A Church for Y2K: Faithful Unto Death

Second in a series on What Christ Thinks of the Church,
Delivered May 3, 1998 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Revelation 2:8-11
8 To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of
him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.
9 I know your afflictions and your poverty–yet you are rich! I know
the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a
synagogue of Satan.
10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil
will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution
for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you
the crown of life.
11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.

On February 22, 156 AD, they turned the city of Smyrna upside down. Roman soldiers ransacked the city searching for Bishop Polycarp because Polycarp would not burn incense to Caesar. They finally found him and the officer in charge said, “Look, what harm does it do to burn incense to the emperor? Recant, and I will let you go.” And Polycarp said, “Eighty and six years have I served my God and King. He has never wronged me. How then can I blaspheme His name, this God who has saved me?” And so they roughed him up a bit and they dragged Polycarp before the Roman Proconsul in the amphitheater. And the Proconsul said, “Revile the Christ! Recant your faith and I’ll let you go! If you don’t, I’ve got wild beasts and I’ll throw you to them.” And Polycarp replied, “Let them be brought.” “Oh, you despise my beasts. Then I will destroy you by flame.” On February 22, 156 AD, Bishop Polycarp was burned at the stake. And through the flames he prayed, “I thank you, O Lord, that you have deemed me worthy. Worthy this day and this hour to take up the cross of Christ with many witnesses.”

You can make the argument that you and I will never really ever be alive until we have found something we are willing to die for. Have you found that something yet? If so, what is it? Country? Family? What about Jesus? Would you be willing to die for the gospel or for Christ? Would I?

How do you think Jesus would want you and me to answer that question? We really don’t have to speculate. We have got His answer in the text we are about to look at this morning. As we continue our sermon series on “What kind of church does Christ want for Y2K, the year 2000?” Let’s take a look. This morning we look at Revelation 2 verses 8-11. These are Jesus’ words to the church in Smyrna, that same place where Polycarp was martyred. In fact, somebody told me after the 8:30 service; you can drive to Smyrna from here — Smyrna, Delaware — where there actually is a Saint Polycarp’s Church. But anyway, these are Christ’s words to His Church in Smyrna in the first century. They are also Christ’s words to His Church here in Baltimore in 1998. Revelation chapter 2, beginning to read at the eighth verse. This is the Word of God.

To the angel in the church of Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you into prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of 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. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.

Join me as we pray: Now Father as my words are true to your Word may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from you Word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Remember what I said last week? Any time that you and I confront a text out of Revelation we ought to ask it this question: What is this text teaching me about Jesus Christ? Let’s ask that question of the text before us this morning. For starters, in verse eight we learn that Christ is the First and the Last. Now what does that mean? The world sets boundaries for your life and mine by the dates that it puts on our tombstone. Abraham Lincoln 1806 – 1865. Then all the really good stuff in our life they relegate to a hyphen in between the two dates. Don’t believe it. Your birth and your death are not the boundaries of your life and mine. Jesus is. He is the First and the Last. Before the foundation of the world the Bible tells us, God thought of you. Before you ever existed, you were an idea, a special idea, in the very mind of Christ. And death is not the other boundary of your life. Again, Jesus is. And in verse eight we see that Jesus has conquered death. That He was dead and has come to life again.

We call this Chesapeake Bay Region the land of pleasant living. But when we get right down to it, it really is the land of the dying isn’t it? At every turn we are confronted by death, its destruction, and its decay. It makes a mockery of your lives. It throws its power in our face. The monarch of this world is really death; Satan is its prince. We are hounded all of our lives by death and we have our hearts broken; and it always intrudes on our lives at the wrong time, and shatters our dreams except…

Except that you and I know, that on one Easter, God poked a very large finger through the fabric of human history and raised Christ bodily from the dead so that death would no longer be the boundary of our lives. He has removed death as that boundary and has replaced it with the One that who is nothing less than eternal life. Jesus himself. And so your life and mine is bounded on every side not by birth and death, but by Jesus. He comes to you and me and says, “I have come to give you life, life abundantly, life eternally.”

I have this saying that goes like this, I think I actually made it up, it’s the only thing that is original with me, and it goes like this, “When it’s easy to be a Christian, it’s hard to be a Christian. And when it’s hard to be a Christian, it’s easy to be a Christian.” Think about it. It was really tough to be a Christian in first century Smyrna. They were persecuted by the Romans because the Christians there wouldn’t sacrifice to the emperor. Smyrna was the birthplace of Homer, but it was also a center of emperor worship and pagan idolatry, and also a settlement of Jews who were violently opposed to any idea about some condemned criminal named Jesus being the Messiah.

In verse nine, we begin to see just how tough it is to be a Christian in Smyrna. We are told that they are in poverty. They are poor. Is this because the Christians in Smyrna came from the lower classes? Or was it because they were denied jobs, or people wouldn’t do business with them because of their faith? We are not told exactly, but we do know that they are poor, grindingly so. And yet Jesus says that they are rich. Rich, rich in faith.

That has been my universal experience whenever I have had the privilege of spending time with poor Christians in places like Mexico, and Cambodia, and Thailand, and South America, and the inner city of Baltimore. It is a reality when you don’t have anything else but Jesus, then what I am told is, that it is amazing how sufficient Jesus is. How that really is all you need in a lot of ways. In fact, every time I spend time with poor Christians, I usually come away wondering if I’m even a Christian at all because their faith is usually so vibrant and deep and honest and joy-filled and hopeful.

And we — who are increasingly more and more affluent and wealthy — need to ask the question, “Is that affluence pushing Jesus to the side in our lives?” The more we have, the more we tend to think we need. And the more we have, I don’t know about you, but I tend to insulate myself from as much of the pain of this world as I can. And I wonder how much I am insulating myself from a healthy dependence upon Jesus Christ. How much of my spiritual poverty is due to a consumer-oriented lifestyle that relegates Christ to the periphery of my life and begins to fuel me with the illusion that I am self-important and the myth that I am self-sufficient? It is when I am stripped of those things and all I’m left with is Christ, I know personally that is when my faith becomes more alive.

The Church that Christ wants us to be in Y2K, in the year 2000, is a Church where believers – wherever they are, whatever their socioeconomic class – where they are struggling with materialism and asking the questions, “Do I really need this?” and “How is this helping or distancing me from a relationship with Jesus Christ?” Those are tough questions that we as affluent North American Christians need to be asking. And it was tough to be a Christian in Smyrna because the Smyrna church was a persecuted church. The Romans were after them at one end of the spectrum because they refused to burn incense and worship Caesar. And then their closest spiritual kin, the Jews there, were persecuting them, and putting them down, and putting upon them because, well, they weren’t about to buy into this idea that Jesus was the Messiah. And so they were getting shot at from every side. And the reality folks is, that that is more than just a theoretical question for a whole lot of Christians in the world today.

We have got it pretty easy here in the United States. But there are many Christians, hundreds of thousands of Christians in the world today, this very day, who are being persecuted, thrown in prison, their families being broken up, even killed because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ. If 1998 is a typical year, somewhere between 150,000 and 250,000 Christians around the world will be martyred for their ultimate allegiance to Jesus Christ. And the Church that Christ is forming for Y2K, the year 2000, is a Church made up of men and women around the world who will stand in solidarity with those Christians. Men and women who will not take it for granted that it is always going to be like this in the United States. The Church that Christ is forming for the next millennium, the Church made up of men and women who have wrestled with the gospel to the point of saying, “Yes. I am willing to suffer. I am willing to give up and sacrifice. I am willing even to die for Jesus Christ.” And my friends, that is the Church that Jesus Christ is calling Central to be for Y2K. Let me bring that home. Let’s let the rubber hit the road. Let’s get practical here. Are you and I willing to die for Jesus Christ? I mean really.

A way to wrestle — or begin to wrestle — with that question, is in the area of tithing believe it or not. Jesus is either worth it, or He isn’t. There is no middle ground. If you and I are unwilling to tithe – not to Central — to the Kingdom of God. If you and I are not willing to do that, if we are unwilling to part with a few bucks for the Kingdom, then how in the world can we possibly say that, “Oh yes, I’m willing to die for Christ.” That is a tough question to wrestle with, but it is one that Christ lifts out of first century Smyrna and plops down right here before your eyes and mine in Baltimore in 1998.

Are you and I willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for Jesus Christ? That’s the kind of Church that Christ wants in the year 2000. Men and women, boys and girls who are willing to lay down their lives for the one who laid down His life for them.

Out of the seven churches we are going to be looking at in this sermon series, only two churches don’t receive a word of criticism and condemnation from Christ. And the church at Smyrna is one of them. He only has words of encouragement and comfort for them in the midst of their trauma. And I want us now to shift gears a little bit and look at those two words of encouragement to this church at Smyrna. We find them in verse ten, and the first one is this. Christ says, ‘Do not be afraid.’ And you and I can list all of those things we are afraid of, beginning with death, and illness, and tragedy and all of the other stuff in the world. Christ says to them, ‘You are going to be persecuted. Satan is going to throw you in prison. Some of you are gonna be killed, but don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid when you get thrown in prison, or when you are persecuted, when you suffer, because it’s only gonna be for ten days.’

What is Christ meaning there? Ten literal days? No, I think what he is saying there is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel in all of our trauma, no matter what it is. That any of the stuff you and I get hit with in life, be it prison, or persecution, or illness, or whatever, none of that stuff has an eternal quality to it. It is only gonna be there for a short period of time, at least in relation to eternity. And so don’t be afraid. Especially don’t be afraid because Jesus says, ‘I am with you in this. I am walking every step of the way with you. I don’t renege on my promise. I am with you always, even until the end of the age.’ So we don’t have to be afraid.

And then the other word in verse ten that Christ gives to these Christians in Smyrna is the word, ‘be faithful, even to the point of death.’ And they could do that. Christ has no word of criticism for the church at Smyrna because it was so tough to be a Christian there, that they were lean, and faithful. So Christ said, be faithful onto death. Because those Christians in Smyrna knew — as you and I ought to know — that death is not the boundary of our lives. That even if they were to kill those Christians in Smyrna. Even if they are to kill you and me, that’s not eternal. Jesus says what is eternal is the crown of life that I have for you. Eternal life. Don’t be afraid of death. In fact, the only death that you need to be afraid of, the only death that can be boundary in anyone’s life is the second death: hell. And that is something, if you are a believer, you don’t even have to worry about. It can’t touch you at all Christ says in verse eleven.

The Church for Y2K is a Church made up of men and women, boys and girls like those Christians in Smyrna, who have stopped dabbling in religion, who have stopped playing church, who realize that to follow Jesus Christ is costly and painful and involves sacrifice, maybe even to the point of death. And this table my friends, focuses that for us here this morning. This is a table that reminds you and me that to follow Jesus is nothing less than a matter of life and death. And that we only come authentically to His table, when we are willing to step forward and say, “Yes, I am willing to die with Christ and for Christ.”

For many Christians in the world on this very day, this will be their last supper. It is not theory for them. They will die today because of their allegiance to Christ. As you and I come forward this morning, as we receive these elements of bread and wine, we need to be asking ourselves the question, “What is it in my life that would keep me from dying for Christ?” And then whatever that is, bring it with you, bring it before Christ this morning, and lay it at His feet, and let go of it. And then ask Him to give you and me that faith. That faith that knows that Jesus is indeed the pearl of great price and is worth dying for.

The Roman emperor Licineous one winter was in high gear persecuting the Christians. His crack regiment was called the Thundering Legion, and he had them that winter based at a town called Sobaste. And one of the centurions of that Thundering Legion, a man named Sempronius, discovered that 40 of his soldiers had become Christians. And so he sentenced them one night to spend the night out on the middle of a frozen lake naked.

Meanwhile, in a house on the shore they built a nice fire and made up some warm baths, and said that if any of these forty soldiers would recant their faith, they could come on in and be fed and get a nice warm bath. And so as night settled in, forty of those soldiers huddled out in the middle of that frozen lake, some of them walked to-and -fro trying to stay warm. Some had already fallen asleep in that sleep that leads to death. Others prayed fervently. Here is the prayer that they prayed that night: “Oh Lord, forty wrestlers have come forth to fight for thee. Grant that forty wrestlers may gain the victory.”

Well in the middle of the night, finally one of them cracked. He couldn’t endure the suffering any longer, so he walked across the ice and into the home and got fed and a nice warm bath. And yet those out on the ice, those that still could continued to pray: “Oh Lord, forty wrestlers have come forth to fight for thee. Grant that forty wrestlers may gain the victory.”

But there was only thirty-nine. And yet their pray was answered. A few hours before dawn, the centurion Sempronius, amazed by the bravery of those solders out on the ice, and convicted by a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit that regenerated his heart, stepped forward before his own men and said, “I have become a Christian,” and sentenced himself to walk out on that ice, take off his clothes, and fill that spot left by that defector. And so when morning dawned, the prayer had been answered. Forty men, forty glorious spirits entered that day into the presence of Christ.

Touching story isn’t it? But it lays a big fat question before you and me, as touching as it is. A question that you and I need to answer about this guy Sempronius. This guy was either the biggest idiot, the stupidest fool that ever walked the earth, or he had discovered what it really means to be alive. Which is it? You and I have got to make some kind of decision. And I would invite you this morning to hunker down and make that decision. If you are somebody here this morning, and Jesus is a storybook character or some religious figure from the past, or a distant God – way out there, I would invite you this morning to step forward and say; “He is my Lord and savior.”

And if you are a Christian, “But hey, I like Jesus, and I’m glad he has secured eternal life for me, and you know I’m willing to give some of my time and talents to the kingdom. But give up my life for Christ? Well…not me.”

Christ is asking you, what will it be? Are you willing to take up your cross? Hopefully none of us ever will have to do that. But are we willing? Is He worth it? That is a decision you and I need to make before it is forced upon us. I would invite you to make that decision this morning as we pray.

Lord God, heavy words, and yet words that are part of the everyday existence of many believers in countries where they are persecuted for belief in You. Lord, help us to put aside all of the junk that gets in the way, all of our material possessions, and everything that pushes You to the periphery of our lives. Help us to release all of the stuff that we hold to so clingingly, that would keep us from stepping forward and going to the cross with You if we are so asked to do. O Lord, continue to mold this congregation into a church like Smyrna, where no matter what is thrown in our faces, we will stand firm and be faithful even unto death. Lord, move our hearts to that point this morning, wherever we are on the spiritual spectrum. For we ask in Jesus name and for His sake. Amen.

© 1998, Dr. Ronald W. Scates
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145
www.centralpc.org