Sunday, 24 March 2019

I See ... - Isaiah 13, 34, Daniel 7, Matthew 24

Listen - a noise on the mountains, a great multitude, an uproar of kingdoms, nations amassing, God mustering an army for war! From faraway lands they come as the Lord's weapons to destroy, to lay the whole country waste. Wail, for the day of the Lord is near, a cruel day with wrath and fierce anger. The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light, the sun darkened, the moon not giving its light. Come near nations, pay attention. The Lord is angry. The stars in the sky will be dissolved, heavens rolled up like a scroll. This is God's verdict.

If we are to take all scripture seriously, then soon or later we have to get our heads round these words which are snippets from Isaiah 13 and 34. Note I didn't include the bits about dead bodies and mountains soaked in blood. My sanitised version skipped bits about infants being dashed to pieces, houses looted, wives violated! Yet it is in there in scripture, so how do we deal with it?

Isaiah seems to show God working through human conflict and war, even with all its atrocities. Some use this to justify war in hideous ways, which of course makes others critical of people of faith. Here I will give 2 pointers to help us. First where people groups or nations are found wanting, it is not because of who they are but because of their sustained disposition towards God. E.g. Babylon in Isaiah 13 can be read as symbolic of revolt, and the nations mustered in chapter 34 are those powers who have become against God.

Second the 'stars in sky / heaven' are symbolic of the 'heavenly realm', even armies of spiritual forces. Yet God is sovereign - the verses imply God will shake them up too.

Chapter 13 talks of big uncertain times for the people - they can't know if they will even survive. What should their natural reaction be? Surely it should be to pray: to call on God, to seek mercy. As a nation we of course face uncertain times with Brexit etc. Surely we too find ourselves at a point where we need to collectively call on God, seeking Him and His ways for our whole nations.

Jesus clashed with the religious institutions. Matthew 23 is a whole chapter of argument with them! He was kind of saying 'these people are on the wrong side of God, yet they should know better'. He then looks at the Jewish temple, the epicentre of their faith, and says 'It is all going to be knocked down'. That starts a discussion with questions like "When?", recorded in Mattthew 24.

Jesus is talking about a big calamity happening right there in Jerusalem, and says when it happens 'Get out, run to the hills!'. At this point we should note some actual history: in AD70 Jewish rebels went against the Romans, who turned up in force, sieged the city, and overtook it burning down the temple. As far as we know most Christians had got out, knowing battle with the Romans was pointless.

In amongst all this stuff Jesus talks of 'the sun darkened, stars fall from the sky', i.e. quoting Isaiah 13 & 34 with all its stuff about heavenly realms and armies. In other words Jesus is not just talking about some events on earth, but is saying things will be shaken on a cosmic scale, the whole spiritual realm will be shaken up.

Then Jesus quotes another prophet: Daniel 7:13 - 14. This is again big picture stuff, about God declaring one who is sovereign through all space/time/history. It is God saying: "Enough: My rule of justice will be sovereign - through the one called 'The Son of man'". He will be born as human but special, different, a human like no other.

At this point a technical note: we typically read the phrase 'coming on the clouds' as Jesus returning to earth (i.e. assume it is the '2nd coming'). But the original Daniel text is in the opposite direction: the Son of Man is going into the God-head, to his rightful place as Lord.

Whichever direction these words were too much for the religious leaders. Their expectation was a Messiah who would kick out the Romans. Yet Jesus wasn't doing that. Instead by saying this kind of stuff he was challenging them! So the Easter story we know: the leaders got a way of arresting Jesus, putting him on trial, focussing on his claim to be the 'Son of Man' or 'Son of God'.

Jesus plays it cool, but at a crucial point he again says 'You will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven' (see Matthew 26:64). Again quoting Daniel 7, he is of course saying 'It will be me!'. That did it for his accusers. They knew this was a claim to God's sovereignty, and if it was true then they were on the wrong side of the equation! So they said 'Put him to death', and doomed him to the cross.

Yet as we will hear in a couple of weeks, that was always the plan (look out for the 'suffering servant'!). For God knows that wars/battles/vengeance are not the answer. The real answer is to absorb the violence, and that is what his death on the cross will do

This whole passage, with its calamitous events and quoting Isaiah & Daniel is about one thing: Jesus is the sovereign Lord. His rightful place is in glory with God. Once we get that, everything in our lives must be re-calibrated. That is why for me as a Christian, the question of Brexit or no Brexit, Europe or no Europe, Trump, Putin, King Jong-Un, China etc. all make no difference. For sure they will affect my actual living, because of economic factors or maybe even worse. Yet there can be carnage and all kinds of woe - but I am secure with just one Lord: Jesus.

And He will still be Lord whatever the outcome, however good, bad or indifferent things get.

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