Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer...Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
-Revelation 2:10 (NIV)
By the time you read this, in fact, the NBA Finals might already be over. In the best of seven series, Cleveland is down 0 games to 3 to the Golden State Warriors. They were in two of those games. But for a major brain freeze on the part of J.R. Smith at the end of regulation in Game 1, things might be different. But even those games the Cavs were in kind of make you feel like Golden State is just going to find a way to answer everything Cleveland does. Like in Game Three, where in rapid succession, with time running out, Steph Curry hit a 3 to give Golden State a 4-point lead, LeBron James hit a 3 to cut it to 1 point, and then Kevin Durant hit another 3 to push the dagger in. As if to say, “It doesn’t matter what you do. We’re the better team and will find a way to win.”
No, the series isn’t over. But, yes, it is. Teams that have fallen behind 0-3 in the NBA Playoffs are, collectively, 0-131 in Game 4. It would be an achievement of historic proportions for Cleveland to even win the next game, never mind 4 straight. So what do you do if you’re Cleveland? Give up? Stay home tonight instead of going to the arena? No, of course not.
In the words of LeBron James, one of the greats in NBA history, “When I wake up Friday morning I’ll be locked in on the game plan of what needs to be done to help our team win. That’s just who I am.”
We live in anxious times. Terrorism. School shootings. A country divided along ethnic, racial, and political lines. Renewed tensions with old enemies. And that doesn’t even include all the stuff you carry on your shoulders personally: the health problems, family problems, work stress, school demands and so on that everyone seems to bear to one degree or another.
It’s easy to think, in times like these, that the ending is written and there’s nothing to be done.
The original readers of Revelation were believers who might have been tempted to think that themselves. Their faith cost them: their livelihood, their standing in society, their friends, their families, their lives. Following Jesus didn’t ease the burden of life for them: it added to it. And, considering the number of times in Revelation the phrase “be faithful” is used, they needed to be reminded that the fact that they were down didn’t mean that they should count themselves out.
That’s what Revelation is about, by the way: those believers couldn’t have cared less about the things that we find so fascinating in that book. What they needed, and apparently got in Revelation, was assurance that whatever was happening around them, just on the other side of the door God was at work and his plan wasn’t inconvenienced in the slightest. Evil was being dealt with. The righteous would receive their reward. Things too big and too wonderful for them to understand were happening, and the cries of those who were suffering were not falling on deaf ears.
All they needed to do was “be faithful.”
“Be faithful, and I will give you life” – I think I’d prefer it if Jesus had left it at that, if you want to know the truth. “Be faithful” – that’s harmless enough. That’s about going to church and saying my prayers and being nice to people, isn’t it?
No, it’s not. “Be faithful” is about suffering and not giving in to fear. I didn’t say it was the absence of fear – Jesus himself didn’t meet that standard – but recognizing that being afraid of something doesn’t have to be the same thing as shrinking from it. The promise Jesus makes is for people who will put their trust in him even if it literally kills them. And the reality is, of course, that every person who has ever trusted Jesus before you is dead. No one survives the experience.
So the more I think about it, the more I think we need the promise as it is: “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” That’s real, isn’t it? It takes seriously the gravity of the struggles we face, the toll it takes on us to live in this world. It takes seriously that there really are people and forces out there who would hurt us if they can. It’s a promise that grapples with human mortality, a promise for hospitals and funeral homes. It’s for battlefields and prison cells, for killing fields in places like Somalia and blighted urban neighborhoods closer to home. It’s a promise that even though Jesus’ vision of love and justice and holiness sometimes looks a little thin and unsubstantial next to the reality of the world around us, faithfulness to him is where our hope lies.
Jesus’ promise is that we are not done, not by a long shot, if we will just hold on to our trust in him. The outcome is sure. The victors’ names are already announced, and their trophies of eternal life will soon be in their hands.
I like what LeBron said about Game 4 because I like the reason for his showing up to play: “That’s just who I am.” For believers, being faithful is as easy as being true to ourselves. Through Jesus, that’s who we are. We belong to him, we follow him, we were saved by him and live in him and, really, what else are we going to do but be faithful?
So things are tough. Uncertain. Difficult. Jesus never promises that it won’t get worse before it gets better. But he does promise that it gets better. Maybe he doesn’t spare us the struggle so that we’ll enjoy the victory that much more. Maybe we need the struggle to harden and refine our faith. I don’t know. I don’t understand it. But I know the promise he makes is one that he lived. He was faithful to death, and his Father gave him life. And it’s his intention to share it with all his faithful people.
So hang in. Keep doing what he tells you, what you know to be right. Love God, and love your neighbor, and take your life’s energy from that source. And when you’ve gone as far as you can, he’ll step in and take you the rest of the way.