When It’s Not Your Fault
Dr. Jim Denison
I read this week about two men who tried to pull the front off a cash machine by running a chain from the machine to the bumper of their pickup truck. Instead of pulling the panel off the machine, they pulled the bumper off their truck. Scared, they left the scene and drove home, leaving the chain attached to the machine, the bumper attached to the chain, and their truck’s license plate attached to the bumper.
Did you hear about the man trapped in a vat of chocolate last week? The 21-year-old worker got into the vat to unplug it and became trapped waist deep in the chocolate. Co-workers, police, and firefighters were unable to free him until they thinned the chocolate. The man was treated at a local hospital for sore ankles and minor injuries, and released. There’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Sometimes our problems are the result of our stupidity, and we leave our license plate as proof. Sometimes we’re just stuck in the chocolate and it’s not our fault. When that happens, when we’re trapped in Smyrna with no apparent way out, we wonder where our loving and powerful God is. And why he doesn’t help us.
Where has God disappointed you? What pain has he not healed? What problem has he not solved? What burden has he not lifted? What has brought you to Smyrna today?
Background–living in the city called Bitter
Today we visit the second of the seven churches of Revelation and location of the modern-day city of Izmir. “Smyrna” is translated elsewhere in the NT as “myrrh.” Myrrh was a gum resin used to make perfume, oil, and embalming fluid. It was extremely bitter. This city was so named because myrrh was one of the products often traded through its port. For Christians living in ancient Smyrna, “myrrh” or bitterness was not just a name, but a reality.
Smyrna was a beautiful city. She owned a famous stadium and library, and boasted the largest public theater in Asia. The city also claimed to be the birthplace of Homer, with a famous monument dedicated to the poet. By contrast, the Christians living in Smyrna struggled for survival and lived in the most basic simplicity. They experienced none of her beauty and grandeur.
She was a wealthy city. The city lay on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea and boasted an excellent harbor. While impoverished Christians struggled to support their families and earn the barest of essentials, the rest of their city lived in remarkable wealth and opulence.
She was a heathen city. She boasted temples to Apollo, Asklepios, Aphrodite, and Zeus. In 196 BC she became the first city in the world to erect a temple to the worship of Rome. In contrast, the Christians of this city met in humble, obscure places of worship, in the midst of some of the most stunning temples and religious shrines in the Roman world.
And she was a proud city. Smyrna was known as the proudest city in Asia Minor. She claimed to be the first in beauty, first in Caesar worship, and the birthplace of Homer. She was the center of all that was glorious and great. And so her people looked in utter contempt on the poor and humble Christians in their mist.
Facing the problem
Now, it’s not supposed to be that way. If we are right with God, good things are supposed to happen to us. When they don’t, we wonder why we should trust him.
If vandals broke into our new Community Life Center and our alarm system didn’t go off, we’d replace it. It didn’t protect us as it was supposed to. We didn’t get what we paid for.
Why be faithful to God when such things happen? Why not go along to get along? Why stand up to the emperor worship and pagan practices of the culture, if this is the thanks we get? Why be faithful to a God who doesn’t seem to be faithful to us?
We question God’s love, or we question his power. Surrounded by the opulent wealth of Rome, we wonder if the God worshiped by our fledgling band of Christians is so great. It’s hard to trust a power you cannot see or even prove exists, when the powers you can see are so enormous.
I’ve been reading David Marion Wilkinson’s novel, Not Between Brothers. It’s an epic narrative of the settling of Texas in the years up to and following the Alamo. I learned that the greatest problem Anglo settlers faced was the Cherokee. The reason we won the land was simple: the revolver. The Indians could match our single-shot rifles with their arrows, but they had no defense against the repeating pistol, the “fire that lasts forever,” as they called it. With no other recourse, they appealed to their Great Spirit to defeat this enemy, but our guns conquered their religion.
That’s how the Empire saw the faith of these first Christians. They prayed to an unseen God, while the Romans trusted the army and wealth they could measure. Why keep faith in a Lord you cannot prove exists, especially when it seems that such faith is losing the war?
Facts which help
Five facts may help. One: God hurts as we hurt.
He claims: “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (v. 8). He has already defeated our greatest enemy, so we have nothing to fear when we follow him.
He knows our “affliction.” This word translates thlipsis, meaning “pressure,” a terrible burden which presses down and grinds us up. Jesus knows the burden we are bearing today. He knows our “poverty” as well. This is the word ptocheia, which means the person who has nothing at all. Jesus knows our financial needs, whatever they are.
He knows our “slander.” The word is literally “blasphemy.” The Jewish leaders hated Christians and slandered them in terrible ways. And he knows our pain. When he says “I know” (v. 9), he means that he feels their pain deeply. He has been wherever we are today.