Sermon: Smyrna

I invite you to open your bibles with me to the book of Revelation. Revelation is the last book in the Bible – number 66 out of 66. If you are in any other book in the Bible, you have not gone far enough. If you are looking at the back cover, you have gone too far. Revelation, chapter 2, verses 8-11. If you have been with us the last few weeks, we have tuning our hearts to praise the Lord. In a world that sings so loud and out of tune, we are being invited into the vision of John, wherein all the messy, chaotic, disjointed facets of our daily lives are brought together into the story of God’s redemption.

The book of Revelation is a letter that was originally circulated among seven churches in Asia Minor – Modern-day Turkey. Jesus commanded John to write to these churches and included individual letters to each church within the book of Revelation. Each church was invited to listen in to the word of Jesus to all the other churches. This morning, we get to listen in to the word of Jesus to the church in Smyrna, trusting that this word is for us as well.

But before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s Word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:

These are the words of the first and the last,

who was dead and came to life.

I know your affliction and your poverty,

even though you are rich.

I know the slander of those

who say that they are Jews

and are not,

but are a synagogue of Satan.

Do not fear what you are about to suffer.

Beware, Satan is about the throw some of you

into prison so that you may be tested,

and for ten days you will have affliction.

Be faithful until death,

and I will give you the crown of life.

Let anyone who has ears

listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Whoever conquers

will not be harmed by the second death.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The letter to Smyrna comes as the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life. Jesus names himself to this embattled church as the one who holds all of history in his hands, who brackets all of life with his presence, who himself is the first and the last. To this church located in Smyrna, which considered itself as the first and chief among the cities of Asia, who took pride in its place in the world, Jesus names himself as the true ‘first and the last’ in this world. To a community bearing under external pressure to give up their faith, to set aside their worship, and to break under suffering, Jesus names himself as the one who died and came to life. Death and resurrection are the way of Jesus and the way of life in Jesus. If our Lord himself died before being raised to life, should we expect any less for ourselves?

Even in his introduction, Jesus is proclaiming hope to the church in Smyrna. This church which is in poverty and suffering affliction, is told that they are enduring nothing that their Savior has not already undergone. There are not going where their Lord has not gone before. He has walked ahead of them into death and into new life, and they can endure without fear, because if they follow him until death, they will follow him into life itself.

All this we hear as Jesus names himself in the opening of this letter, but we also hear something else. Jesus’ introduction echoes the words he spoke to John in the first chapter of Revelation. After John turned to see whose voice spoke to him and saw Jesus robed in majesty and pavilioned in splendor, he fell at his feet as though dead. Jesus placed his right hand on him and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last and the living one. I was dead and, see, I am alive forever and ever and I have the keys of death and of Hades.

In each of these letters, Jesus’ name echoes what was seen and spoken in the opening chapter of revelation. What the church in Smyrna is to see in Jesus is not new. It is not limited to them alone, but it is specific. To Smyrna who suffered under persecution, Jesus names himself as the one who has gone through it before them.

There are two significant features of this introduction for us. First, Jesus reveals himself in particular and specific ways to each church. He knows who they are and where they are. He knows their situation and their circumstances. So, he shows up to them in truth, as who he is – remember, these words echo the vision John was given earlier. This is not a different Jesus for each church, but Jesus shows himself in a way that is particular to each congregation. Jesus knows where we live. He knows the pressures we live under, the stress and challenge we endure. He knows our poverty and our affliction. He knows what we have suffered and what we will soon suffer. And Jesus meets us in this situation, in our particular place and circumstance. He meets us right where we are with exactly what we need.

The second feature is that no church gets the whole vision. Each church has the true Jesus, but each only receives some of the gifts, some of the promise. Each church is only partial. Each congregation is truly and completely the church, but no congregation exhausts the church. In Revelation, Jesus stands in the midst of all these churches. He does not stand only in Ephesus and not in Smyrna or only in 4 out of 7.

As churches, we need each other. We are most fully the church when we are together. When we place all seven letters together, we get a fuller picture of Jesus than any one letter alone. In the same way, we get a fuller picture of Jesus with all the churches together than we would with just one congregation alone. Remember, at the end of each of these letters we are urged, Let anyone who has ears listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. We are not called to only listen to the letter to our churches, but to all the letters, because we are all in this together.

I told you last week that the normal pattern for these letters is an introduction, then a word of affirmation, a word of promise. That is the normal pattern, but the letter to Smyrna is one of the few that shift from that pattern. There is no word of correction from Jesus.

The church in Smyrna is an embattled church:

I know your affliction and your poverty,

even though you are rich.

I know the slander of those

who say that they are Jews

and are not,

but are a synagogue of Satan.

Do not fear what you are about to suffer.

The pressure facing the church was not from the inside, but from the outside. While Ephesus regularly faced and fought off false teaching, but was struggling internally with the call to live a life of love, the church in Smyrna faced immense pressure from those outside the church.

Smyrna was proud and loyal city. They were fiercely loyal to the Roman empire, even petitioning to be the first city to build a temple to the Roman Emperor Tiberius. The worship of the empire, the turning of its values into a place of ultimate trust, this was what it meant to be Smyrnan. To question this patriotism was the spit on the very center of the city’s identity.

The state demanded ultimately allegiance, the whole of your life in its service. You could worship your gods on your own time and in your own way, but when Rome called, you answered and your gods were shifted to the side. This was symbolized by the offering of incense to Caesar in his temple. It was a way of declaring allegiance to the state. It was, in some way, very honest about the religious character of political life.

But the Christians of Smyrna could not place their trust in any empire. They heard the words of Jesus, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” They knew the words of Peter before the Sanhedrin, We must obey God rather than human beings!” They knew the words of Paul, saying, Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for their is no authority except that which God has established. They prayed the words of Psalm 146:3, Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.

They knew what it was like to live in a country that demanded their life, their all. They knew they were called to be good citizens even when ruled by unjust rulers, but they could not give what Rome demanded. They could not say that Caesar was their ultimate LORD, that Caesar deserved their ultimately allegiance, that Caesar deserved their worship as God.

So they suffered. The Spirit reveals to John that this was the work of Satan which would have Christians thrown into prison and even face death.

Beware, Satan is about the throw some of you

into prison so that you may be tested,

and for ten days you will have affliction.

They suffered because they placed their complete trust in God alone and would not give the state, the party, Caesar their complete faith and trust.

Smyrna was also a city with a large Jewish population. The first century was a struggle between Jews and Christians as to the identity of the people of God. Jews were protected by Roman law to worship the Lord and not Caesar. As the Christian church transitioned from a Jewish movement to bringing in more and more Gentiles, the identity of the church as a sect of Judaism was called into question. The protection of the law broke down and the church faced persecution from both the state and the Jewish community.

I know your affliction and your poverty,

even though you are rich.

I know the slander of those

who say that they are Jews

and are not,

but are a synagogue of Satan.

It was advantageous to be able to claim Jewish status in the first century, but that was taken from Christians and they suffered for it. Loss of property, loss financial stability, loss of freedom, loss of life.

We do not live in Smyrna, at least, not yet. It is popular in some circles to claim that Christians face persecution for their beliefs in this country. Yet, we do not lose our jobs, our houses, get thrown into prison, or lose our lives because we profess faith in Jesus Christ.

There may come a day in my lifetime or that of my children where this is true. There may not. God alone knows the future. So as we listen to the words of Jesus to this persecuted church in Smyrna, we do not want to be too quick to identify our situation with persecution. This is especially true when Christians around the world face prison, torture, and death at the hands of those who would rid the world of the people of the Triune God. Work Revelation reminds us is the work of Satan, no matter what face it wears.

So in one sense, we should hear this letter for the sake of our brothers and sisters in persecution. We should hear this as the body of Christ, which Paul reminds us should hurt when any part is hurting. When our brothers and sisters across the globe face affliction, poverty, slander, and even death for the name of Jesus, our voices should cry out to the LORD for them.

The letter to the church in Smyrna should call us to pray. To pray for strength and courage for those facing external pressure and persecution for their faith in Jesus Christ. To pray that it would be true today what the church Father Tertullian spoke almost 1900 year ago, “We multiply whenever we are mowed down by you; the blood of Christians is seed.” In other words, as Christians fall dead like seeds to the earth, the Spirit of God uses their witness to draw many sinners to repentance and grow the church.

On the one hand, we hear the letter to the church in Smyrna for all those living in the Smyrnas of today – the beleaguered and embattled church around the world. And we lift our voices in prayer. On the other hand, we still hear these words as the Word of the Lord to this church situated on the corner of 120th and Q.

The letter to Smyrna reminds us that there should be nothing surprising about encountering difficulty and resistance in living out of Christian faith. The fact that it can be hard to follow Jesus – to have faith and worship him alone, to hear and trust his word, and to walk in grateful obedience – this should not surprise us. The fact that it can be hard, not simply because I am a sinner, prone to love myself and not God and my neighbor, but also because the world arrays itself against me and entices and distracts me – this should not surprise us.

It should not surprise us that the life of faith is not easy, because it wasn’t for Jesus. Affliction, poverty, slander, suffering, wrongful imprisonment, and death. These were all the things Jesus himself experienced. The life of the church in Smyrna mirrors the life of Jesus. The life of faith, belonging to Jesus, walking in his footsteps will often including walking a difficult and embattled path.

In fact, Jesus promises opposition. Beware, Satan is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. He also said, If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to this world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.

We learn from the letter to Smyrna that we should not be surprised when it becomes difficult to follow Jesus. We do not belong to the world, so we should not expect it to welcome us with open arms.

In the midst of the challenging path of faith, Jesus speaks words to Smyrna that are as much for as it is for them.

First, do not be afraid. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. The most common command in the whole of Scripture is the call not to be afraid. God will care for us no matter what we face. We need not be afraid. Death is not the worst thing that can be done to us. Jesus has already conquered death and removed its sting. Those who belong to him have no fear in life and ultimate hope in death. For centuries, Christians have walked into suffering, face hardship and opposition and death, not out of a naive sense of ‘everything will work’ but with the sharp-edged hope that life or death, pain or sorrow, opposition or acceptance are small compared to the joyous hope found in Jesus Christ.

First, do not be afraid. Second, beware. Be aware. Beware, Satan is about the thrown some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Do not be afraid; expect it. Be aware. The life of faith is a battle, not against flesh and blood, but against the powers and principalities of this dark world. Be aware that you are in the struggle. Some of the greatest danger is when we do not even realize what we are facing. Satan wants nothing more than to bind Christians, literally, spiritually, emotionally. Be aware and do not fear. Remember the words of James: “Consider it great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (1:2-3)

Lastly, Jesus tells us to be faithful. Be faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life. Jesus promises that those who endure will receive the crown of victory. Jesus went through death into life and those who belong to him will follow the same road. Death will give way to life. What looks like defeat will end in victory, because Jesus Christ – the one to whom we belong – will cause us to join him in the resurrection.

Be faithful. Whether you face the large trials of big Smyrna or all the little smyrnas along the way, be faithful. Be faithful not on your own strength, but trust that Jesus Christ, who walked ahead of you and was tempted in every way, will himself strengthen you in the trial and bring you into the joy of his kingdom.

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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