(While indexing my sermons, I realized I never posted this one at the time)
Sermon - Midweek Lent 3 - 2009
“Jesus' Letter to Pergamum”
So far we've read the letters to Ephesus and Smyrna. Ephesus was criticized for her lack of love, and Smyrna for fearing persecution. But both at least kept their teachings straight. The Ephesians rightly rejected the false teaching Nicolaitans, and the Church of Smyrna, stood firm against opposition from non-believers.
Today, we come to Pergamum, where all is not rosy. The Christians here had already faced persecution, such that a prominent Christian named Antipas was already put to death for his faith. And yet they remained in the faith... some of them, anyway. Others were caught up in sins and false teachings. Once again Jesus called them to repentance.
Some were holding to the “teaching of Balaam”. And to understand what Jesus means by this, we need to look in our Old Testament. Balaam was an oracle, a seer or fortune teller – that Balak king of Moab wanted to get on his side. He figured if he could get Balaam to curse the Israelites, then he and the Moabites could defeat God's people in battle. But the Lord told Balaam not to do so, and instead to bless the Israelites. Balaam's sin, which Jesus refers to here, is really an attempt to play both sides – to serve two masters. And it will never do. It's a false teaching.
False teaching is dangerous because it leads to false faith and false living. It robs of us the truth, and confuses us with lies. False teaching is insidious and subtle more often than not, lulling us into a comfort zone of self-indulgence or self-importance or self-focus in which we don't sense the danger. It turns us away from Christ as our Lord, Master, and Savior. Jesus holds against this church the false teaching of Balaam and the false teaching of the Nicolaitans.
He's not content to “agree to disagree”. He won't equivocate by saying they have the “main things right” and everything else is just a minor issue. Jesus cares about the doctrine taught in the church of Pergamum and the church everywhere.
The Christians at Pergamum – some of them – sought to have the best of both worlds. They wanted the honor and wealth and approval in the eyes of mankind and at the same time to remain in the Christian faith. But just as Balaam's sin ended in disaster, so to is it disastrous to try and serve both God and money, or to live as a child of God and a child of the world.
This was not a new teaching of Jesus. Perhaps more than any particular sin, Jesus criticized materialism and the love of money as a root of evil. He told the rich young man to sell all his possessions. He told parables which made rich men look like fools, or warned of the dangers of greed.
Not that money or wealth or material things are evil in themselves. Like all things God gives us, there is a good purpose, and a right use. But we abuse these things by making them gods and masters, and therefore turn from our true God and Master.
For no one can serve both God and money. Jesus is so black and white about this, isn't he? We like our little world of gray areas. We like compromise and a middle-ground. It makes us feel enlightened and wise, balanced and sensible to find that balance. Or at least, the idea that we can deceives us. We aren't as good at balancing as we think. When we compromise our faith, we are really just giving it away, and turning our back on God and his way.
Jesus says, “repent”. Turn around. Turn away from that sin, and return to your true Master. The same call to repentance given to all the churches, and to all Christians. Repent.
In this season of Lent, we have lots of reasons to be repentant, for we all have lots of sin. Repentance is a way of life for us Christians, a continual turning and returning to God through a daily visit to the baptismal waters, and a thorough drowning of our Old Adam. In response to his call, we confess our failing and our need. We are sinners. And he is the Savior.
Jesus describes himself here as the one holding the sharp two-edged sword. And this sword symbolizes his authority to judge, and even his very word. Paul uses the sword as a symbol for the word in Ephesians 6. Do the two edges of this sword remind us, even, of Law and Gospel – the two types of teaching in Christ's word? One, a word of judgment against sin – a word of punishment.
But another edge - meant for God's enemies and ours, a word of hope that the victory is ours. The Good News of that Gospel that Jesus calls sinners to repent is the same Jesus who was crucified for sinners. To us he gives the victory that he won over death and the grave.
Two more promises to Pergamum, and to us - “To the one who conquers, I will give of the manna which has been hidden, and I will give to him a white stone, and upon that stone a new name”.
These promises are phrased in language which recalls Jesus' gifts to the church – the sacraments. In Baptism, we receive a new name – the very name of God is placed on us, and our new identity as a child of God is sealed forever. And in his Supper, a hidden-ness – Christ's true body and blood are present, but hidden from view. Still, they are as real and certain as his word of promise, “This is my body... This is my blood”. Just as certain as the forgiveness and life that they bring.
Here in the sacraments he gives us a share in his victory, a hope in time of trouble, and strength to remain in his teaching, faithful to the end.
The letter to Pergamum reminds us to watch our doctrine and our living, and to repent when we need to. It also shows the grace of the one who bears the sword, and gives us a share in his victory, by grace. In Jesus' name, amen.