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One of our children's favorite fairy tales is the one about
the tortoise and the hare. The story of the far more talented
rabbit being out-raced by the slow-footed, plodding turtle
celebrates persistence in the face of almost certain defeat and
at the same time wags its finger at contemptuous overconfidence.
Of course, it does not take a fairy tale to teach us about
the danger of overconfidence. There are too many stories about
it from real life. In politics, candidates have taken an
opponent too lightly, have mounted only a minimal campaign, and
against all odds, have lost. In sports, far superior players and
teams end up beaten by less talented challengers because they
thought going in that victory was assured. Even in war, powerful
armies have been beaten by a rag-tag collection of guerrillas
because superior numbers and firepower were thought to be
unconquerable. The tortoise wins again.
Many years ago there was a city in Asia Minor that could be
compared to the overconfident hare. It was called Sardis,(1) and to
all appearances, it had every reason to be full of itself. It
had a perfect location: it was in the midst of the plain of the
valley of the River Hermus, the meeting place of several major
trade routes which guaranteed commercial prosperity. It had been
built on a 1500-foot high plateau with steep cliffs on three
sides and just a narrow road leading to the city on the fourth
which made Sardis virtually impregnable to attack. Sardis was so
blessed that the river which ran down the mountain and through
the town carried gold dust in it. How blessed can you be?
With all that going for it, it is no wonder that Sardis came
to be a rich and splendid city. It became the capital of the
kingdom of Lydia whose most famous king, Croesus, to this day
remains synonymous with wealth. People are still talked about as
being "as rich as Croesus."
But Sardis had a problem. Like the well known hare of the
fairy tale, it became too confident. Life had become too easy.
The citizens came to think of their town as unconquerable, no
matter who the adversary might be.
But along came a rather famous tortoise by the name of
Cyrus, the emperor of Persia. He laid siege to Sardis and wanted
to capture it as quickly as possible because his armies could not
advance until the city was subdued. Cyrus sent a message to his
troops offering a special reward to anyone who would come up a
with a plan to scale the unscalable cliffs and take this
The Greek historian Herodotus recounts what happened next.
A soldier in Cyrus' army by the name of Hyeroedes was looking at
the cliff one day when his eye caught sight of a Lydian soldier
on the battlements. As Hyeroedes watched, he saw the soldier
accidentally drop his helmet over the fortifications and down the
cliff. The soldier could not leave his helmet down there, so he
climbed over the battlement, carefully picked his way down to
retrieve his gear, and then carefully climbed back up again.
Hyeroedes made a mental note of the route the soldier took, and
that night he led a picked band of troops up that same path.
When the platoon got to the top they found the battlements
completely unguarded. The Lydians never dreamed anyone would be
able to make their way up the cliff. So Sardis fell to Hyeroedes
and his men with hardly a struggle. The tortoise had beaten the
One would think that the city would have learned its lesson.
But can you believe it? The same thing happened to Sardis in the
campaigns of Antiochus 200 years later. Overconfidence
apparently dies hard.
There was a Christian congregation in the city - First
Church, Sardis. Not too bad a place to have your membership,
actually. If there had been such things back then, First Church
would have been the one with the beautiful old building and
incredibly lovely stained glass windows...a hefty endowment to
take care of maintenance...a distinguished senior minister with
lots of alphabet soup behind his name...never any problem meeting
the budget...a great place to get next to "the right people" in
town...a fine reputation in the city.
It would not have been perfect, of course. Some of the
furniture in the church parlor would have been a little old
fashioned, but nobody would suggest getting rid of it because it
had been given years before by one of the congregation's most
prominent families and no one would want to offend them. There
would have been regular complaints about damage done to the
building by the patrons of the church-sponsored soup kitchen and
day care center. The only real work done would have been by paid
staff who would regularly point out the need for volunteers for
this or that, but people would just ignore that and say, "If we
need something done, we will hire somebody." They would even
hire their Sunday School teachers and Nursery workers - it would
be simpler. Outside of things like that, no major bones of
contention. In short, for the average nominal Christian, old
First Church would be THE place to be.
But First Church, Sardis had a problem. You see, like so
many other churches through history, it tended to take on many of
the characteristics of the community around it. All the outward
appearances suggested a pretty wonderful situation. But
inwardly, it had become lazy, self-centered, self-satisfied,
complacent. Life had become too easy. If ever a church could be
compared to the fairy tale hare, First Church, Sardis would be
If we might continue the admittedly modern imagery, one can
picture what the scene could have been on a Sunday morning there.
As the eleven o'clock hour approaches, the tremendous carillons
chime out the sounds of impending worship. The parking lot fills
up. People dressed to the nines make their way into a sanctuary
that reeks of a distinguished history. The best pipe organ in
the city begins to sing out with the magnificent strains of the
masters of sacred music. The well-trained choir makes its
entrance along with the senior pastor and his associates, all
robed as would befit the solemnity of the occasion. They take
their seats behind the pulpit in front of which sits a table
draped with white linen and prepared for the sacrament of the
Lord's Supper which will be celebrated later.
As the organist comes to the end of her prelude, the choir
stands and sings the introit. Then one of the associates takes
the pulpit and issues the call to worship and offers a prayer.
The congregation stands and joins in singing the opening
hymn...not too lustily, of course - after all, First Church
members generally do not believe in making too much of a display
when it comes to religion. The hymn is over, another of the
associates takes the pulpit and the liturgy continues: a
scripture reading, a creed, more prayer. Then some announcements
about committee meetings and coming events, the offering, and an
anthem by the choir that everyone will agree is majestically
beautiful but whose lyrics no one understands. It is the same
order of worship that Old First Church has had since Adam and Eve
Finally, Doctor Distinguished. He surely looks the part:
tall, slender, greying hair...a kindly father-figure respected
throughout the whole city. A fine man. He has done his level
best to faithfully proclaim the Gospel. His 35 years in the
pulpit have done nothing but credit to the Lord and his church.
Countless lives have been influenced under his ministry. But
now, as he nears the end of his career, the good doctor is
getting tired. He has done everything in his power to light a
fire under a congregation that seems to be made of asbestos. He
is looking forward to retirement.
The congregation generally likes his sermons. He tells a
good story, has a wonderful sense of humor, and has a real way
with words. The only time they do not care for him is when he
starts to hit too close to home. Of course, that is the way it
is everywhere. But the sermon this morning is different.
Actually, it is not really a sermon at all; it is a letter from
The congregation begins to squirm a bit when they hear that.
After all, the bishop is not the most popular man around here.
As I say, these folks tend to want to keep their religion within
the church walls, but Bishop John is just the opposite. That is
why he is in prison over on the island of Patmos right now. Most
of the folks at First Church figure that if he had only kept his
mouth shut, had kept his religion and politics separate, had not
made such a big deal about not saying "Caesar is Lord," he would
still be a free man. In Sardis, that was not that big a deal.
Lots of these folks do it every year just to make sure their
businesses do not suffer. What is the harm? The bishop is just
Actually, the letter is really not from the bishop at all,
even though it is by his hand. According to the heading, Bishop
John is writing in the name of Jesus Christ. Their minister
begins to read. "I know your works; you have a NAME of being
alive, but you are DEAD!"
What? Now the crowd really begins to squirm. Here and
there are murmurs among the people. What do you mean DEAD? Look
at all that goes on around here.
Dr. Distinguished knew what the Lord meant. HE knew how
spiritually dead First Church had become. People were worshiping
their own past instead of looking to the challenge of the future.
They were more concerned with doing things properly than with
doing things at all. They were more worried about the
maintenance of the building than the maintenance of any outreach.
First Church was SATISFIED. But the Lord was not.
The letter continued: "Wake up, and strengthen what remains
and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works
perfect (or complete) in the sight of my God."
The minister knew how good a word THIS was. After all, a
call to "Wake Up" in a city that had been conquered twice because
of its overconfidence and lack of vigilance would be particularly
apt. He knew too that the Lord's complaint about the
congregation's works not being "perfect" were painfully true.
The only way anything would ever get done around there would be
by having someone paid to do it.
What a change! Years before, First Church had been founded
with an evangelical zeal that was genuinely concerned with
sharing the gospel in as many ways and to as many people in
Sardis as was possible...all by committed volunteers. But the
zeal had faded in the gentle light of nominal, inoffensive
Christianity. The congregation (like so many others throughout
history) had forgotten that the Lord EXPECTS something of his
people, something more than just an occasional appearance at
worship when it is convenient or a dollar or two in the plate
unless there is something else on which we would rather spend it.
"A living sacrifice" is the way the apostle Paul had described
it, but a mild inconvenience was the way First Church was doing
The pastor continues to read. "Remember then what you
received and heard." First Church did have a proud history, but
in the sight of the risen Christ, that of which they could be
most proud was the faithful witness of preachers and teachers in
years gone by who had been uncompromising in their proclamation
of the Gospel. The congregation could not say that they did not
know what was expected of them. They KNEW! "Obey it," the Lord
continues - do not lose it when faithfulness becomes
inconvenient. "And repent." This is no call for remorse; this
is a call for a change of direction.
"If you do not wake up," - if you will not be watchful - "I
will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will
come to you." The citizens of Sardis should have been able to
identify with that. The Lord could just as well have said, "I
will come as unexpectedly as Hyeroedes" and that will be it. The
tortoise will once again overtake the complacent and
The letter had been pretty much gloom and doom up to this
point. But finally the minister got to read some words that must
have done his aging heart good. "Yet you have still a few
persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will
walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy." The pastor
knew whom the Lord was talking about - the ones who had remained
faithful to their Lord, the ones who had refused to make their
annual tribute to Caesar, the ones who were always butting their
heads up against the granite of First Church's rock-ribbed
tradition. Against all odds and mean-spirited vocal opposition,
they were doing their level best to maintain First Church's proud
heritage of outreach and ministry. Coming to church was not just
a social occasion for them or a chance to hob-nob with the "right
people." No, coming to church was the time for recharging their
spiritual batteries to prepare for whatever work their Lord had
for them to go out and do in the world.
Surprisingly, most of the people in the pews never gave a
thought to the fact that their pathetic spiritual condition was
no secret...not to the Lord, not to their pastor. Oh, some tried
to put on a good, pious front, but that is all it was. Perhaps
Dr. Distinguished should have confronted them with their
hypocrisy more forcefully, been like John the Baptist and called
them "a brood of snakes." Perhaps he should have gone up to the
businessman who bragged about juggling his books and publically
called him a cheat. Perhaps he should have gone up to the woman
who was always complaining about the mess that the youth group
left and confront her with skewed priorities. Perhaps he should
have gone up to the member who regularly put just a pittance in
the plate and, to his face, called him a thief. Perhaps he
should have...but he did not. And he would not. Pastors are not
trained that way. The word is not CONFRONT, but COMFORT. But
even if the folks who should have been confronted were not, it
was not because no one knew. The pastor knew. The Lord knew.
The ones who were doing right were surely known...that moral
minority. But then, they have seldom been the majority. Their
garments had not been soiled by accommodating themselves to the
wishes or whims of the crowd. They had been willing to take a
stand for Jesus even when it might have been easier just to keep
silent. And for their faithfulness, they would be rewarded. One
day, clad in the white robes of victory and celebration, they
would walk the gardens of paradise with the risen Christ. Their
names would appear in bold, black letters in the register of the
citizenry of heaven. As Jesus had told the twelve so many years
before, "I know my sheep."
Finally, the letter is over; communion is over; Sunday
worship is over. The congregation makes a hasty exit to be
certain they arrive at the restaurant before the crowd from the
temple of Artemis gets there. It would be a delight to report
that the Lord's words suddenly turned everything around. But we
know that is wishful thinking. "Dead!" Remember?
First Church, Sardis. What a tragedy! They had it made,
just like their hometown. The congregation was not troubled by
any heresy as some of their sister churches were. They were not
in danger of external attack. They were held in high esteem by
their community. Life was easy...too easy. And just like the
hare of the fairy tale, they were losers.
"Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is
saying to the churches."
1. Much of the historical information comes from William Barclay, The Revelation of John, Vol. 1, Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), pp. 113-123