Today, we continue our 7-week series exploring the letters written to seven churches described in the book of Revelation. Revelation has provoked strong and contrasting responses! It is filled with metaphor, symbolism, image and allusion that make demands on our intelligence and imagination.
So, I am grateful to Tom Hostetler and Bob Wallace who have both led groups on Revelation during our Spiritual Formation hour. Those discussions helped me appreciate the poetic beauty of Revelation.
The poet responsible for these seven letters was the 1st century pastor, John of Patmos. Patmos was a volcanic, treeless, rocky island where, during the 1st century, the Romans put criminals so they could not escape. John was a prisoner on the Island of Patmos because he was preaching about Jesus and making the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead. During this isolated existence, John received a vision or the revelation from Jesus that was meant specifically for the circuit of churches John was responsible for: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
Eugene Peterson, minister, theologian and author of The Message study Bible, describes John as being “preeminently concerned with worship”. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the revelation comes to him during a period of prayerful worship and he shares it with the seven churches, whose primary task it is to worship. So, it is today, in our worship that we turn our attention to the third letter which was written to the church of Pergamum. If you happen to have revelation yourself do let me know!
The city of Pergamum was located north of Ephesus and Smyrna and had an estimated population of 160,000. That is more than double the size of La Verne and Claremont combined. It was the cultural, religious and intellectual center of the region with a university that boasted a library of about 200,000 handwritten volumes. There were four major temples in the area: Athena (the goddess of wisdom and the arts), Asclepius (the god of medicine, whose insignia is the entwined snake on a rod, which continues to be the symbol in medicine today), Dionysus (the god of wine and religious ecstasy), and Zeus (ruler of the heavens and father of the gods).
Pergamum had the appearance of a royal city. People came from all over Asia for emperor worship and to seek healing by the god of Asclepius in the temple. Remember that snake on a rod? Well in this temple, one of the ways it was thought to bring about full healing and recovery was to have one of the sacred snakes touch a sick person.
And I also learned from Pastor Tom’s book on revelation, that it was not uncommon for residents and visitors alike to take “part in cultic prostitution with “priests” that were both male and female”.
The fact that this took place in and around the temples posed a particular problem for early Christians who were trying to remain faithful. Often, these temples were the only place one could buy meat; this coupled with the cultic prostitution made these temples both figurative and literal meat markets!
If Pergamum had an advertising campaign it might be, “What happens in Pergamum, stays in Pergamum”. This is sin city!
I can almost picture all the dramatic architectural structures, temples and shrines lit up with giant neon signs aimed at attracting visitors.
From that perspective it is not hard to see how Pergamum earned the distinction of being “where Satan’s throne is”, and it is to this setting that the church of Pergamum receives her letter from John.
The letter begins with the words of “him who has the sharp two-edged sword”. This is a reference to Jesus. John is making sure that Pergamum understands that Jesus is the one who issues judgment and justice NOT the Empire.
The opening remarks are rather congenial: paraphrasing here…“Hey man. I know where you live! I’m not blind to the challenges of your surroundings. Thanks for holding fast, for continuing in my name and keeping the faith”.
It’s not a bad start. Jesus demonstrates genuine love and care about, and for, the church. But, there are few areas of concern and the letter’s focus soon shifts to address Pergamum’s temptations, “Why do you tolerate that Balaam crowd who sabotage sacred practices by throwing unholy parties? Or the Nicolaitans who do the same? Don’t you know this temptation is meant to cause you to stumble? To turn you away from God? Enough! Turn around. NOW!”
Jesus cuts to the chase and cautions Pergamum to resist the temptations of the culture and practices around them. The Church of Pergamum is planted right smack in the middle of sin city. These Christians cannot simply remove themselves from the empire that surrounds them. They are swimming upstream, against a strong cultural current.
John tells us in this text that they suffer persecution and even death for practicing their faith. It is within this constant context that they are called to be faithful witnesses.
That is A LOT of pressure.
Who could blame them for wanting to escape it every now and again by succumbing to the culture and practices of those around them?
Have you ever been to Las Vegas?
It’s kind of like Disneyland for me. Before you jump to any conclusions let me explain.
Every few years or so I get a compelling urge to spend the day at Disneyland, the happiest place on earth! People are always laughing, having fun on exhilarating rides and spending quality time with their family and friends. So, I convince myself that I deserve this kind of adventure and off I go.
I go and spend way too much money, eat too much junk food, and get sunburned waiting in way too long lines – they never show the lines in commercials. I guess you could say I succumbed to the advertising campaigns – even over my own past experience and better judgment.
It’s the same for Vegas. Every couple of decades or so, I end up there for a bachelorette party or someone’s 50th birthday celebration and I go with great anticipation and excitement.
There is an air of electricity about Las Vegas. After driving through the barren desert for a couple of hours, excitement starts to build when the silhouette of the hotels appear on the horizon. As you get closer you begin to see all the colorful, bright lights – pulsing and inviting you in to this secret world where anything is possible.
That is what Pergamum is like for the early Christians. When everyone looks so happy and excited how can one not wonder about what goes on in this forbidden world? At first the early Christians linger a little longer at the temples and markets, checking it out. And, eventually they succumb, rationalizing,
What else can I do? I have to eat?
It’s not really that bad! Everybody else is doing it!
I wouldn’t want to be rude! It’s not like I believe in their pagan rituals and gods!
Hey, if you can’t beat them, join them!
It is to this mindset of compromise that Jesus says, “Turn around. Or, I will come to you soon and make war with the sword of my mouth”. The command is clear. The cost of compromising one’s faith is to be cut off from Christ.
We have all been tempted to compromise our beliefs and values at some point or another. We exist in a popular culture that practically demands it! It values money, status, power, and strident individualism.
We live in a, “she who dies with the most toys wins” kind of world and it easy to get caught up in the lie that there is not enough for everyone, or the lie that we are not enough.
But make no mistake. To believe those lies is to be cut off from God and who God knows us to be.
Scripture says, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches”.
The letter to Pergamum has something to say to the La Verne Church of the Brethren. We are being called to work together to build up the sanctity of the church in this world, because that is what is needed if, as Richard Rohr puts it, “this world is to thrive and the church is to be something more than a protector of privilege, fear-based thinking, and the status quo”.
The letter of Pergamum reminds us that the empire was not the example for the Christians of Pergamum. Likewise, the empire we are living in is not our example. No matter the time or place, Jesus was then – and is now – the one we follow.
The letter to Pergamum calls us to move away from our individual and collective temptations and once again turn ourselves back toward that young courageous prophet who regularly flew in the face of culture and always acted in love. When we do that, Jesus says, we will be given a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
As we sing our closing hymn together I invite you come forward and pick your white stone.
No longer deafened by the neon noise of our culture the white stone represents acquittal, a new identity known only to the one who holds it and God.
Come pick your stone. Hold it as you walk back to your seat and hear God speak your new name.