Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
As the allied armies fought their way into Germany and towards Berlin, the world’s leaders were considering how to establish institutions to prevent such a military and civilian slaughter from ever happening again.
They came together to establish a political forum – the United Nations, which was supposed to regulate the use of force while development finance would be administered by the World Bank and short term imbalances would be managed by the International Monetary Fund.
Sadly the UN became deadlocked between the belligerents of the next global conflict – the Cold War, and the IMF-regulated trading standard disintegrated in the 1970s.
Trust evaporated as politicians of doubtful morality and values took control of the UN while the role of the US in the IMF and World Bank became ever more resented. The result was cold war and cold peace: and it has continued so ever since.
But this is not the vision of Isaiah in describing the Messianic rule of God in Jerusalem.
Israel, located between north and south, east and west was the abiding place of God’s chosen people who had been rescued from slavery and whose land was a narrow strip between the sea and the deserts of Arabia. It straddled trading routes between Egypt and the fertile crescent, but the Jews were small in number and could not field massive armies of conquest, even allowing for David’s empire.
But the vision was something quite different from what the world had seen before or since. It was of a worldwide peace, centered on the rule of Israel by the coming Messiah. It would be rule of peace and justice and it would attract the nations of the world to its wisdom and who would seek out the Word of the Lord in Jerusalem.
Nations would abandon their competitive ambitions and their efforts would be directed to the works of peace and not of conquest or control.
For Isaiah the Day of the Lord would be a glorious vindication of Israel to whom the Messiah would come and in whom the Messiah would rule supreme.
For Jesus the Day of the Lord would be sudden, dramatic and wholly unpredictable.
Its suddenness would be in a time of peace when people were trading, marrying, building and enjoying the good life. It was in the normality of life that Noah had built his ark, to the ridicule of all, and in the normality of life that the flood had come and swept the people away, along with all their warped social practices, trading habits and political arrangements.
It would also be dramatic and Jesus described what is often known as the rapture, in which the confessing and loyal church would be taken up into the heavens to meet Him. He took His description down to the most intimate social level of two people working away when one is taken up, and one is left behind: but He does so in a way that indicates that this is no dramatic exaggeration or figure of speech. It is all to be very real.
It would however be totally unpredictable, and in all His descriptions of the Day of the Lord, in all gospels, Jesus describes the kind of society and its attitudes towards His followers, but there are no dates or times or seasons.
The lesson for His followers was that in all times and in all seasons, they should be ready. This would apply in all generations whether these were times of war and insecurity or of peace and plenty. It could happen in any generation so all generations should be on the alert.
For Paul, and indeed for us, the lesson is perhaps prosaic. He also stresses the need to be alert and ready. Within the darkness of a political culture that despised and persecuted the church, its members should be wary.
They must continue to seek godliness, casting off the works or darkness and putting on the armour of light. Paul had no illusions about the manners and customs of his times with their religious cults, their twisted social customs their political infighting, where scapegoats were of immense value. If the church could be blamed for setting fire to Rome, and above all if it could not resist or fight back then its members were easy political meat.
But Paul’s teaching to the church was founded on a very simple but profound principle, for whatever the powers of the time did to the church they were also doing directly and personally to Jesus Himself. Paul had learned this lesson on the road to Damascus and it never left him.
The Lord would always keep the church in being as His personal witness: indeed as His body, even if it had to endure bouts of abuse, rejection and persecution.
But even then it was still time to reject the teachings and manners of paganism and idolatry, and to embrace the Lord Jesus who Himself was betrayed, scourged, crucified and yet had risen from the tomb.
In short, the church must never give up, never accept discouragement, and never be distracted by success or wealth or power.
Rather its attention was to be focused on Jesus Christ and Him alone. Whatever the times and circumstances, the message of the gospel was not going to go away.
The task of the church was and still is to receive it, believe in it, live it and share it at all times: that is enough – but that is all.