March 7, 2010
Wake up! Christian sleepwalking is a dangerous way of being religious.
I. Jesus sees you when you’re sleeping. (Revelation 3:1)
II. Jesus calls us to be alert. (Revelation 3:2-3)
III. Jesus walks with those who are awake. (Revelation 3:4-6)
Meet Lee Hadwin, by day a nurse, at night he's a "sleepwalking artist" who produces interesting artworks which he has no recollection of drawing when he wakes up. He’s mystified by his nocturnal talent: when awake he has no interest or ability in art whatsoever. Major galleries have pursued his work, which they hope to market on its artistic merit as well as its novelty value.
Then there is Robert Wood, a 55 year-old chef, gets up four or five times a week while asleep and heads to the kitchen where he prepares omelettes, stir fries and chips. He’s been sleepwalking for 40 years but, his wife Eleanor, is becoming increasingly worried about an accident while in the kitchen.
In 2005, a 44-year-old woman went to bed about 10pm but got up two hours later and went to her computer in the next room. She connected to the internet, and logged on before composing and sending three emails. Each was in a random mix of upper and lower cases, not well formatted and strangely worded. This new variation of sleepwalking is being called "zzz-mailing".
Sleepwalking is a fairly common occurrence, though it’s normally simple, like getting up and getting dressed or walking around the house. Up to 17 percent of children and maybe 4 percent of adults have a sleepwalking experience. Sleepwalkers often have open eyes, although they have a confused or glassy look. They might talk, but not clearly. What you have with a sleepwalker is a "sleeping brain and an awake body," says Donna Arand, clinical director of the sleep disorder center at Kettering Medical Center. "Sleepwalkers tend to do things typical of daytime activities. They have some, very diminished, awareness of their surroundings. They can negotiate routine patterns."
That quote is disturbingly similar to the self description of so many Christians I’ve talked to in the last twenty years. Call it sleepwalking, being in a fog, spiritual dullness, it’s a common complaint of believers: ‘I just don’t sense the presence of God,’ ‘I can never find time to study the Bible,’ ‘I don’t feel the joy or trust I expect as a Christian,’ ‘When I try to pray I fall asleep,’ ‘I can go all day without thinking about Jesus,’ ‘I can’t memorize Scripture.’
Do you ever say or think these things? I do. What’s worse is that on the surface we go through the motions of the Christian life, doing things typical of daytime activities, with a very diminished awareness of our spiritual surroundings, and yet able to negotiate routine patterns. We’re spiritually sleepwalking.
And we’re not the first. The church in Sardis that Jesus speaks to in this week’s text was sleepwalking, and He calls them to wake up, because as we’ll see, sleepwalking is a dangerous way of being religious.
Revelation 3:1-6 To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. 3Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
4Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. 6He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
I. Jesus sees you when you’re sleeping. (Revelation 3:1)
Sardis, about thirty miles southeast of Thyatira had at one time been one of the most prosperous cities of the Greek world. By the time of this letter it had declined to the point where it mostly rested on its reputation. It consisted of an upper city, the acropolis, on a now much eroded 1500 foot high bluff, and a lower town by the river.
Before we get to the sequence of this text I want to do something unusual, and pull out a phrase in verse 5 which may have caught your attention. Jesus says of the overcomer in Sardis: “I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.” This promise stands out because we tend to think that once your name is written in the book of life, it’s there permanently. In other words, many of us believe that those who are saved are saved securely and cannot lose their salvation. The idea of being blotted out of the book of life is troublesome to that view.
Let me briefly address that. First, I think the weight of Scripture is on the side of the permanence of salvation, principally because salvation is based on the character and actions of God, not on the character and actions of men. Take for example the description of salvation in Titus 3: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.
“He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” If God does all this for us, does he later undo it?
Or take Ephesians 1, “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed,” that’s the human responsibility, “you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession--to the praise of his glory.” If God seals you, is he going to break that seal and declare you not his possession? I don’t think so. The faithfulness of God, the steadfastness of his character makes it unlikely that he blots out the names of the redeemed from this book.
The Old Testament refers pretty often to a book with names written in it. Moses pleads with God to forgive the Israelites “but if not, blot me out of the book you have written." 33The LORD replied to Moses, "Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.” The implication is that your name is there until the Lord judges you for sin. Psalm 69:28, “May they [sinners] be blotted out of the book of life, not be listed with the righteous.” But those whose names remain will be saved. Daniel 12: “But at that time your people--everyone whose name is found written in the book--will be delivered.”
At the end of Revelation the names in this book are the names of the redeemed. Revelation 20:15 “If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Revelation 21:27 “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life.” The Lamb’s book ends up containing all the names of the redeemed and only the names of the redeemed. But because the book itself is somewhat symbolic Scripture can talk about it having all the names, with those who are judged for their sins blotted out, and it can talk about those who are redeemed by Christ as being written in. It’s just a different image of the same reality.
So this letter, in talking to a church, applies to two kinds of people: those who, in the words of Ephesians 1, have never believed and have never been sealed, and are therefore sleepwalking in a religious way without being Christian, and those who are redeemed, are believers but who may be sleepwalking in the light, fogged out and spiritually dull. And the beauty of Scripture is that Jesus can and does address both groups the same way. Though their fate is very different their need is the same: to wake up and walk with him.
So let’s go back and pursue this central message of the text. First, who is it from? “These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” We talked about the seven spirits of God back in chapter 1, and concluded that this is the Holy Spirit, seen symbolically as seven-fold because he’s present in every place, specifically with each of the seven churches. Jesus is the one who holds the Spirit, and the Spirit is the one who sees more than outward behavior, who searches hearts and minds, wields his sword, the Word of God to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
It’s because of this divine insight that Jesus can say “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” On the surface this church had the appearance of being alive, but it wasn’t, at a heart level. They continued to do the deeds of life, to carry on the programs and weekly activities of a church, but there was no vital, living, daily, ongoing conscious relationship behind the words and actions. They’d become hypocrites and sleepwalkers.
II. Jesus calls us to be alert. (Revelation 3:2-3)
So, like a medic shaking an unconscious victim, Jesus raps out five imperatives for all who may be sleepwalking. Verse 2: “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.” Verse 3: “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.” The first phrase could well be translated “be watchful.” This exhortation would carry special weight in Sardis because twice in its history the city had fallen to the enemy due to a lack of vigilance, when an opposing army sent climbers up the then nearly vertical face of the acropolis and opened the gates from within – because the city was not alert.
That phrase is repeated at the end of verse 3: “But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” This terminology is often used to warn believers to be ready for the Lord’s return. "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
In 1 Thessalonians Paul puts it this way: “But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.” – unless you’re sleepwalking – “You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us wake up and be self-controlled.” Jesus may be pointing toward that day, or simply to the fact that a day is coming for all people, even if it’s before that final day. Either way, he’s saying “Don’t get caught sleeping.”
He says “strengthen what remains, though it is on the point of death.” The church is comatose, but there is life left, enough believers who while admittedly sleepwalking, could be awakened. The church at Sardis had established a name for itself in the eyes of the community, but from God’s point of view, seeing their hearts, the works were stained and hypocritical.
Verse 3 contains the other three imperatives: “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard.” It might be better translated ‘how’ – remember how you received and heard this. Clearly they’d received the truth, the gospel of Jesus, in a lively manner - with faith and joy – and that’s what they need to recover. In the same way we sleepwalkers who say it’s all cold and dead, there’s no joy, no sense of God’s presence in our lives may need to look back, to remember how it was when we first came to faith.
Finally, Jesus ends with the twin commands ‘repent’ and ‘obey.’ Turn from this path of deadness, turn to the path of life. Do the things that indicate life. If you were talking to a corpse, to one nearly dead you would say ‘beat heart, breath lungs, open eyes, rise up.’ Do the things that a living person does: take in Scripture, breath out prayer, see need, and rise up to meet it.
Because sleepwalking can be dangerous. In May 2009, in England, a sleepwalking teenager, Rachel Ward, stepped out of the bedroom window at her historic castle home and plunged 25ft to the ground. She landed feet first on a narrow strip of grass next to her car, leaving six-inch divots in the ground, before collapsing. Semi-conscious, she screamed for help and her parents took her to hospital. There, to the amazement of doctors, tests revealed she hadn't broken a single bone, yet she remained only semi-awake for hours.
Others have not been so lucky. Timothy Brueggeman, a 51-year-old electrician from Wisconsin, sleepwalked out of his home wearing only his underwear and a fleece shirt. His body was found the next morning about 190 yards away. With temperatures around -16°F, Brueggeman died of hypothermia. Like many other cases of complex sleepwalking, his actions may have been connected with drinking alcohol while taking a common sleep medication.
Spiritual sleepwalking can be equally dangerous. If you don’t wake up you can walk into disaster: relationships that crater because you’re stupidly selfish, sins that entangle because we’re not running the race, pride that sours us because we’re not awed by our God, fear that consumes because we forget who we can trust. Sleepwalking can be dangerous – we blindly walk into a pit, a mess, the muck and mire of our fallen world. And Jesus could come, or we could die, while we’re not living the way he wants us to live.
III. Jesus walks with those who are awake. (Revelation 3:4-6)
But you don’t have to sleepwalk. You can Jesus-walk instead. Verse 4: “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.” The final chapters of Revelation show the culmination of history: ‘God with us,’ ‘God walking among us.’ Don’t miss this: those who are sleepwalking, who are spiritually dead are far from Christ, far from the joy of relationship with Christ in their daily lives. But those who are awake walk with him. It is this awareness, this ongoing conversation, this practice of the presence of Christ that sets apart the alert from the sleeping – and keeps them from soiling their robes.
Verse 5: He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white.” This is where the distinction is made between those ultimately redeemed, whose names are found written in the Lamb’s book of life in the last day and those whose names are blotted out, or were never written, depending on which kind of symbolism Scripture is using. But notice how beautiful the rest of the picture is. Those who overcome will be dressed in white, will walk with Christ, and will be led into the very presence and throne room to be presented by the Jesus who has loved them to His Father and the angels.
We see something like this in Revelation 7 which we’ll study later this spring: “Therefore, "they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. 16Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. 17For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
So how do we pull this together and apply it practically? First we need to recognize that it’s not only possible but common to sleepwalk through the Christian life, to be comatose, to be nearly dead, spiritually. You may not want to admit it, but if there is no joy in Scripture, no sense of worship, no ongoing conversation with God in your life, no commitment to prayer, no desire for fellowship or to share the good news – you’re asleep. And Jesus calls you to wake, to strengthen, to remember, to repent, to obey, to walk with him.
I believe it’s day by day, moment by moment awareness of God that both indicates awakeness and encourages awakeness. What I’m assuming is that most of the time you should have, some stream of thought going on in your head. But is that an inner monolog or a Godward conversation? If you can begin to address your thoughts to God, to ask God your inner questions, to put before him the minute by minute choices you make, to lift to him the situations you are seeing, then you will grow in awareness of God, and in awakeness.
The ongoing conversation is a habit, which is developed by practice, and which none of us ever fully develop. Let me close with five practical suggestions for developing this habit. First, use markers. Like the piece of paper in the pocket, like the string around the finger, use real markers to remind you to spend a moment in prayer or praise. Other markers people use are a verse on the mirror or dashboard, a list on the computer screen, a bible or book in a strategic location, like the bathroom, anything that turns our thought to God.
Second, implied in the first, use Scripture. Have a reading plan that gets you in Scripture every day. Memorize Scripture so you can meditate on Scripture without having to open your Bible. Have a Scripture memory card in your pocket or purse or in one of these little notebooks. I’ve been memorizing Philippians for Awana and I just compiled the verse blocks from the Awana newsletter so I could have another way of flipping through that content.
Third, use worship. Fall in love with a song that expresses Biblical truth in ways that appeal to your heart and your emotions. And go ahead and let your self obsess with that song until it becomes utterly background. Then find a new one. I can’t tell you how blessed I’ve been over many years by this simple practice – and how I get into a fog when I don’t have music in my life.
Fourth, use manual labor. I am finding the best time for conversation with God is in the morning, while I’m alert, but not sitting down – I fall asleep when I sit down. But it’s while cleaning up the kitchen or doing a load of wash or straightening up my office that God shows up. Often I’ll have a piece of Scripture I’m talking to him about, like the text of a sermon. Sometimes I’ll have headphones on, listening to music that grabs my heart or a block of Scripture. Sometimes I’ll have a prayer list to glance at. Don’t let stuff that has to get done separate you from God. Let it be the ongoing conversation.
Finally, fifth, use fellowship and mentoring and accountability. Be in relationship with others in formal enough ways, using pre-arranged times, so that in the course of a week, or a day if necessary someone is willing to ask you how it is going spiritually. Fellow believers are often the hands and eyes and voice of Jesus keeping you awake. Be willing to be open, to be accountable.
Well, all this could go on – there are infinite variations. But the point for the church of Sardis and for us is ‘Wake up! Sleeping through the Christian life is dangerous. Walking with Jesus is a blessing.’