Come, Take Your Crown (Revelation 2)
These are the words of Him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. (Revelation 2:8)
Some time ago, a father contacted the pastor of his church with wonderful news. The pretty and intelligent elementary-school daughter of this poor family had been nominated to participate in a Little Princess pageant. The family was excited because if this young girl won the crown, she would bring home fabulous prizes: a new car, a family trip to Disney World, a full scholarship to the university of her choice. The parents were sure she would win because their daughter was smart, attractive, and talented.
There was a problem, however. To enter the pageant, the family had to come up with thousands of dollars in fees. The pastor smelled a rat. It had to be a scam because only days before another family with little money had told him their son had been nominated to participate in a Little Prince pageant. How cruel! Someone was profiting by targeting poor families who wanted things to be better in their lives. These families dreamed of a crown that would bring a new life, but the reality was a scam.
We do not have to settle for scams. Christ has won for us a crown: a new life, a rich and happy life—everlasting life. Christ promises this to all who know Him by faith. That is the good news the angel brings from Jesus to the church at Smyrna: “These are the words of Him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (v8). That is the good news the angel brings to us today. The crucified and risen Savior you have believed in is eternal. He always has been and always will be. And you are safe in Christ.
Jesus as the First and the Last is something like a set of bookends. Surrounding my desk are shelves of books. By themselves these books tend to fall over like dominoes. To keep them safe, some of them are pushed together and propped up with bookends. Between the bookends my books are secure.
You and I are secure in Jesus, the First and the Last, who died and lives. Like bookends, this great truth of faith is seen at the beginning of our Christian life and at the end. In Holy Baptism we have our new birth. In this washing, the eternal Son of God, who died for our sins but now lives, sends us His Holy Spirit, breathing into us new life and a new nature. We are washed clean. We are given the righteousness of Christ. We are given faith to receive His gifts. Then, blessed with however many days and years God gives us on this earth, we die and are buried. But the power of new life in Baptism goes on. The body made holy in the Sacrament of Baptism is kept safe until the day of resurrection. On that day it comes forth, wondrously new and whole, never to suffer or die again. Jesus, the First and the Last, who died and lives, guarantees this with His cross and empty tomb and our Baptism. This is the crown that matters, the certainty of every believer.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Christians at Smyrna believed this. You and I believe this. This is why so many of us have gathered today in celebration. As we sing in the hymn: “Jesus lives! The vict’ry’s won! Death no longer can appall me!” (LSB #490.1). We know the first part of this beloved hymn verse is true. It is the second part with which we have problems. We are absolutely convinced that the crown of life is ours, but there are so many frightening things that stand between us and that glorious day when we will receive this crown.
That was the experience of the church at Smyrna. Christianity was not a legal religion. It was okay to be a pagan or a Jew but not a Christian. One could worship at any of the temples of the local pagan gods; one could worship Rome, the emperor, or the Roman Senate; one could attend the synagogue, but Christians were suspect. They served a different king. They might be accused of cannibalism because their worship services included eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ. In the eyes of some, because Christians did not worship a statue of their God, they did not really have a god, which meant they were atheists, and atheists were undesirable.
Because Christianity was not legal, Christians were persecuted. The pagans would accuse Christians of disloyalty to the emperor. After all, if they were loyal, they would worship the emperor’s image like everyone else. The Jews, whose religion was protected, would make it clear that Christians were not part of the synagogue. Christian merchants had trouble selling their goods. Without ties to the community, Christians often had difficulty finding work. Some Christians were extremely poor; some faced starvation. Those that didn’t starve might be arrested and killed unless they denied their faith. This happened to Smyrna’s most famous pastor, Polycarp. He died for his faith rather than deny Jesus.
The Christians in Smyrna had to endure persecution. They also had to contend with the temptations that come from the world, the devil, and our sinful nature. And bad things happened—injuries, illness, accidents, death—to test these Christians. But in all these things, the Christians of Smyrna found a gracious God in Jesus Christ, a God nearby and not far off, a God who walked with them and suffered with them.
Let’s move the clock ahead to our day. If you believe in Jesus Christ and bad things are happening to you, you might wonder where the promised crown is. You might even be tempted to fall away from Jesus if things become bad enough. And things can become pretty bad. You do not have to live in first-century Smyrna to suffer and wonder whether Jesus loves you. For example:
A 22-year-old man suffers from kidney failure. He is on dialysis and may die unless someone donates a kidney. An elderly woman sells her home and moves in with a relative in what is supposed to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. A few months later, the relative throws her out and the woman is homeless. A young couple rejoices at the news they will have their first baby. A few months later, the doctor tells them their unborn baby does not have a brain. A faithful father and husband who has successfully supported his family for years finds himself unemployed—and remains unemployed one year later. A middle-age woman—attractive, faithful in her marriage, active in church—is dumped by her husband after an anniversary trip to Hawaii. He has found a younger woman. Maybe you have your own examples of suffering endured by Christians. Maybe you are in the middle of some painful experience you haven’t told anyone about. When suffering happens to faithful Christians—Christians at Smyrna, Christians in this church today—we wonder why. What did this person do—what did I do—to deserve this? We might ask the Lord if He is punishing us. The answer is a loud and clear no. God is not punishing us. All we have to do to be assured of this answer is look to Jesus and the cross on which He died. To all who turn toward the cross, Jesus says: “I am your Savior, and I have died here for your sins—all of them. I took the punishment your sins deserved, and I give you My forgiveness and righteousness in exchange. How could you possibly think I’m punishing you? If that were true, I died for nothing. But I live! I am not the cause of your suffering; I am the solution.” That is the message of Jesus and His cross.
Why do we suffer? Why did the Christians at Smyrna suffer? Suffering happens so we might know God’s faithfulness. God is not the author or cause of evil or any bad thing that happens, the devil is. But as Luther says, the devil is God’s devil. That means the devil can only do as much evil as God allows him to do. And in his wisdom, God sometimes allows the devil to do a measured amount of evil so good may result. Think of Jesus’ death. The devil tempted Judas to betray Jesus. The devil convinced men to condemn Jesus to death. The events of Jesus’ passion were bad. His death was unjust. But the result was the redemption of humanity.
The devil tested some Christians at Smyrna with prison and some, such as their pastor, Polycarp, with death. But suffering is always limited. It is just long enough and intense enough for those who experience it to learn that God keeps His promises. Christ has bound the devil and keeps him on a chain (Revelation 20:1–3). Christ says: “I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days” (v10). Whatever the pain, the heartbreak, the persecution, it lasts for only ten days. It is limited. It is brief. As Paul says: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). In fact, testing is nothing at all when compared to the blessings of the crown of life. With the crown of life guaranteed by the one who “died and came to life again,” we can get through the testing. In Christ we have the victory.
That is the promise found in Jesus’ words to the Christians of Smyrna and to us. Because Jesus died and lives again, our crown of life is certain. Verse 10 literally says in the Greek: “Believe this until death, and I will give you the wreath of life.” This is sports terminology. It is a picture of what the future holds for the winning athlete. The athlete trains, exercises, runs, spars with opponents, pours all his or her energy and strength into the competition. Why? For that moment of glory when the grand marshal of the games welcomes the winner to the victor’s circle to award the laurel wreath while the crowd cheers.
But there is a difference between athletic competitions and the contest in which we Christians are involved. In athletics, victory or defeat depends on personal effort, how hard one pushes oneself. Also there is only one winner, and everyone else loses. But in the contest that leads to the crown of life, the winner already has been crowned, and the winner is Jesus. He has defeated the opponent. Satan is crushed at the cross and the empty tomb. You and I share the victor’s crown with Jesus not because of our personal efforts but by faith—faith that is given and sustained by Word and Sacraments. Believe this, even to the point of death, and Jesus will give you the crown of life.
With this crown of life, you are also victorious. This is not a scam. This is the reality of your lives. You have won the victory over sin, death and the devil because Jesus died and rose for you. That's the great Easter message. The message that the world needs to know. Jesus died to give you the victory. The victory He charges you to share with others. Amen.