Revelation 11:16-19 – Be Encouraged

The Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas

Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, singing,

“We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty,
    who are and who were,
for you have taken your great power
    and begun to reign.
The nations raged,
    but your wrath has come,
    and the time for judging the dead,
for rewarding your servants, the prophets
    and saints and all who fear your name,
    both small and great,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. (New Revised Standard Version)

Late in his life, as the old Apostle John lived in exile, he experienced a grand vision. It is what we today refer to as The Book of Revelation, or The Apocalypse of John. 

At the turn of the first century, Christ’s Church was facing a great deal of difficulty and hardship. Christians were the minority. Believers in Jesus were looked at with suspicion. Followers of Christ were often misunderstood and persecuted because of false information. 

In short, all of the myriad sufferings and persecutions that Jewish people currently face and have faced for millennia were true of the early believers in Jesus.

Therefore, the purpose of John’s vision was not to give slick preachers a reason to craft elaborate prophecy charts about what’s going to happen in the future. Instead, God was concerned for the current welfare of his people. The vision was meant to bring encouragement.

The message to John, passed onto the suffering church, was that this present hard situation will not always be this way. Danger, adversity, and hardship will not last forever. There is a day coming when God’s judgment and benevolent reign will truly rule in all of its glorious fullness.

Our prayers will be answered, the ones we have lifted to God for centuries: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Gergeti Trinity Church, Georgia

The Lord did not want his beloved children to succumb to discouragement and lose heart. So, the vision from John assured them that all will be made right. Jesus is Lord, and his good rule will have the day. 

Yes, we currently live in a world profoundly touched by the presence and power of sin. And because of that sad reality, we feel all kinds of various pain. We have no choice but to endure the hardships of national wars, bodily diseases, lack of resources, economic woes, mental disorders, emotional distress, and spiritual warfare.

It is possible to observe, as well as experience, all the crud of this sinful world and fall into despair. If or when that happens, we give-in to unhealthy ways of coping with the adverse circumstances around us.

Graciously, we have been given a glimpse into how all of history will shake-out in the end. That brief pulling back of the curtain is meant to bring us needed encouragement, steadfast hope, and patient endurance. 

There is coming a day when expressions of grief and lament will give way to praise and gratitude to God. And that incredible praise will explode with all believers, past and present, along with all creation, proclaiming together that the Lord God is all-powerful. 

The kingdom of this world belongs to our Lord and to his Chosen One. And he will rule forever and ever.

Some might protest that Christians have been harping on this return of Jesus for two millennia and he still isn’t here. We must not misinterpret God’s inaction as uncaring or that God is non-existent. Because it is really patient grace.

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9, NIV)

Our present sufferings must also not be misinterpreted, as if God hates us or is just plain mean. For the Christian, suffering is transformed into solidarity with Jesus Christ.

My dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful test you are suffering, as though something unusual were happening to you. Rather be glad that you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may be full of joy when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13, GNT)

All of our collective experiences are meant not for harm, but for good so that we might realize spiritual growth and maturity.

Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. (2 Peter 3:18, NIV)

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you caused our earthly pain to be sacred and have meaning. Through your example of humble obedience, you opened the way for us to walk through our own hard circumstances with grace and submission.

Be near me in my time of weakness and pain. Sustain me by your grace, so that my strength and courage may not fail. Heal me according to you will. Help me always to believe that what happens to me in this present life is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God.

As Jesus cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in pain, O God my Creator. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief from this suffering and preserve me in peace; through Jesus Christ my Savior, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 31:9-16 – Lord, Have Mercy

Christ in Gethsemane by Michael O’Brien

Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am in distress.
    Tears blur my eyes.
    My body and soul are withering away.
I am dying from grief;
    my years are shortened by sadness.
Sin has drained my strength;
    I am wasting away from within.
I am scorned by all my enemies
    and despised by my neighbors—
    even my friends are afraid to come near me.
When they see me on the street,
    they run the other way.
I am ignored as if I were dead,
    as if I were a broken pot.
I have heard the many rumors about me,
    and I am surrounded by terror.
My enemies conspire against me,
    plotting to take my life.

But I am trusting you, O Lord,
    saying, “You are my God!”
My future is in your hands.
    Rescue me from those who hunt me down relentlessly.
Let your favor shine on your servant.
    In your unfailing love, rescue me. (New Living Translation)

One of my parishioners from years ago had seen hard combat in Italy during World War II. He saw his best friend killed, right next to him. I still remember his story and what he said in conclusion to it, in his own sage way: “In my experience, war is a very poor way of dealing with problems.”

And yet, we sometimes find ourselves embedded in circumstances we neither wanted nor asked for. Just ask the Ukrainians. No one puts their name on a sign-up sheet for suffering. Yet not a one of us can avoid it. 

Pain comes in all kinds of forms. Maybe the worst kind of suffering is the wound inflicted from others looking down at you when you’re already experiencing trouble and damaged emotions. 

Whether it is an ethnic or racial group of people facing ridicule, anger, and even beatings or death; or whether it is refugees trying to survive the ravages of war, the physical effects of pain can oftentimes be secondary to the primary hurt experienced within the spirit. 

“Suffering is part of the human condition, and it comes to us all. The key is how we react to it, either turning away from God in anger and bitterness or growing closer to Him in trust and confidence.”

Billy Graham

The Old Testament character, David, knew first-hand about suffering through hard circumstances. There were times when he felt completely overwhelmed by the evil machinations of people trying to take his life. If we could put ourselves in David’s sandals, we can understand why he was worn-out to the point of not sleeping, not eating well, even with a hint of paranoia. 

David responded to his seemingly impossible situation by entrusting himself to God. He truly believed he was in the Lord’s hands – and that fact was David’s go-to truth. 

Crossing over into the New Testament Gospels, Jesus uttered his last words on the cruel cross from this today’s psalm: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). 

The cross was an obvious place of extreme bodily pain. That wretched pain, however, was dwarfed by the great spiritual pain of holding the entire world’s hurts and their curse of separation. The stress of both body and soul must have been crushing for Jesus. 

Yet, there was a strength of assurance, for Jesus, in the eye of that pain – the confidence of knowing he was in good hands, just like David’s confidence a millennium before.

There are times in life when we all struggle with why particular afflictions happen to us, in whatever form they might take in us. 

It is in the situation of being forgotten by others that we are most remembered by God.

It is within the crucible of trouble that God is the expert in deliverance.

It is when others revile us, say terrible things about us, and talk behind our backs that God comes alongside and whispers words of grace and steadfast love to us. 

It is whenever life is downright hard that we see a soft-hearted God standing to help us and hold us. 

While we are feeling our awful suffering, God is carefully crafting within us resilience through the rejection, empathy in our loneliness, purpose because of the trauma, forgiveness out of the shame, courage from having been failed, and self-awareness in the wake of emotional devastation. 

The biblical psalms are the consummate place to go when we are most in need. They provide the means to lift heartfelt prayers whenever our own words fail us. 

The psalms give us structure and meaning when the world around us makes no sense. 

The psalms do not always give us answers to our most vexing questions; they do, however, point us to the God who is attentive to the least, the lost, and the lonely.

Together, as people sharing the human condition of suffering, we cry out, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy on us and grant us your peace. Amen.” 

Revelation 2:8-11 – Spiritual Endurance

The remains of ancient Smyrna in Izmir, Turkey

This is what you must write to the angel of the church in Smyrna:

I am the first and the last. I died, but now I am alive! Listen to what I say.

I know how much you suffer and how poor you are, but you are rich. I also know the cruel things being said about you by people who claim to be Jews. But they are not really Jews. They are a group that belongs to Satan.

Don’t worry about what you will suffer. The devil will throw some of you into jail, and you will be tested and made to suffer for ten days. But if you are faithful until you die, I will reward you with a glorious life.

If you have ears, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. Whoever wins the victory will not be hurt by the second death. (Contemporary English Version)

Jesus not only speaks in the four Gospels of the New Testament; Christ also speaks in the final biblical book of Revelation to seven different churches.

In today’s New Testament lesson, Jesus addresses the church at Smyrna – a large and beautiful port city in the ancient world, on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea (present day Turkey). 

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. Words coming directly from their Lord and Savior must surely have been an encouragement to the believers as they underwent extreme 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. 

The seven churches of Revelation which Jesus addressed

There will always be those who are faint of heart with weak faith, giving up 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 will likely never 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 devotion and beliefs puts our own troubles in a different light.

The daily irritations and trials that 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.

Jesus 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 within us because of Christ’s redemptive work and the Spirit’s abiding presence – not to mention the very personhood God graciously gave us in the womb before we were even born.

Even though it seems, at times, we lack the 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. And to finish the race we need to be in good spiritual health. The perseverance of the saints will happen as we run – step by step, stride by stride – with boldness, despite fear of the unknown future around the bend.

Spiritual endurance requires becoming comfortable with risk, vulnerability, accountability, and the 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.

After 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 the Reformation and Holy Scripture testify to this truth:

“All our progress and perseverance are from God.”

John Calvin (1509-1564)

“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

Psalm 27 – Wait…

Psalm 27:4 painting by Marguerite Moreau McCarthy

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
    to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
    they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
    my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
    yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
    and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
    he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up
    above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
    sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
    be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
    Your face, Lord, do I seek.
    Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,
    you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
    O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me,
    the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
    and lead me on a level path
    because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
    for false witnesses have risen against me,
    and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
    be strong and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord! (New Revised Standard Version)

“The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”

Arnold H. Glasow

The Christian season of Lent is a time of waiting…. Believers patiently wait for Easter and the resurrection of the Lord. But there must be a crucifixion before there is a resurrection. There must be suffering before there is glory. Truncating the process of spiritual development, including the hard circumstances of life, will stunt our growth.

So, we need to wait for the Lord….

But, dang it, waiting is hard! Patience is especially difficult whenever we are experiencing hardship and difficulty. We already know that praying for patience is problematic; we end up getting plenty of opportunities to exercise patience and may feel like we’re worse off than before. So, what do we do?

The way to wait patiently is through hope. And hope is a reality which needs to be continually fortified.

Whatever we long to see realized…

the return of a wayward son or daughter…

revitalization and revival within the church…

courage to face the high wall of adversity…

protection and deliverance from mean-spirited people…

an end to pandemic…

freedom from racism and injustice…

healing from chronic pain…

enough finances to make our budget budge…

whatever the situation we long for, patience is to be our breakfast every morning to help us through each day, living one day at a time, putting one foot forward.

Apart from patience, faith, and hope in God, we will lose our spiritual zeal and settle for a mediocre existence with tepid relationships and lukewarm engagement of the world. 

God desires more for us…

than simply having a marriage in which two people only exist under the same roof…

for church to be more than buildings, budgets, and butts in the pews…

for our work to be more than a necessary evil to make a living…

for our lives to be more than fear, worry, and anxiety…

for much more than broken dreams, messed up relationships, and situations gone sideways.

The confident expectation of hope neither eliminates trouble from our lives nor magically makes everything better.

Deep faith, like the psalmist expressed, does not change or alter reality – but it does change us.

The way in which we view and handle our troubles is understood differently through the filter of faith and the lens of hope.

The mammoth adversity in our lives is no longer feared because of settled trust in God; the danger which lurks about has no teeth to hold us when we are secure in the Lord.

The actions believers take toward God amidst the fallen nature of this world are to wait and hope, to be strong and take courage. It is precisely when we are totally discombobulated that faith and confident expectation kick in and take effect.

Our faith leads us to confess:

I believe the Lord is the Light which keeps me safe and illumines my path.

I believe the Lord is my Fortress, a castle to protect me.

I believe the Lord is an Army surrounding me, defending my life.

I believe the Lord is the Rock of my salvation, keeping me secure.

I believe the Lord is a Parent who holds me close and does not let go.

I believe the Lord is the right and good Judge, always extending grace and mercy to me.

I believe the Lord is Healer, oftentimes healing me from the need to be healed.

Therefore:

I have confidence and courage to engage the world, knowing God has my back.

I have confidence God will handle malevolent persons, systemic evil, and sinister forces on my behalf.

I have confidence I can approach God, since God’s character is always gracious and loving.

I have confidence to pray with authority, understanding God is the Sovereign of the universe.

I have confidence better days are ahead, that the Christ is soon coming.

I have confidence God bends to attentively listen to me praying.

I have confidence God is neither angry at me nor hidden from me.

I have confidence God shall lead me, guide me, and teach me in the way I ought to go.

I have confidence knowing that God has my best interests in mind.

Rather than losing heart, we can be strengthened with solid theology. Making daily affirmations of faith, persevering in hope, and performing small acts of love are our daily tasks while we wait and watch….

Almighty and everlasting God, the One who sees, knows, and protects, by the power of your Holy Spirit, you are refining us, purifying our discipleship, pulling us into following Jesus in this scary new world of uncertainty. Grant us mercy and grace to trust you more deeply, for the only secure place is with you, our light and our salvation, the stronghold of our life. We pray in the name of Jesus, the first-born of your new creation, and our hope, our life. Amen.