WHAT THE SPIRIT SAYS: SMYRNA
The Book of Revelation Unveiled 102
Do not fear any of the things you eill suffer. yes, the devil will throw some of you into prison so that you may be tried, and you will be troubled for ten days. . Be faithful even to death, and I will give you a crown of life.
Jeremiah is sometimes referred to as "the prophet of doom." His career as a prophet started when the shadow of Babylon was darkening over the land of Judah and lasted through the fall and destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of the exile, the darkest night of the children of Abraham. He saw all this coming, and his book is full of warnings of tragedy to come. His association with doom is so strong that we even have the word "jeremiad," meaning a lament.
Like all the prophets, though, he did not see the coming doom as the end of the story. Beyond it, as our first reading tells us, he heard "the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegoom and the voice of he bride, the voice of those who will say, `Praise the Lord! for the Lord is good, and his mercy endures foreverí" (Jeremiah 33:11). He may not have said, "Be faithful even to death, and I will give you a crown of life," but that seems to be exactly what he meant.
This was a message that the early Christians needed. Whether in Jerusalem, where they were highly suspect in the eyes of the religio-political establishment, or in Asia Minor, where an earthy polytheism was rooted in centuries of practice, they faced determined and devoted opposition. When we read in Romans about the importance of confessing the Lord Jesus with the mouth, we need to bear in mind that this was not "just words." This was coming out in the open at very real risk. It was not speech as opposed to action but speech as opposed to silence.
It is surely a familiar principle. We know that it is easy to do what we should when everything is going our way. The test of our commitment comes when things get difficult, and especially when the difficulties are within us rather than in our circumstances. When circumstances seem to conspire against us, it can be bracing. We can often rise to the challenge. As a trivial example, I might cite the wisdom of the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzles. He explained in a recent column that the author of the puzzles and the reader are actually working toward the same goal. The author wants the reader to solve the puzzle, but wants the puzzle to be difficult enough that when it is solved, the reader can say, "Look how clever I am!"
No, real difficulties come when our own reluctance threatens to take over, when the goal itself seems to lose its appeal. "Why am I doing this?" We can think of any number of other things that we would rather be doing, other places we would rather be.
About all we can do at such times is grit our teeth and keep on going. We can remind ourselves of the reasons we chose this course of action, even though those reasons no longer seem persuasive. We can remind ourselves that our moods do change, recalling times when we have given up and have later regretted it. We can remind ourselves particularly of the promise with which we started, with whatever touch of "the crown of life" we glimpsed on the horizon.
This is no light matter. Our third lesson reminds us that on the natural level, our text is calling us to be faithful through the whole course of our life on earth, until the day of our physical death. It immediately goes on, though, to contrast this with a spiritual level of meaning in which the death is not the death of our bodies but the death, so to speak, of our illusions. ". . . we are to accept and acknowledge truths even to the point that our false notions are put aside by them and as it were abolished" (The Book of Revelation Unveiled 102).
This seems like a rather long leap from the letter to the spirit until we reflect on our attachment to our own ideas. It is no accident and no exaggeration to refer to "pet notions." We do have opinions that we cherish. We invest ourselves in them and take personally any challenge to them, especially, it seems, in the areas of politics, the arts, ethics, and religion. We are quite content with our tastes and quick to resist any suggestion that they may be mistaken.
We are advised in The Book of Revelation Unveiled (?91, 97) that the description of the church at Smyrna is an image of people who are living basically decent lives but whose understanding of religious principles is mistaken. This lack is reflected in Smyrnaís poverty and as well in the struggles that lie ahead for her. We are even told that the good that people like this do is not really good, which seems in a way unfair.
We are dealing with something quite basic here, namely with the way our minds and our hearts interact. It is an elusive subject, in part for the rather obvious reason that we approach it with our own minds and our own hearts, and self-study can be slippery work. There seems to be no plate-glass mirror of the soul, no way for us to see ourselves clearly and fairly.
We may be able to come at the matter a little more deviously, though, but looking at some theoretical "others." Let us make those others people who believe that God is stern and vengeful, constantly watching to see what we do wrong and to exact due punishment. This kind of belief can be deeply rooted in people whose parents treated them that way as children. It can be very much a factor in people whose churches have used the fear of hell to keep their members in line. It may not be a belief that is put into words, incidentally. The official theology may be that God loves us. The subtext, though, is that there are strict conditions to that love. In other words, it is quite possible to think "love" consciously and to feel vengeance under the surface.
This feeling does contaminate any good that is done because it injects an element of fear, of compulsion. The good is being done at least in part for the sake of self-preservation. One example that comes to mind by way of contrast is the current anti-smoking campaign on television, the glimpses of children grieving the untimely loss of parents. The message here is not "Look what you are doing to yourself," but "Think of what you mean to others." It is very much in accord with the principle that we should take care of ourselves so that we can be of use to the neighbor (The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 97).
If we are ruled primarily by a fear of what we might do to ourselves, though, it is very hard to move beyond it. There can be an absolute terror that if the restraints of fear were taken away, we would rush into all kinds of evils. Somehow, we have to discover that we are beloved even when we are at our worst, and we dare not let that worst out into the light of day. It is desperately important to us to be the decent people we are pretending to be, to be the facade we are presenting to the world and to ourselves.
Small wonder, then, that our second lesson speaks of being in prison. There does seem to be no way out. Small wonder that it speaks of a full ten days of persecution. At some point, we have to wake up to the fact that we are doing everything right and we are inwardly miserable, and that this means that something is wrong, very wrong indeed.
The solution does not lie in deciding to ignore the fears and act out all our worst impulses. The counsel of Scripture is quite the opposite: "Be faithful." "Be faithful even to death." That is, if we keep on trying to do the best we can, for the best reasons we can discover, we will ultimately discover the worthlessness, the deadness, of any goodness that we try to manufacture and the beauty of the goodness that the Lord is constantly trying to give us. Wewill be moved beyond the whole "credit and blame" game that relies on fear to enforce its rules.
It is to be hoped that this particular example, the example of belief in a vengeful God, is not particularly apt within our own church. It is intended in the spirit of Nathanís parable to David, as something we can see "out there" and look at with some fair-mindedness. Then it is up to us to ask whether there is some subtler equivalent in our own personal faith and life. Do our own efforts to live as we should bring us the inner joy that they promise? It is easy for us to look at the dissatisfactions in our lives and find causes for them in our circumstances rather than in ourselves. It is easy, but it is rather pointless, since we are far more able to change ourselves than to change our circumstances.
The admonition to be faithful applies to us on two levels. On the natural level, we should not stray from faithfulness all the days of our earthly lives. We are in this for the long haul. On the spiritual level, we should be open to ever those truths that will displace our pet misconceptions, that will push them out of the center of our attention and off to the fringes. This, evidently, is a process that we are not likely to finish in this life; but it is the goal, the destiny if you will, that the Lord has in mind for each of us. Here and now, it does involve our willingness to let go our grip on "appearances of truth" that we have taken as truths, trusting that there are deeper truths concealed within. For some reason, the image that comes to mind is that of the trapeze artist who has to let go of one bar in order to grasp the next. Otherwise, we just swing back to where we were before?or more probably, swing back and forth until we wind up just hanging there.
No, the "goods and truths" the Lord offers us are in motion, calling us every day to something a little higher, a little better, a little more joyful.