“Words for the Great Ordeal”

A sermon drawn from Revelation 22:8-17

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The New Testament text this morning is the conclusion, or epilogue, to the entire book of Revelation; we’ve been studying these final chapters in our long-running weekly Bible study class.

First, a word of warning: anyone who’s ever taken a chemistry lab or wood shop knows sometimes we have to wear protective gear, because we’re working with something potentially dangerous. Reading the book of Revelation is like that. Because the text can throw images at us that are almost guaranteed to hit us in ways that make us anxious and defensive. As soon as we hear that word “evildoers,” for instance, or a list of various kinds of evildoers who are going to be “outside” … alarm bells start going off, for most of us … we start worrying about some of the things we know about ourselves, or the things we know about the people we care about, then we get defensive, and annoyed that we make people think about “being good enough” … so we want to be sure, always, to read the book of Revelation through the lens of what we know about God in Jesus Christ, that is, the lens of “for God so loved the world that he sent the only begotten son” and “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself and giving us the ministry of reconciliation” … that crystal clear vision of a merciful, loving God we know through Jesus Christ … it’s really essential equipment when reading the book of Revelation … if we actually want to be able to hear it, instead of just the noise in our heads.

Then, what John says here in these verses assumes that we’ve just been reading this book from the beginning, and have it fresh in our minds that it began as a letter, with a message for “the seven churches of Asia” and some personal advice for those churches directly from the mouth of Christ; and then switched to a vision of the worship that is taking place in heaven, we gather NOW; and then opened into a vision of future events, which famously include a lot of disaster and devastation, but also include the ingathering of people to the new heaven and the new earth, including the new heavenly Jerusalem, the bride of the Lamb … and I hope we know that Lamb is another image of Jesus, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” … ?

In particular these verses assume that we remember something John saw early on in that vision of heaven: a huge crowd, of every kind of person in the world, dressed in white robes and shouting praises to God and the Lamb, and one of his heavenly guides explains to him that “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:14)

And that

15For this reason they are before the throne of God
    and worship him day and night within his temple,
    and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more and thirst no more;
    the sun will not strike them,
    nor any scorching heat,
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Revelation 7:15-17

OK, I snuck a little extra scripture in there, because the verses that we’re reading this morning count on us knowing it.

So now, with all that in mind, let’s listen for what the spirit is saying to the churches in Revelation 22:8-17 – in the NRSV, with a couple of modifications:

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers and sisters the prophets and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!”

10 And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. 11 Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.”

12 “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

14 Blessed are those who are washing their robes, so that they will be authorized for the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and prostitutes and murderers and idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

16 “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

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I have to confess to everyone, that last verse is one of my all-time favorite verses in the Bible. The book of Revelation is a challenging book to read and to understand, but I believe all the challenges are more than worth it, to have Revelation 22:17 in our Bibles, to be able to say “The Spirit and the bride say “Come” and let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

So my original thought was just to read that one verse. But the book of Revelation doesn’t really work that way. It’s such a dense network of symbols and images, that overlap each other and add dimensions and associations to the meaning, and that seem to be arranged in such a way that they keep suggesting new meanings to us …

For instance: “the blood of the Lamb” gets identified with, actually becomes “the water of life” as we read through the book, so the “water of life” starts out as springs, which Jesus the good shepherd will lead people to, which probably reminds us of Psalm 23, “the Lord is my shepherd I shall not want,” and of Jesus talking to the woman at the well in John’s gospel and telling her about “springs of living water,” and maybe even another beautiful verse in the Bible,

Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.

Proverbs 25:25

Then come to find out that in the new Jerusalem, the bride of Christ, which we probably ought to think of as a symbol for the church, that living water has turned into a river, as bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. And when we think of the church together with the “water of life” we probably already think of “baptism.” And when we think of “baptism” we probably think of “dying and rising with Christ” – assuming we remember back to our confirmation classes. And that “dying and rising with Christ” brings us back to “the blood of the Lamb.” …

And that IS the way the book of Revelation works, by coding all of those meanings into the text, connecting all these images together, almost like it’s building musical chords with them, for the kind of music that sounds best on a pipe organ or in multi-part harmony, only building them out of words instead of notes.

So, leaving verses out seemed like a bad idea.

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Especially because another one of the images that is working that way is “the great ordeal,” and the idea of those who have come through, or are coming through, “the great ordeal,” and have washed, or “are washing,” their robes by making them white in the blood of the Lamb which we know is the water of life … etc.

There are people who are convinced that “the great ordeal” refers to some future event. My grandmother, for instance, who was a devout Christian and a faithful reader of scripture, used to say that her biggest fear was that the Rapture might not happen before the Tribulation, because she really feared having to go through the great ordeal. That was how she’d been taught to read the book of Revelation.

I don’t know about that. But we do know that John is speaking directly to the people of his own time … to what would be “the church now” … and was meant to be showing members of “the church now” what their future would look like … and is trying to communicate that even though the members of “the church now” are even now going through “the great ordeal” … it will be worth it, because he can tell them, the future on the other side of that ordeal is glorious.

And when we can hear it that way, we can see that even though a long time, a couple of thousand years, separates us from the specific early Christians that John knew he was writing to, his message continues to be true for Christians all the way down through the ages to us, in our “church now.”

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Because life in this world, our world, is, still, a great ordeal.

Christians don’t have to be experiencing persecution under some Roman emperor or the equivalent to know that. Honestly, scholars don’t think John’s particular 1st century Christians were necessarily being persecuted by a Roman emperor. They think it’s more likely that the great ordeal John was referring to was the ever-present, insistent temptations to lose confidence in faithful living, and to compromise in ways that would make them unfaithful, or maybe just, less faithful.

The way it gets us down when we see people who don’t play by the rules getting ahead.

Or when practicing integrity, fairness, kindness, honesty, become causes for suffering … because we know sometimes that will lose us friends, or jobs, or social acceptance.

Or when we get worn out making the effort to resist injustices, to try to correct them, to try to convince our neighbors that something needs to change …  

All of that is aside from the fact that the world is still full of simple physical hardship and pain and suffering. Struggle. Illness. Loss. Death. Sorrow. A great ordeal.

We know “baptism” means “dying and rising with Christ.” We think of baptism as a “once for all” thing, and it really is. And yet, our experience of “dying and rising with Christ” happens over and over again in different ways throughout our lives.

We lose people we love; that’s feels like dying, is one kind of dying.

We lose parts of our lives – careers, relationships of all kinds, identities, and those losses are a different kind of dying. Chapters of our lives close.

We keep learning and growing in Christ, and as we do, we’re forced to give up some of our illusions about ourselves, some of our cherished self-images, we have to face up honestly to realizations like “maybe I’m not the perfect person I thought I was … the good listener … the unfailingly kind person … maybe I still have something to learn about what it means to love my neighbor … or my spouse …” and while that learning and growth makes us more mature, and better at serving God … it isn’t always … painless. It’s part of the great ordeal.

This is exactly John’s message to the people who “are washing their robes” – those members of “the church now” who are living their lives in Christ, who are living in this place and time in which this recurrent experience of dying, and rising, with Christ is still what it means to live like a Christian, to belong to this church.

As believers, as members of this church, we are part of John’s audience for this message.

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So the words of Jesus that John quotes: “I am coming soon” – those are words of encouragement for us. Even though by this time in world history we understand that God’s definition of “soon” or “quickly” and the ordinary human definition are two greatly different things. Nevertheless, we understand from that something about the nearness of Jesus Christ to the church.

And … that means the words in that incredible verse are words for us, words we are meant to join in hearing and speaking into the great ordeal.

We are meant to be hearing “the Spirit” and “the bride” – that’s the bride of Christ, the Church – and the “everyone who hears” who echoes that call as the reality we belong to as believers and as members of the church “now.”

And what we’re meant to be hearing and speaking seems to be another one of those multi-layered musical chords so common in the book of Revelation.

Because when the Spirit and the bride and everyone say “Come,” we hear the church praying for the ultimate arrival of the new creation, the return of Jesus Christ in glory, the realization of the very prayer we pray every week, at least, together, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven …”

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But at the same time, we hear a chorus of many more immediate prayers as first this one, then that one pray “Come! Lord Jesus” in a way that means … come into this moment, and the need of this moment, with what we can receive now … come into the suffering of this moment now, already, with your grace, with your courage, with your peace that passes understanding, with your Spirit who communicates to us the power Jesus’ kind of honest, kind, just, faithful, dying and rising kind of life now …

It sounds a little different when we say it that way, but we still need to say it, here and now in the great ordeal. And the witness and the experience of the church is that Jesus does come in that way when we cry out, and does lead us to springs of living water, that can open up when we least expect them, surprisingly, even in the midst of this extremely unpromising territory.

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And then … we hear an open invitation … hear the Spirit and the bride and us, saying these words to everyone who is thirsty. Because – here in the middle of this great ordeal – we can see we are surrounded by a lot of thirst. In fact – the invitation is precisely to all those evildoers … all those deluded and misguided and messed up who are doing everything to get their way, who will do anything for money, who don’t care who they hurt, who are looking for the good that comes only from God in all the wrong places, who don’t know the difference between truth and lies, who obviously, to our eyes, are panting with thirst for the water of life.

Because John’s audience, the church of now, we, are the servants of God – that God we’ve met in Jesus Christ, that God who tells us God so loved the world, that God who was reconciling the world to himself in the dying and rising of Christ, and giving us the ministry of reconciliation … and what the servants of this God do is, we keep saying “Come!” to everyone who is thirsty, keep saying “let anyone who wants take the water of life as a gift,” keep offering that gift, keep making clear to everyone, anyone who wishes, that this IS water of life, real life …

Even when that “everyone and anyone” includes … us, when we are struggling through this great ordeal, and we need each other to say those words, to call us back to those springs of the water of life, to re-connect with the deep life source that is the power and communion of the Spirit in our midst.

Because it’s here, in this great ordeal, that in the twinkling of an eye, the outsiders become the insiders, those who hear. This is one of the things we are going through the great ordeal for: is to be the servants of God who share that message of the water of life with the thirsty souls in our lives and our world, that good news from a far country that looks and feels like a whole new creation – in all the ways we can.

Blessed are those who are washing their robes, who are even now coming through the great ordeal, and who can join in saying, along with the Spirit and the bride, along with all the faithful of every time and place, “let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

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Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; Revelation 22:17 illustrated, Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810-1896), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

2 responses to ““Words for the Great Ordeal””

  1. Hello “HAT”–

    It happened that this month in our Present Word class teaching rotation, I drew the first and last lessons in the Revelation series. Each week this August I read both “Studying …” and “Reflecting on …” in Matters of Interpretation for that class (teaching or not). Then I was thrilled to catch your sermon series based on those same texts; it was delightful to see the same words through a different filter that I’d seen for lesson preparation. I’m convinced that in the future, studies in Revelation, even in sections not touched in this month’s series, will prove much more accessible than they have for me previously.

    Thank you so much. Hermeneutrix.com has been even more incredible than usual this month.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, Sam, thanks so much for these kind words! Very much in the category of “good news from a far country” 😉 and much appreciated – thanks for reading and commenting!

      Like

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