Surviving the Great Distress

4th Sunday of Easter (C) – May 8, 2022

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Acts 13:14, 43-52; Psalm 100:1-3, 5; Revelation 7:9, 14b-17; John 10:27-30

When Our Plan Goes to Bunk

If you’re a human being (yup, only human beings here today, good)—if you’re a human being you’ve had the experience where your day doesn’t go as planned. You had a great plan, maybe even just your normal routine (nothing crazy)…and maybe just one thing goes wrong (computer crashes), but you recover quickly: boot it back up, everything’s fine. But maybe one things goes wrong and it ruins everything else; you get a flat tire and everything else gets thrown off. Or maybe its just one thing after another: you had a great evening planned with friends, but then two of them can’t come, and then dinner was really not great, and then the movie was terrible, and then you get a call that your kids are barfing their brains out so you have to go home early. But what do we say to these experiences? “Oh, that’s just life! Life happens!” And fair enough.

But when you raise the stakes—well, when you raise the stakes, everything changes. What happens when it’s not just a day, but it has to do with the trajectory of your life? You work so hard on school, but you don’t get into the college you wanted, you don’t get into law school. You start a new business, but it crashes and burns. You are doing fine, and out of nowhere you are diagnosed with cancer. You get a call, and your child has been in a car accident. What do we say, what do we do when the stakes are at the level of our life? What do we think, what do we do?

Like I’ve shared many times before, I had a very specific plan for how I thought my life would go, and how I wanted my life to go! Like I’ve shared, my plan was nothing dumb or reckless. It was to be a doctor (a pediatric oncologist). I was going to get married, have a beautiful family, lots of kids. That was the plan. But then I found out that God had another plan for me, a plan that was pretty much not my plan—about the exact opposite, actually! “Doctor, wife, kids? How about priest, no wife, no kids?” And what did I initially say to that? “Uh…no!” I shut that down. “No way! I have a plan!” And notice, I shut it down because I could! No one was forcing me to become a priest. It was an invitation. An invitation to surrender my life into God’s hands. It was a free choice to say, “Yeah, I have this plan for my life, but You have invited me down this new path, You have invited me to freely give everything to You.” And so I had the choice: accept this new path, accept this entirely new and scary and unknown and unpredictable circumstances—OR, just keep doing everything on my own, follow my own plan, reject this new set of circumstances, reject the newness. 

Does that make sense? Here is this new set of circumstances, this newness, new path, unexpected—and there can be a lot of fear and anxiety, a true loss, even discouragement and a feeling of giving up. Here were all of your plans and hope and dreams, and as quick as the blink of an eye everything can change, and all of those plans are shattered, and we think, “Well, now my life is ruined.” And apparently we’re just left to pick up the pieces. That’s life, right?

Fulfillment In…Failure?

But what the New Testament and the history of the early Church begin to recount for us is that “that” doesn’t have to be “life” anymore. What the New Testament recounts is the new experience people began to have—an experience they themselves claimed was due to the fact that they had found an empty tomb one day, that someone had risen from the dead, that a newness was at work in the world, a new kingdom had come to power. And everything is turned upside-down.

There are examples all over the New Testament, but our readings today give us two great ones. That first reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us about how Paul and Barnabas went into a synagogue and spoke with the people there about Jesus, spoke about how all of the promises of God had been fulfilled, about how everything they had been waiting for was happening. Slam dunk, right? Easy converts, right? Wrong. “With violent abuse” they were rejected. A persecution was stirred up against them, and they were expelled from the area. They must have been totally discouraged, totally devastated, they must have given up, right? No. The reading ends by telling us that “they were filled with joy.” What? Filled with joy? But it was a disaster!

The second reading from the book of Revelation isn’t any better. It’s talking about “a great multitude…wearing white robes and holding palm branches.” Who is this great multitude? “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Who are they? They are the martyrs, those who were killed, murdered for their faith and trust and surrender to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. In the book of Revelation, John has this vision of the martyrs standing before the throne of God, and how does he describe them? “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress.” Survived? Survived their distress? But they died! What is he talking about? Go read the stories of martyrs: they are harrowing, absolutely harrowing stories about the ways they were imprisoned and tortured and killed. Imprisonment, crucifixion, torn apart by wild animals, put on a lamp-post in the streets of Rome and set on fire, skinned alive, watching your own wife and children being tortured to death before they tortured you to death, and on and on and on. The “time of distress” wasn’t just “a bad day,” wasn’t someone saying something rude on Facebook! The time of distress was facing the worst imaginable circumstances. Harrowing circumstances! And yet, in John’s vision, they have “survived the time of great distress.”

We Don’t Attain the Most Precious Gifts by Stealing Them—They Are Given

What the New Testament recounts is the continuation of what happened on that Easter morning. Again, on Easter, all we were left with was a proposal: “He’s not here, he has been raised; he is risen; there is a newness at work in the world, there is a possibility a newness we cannot produce!” But that Easter morning was just a proposal. What the New Testament does is testify that this newness is at work, it continues! It testifies that there is a new experience possible! That there is something entirely new breaking into this word, something we can experience here and now!

So what’s the catch? Why don’t we seem to experience this? The “catch”? Well, experiencing this newness (here and now) that the resurrection promises demands an openness to the unexpected, to the unforeseen and unforeseeable ways that the Lord will choose to work in order to give us that experience. The Lord’s promise is fulfillment, joy, peace, eternal life—all of this here and now, not just some pie in the sky, one-day-when-you’re-dead sort of thing. The Lord’s promise is fulfillment, joy, peace, eternal life—but not the fulfillment of our predetermined idea of what that fulfillment and joy and peace will look like, not the concrete plan we have in mind. In unforeseen and unforeseeable ways, the Lord will faithfully give us this experience (c.f., Luke 12:32). The questions is will we freely surrender our lives to allow Him to do that?

Two Extremes

I was once working with a young couple that had been struggling to years to conceive. Here is this young couple, their plan is to have a family—and their plan is completely unattainable. For years, they tried and tried and tried. Finally, after years, they conceive their first child, and nine months later give birth to the most beautiful baby girl, Natalia. Natalia lived for less than one month; three weeks later we had her funeral. But what you wouldn’t believe was the sereneness and calmness of this couple. And it wasn’t just stoicism, but it was a faith and a hope that was not from this world. She wrote a beautiful letter and said, “I have a gladness not of myself that enables me to entrust myself completely to the design of an Other and that ultimately fills me with gratitude. The difficulty remains, but I can look at it serenely.…I can’t take away the desire, that’s there [for a child], but now I can let go of the demand that the answer come the way I think it should. I’m waiting expectantly for an Other to fulfill my desire.” She has a joy and a peace, she is serene, because she is confident than an Other will fulfill her, even if it doesn’t look like what she had planned. Here in the midst of the complete destruction of her plans for her life, she surrendered her life into the hands of an Other, into the hands of Christ.

You think about this, and then you can go to the exact opposite extreme: no surrender, fighting tooth and nail for what you want, seizing what you want, even using violence to secure your plans. Especially with all of the news right now about Roe vs. Wade being overturned and the turmoil it has raised—the narrative that we are told to accept is that we don’t have to surrender, we do not have to entrust our lives to someone else’s plans, we can force our plans to be fulfilled. Here is a woman with an unplanned pregnancy—again, her plans for her life quickly being threatened. Here is a woman that cannot support the child financially or emotionally; here is a high schooler who got pregnant, and this baby threatens her plans for her life; here is an unborn child diagnosed with a terrible disability; here is a woman who has experienced terrible evil at the hands of another man, even a family member, and is left pregnant with their child. Here, in these extreme cases, when the trajectory you want for your life changes in the most extreme way, when your plans for your life are changed in an instant—here in these circumstances, a devastating lie is introduced: “You can put an end to this.” The world tells this lie. In a situation where this woman’s life plan has been betrayed, destroyed, violently taken from her—in the fear and anxiety, in beginning to suffer the loss of everything she had planned—in this distress a choice is provided that “promises” to easily and safely “get their life back on track.” But it’s a lie. It’s a lie. Abortion does not provided the solution it promises. It promises peace, it promises to return us to our plans, it promises to restore “normal.” But it doesn’t. If you have known and talked to and worked with one of these women, you know it doesn’t. Not at all! The world says that the greatest response is the freedom to choose whether to keep that child or not, the world says that the greatest response is to give that woman a choice to let someone kill that child—the freedom not to surrender, to fight tooth and nail, to seize what you want, to use violence to secure your plans once again. But isn’t it greater to love that child? (c.f., Romans 12:9-21).

The Good Shepherd

Whatever the circumstances in our life, no matter how small or how great, no matter how drastic an alteration to our plans—what does Jesus Christ say? “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). The Lord promises peace. The world cannot give us that; the peace and restoration of “normal” that the world promises…it’s a lie. But as Christ says, “Take heart, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Again, go back to our readings for today. Those who survived the time of great distress: yes, they had difficult circumstances in their life; yes, they didn’t survive in the world’s terms. But what happened? “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress…The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:14-17).

Does that sounds like God is going to abandon us in the difficult circumstances of our life? Does it sound like God’s plan is to allow us to be overcome by our challenges? No. Go back to the Gospel. How does Jesus describe those who entrust themselves to him, who surrender their lives to him? “No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-30).

Sure, the Lord’s promise is not the fulfillment of our predetermined idea of what that fulfillment and joy and peace will look like, not the concrete plan we have in mind—but He does promise fulfillment, joy, peace, eternal life. Will I keep doing everything on my own, follow my own plan, reject this new set of circumstances, reject the newness? Or will I accept the path of surrender to him, accept a path that may be entirely new and scary and terrifying, and full of unknown and unpredictable circumstances? Because that is the path to the experience of newness you seek, that we all seek. What I discovered when I embraced His call for me was just that: in the most unforeseen and unforeseeable way, He remained faithful.

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