The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

A TRIP IN TIME

Delivered 10/20/96
Text: Rev. 2:12-17
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

A trip in time. Ever wish you could make one? The "Back to the Future" movies. H. G. Wells, The Time Machine. Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I have never been much of a science fiction buff, but the concept of time travel... being able to go back in history, to actually BE there while important events were taking place, and even to alter the course of events by knowing ahead of time how they would turn out...is a fascinating thought. It would be great to be able to actually BE in Philadelphia in 1776 and cheer for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, or to BE at Gettysburg in 1863 and hear Lincoln's famous address, or even to be in Munich in the 1930's when Hitler was first attracting attention to cry out, "No, no, don't let this man come to power; you will be bringing disaster on the world." The idea of time travel is a wondrous thing.

For Christians, of course, time travel back to the first century would be particularly special...to actually mingle and talk with those first disciples, to come up to Peter or James or John and ask how the fish are biting or to be invited to dinner at the home of Mary and Martha or to sit on the ground right next to Jesus as he spoke with his most intimate friends. That would be something.

It would be special to walk the streets of those ancient towns and cities where the first churches were formed, to meet with those early believers and join in their worship. We CAN do that, you know...BE there...at least in our imagination.

Let us do it...take a trip...back through time. Imagine that someone has just put into your hand some phenomenal high tech crystal on which you can dial in a date and a place. Then by pressing a button, POOF, you are there. You dial in 95 AD, and then you punch in Pergamum. Pergamum? Why Pergamum? Because the preacher said that is where the sermon would be set this morning, and it is his crystal. That is why Pergamum!

Pergamum really is not a bad choice. Historically, it was the greatest city in ancient Asia. It was the capital city of the whole province and had been the capital even before the Romans came to power. For almost 400 years, in fact, Pergamum had been the regional seat of government. It is really rather a good choice for time travel because capitals are always fascinating.

Now you push the button...and you are there, standing on a street corner with wide-eyed wonder watching the people of the city. It is as if you had just stepped onto a Hollywood sound stage - the wealthy in their sandals and togas, the poor and the slaves in their sackcloth, over there two Roman legionnaires talking together who look like they have just stepped out of something by Cecil B. DeMille. For a moment you feel out of place and conspicuous, but then you notice that you too are clothed in the dress of the day - sackcloth, I'm afraid; the Christians are not wealthy. The only thing that could give you away is that crystal you still hold in your hand.

You begin to walk down the street, taking in all the sights and sounds. Pergamum turns out to be an impressive city. It is built on a 1,000 ft. high cone-shaped hill overlooking the Caicus River valley. As you move farther up, you look back and see the blue Aegean some 15 miles away.(1) It is quite a sight.

Some of the buildings are marvelous. As you ascend the hill you pass a huge library that contains some 200,000 parchment scrolls, an immense number in an age when everything has to be written and copied by hand.

Actually parchment was invented in Pergamum.(2) Quite a story behind that. Up till that time, all writing had been done on papyrus, paper made from reeds which grew on the banks of the Nile. As a matter of fact, the making of papyrus was a monopoly of the government of Egypt and that nation was proud of it and of its own contributions to learning, its own tremendous library in Alexandria. As the story goes, the king of Pergamum, in an attempt to enhance the reputation of his own library, tried to hire away the chief librarian from Alexandria, a world-famous scholar by the name of Aristophanes. But the king of Egypt got wind of it, had Aristophanes put into prison to keep him from leaving, and then cut off the supply of papyrus to Pergamum. Well, Pergamum had to do something, so they came up with something new, a process by which the skins of animals could be pressed and treated to retain writing. And that was the invention of parchment...all because of an international incident created over the hiring of a librarian.

You continue walking up the hill and notice some beautiful temples. As was the case with all the cities of the ancient world, each one had a particular god that was thought of as their own special protector. For Pergamum, it was Asclepios, the god of healing. His emblem was a serpent, and to this day, the caduceus symbol is associated with medicine. As you pass by the temple, you notice that it really looks more like a hospital than a house of worship - sick people lying about hoping for a miracle cure. But as you look closer, you wonder how they could stay there - the place is filled with snakes...harmless snakes, but still, snakes are snakes. It turns out that these sufferers believe that the touch of the snake is the same as the touch of the god, and this is the way they'll be healed. Hmm! Keep that time travel crystal close by. If you get sick, get out of Pergamum and back to the 20th century FAST.

You continue walking past the temple and as you keep taking in your surroundings, your eyes are drawn about three-quarters of the way up the hill on which Pergamum is built and a sight that dominates the entire landscape - the Temple of Athene and the great altar to Zeus in front of it. It stands on a ledge that juts out from the hillside about 800 feet up. That altar is a huge thing: 90 feet square and four stories high. Smoke from the sacrifices rises from it constantly. It is something. The whole city is something.

You would like to keep slowly meandering about, taking in the sights, but you realize that this is the Lord's Day, and you want to join with that small band of Christians in their worship. You know that it is dangerous to be known as a Christian these days in Pergamum. After all, this city is the administrative center of Asia which would make it the headquarters of the worship of Caesar, not the worship of Christ.(3) So, discreetly, you have found out where the faithful gather and you make your way to a small house on a side street to be with them.

To be sure, they eye you with some suspicion as you knock on the door. After all, you might be a spy - someone from the government or an agent of the Jews. You cannot very well say, "Hi, I am a time traveler from 1996 and I want to worship with you." They would tell you to go up the hill to the temple full of snakes. No, all you can do to identify yourself is silently take a small stick and draw the outline of a fish in the dust outside the door - that is the "password," your Christian ID card.

You come into the dimly lighted room and stand with the others. There are no seats. You look at them; they look at you. You hold tightly to your magic crystal, just in case. But in a moment, all eyes go to the man who has come to the center of the room and begun to speak. He is apparently their minister, and is saying something about a letter that has been delivered this week. It is from their bishop who is in a prison camp over on the island of Patmos, written in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

As the pastor begins to read, you realize that you have heard this letter before: "the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword." Hmm. You and all those there with you know the letter is written in the name of the Savior, but your fellow- worshipers know about two-edged swords in another context. The Roman proconsul in Pergamum has one, and he has the authority that goes with it. He has the power of life and death which can be used against anyone considered a threat to society.(4) Christians were seen as a threat. After all, they refused to come into the temple of the goddess Roma once a year and burn that little pinch of incense that demonstrates their loyalty to Caesar - they can be killed for that.

As you hear the minister read the words, you want to shout a loud AMEN because you know that Jesus is at no loss for power compared to the proconsul. You know that a day will come when Rome will no longer rule the world, but Jesus will continue to reign throughout all eternity. But, you are a Presbyterian, and Presbyterians do not shout in worship. So you keep quiet and let the man go on.

"I know where you are living, where Satan's throne is...the provincial capital...Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you..." You do not want to interrupt anything, but you lean over to the woman standing next to you and whisper, "Who is Antipas?" She whispers back, "One of our brothers who was taken to the arena and boiled in oil because he would not say `Caesar is Lord.'" You nod in appreciation for the information then think for a second about how many of your Christian friends in 1996 would never have to worry about that happening to them. If Christianity were a crime, there would not be enough evidence of it in their lives to convict them.

Your attention goes back to the letter. "But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication...immorality." You do not have to ask anyone what that means. You remember it from Sunday School. Balaam taught the children of Israel that it was all right to compromise. He had said that the worship of idols, the eating of food that had been dedicated to those idols, sacred prostitution were not so terrible as long as the people worshiped Yahweh as well. Sure, and that is why, in Israel, the name Balaam had become synonymous with evil.

And that was precisely why the letter the preacher is reading comes down so hard on the Nicolaitans. These are folks in the church who are saying that going up to the Roman temple and burning that little bit of incense and mouthing the obligatory line, "Caesar is Lord," is not such a terrible price to pay for being able to worship Christ in peace and without fear of persecution. Their message is "Go along to get along" - failure to compromise, a refusal to bend a little, is hazardous to your health.

Now you REALLY wish you could shout something out. You wish you could tell these new friends of yours about what happens when the church gets in bed with the world. You wish you could tell them what happened when the church in the Middle Ages compromised with the rulers of the day and, supposedly in the name of Jesus, ended up making a graveyard of the globe. You wish you could tell them what happened when the German Christians compromised with Hitler in the 1930's and saw the Holocaust ensue. You wish you could tell them how easy it is for Christians to come to love their own passing pleasure more than they love Jesus. You wish you could shout that out...but they would not understand. As you stand there it occurs to you that millions of your own contemporaries do not understand despite all the lessons that history has taught. No, you just keep quiet and keep a tight grip on your magic crystal.

The letter continues. "To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna..." Hmm. Interesting stuff. You reach back in your memory bank and remember that old Jewish legend about someone hiding the pot of manna that had been in the Ark of the Covenant so it could not be stolen when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed 700 years before. As the story goes, when the Messiah comes, the hidden manna will be discovered again.(5) Those standing there with you in Pergamum who come from a Jewish background understand: the bishop is using symbolic language. He is saying that those who keep the faith, those who do not compromise, will one day enjoy the blessings of the Lord's return.

"...and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it." You almost laugh at that. Superstition. You look around the room and wonder how many already have something like that. After all, it was common to carry an amulet (sometimes just a stone) with the name of a god written on it for safety. And they were thought to be doubly effective if no one other than the owner knew whose name was on it.(6) Foolish superstition. But then you realize that half your friends in the 20th century carry lucky pennies or a rabbit's foot or something like that. They do not mean anything, but people still hang on to them. But, as you think of it, you realize that a word of assurance, a word of safety for these folks in Pergamum who face danger every day because of their Christian faith is welcome indeed, even if that word is couched in the language of superstition.

Now the letter is over. The pastor has called for a time of prayer and, in a moment, the little group has gathered around a small table to celebrate the Lord's Supper. You hear familiar words: "This is my body...this cup is the new covenant in my blood...do this in remembrance of me." The moment is just as special for you in that little house as it would be in the most magnificent cathedral. You really FEEL the presence of the Savior.

It is over almost too soon. You try to get away without saying too much to anyone. It is not that you are unfriendly. It is just that you do not know what to say about where you have come from or how you happen to be in the neighborhood. So you walk quickly into the street, turn the corner, dialing your magic crystal to Greensboro and 1996 as you go. You press the button and POOF, you are back in your seat at St. Paul. The trip in time is over. Or is it?

Can it EVER be? You see, the words of the Lord to those folks in Pergamum live on...the words about remaining faithful in spite of persecution or ridicule, the words denouncing those who would compromise the Gospel for the sake of convenience or power or pleasure, the words promising eternal blessing and safety for those who keep the faith. No, those words are time travelers themselves, and they do not even need a magic crystal.

"Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches."

Amen!


1. James Blevins, Revelation: Knox Preaching Guides, John Hayes, ed.,(Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), p. 17

2. William Barclay, The Revelation of John, Vol. 1: Daily Study Bible Series, rev. ed., (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), p. 88

3. ibid., p. 90

4. ibid.

5. ibid, p. 94

6. ibid. p. 97

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