***Audio for this sermon did not take, so the following is the script.***
The Great Ordeal
May 8, 2022 - Texts: Revelation 7:9-17& Psalm 23
Sometimes when reading the Bible, there are odd turns of phrases that catch our attention, not so much for the clarity but because they sound weird or alien. Revelation is so chock full of them that it is easy to get buried in them. In the passage that Garth read this morning, the phrase is “The Great Ordeal.” Today’s time of pandemic, and a war in Europe, evokes the earlier conflict of the First and Second World Wars and an ordeal of our own. This past week was my turn to get tagged with Covid-19, and our family isolated ourselves as we nursed our symptoms.
The words “the Great Ordeal” can evoke all kinds of images. While John of Patmos never experienced something like a modern world war, his words have a timeless quality. They can provide support and encouragement to anyone during a crisis, including our current experience.
Again, this is where Revelation becomes a far more practical book than we realize. When we look to the Bible, what we get from it depends on what we’re looking for. Depending on what we need, we could be looking for a practical guide on living our lives well. We could be looking for stories that we connect with and find meaning that our life matters. We could be looking for some words of encouragement in the middle of a crisis. It could be for almost anything. Whatever our approach is, whatever it is we are looking for, the Bible helps us to see how our life story intersects with God’s story. Even in a weird book like Revelation.
Our Easter trip through Revelation is very much a rose-coloured glasses one. The readings we explore skip over some of the more bizarre, violent, and lurid imagery, stopping at these scenes of heavenly worship that intersect the whole book. However, we miss something. These different scenes of divine worship represent the hope-filled conclusion of various crises that Christians were experiencing when John of Patmos wrote this book.
So in chapter seven, we return to heavenly worship, seeing those now gathered around the throne in the worship of God. A “great multitude that no one could count.” They stand before the throne and the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. The layered images echo from several different parts of scripture. They recall passages from Genesis, reminding us that we are all the children of God. The Palm Branches evoke the image of the Festival of Booths from Leviticus, one of many celebrations marking God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery. The white robes evoke multiple images, including Ecclesiastes’ call for the people to enjoy their celebrations. It’s a party, pure and simple.
But when John asks who this multitude is, his guide tells him, “they are the ones who have come out of the “Great Ordeal;” ‘they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” While it may sound weird, it’s another reference to Leviticus (6:22) evoking the sacrifice of the “sin offering.” When a lamb of the sin-offering gets sacrificed, anyone hit with the droplets of blood is made holy. The ritual washes them and makes them clean.
They have come through the Great Ordeal, a great struggle, thanks to what God has done in Jesus Christ. It’s not that they survived on their own merits but that God has ultimately rescued them. There is no struggle, no ordeal that is so great that God cannot overcome in Jesus Christ.
The words “Great Ordeal” evoke all kinds of images. Some translations use the word “Tribulation,” but it can also mean “struggle, pressure, anguish, or persecution.”
For me, especially convalescing at home this week, I realized that my experience is still comfortable. I have no idea of the experience of Ukrainian refugees fleeing their homes since February. I have no idea what it was like to live through the Second World War. Covid-19 has been an inconvenience, but it has been lethal and soul-destroying.
I don’t know what it is like to live in a time when I could be exterminated for my beliefs. Today, when I hear Christians in Canada claiming persecution, I am skeptical. The right to worship is enshrined in the charter of rights and freedoms. Loudmouth so-called Christians getting called out for questionable ethics is entirely different from losing your life for who you are. We trivialize the struggles that people have, and we fail to learn from the fundamental lessons of history.
Revelation’s “great ordeal” was explicitly about early Christians losing their identity to the Roman Empire and fear of persecution of Christians under Emperor Domitian. At the same time, because of the symbolic language that John of Patmos used, it has a timeless quality that can speak to any time of hardship and struggle. Revelation’s message was one of hope, even in the midst of massive upheaval and change. The “Great Ordeal” could mean any period of hardship, tough times, survival or struggle. It’s why it perhaps fits the Second World War so well.
But then again, “Great Ordeals” don’t have to be that grand of a scale. Many of us experience Great Ordeals of our own: trying times of personal struggle and tragedy. Some are out in front where everyone can see them, while others face inner struggles: cancer, depression, family turmoil, death of a loved one, to name a few. So perhaps the message from Revelation is not about the size of the struggle. Instead, John reminds us that there is no conflict, no struggle, no ordeal that is so great that it can overcome what God has done in Jesus Christ.
Revelation was not about predicting an ordeal to come but giving people the tools to face the trials upon them. These were words of encouragement for people experiencing their great ordeal. They may seem overwhelming and impossible at the time, even to the point of facing death, but as Easter reminds us that no trial is too great for God to handle.
These great words of comfort come at the end of this passage.
“For 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.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre 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.”
John evokes images from Isaiah and the Psalms, reminding those in the middle of struggle that the Lord is our shepherd. We have all that we need. Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil, for God is with us to comfort us, guide us, and lead us even in our great ordeals.