Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Challenge of Sardis: Sermon on Revelation 3:1-6

The times were old. Ezekiel had been gone twenty years. Daniel, in his seventies, was living out his senior years in Babylon. But far away from them, in what people said was the strongest spot on the face of the earth, the king of the Lydian empire surveyed the destruction of a great kingdom: his own. Croesus, crowned with a wreath and clutching a scepter, poured out a libation from his throne on the pyre, as his servant Euthymos, at his bidding, carried forward the torch that Croesus hoped would wipe away his defeat and help him rise to heaven, made immortal in victorious smoke. Croesus lamented how foolish he'd been in misunderstanding. He'd made a grave mistake in picking a fight with another great empire, far-away Persia, when they'd absorbed the Medes. But Croesus had gone on the warpath, following the Royal Road with his armies to Pteria. And Cyrus had, from the Persian side, done the same. And there they'd fought it out to a draw. A ruinous stalemate of wasted lives and mangled dreams. In the aftermath, Croesus had retreated to his capital city, the place whose Pactolus River running with gold had made him fabulously wealthy. For the autumn and winter, he released his foreign soldiers so they could tend to their fields, and he sent word to his allies in Egypt and Babylon and Sparta to join him in five months so they could triumph together in the spring. And Croesus thought all would be well.

But what Croesus hadn't counted on was that Cyrus had not given up the fight and gone back to Persia. No, in a sudden twist, Cyrus and the Persian army showed up at Croesus' gates. Croesus sent out the Lydian cavalry, but Cyrus spooked their horses with his camels. Croesus was forced to retreat into the citadel that loomed over the lower city. And Cyrus camped around, laying siege to the capital of the Lydian Empire. Yet Croesus wasn't at all worried, and neither were the Lydian soldiers. After all, their citadel was the strongest and safest place of all. Around city and citadel alike, the walls were thick and high, and the citadel on three sides was set atop sharply sheer vertical cliffs. Its reputation preceded it: it was the fortress that could never be breached, never be taken. And so Croesus and his men rested securely.

Or, at least, they did until the Persian soldier Hyroeades suddenly appeared in the fortress. For he, the previous day, had seen a Lydian soldier climb all the way down the cliff to fetch a fallen helmet, and then climb back up again. So he'd spotted the footholds. And Hyroeades, with others following, had ascended the cliff and the wall to the citadel. And, trusting vainly in their reputation, the Lydians had made no preparations to guard that spot by which the Persians came in. If they had been watching from atop the walls of their spot of great confidence, it could have saved their empire. Instead, it condemned it to the dustbins of history. For the great kingdom of Lydia fell in the loss of its capital city: Sardis.

A third of a millennium passed. From Persian hands, the city of Sardis was handed over to Alexander the Great without a fight, and then when his vast empire split at his death, his general Seleucus took the corner where it lay. In time, his great-great-grandson Antiochus came to power, and was away fighting when his own uncle Achaeus rebelled and set up his throne in the citadel of Sardis. And so Antiochus, rightful king, had to come to lay siege against the city where Uncle Achaeus was cooped up. But a year passed, and more. Achaeus and the Sardians were safe inside their impenetrable defenses. They had enough supplies to weather a lengthy siege. It seemed as safe and secure as anything could be. The Sardians enjoyed their reputation for impregnability. It was the strongest spot on earth, after all.

But one of Antiochus' soldiers, a man from Crete named Lagoras, watched the patterns of the vultures as they rested after meals atop the wall between the citadel and the lower city. And he reasoned that if those walls were guarded, the guards would never tolerate the vultures. So in the night, Lagoras and some friends carried ladders and propped them up. And at daybreak, while Antiochus' main army created a diversion by attacking a gate on the opposite side, Lagoras and his team snuck like thieves up the ladders, crept through the city, and helped to saw another gate open from the inside while others worked it from the outside. And before Achaeus could even realize what was going on, he'd lost the lower city of Sardis to Antiochus.

Golden Sardis, you see, had a reputation, ever since it was the capital of a mighty empire. It had the reputation for being impenetrably defended. And yet, two occasions over the years exposed the reputation as hollow, for on those two occasions, the defenders of Sardis were so wrapped up in their reputation that they neglected to keep watch over the places they thought were safe and secure. And in the failure of their vigilance, in the pride that led them to neglect their vulnerabilities, Sardis was twice invaded and conquered by Cyrus and Antiochus. Over the years that followed, Sardis stopped being a major power. The gold supply mostly dried up, cutting off its immense wealth. The city lost all its political significance, and by Roman times, the proud residents found themselves living off the nostalgia of an obsolete reputation – a great name that no longer matched the reality.

Over six centuries after Cyrus took Sardis and over three centuries since Antiochus did the same, we find – as we eavesdrop on a letter from the Risen Lord Jesus to the church meeting within those thick, high walls – is that what was true of the city had become true of the church, as well. The church of Sardis had once been golden, and its fame had gone out far and wide. It was like the name 'Alive' was emblazoned on its forehead and trumpeted with bugles and fanfare through all the churches of the land. It was a lively and bustling church, safe and secure in the gospel. But now, while the name 'Alive' is still tattooed across the church's face, it no longer seems appropriate. “I know your works,” Jesus tells them. And we expect it to be followed by a compliment. Jesus adds, “You have a name that you are alive” (Revelation 3:1b). “But...”

But it doesn't fit any more. The real recent history has belied their name, their lively reputation. Their pride has drawn them inward. The church in Sardis has become a quiet, tame, domesticated bunch. They are no longer spiritually lively. Their praises are mumbled. Their prayers are rambling. The clock ticks down, and they see it go by. They're no longer evangelistic. Church punctuates their week but doesn't define it. It's just an event and a place. They put together a decent front when visitors from the other churches pass through town. But in truth, their works are incomplete in God's sight. Jesus himself says it: “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (Revelation 3:2b). Everything they do is left at half-measures. When it comes to spiritual things, the church isn't giving it their all. Maybe they think they are. But they've forgotten when being a church is all about. They've forgotten that it's life and power and heavenly thunder. Instead, the church in Sardis is a dried-up husk of a church, their glory and life stolen away. They bear the name of Christ, but they don't really confess him before others (cf. Revelation 3:5c). They acknowledge Christian truth in theory. But they aren't leaning on it. They don't really believe Jesus could be present in their midst – I mean, what are they, religious nuts? How embarrassing! So, having domesticated the whole church experience, we find that Jesus says most of them have “soiled their garments” (cf. Revelation 3:4a). Unclean, unfit for polite company.

In fact, Jesus goes so far as to tell them, “You have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1c). Some of the most chilling words Jesus can say to a church: “You are dead.” Dead, and they haven't read their own obituary! Dead, and they haven't spotted their tombstone! Dead, and so delusional they can't even grasp it! Theirs is a zombie spirituality, soulless but shuffling through the motions while rotting away. It's been allowed to dry up and decay under their very noses. They're coasting on the easy road to defeat, and yet they're too drowsy and inattentive in their spiritual lethargy to even notice their fatal fall.

We can readily imagine them shuffling drowsily to church and then drowsily to lunch each Sunday. In the week drowsily earning their keep, drowsily watching their movies, drowsily enjoying their vacations, drowsily seeing their kids and grandkids themselves grow to mature zombiehood, all drowsily settling down and settling in with the world around them, shuffling their way through a hollow string of days and years. Oh, we will be discipled, we will be formed, either with the stream of culture or in defiance of it – there is no third choice. And as one wise man said: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”

The believers in Sardis, together as a church, used to be a living thing! They used to be able to swim upstream! They had originally received and heard a living gospel (Revelation 3:3a). But they forgot its life. They forgot its vitality. And now what they're left with is the collapsed shell of obsolete godliness, a mere powerless form, left behind like the exuvia of molted cicadas, still stuck on the bark of the tree, still looking as if it could move, but utterly empty of anything alive.

Pride and Inattention are a toxic marriage. They give birth to the twins Laxity and Complacency, and the whole family allows the house of God to fall into disrepair around them. From there, only a fraudulent facade can be put out to give the illusion of substance, masking the mismatch of their name with the hollow void where life should have been – but isn't. It's like a Potemkin village. The story goes – and it's mostly untrue, but the old Russian story is – that Grigory Potemkin, a Russian governor, wanted to impress the Empress as she came to see how he'd rebuilt a devastated province. So as she was traveling by barge down the Dnieper, each day he would have fake houses and fake storefronts built to look like a village, and a team of peasants would pretend to live there each day as the empress sailed past; and then when she'd moved on, they'd tear it all down and hustle down river and build the village again, to make another fake village for her to see. A Potemkin village – just the looks and the name, but a mere front and a fraud. How many Potemkin churches litter the American landscape? How many of our lives have become spiritual Potemkin villages by which even we ourselves are often fooled?

What I'm talking about is what we've come to call nominal Christianity. It's nominal in that it has the name, but the substance doesn't measure up. It's Christian existence in name only. And it is a problem. Forty-five years ago, Billy Graham spearheaded an effort to call together thousands of Evangelical Christian leaders from across the world to meet in Lausanne, Switzerland. From that pivotal meeting, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization was born. Six years later, in June 1980, that committee sponsored meetings in Thailand to explore the plight of nominal Christianity in each of the big traditions of the Church: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. In the papers they produced, they defined a nominal Christian as “one who... would call himself a Christian or be so regarded by others, but who has no authentic commitment to Christ based on personal faith.” They identified five types of nominal Christians, including “one who attends church regularly and worships devoutly, but who has no vital personal relationship with Jesus as Savior and Lord.”

By December 1998, the Lausanne International Consultation on Nominalism met in England and produced what they called their Statement to the Churches on Nominality. They stressed that even churchgoers can be nominal Christians, saying: “Many people attend church whose faith may be described as nominal in that it has little influence on their daily lives, habits, or personal devotion. Others attend, but their conviction or commitment is weak.” And nine months shy of twenty years later, in March 2018, the Lausanne Global Consultation on Nominal Christianity met in Rome and produced a Statement on Nominal Christianity:

Nominal Christians can be described as follows: People who identify with a Christian church or the Christian faith – (i.e., the 'name') – but are in contradiction with basic Christian principles with respect to becoming a Christian, faith, beliefs, church involvement, and daily life. … Without repentance and faith in [Christ], turning from sin, trusting him alone for our salvation and transformation, and obeying him as Lord, there is no authentic Christianity. … The reality is that nominal Christians may be found in every congregation, every denominational tradition, every theological stream, every generation, every cultural context, and every diaspora people.

How easy it is to slide toward nominal Christianity, and not even realize it! How easy it is to think you're alive but really be dead. We can readily assume, on the basis of past events – a prayer we said one time as a kid, a track record for Sunday School attendance – that our continued motions mean continued life. But they don't. It is perfectly possible to become a nominal Christian without noticing – we forget what living faith looks like.

Sardis is everywhere. Sardis is across the globe. Sardis is down the street. Sardis is maybe in this sanctuary. If the original Sardian church stays as they are, then they're in danger. If there's anything their history should have taught them, it's what happens when Sardis loses focus and coasts on a reputation! It's that kind of thinking that let Cyrus come and break the Lydian Empire. It's that kind of thinking that let the ladders of Antiochus go up and reclaim the city. Sardis knows what it means when kings come and sneak in like thieves through cleverness instead of direct force – it means the city has been exposed and must fall. And now Jesus warns the church of Sardis that in the same way, “If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (Revelation 3:3c). If the Sardian church doesn't react, Jesus will slip in and pull the plug and call time of death. And everything they really trust in can't keep a sneaky King out.

But that isn't what Jesus wants to see happen. He doesn't want to have to come like a thief. He doesn't want to come against them at all. He doesn't want them to be dead! He can't bear the thought of a dead church! He's in grief as he looks at churches thinking that their spasms of rigor mortis are the stuff of healthy Christian living. And yet that's the delusion we so easily hold, which lulls us into our cozy complacency. To churches like this, maybe like us, Jesus yells in our ear, “Wake up!” Wake up, get alert, pay attention, be watchful! Recover your vigilance, leap into action! “Strengthen what remains and is about to die!” (Revelation 3:2a)! The church is in the emergency room – the church needs drastic resuscitation, and there's no time to waste, because the patient is dying – and the patient is them! Every second counts before the last glimmers of hope for revival fade away!

And the only intervention that stands a chance is this: “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it and repent” (Revelation 3:3a-b). Get back to the living gospel you heard at the start. Cling to it, sustain it – don't keep it around as a taxidermied mantelpiece, but go back and recover the beating heart and heaving lungs and sizzling neurons and flexing muscle fibers, and embrace the living gospel and don't let it out of your arms this time. Don't be shipped to the morgue. Don't be shipped to the taxidermist. Let this shocking word be the defibrillator that resets a rhythm of repentance and breathes life back into faith. But how? What do we have to do? In 1980, the Lausanne Consultation on World Evangelization said this:

Today's churches must develop patterns of organization that both gather their members together into the presence of their heavenly Father and also release them to be the salt of the earth. Worship will therefore be a high priority that we need in the churches. We need a worship that is scriptural in principle and truly indigenous in its expression. We need a worship that is for joyous participants rather than admiring spectators. … The ministry of the Word will be equally important … The churches we need will be churches where prayer is central. … The churches we need will not allow a passion for the lost to be relegated to an article of faith, but rather to become the motivating force that leads God's people out to evangelize expectantly. … We pray for the Holy Spirit to do a new thing in all of our hearts, so that our churches will become communities that reveal something of the loveliness of Christ to our fellow-men.

Eighteen years later, the 1998 Lausanne Statement to the Churches on Nominality had more to say, and I quote:

In ministry to those who attend churches..., churches should be encouraged to help Christians discern and resist the relentless pressures of the modern world, consumer cultures, mass media, and self-centred values. Christians should be encouraged to review their use of time and money, attitudes to relationships in family and community life, and their service of others, particularly those with special needs. … Churches should also encourage the demonstration of faith in unconditional love, non-manipulative friendships, and unselfish care. … The prayer of the Consultation was that God would revitalize the whole Church, transforming the cultures and societies of the world, placing the Good News of the faith before all people, and drawing nominal Christians to a life-transforming faith in Christ.

And twenty years later, the 2018 Lausanne Statement on Nominal Christianity gives us a few final pointers:

We call the churches we represent, and all churches everywhere, to:
  1. Pray for all those who are Christians in name only, that they might come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.
  2. Pray for a spiritual awakening of nominal Christians, a strengthening of the weary and struggling, and a renewal of our commitment to disciple all those who bear the Name.

Recognizing the commandment of Jesus to make disciples of all peoples, we urge our church communities to:
  1. Prioritize a holistic discipleship that brings all believers to maturity in Christ.
  2. Proclaim the biblical gospel with clarity and boldness but always attending to the context so that the message of Christ is properly understood.
  3. Plant new churches and work for the renewal of existing churches – churches that embody the joy of the gospel, that reflect the character of Christ in their community life, and display the power of the Spirit in transformed lives, to the glory of God.

That last bit is crucial. Can there be such a thing as a Christian who goes beyond just a name? Yes! Jesus goes on and praises a few 'names' in Sardis who retain a living faith and who keep themselves pure from the laziness of worldly compromises: “You have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:4). Those people are not nominal Christians – they are the real deal. They haven't “soiled their garments.” They “are worthy” to “walk with [Jesus] in white” – the white robes of a triumphant army, celebrating a victory they all share. Living faith is the condition, the qualification, to walk with Jesus, to share his victory, to be justified and sanctified in union with him, and so to have a real relationship with him and not just a theoretical one.

For a church like Sardis that seems to have accepted nominality as normality, I'm sure these 'few' seem like they live an unattainable standard. I'm sure they seem odd and off-kilter. I'm sure a church like Sardis, confronted with these words, may wonder whether it's even possible to come back to life from the dead. Can there be hope for the cold campfire of a church, all dull gray? Is there anywhere Jesus could poke that could revive a spray of orange sparks to brighten the dusky air? Or have the embers all burned through to dead ash?

Questions like those are why Jesus presents himself the way he does. When he opens each letter, he introduces himself in the way that church most needs to hear. And what the church of Sardis most needs to behold in Jesus is this: that he's “the One who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (Revelation 3:1). The Jesus who died and lives again is the Jesus who holds the angels, the planets, and the fates in his hand. Nothing can slip by him, because everything we think governs the course of events is flowing through the scars of the nails. And from him flows a sevenfold Holy Spirit – a Holy Spirit wide enough, rich enough, diverse enough to reach every one of these seven churches, which signify every church on all the earth. The Holy Spirit has enough life, the Holy Spirit has enough power, to whip ashen embers into flame, to electrify and revivify, every church from pole to pole. The Holy Spirit is more than up to the challenge of Sardis. If only they'll turn back to the living gospel with a living faith, the Holy Spirit will breathe life back into the Sardian church and into every Sardian Christian. The sevenfold Spirit of God has life enough for Sardis – and life enough for us.

Jesus hasn't given up hope for Sardis. Jesus hasn't given up hope for us. And to those who overcome through a living faith, Jesus has some promises: “The one who overcomes will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels” (Revelation 3:5; cf. Matthew 10:32). To you with a living faith, Jesus offers victory and his companionship. To you with a living faith, Jesus offers a permanent place for your name. To you with a living faith, Jesus offers his very own lips to brag about you where his Father and all the court of heaven can hear. Jesus is not ashamed of any believer and any church who keep to a living, breathing, evangelizing faith.

Where does that leave us? Jesus ends his letter by saying, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:6). This letter and its warning and its hope was never meant only for a single city in the first century. The words of Jesus fly on the Spirit's wings to every church across space and time, and they reach us here as well. If “the Spirit says” these things “to the churches,” then the Spirit says them to us – but do we have ears to hear it for ourselves? Will we hear it, really hear it? Or will we nod politely, shuffle out, say “Fine sermon, preacher,” and then continue the routines of the dead and dying?

Jesus is talking to me. Jesus is talking to you. Where do we fall between the name and the substance? Where do we settle between life and death? Are we awake and alive? Are our works complete before God? Is each of us worthy to walk with Jesus in the pure brightness of a living faith? Are we strengthening and fortifying those places where we just assume we're okay? Nominality must not be our normality! Oh, may we welcome the sevenfold Spirit from the hands of Jesus, and may we awaken anew to a living gospel and a living faith! Amen!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Challenge of Thyatira: Sermon on Revelation 2:18-29

With doom around the corner, the Queen-Mother of Israel took a deep breath, steadied her nerves, and finished applying her make-up. She'd use every trick she had to make it through this alive. After she'd dolled herself up and slipped into her most revealing outfit, she slinked to the open window and watched as the horses carried the hot-headed general Jehu and his top soldiers within sight. The queen-mother tried her best to seduce and entice him. But he wouldn't listen. So she taunted him, reminding him of another general, Zimri, who'd murdered his way to the throne and lasted just a week. But Jehu would be neither seduced nor intimidated. Yet she stood in a firm fortress, surely safe and secure, until he called out for any supporters within the fortress to help him. From behind, she felt the familiar hands of three eunuchs grab her roughly. Her balance toppled, her heart rate soared as she tumbled out the window. As the ground approached so fast, her life flashed before her eyes.

She'd been born not quite fifty years before, in a city in her Phoenician homeland, when Ashtar-rom, the third of four brothers, was king over the city of Tyre. Her father Ithobaal was the chief priest of Ashtart, the fierce goddess of war and fertility and sexuality. She, his daughter, remembered flickers of those days – how her father oversaw the temple where men and women would come, fulfilling religious vows by offering their bodies to any comer. But she was still a young girl, and her brother Baal-eser still a young boy, when she remembered the news that King Ashtar-rom's brother had killed him and seized the throne. Her father had at first tried to make peace with the new situation, but he saw his chance and went for it. Ithobaal, that cunning man, himself carried out the assassination and became the new king. Baal-eser became a prince. And as for Jezebel, it was her turn to be the princess. She was raised in luxury. Her people had a lock on half the sea trade of the whole Mediterranean, exporting not just that rare commodity purple dye, but wine, glass, cedar wood, and slaves. In her pre-teen years, she remembers what it was like to be part of the Phoenician elite. The upper class – people like her and her father and her brother – gathered in what they called marzeh societies, where they held meals of fellowship with plenty of wine and sacrifices in honor of the dead. A wonderful excuse for a party.

Jezebel was a teenager when Ithobaal took her aside one day and talked about the importance of strengthening diplomatic ties with their southern neighbor, a country called Israel. They had a new king there, Ahab, whose late father Omri – like Ithobaal himself – had wrenched power away from a king before him. And to make the two powers allies, Jezebel was to be married to this Ahab. She remembered the splendor of their wedding day, though she had to admit that her new husband proved to be weaker in will than she expected. Not respectable – but certainly manipulable. With her alluring girlish charms and crafty politicking mind, Jezebel also brought a deep and heartfelt zeal for the gods her father had taught her to love, Baal and Ashtart and the rest. And to her new country she was accompanied by a large entourage of fellow devotees, with whom she promised to keep the spirit of the marzeh feasts alive by hosting these prophets at her royal table with plenty of food and wine.

Jezebel found it wasn't too hard – not with her looks, not with her temptations – to bend her husband to her will. At her request, he built shrines and altars for her gods, putting up a dressed stone for Baal and wooden asherah posts to mimic Ashtart's sacred grove. She had little interest in her husband's country's God; she would keep to her own, though she conceded to a few token compromises, like honoring his God in the names of their children (of whom she gave him plenty). But she hated dissent, and when her gods were blasphemed by spokesmen for the God of Israel, it boiled her blood and then made it run cold. Bringing to bear all her parents taught her, she arranged the deaths of those she could catch. One day, after three years of drought, her husband rushed home ahead of the relieving storm, to sheepishly admit to her that he'd accepted a challenge from Elijah and brought her prophets to Mount Carmel, and that Elijah had gotten the mob on his side in a contest of gods, and that he'd put her prophets to death just like she'd done to all his friends. Furious, her threats chased Elijah into the desert.

In time, her husband came to her in their palace in the royal capital Samaria, sullen and disappointed. Naboth, a land-owner in Jezreel, neighbor to their palace-fortress there, wouldn't sell his vineyard to be Ahab's garden. It exasperated her to see her royal husband fold so quickly. Slipping away, she dictated letters in his name and sealed them with his signet ring, ordering the elders of Jezreel to hire unscrupulous men to falsely accuse Naboth of blasphemy and treason, so that they could hold a show trial and stone him to death. Easy. Once it was done, she told her husband the problem had been dealt with. Elijah predicted doom. Jezebel scoffed.

Three years later, she got the fateful news. Her husband, in his wars against the Arameans, had been shot by an arrow. They'd hosed his bloody chariot off by the pool. He hadn't made it. Her eldest son Ahaziah rose to the throne, and Jezebel transitioned from queen to queen-mother. Two years after that, Ahaziah fell through some weak construction and was badly hurt. He sent messengers to Ekron to ask the god Baal what would happen, but Elijah intercepted them and spoke death. When Ahaziah died, his younger brother Jehoram took the throne. He'd always been her problem child, rejecting her religion. He tore down the standing-stone of Baal outside her palace, and he had a grudging respect for Elisha. In time, Jehoram went to war against the Arameans again, and he was hurt in battle and withdrew to Jezreel to recuperate. That's where she and he were when a commander named Jehu, gone rogue at Elisha's bidding, stormed Jezreel, killing Jehoram and then marching on the palace. Then it was all the tumble out the window, the bloody scene sprinkling the wall and ground, the final sensation of horse hooves trampling over her and the sound of thirsty dogs barking as they run over from the alleys. In the days to come, Jehu would execute all Jezebel's children, bringing a brutal end to the predicted judgment against the faithless queen-mother and her notorious bewitching and violence. Her brother Baal-eser, by then king of Tyre, wasn't long for life either, though Jezebel's nephew and grand-nephew would be next for power.

Shift the scene, nine centuries later, to an obscure town nestled by a small river in the heart of a broad valley, flanked by gentle hills. Notoriously vulnerable, it had been captured and recaptured with every shift in the wind and had only gained stability with the rise of Rome. Ethnically and religiously mixed, the city was a swirling concoction of languages and philosophies, all blended smoothly and jumbled haphazardly together. The city I mean is Thyatira. And under the Roman peace, it flourished. Where Jezebel's Tyre had been filled with marzeh societies, Thyatira was filled to overflowing with the synergasiai, guilds tying together those in the same line of business. And Thyatira had more active guilds than any other town. We have inscriptions from dyers, leather cutters, leather tanners, linen workers, launderers, bakers, potters, coppersmiths, athletes, entertainers, slave-merchants. Without being unionized as part of the guild, good luck getting by in Thyatira – you might as well throw in the towel. And just as the marzeh societies of Tyre met for their raucous fellowship-meals, so too did the ancient guilds of Thyatira meet for guild dinners, which included sacrifices in honor of their chosen god. And dinners could readily end with sexual entertainment provided by slave-boys and slave-girls. That was simply normal. Pagan worship and sexual libertinism were woven into the vibrant diversity of local industry.

Late in the first century, John took down a letter as Jesus dictated one to the church in Thyatira. And Jesus had some intensely positive things to say about them. “I know your works,” he said: “your love” – that's certainly good – and faith” – that's good, too – and service” – that's remarkable – and patient endurance” – the list keeps going on – and that your latter works exceed the first” (Revelation 2:19). While most of the churches hearing Revelation are commended for many one or two things, the Thyatiran church is overflowing with great things. They have the patient endurance of Ephesus and Philadelphia, but unlike Ephesus, they aren't forgetting the love. They have the faith of some in Pergamum. They have service, which nobody else is said to have. Yet unlike Ephesus, which had been a church on the decline, the Thyatiran church is actually getting better at all these things – they're like a church in the midst of revival, ascending from grace to grace and glory to glory! It really is looking up for the Thyatiran church, which seems like an astonishing model.

And yet Jesus does bring up one complaint. As it turns out, there's a prominent and prosperous businesswoman in the Thyatiran church – perhaps she's the patroness who sponsors a house church meeting in her home. She's fashionable and trendy and charismatic, and forceful and opinionated and articulate. She's the sort of woman everybody wants to get to know. Not only that, but she seems like she has spiritual gifts – she at least presents herself as a prophetess, standing up on a Sunday to give words she claims to have received, and no one dare bid her sit back down. But she was also, controversially, involved in her business's guild. And in her oracles, she proclaimed a lot about Christian freedom – how those who had real spiritual insight, those who knew the secrets and 'deep things,' could see that there's nothing wrong with participating in guilds and their meals and whatever goes on at those meals. After all, she said, it isn't what the body does that matters, it's what the heart does; and if the heart knows the truth, then the body can insincerely offer incense or pour out bowls of wine, can even take part in the sexual excesses of the drinking parties, and those things have no power over the free believing soul.

An inspiring message, maybe, from the sound of it. But Jesus takes a different view. As John presents us with his message, Jesus labels this woman a new Jezebel. Just as the old one seduced Ahab and Israel into corruption and idolatry and looser living, so does the new one. “I have this against you,” Jesus says to the Thyatirans – “that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (Revelation 2:20). It's an influence on the church that's as foreign as a Phoenician princess slipping into the palace to become queen.

Jesus does not at all agree with this new Jezebel's view of the body and the heart. God gave humans the gift of sexuality to allow us to form living parables of the fruitful harmony of Christ and the Church – parables we call marriages. But debased and deformed sexuality, like the frivolously misdirected sort encouraged by Jezebel, can preach only lies and deface the creation of God. It cannot call out with a clear voice to beauty, goodness, and truth. (One Christian sociologist remarks that sex outside the context that God defines as healthy is like stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and taping it to the wall of an unhygienic public restroom: Its beauty is desecrated by its wrong context, so who can still appreciate it for the masterpiece it is?) And for the same reason Jesus disagrees with Jezebel about sex, Jesus also disagrees with Jezebel about conscience and loyalty and liberty and idolatry and table fellowship and witness. And in all such disagreements, Jezebel is wrong, for Jesus is supremely right. Jesus offers so much more than the thin permissiveness of a Jezebel. His ways are good news, even if we sustain some bumps and bruises along the steep and narrow road.

Faced with a 'New Jezebel' in the Thyatiran church, John and other church leaders have tried before to talk to her, to correct her, to teach her rightly. Out of love, they've tried to shepherd her into repentance. But there are always some in a church who refuse to hear any authority besides their own thoughts. And this woman is like that. She's gained followers, swept away some in her house church and the other house churches in the city. She's proud. She's insistent. John's told her that all she'd have to do, all those duped by her would have to do, is repent – just turn around, drop the rationalizations, and come back to the pathway of life, and they'd be restored brand new, any of them, even her! But, as Jesus says, “I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:21). Her heart is unyielding as stone in the face of correction.

In the days of the prophet Jeremiah, his Judah was a lot like Jezebel's Israel. Those people were devoted to their own “altars and asherim,” just as Jezebel had induced Ahab to build for her (Jeremiah 17:2). Faced with the people's addiction to their fertility rituals under the green trees and on the high hills, and knowing the vastly different outcomes of faith and faithlessness and the way Judah wavered between them, Jeremiah had cried out, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick – who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). To which God had answered the prophet back: “I, Yahweh, search the heart and test the kidneys, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:10). And now, in a city where Jezebel has claimed to know the 'deep things,' Jesus answers that he knows the real depths – the depths of the murky human heart. Because Jesus is the God of Israel whom the original Jezebel fought. And Jesus, with his “eyes like a flame of fire” (Revelation 2:18), can say, “I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (Revelation 2:23). He is the God who spoke to Jeremiah. He is the God who sees and scrutinizes, the God who evaluates from the inside-out, the God who measures out what matches.

The first Jezebel did not meet a good end. The prophet Elijah had warned that it would come, and so Elisha told Jehu to “strike down the house of Ahab your master, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets and the blood of all the servants of Yahweh, for the whole house of Ahab shall perish, and I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. … And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and none shall bury her” (2 Kings 9:7-10). And so Jesus promises that, if this woman in Thyatira wants to be a New Jezebel, then he'll be the New Jehu: “I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation (unless they repent of her works), and I will strike her children dead” – that is, those who are hopelessly devoted to being her disciples instead of Christ's (Revelation 2:22-23). Jesus has just one thing to blame the Thyatiran church for, and it's giving her a platform. The believers of Thyatira, on the whole, may be right-thinking and right-doing, but when it comes to this particular woman and what she's saying, they're spineless for tolerating her. If a church meets in her house, they need to move. If a church relies on her offerings, they need to learn to do without. Because she should have been formally disciplined long ago.

See, I'll let you in on a secret. We pastors have a way of talking sometimes, and there's a phrase some of us use when somebody leaves the church after being a hindrance to the church's ministry and harmony for a while. It's what we call a 'blessed subtraction' – the church growing in blessing by the subtraction of someone who just was not helping. And, well, the Thyatiran church needs a big ol' blessed subtraction when it comes to Jezebel and her acolytes, and Jesus warns that he'll do it himself if he has to. Yet most of the Thyatiran church, while they may hesitate to confront Jezebel, nonetheless don't buy what she's selling. “To the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the 'deep things' (of Satan!) – to you I say: I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come” (Revelation 2:24-25). Just keep on-track yourselves, live in real holiness of faith and love and service and endurance, keep progressing in those things and don't slide back, and Jesus asks them only to stand clear of Jezebel and let him work.

But maybe you're wondering what this passage has to say to us. But it's actually pretty familiar. We live in a world today where authority is accorded, not to those who have qualifications, but to those who can present themselves in a certain way. Self-appointed 'influencers' are heeded because of their personal experiences or their persona. Some have called it “the death of expertise.” All sorts of people are writing books and articles about their version of the Christian faith and what's wrong with the others – and whether people listen to them has little relation to whether they actually know and agree with the Bible. (Who writes the devotionals and books we read and the songs we hear on the radio? Why should we accord them authority?) When we consider what Thyatira and its own self-appointed influencer might have been like, it's familiar.

One might think, for instance, of the late Rachel Held Evans, an ex-Evangelical who became a progressive Episcopalian. She published an assortment of books about her take on Christian life and the Bible, and she celebrated those who thanked her writings for tickling their ears in just the ways they wanted. She regarded the church's teaching about sexuality and marriage to be an injustice, and she vocally favored loosening those teachings – to, among other things, affirm homosexuality. (Other popular influencers like Jen Hatmaker have trod the same path.) Why did people listen to her? Her experiences, her persona, her writing style, and the fact that she tickled their ears. Many of her readers reacted very angrily to her death – for earlier this year, Evans had a bad reaction to medication, was put in an induced coma, and died on the day of my wedding.

Among the other trendy influencers in her orbit is Nadia Bolz-Weber, a foul-mouthed Lutheran ex-pastor of a church in Colorado. Her latest book is the first since her divorce, and in it she attacks what she calls the “stale and oppressive sexual ethic” of the church. She calls the church to “reach for a new Christian sexual ethic” that would affirm people as “sexual beings in endless variety” and would make allowance for things like “ethically sourced porn[ography].” Her summons is one to what she describes as “shamelessness.” How does she deal with the Bible? In her book, she tells the story of a friend who ripped a Bible apart, kept the Gospels, and threw every other page into a fire. Approving of the story, Bolz-Weber remarks that “we can decide for ourselves what is sacred in the Bible and what is not.” And from there, Bolz-Weber frees herself up to teach what our passage labels “the deep things of Satan.” Self-appointed influencers in today's church teach the same things that were seducing Christians in Thyatira, and they have their avid defenders today, too, like Jezebel's children.

Maybe we're tempted to think that, well, of course we'll hear about that from the mainline churches – everyone knows what they're like, you might say. But can anyone honestly say that we Evangelicals haven't also been seduced? After all, we hear last week how 12% of Evangelical Christians refuse the notion that the Bible has any authority to tell them what they must do. One sociologist reports the results of assorted recent surveys, and the figures are dire. He observes that up to 41% of Evangelical adults say they see nothing wrong with sex outside of marriage; that 86% of never-married Evangelical adult women have had at least one sexual partner since age 18, while a full 57% have had three or more. And if we focus on the younger crowd, it gets worse, as emerging adults – even professing Christian ones – tend to believe that moral authority comes from the heart.

The sociologist found that among unmarried Evangelical teens ages 15-17, more than four in ten had already been sexually active – and of those four in ten, about a third had had four or more sexual partners. In the older set, aged 18-22, 74% had been sexually active, and of those who'd had sex, a little less than half had four or more sexual partners. And while it's true that weekly church attenders did better, between a quarter and a third of young Evangelicals hardly ever gather with the church. And even among young Evangelicals who are in church on a Sunday each week, the figures aren't good: among 18- to 22-year-old never-married Evangelical youth who attend at least weekly, a little over half have had sex outside of marriage already. Even of those Evangelical youth who do remain abstinent, when asked their reason, only about half mention God or morality.

Those are kids like your grandkids. That is the rising generation of the Evangelical church. They will be discipled, but are they being discipled for Jesus or for Jezebel? It's a symptom of a problem that touches every generation in the Evangelical movement today. With figures like these, it's no wonder there should be many among us searching for a Jezebel to tickle our ears about what's already tempting. Because we can't forget that, in Thyatira, those who let the New Jezebel dupe them were mostly responding to very natural temptations. They wanted to keep their social roles, and stay in business, and keep their friends, and unwind at parties, and cut loose a little. It wasn't all depraved lust. They were complex motivations not so much different from what motivates you or I daily, perhaps. They just wanted to keep their standard of living and enjoy themselves, and so any twisted theology that showed them how to rationalize what they felt – well, it was a bestseller straight out of the box. They did not want following Jesus to seem like being stifled.

But what they and we have to know is that the Jesus who stands, arisen from the tomb, on “feet like burnished bronze,” is the Jesus whose “eyes like a flame of fire” surveyed every sinful mind and heart from the cross and said, “Send it over here; pin it to me; I'll carry it and show you a better way.” This is the Jesus whom God gloriously claims as his own Son, and to whom God has given all authority in heaven and on earth (cf. Matthew 28:18). This Jesus is the king to whom God offers the nations as a heritage and the ends of earth as a possession (Psalm 2:8), the Jesus whom God has enthroned on his holy hill – from Calvary to the heavenly Zion (Psalm 2:6). This Jesus is a star and a scepter, exercising dominion and issuing edicts of life (Numbers 24:17-19). He says what things must be. Purity is what Jesus says it is. Holiness is what Jesus says it is. He speaks it by his apostles and his prophets. And they do not mean the lies that Jezebels new and old may teach.

Following this Jesus may well cost us our sexual autonomy. Following this Jesus may well cost us our political preferences. Following this Jesus may well cost us our economic lifestyle. Following this Jesus may well cost us our vacations or our extra vehicles or our pet projects. Following this Jesus may well cost us our popularity. Following this Jesus will be freeing but may feel stifling in the hour of temptation. For following this Jesus must surely cost us our sin. Some look at the universality of sin and say, “We're all sinners, so it must not really be a big deal.” But authentic Christian faith looks at the universality of sin and cries out desperately for Jesus and his deep holiness. Oh, how the church needs Jesus! How we each need Jesus, each and every day! For the Jesus who spoke to the Thyatirans is the Jesus who paces amidst the lampstands of American churches today, inspecting us all with burning eyes that penetrate the innermost guts of all things and cast light on the darkest nooks and crannies hidden in the heart. He knows what we tolerate and why – what sins we'll make excuses for, what sins we'll rationalize. Our motives, impermanent as putty, melt before the heat of Jesus' gaze. Jesus sees.

But to those who avoid the influencers and who resist the sexual and economic temptations, those who cultivate hearts to pass Jesus' inspection, he offers a share in his rule. Just as the Father says to Jesus in Psalm 2, “You shall rule [the nations] with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel” (Psalm 2:9), Jesus offers the persistently pure believer “authority over the nations, and he will shepherd them with a rod of iron as when earthen pots are broken in pieces … And I will give him the morning star” (Revelation 2:26-28). Keep to Jesus, not to Jezebel. In a world broken by seduction and temptation, a world riven by idolatries and impurities, Jesus is good news enough. His grace is costly, but the cost is grace. “Only hold fast what you have” – the way Jesus taught you to love, the purity and holiness he lavished upon you. “Let goods and kindred go,” desires and possessions, middle-class American comfort and conformity. Only hold fast to Jesus, the Holy Son of God.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Challenge of Pergamum: Sermon on Revelation 2:12-17

Tension filled the air as the diviner and the king faced off. The diviner had not been working out according to the king's lofty expectations. And the king was frustrated and furious. Because the king was scared. Balak of Moab had seen the large and prosperous camp of the children of Israel parked in his backyard, pitching their tents on his turf. And rather than send armies on a futile mission – for he'd heard what had happened to all the other challengers – Balak and his friends, the five chieftains of Midian – had gotten an idea. What they needed was to break Israel's invincibility from the other end. And so Balak had sent messengers to hire him a spiritual hit-man. They'd had to travel a great distance to Pethor. But they got hold of the famed diviner and visionary Balaam, son of Beor. With sufficient inducement, Balaam had been convinced to make the trip, riding his trusty donkey. But after a frightening encounter he and the donkey had with a heavenly power along the way, he'd come insisting that he might not be able to bend Israel's God to his will – might have to say no more and no less than Israel's God was willing for him to say (Numbers 22:1-38).

Still, Balak had taken Balaam to assorted mountain peaks, to view the camp of Israel and utter curses to bring Israel down. They'd sacrificed at Bamoth-baal, but Israel's God had refused to be bribed, and Balaam could give no curse (Numbers 22:41—23:10). They sacrificed atop Mount Pisgah, but again Balaam's words twisted into a blessing on Israel (Numbers 23:13-24). Balak tried again by taking Balaam elsewhere, to the top of Peor to make more sacrifices – and Balaam blessed Israel even more fervently (Numbers 23:27—24:9)! Oh, Balak was furious – he threatened to rip up the contract, warned Balaam he was forfeiting his hefty fee (Numbers 24:11). Balaam spoke a fourth oracle, warning Balak that Israel would indeed produce a star and scepter that could one day “crush the forehead of Moab” (Numbers 24:17).

But Balaam, crafty Balaam, hatched a wicked plan. Sacrifice and bribery could not sever Israel and her God from one another, but Israel's God had given them a Law, a Law that called for their faith and obedience. And if Israel could be induced into breaking that faith and obedience, surely Israel would be crippled and become easy prey. So Balaam advised Balak and the chieftains to send beautiful women to tempt the youthful Israelites with food and sensual delights and entice them to sacrifice to local gods. Then Balaam left, having done his work. Balak took it to heart. He sent out the women. “These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods, so Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel” (Numbers 25:2-3). A disease epidemic began spreading through the camp, and 24,000 Israelites got sick and died. It was all due to the influence of Balaam's teaching from afar, as Moses learned: “These women, on Balaam's advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against Yahweh in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of Yahweh” (Numbers 31:16).

In the end, after Aaron's grandson Phinehas had ended the plague with his righteous zeal and loyalty (Numbers 25:10), Israel bided their time, learned more instructions from their God through Moses, whose age led him to appoint Joshua as his successor. Meanwhile, word came to Balaam about how successful his dangerous counsel had been. Yearning for his payment from Balak, he made the long trip back to Midian – just at the time when Israel declared war. Not only did Israel bring down the five chieftains, but “they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword” (Numbers 31:8). And so ended the sordid career of the gifted diviner Balaam, whom Israel would forever remember as the prototype of all false teachers who lead the people astray and invite the wrath of God against the assembly. In his last speech to Israel, Moses warned them about prophets, dreamers, and teachers who might entice them to falsehood, and how they dare not listen to those who teach rebellion and seek to draw them away from the God who liberated them from Egyptian chains (Deuteronomy 13:1-18). If a city of Israel were to give in and be drawn away, the whole city was to be “devoted to destruction … with the edge of the sword,” just as Balaam was (Deuteronomy 13:15). Having taught them these things, Moses climbed up Mount Pisgah, to the very spot where Balaam had blessed them against his will – and there Moses took his final breath, still in the desert and not quite reaching the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 34:1-5).

Over a thousand years later, the spiritual heirs of the children of Israel found themselves living in a desert of a city called Pergamum. And Pergamum might seem like an odd place to compare to the plains of Moab. It was a northerly city in Asia Minor, and a prosperous and populous one – a fifth of a million people, or thereabouts, and it had massive temples, a truly impressive library (among the largest in the world), a grand theater, lavish healthcare facilities with a great spa, and more. And a church, meeting in the homes of believers, was nestled in the neighborhoods of that big city. No city could seem less, geographically, like the desert plains of Moab.

And yet it was a lot like the plains of Moab. For that city had a deep devotion to the serpent-loving Greek god of healing, Asklepios – the spa was his. And that city had a great fervor for Zeus, to whom they built a gargantuan altar shaped like a giant throne. The people of Pergamum called both those gods their 'saviors.' Not only that, but with temples to the emperors, Pergamum was the city from which conformity with the imperial cult was enforced. It was the headquarters of official government worship for the province. There was a fair deal of pressure, from time to time, just as Balak had sought to put pressure on Israel. Pergamum hosted civic dinners where the gods would receive sacrifice. And the church had learned the painful way what can happen to dissenters – they'd watched a believer named Antipas put to death one dark day for his faithful witness.

So when Jesus dictates a letter to the church in Pergamum, he gives credit where credit is due. Jesus is fully appreciative of their difficult position, right in the heart of paganism, with that massive altar looming over them on a regular basis, with the pressure and the threat and the memory of Antipas' death ever-present to the church as they meet. Jesus tells the Pergamene church that they “dwell where Satan's throne is.” They might as well be pitched within the doorway to hell, plunged in darkness. Because that's how pernicious the imperial cult and the other pagan cults are. And somehow, this little church is getting by right under Satan's nose, and it is not easy. “Yet you hold fast my name,” Jesus tells them, “and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you where Satan dwells” (Revelation 2:13). With all the suspicion attached to the word 'Christian,' a partisan of the Messiah Jesus, still the Pergamene church clings to that word and the name of Jesus. They have not outright denied him, even when the pressure was really on. That much is good. The church there is capable of producing daring faithfulness. And that shouldn't be overlooked. Jesus is ready to commend us just for being willing to openly identify with him when the world denounces his name.

So the Pergamene church gets extra credit for a simple thing – clinging to Jesus' name – because they've started at such a disadvantage due to their proximity to the heart of pagan worship, which Jesus calls “Satan's throne.” The church has continued to identify themselves with Christ's name, even when that was deeply unpopular with their neighbors. To us here, that poses no threat. It might not be particularly commendable. Because we aren't dwelling where Satan sets up his throne. But in extraordinary circumstances, even the most basic expressions of faith become exemplary in Jesus' sight. Credit where credit is due, and the disadvantage is taken into account when Jesus evaluates the churches. Jesus takes into account our circumstances. He knows where we dwell.

But for all that, Jesus is not happy with the church in Pergamum. The Pergamene church has a problem that has to be faced and owned. And that problem is a lot like Israel's in the plains of Moab. Remember, Balak knew better than to send his army to fight a faithful Israel from the outside through external pressures. Now Satan has relearned that lesson as applied to the Pergamene church: just sending the power of the state to fight them might not break them after all. But just like Balak hired a spiritual hit-man, now Satan is turning to that approach in Pergamum, too. Satan has introduced false teachers like Balaam to corrupt the church from the inside by letting their beliefs get mingled and mangled. The result will be a hamstrung church out-of-sync with their Savior.

Jesus says outright to the Pergamene church, “You have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (Revelation 2:14-15). The Nicolaitans are the group whose misleading ideas are beginning to infect the Pergamene church. Most likely, they argued that, since idols are really powerless, there's no harm with making some empty gestures in their direction, mouthing the sentiments of the pagans as long as you don't really mean it. And in that way, they'd have more flexibility when confronted with the demands of the imperial cult. They may have had more ideas than that, but that's one key thing they seem to have been teaching.

Essentially, the Nicolaitans were introducing an alternative teaching into the church, a more liberal-minded take on Christianity. They illustrated to the people how they could rationalize holding more loosely to this belief or that belief. They went soft on certain things. They scoffed at those who clung to the fundamentals. Certainly they badmouthed the Ephesian church, which had tested them and kicked them to the curb (Revelation 2:6). So they crept into the Pergamene church and gained a hearing. They did not sway the entire church. Jesus merely says that “some there … hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (Revelation 2:15). Just like some Israelites on the plains of Moab caught the plague. Its end is death. And it's infectious. And the problem is, the church in Pergamum has not been awake to the extreme action necessary, a la Phinehas, to put a halt to its spread. Jesus, through John, compares the Nicolaitans to Balaam, that earlier false teacher (Revelation 2:14). The church in Pergamum didn't view the Nicolaitans as worth making a fuss about. Jesus strongly disagrees. Pointing back to Balaam, he says the Nicolaitans and all other false teachers are just as dangerous and just as deadly. And the Pergamene church needs a Phinehas, needs to be a Phinehas. They need to stand up and publicly denounce the false teaching. Jesus calls on the church to “repent” (Revelation 2:16) – to repent as Phinehas led Israel to repent in the plains of Moab. Yet, no doubt, many 'right-thinking' Christians in Pergamum don't see the crisis.

Maybe that's where we find ourselves. We know – or we should know – the gospel. Before the beginning, God existed eternally, a Trinity of three persons we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all sharing the life of the one true God. For his overflowing love, God created a good world and crowned it with his representatives on earth, human beings, who were made in his image to reflect his authority and character in the world. But due to the intrusion of a fallen spirit, human beings began missing the mark, sinning, failing to reflect God. Soon our world had spiraled out of control. But God had planned all along to bless the world, so he chose the family of Abraham, which produced the nation of Israel. God rescued them from their slavery and appointed them to be his nation of blessing. But as we know, they were infected with the same darkness as the other nations, and the Law given through Moses could not dispel their darkness. So God worked with them, and with a faithful remnant within them, until the burden of their mission fell to one man, the Messiah, to carry the weight of Adam's work and Israel's purpose. God sent his own co-eternal Son to be the Messiah, taking the name Jesus. He taught truly, he worked wonders, he began to restore God's kingdom to the earth. To drain our sins away, he died on the cross, allowing all those who trust him to be united to him and have our sins flow into his death. He buried the power of sin in his grave and left it behind when he rose bodily from the dead on the third day, thus breaking the power of death. He then rose to heaven, from which he poured out the Holy Spirit, the third co-eternal person of the Trinity, to dwell in the church like a temple and fill us with the power we need to reflect God like Adam should have. Jesus pledged that he would one day return to bring the mission to completion, fully restoring God's kingdom to the earth. In the meantime, with Jesus as the Lord of everything, we are sent out to announce the good news of his accession, and to teach the nations how to be filled with his power and live according to this Savior's royal wisdom. Jesus' first followers wrote all these things down, just as Israel's prophets had, and together they form a book against which we test all our beliefs and practices, because in this book, the Bible, the wisdom of Jesus shines forth. Relying on this wisdom, we announce to the nations that there's no one else: that Jesus our Lord is the only Savior and only King, that Jesus is good news for everyone and everything.

We know that gospel. But we also know that there are entire denominations in our country where it's rejected and denied. We know, sadly, that there are denominations where Balaam has won. Because there are churches in this country, even entire networks of churches, that deviate from the gospel far more seriously than even the Nicolaitans of Pergamum did. They may mouth the words to all the creeds. They may insist they keep to the faith, like the Christians in Pergamum did. They may cling to the name of Jesus, however tenuously. But when it comes to really accepting the implications of that confession, they twist it, privileging their experiences and opinions above the authority of Jesus as taught through his prophets and apostles. I'm sure one or two of those denominations has occurred to your mind as I've said this. Maybe some of you have been to 'liberal-minded' churches, or churches embedded in denominations like that. They may seem innocuous. So did the Nicolaitans. But Jesus calls down from heaven, “Don't be fooled – remember Balaam! Don't be fooled – believe the whole gospel, and live it!” Many of those denominations are in far worse shape than Pergamum.

Yet it would be too easy to point the finger at the more 'liberal-minded' denominations in our country and say, “There's the problem, over there.” Oh, it is, to be sure. Those professedly 'liberal-minded' denominations and congregations do stand under Jesus' warning in this passage. But as easy as it'd be to outsource the problem to those denominations and those movements, well, we can't. Because the problem comes home with us, too, to the Evangelical movement – that bastion of self-described “Bible-believing Christians.”

Five years ago, a reputable survey assessed the religious landscape of this country, and though they weren't too focused on singling out Evangelicals, they did turn up two troubling things. What they found was that 12% of Evangelical Christians could not honestly say that they believed that heaven is real. In fact, 5% of Evangelical Christians outright said they don't believe there's a heaven. That's one in twenty of people like us who outright reject heaven, and another one who isn't sure. The same survey found the figures even worse when it comes to hell – 11% of Evangelicals, eleven out of every hundred filling the pews of churches like ours, said they are very sure there's no such thing as hell, and another 7% said they weren't sure. As plainly as Jesus taught about heaven and hell, a significant minority even of Evangelicals were expressing doubt or disbelief.

Those troubling figures came out five years ago, in 2014. So surely we took them to heart, right? Surely our good, God-fearing churches in the Evangelical movement started prioritizing sound teaching, and making sure to insist on it? Well, a study came out last year after asking even more questions. And here's what it found. Remember that the gospel is rooted in God's eternal love within the life of the Trinity. Yet 4% of Evangelicals outright reject the doctrine of the Trinity, and another 3% aren't sure. That's 7%. In fact, a whopping 71% of Evangelicals are so confused that they think Jesus is a created being, rather than the eternal Creator God! That is a majority of Evangelicals, having scarcely a clue who Jesus even is. A similarly whopping 59% said they do not believe that the Holy Spirit is a person, and another 8% on top of that said they weren't sure. Moreover, 5% of Evangelicals – one out of every twenty – could not honestly say they believed that Jesus had risen bodily from the dead. The very thing that Paul said, if it didn't happen, then Christians are the dumbest, most foolish people who've ever lived – and one in every twenty Evangelicals is not solid on that bedrock cornerstone of the Christian faith! The same percentage, by the way, openly deny that Jesus is ever coming back, and an extra 3% aren't sure if he is or not. That's almost one in every ten Evangelicals with no hope in the Second Coming.

This survey found that a majority of Evangelicals – 57% – do not believe that sin is serious enough to send us to hell – or, at least, that so-called 'small sins' aren't so bad. Friends, that is catastrophic. We know that falling short of God's glory is just that – falling short of light and life. But the majority of Evangelical Christians do not take sin seriously enough. So it's no wonder that a substantial proportion – 12%, again more than one in every ten – believe that “the free gift of eternal salvation” can be gained without having faith in Jesus Christ, and 10% say that Jesus didn't have to die on the cross for us to be saved. All that stuff about the Way, the Truth, the Life, and how no one comes to the Father except through him? A tenth of Evangelical Christians think Jesus didn't know what he was talking about, apparently. More shocking, 37% – over a third of Evangelicals – said that “religious belief is a matter of personal opinion..., not about objective truth.” An extra 8% weren't sure. And 53% – over half of Evangelical Christians like us – said that “God accepts the worship of all religions.”

The survey found that 8% of Evangelicals admit the Bible is not the highest authority for what they believe, and 12% of Evangelicals outright rejected the statement that “the Bible has the authority to tell us what we must do” – that's more than a tenth of Evangelicals denying the authority of God over their lives! Unsurprising, when a full quarter of Evangelicals are at least open to the idea that the Holy Spirit will tell them to do something that goes against the Bible's teaching. So, naturally, 15% of Evangelicals think there's nothing sinful in abortion, while another 5% aren't sure, adding up to one in every five. Naturally, 17% of Evangelicals see nothing sinful in sex outside of marriage, while another 4% aren't sure – that adds up to 23%, more than one in every five. And then 16% of Evangelicals said they do not believe that evangelism is personally important for them to do – in spite of Evangelicals supposedly being so passionate about the Great Commission, almost one in every five Evangelicals does not think Jesus was talking to them. Finally, 46% of Evangelicals said they do not think the church is necessary, and since another 4% said they were unsure, that adds up to one out of every two Evangelicals in the country who think they can worship Jesus while living cut off from his Body wherein dwells his Spirit – worship Jesus while rebelling against his command. Statistics like these are crisis figures!

Now, count up how many of us Evangelical Christians are here this morning. Note how many of these crisis conditions apply to one in two, three, four, five, ten, twenty Evangelicals in America. If there are more than ten or twenty of us here, then either we're beating the statistical norm here, or else some of us may be off-track from the gospel, too. The crisis is not just for 'liberal-minded' mainline denominations – we Evangelicals are finding ourselves in the same crisis as Pergamum. And we won't even have the excuse that Satan's throne is so close we couldn't focus! No, Balaam has a foothold in Evangelical Christianity, and just like the church in Pergamum, we yawn and shrug and say it's no big deal. But then Jesus turns to us and says we are dead wrong – deadly.

Jesus says to us, as much as to Pergamum: “Therefore, repent” (Revelation 2:16). He isn't just talking to the minority in the Pergamene church who've actually accepted the Nicolaitan teaching. He's talking to the whole church there. The entire church needs to repent for the false beliefs of a few of them. And maybe they can do that by recommitting themselves to sound teaching, and by correcting those who've fallen for the Nicolaitans, and bringing them back to the truth that way. Or maybe their repentance is going to involve church discipline, where the seduced and deluded members who've fallen for Balaam's tricks are written off the membership rolls after all warnings fail, and so the church will be purified in its faith either way, newly zealous for the gospel.

But if the infection spreads, the whole church is in great danger. John shows the Pergamene church a Jesus who comes with a sword at the ready – a broadsword, the sword you'll see William Wallace swinging in Braveheart (Revelation 2:12). This is a no-nonsense Judge Jesus, ready to split souls. And just like Balaam had to be struck down by Israel with the sword, and just like any Israelite city that goes astray after false teaching was to be destroyed with the sword, so Jesus warns them that if this church doesn't repent, “I will come to you soon and wage war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Revelation 2:16). Jesus looks at the confused state of Pergamene Christianity and says that if no one else will be a Phinehas, he'll come do it himself, and it won't be gentle, and it won't be pretty. What might Jesus say, then, to those proud 'liberal-minded' churches – but oh, what might Jesus say to the Evangelical churches of America today? In our own deep crisis of confusion, what room have we to boast?

But Jesus also comes with promises for those who “overcome” or “conquer.” In this context, to overcome is to resist and rebuke false teaching, to work to ensure that everyone in the church is on board with the whole gospel and its implications, to reduce those crisis figures down to 0% as far as is in our reach, and to certainly make sure that we ourselves are not part of that problem. And to those who overcome this way, Jesus promises the blessings that Israel was to have for staying faithful: “To the one who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). Some of the manna Israel ate in the plains of Moab was stored in a jar, 'hidden' away in the ark, saved for the righteous (cf. Exodus 16:33; Hebrews 9:4). A 'white stone' was used as a vote of acquittal in a courtroom and as a token of admission to a dinner party. And God always promised that Israel would be “called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give” (Isaiah 62:2) – a name like “My-Delight-is-in-Her” (Isaiah 62:4). If we are faithful to Jesus with what we believe, then he delights in us; if we're careless about what we believe, then we run the risk of a declaration of war. On the one hand, food and fellowship and acceptance with Christ; on the other, excommunication with the sword of his mouth.

That's the choice that faces Christianity, in America as much as Pergamum. And it doesn't only face the 'liberal-minded' churches we love to posture against. It faces the Evangelical Christian movement, of which our own denomination is a part, of which our own church is a part. The choice is before us: keep ignoring the crisis, or else repent from our all-too-Pergamene situation. But the path of repentance is the only one that leads to food and fellowship and acceptance with Christ, riches more dear than we can fathom, treasures that will far outweigh all the pressures that Satan's throne could ever set up against us. And this path of repentance calls us to become fully and robustly Christian in what we believe, always subject to the ultimate test of the scriptures and the historic wisdom of the church. It calls us to drive the crisis figures down to 0%. As he called Pergamum to, let's repent and strive instead for hidden manna and a new name, that God's delight may be in us and that we may be filled with all the blessings of his gospel. May we not only bear the name, but may we live it in our minds, our hearts, and our hands! For Christ calls us beyond his sword to the garden wherein grows his tree of life. Amen.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Challenge of Smyrna: Sermon on Revelation 2:8-11

It was early one Saturday morning in February when the carriage pulled up to the stadium. The elderly prisoner scraped his shin while getting out. But there was no time to dwell on that. His day had come. And so the chief of police marched the well-aged man into the stadium, to the boos and jeers of the vast crowds. It had been a long night – scarcely any sleep, of course. They'd found him late in a farm cottage, in the upper room. He hadn't intended to be there, at first – hadn't planned to flee the city when he'd heard they were looking for him – but the churches were insistent, so he'd gone. But the powers-that-be had tracked him down, so there he'd been. When they got there, the police, he'd come downstairs and ordered a nice warm meal be prepared for them – no sense in being unpleasant. Better to be hospitable to those who catch and arrest you. That's what love looked like, he believed. In return, they gave him time to pray. He'd stood and prayed for two hours in the darkness of night, pouring out his soul to God, lifting up every church he knew in all the world and its people by name, praying for his own people and for his city and for the police, too. And then he'd been ready to go. And now he was at the stadium, with twenty thousand spectators looking on and the proconsul Lucius Statius Quadratus waiting his arrival. But Polycarp couldn't help reminisce for a moment as he crossed that irreversible line.

Polycarp had been raised there in Smyrna – oh, beautiful Smyrna, splendid Smyrna! Founded years before the Bethlehem birth of King David, it had attained great things through the years – reputed to have been the place where the legendary poet Homer was born, or so they boasted. During the long centuries, it was broken down and demolished by Lydian conquerors, dispersing the Smyrnaeans into village life for over three hundred years, until Alexander the Great and his successors had the city rebuilt on and beneath the slops of Mount Pagos. The people of Smyrna liked to remember how their city had died and, after centuries, come to life again. And they were proud, so proud, of that city, their prosperous seaside city with its two harbors for the shipping trade. They were proud, too, of their reputation for loyalty, for patriotism, for faithfulness. Ever since they'd allied with the Romans back during the Carthaginian wars, they'd been all-in – Smyrna had been the first city on earth to build a temple where Rome itself could be worshipped as a goddess. They were the birthplace of the imperial cult.

It was there that Polycarp grew up, born within one to five years after the deaths of the Apostles Paul and Peter in Rome. Polycarp remembered hearing those names a lot in his youth – he was the son, after all, of Christian parents, themselves converted likely by missionaries sent by Paul from Ephesus. Polycarp spent his Christian youth in that city a fifth of a million strong; his boyish feet ran back and forth between stone monuments commemorating the city's gift of gold crowns as civic honors for meritorous citizens after they died – crowns for the dead, enjoyed by no one. The whole city was like a crown on Mount Pagos, where their main street, the Street of Gold, wound 'round the hillside – and yet for all the city's prosperity, not all could share in it.

Polycarp was scarcely a teenager when the Praetorian Guard declared Domitian emperor – an autocratic tyrant. But by the time he was in his late twenties, the Smyrnaean church had fallen on hard times. Christians were a deeply unpopular minority in patriotic Smyrna, and the pressure was on. They had, over the past decades, been successful in their evangelism, especially in drawing off folks from the local synagogue – both Jews and also Gentile God-fearers. And the synagogue, now under rough taxation from Domitian, was pretty angry about it – they saw the church as illegitimate, saw the church as dangerous. And so the synagogue of Smyrna hated the church of Smyrna, so much so that it consumed them, so much so that they would break the laws of Moses if it would help them hound the Christians. So the synagogue community in the city – well, some of its members had begun denouncing various Christians before the Roman authorities, insisting that the church was not a valid expression of the Jewish faith and so had no right to the historic Jewish exemption from the imperial cult. They spread all sorts of rumors about the church as a nefarious force in civic life, charged Christians as unpatriotic and conspiratorial. The result was that Smyrnaean Christians like Polycarp and his family and friends were boxed out, excluded, deprived of economic opportunity; they were sued, they were hounded, their houses were robbed and vandalized from time to time. Needless to say, when Sunday morning rolled 'round, there wasn't much to put in the offering plate. But it was one Sunday morning that Polycarp huddled with other Christians in a house to worship God, and a messenger came to read a scroll delivered from a prophet exiled in Patmos.

Polycarp was one of the first to hear the Revelation, and one of the first to hear the letter dictated by the Risen Lord specifically to his church in Smyrna. And what a relief it was – Polycarp remembers that Sunday in his late twenties – just how simply and succinctly Jesus sympathized with their situation. Jesus knew! Jesus saw! Jesus understood! “I know your tribulation and your poverty,” the Lord told them. He knew they didn't have much. He knew they were scared and sad and shivering and suffering, huddled up and hurting. Jesus knew. He saw them in their pain. How good it is to know that Jesus sees, that Jesus knows, that Jesus understands what we face, what we go through! How good to hear that Jesus turns no blind eye to our aches and bruises and fears and griefs! Young Polycarp heard that, and his soul was lightened.

He heard, too, that Jesus knew “the slander of those who say they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). Jesus heard the rumors about the church, the slanders, the denunciations. He rejected them as false. And he also rejected as false those who spread them. Jesus looked at the hostile synagogue and saw it filled with the influence of the Evil One. That synagogue collaborated with pagan powers and sought deeper entanglement with the state. That synagogue failed to recognize their own Messiah when the evangelists of Smyrna announced him to them. They had dropped off the Abrahamic olive tree, as Paul described (Romans 11:7; cf. 11:11-21). They were, in a deep sense, lifeless. King Jesus Messiah of Israel looks at the synagogue in the city of Smyrna, and the Messiah denounces them as illegitimate, mere pretenders to the lofty name of Judah – there is no bright praise in their mouth, only lies and calumnies. The synagogue community is, in the eyes of the Risen Lord as John hears him, not even Jewish. They had become a fraudulent parody of the Israel they were meant to be – that's how far gone they'd become, driven by jealousy and hatred of the church.

But the church, on the other hand – Polycarp and his friends – are, though they're materially poor, nevertheless praised by Jesus as spiritually “rich,” rich in all the ways that count the most. Polycarp learned in that word that no outer circumstance could deprive him of what really matters in life, which is being rich toward God, rich in his heart, rich in his relationships with those who love the Jesus who gave them life. Polycarp and his fellow believers are truly rich, Jesus says – they, not the synagogue, are the real Israel, the people whom Jesus chooses and elects, those who inherit the promises to the patriarchs and prophets. They are the ones loyal to the Messiah who sits on David's throne, they are the ones who share Abraham's faith in a God who raises the dead. They are the truest expression of Israel's faith, the most authentic Jews – for just like Paul said, “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical, but a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart – by the Spirit, not by the letter: his praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:28-29). Those in Smyrna's synagogue, Jesus says, have no praise from him – their hearts are uncircumcised, their Jewishness is only skin deep – but he has much praise for Smyrna's church, whose hearts are circumcised by the Holy Spirit. The faithful church of Smyrna is truly and authentically Jewish, deep down – even those of other ethnic backgrounds, even those raised in pagan homes but now turning to one God through a Jewish Messiah. Jesus, after all, told the Smyrnaeans that he was “the First and the Last” (Revelation 2:8). And in saying that, he identified himself as Israel's God, who said through Isaiah, “Thus saith Yahweh, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, Yahweh of Hosts: I am the First and I am the Last; besides me there is no god. … Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel whom I called! I am he: I am the First, and I am the Last” (Isaiah 44:6; 48:12). Jesus is the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, the Creator and Redeemer who called Israel in the first place and who holds all history in his hands – and not a thing happens that's beyond his sovereign reach.

And yet, Jesus warns the Smyrnaean church, for all the tribulation and poverty and slander they face in their day in the late first century, worse times will come. “You are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation” (Revelation 2:10). What lurks around the corner – and this surely shocked Polycarp to hear for the first time – is a time when some of them will be arrested. They will be persecuted. They will be put on trial. They will see the open hostility of society arrayed violently against them. And Jesus tells them, when the messenger reads the letter he dictated to John – Jesus tells them that some of them sitting there that morning will be murdered if they stay loyal to him.

That is a pretty sobering word to hear at church! I'm sure it was for Polycarp that day. He scarcely can imagine – even when poor and harassed and slandered – that things would actually turn to violence, that he really could face a risk like that. It's hard to seriously believe, even when things are bad, that confessing the gospel will ever literally become an act with physically deadly consequences. But that's what Jesus says. It's hard to hear! It's intimidating. And maybe this church has been living in fear, maybe they've been worried about where things in their society are headed. Maybe they see things getting worse and worse around them, more and more hostile all around them, and they wonder where it will stop. And Jesus says, first of all, that it will go down the darkest road, that it will end in tears and blood, that it will get as ugly as their worst-case scenarios. But Jesus also tells them, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer” (Revelation 2:10). Yes, things will get deadly. But worry not, fret not, fear not. Because Jesus has bigger purposes for allowing the devil to do this.

The devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested,” Jesus emphasizes, “and for ten days you will have tribulation” (Revelation 2:10). Jesus reminds them of Daniel and his three friends, when they first went to Babylon, when they were tempted by the luxurious offers of the king's own food and his own wine. But they refused, and asked the chief eunuch to “test your servants for ten days” with “vegetables to eat and water to drink” (Daniel 1:12). So the chief eunuch Ashpenaz “tested them for ten days” (Daniel 1:14). In the same way, Jesus says, the devil's coming violence will only provide a platform for the church to show off Jesus – to demonstrate that Jesus gives them strength beyond what synagogue or state can imagine. The church must be allowed to show their faith under fire, in the midst of this deadly tribulation, so that Jesus can praise them all the more! So here Jesus tells them what's going to happen – so they can spend the intervening time in training. The church in Smyrna needs to get ready. They need to set aside any distracting programs, they need to give up their time-wasting hobbies, they need to make sure they're serious and committed. If there's a test coming, they need to study, need to train, need to disciple and be discipled. The elder members of the church need to train up young men like Polycarp, and the children among them, in a serious Christianity. None of this shallow stuff. Older believers need to get serious about readying themselves and the next generations – they cannot afford to lose their kids and grandkids to trendiness, shallowness, and worldliness. It's time to get ready.

Polycarp took Jesus' message to heart. He wasn't yet out of his twenties when the Emperor Domitian died and was replaced by Nerva, who set John free from Patmos. Polycarp had grown up occasionally seeing John. In fact, Polycarp in his young days had met and learned from a number of believers who traveled from Jerusalem and Judaea and Galilee after the war – believers who had been among the hundreds to see, meet, touch the risen Jesus, eyewitnesses of the resurrection truth. Polycarp learned from them, and learned from John especially. In Polycarp, John saw a solid man, a man who embodied what a church leader should be. So within the next ten years, we're told, Polycarp was “appointed bishop of the church in Smyrna” at the hands of “apostles in Asia.”

After John's death, Polycarp sought to guide the Smyrnaean church according to Jesus' words. Polycarp knew them all by name – Gavia and Daphnus and Eutecnus and Attalus and Crescens and that dear woman named Alce, passionate and devoted in spite of her pagan brother Nicetas and his son Herodes. One day, soldiers came and marched the Syrian bishop Ignatius, at least nineteen years Polycarp's senior, through Smyrna. Ignatius saw the Smyrnaean church as “mercifully endowed with every spiritual gift, filled with faith and love.” He urged Polycarp to “press on in your race and to exhort all people, that they may be saved.” He advised Polycarp that “it's the mark of a great athlete to be bruised and yet still conquer.” And he encouraged the Smyrnaeans to all follow Polycarp's lead: “Whatever he approves is also pleasing to God.” Within months, Polycarp wrote a letter to the believers in Philippi where Ignatius had been taken next, telling them, “If we please [Jesus] in this present world, we'll receive the world-to-come as well, inasmuch as he promised to raise us from the dead and that if we prove to be citizens worthy of him, we'll also reign with him – if, that is, we continue to believe! … If we should suffer for the sake of his name, let us glorify him.” Polycarp, now hitting forty, was getting ready.

Down through the decades of his ministry, Polycarp kept faithful. He preached and taught what he'd learned from apostles. He led with dignity. His unschooled mind was no less keen than the best-trained philosophers, and he put it in the service of the gospel, diligently making the case to city councilmen and passersby alike. But he also presided at the table, celebrated the communion of his church community, and stayed strong even when times were tough and money was tight. Polycarp rose in prominence in church circles – in his early eighties, he was sent to Rome to represent all the churches of Asia in a meeting with Bishop Anicetus, and while there, he rebuked heretics and led many back to the authentic gospel through his teaching. Then he came home again.

And that's when the persecution broke out. First, select believers from Philadelphia were carted to Smyrna to stand trial before Quadratus the proconsul – himself a very persuasive man, able to launch into a philosophical debate at the drop of a hat. Then some Smyrnaean church leaders came under fire. And that's when the crowds started calling for Quadratus to go for the head – to catch Polycarp, “the father of the Christians.” Now police chief Herodes and his father Nicetas has brought him into custody, presented him before the jeering crowds in the stadium. Now Polycarp, in his old age, was to stand trial. Now were those “ten days of tribulation” Jesus had warned him about decades in advance. Now was the time he'd trained for. Now was the time to not fear.

The proconsul began openly questioning Polycarp, urging Polycarp to be a good Smyrnaean and patriot, to just pray to the emperor, swear an oath by the emperor's guardian spirit. If only the proconsul could sway Polycarp, it would devastate the church. The proconsul urged Polycarp to reject the church he'd taught, to denounce the Christians as criminals, to call them godless. Instead, Polycarp groaned, looked up to heaven, and urged God to cast away the godlessness, the atheism, of the pagan Greeks and Romans. The proconsul baited him again, promising Polycarp his freedom if only he'd curse Jesus and leave that life behind him. But Polycarp objected, “For eighty-six years I've been serving him, and he's done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me? … Listen clearly: I am a Christian. And if you intend to learn the message of Christianity, appoint a day and hear me out.” Polycarp would gladly dare and make his case with the proconsul as an audience.

Quadratus threatened Polycarp, first with wild beasts, then with fire. But Polycarp, with age-old joints and achy bones and wrinkled skin, told him, “You threaten with a fire that burns for an hour and is soon put out, because you don't know the fire of the coming judgment and everlasting punishment that's stored up for the ungodly.” Refusing to compromise, Polycarp called on the proconsul to move along and do what he had to do. Courage and joy filled Polycarp's heart, even as the crowds began to boo Polycarp as “the destroyer of our gods.”

The pagans hated Polycarp. So did the synagogue community, just as Jesus had seen. Even though it was the sabbath when Moses had forbidden work and the gathering of wood and the lighting of fires (Exodus 35:1-3; Numbers 15:32-36), the synagogue members of Smyrna worked to collect firewood to help burn Polycarp. No wonder Jesus called them what he did. Once tied to the pyre, Polycarp prayed and gave thanks to “the God of angels and powers and all creation and the entire race of the righteous who live before you.” And once he said amen, the soldiers lit the wood ablaze, and the flames billowed around Polycarp like a sail in the wind. What do you think was on Bishop Polycarp's mind as the wood beneath his feet caught that first deadly spark?

I have to think that his mind was firmly fixed on Jesus. Jesus is the heart of it all. Jesus Christ is the Lord who knows his way through death and out the other side. Smyrna boasted they'd been restored to life like a phoenix from the ashes, but Jesus is “the First and the Last, who died and came to life” (Revelation 2:8). If there's someone to trust when life and death are the stakes, Jesus is the man! And so Polycarp believed Jesus when Jesus told him, “Don't fear what you're about to suffer.” And Polycarp accepted this one command from the lips of Jesus: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). Smyrna bragged about its political faithfulness to Rome and her emperor – but Jesus wants Smyrnaean Christians like Polycarp to be faithful to him, the Lord Messiah, the King of Israel and their Redeemer, the King who saves us. Faithful not just when there's prosperity and ease and comfort, but faithful when it costs, faithful when it hurts, faithful when it's uncomfortable, faithful from poverty to persecution, from distress to death.

When Polycarp was questioned, he warned that proconsul that God has in store for the ungodly a “fire of the coming judgment and of everlasting punishment.” And he learned about that from John who took down this letter from Jesus. Because Jesus promises that those who trust in him and are loyal to him are the ones who will in the end be free from the fire. “The one who conquers,” the one who overcomes through faithful witness to Jesus even under fire, “will not be hurt by the second death” (Revelation 2:11). The kind of death that keeps funeral homes in business is not the worst thing. It is not the biggest death. There's a bigger death, a second death, the death that involves destruction in hell and the eternal smoke of torment. Next to that, the first death is a pittance, a nothing. Polycarp has nothing to fear in the first death, so long as he can't be hurt by the second.

Instead, Jesus tells him, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). The Smyrnaeans loved to hand out those golden crowns to good citizens after they died. Polycarp spent his boyish years running between monuments that said just that: “The people give a crown to so-and-so.” Grave markers. Crowns for the dead. But what Jesus offers is nothing like that. Jesus “was dead and came to life” (Revelation 2:8). He was crucified, he bled, he died to save John and Polycarp and me and you. But then he came to life, he rose from the dead more permanently than Smyrna – and “we know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). To Jesus has been granted a truly “indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16)! Jesus declares, “Fear not, I am the First and the Last and the Living One – I died, but look, I'm alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades!” (Revelation 1:17-18). Jesus is alive, hallelujah! Jesus has the keys, hallelujah! And Jesus is giving crowns of life, hallelujah. Wreaths like these crown the wearers as victors in the strife, as overcomers, as those who instead of the second death enter into a new life beyond the grave, as those destined for glorious resurrection when Jesus will one day “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:21). Jesus has crowns to give away, crowns of life, for overcomers.

In the end of Polycarp's journey here, when those fires were lit, I'm sure that's the promise from his youth that he was thinking about. The eyewitnesses who wrote down what happened that day call him “an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our times, and a bishop of the catholic church in Smyrna, for every saying that he uttered from his mouth was accomplished and will be accomplished. … Through his endurance, he overcame the unrighteous ruler and thus received the crown of immortality. Rejoicing with the apostles and all the righteous, he glorifies the Almighty God and Father and praises our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls and Pilot of our bodies and Shepherd of the catholic church throughout the world.” Polycarp, burned as a martyr with love in his heart in his old age, well into his eighties, after a lifetime of faithful ministry – he overcame. He got the crown of life that Jesus promised, because Polycarp was faithful from youth to old age and even unto death. He passed the test. Now he belongs to that “great cloud of witnesses” watching us run our race (Hebrews 12:1).

As for us, most of us here have little expectation of ever facing physical persecution for our faith. We risk no capital punishment in living out the good news of Jesus. Neither did Polycarp, yet, when John wrote. Even at that time, Polycarp did already have to choose between fidelity and prosperity. Few of us here have ever had to choose between being faithful to God and faithful to the economy. But those times do come, as Christians are more and more slandered and vilified, as Christians lose out on worldly opportunities, as Christians learn anew what it means to place no trust in princes – or in constitutions and institutions (cf. Psalm 146:3). In all these things, we'll each wish the next generation had been better trained in the gospel – because tribulation will come. But even now, the Christian life for many of us is one with challenges: disappointment and dismay, sickness and sorrow. Not all of us have rosy outward circumstances. Yet Jesus tells us: no matter how much is in our wallets, we can be spiritually rich in all the ways that matter most. But we must be loyal in times easy and hard. We must devote ourselves to Christ's mission to build us into a healthy multi-generational church, a church serious about courage and committed to joy, a church faithfully setting aside fear but ready for times of testing.

We could do worse than to imitate Polycarp as he imitated the apostles who imitated their Lord Jesus. We must be a healthy and faithful church, and we can't do that without each striving to be healthy and faithful ourselves, like Polycarp was. Each of us can be spiritually rich. Each of us is called to be faithful. And for how we live and the choices we make, there are real consequences beyond the tombstone – a second death or a crown of life. Those things hinge on our faithfulness now, in each day and in each hour, whether we cling to grace and let the life of Jesus change us from the inside-out. Because Jesus is the First and the Last. He was dead, but he's alive forevermore! Wherever death touches you, you have a Savior who gives life the last word! Hallelujah! Each of us must be able to say, with Polycarp: “I've served Jesus, and he has done me no wrong. How could I be unfaithful to my King who saved me?” How indeed! May the Spirit that burns hotter than persecution's flames burn also in us, to glorify Jesus in our faithfulness in fearsome days. Let us press on and seek the salvation and discipleship of everyone we meet. Though bruised in the journey, let us overcome with Jesus by faith. Amen!