The Day of the Lord

The phrase ‘The Day of the Lord’ appears in both our old and new testament readings today. It is an intriguing phrase which can have rather dark sinister overtones which we may well feel happier to ignore. It appears in bible readings in church at this time of the year as we approach advent and then is lost in the familiar and altogether gentler accounts of the Christmas story. But can and should we pass it off lightly; simply kick it into the long grass of our Christian understanding?
The phrase first appears in the book of Amos, chapter 5. Amos was a prophet through whom God spoke to his people over seven hundred years before Jesus. He says: ‘Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light.’ (Amos 5.18) While we cannot be sure, it would appear from these words that people were already speaking about ‘The Day of the Lord’ as a good time, a time when God would restore the fortunes of his people and all would be well with the world again. But Amos tells them instead that it won’t all be good. He goes on to say, (in words which we listened to last week as the first reading) that God is not happy with the people’s sacrifices and worship. Why? Because there was no justice. The people came and sang their hymns and songs to God at the festivals and assemblies, but they carried on hurting other people by the way they lived and God was far from pleased. The prophet cry’s out: ‘…let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’ (Amos 5.24)
In today’s reading from another prophet, Zephaniah, speaking this time to Judah, the blackness of the day of the Lord is ratcheted up a notch or two. He says: ‘That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.’ (Zephaniah 1.15) In the original Hebrew, these words are more terrifying than when they are rendered into English. Why then should these prophets be so insistent about God’s wrath and anger? Are their words in anyway consistent with those of Jesus? Do they have anything to say to our so called enlightened culture today?
The reason for the darkness, devastation and distress of the day of the Lord is clear. It is God’s wrath, his anger brought about by the injustices his people have perpetrated. It is particularly directed at those in places of authority who carried a greater responsibility for the failings of their society. It is also due to a trust in wealth, a temptation to follow the gods of silver and gold rather than the living God. We can be tempted to stand in the place of God and say that such punishment is disproportionate, but who are we to say that? Look at the terrible suffering being inflicted on innocent Yemeni people today by Iranian and Syrian leaders in their proxy war or the fate of the Rohingya and other minorities being forced to flee from Myanmar, formally Burma. Just two current atrocities that affect our world at present which can be laid firmly at the door of people with power, authority and privilege. ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do what is just’ (Genesis 18.25)
These prophetic words from Amos, Zephaniah and others in the old testament are warnings to God’s people that they cannot expect to escape God’s judgement when their lives do not match up with the commandments. This judgement might have both a ‘near’ and a ‘far’ view. The nearer view would refer to an immanent attack from an invading nation, in this case the Chaldeans. But there is also a further, more long-term view of God’s judgement and we see this thread picked up throughout the bible particularly in the phrase; ‘The Day of the Lord’. The prophet Joel in words often used on Whitsunday, speaks of God pouring out his spirit on all flesh. (Joel 2.28) He goes on to talk of the day of the Lord having cosmic effects: ‘The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. (Joel 2.31) Thus, in Joel’s ‘far’ view, the day of the Lord will be final. ‘Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ He says. (Joel 2.32)
In the new testament, Jesus speaks often of the end times and his return. We reflected together on that two weeks ago. So, it is that in the writings of Paul, ‘The Day of the Lord’ becomes; ‘The Day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ or similar. (1 Corinthians 1.8, Philippians 1.6 and other refs) In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul spends much time trying to assure his readers that if they are ‘in Christ’, they have nothing to fear from the day, but they must be ready. In our new testament reading, he warns that the day of the Lord will come like a ‘thief in the night’ (1Thessalonians 5.2) and they must be spiritually awake and ready for that eventuality.
So how do we react to these teachings in our contemporary world? It seems to me that Christians have a number of takes on it, none of which are entirely healthy.
Firstly, there are those who simply regard this teaching as belonging to a more outlandish fictional part of the bible which they can safely ignore. For ‘Day of the Lord’ read ‘Day of the Triffids’ after the John Wyndham’s book from the 1950’s in which the world faces annihilation at the hands of carnivorous plants. But as I hope I have shown, we cannot simply fillet this part out. It is a thread, part of the warp and weft of the scriptures which God has given us and to rip this or any other part out of God’s word is to risk unravelling the whole.
Others, taking a similar view, will say that such passages make the bible less believable or less in tune with contemporary thinking. While a God of wrath may have been popular with Victorian preachers, he hardly goes down well with egalitarian values of today’s middle classes. So, the suggestion is made that the biblical writers include these passages because they arise out of particular situations and understandings of times which are not relevant today. But against this, the question must be asked: ‘Has human behaviour improved to a point where God no longer needs to judge? Do we really believe it is right that unrepentant sinners should have their misdeeds ignored especially when they had brought misery and suffering on others?
Then there are those Christians who pour over the news headlines and current affairs finding all kinds of links with bits and pieces of scripture which they say point to our Lord’s coming again, the day of the Lord being just around the corner. Some will even suggest a date on which it might happen even though Jesus counsels that even he does not know the day or the hour. (Matthew 24.36) While we are encouraged in today’s reading to ‘keep awake’, (1Thessalonians 5.6) continually trying forecast when it might occur is an unhelpful distraction.
It is in Jesus story or parable of the talents, (Matthew 25.14-30) today’s gospel reading that I think we find a helpful way of thinking about the day of the Lord. It is a day of settling accounts; (verse 19) a day of reckoning. Nothing in this world is forever and there is no such thing as a free lunch. Experience tells us that neither our lives nor the world are permanent. Jesus teaches us that he will come in glory to judge the living and the dead. Those to whom much is given in the way of leadership, responsibility and wealth have most to give account of. What is important is that we live each day as people who are ready to meet the bridegroom, ready to meet with Jesus, repentant for our failings and showing evidence of that repentance in the way in which we use the opportunities given to us in this life. When we contemplate ‘The Day of the Lord’ may we not just ignore it, consider it irrelevant or get too fascinated by it. May we instead accept it as a reality and so live that we might be deemed trustworthy servants on that great and terrible day.
Kingdom 3 19.11.2017

Rev Jonathan Smith

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