When I was ten my family went on a trip to the South Pacific. I believe I’ve mentioned it before. Seeing the joy in the hearts of the people of Tonga who really had nothing was a life-changing moment for me. But it wasn’t all joy like that. Throughout the trip we would go from country to country, Tonga, Tahiti, Australia and New Zealand and at each place we would sit down at a restaurant and my dad would ask for ketchup. “I’m sorry, we don’t have any.” Well, on the last day of our trip we’re sitting in a restaurant and we look over at a table near us; there’s a bottle of ketchup. My dad asks the waiter if we could have some ketchup. “I’m sorry, we don’t have any.” My dad points across at the bottle on the other table. “Oh, you mean tomato sauce? Right away.”
One neat thing, though, was that we flew into New Zealand and spent a couple days there at the beginning of our trip, and then another couple days at the end, before we headed home. As we flew into New Zealand, the pilot came over the radio, informed us of the weather and welcomed us to Auckland. “You are now entering New Zealand, set your watches back twenty years.”
And the pilot was right. It was a different world. Things were much slower, and we happened to be staying there over a Sunday, and pretty much the only thing open on that Sunday was our hotel. We walked around town near our hotel and no restaurants were open, we turned on the television and watched sheep dog herding and lawn bowling and there were no commercials on Sundays. Life stopped on Sundays so that people could celebrate the Sabbath.
It used to be that being American meant that it was mostly assumed that you were a Christian. It used to be that on Sundays nothing was open and nothing was done so that people could go to church and not break the Sabbath. What a different world we live in today, what a different pace we live at, and what different expectations we have for Sundays.
I. Where Satan Lives
Many Christians bemoan the loss of the Christian values of our country. Many Christians look with longing at the times past where Christians were deciding the values of the culture. But there are some who think that this might actually be something that will be good for Christianity. They will say that it is good that as a Church we are competing with so many other things in people’s lives. They will say that it is good that our faith doesn’t make us fit in with the culture around us, but rather causes us to stand out, to be different.
I must admit that I like the theology that says this; I like the idea of standing out as Christians and being a prophetic voice to the world and the culture around us. But, practically, this is much harder. When we compete with the entertainment and self-centeredness that the culture around us glorifies, we find it much harder to be heard. Life in the majority is a lot easier than life in the minority.
A Muslim scholar, someone who is pretty wise, actually, pointed out that reading through the New Testament, he could not find anything that talked about living life as a Christian where Christianity was in charge of the culture. Whereas, when he read through the Koran he could not find anything that talked about how to live as a Muslim as part of the minority. This is an interesting point to be made. Islam, as a religion, one that we believe was made up by humans, was designed to be in charge, to control and rule over a culture, to shape that culture into what it wanted the culture to be. But Christianity, a religion that we believe was handed to us by God, was lived out for us in the words and works of Jesus, doesn’t talk about ruling over people but rather talks about what it is like to live in a culture that may not accept you, that may disagree with you about what it means to follow God, that may attack you or punish you for your faith.
And when we look at the church throughout history, when we look at the church in the world today, it is precisely where the church is persecuted, where people are dying for their faith that God is really working and that Christianity is so very alive.
Today’s scripture, another letter from Jesus to an early church, this time in Pergamum, talks about what it means to be a part of God’s kingdom even when the earthly culture around you is turned against God. Jesus tells the Christians of Pergamum that he knows where they live. He tells them that they live in the place that Satan has his throne. Wow, they are living in the center of evil. And yet he is thankful that they are remaining true to his name, that they do not renounce their faith in him.
Jesus wasn’t just being symbolic; he wasn’t just being poetic when he talked about Satan having his throne in Pergamum. It was the city that was the center of emperor worship in Asia Minor. This was the place where people went to worship the emperor. This is where there was a temple set up to the emperor, the real sign of power in the day. And yet, even in this haven of evil, even in this center of, well, Satan’s power there were Christians, meeting, praying, praising, and remaining faithful. It is in the places of darkness that the light can truly shine so very brightly.
II. My Faithful Witness
We would love to see the world go back to a place where Christians were completely in charge of our culture. But perhaps we can be a stronger voice by standing up and telling those around us, not that they have to live the way we want them to live, but rather telling them that there is an option, that there is a better way to live.
Many in the culture around us look down on Evangelicals. They think that we’re hypocrites who want to push our agenda and our values on the people around us. And some of their attacks on us are fair. But if we started taking a different approach, if we began to look at the world around us and stop treating it like we were living in the New Jerusalem but rather realized that we were living where Satan had his throne, then we could truly make a difference to the world around us. And we could put an end to the complaints people have about Evangelicals.
What if we were telling those around us not that they had to live the way we thought they should, but rather that there was something worthwhile about living this way. What if we were standing out as an example of a better way to live, what if we were being faithful witnesses for God. It is interesting because Jesus does mention a faithful witness by name, Antipas. And the reason Antipas is mentioned by name is that he was killed for his faith. Is this something that we are willing to give up for our faith, our very lives? It’s hard to figure because it’s just a question to us; it is one that is not based in reality around us. But, it helps us to see that having faith, being faithful, isn’t always going to be easy for us, sometimes it will mean that we need to sacrifice. Faith that doesn’t sacrifice isn’t necessarily faith at all. And so we can learn from the people of Pergamum. We can learn what it means to live in a place that is not welcoming to our faith. We can learn how to follow Jesus when it is not the popular thing, the expected thing to do.
III. Cultural Compliance
But God criticizes the people of Pergamum as well. They are standing out, they are living amongst a culture that does not accept them, they are being a light in the darkness, but they are also giving in to the culture around them. They are allowing themselves to be influenced, to be changed, to be tempted by the culture around them. This, of course, is the danger of being that light in the midst of the darkness. The danger is that you might start accepting the darkness as light. The danger is that your eyes might adjust enough that you don’t realize that you’re living in darkness at all anymore.
We are called to be faithful. We are called to shine in the darkness. We are called to live in a way that might not be popular and in doing so, encourage others towards this path. This means that the way we live may not match up with the way that the culture around us lives. This means that we cannot expect the culture around us to change, but we can invite people to live like us instead of living as our culture suggests. What if, instead of telling those around us that they must be faithful to their spouses, we instead showed them how faithful living truly can be better for them. When talking to our youth, encouraging them to wait until they’re married, instead of telling them just to do it because it’s what God commands, we can explain to them that it truly will lead to a better relationship with their future spouse. Instead of trying to get our culture to become what we want it to be, we can show those around us that sometimes it is better to live in a different way than the culture around us lives. We can be faithful witnesses by showing the contrast, by living faithfully in a world where faithfulness to God is not the norm. This is what the people of Pergamum dealt with, and this is what we have the opportunity to deal with. How are we going to follow God in the coming decades? As our culture continues to move away from faithfulness in God? Are we going to be that light? Are we going to shine Jesus’ truth out to those around us? Or are we going to comply with the norms and the beliefs of the culture around us? Perhaps, instead of putting our energy into trying to change the world into the way we want it to be, we can stand up against the world and teach those around us what it truly means to follow Christ. Amen.