Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Great Ordeal

Do you remember that scene in West Wing when President Bartlett is debating with Vice-President Hoynes about the issue of gun control? Hoynes is from Texas, and he points out to his boss the political reality behind limits on gun control, citing the Second Amendment. Then Bartlett, prone to frustration over ideological claims he does not like, barks, "We can't just all agree that it's a stupid-ass amendment?" Sometimes, when someone asks me about the Book of Revelation and a strange, apocalyptic teaching that it presents, I want to channel my inner Bartlett and let that person know how silly it sounds to use a highly symbolic, second-century text to predict the future. But you know what? Then we get to passages like Revelation 7:9-17 and I think, "Yeah, this kind of hope is why this book stayed in the bible."

On Sunday we will hear the angel ask John about the "great multitude that no one could count" who had gathered in white robes and with palm branches in their hand. "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" the angel asks. John of Patmos replies, "Sir, you are the one who knows." And then we learn that they are the ones who had come through the "great ordeal," having "washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." And I hear that description about the multitude too large to be counted having passed through the great ordeal and, because of Jesus' blood, have come through with white robes, and I think, "You know what? That's hope."

The Contemporary English Version translates it as "the great suffering." The English Standard Version chooses "the great tribulation." The King James Version omits the article and calls it "great tribulation," which almost makes it feel more like a proper-noun-worthy event: "Great Tribulation." All of them suggest that this is one specific suffering, ordeal, tribulation. The Greek word is "thilpseos," which means literally a "constriction" and is usually rendered "affliction." According to Strong, it is "a narrow place that hems someone in," which gives a beautifully simple physical description of this strange metaphorical event. Having come through this bottle-neck of life, they are made pure and spotless and bright.

I don't know what your great ordeal is. I don't even know what mine is. Maybe we all share the same one. I'm pretty sure that the author of Revelation had the persecutions of the first and second centuries in mind. What is our "narrow place" that rubs us, threatens us, constricts us from entering the kingdom? What is the spot in our life that makes us wonder if we will make it through? Peer through that little opening and see that on the other side is a great multitude which no one can count--all dressed in white. This is a story of hope. Don't worry about the details. Just focus on the hope.

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