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!

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