Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11; Matthew 10: 34-42
The Day of the Lord
Today’s Scripture readings offer conflicting ideas about the coming Day of the Lord. Jesus’ comments that he has brought conflict and not peace contrast with Isaiah’s pastoral images of comfort to an oppressed people. But we can find resolution in the advice of the prophet Micah. Love justice, treat other people kindly, and have the humility to realize that we may not always be right.
The well-known piece from Isaiah has the heading, Comfort for God’s People in my Bible. The context is that the Israelite leadership was in exile in Babylon. Isaiah comforted them. He predicted that one day they would be free again. Jerusalem (meaning they) had served their term of exile. The prophet used metaphors. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God”.
Preparing a highway
That’s exactly how we prepare a highway today. We have to level out the rough places, put the road on an embankment where the terrain is too low; dig or blast out cuttings where the terrain is too high. You can see these feats of engineering on Highway 401 between Kingston and Cornwall, for example. “Every valley will be exalted and every hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.”
Many of us remember those words from the opening of Handel’s oratorio, The Messiah, and the next chorus, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” The choir at Michelle’s church (All Saints, Guelph) sang these words at their Carol Service last Sunday evening.
All four Gospel writers quote these words from Isaiah when John the Baptist announces the coming of the Messiah. John did not, of course, announce the birth of Jesus, which we anticipate in ten days’ time. Rather, John foretold the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, which we will recount early in the New Year. Isaiah went on to offer the people the image of God as shepherd who will bring back the scattered flock.
Pastoral images or conflict with friends and families?
How on earth do we square these pastoral images about the coming Day of the Lord with our reading from Matthew? Last week, we encountered the compassionate Jesus. He forgave a woman who had been caught in adultery. He saved her life by challenging the Temple officials as to who was so righteous that he could justify throwing the first stone at her. Surely, that is the Day of the Lord that we hope will be coming! Yet in today’s reading, Jesus tells the disciples that he came to bring dissent, not peace. I suggest that the best way to understand this is, again, to look at context.
Matthew and the other Gospel writers wrote for their own time. For Matthew’s Gospel, that time, most scholars agree, was around 85 CE. Historically, we know that things had changed since Jesus lived on earth. The Romans had destroyed the Temple. That caused a split between the “Followers of the Way” (the emerging Christians) and Jewish traditionalists. For them, Jesus was not the Messiah. Inevitably households would have been divided, and likewise friends would have taken opposing sides.
Matthew wrote his Gospel to include contemporary realities. A person might have to make an agonizing choice. Choose Jesus or choose your family. Then follows material that echoes the concept of the narrow gate, the one that is easy to miss, and hard to find. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life will find it. Hard to understand? Yes. To love Jesus more than father or mother seems to deny the Fifth Commandment, “Honour thy father and mother.”
Christ and Culture
Jesus often told the disciples, “You have heard it said ‘this’, but I say to you ‘that’.” Jesus was authentically Jewish. But he recognized that slavish adherence to every law of Torah might sometimes disagree with the spirit of the Law. We face exactly this issue today (or in any age) when, to use words from the hymn Once to every man and nation, we wonder whether “time has made ancient good uncouth.”
Richard Niebuhr addressed this subject in a book with the title Christ and Culture in 1951. To oversimplify, his thesis was that traditionalists believe that they must oppose changes in societal mores because they upend traditional values. Others seek to accommodate Christian values to the circumstances of the day. That is why Christians in our generation are so divided over matters like same sex unions, abortion, and medical aid in dying. Has time made ancient good uncouth? Or should Christians uphold traditional values?
These are not fence-sitting issues. Whichever position you take will please some people and offend others. You may risk alienating family members or friends. That’s probably why people say that politics and religion are not suitable topics for dinner-table conversation. Here’s what I see as the crux of the problem. I can never know (in this life) God’s view on these matters. Nor do I know “What would Jesus do?” I have to make up my own mind. All I can use is what I perceive as a Christian ethical framework. Then I hope that God will recognize that I made my choice sincerely, even if I make the “wrong” choice.
The Golden Rule and the advice of the prophet Micah
My framework is that love of neighbour – the Golden Rule – requires me to respect my neighbours even if I disagree with them. I must treat them as I would wish them to treat me. I must assume that they, like me, hold their views sincerely. Also, the well known comment by the prophet Micah [6:8] tells me to follow three principles. These are justice, kindness, and humility. Perhaps the last of these is the most important. I cannot know for sure that I am right.
Let me return to Isaiah’s dream that the coming Day of the Lord involves straightening crooked paths and smoothing out rough places. Isaiah repeated twice the words, “A voice cries out”. Because we are Christians, and because of the Gospel writers, we identify as “the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness” as foretelling John the Baptist. Brevard Childs identifies the voice as “one of the heavenly council.” This prophetic voice demands a response. Who is going to do the work of straightening and smoothing? The answer, of course (or so it seems to me) is that this is our task.
Bringing in the Day of the Lord is not an individual task
One person did not, and could not, build Highway 401. Many people worked together. Probably many of them thought that their part of the work was insignificant. But not everyone can be in charge of dynamiting the rock to “make a hill low”, or drive the grader to level the ground.
For us, too, the task of bringing in the Kingdom needs multitudes of hands. To take a contemporary example, Greta Thunberg addresses the UN and the “alternative” conference in Madrid on the issue of climate change. To mix my metaphors, she has been driving the grader.
But if I think that it’s all on my individual shoulders, I will surely give up. It doesn’t that mean that we waste our time and effort when we decide to take the train to Ottawa rather than fly, or turn the thermostat down by 1°C.
The prophet Micah wrote his book more than 2500 years ago, long before the time of Jesus. Yet his words seem to foreshadow the ideals of Christianity very closely. As we try to make our tiny efforts to make the world a better place, Micah gives us an objective starting point. Love justice; treat others kindly; show humility – you may not actually be right! Not everyone will agree with your decision about what is just. But kindness and humility may allow us to keep intact the relationships that we treasure, even in the face of disagreement.