Revelation 2:8-11 – Persevering to the End

perseverance

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:

“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death. (NRSV)

What is unique about chapters two and three of Revelation is that Jesus himself is the speaker to seven different churches. Today’s New Testament lesson is addressed to the church at Smyrna, which was a large and beautiful port city in the ancient world. Jesus was letting the believers in Smyrna know they were about to experience severe persecution. However, they need not be fearful and can remain faithful because their Lord knows all about suffering. The church’s perseverance under such trouble would result in the crown of life, given to them by Jesus himself.  This was surely an encouragement to the believers as they underwent difficulty.

The congregation at Smyrna was facing imprisonment and, for some, even death for their faith. The heart of the message by Jesus is to remain faithful.  There will always be cowards and those with weak faith who will fold when the going gets tough. Yet, persecution and hardship have a way of purging the soul as well as the church of its dross.

Suffering is inevitable; how we handle adversity when it comes is completely under our own control.

Few of us reading this will ever likely face a hardship that could result in martyrdom. Knowing there are brothers and sisters in the faith throughout the world who do face daily hardship for their devotion and beliefs puts our own troubles in a different light. The daily irritations and trials God puts in our way to refine us and shape our faith certainly seem small compared to imprisonment and martyrdom. Yet, no matter who we are and where we are located on this earth, whether facing uncommon hardship or banal difficulty, the afflictions of both body and soul come to us as opportunities to lean into faith and love Jesus to the end.

Our Lord is not looking for perfect people, just faithful followers willing to endure suffering with the truth that our Lord stands with us. 

Whatever our current circumstances may be, Jesus offers us his perspective on it. He knows precisely what is going on and understands the spiritual resources you and I possess for each adverse situation we encounter. In fact, few of us really discern the largess of internal resources are within us because of Christ’s redemptive work and the Spirit’s abiding presence – not to mention the very personality God graciously gave us in the womb before we were even born. Even though it seems, at times, we lack strength, wisdom, and courage for what is ahead – Jesus has supreme confidence in us to maintain faith and endure through our afflictions.

Life is not a sprint. Life is a marathon.

To finish the race we need to be in good spiritual health. The perseverance of the saints will happen as we run step after step with boldness despite fear of the unknown future around the bend. This requires the equipment of risk, vulnerability, accountability, and steadfast love which is both received and given. Perhaps most of all it requires keeping our heads up and running toward the promise of reward at the finish. The crown of life is an image of both congratulation and celebration of a race well-run and the enjoyment of unending fellowship with our Lord for whom we have endured so much.

When all is said and done, and the end of the age has occurred, we will be able to look back in hindsight and see that it was really Jesus who all along was fortifying us to keep standing and keep going. Christ is so vested in us that he continually ensures our ultimate victory through a constant presence of help and encouragement. The heritage of both Reformation and Holy Scripture testify to this truth:

“All our progress and perseverance are from God.” –John Calvin

“I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6, CEB)

May the grace of Jesus sustain you; the love of God surround you; and, the encouragement of the Spirit surprise you, today and every day. Amen.

Grant, O God, That we may never lose the way through our self-will, and so end up in the far countries of the soul; that we may never abandon the struggle, but that we may endure to the end, and so be saved; that we may never drop out of the race, but that we may ever press forward to the goal of our high calling; that we may never choose the cheap and passing things, and let go the precious things that last forever; that we may never take the easy way, and so leave the right way; that we may never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown.

So keep us and strengthen us by your grace that no disobedience and no weakness and no failure may stop us from entering into the blessedness which awaits those who are faithful in all the changes and chances of life down even to the gates of death; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

William Barclay, Prayers for the Christian Year

Galatians 5:16-26 – Being Led by the Spirit

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“Be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires…. the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.  If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit.  Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other.” (Common English Bible)

I’m the youngest sibling in my family.  So, I know what it feels like to be a third wheel with things.  When I was a kid, it always seemed as if everyone thought I was too young to do anything or engage any of the real fun stuff, like watching Mannix, Sanford and Son, or Love American Style past my bedtime like everyone else was doing (I was fascinated with TV as a kid).  Now, much older, I have a larger context for understanding all of that stuff.  Yet, the fact remains that I really was a third wheel lots of times.

Sanford-and-Son

Sometimes I think we treat the Holy Spirit of God somewhat like a third wheel.  We pray to Almighty God; we pray in Jesus’ blessed name; and… what of the Holy Spirit?  Sometimes, even many times, the Spirit gets the short end of the stick.  In fact, I’ve been in some churches where I think their understanding of the Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Bible; the Spirit is nowhere to be found.

Maybe, because we can never predict what in the world the Spirit is going to do, we send Him off to some metaphorical bedtime so that we watch and do whatever we want.  Or, perhaps we really are diligent about the Christian life.  We strive, work, and wrestle to live a good life.  But, somehow, we fall short and feel like a failure far too often.  Why is that?

Could be that we’ve looked at the Holy Spirit as the third wheel.  We believe in Him, have faith that He’s there, but don’t have any idea how to relate to Him.  God is big and sovereign; Jesus has a real body and blood; and, the Spirit… well, He’s really out there, man – like, He’s too cool for school and would be one of the characters on The Mod Squad, or something.  How do you have a relationship with someone (and often we refer to the Spirit as some “thing”), that is, with a person (and the Spirit is fully a person) who is so crazy ethereal and seemingly other than you and me?

the mod squad

The Holy Spirit is the power source of the Christian life.  Without him, we can easily degenerate into all kinds of illicit thinking and behavior – including things like “sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that” (verses 19-21).

It is the Spirit who helps us, comforts us, provides strength for us, and enables us to replace old habits with new ones and dead practices with solid “Spirit”ual action.  The Christian virtues which flower and produce the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control occur through a close intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit helps us in our weakness when we pray and act.  The Christian enjoys such a close affectionate association with the Holy Spirit that it is as if we are a building, like a temple, and the person of the Spirit has taken up residence within.  The person of the Spirit is the person of God the Father’s, and the person of God the Son’s gift to the people of God.  By means of the Holy Spirit, God is always with us and continually at-this-moment working within us to make the redemption given in Christ an actual real-live encounter.  In other words, the Spirit gives us feet to walk among this world armed with the implements of God’s love.

fruit of the spirit

I’m going to make a simple observation about the Galatians text for today.  All of the spiritual virtues expressed are the “fruit” of the Spirit, not “fruits.”  The nine ethics are a package deal.  When you have the Spirit and spiritual fruit, you possess all nine Christian values.  If we look at the list and say something like, “Well, Tim, I’m pretty good at kindness and goodness, but I don’t have much peace or patience.”  What that really means is that you are probably doing kindness and goodness from a different place than by means of the Holy Spirit because when the Spirit manifests Himself in us we exhibit the fruit.  You can’t separate the nine spiritual virtues any more than you can separate the Trinity.  They are all one spiritual fruit cultivated and produced inside you by the agency of God’s Spirit.

Maybe it’s time to back up the truck and take a look at the shadow side of our lives.  It could be that we are, for example, far more driven by our anxiety about most things than about genuine altruism and love.  The same result might seem to appear through our words and actions, but it will not last if it is generated from a place of worry – and it is not of the Spirit.

So, what do you do about it?  You must put to death (mortify) the deeds of the sinful nature.  You have been crucified with Christ and you no longer live but Christ lives in you by means of the Spirit He has given to us (Galatians 2:20).  If you have C-clamped your heart so tight that the Spirit can’t get in, then it’s high time to loosen the grip and enable God to do His gracious and merciful work within you.  It is the only way to go about genuine transformation of life.

two wild and crazy guys

Yes, it is scary.  Letting go of control is very hard for many people, including me.  But the results are worth it.  The Spirit knows what He is doing.  He might work in wild and crazy ways.  He might show up on Saturday Night Live where you least expect him to be.  The way we go with God is by going with the Spirit and being led by Him.  Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” (John 6:29).  The Spirit always points us to Christ, the one who has delivered us from the realm of sin and brought us forgiveness.  This work of Christ sets us up for the work of the Spirit who now makes our deliverance practically and effectively a reality in daily relationships and experiences.

streets of san francisco

The Holy Spirit is not a third wheel.  He’s the real deal.  When you open your heart to Him, you expose yourself to the wideness of God’s mercy which results in the wonderful fruit of the Spirit.  And when you experience the Spirit working inside of you, it makes the car chase scenes in The Streets of San Francisco look not so dramatic.

May the Spirit of the living God be with you now, and forever.  Amen.

Judges 2:6-15

            The Old Testament book of Judges reads something like a soap opera.  The main characters are the ancient Israelites, fresh from coming into the Promised Land; God, the One who brought them into the land with a series of miraculous events and divine interventions; and, of course, the Judges, the men and women who ruled in the land.
            Moving through the chapters of Judges is full of adventures and misadventures.  It is a sad downward spiral of people forsaking the worship of God; God getting their attention; the people awakening to their dire condition and crying out to God; God sending a Judge to save them; the people slipping into a worse condition; and, the cycle starting all over again with more disastrous results and brokenness than before.
            In chapter 2, we get the clue as to where it all began and why it kept happening.  Tucked away in the middle of these verses is this cryptic and passive phrase: “After a while the people of Joshua’s generation died, and the next generation did not know the LORD or any of the things he had done for Israel.”
 
            There we have it.  The first generation of Israelites just plain failed to pass on their values, their experiences, and their knowledge to their children.  They simply were not intentional about providing the kind of education to their kids that would let them know who God is and what He did for them.
            The next generation will not know God unless this present generation takes to heart the mandate to graciously teach and develop their children in the words and ways of Jesus Christ.  It doesn’t just magically happen.
            What are some ways you can pass on the grace and truth of Jesus to the next generation?  How can you do it in a way that is loving and compelling, and not boring and pedantic?  If you are not confident in your familiarity of God, how might you go on a discovery with your kids or grandkids to find out more?

 

            Lord God Almighty, you have acted in the past with mighty deeds and gracious ways.  Help and enable your people to pass on their love for Jesus to the next generation so that your kingdom breaks into the generations and your will be done here on earth as it is always done in heaven.  Amen.

1 Chronicles 10:1-14

            The books of Samuel and Chronicles contain, for the most part, the same content and material concerning the kings of Israel and Judah. Yet, whereas 1 & 2 Samuel gives a more straightforward narrative, 1 & 2 Chronicles often provides the narrative with explanatory comments.  So, we have such a story in today’s Old Testament lesson.  The last chapter of 1 Samuel gives an account of King Saul’s death, along with his sons.  However, in 1 Chronicles 10, we get the narration of their deaths along with a clear concise note on why King Saul perished in battle:
 
“So, Saul died for his breach of faith.  He broke faith with the LORD in that he did not keep the command of the LORD, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance.  He did not seek guidance from the LORD.  Therefore the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse” (ESV).
 
            The original compiler of Chronicles did so for the Jewish exiles who were returning to Palestine.  He did not want to simply recount the important stories of the kings of Israel; he wanted the exiles to know exactly why they went into exile to begin with, and how in the future they could keep it from happening again.  So, Saul served as Exhibit A of the kind of person that erodes the true worship of God and lives against the grain of faithfulness to the Lord.
 
            The true measure of a person of God is not in titles, positions, or membership.  The real test of a God-follower is being faithful to the revealed will of God contained in Holy Scripture.  Thus, to read it, know it, and live it is one of our highest callings as God’s people.
            Eternal God, you remain the same throughout the ages of time.  Help me to be faithful to your standard of righteousness and live faithfully into the ways of Jesus, my Lord.  Amen.