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

Hebrews 3:1-6 – Fix Your Thoughts on Jesus

Christ of Mercy
Byzantine Christ of Mercy, circa 1100

Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest. He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,” bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future. But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory. (NIV)

It is hard to be patient. Perseverance is difficult. If the Christian life were all bunny rabbits and rainbows, there would be no need for the strengthening of faith and the development of endurance – it would all be fun and easy. However, we know life is often hard and demanding. It requires effort and faith is the muscle that gets us through adversity. If unused, faith atrophies. Faith needs strenuous exercise to grow, and must be tested in adverse circumstances to mature.

The author of Hebrews wrote his letter to Jewish Christians because they were losing their grip of faith. The hard circumstances of the believers were leading them to entertain the notion of returning to their old ways of life, apart from Christ. They needed to refocus and set their thoughts on Jesus in the present moment.

When in the middle of situations, we neither asked for nor want, it can be tempting to view the past as “the good old days.” Yet, if you stop to think about it, you really know better. Because of your present struggle, the mind conveniently filters out all the crud from the past to make the bygone days look romantically better than they really were.

“Better” is what the book of Hebrews is all about.

The author persistently insists that Jesus is better than anything from the Hebrew Christians’ past. Moses is one of the most revered figures in Old Testament history. The writer of Hebrews acknowledges this basic respect for Moses, and goes beyond the glittery Mosaic-era reminiscing to remind the people that whereas Moses was faithful within God’s house, it is Jesus who is the Master over the house. Reality check, believers: Jesus is better than Moses.

What is more, followers of Jesus are the house. Jesus Christ is Lord – not Moses, or anybody else. Jesus cares for and protects his house. It might be tempting to believe that a previous house we had in another city or town was better. That was then, this is now. Today we live in God’s house. Therefore, we must hold on and not let go of the confidence we have in Jesus and the privilege we have living in God’s house.

When life is tough, daydreaming about a rosy past is easy. For sure, we can find all kinds of things we miss from previous days elsewhere. I have moved dozens of times in my life, and each place I have lived has a unique and special place in my life. Yet, trolling our personal histories, much like time-wasting gallivants on the internet, does nothing for the development of faith and perseverance.

Faith needs strengthening so that it is sustainable through the entire Christian life.

Just as a bodybuilder needs disciplined routines of exercise, so the Christian requires spiritual disciplines for a faith conditioning program which focuses the mind on Jesus. There are many spiritual practices, all which are wonderfully useful. Three of the most basic of those disciplines are: Scripture reading and spiritual reflection; personal and corporate prayer, and worship/fellowship. They are the Christian’s barbells.

  • Since God has revealed himself through Holy Scripture, we have the gracious privilege of reading the Bible to encounter the living Lord. I look at this not so much as reading but as taking a posture of listening to God. So, I read slowly and carefully, being alert to the Spirit’s voice.

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12, NIV)

  • Since God desires conversation with us, prayer opens us to a divine dialogue with the Lord. The Russian Orthodox monk, Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) describes it this way: “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you.” With this kind of description, prayer is sustained much less by duty and much more by a desire to connect with God.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16, NIV)

  • Since God exists in the fellowship of three persons, our fellowship with one another spiritually forms us for the sake of blessing the world. As we share in the life of our Triune God in worship, we gain ability to live in healthy community and learn from each other. By opening our lives to both God and others, we discover newfound faith and learn to strengthen one another.

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. (Hebrews 3:12-14, NIV)

In the present moment, right now, today, Jesus has a hold of you. Fix your thoughts on him. Today, Jesus wants to walk with you through your trouble – not transport you to the past. Now is the time to follow Jesus into all the situations that are in front of us. You are not alone. You can do this. We are all in this together.

Lord Jesus, you are sovereign over my past, present, and future.  Today has its situations and problems.  Help me walk into and through them with your gracious protection so that perseverance is developed within me and my faith in you is strengthened for tomorrow.  Amen.

Romans 8:18-24 – Groaning Inwardly

depressed person

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? (NIV)

In the wake of the Day of Pentecost, Christians are mindful of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s power certainly brings strength and courage for witness and ministry. That same power is also found in the travails and tribulations of this life. Spiritual power can be discovered in the dark places of our lives, in the times of loneliness and doubt, and in the constant need for prayerful intercession.

The Spirit is both a mighty wind and a gentle breeze.

Perhaps you, like me, grieve the loss of over 100,000 Americans to the deathly enemy of COVID-19. Our collective lament is an awful groaning expression of our pain. We need the Holy Spirit! The good news of Pentecost is that when we are not powerful, the Spirit helps us in our weakness – that is our hope and our quiet strength.

In today’s New Testament lesson, the Apostle Paul used the experience of childbirth to illustrate what the experience of the Christian life is often like. Growth, wonder, expectation, hope, patience, pain, and joy are all words to describe pregnancy and childbirth. When it comes to the Church and the Christian life, we are in the gestation period. Our salvation has not yet come to full term. Meanwhile, we must remain encouraged and healthy, keeping our future hope always in front of us so that we will not lose heart. When we are limited in what we can do and where we can go, we pray. And there are times when we are flat on our backs, overwhelmed with our circumstances, not able to utter any words in prayer.

As Christians, we are awaiting our complete redemption. If we lack patience and see little hope, we will find it difficult to persevere. In such times it does no good to be like Eeyore and feel sorry for ourselves. Yet, on the other hand, it also does no good to always be smiling, positive, and upbeat as if nothing is worth grieving over.  To take such a posture toward the awful effects of living in a fallen world with disease and death is, at best, to ignore the power of lament, and, at worst, to live in abject denial. We can neither fix nor control most of what is going on in the world around us. To lament is to acknowledge the reality that something terrible happened. Lament causes us to stare down a painful event and face it in all its ugliness.

In such feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, God comes to us in the person of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit resides with us and strengthens us with Pentecostal power. We not only celebrate the Spirit’s mighty power to blow a violent wind and upturn history; we are also grateful for that same power in coming alongside us and providing the inner strength to face yet another day of hardship and difficulty as we seek to heal.

We live in an awkward time. Nothing is as it was. And, yet, it has always been this way – a time of spiritual pregnancy in which we possess salvation but do not yet possess it in all its fullness. There is so much groaning going on because we realize there is such a large gap between where we are and where we want to be. If women could have babies without nine months of struggle, limitation, and pain I think they would opt for that instead of the way it is now.

There is a time coming when every tear will be wiped away and unending joy will rule.

All of creation groans because where it is now and where it will be seems like such a long time in coming.  Every creature and every living thing will experience decay and death. The world is not yet redeemed from its cursed bondage. So, the earth produces disasters and diseases because we live in this fallen world that is not yet redeemed.

Pinocchio

Humanity groans because we fall victim to circumstances beyond our control. We also groan because of our own poor choices that give us grief. Although we have been delivered from sin, death, and hell and experience spiritual power… we still must wait eagerly for the redemption of our bodies. We are keenly aware of the terrible disconnect between where we are as people and where we want to be. It is something of feeling like Pinocchio, not yet a real boy who has to deal with strings and other puppeteers who do not care about him; and, who feels the need to lie because of his situation and pays the consequence of his nose growing.

Yet, a deeper thing is happening under the surface: Our frustrations, longings, lusts, jealousies, and escapist daydreams, things we might be ashamed of to take to prayer, are in fact already lifting our hearts and minds to God in more honest ways than we ever do consciously.

If carrying heavy burdens, it is spiritually appropriate to offload your worries onto the Holy Spirit who is waiting to intercede for you right now. And if there is no immediate relief, we are to persevere and keep engaging in prayer without giving up. Pentecostal power may be available, but it is not cheap; it requires a commitment of abiding prayer and waiting patiently for the Spirit to accomplish his purposes in his time.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful. Kindle in me the fire of your love. Send me your gentle breeze, and I shall be renewed.  Spirit of the living God, I invite you to wring the death out of my heart and saturate my soul with your life-giving breath of faith, hope, and love through Jesus Christ, my Savior. Amen.

Hebrews 13:20-21 – Conflict and Peace

Pretty Place Chapel Blue Ridge Mountains
Pretty Place Chapel in the Blue Ridge Mountains

May the God of peace,
who brought back the great shepherd of the sheep,
our Lord Jesus,
from the dead by the blood of the eternal covenant,

        equip you with every good thing to do his will,
by developing in us what pleases him through Jesus Christ.
To him be the glory forever and always. Amen. (CEB)

These verses are the benediction, that is, the blessing given at the end of a long letter to a group of struggling Jewish Christians. In fact, things were so difficult for these believers that they were giving serious consideration to reneging on their commitment to Christ. So, the author of Hebrews sent them an exhortation and an encouragement to remain true and steadfast to the faith.

What is needed is not a shrinking back from faith but instead an enduring faith which is sustainable for the long haul of a person’s life.

The believers had both inner and outer conflict. They were experiencing hardship and persecution in the form of confiscation of their property and public insults. The Christians had started out well, facing such trouble with confidence through standing side-by-side with others who were suffering as well as holding on to their vibrant faith.

Yet, over time, their resolve began to break down. A slow drift occurred. Eventually, they started to retreat from the helping of others. They emotionally and spiritually inched their way to becoming despondent to the point of questioning whether all this Christianity stuff was worth it. The outer conflict worked its way inside their souls and damaged their spirits. By the time the writer of Hebrews comes along, a group of Christians are stuck in discouragement.

It’s one thing to deal with trouble and hardship on one day, even two. It’s quite another thing when that difficulty does not let up – when days turn into weeks, weeks into months, even months into years.

There are times when peace seems to have about as much chance of being realized as winning the lottery.

Yet, God is the God of peace, real lasting harmonious spiritually restful peace. It was achieved through the life and death of Jesus. The peace Jesus has brought is so much more than the absence of conflict. God’s peace is freedom from fear and anxiety. It is a settled confidence deep down inside that God will ultimately make good on all his promises and that things will not always be this way.

Until that day comes, God is not sitting in some divine Lazy-Boy recliner watching old reruns of the Angels playing baseball. Rather, God is active through carefully, deliberately, and, to our occasional consternation, slowly equipping us and developing us into spiritually fortified people who do the will of God and please Jesus in everything they do and say. Jesus is the Great Shepherd of the sheep who will not lead us astray but will settle us in green pastures.

The word translated “equip” is a rich word (Greek καταρτίσαι, pronounced “cot-ar-tids-ay”) which means to set something straight. Picture a bone which has been broken and needs to be reset and have time to heal. That is what God is doing in his people – repairing broken spirits. This divine healing is equipping believers for a lifetime of handling adversity with faith, confidence, and endurance. The process, frankly, hurts and requires patience before healing and health come.

If God can raise the dead, he can most certainly handle any earthly trouble we are going through.

God is in the transformation business. Extreme makeovers are his specialty. He uses hard circumstances, troubles, and torments of our lives and bends them into divine tools to form and shape his people to both survive and thrive in the world.

Complaining spirits, blaming and shaming others, and impatience borne of unrealistic expectations are the evidence of damaged emotions, wounded souls, and weak faith. This is the antithesis of God. He’s not overlooking humanity with a divine *sigh* in exasperation. That’s because he is the God of peace who is bringing all things to a conclusion in Christ. Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead. The Holy Spirit is now and very presently active to heal damaged emotions, repair wounded souls, and strengthen faith.

In those times when God seems absent and prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling are the times that God is establishing peace and expanding our capacity for faith and patience.

Benediction, blessing, and doxology come through the dark night of the soul and not by avoiding it.

Soli Deo Gloria. To God be the Glory.

Almighty God,
all thoughts of truth and peace
proceed from you.
Kindle in the hearts of all people
the true love of peace.
Guide with your pure and peaceable wisdom
those who take counsel
for the nations of the earth;
that in tranquility your kingdom
may go forward,
till the earth is filled
with the knowledge of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

–From the Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland, St. Andrew Press.

Click It Is Well with My Soul by TenTwoSix Music and arranged by David Wise.