Apathy and Heart Health: The Letter to Sardis – Revelation 3:1-6

apathy1A generation ago there was a story that rocked the world. At about 3:20 a.m. on March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old manager of a bar in Queens, New York, returned to her quiet residential neighborhood, parked her car in a lot adjacent to her apartment building, and began to walk the 30 yards through the lot to her door. Noticing a man at the far end of the lot, she paused. When he started toward her, she turned the other way and tried to reach a police call box half a block away. The man caught and stabbed her. She started screaming that she’d been stabbed, and screaming for help. Lights went on in the apartment building across the street. Windows opened. One man called out, “Let that girl alone!”

The assailant shrugged and walked away. Windows closed and lights went out. The assailant returned and attacked Genovese again. This time she screamed “I’m dying! I’m dying.” This time lots more windows opened and lots more lights went on. The assailant walked to his car and drove away, leaving Ms. Genovese to crawl along the street to her apartment building. Somehow, she managed to drag herself inside. The assailant returned a third time, found Genovese on the floor at the foot of her stairs, and finally succeeded in killing her.

During those three separate attacks over the course of 35 minutes, not one of Kitty Genovese’s neighbors tried to intervene. No burly neighbor picked up a baseball bat and dashed outside to save her life. Worse than that, of the more than 30 people who saw at least one of the attacks and heard Genovese’s screams and pleas for help, not one of them even called the police. After much deliberation, and one phone call to a friend for advice, one man finally urged another neighbor to call authorities, which she did. Police arrived in two minutes, but by then, it was too late.

Interviewed afterward, the residents admitted, sometimes sheepishly, “I didn’t want to get involved,” or “I didn’t want my husband to get involved.” One said he was too tired to call police and had gone back to bed. Several couldn’t say why they hadn’t helped. Many of them said they’d been afraid to call. They couldn’t say why, within the safety of their own homes, they had been afraid to call the police – even anonymously.

Over the years, many of us have heard this story before. That incident may be the defining moment of urban apathy in the latter half of the twentieth century. When it happened, many thought the incident shocking, bizarre – but not typical of the way people respond. It was the kind of thing that would only happen in a big, bad place like New York City. “What was wrong with those people, anyway?”

At the same time, there is much evidence that we are a people creeping away from the most basic sense of civic responsibility. The social media generation has become convinced that giving something a “thumbs up” is the same as taking action on something. I have no doubt if Kitty were crying out, someone would video it on their cell phone, others would tweet about it, and still others would express outrage on Facebook at the actions of the attacker. What I don’t know, what I have no solid evidence of – is that people would imperil themselves to become involved in the violence and stop the man from committing the heinous deed.

In the town where I live a young man was beat up at a late night party of teens. Girls laughed as they recorded the beating, along with the boy being loaded up into a pickup truck. Two other teens took that young man to an abandoned field, doused him with gasoline, and lit him on fire. He died a horrible death at the hands of other teens who didn’t like something he said at the party. We have video of the beating. We have texts about the beating. What we don’t have is a single person who called the police. Many phones – no calls.

If that story is hard to hear, you may find the next letter, that to Sardis, very difficult indeed. They were a people who heard the Word repeatedly, but the calls of the Spirit fell on deaf ears. To introduce the story, take a moment and travel in your mind’s eye two more hours by bus to the southeast from Pergamum to the great and proud “revived city” of Sardis. The message was this:

Rev. 3:1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.

Look at verse 1 and note a few things with me:

First, Jesus was the one holding up all the churches. The existed because HE made them, and He holds them. The church apart of from Jesus is nothing. Enter a church where the Word is no longer preached, and there as a staleness of heart, because the foundation has washed away.

Second, note that in the previous letters, “I know your deeds” was a comforting phrase – HERE IT WAS NOT. Note that God’s evaluation is not the same as the worlds!

Third, notice they had a name that purported life – the reputation was different for most than the reality. What may be surprising is this: They didn’t seem to notice they were lacking life. How could that be?

Remember the story of Samson in Judges 16:20. He didn’t realize his strength had left him. So it is with some churches. They play around with Heavenly power, and God removes it. Since they weren’t depending on it, they don’t realize it until the enemy pounds them!

Charles Dupree wrote these words:

“There was a man named Earnest Heed – Who simply refused listen
But when his wife cooked apple pie – His eyes would always glisten.

Earnest had a few close friends – Named Apathy and Lazy
They like Earnest refused to hear – And drove other people crazy.

One day, Earnest and His Friends went on a trip – For rest and relaxation
Then suddenly an angel appeared – Without an explanation.

He said to Earnest and his friends – Have you realized thus far
That you have gone through all your life – Without realizing who you are?

For You have chosen what you want to hear – In your ears have made no room
For God has spoken many times – And now you are facing doom.

Earnest and his friends passed away that day – With Angel’s words in their ears.
For they had ignored and refused to listen – For many, many years.

The meaning behind this story my friends – Is evident and clear
For when the Lord speaks to you – Make every effort to hear.”

Many of us ignore warning signs. Here is the truth…

Key Principle: When we allow the weakness to spread unchecked by vigilance and defense of the truth, we let the enemy win without a fight!

Think about the words Jesus offered them to recover from this terrible state from verse 2. The message continued:

Revelation 3:2 ‘Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.

Jesus told the church to “Wake Up!” Think for a moment…

What are the signs of life in a church? How do you know a church that is awake?

(a) Growth of holy influence from the church family to world – IMPACT.
(b) Growth in Biblical world view of long term members.
(c) Hunger to be a witness for Christ, to serve people in Jesus’ name.
(d) Growth in stewardship of time and money.
(e) There is compassion and love for each other.
(f) There is unity. Division and schism is a sign of decay and death.
(g) There is emotion. Only the dead have no tears, no laughter, no music, no sorrow.

What are the signs of a dead church?

• Everything goes back to the past: When a church lives in the past, its reputation and its history, that church is dead. When a church is more concerned with form and ritual that church is dead.

• Everything is about attracting and keeping people here: When a church is more concerned about church activities than that God be glorified through those activities, it is dead. When they try to grow and hold on to people, they become self-focused.

• When it is more material than spiritual, it is dead. A church is either growing or it is dying. If a church is dead, its people are dead because we are the church. We are the instrument God uses. Many people feel if they just show up on Sunday, they have paid their dues to God.

Are there choices that renew “heart health” in such a terrible state?

Revelation 3:2 ‘Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. 3 ‘So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 ‘But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. 5 ‘He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. 6 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

First, we need to recognize that Vigilance is the opposite of apathy – not simply action. You have to wake up before you do anything else.

The word is used more than sixty times in the New Testament, sometimes translated (as in KJV) “watch” (61 x in KJV). The word means to be alert, and sober as opposed to being sound asleep and unaware of the surroundings.

The 4,000-mile-long Great Wall of China was built to keep invaders from the north. The first wall was constructed by Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, who lived between 259 – 210 BC. But is AD 1644 the Manchus broke through the Great Wall and overran China. They did this by bribing a general of the Ming dynasty to open the gates. As Christians, we must be vigilant that nothing breaches our spiritual defenses. Even the most mature believer can never afford to let down his guard.

Second, we need to recognize the importance for leaders to deliberately build up any point of weakness. This is a leadership issue.

We simply haven’t completed discipleship if people aren’t prepared to stand against the temptation to buckle to evil. For that reason, verse two ends: “I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God”. Leading people to Jesus is not the end game – discipling them to do it again in the face of trouble and overwhelming ungodliness is. We aren’t done until they can stand in the storm and keep moving forward.

Many believers spend their entire life fighting to simply become responsible adults, to grow up and act their age. They don’t make disciples because they struggle to BE one. Leaders must press the cause to move forward. We cannot pander to all those who will not obey Jesus and still grow those who have a desire – but need the training. Many a church must evaluate their work as “incomplete.” The larger problem is when they spend all their time coddling the weak and not growing the strong. I am not trying to be harsh – the weak need love. What they don’t need to do is stop the whole movement of God.

Many believers, and many churches just GET EXHAUSTED carrying those who seem to be stuck in immaturity. After repeatedly getting burned, faithful people “back out” and “burn out” – and distance themselves from what Jesus intended for the Body of Christ.

The cancer of apathy often grows best in the overworked soil of the faithful but worn out. It is hard to get engaged with so many people connected to our lives – especially when they bring their expectations, but not their assistance.

Jesus called the believers back to the beginning.

Revelation 3:3 ‘So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.

Look at the simplicity of the counsel of Jesus.

First, He called them to remember the pattern of the faith they received, along with the words they were given as they came to Him at the beginning. This is a call to the BASICS.

Second, they were told to OBSERVE (read: JUST DO IT!) the Word and evaluate where they left behind God’s commands. Where that occurred, they were to simply REPENT. They were to change their minds so that they could change their practices. When people aren’t convinced of the heinousness of their sin, they negotiate lessened terms of obedience before God.

If there is a call to leaders in the verse it is this: We who know the simplicity of loving Jesus need to take back the microphone dominated by the programming around us, and call people back to simple repentance, and simple faith. Our faith is not simple because it made of simple issues – it is simple because it requires a fundamental underpinning of surrender.

Recently I dealt with a student in the discipleship program I run, because the student was participating in an activity of Christian liberty that could easily have been offensive to other believers. He was not violating a specific command of Scripture, so I made clear the standard of the school. I told him: “You must take every issue of liberty to sincere prayer. In the presence of the Holy Spirit, you must ask what He instructs you personally to do. If He allows you to participate, you must then be careful to exercise that liberty in a way that will not cause a weaker brother to stumble. He will show you what that means.” When I was finished, a younger man on my staff asked: “How do you know if they will do this as you asked?” I replied: “I don’t! If they want to lie to me, they will do so – but they will know they are not telling the truth.”

We need to press the point that if we aren’t going to be sincere in our faith, there is nothing another seminar, another sermon or another social network post can do to fix what is broke. The cup is impure because the inside is un-surrendered – period.

When all the formulas for success are finished, when every fanciful strategy of men has met its end – what we did walking hand in hand with the Savior is all that will count. The old Amish saying is true: “Only one life, twill soon be passed, only what’s done for Christ will last.” I would add: “Only what’s done WITH Christ will last.” God never asked me to do FOR Him anything He didn’t want me to do WITH Him! His words to Moses were: “I will go with you!” And so it is.

Third, look at what you DO have. In this case, targeting deliberate discipleship with those who ARE following Jesus was essential.

What a fabulous truth! You have SOME who have not offered their lives to Baal. There are others who bow their knee to the Holy One! Some of us, like Jeremiah of old, tend to buy the world’s hard sales pitch. “The church is dying!” they say. “Young people are flocking away from the church!” they claim. The problem is – it isn’t true in the sense they mean it. “Born again” churches are growing in America. Evangelicals aren’t decreasing in the population, only in their influence in Washington!

It is important to recall two things: God supplies the objectives AND God supplies the team! He has unseen workers in the spiritual realm that outnumber those of the enemy, and He is greater than the prince of the air. Keep focusing on what God DOES supply – not what He doesn’t give you. God gives TO you so that God can give THROUGH you. Look at your five loaves and two fishes and recognize the touch of Jesus can make it feed a stadium of hungry people.

Making disciples is not glitzy work. It requires caring, teaching, and investing in lives – and it doesn’t always look that impressive. Brothers and sisters, we are increasingly pulled to view the extraordinary – the bigger venues – and we can easily become unsatisfied when “turning our eyes from small things”. Some in ministry are weeping inside, not because the Temple foundations are smaller than the former days, but because the work God gave us is not as seemingly exciting as the ones featured in the magazines. We are lusting over another man’s field, or coveting another man’s calling. Some Pastors and some churches spend all their time trying to be something they are not – and they are unhealthy and unfulfilled – thirsting for affirmation this side of the Savior’s voice: “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

In my experience, many Pastors and leaders of churches have spent too much time fighting the battle of their own significance rather than seeing their flock’s potential. Some tiny country church has in its children’s department the next Billy Graham – but he doesn’t look so wise or sit still very well. Growing him will be hard, and programming isn’t what he needs as much as some godly men and women that will pour into his little life. No gym can disciple, but it can be a vehicle of attraction and a place where someone disciples. So can a field, a tent by a stream, a fishing hole, or a bike path. Jesus didn’t only feed the masses – He quietly walked along and trained the twelve. Long after the miraculous lunch of loaves and fishes was digested, it was the trained men that carried the message to another generation. Discipleship is a mentality before it is a reality. Brothers, some of us may have abandoned our post because we were attracted by shiny objects in “more significant” places – and we have missed the point. Jesus measures as much the completion of the disciple as the number birthed on our watch – both are included in His great commission.

I think we have short memories of the beginnings of our faith.

Discipleship in the Christian context did not have an auspicious beginning. The banks of the Jordan River are, in their natural state, quite steep. They have a distinctive earthy smell of mud – even in the dry season. Access in most places has always been arduous, and it wasn’t always possible to get into the water without getting pretty muddy. By the time you reached the Jordan, immersion was necessary just to look presentable, let alone to have a symbolic experience. Add to that, the water is so cold for much of the year, that every time I baptize people in the Jordan or the Sea of Galilee (since it is the same water) I truly understand why Jesus WALKED ON THE SEA and stayed out of it!

What a place to build a ministry! But the truth is, John the Baptizer didn’t give the slight inconveniences of his work much attention. When you grow up in the harsh Judean Desert, filling up on sweet honey and learning to pick locust legs out of your teeth after supper – convenience just isn’t your main focus. No doubt his appearance was as striking to city dwellers as Jonah after his ‘journey to the bottom of the sea’, and the smell of John’s camel coat was about as appealing as the stench of Jonah’s “whale vomit after shave”. I can tell you truly – I have spent a lot of time with camels, and they have an indescribable odor all their own, especially in mating season!

Our story of discipleship, at least as it applies to the pattern of Jesus’ earth ministry, started right there, along the muddy bank of the Jordan River, just below the poorly spray painted banner that said “Repent” as part of the “John the Baptizer’s clean up sin sick Judea campaign” where Jesus gained his first five followers. I wonder if you have ever really considered the line-up of promising men Jesus had to build ministry upon… by deliberately sculpting them into disciple makers:

• The young disciple John was clearly an immature but brash young man, based on his title among the “sons of thunder”. He had a meddling and status conscious mother – that tagged along and tried to get her sons better seats in the future kingdom banquet of Jesus – on the right and the left. James his brother was no prize either. Yet, Jesus knew that sometimes the immature “Boagernes big mouths” of the group are prophets in the rough. He signed both of them on – in spite of their vocabulary, reputation for impetuous behavior, and well developed muscles in the area of “jumping to conclusions”. He also took on the task of making them disciples under the watchful eye of an interjecting mother.

• Things were no doubt looking up when the ever popular Matthew who made his mark among the ever-valued, highly influential tax collector club signed on. Used chariot salesmen were thought to be more upstanding in the day, making every word that came from that compromising, money hungry snake somewhat suspect by the others. There is no suspicion like that given to a collaborator. Yet, Jesus picked him. Jesus knew that a past is no reason to discount a future. He signed him on with less of an eye on his past reputation and more of an eye on what he could become as a man of influence. He saw leadership where others saw a cocktail of politics and greed in a beard and toga.

• Oh but that wasn’t the only prized member of the Galilee club for rehabilitation! Opposite him at the table was none other than Simon was a Zealot. What a joy to bring into the circle an unrelenting political fanatic, who joined the group because he thought a few of the preacher’s points gave Biblical foundation to his own right wing conspiracy theories. Armed with anger and activism, his constant demonstrations of inflammatory and untactful rhetoric were plastered over his fiery Facebook posts – with each incendiary comment baiting readers and followed by pages of right wing anti-Caesar rhetoric. This, of course, made him an obvious choice for deep mentoring investment. The Master saw in Simon a fanatic – can’t change his mind and can’t change the subject. Yet, Jesus knew that sometimes fanatics make up in commitment what they lack in tactfulness, and commitment would be a prized commodity in the difficult days after the Ascension.

• Then of course there was the deeply reflective and discerning Andrew, who concluded that he found the meaning of life and the long promised Messiah after he heard a single sentence from a popular preacher by the Jordan and spent an afternoon gaining His insights. John the Baptizer called Jesus that Lamb of God – and that was enough for Andrew to “take off a-following”. In a single afternoon exchange with a stranger, he concluded that John’s endorsement, plus a good few hour chat – was worth changing one’s life over! He read an article and changed his life – becoming an expert in an afternoon! He quickly became the first evangelist to emerge from the tribe and get his brother Simon Peter. Jesus signed him on because He knew that the zeal of the quick Evangelism Explosion course, even when thin of broader knowledge, would be an essential character trait for the group in the days ahead. Andrew had guts, and it is often easier to teach truth to those who are bold than boldness to those who are academically steeped.

• Of course no line up, even a sarcastic one, is complete without mentioning the cranially challenged disciple – Simon Peter. He had the distinction of being an accomplished speaker – if you take into account that he seldom opened his mouth except to change feet. Here was a prize that every Pastor should have on the team as they attempt to lay the groundwork for discipleship. Here was a man with ideas – albeit usually the wrong ones. What he lacked in insight, he more than made up for in zeal – and of course we know that usually helps build a work so well! It took, according to the Gosepls, only three calls to get him on board spanning the whole of the Gospel of John, and then he followed – more or less – faithfully. In the heart of his training, Jesus gave him a promotion and told him “On you I will build my church” – and the next thing he did with his new promotion badge is pull aside Jesus and tell Him that presenting the vision of the Cross was not the right direction to go to build the work! Nothing like the new assistant correcting the long time church planter…Jesus brought him on, built him up, and then endured his “obviously inflated” advice. The Savior knew that some people may own their part too quickly, but at least they try to own the part.

We could go on and on… but I think you see what I am trying to say. My brothers in ministry, many of us have looked at our dear well-meaning flock, and our eyes have been trained to pick out every defect in the sheep. We stopped believing in God’s recruiting ability long ago.

Jesus ended the letter to Sardis with this: Revelation 3:5 ‘He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. 6 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

Some WILL overcome. They will not be swept to a place out of the fight. They may struggle, but they will one day experience the warmth embrace of the Savior – a new robe and a permanent and safe home. We must listen to the Spirit’s Words…

When we allow the weakness to spread unchecked by vigilance and defense of the truth, we let the enemy win without a fight.