the degeneracy of the time. It was lazy and apathetic. It too was not watching. It too was about to fall.
The sin of Sardis was apathy. Apathy is unconcern. It is disinterest, and carelessness, all wrapped up together. It can include negligence, indifference, and lethargy. It is spiritual numbness that can eventually become paralysis. It is the temperature lukewarm.
Apathy is a compound word: “a” meaning “without” and “pathy” meaning “feeling.” It means literally, “without feeling.” It has no passion and no opinion. Its bywords are:
|“I don’t care”|
|“I don’t want to be bothered.”|
|“I don’t know and I don’t want to know.”|
The members of the church of Christ in Sardis had a name and they were alive, Jesus said, but they were dead. “The Church of the Living Dead” we might call them. They were dead because they didn’t care. They had no passion anymore for the things of God. They were apathetic.
It’s dreadful, it seems to me, when a majority of an entire church doesn’t care anymore. It’s bad enough when it is just individuals. Jesus says here, “I have a few who have not soiled their garments.” Apparently that few included such a paltry number that apathy was the driving force in the church at Sardis.
Those who are apathetic all share one thing in common. Their lives develop cracks that become unguarded. Ultimately, if they do not wake from their stupor, they are entirely overthrown by the enemy.
Perhaps I speak to someone at this moment that is apathetic. Once you were on fire for the Lord – right up on the front lines where the real bullets were whizzing. Your faith was new and vibrant. You were diligent about even the details. You confessed your sins. You walked with God. You humbly depended upon Him day after day. You were no stranger to prayer. But now things are different. You cannot seem to get excited about God anymore. Worship is a dull experience. It is a chore to show up so sometimes you just don’t. Like the bumper sticker says, “I’d rather be skiing or fishing or sailing or golfing” – anywhere but in church on the Lord’s day.
Oh yeah, the Lord’s Day. It was His day for awhile in your life. Now though, you don’t call it by that name. Now it’s My Day Off. Notice how ownership of the day has shifted.
You haven’t had a meaningful talk with the Lord in months. In fact, deep down inside you are afraid to talk to Him because you know He sees right through your ruse and your excuses, right down into all that dead tissue in your lukewarm soul. Fellowship with other Christians seems distant to you. Sin has gained control of the high ground. More and more these days you indulge your weakness and the only thing that bothers you about it is the fact that you know the Christians around you do not approve. “But what right do they have to tell me how to run my life?” is your ever-constant refrain.
Perhaps for a time you thought you should do something to stop the downgrade. Maybe you even made some effort to get back where you knew you should be. But it wasn’t easy and underneath it all though, you realized you were only holding to a form of godliness but denying its power.
If what I have been saying sounds like it describes you and if the cracks in your life are unguarded, just how much longer do you think it can last? A month? A year? Five years? What if your physical life were snuffed out today?
How can a person escape apathy? What can be done to restore the spiritual vitality that was once present? The answer is here in the text we just read. Jesus told the Sardians to do five things to overcome their apathy. Let’s look at them. First, He told them to:
- Wake Up!
“Wake up!” Jesus says in verse 2.
The KJV says, “be watchful.” That puts it pretty well but the original word carried an element of urgency. A person can be watchful and be half-asleep. That may well describe the condition of the person who is apathetic – watching, but in a stupor so strong that the ability to act is severely diminished.
If you’ve ever had one of those dreams where you are trying to run but your legs just wouldn’t move or perhaps would only move at a fraction of their true ability, you have a good picture of apathy. So often the apathetic person knows what to do but just can’t get himself or herself going.
Jesus says, “Wake up! Be alert! Open your eyes wide! Slap yourself awake!”
Years ago I read the story of a forest ranger who nearly froze to death. A person freezing to death is aware for awhile, but he just can’t muster the strength to move. It feels too good to let go and sleep. Though he is dying, in his condition he doesn’t care. This is so much like apathy – to know but not care.
In a sense apathy is like quicksand. The longer you are in it the deeper you’re mired. If you are to survive you must get out today. Tomorrow may be too late. Go against those dull feelings! Wake up and do it now!
Secondly, Jesus says to the apathetic,
- Strengthen the Things that Remain!
Verse 2 says, “…and strengthen the things which remain which were about to die.”
Apathy has caused you to lose some things you once had. Your spiritual gas tank is dangerously depleted. You may be running on fumes. But the fact that you can hear me is probably an indicator that there is some gas left in your tank.
Apathy causes a downgrade in the life. At first it is just the dulling of the fine edge on your zeal for God. It isn’t too serious, it seems, so the condition is ignored. Next to go is your prayer life. You don’t want to pray. Praying becomes a real chore. Perhaps next to go is your desire for association with other Christians. After all, hanging around in the light tends to expose the gathering darkness in your life. You are annoyed when well meaning brethren ask you how you’re doing. You think, “Is it really necessary for me to attend all the services of the church?” Pretty soon you only come once a week, then begin to miss a week here and there. The price, of course, is guilt, as you are convicted of all this by your conscience and the Holy Spirit. Your response is to rationalize your behavior. The rooster of conscience crows loudly but you just throw him a handful of corn and yell “shut up”
Satan often will at this time come with an offer of something better – something that you would have rejected out of hand in your more attentive days. Now though, it doesn’t seem that wrong.
Stop just a moment. Take stock. Am I describing you? Has apathy crept into your life or is it creeping as I speak? If so, you’d better make some moves quickly to conserve and strengthen what remains.
- Remember What You Have Received and Heard!
That is what Jesus says in verse 3: “Remember therefore what you have received and heard…”
Time away from anything brings forgetfulness and unfamiliarity. Perhaps you took some higher math in school. You haven’t used it since graduation. Could you do it now? Probably not. If you don’t use it, you generally lose it.
“What should I remember?” you might ask. You need to remember the real issues of life that brought you to Christ in the first place. Things haven’t changed. There is still a heaven and a hell. (Actually, you’re closer to one or the other than you were back when you started.) There is still sickness and disappointment and aging and death to deal with. There is still a need to have guidance in your life that is bigger than your own fallible abilities.
“Remember what you have received and heard…”
Is it possible that the things you heard so many times in the past, those things you took for granted, have now been forgotten? I’ve seen it happen.
God has built remembrance right into the disciplines of the Christian life if we’ll just use them. When you and I come together to worship on Sunday and take that little bit of unleavened bread and grape juice, we’re supposed to be remembering. In our mind’s eye we should again picture the agony of the crucifixion and then ask the question, “Why?” Then we do self-examination and we have the answer to why. There is still sin in our lives – sin that could condemn us for eternity if it weren’t for the agony on that cross – sin that could still condemn us for eternity if we lose sight of that cross or just don’t care about it anymore. If we’re reminded, it’s harder to be apathetic.
My friends, is apathy slowly hardening like cement around our feet? Have we neglected the basic spiritual disciplines?
You say, “Nope, not me. I haven’t missed communion.” Yes, but have you missed remembering? Without that and the accompanying self-examination, it’s just a meaningless ritual. Have you forgotten these things?
Don’t wait for it to happen? Unless you take specific steps now – the sooner the better – apathy can claim you back for the devil.
Fourthly, Jesus says here,
- Keep It!
Keep what? Keep what you have received and heard.
When you buy a car and you intend to keep it for awhile, how do you treat it? Do you neglect it? Do you forget to change the oil and air up the tires and wash it? No. You take care of it. You spend the time that is necessary to maintain it. You don’t let it slip into disrepair because you know that if you are going to keep it, those are the things that must be done. You don’t just talk about doing it. You don’t just buy a manual on car maintenance and upkeep and throw it up on the shelf. You do what is necessary.
In James we read,
“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, his is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.”
James associates forgetting with not doing.
If you are coming here on Sunday just to watch the preacher work out as he goes through his paces, you’re not doing. You’re just hearing. Soon you will be forgetting and not keeping.
Incidentally, that word “keep” in verse three is in the continuous present tense. The idea is to start and never stop keeping it.
Let me ask you a question. Do you leave here on Sunday feeling like your “doing” is done or like your “doing” is just beginning? Your answer to that question will tell a lot about whether you are a deluded hearer or a doer.
A sign over the exit of the building of the Springfield Church of Christ reads, “You are now entering the mission field.” Some people think such a sign should be on the other side of the door. They look at this building as the field where all the work is done.
By the way, there is something else I need to say and have wanted to say for some time. Do you want to know why some of us get so bored of it all? Its because we never engage the enemy.
Imagine a soldier who never engages the enemy. He drills and drills until he is bored stiff. He marches. He shines the chrome and cleans the barracks and oils his gun. He says “Yes Sir” a hundred times a day. Only one thing he doesn’t do. He doesn’t fight. He never feels the sheer terror of the battle that makes him realize what all the training is about. That’s where some of us are and have been.
“Church is irrelevant,” some say. That’s because they’re not in the battle. They’re just sitting around the barracks thinking there is nothing to do so their training has no purpose. From their perspective, it’s irrelevant.
Listen to me. If you want to energize your life, figure out some ground that Satan now owns and begin to do something to take it for Christ. I guarantee that after you have ducked the hail of bullets that comes your way because you had the audacity to enter the territory of Lord Satan, your boredom will vanish and “church” will become meaningful.
Finally, Jesus says,
In every course correction there must be a point of turning – a point where you grab the steering wheel and crank it around – a point where you throw the lever that reverses the engines. Repentance is that point. You make up your mind that you’ll go no further on your present course and throw the lever.
In the Greek the word “repent” is aorist imperative. It describes a determined, definite point of action. It is a point of action, an hour of decision. Repentance is the act – the determination – to change.
Sometimes we think we’ve repented when we’ve agreed with what the preacher has said. That’s not repentance. The devil agrees with what I’m saying in this sermon. Did you know that? He also agrees with what Jesus is saying here in this passage. That’s why he is working so hard at this moment to keep you and me from doing anything about it. Will we let him stroke our apathy? Will we let him continue to lull us to sleep?
“But I don’t want to,” I hear someone say. Such words are spoken in the true form of an apathetic person. Remember that the condition is “without feeling.” Sometimes you have to do things that, at the moment, you just don’t feel like doing – like getting up and going to work on Monday morning. You do it and I guarantee that when payday comes, you’re glad you did.
Wake up! Strengthen what remains! Remember what you have received and determine to keep it! Repent while there is still time to overcome your apathy.
An old Latin proverb says, “The gods walk on feet that are wrapped in wool.”
What they meant by that was that a man or woman could never detect their approach.
So it is with Jesus here. He says, “If therefore you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.”
Dr. Laurance M. Gould, President Emeritus of Carlton College, once said in a speech, “I do not believe the greatest threat to our future is from bombs and missiles. I don’t think our civilization will end that way. I think it will die when we no longer care.”
The same could be said of the church.
My friends, let’s not get caught unaware and unprepared. Let’s shake off the apathy now!