Rev. George Miller
“Coming Out of the Ordeal”
April 25, 2010
If you ever want to fully grasp the Christian experience, one thing you can do is read Psalm 22 and Psalm 23 back to back.
Psalm 22 begins with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me...”
Psalm 23 states “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul...Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff- they comfort me.”
Both Psalms speak about creation’s experience of God; how God can seem far away and forgetful, and yet God is right beside us, offering comfort.
It’s a harsh contradiction to process. What good is a shepherd if we face ordeals that threaten to break us down?
I had my own epiphany with Psalm 23. I thought it said “You rod and staff protect me.” If that was so, were was my protection when spears seemed to pierce my life?
Upon closer inspection I realized that Psalm 23 really says “You rod and staff comfort me.”
Being comforted is different from being protected. Comfort does not prevent problems from occurring, but comfort can mean that those problems do not have to get the best of you.
Parents can not protect their children forever, otherwise they will never mature and find true happiness. But a parent can find ways to comfort, be it through a word, a presence, or a hug.
Still, ordeals are difficult to endure and no matter how much comfort one receives it’s hard to go through the fire and emerge on the other side with a spirit of rejoicing.
But try we do.
If you haven’t realized it by now, living through our ordeals is a huge part of my theology.
I am not a pastor who assumes everyone’s life is great. Nor am I the kind of preacher who focuses all my sermons on people who are out there because I believe people right in here have their own plights and struggles.
Nor do I believe that only the poor have problems or only those who are visibly different face oppression.
I haven’t had that luxury in life so I dislike it when I hear a preacher give a sermon in which there’s no word of assurance that the Shepherd is comforting me, or evidence that whatever I am facing God will somehow see me through.
That’s one reason why I have no fear about the Book of Revelation. Marginal and persecuted Christians have identified with it’s message about salvation and encouragement for centuries, and so have I.
Revelation forces us to confront the threats of life. Because I’ve lived in the ghetto, cared for abused children and worked in a hospital I’ve seen the events in Revelation take place everyday; its various horsemen galloping through our lives.
For me, Revelation is a book that uses images and metaphors to talk about the ordeals that people are facing, while at the same time offering comfort.
Through its poetry the author saying is “Even though it may not seem like it, God is active and God already has the victory.”
That’s just part of what we see in today’s reading. John has a vision: one with a multitude of people.
There is amazing diversity; folk from every ethnic group and language. They are all dressed in white and before the throne of God and the presence of Christ they have become one.
They are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal. But now they are no longer hungry or thirsty.
Instead they are worshiping like it is no one’s business because the Shepherd has wiped away their tears and is guiding them to cool waters.
John is referring to the early Christian martyrs.
Their belief in Christ was seen as an affront to God; the government called them mischievous and dangerous.
Therefor, they were punished and the ordeals they faced were legionary, from jail and torture to permanent banishment.
Some how these men and women held on, keeping their faith. And even though what they faced was different from what we struggle with today, it does not mean our own problems aren’t serious.
An ordeal is an ordeal. The Lord doesn’t use the shepherd’s rod to measure how much we suffer, it is used to acknowledge our pain and to offer us comfort.
Because we all need comfort from time to time. As one pastor wrote, the church is a communion of sufferers who will ultimately claim victory.[i]
After all, isn’t that what a honest reading of the Biblical narratives tell us again and again?
Nowhere does the Bible portray a life devoid of ordeals. Instead it shows life as something full of surprises and difficulty in which, despite all the odds, God finds a way to break in to do something unexpected, offering comfort and hope.
For example, think of Elijah. Afraid for his life he flees into the wilderness and finds himself under a broom tree asking God to let him die (1 Kings 19).
Think of Paul who is locked up in jail for proclaiming the Good News (Philippians).
Think of Jesus, placed on a cross because of who he ate with and how he dared to preach a message of God’s inclusive love.
These were ordeals that were difficult to face, that could have spelt the end of our faith’s family.
But recall what God was able to do. For Elijah God used an angel to provide food and rest, giving Elijah strength and encouragement.
Paul realized that he was part of a body greater then his own, and after his death his words lived on, creating a foundation for our faith.
And though it may have seemed that the cross put an end to Jesus’ ministry, the resurrection showed that no ordeal is so great that it would have the last word over God and God’s Kingdom.
In fact, through the raising of Christ God ensured us that we would always have a Good Shepherd who knew what our ordeals were like, a Good Shepherd who could comfort and ensure us that our own suffering was not negated or ignored.
Through Christ our ordeals have been yoked to his, ensuring that the good news of the resurrection is our good news too.
In conclusion, Revelation 7 offers us a glimpse of how those who faced great adversity will emerge from them, praising the Lord, in which no matter what, no matter who, their tears will be wiped away and they’ll receive peaceful rest.
Whatever it is you are facing today, finances or family, friends or health, work or government, know that God is giving you the strength to hold on and the ability to cry out.
Because of the resurrection all of our ordeals have been yoked to Christ’s and he will comfort us all, leading us to green pastures and still waters.
Don’t be afraid of Revelation but instead hear in it the promise that no matter what we face, God already has the victory.
No matter what struggles you endure, in God’s graciousness you will be comforted and sustained.
In Christ we are not forsaken nor do we ever have to feel like we are doing it alone.
With that knowledge we can give thanks to God when we emerge from our own ordeals. With that knowledge we can reach out to others as they face their own.
And we can join the multitudes in raising our voices in praise, knowing that one day we will all be free from hunger, free from thirst, and free from facing ordeals too great to bear.
All thanks to the Spirit that allows us to see how wonderful things can really be, to Jesus Christ whose blood washes us clean and to God who has promised to wipe away every tear from our eyes.
[i]. Daniel J. Price, “The Lectionary Commentary- Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles”, Roger E. Van Harn, editor, 2001.