Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Great Ordeal

Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Tribulation: "great affliction, trial, distress, suffering; an experience that tests one's endurance, patience, or faith" - in other words, NOT what we would consider a good time!

Most are at least familiar with the idea of the biblical, seven-year "Tribulation" period which is believed to immediately precede the return of Messiah.  I also think most understand the "seven years" is not to be taken literally; at the very least, seven years should not be understood according to a human concept of time since we must also understand that when Jesus teaches us not to worry about "when" ("for it is not for you to know"), He is reminding us that time in this matter is clearly in accordance with YHWH's own divine timetable.  We have our own task within this timetable - not after.

The concept of a tribulation period, however, should not be summarily dismissed by the faithful because Jesus also mentions this period in a practical application, how-it-matters-to-us-today way in the "parable of the sower": "He who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself but endures only for a while (I add, only as long as it 'feels' good or as long as it's 'safe').  For when the tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles" (Matthew 13:20-21 NKJV).  The NRSV says "trouble or persecution, both indicating two different circumstances of spiritual distress and challenge.

When persecution of the early Church was beginning to heat up, St. Peter encouraged his followers not to give more credit to the challenge than was due: "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you as though something strange were happening to you" (1 Peter 4:12).  Could it be said that Peter is simply acknowledging that "life is hard" especially for those who go against the grain of the dominant culture?  Christians did that in Peter's day; today, not so much.  Today we are encouraged to be "tolerant" of the dominant culture, not "faithful" to the Eternal God.

I have said it before, and I will say it again before I go further: "End of Time" theology is, at best tricky and at worst, spiritually dangerous.  When it comes to trying to pin down a finite period in which THE Tribulation is, was, or will be, theologians do not agree because the Bible is not clear about "when" - and for good reason, I think, if we take Jesus at His word that it is "not for you to know". 

Someone once said, 'let us stop worrying about life-after-death, and focus more on life-until-death' ("discipleship") but even this begs the question for the faithful: if there is no heaven and no hell, no spiritual reward or punishment, would we still bother with Jesus anymore than we might bother with Socrates?  Because to really follow Him, to really devote ourselves to what He not only preached but practiced - AND COMMANDED - is going to bring trouble of its own because the life Jesus led was COMPLETELY CONTRARY to the dominant culture of His day.  Following Jesus was dangerous in every sense of the word - and became even more so after the Day of Pentecost.  How have we come to believe it is any safer today?  We have made it safe, but it cannot be biblically measured that we have made it "respectable" because for the most part, the Church today chooses to 'follow' Jesus - BUT - at a very safe distance so that His life will not interfere with ours.

The "Great Ordeal" mentioned in the Revelation (7:14) seems to be a reference to that defined, seven-year Tribulation period, but I have often wondered how it matters to us especially in a nation in which persecution of Christians simply DOES NOT HAPPEN.  Daily living can be pretty tough on its own, with its own challenges and temptations; so could this "great ordeal" just be the "great ordeal" of mortal life itself for those who devote themselves to the Lord?  

That "great ordeal" is a time of testing whether in the concept of Tribulation or in the manner of the life we choose to lead "in Jesus' name" - facing and resisting all manner of temptation - and whether we are truly giving glory to the Most High God - OR - if we are merely using His name "in vain" to suit our purposes, to make ourselves feel good about what we do even if what we do is contrary to the Holy Scriptures (assuming we even know the Scriptures!).  We cannot escape the "pain" of life whether it is the everyday, run-of-the-mill heart aches and heart breaks and disappointments we endure - OR - somehow getting caught up in the cosmic battle between Good and evil by suffering persecution OR succumbing to temptations.    

We are mortals; we are going to get hurt, Christian or not, often by self-infliction.  Physically, emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually, we all must endure.  It is not a matter of whether we will survive, however, if we are of the "sheep" to which Jesus refers in John's gospel.  The Flock of the Great Shepherd.  The ones who will allow themselves to be moved from one pasture to the next for our protection and well-being; "heeding" the Voice (responding) rather than merely "hearing" the sound of His voice.  There is a profound difference. 

For those who will obviously choose not to follow Messiah, including so-called "believers" (not to be confused with actual "disciples"), the matter of survival of this "great ordeal" rests entirely on running in circles and surrendering themselves to whatever "fad" (aka, "temptation") happens to be popular and promises to give what it clearly does not have the power to give: a real and lasting sense of purpose.  But not only commercial practices but cultural ones as well: drugs, alcohol, sex, mindless consumerism, hoarding - all desperate attempts to add meaning to their lives and finding nothing but pain, degradation, and emptiness.  This, for many, is real life.

Because these "fads" obviously "fade", they cannot be depended on - and yet we spend extraordinary amounts of time, energy, and money on these things that promise us anything "too good to be true".  Conventional wisdom and experience have clearly shown us that if it does indeed sound "too good to be true", it is probably not true at all.  Yet in a moment of weakness or desperation and in spite of our better judgment in the context of what is actually written in the Holy Scriptures, we dare to hope that perhaps this time it may be true.  It never is, of course, and we are left weaker and more vulnerable than before.  And totally lost - because while we may claim to have "heard" the Voice of the Great Shepherd, it is in these moments when we prove that we failed to "heed" the Voice of the Great Shepherd.

In this manner of real life, then, how are the "sheep" identified?  Exactly who is Jesus talking about?  Those who continue to cling to some random event from long ago hoping for some "magical" quality - OR - those who manage and order their daily living in devotion to the Risen Christ?  There are many who have gotten caught up in these false promises in search of fortune or easy living or personal happiness in pursuing everything the evil one tried to use against our Lord in the wilderness.  Jesus, you recall, rejected them all in favor of the Holy Father.  Somehow, we have managed to convince ourselves that we can have all that the evil one tried to tempt our Lord with AND enjoy the blessings of the Almighty God and Father at the same time!!  These are NOT the sheep of the Great Shepherd!!

"My sheep ... follow Me", says our Lord.  Not incidentally but purposefully and constantly.  Not by "magic" but by sheer will to spend an entire life in pursuit of something much greater than self.  THESE are the ones who have been given the hope of eternal life; the ones who "FOLLOW" Him.  All day.  Every day.  Morning.  Noon.  And Night. 

I think we can all identify those Christ-less moments in our lives when we get so busy with what we want to do that we fail to acknowledge and DO what we must do.  And when it comes to trust itself, I think we all have serious trust issues.  Now, however, is the time to get past those trust issues and leave everything at the altar of our Lord.  We remember the Passover each time we come forward to partake in the Supper of the Lord.  We remember that the Passover required complete trust in our Lord right before we are to be "called out" from the bondage we have willingly submitted to over time - without hardly a notice. 

Today is the Day of the Lord.  Today is the Day of your new-found Freedom from bondage to sin and death.  Today is your day of renewal in discipleship.  Today is the day we must SHOW our Lord we really do trust Him.  NOT to "get us to Heaven" for our own sake - BUT to get us through the Tribulation, the period of testing, TOGETHER for the sake of the Holy Church AND our immortal souls.

Trust this, HEED the Voice, and we will see The Light at the end of the long tunnel of Tribulation.  AMEN.

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