Each of the letters to the seven churches ends with two addresses: to the one who overcomes, and to him who has ears to hear. To the one who overcomes is a promise, and that promise varies with each letter; to him who has ears to hear is a command: listen, pay attention, hear what the Holy Spirit is saying. These are linked together—in the first three letters, the command is first, then the promise, while the last four reverse that order, ending with the command.
As we’ve noted before, the focus of the command is idolatry, which in all its forms is the great threat to the church in every age; this is the voice of the Spirit calling those who claim the name of Christ to give up the idols that would render them spiritually deaf, to hear what God is saying instead of only what they want to hear. As we saw last week, the vision of God on his throne supports and emphasizes that call by displaying the Ancient of Days in all his glory, so that we can see that truly, he alone is worthy of our worship, and thus see how foolish it is for us to chase after anyone or anything else.
Even if we understand that, though, it can be hard to hold to. The glory of God doesn’t seem to intrude on our daily lives much; we’re perfectly capable of going through an entire week without thinking about him—or wanting to—while the desires, demands, and pains of this world constantly demand our attention, even hopping and screaming in our face if they have to. We said last week that God’s promises to us have already been fulfilled, and we’ve seen over and over again that the promises of the world are undependable—but when the world is practically dumping its promises in our laps, our reflex is to go with what’s right in front of us. It seems counterintuitive, even counterproductive, to reject that for the sake of nothing but faith, just to trust that our self-denial will somehow be worth it. If we want to be blessed, why reject what seems to be a blessing?
It can be easy to wonder if God really knows what he’s asking of us—or even to conclude that he can’t really be serious about it. Sure, the Bible seems to say that I’m not allowed to do this thing that I deeply want to do; sure, it seems to say that I’m supposed to trust him even when all my hopes are dashed, or when everyone is turning against me, when my spouse or my child has died or my career is in ruins; but that’s just not reasonable. This is just too hard, it’s not fair, it hurts too much, it’s more than I can take. God can’t possibly expect me to bear this.
And then we see what God means by overcoming. The verb here is nikao—the noun form is nike; we pronounce it “Nike” and put a swoosh on it. It’s the name of the winged Greek goddess of victory, who’s usually shown as a conventionally triumphant figure. God gives us a very different picture, and a very different kind of victory. The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David who has conquered, is a slaughtered Lamb—but a Lamb who, even though slaughtered, is standing. Not still standing, but standing once again. This is the victory of God, and this is how Jesus conquered. It’s because he allowed himself to be slaughtered that he was able to ransom a people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation; this is why he is praised as the victor who is worthy to receive all honor and glory and blessing.
This is not, I think, a new concept for anyone here; I don’t imagine it’s anything you haven’t heard before. If you’ve been around here very long, you’ve certainly heard me say it more than once. But where it’s hard to translate this into our lives is that when we talk about following Christ, this is where Christ leads.
Our default position is to look at big, successful people and think that God is blessing them, and to see big, successful churches and assume that they’re winning lots of victories for Jesus—and that is no doubt true in some cases; but it isn’t necessarily so. If God gives us a relatively easy time of it in life and a fairly comfortable turn, that might be pleasant, but it isn’t necessarily all that much of a blessing in the long run. Jesus didn’t have a brilliantly successful career, as the world judges these things, and many of those whom he has used most powerfully—from the apostle Paul to Adoniram Judson—have lived lives that are far more appealing to read about than to live through; and their struggles and their trials were the blood and bone of the victories Jesus won through them.
That’s just how it is with great accomplishments and great victories. I forget who it was who said that adventures are a lot more fun at a distance, but that’s very true. A great victory requires a great battle, a great struggle, just like a gold-medal routine at the Olympics requires a high degree of difficulty. If we face a trial, a temptation, a grief, an adversary, that is just too great for us, that doesn’t mean we’re in the wrong battle or it’s time to give up; if Christ has led us to that point, then it just means that he’s on about winning a greater victory in us than we can see or understand. And what is impossible with us is possible with God.
Now, it’s important to stress that this doesn’t mean what we think it means. Victory doesn’t necessarily mean that we will accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish, or that we’ll see the results we hope to see. The victory of Jesus certainly didn’t look like a victory to anyone else that dark Friday afternoon. Victory doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll resist that temptation every time, and thereby bring that particular sin to an end in our lives. We certainly have to keep trying; Paul tells us in Romans 8 to put sin to death in our bodies. But if I’m right about 2 Corinthians 12—and my thanks to Kent Denlinger and Marva Dawn for helping me see this—then the thorn in the flesh Paul is talking about there is a temptation to which he keeps falling, and a sin which he keeps practicing. He begs God to free him from it, and what answer does he get? “My grace is sufficient for you, because power is ended in weakness.” The Greek there doesn’t say “my power,” and I don’t think that’s what he means. Rather, the point is that Paul’s weakness has shown him the limits of his own power, and his struggle with sin is forcing him to rely totally on the grace of God. And you know, that’s a victory too, and a worthy one, even if it isn’t what we’re normally looking for.
All we can do is try to follow Jesus as best as we can, and trust him for the rest. Trust him in our temptation, that he is making us a way through it. Trust him in our struggles and trials, that he has allowed them to come to us and is using them for his good purpose. Trust him in our grief and our fear, that he’s with us, holding us and holding us up, and that he understands what we’re going through. Indeed, trust him that whatever we face, he does know what he’s asking of us, and that we don’t have to give up: he’s with us making our way through—he is our way through—and if we just hang on to him above all others, that is the victory, and he’ll take care of the rest. We don’t worship a God who stares at our struggles and pain in blank incomprehension; we worship a Lord who knows them all, because he shared them with us, to the bitterest of all bitter ends. Worthy, worthy, worthy above all others is the Lamb who was slaughtered. Amen.