A Sermon by Rev. Patrick A. Rose Preached in Cincinnati, Ohio, June 28, 1992
“And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write: These things saith He that hath the seven spirits of God, and the seven stars: I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest and art dead” (Rev. 3:1).
Picture for a moment a man who lives a fairly good life. His conduct may not always be perfect, but still, in general, he does not act contrary to the Ten Commandments. He does not lie, he doesn’t steal, he doesn’t commit adultery, and he certainly doesn’t kill. While he might not be deeply involved in his religion, nevertheless he attends church whenever he can. And he is content to live his life this way. He knows that he isn’t perfect, but he feels that his good points outweigh his bad; besides, he accepts the fact that nobody is perfect. As for his religion, he realizes that his knowledge of the doctrines is perhaps rather scanty, and that he rarely reads the Word, but this doesn’t bother him that much. He knows that he should perhaps take more interest in the Word and the doctrines, but he knows the basic truths of religion; besides, he tells himself, what is important is the way he lives, and he feels that he lives a fairly good life and so won’t go to hell when he dies. Besides, that time is a long way off. There is plenty of time left in this world to finish getting ready for heaven. Even if he doesn’t read the Word now, he will be able to do so later on in his life, when he isn’t so busy.
On the surface this all seems perfectly acceptable. There are, however, two very serious questions such a person should ask himself. First of all, is what he is doing really sufficient preparation for heaven? Is it enough just to live a good life and to attend church functions, while paying only minor attention to the Word of God and to the doctrines of the Lord? Second, can he safely assume that there really will be plenty of time later on to read and to learn? Is it wise for him to put off reading the Word when he may, in fact, be called to the spiritual world within, say, a year?
These are indeed serious questions, and they are especially important for the members of the New Church living in the busy world of the latter part of the 20th century. As New Churchmen we have been provided with an amazing wealth of revealed truth. To read and study not only the Old and New Testaments but also the Writings requires time and concentration. On the other hand, there seems to be precious little time for serious reading and reflection. Modern life is sometimes so hectic that people are encouraged, if not compelled, to postpone indefinitely many important things. Besides, it is an exciting world, a world full of many stimulating distractions designed to command our attention and interest. Even when there is time, there are many other things which may interest us more than the study of doctrine – doctrine which may seem dull by comparison. There is a great temptation simply to busy ourselves with the things at hand and to be content with worshiping on Sundays, and living a good life the rest of the week. But we should not resign ourselves to this state of affairs too easily. The temptation is indeed great. But on the other hand, there is, in the book of Revelation, a clear and unmistakable warning from the Lord on this very subject.
In the last book of the New Testament there is the well- known series of messages to the seven churches in Asia Minor. These seven churches, we are taught, represent those who will be of the New Church. Our text this morning is the fifth of these messages, the message to the church in Sardis. In it the Lord speaks directly to those in the New Church who lack an interest in the truths of faith.
Sardis, we are taught, represents those who “have little regard for the knowledges of spiritual things and for intelligence and wisdom therefrom” (AE 181). The Lord has a message for people like this. He says, “And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write: These things saith He that hath the seven spirits of God, and the seven stars: …” The Lord speaks as the source of all the truths of the church. The seven spirits are the Divine truth which proceeds from the Lord; Divine truth is called the Spirit because from it man has spiritual life. And there are seven spirits, for by seven is meant what is holy. The seven stars are the knowledges about good and truth we learn from the Lord in His Word. These knowledges are stars, for they guide us and give us light; and there are also said to be seven of them because they also are holy. The Lord is thus speaking as the source of all truth and doctrine to those who lack an interest in such things.
What the Lord says is startling. “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest and art dead. ” It is easy for a person living an outwardly good life to suppose that he has spiritual life and will be saved. He has a name that he lives, that is, he thinks that he lives. But the Lord knows him better than he knows himself. “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest and art dead.” Though the man may not realize it, he is dead. He may act well in the outward affairs of life. But this, the Writings say, is the way his life appears to others. It is his outward life. The true nature of his deeds can be seen only from within, in his intentions. And if these intentions are selfish, then his works, in essence, are merely moral and devoid of what is truly spiritual. This is the case with those of Sardis. They are said to live a moral but not a spiritual life because “they have little regard for the knowledges of spiritual things, and for intelligence and wisdom therefrom” (AE 182). For those of the New Church it is not sufficient just to live an outwardly good life. Neither is it sufficient for them to attend church with no particular interest in learning the truths of faith. Truth is essential to spiritual life. Without at least some interest in the truths of the church, man is spiritually dead, however moral his life may appear. If a man does not care about truths, then he does not care about the principles of religion – they are the same thing. A lack of interest in the doctrines – the absence of a desire to discover from the Word spiritual principles by which to live – is indicative of a merely moral life in which good is done not from a spiritual motive but merely for worldly and selfish purposes.
Here is one way in which we can get some idea of the motives which lie behind our own actions. We can ask ourselves whether we find the truths of the Word irksome or delightful. In an Arcana Coelestia passage which treats of the adjunction of good and truth, it is said that those who have worldly and earthly things as their end will not understand, or, if they understand, will find the subject undelightful. And so, this passage continues, “let anyone who is of such a nature put himself to the test as to whether he desires to know how good adjoins itself to the affections of truth, and how the affections of truth apply themselves to good; and whether knowing this is irksome to him or not, and he will say that such things are of no benefit to him, and that he apprehends nothing about them” (AC 4096:2). Because he has no interest in spiritual things, the merely worldly man actually finds the subject of good and truth to be annoying, impractical and irksome. The man may say that it is too complicated for him to make the effort. But, the Writings add, when something relating to his business or profession is mentioned, the same man will pay careful attention, no matter how complicated the subject may be. Worldly things are important and interesting to him, and he will make the effort to understand them. Spiritual matters, though, are relatively unimportant to him, and he is not interested in them (see AC 4096:3). The command of the Lord is simple. His message to Sardis continues: “Be watchful.” The man who lives for this world alone is like someone sleeping or dreaming. He is closing his eyes to reality. Though willing to learn those things which will benefit his life in the natural world, he is unwilling to learn those things which will benefit his life in the world in which he will live to all eternity (see Faith 25,26). He is not putting things in their proper perspective. And so he is told to be watchful, that is, to wake up. “Be watchful and strengthen the remaining things which are about to die, for I have not found thy works full before God.” Externally the man lives a good life. He doesn’t commit open evil, and he does attend church. Despite this, both his good works and his worship are dead or dying. They are said to be “things which are about to die,” because they lack spiritual life.
There is, though, no need for despair. The situation may be serious, but the solution is a simple one. The only thing that such a person needs is to receive spiritual life from within. In the words of the Writings: “They who are in dead worship have need of nothing more than to learn truths and to live according to them” (AR 159). In the words of the book of Revelation: “Remember, therefore, how thou hast received and heard, and take heed and repent.” The Lord is not asking that much. Certainly He is not asking everybody to become a doctrinal scholar. He simply asks us to remember, not to forget, that wonderful storehouse of truth He has provided for us in His three-fold Word. He has given us this Word, and we must not ignore it. We must pay attention to it. We must make the effort to learn from it. Instead of wandering through life doing merely what is expected of us, that is, doing those things which will gain us the respect of others, we should instead take the time to find out, for ourselves, what the Lord would wish us to do. We should be interested in what the Lord has to say. We should be interested enough to pay attention to and to reflect upon His teachings. We should consider the Lord’s Word as something important enough for us to make the time to read. It is something we should do regularly. And we should read it with the intention of acquiring principles by which to live.
Then we should repent. All the reading in the world will not benefit us if we do not live what we learn. What we learn from the Word should lead us to make changes in the way we live. But for this to happen it is very important that we do learn, and that we continue to learn, from the Lord in His Word.
What matters is not so much the amount that we learn but whether we care enough to be interested and to do what we can. The Writings point out that there are those who, because of worldly and business cares, are unable to learn much more than the elements of truth, but who inwardly care very much indeed about the truth. After death, when their worldly concerns are removed, these people are taught by the angels, and their inward love of the truth then enables them to receive with joy what they learn (see Faith 30). These people really cared about the truth. They were not simply using their worldly concerns to make excuses.
Making excuses – this is what we need to watch out for. Modern life is busy enough that if we are not interested in something, we can always find an excuse. We can say we are too busy. And sometimes we are too busy. We should not make ourselves feel guilty about something we cannot help. But we should not allow ourselves to fabricate excuses. Reading the Word on a regular basis is of fundamental importance. If we are procrastinating simply because we are not really interested in reading Divine revelation, then let us beware!
When somebody puts off reading the Word for another year, he is making a bold assumption. He is assuming that he will still be living in the natural world in another year. The fact is, though, that a man does not know the hour of his death. And so the Lord’s message to Sardis continues: “If, therefore, thou shalt not be wakeful, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know in what hour I will come upon thee.” We do not know at what hour the Lord will come upon us. We do not know when we will die. We are not immortal, and neither do we all live into old age. And so our continuing opportunity to prepare for heaven may well be lost.
If a person dies before he expects to die, it may seem as if the Lord has taken away from him the extra time he needs in order to start getting ready for heaven. And according to this appearance, the Lord indeed is said to be a thief. But it is really the man who has stolen from himself. He has decided that reading and studying the Word is not something important enough for him to do now. When he puts it off for the future, he is making a choice – he is deciding that it is less important or less interesting than other things.
If the Lord told people when they were going to die – if people knew that they were going to die in a few months, say – many would develop very quickly a last-minute interest in spiritual things. Fear is a great motivator! But the Lord doesn’t work this way. If He told us the hour of our death, we would no longer be as free to ignore what is spiritual. We would not be free to love this world above all if we knew that we were going to die tomorrow (see AR 164). And the Lord respects our freedom. He doesn’t tell us, and as a result we don’t know for certain when we are going to die. All that the Lord does is warn us, gently and quietly. He warns us that when we needlessly put something off until later, what we are saying is that we don’t really care that much. He tells those of the church in Sardis that they should act now rather than later to acquire those truths they need for their spiritual life.
The Lord’s message to Sardis is one of Divine love. it is not an angry threat but a message of loving concern. He has given us the truth because He loves us. And because He loves us, He wants us to turn freely and willingly to this truth. He wants us to love the truth, for in this way we will be blessed. And at the end of the Lord’s message to Sardis, He describes this blessing. He says: “Thou hast a few names even in Sardis, who have not defiled their garments. ” These garments are truths, and those who pay attention to the truths of the Word do not defile them by ignoring them and treating them as unimportant. And those who wear these garments of truth, those who use them in their day-to-day life, will, the Lord says, “walk with Me in white. ” White is the color of Divine truth, truth which should guide the life of every true member of the Lord’s New Church. Love should motivate us, but truth should guide us. And we should love the truth, cherish it, search for it, and obey it, as we walk along the path of life. When we do this, we walk with the Lord – we walk with Him in white. And this is true religion. In the words of the Writings, “What else is religion than walking with God?” (Coro. 40) Amen.
Lessons: Psalm 119:9-16; Rev. 3:1-6; AC 4096:1-3 (parts)
Arcana Coelestia 4096:1-3 (parts)
In the internal sense of what has gone before, the subject treated of has been the good of the natural, which is signified by “Jacob” when it was being separated from the mediate good, which is “Laban,” and how this good of the natural adjoined to itself the affections of truth, which are signified by “Rachel and Leah.” The subject now treated of is the reciprocal application to good of these affections of truth. This application is contained in the internal sense of the words which Rachel and Leah now say.
But these things are of such a nature that they do not fall into any understanding except that which has been instructed, and which perceives delight in the memory-knowledge of such things, and which therefore has spiritual knowledges as its end. Others care nothing for such things, and cannot even apply their minds to them. For they who have worldly and earthly things as their end cannot withdraw their senses from them; and even if they did so, they would perceive what is undelightful, in which case they would he departing and withdrawing from the things they have as their end, that is, which they love. Let anyone who is of such a nature put himself to the test as to whether he desires to know how good adjoins itself to the affections of truth, and how the affections of truth apply themselves to good; and whether knowing this is irksome to him or not; and he will say that such things are of no benefit to him, and that he apprehends nothing about them.
But if such things are told him as relate to his business in the world, even though they are of the most abstruse character, or if he be told the nature of another man’s affections, and how he may thereby join the man to himself by adapting himself both mentally and orally, this he not only apprehends but also has a perception of the interior things connected with the matter. In like manner he who studies from affection to investigate the abstruse things of the sciences loves to look and does look into things still more intricate. But when spiritual good and truth are in question, he feels the subject irksome and turns his back on it. These things have been said in order that the quality of the existing man of the church may be known.