Friday, June 29, 2012

Herding Cats and Conquering the Acropolis

[First time here? Read THIS first.]

I would apologize that two weeks have passed since the last post here, but even the Gadfly is falling behind, so I’m in good company. Also, I recently made a post over at Dispatches with some implications for our topic here.

Anyway, let's talk about Sardis.

Among the seven cities in modern Turkey whose churches receive a letter from Jesus in Revelation 2 and 3, Sardis was one of the most significant. Unlike Thyatira, which was in a valley connecting two valleys and had a reputation for being kind of Nowheresville, Sardis was a high point—literally. An impregnable city on a hill above a valley, which was protected on three sides by almost vertical sheer rock face, with a river serving as a natural moat at its base.

No army could come charging up on three sides, meaning they could focus entirely on defending the fourth. As a result, it became kind of a symbol for impenetrability (something like “Fort Knox” in our vernacular today). There was a giant acropolis in the center of the city and there had once been a common saying: “That's like trying to capture the Acropolis of Sardis,” which meant, “That's impossible.” Is it just me or does conquering the acropolis of Sardis sound more noble than trying to herd cats?

Anyway, their reputation proved to not be entirely warranted in 549 BC, when they were conquered—not by an army besieging them openly, but by the enemy slipping in through a small crack in the wall and attacking from within (if there is a theme in Revelation 2-3, this may be it: be on guard, not only for the dragon attacking as a lion from without, but slithering in as a serpent to destroy from within).

Here’s how it went down: the Persians were scoping the place out and happened to see a soldier come partway down some steps cut into the rock wall to get his helmet. He probably knew he was being watched, but didn’t care. After all, they were so certain of their invulnerability that they didn’t post so much as a single guard on the three “safe” sides of their city. I mean, this is Sardis; what did they have to worry about?

The answer turned out to be: the legendary military tenacity of the Persian armies. A group of Persian soldiers waited till dark, scaled up the wall, one by one, and slipped into the city. I don’t know if the Persians ever learned to herd Persian cats, but they took the acropolis of Sardis in a matter of hours—not as a robber who uses force (a smash and grab job), but as a thief in the night, one who uses stealth

We might forgive Sardis this cockiness. After all, when no one has ever beaten you, it’s natural to get a big head. But the pathetic thing is that it happened again in 218 BC. Antiochus the Great’s army took the city in almost the exact same way. Fool me once, shame on you and all that, right? And yet, the people of Sardis seem to have remained cocky. And, in the last few years of the First Century AD, when Jesus dictated his letter to Sardis through the pen of the Apostle, Sardisians were taking it for granted that they were hot stuff.

And maybe they were, in a sense. This was still a fairly prominent city, at the juncture of five major highways. They were wealthy and successful compared to most of the cities around them. And, as often happens, the church in Sardis reflected this same attitude.

But Jesus sees their true state, and he’s writing to discipline and exhort them away from their delusions of grandeur and the illusion of life, and back to Real Life.

And we’ll pick up there, God willing, next time.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

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