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June 24, 2018

Sermon Revelation 2:8-11 . . . “Bible places:  Smyrna”

“Bible places:  Smyrna”

Revelation 2:8-11

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Back in 1981, Gordon Sumner, also known as “Sting,” wrote a song called, Wrapped Around Your Finger.  It’s a song, he says, about “turning the tables on someone who had been in charge.”

And if you’re a child of the 80’s, you just might remember the words--”You consider me the young apprentice, caught between the Scylla and Charybdis.  Hypnotized by you if I should linger, staring at the ring around your finger.”

Did you catch those words?  “Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis”?  What’s that?

Greek mythology tells us that along the straits of Messina, that narrow stretch of water that lies between Sicily and Italy, there lived two immortal and irresistible creatures.

Homer wrote about Scylla in his Odyssey.  He said:  “Nobody could look at her with delight, not even a god if he passed that way.  She has twelve feet all dangling in the air, and six long scrawny necks, each ending in a grisly head with a triple row of fangs, set thick and close, and darkly menacing death.  Up to her waist she’s sunk in the depths of a cave, but her head protrudes from the fearful abyss, and thus she fishes from her own abode, groping greedily around the rock.”

And on the other side of that narrow passageway, so the Greeks believed, sat another monster, Charybdis, with flippers for arms and legs.  She sucked water in like a whirlpool, then belched it back out again, to sink any ships that happened to pass by.

So to be between Scylla and Charybdis is another way of saying, “between a rock and a hard place,” or “on the horns of a dilemma,” or even “jumping from the frying pan into the fire.”

It’s not a place any of us would want to be.

But that’s exactly where the church in Smyrna was.  Please turn in your Bible to page 1311, as I read the words of our text.  Revelation chapter 2, verse 8:  “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:  ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

“‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and 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.  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.  Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’”

Out of all these seven cities of Asia Minor--Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea--Smyrna was the most beautiful one of all.  As ancient Athenian statesman Aristides once said, “The winds blow through every part of the city and make it as fresh as a grove of trees.”

Barely thirty-five miles north of Ephesus, it sat beside a mountain and a sea.  It was so beautiful, people called it, “the flower of Asia,” “the ornament of Asia,” and “the crown of Asia.”  

And if we had lived in that time and place, it would have been easy to understand why.  

Even though earthquakes had destroyed it not once, but twice, each time they rebuilt that city more beautiful than it ever was before.  

Its main street, one of the most beautiful in the ancient world, was named, “the Golden Street.”  It was wide and paved, and ran from the sea all the way through to the Acropolis, the highest point of the city.

And if you’d take a walk along that street, you’d first see a temple for the goddess Cybele, the mother of all gods, and a temple for Apollo, the sun god.  Then came a temple for Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing, and one for Aphrodite, the goddess of love.  Finally, at the very top was the temple of Zeus, the god of the sky, the king of all gods.  There was even a monument to Homer, whose birthplace Smyrna claimed to be.

Even more, there was a public library and a theater with enough seats to hold twenty thousand people.

And when all the cities of Asia Minor competed for the privilege of erecting a temple to the emperor Tiberius, Smyrna won, beating out her closest city and greatest rival, Ephesus.

As Cicero once wrote:  “Smyrna is one of our most faithful and most ancient allies.”

It was a center for Greek life, Greek culture, Greek drama, Greek games, Greek festivals, and Greek worship.  It was truly an amazing place to be.

And somewhere in the middle of that rich, beautiful, and powerful city was the poor, small, and struggling church of Smyrna, to whom this letter was written.  As it says in verse 8:  “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:  ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.  I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and 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.’”

It wasn’t easy to be a Christian in Smyrna, for in order to live and work there, every citizen was required, every year, to do two things--to burn a pinch of incense and to say, “Caesar is lord.”  It was something faithful Christians would never do.

Let me, for just a moment, look at two words in verse 9.  The first is “tribulation.”  “I know your tribulation.”

Now we can translate that word many different ways, but all of them have to do with affliction, distress, and pressure.

What does that mean?  Imagine if someone were to force you down to the ground, and then laid a three hundred pound rock on top of you, till the weight of it crushed the life out of you.

That’s affliction, pressure.

And the second word I’d like to mention is “poverty.”  “I know your tribulation and your poverty.”

Now when Jesus spoke that word, He could have simply used the word “poor,” like when a man is barely making it and has nothing extra to live on.  He buys day old bread and depends on charity for his clothes.

But that’s not the word Jesus used.  He used the word for absolute and utter destitution.  Though the people of the church of Smyrna were surrounded by incredible wealth, they weren’t just poor.  They were dirt poor.  They were homeless and starving.

Why?  Because they refused to burn that pinch of incense to Caesar.  And because they refused, none of the trade guilds would hire them, so they couldn’t even work to make a living.

No wonder Jesus said, “I know your tribulation and your poverty.”

And if that wasn’t enough, He goes on, in verse 9:  “...and the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”

Not only did the Greeks of Smyrna oppress them, the Jews did too.

They slandered them, Jesus said.  They slandered them for cannibalism, saying they ate Christ’s body and drank His blood.  They slandered them for immorality, because they greeted one another with a holy kiss.  They slandered them for home-wrecking, because their faith divided families.  And they slandered them for atheism, because they refused to worship the gods of Rome.

Talk about being between Scylla and Charybdis, between a rock and a hard place.
The poor, poor people of the church of Smyrna.

It’s been said that it’s not easy to preach on Smyrna now-a-days.  The average American congregation has no idea what it’s like to be that church.

Author Vance Havener once said:  “In a day of quick prosperity, it is not easy to interest a well-fed, well-clothed, well-housed Sunday morning crowd in the ‘Smyrna brand’ of loyalty.  We are not interested in what it costs to be a Christian, but in what we GET by being one.”  And he said:  “In a day of ‘Health, Wealth, and Happiness in Ten Easy Lessons or Money Refunded,’ for many, Christianity has become simply a better way to get rich or have a big time.  We would make a bellboy out of the Lord and a Santa Claus out of the Almighty.”

And while the churches of the first century were marked by spiritual wealth and material poverty, many of today’s churches are marked by material wealth and spiritual poverty.

So where’s the gospel in all of this?  We can find it in two places. 

The first is this, in verse 9:  “I know,” Jesus said.  “I know your tribulation and your poverty.”  

How could He know their tribulation and poverty?  Because He was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger.  His very first bed was made of straw!  As an infant, He escaped with His life to Egypt.  As a Man, He said He still had no place to lay His head.

Men mocked Him, ridiculed Him, and slandered HIm.  When they crucified Him, they gambled for His last piece of clothes.

For good reason, He could say, “I know your tribulation and your poverty.”

And the second word of gospel is found in verse 10:  “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.”  To put it another way, “I was here before there was anything to fear, and I will be here after the things you fear have passed away.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.  Don’t be afraid.”

As one author put it:  “You’ll never know if Jesus is all you need, until Jesus is all you have.  And when Jesus is all you have, then you’ll discover that Jesus is all you need.”

Cassie Bernall was a 17-year-old Junior at Columbine High School in Colorado.  She had long blond hair that she wanted to cut off and have made into wigs for cancer patients who lost theirs’ through chemotherapy.  She was active in her church youth group, and often took a Bible to school.

She wasn’t perfect.  She would have been the first to tell you that.  Earlier in life, she had dabbled in the occult and even witchcraft.  She abused drugs and alcohol.  Then, when she came to Christ, she turned her life around.  She wrote:  “Whatever it takes, I will be one who lives in the fresh newness of life of those who are alive from the dead.”

Then came that day in April of 1999.  And as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold stormed the school halls, they came to Cassie, hiding under a table in the library.  They asked, “Do you believe in God?”

She answered, “Yes.”

And they took her life.

As Jesus said:  “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.”  And He said:  “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

In the words of a poem:  “I counted dollars while God counted crosses.  I counted gain while He counted losses.  I counted my worth by the things gained in store, but He sized me up by the scars that I bore.  I coveted honors, and sought for degrees.  He wept as He counted the hours on my knees.  I never knew till one day by a grave, how vain are the things that we spend life to save.  I did not yet know till a Friend from above, said, ‘Rich is he who is rich in God’s love.’”


We thank You, dear Father, for the church in Smyrna and for their faithfulness in the face of distress and persecution.  Help us, in our time and place, to also be faithful, that even we may receive the crown of everlasting life; for Jesus’ sake.  Amen


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