“Jesus' Letter to Smyrna”
The second letter that Jesus wrote to the churches of Revelation goes to the church in Smyrna. And I have to tell you that this letter holds some personal importance for me. This past summer, I sat down with my grandparents and learned some family history. They told me that my great-great grandparents, whose last name was “Chrystodoulos”, were Greeks living on the coast of Turkey in a town called Smyrna. This is the same town mentioned in our reading.
We're not sure exactly why or when, but sometime in the late 1800s, the Greeks there, including my great-great-grandparents, were massacred there by the Turkish army, and my great-grandfather Sammy was orphaned. Later, he made it to America, where his last name was shortened to “Chryst”.
So, you can see why my plans for a trip to Greece and Turkey in a year or two have some special meaning. Not only will we follow the footsteps of St. Paul, and visit the towns mentioned in Revelation, but we'll hopefully visit that town – Smyrna, which is today a city called “Izmir” and about the size of Milwaukee.
It's interesting, too, that throughout its history, Smyrna has been a place of conflict. I don't know if my great-great-grandparents were Christians or not, but most Greeks were. And the Turks, being Muslim... well I'm sure that the religious differences had something to do with that conflict.
But in the first century, it was Roman emperor worship and traditional Judaism that competed with early Christianity. And when Jesus writes his letter to the church in Smyrna, they were suffering persecution, and were about to suffer more.
He commends them for being rich, even though they are poor. Certainly he means that their spiritual riches far surpass the earthly wealth they lack. This is the same Jesus who warned about gaining the whole world but losing one's soul. The same Jesus who contrasted the Rich man and Lazarus – one wealthy on earth, but spiritually bankrupt. The other a poor beggar, but who inherits life eternal. So often in Scripture it is the poor who are truly rich in spiritual blessings.
And this should make us reflect. While there is much talk of a poor economy, and tough times with many people losing jobs and losing money in the markets, and we may feel we've all gotten a little poorer lately. Still, most of us are blessed with more than what we need to get by. We could be much worse off. But no matter what the economy does, and whether we struggle to pay our bills or not – we can truly say we are rich. We can rejoice, like the Christians of Smyrna, in the riches of God's grace shown to us in Christ. We have the blessings that money could never buy, and that we could never earn – all the benefits won for us by the perfect life and sacrificial death of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are rich. Our treasures on earth pale compared to our treasures in heaven.
Jesus also comforts the church of Smyrna, as they face trial and tribulation. Perhaps their poverty was partly because of persecution. Certainly the Jews were speaking falsely about them. And wow – Jesus calls those Jews the “synagogue of Satan”. In other words, they think they are the true believers, the true inheritors of Abraham – but they are caught up in Satan's lies. And the devil, perhaps through these blasphemers, will soon persecute and imprison some of the Christians.
Such trials and tribulations are really tests of faith. Like Abraham from last Sunday's Old Testament reading – whose faith was tested mightily. Like Job, whose faith was tested in great suffering. Like the Apostles and St. John himself who saw this vision while he was imprisoned. God's people are often put to the test of faith. And it is God who gives us the strength, and gives us the faith to face and pass those tests.
For those in Smyrna, it would be a short and finite test. Ten days – likely a symbolic number for a short but complete time set by God. And for us, while some suffering seems shorter and some seems longer, there is always an end. Even if the persecution ends in death itself, there is a promise beyond the grave.
A beautiful one here - “be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life”. Only he can give it, because he has won it for us. He who wore the crown of thorns and shed his holy precious blood give also rose victorious over death to give us a share in that victory.
Thank God for the riches – physical and spiritual that we do enjoy, especially those blessings that come to us in Christ. Thank God that we are free from persecution and trials, and pray that he sustains us if they ever do come. And Thank God for the promised crown of life waiting for all of us who trust in Jesus Christ.