At this time of the church’s year the lectionary throws up some pretty uncomfortable readings. Who wants, these days, to hear about a day of judgement, or the day of wrath, or the day of the Lord? We might listen to things like Verdi’s requiem in the concert hall, but we’re not so likely to want it to become a serious part of our Sunday worship. So, it might be tempting, on a Sunday like this, to abandon the lectionary or find a little verse somewhere in the corner of a Psalm to think about. And perhaps if I’d had a more time for some avoidance tactics this week I would have done that. But as it is, I’ve decided to stick with the day of the Lord, and search my heart, as perhaps we all might, to see what God might be saying to us through these rather forbidding texts.
The idea of a coming ‘Day of the Lord’ has all but disappeared from the kind of gentle, benign and open Christianity that we favour here. We are little given to threats of judgement, and warnings of the coming ‘time of trial’ as the Lord’s Prayer puts it. I’ve had enough of the street preacher in Taunton who wants to tell me I’m going to hell… and his version of our faith is not the same as mine. But perhaps we still need to listen so that we can hear the message that does beg to be heard about the judgement of God upon the world we inhabit. We need the humility to hear what the prophets might be saying…
It came to me, a little while ago, that I might tend towards denial about the day of the Lord and the judgement of God, and even about what we call ‘the end of the world’, because there is much about the world as it is that I quite like and that I benefit from. And I’ve noticed, I really have noticed, as I’ve got to know people all around the world, that there are other people in the world, people with so much less privilege than me, who will be glad to see ‘this world’ come to an end. They long for ‘the day of the Lord’, the judgement day to come, because for them the world does not work as it is, the world as it is stifles them and denies them, and for them things really can only get better. For people more uncomfortable in the world than most of us are, the day of the Lord is not a day to fear, but a day of hope and it is to be longed for with a deep longing.
When Jesus was talking about the day of the Lord or the ‘time to come’ (as he really does seem to have done), he was surrounded by people who were poor, absolutely destitute even. Women were there – and children – and slaves. And oppressed Jews living without the status of citizens within their own land. They longed for a day to come when God would bring them justice – when, as Mary said, the humble would be lifted high and the hungry satisfied with good things. For them the promise of a day of judgement was a promise of hope. Those early Christians in Thessaloniki – to whom Paul wrote – were also waiting for the world to change radically and expecting a day of ‘wrath’. But much closer to us are all sorts of communities of people who still long for a day of judgement, for a great change in the world, and who have looked forward to it with longing. There are many African American spirituals in which the people sing about the day of judgement – and they are in no doubt that such a day would bring them redress. Can you imagine a slave, a slave who has no name but the one given to her by her owner, who cannot even keep her children, a slave who has no hope in this world, singing,
‘Nobody knows who I am till the judgement morning.’
On the day of judgement, she will have a name, not just the name of her owner, but her own name. On that day, at last, she will stand joyful and free before the God who comes to bring justice. Or, there’s a song that’s called, ‘In that great getting-up morning’. For the Judgement Day is coming… In that great getting-up morning…’ We will hear it in a while – and it’s full of that joyful hope in the coming of God’s righteous judgement.
For the slave owners, and for the rich and for the racists, for the privileged and the wealthy and the satisfied – it won’t be a great morning – but for the poor and the enslaved and for all the little ones of earth… judgement day is a great day.
So, is it because we are now on the wrong side of the balance – that we are the rich and the comfortable and the privileged that we have found ourselves fearful of God’s coming – fearful of a new world coming to be? And is it possible for us to cross over – to rediscover the kind of hope that the poorest people in the world have and of which they sing in their worship?
Could we begin to long for a deep change in the world too, even a world that perhaps doesn’t benefit us as much as this one, but which is better for everyone, and could we even begin to long for it and to work for it and pray for it?
Perhaps the promise of a day of the Lord challenges us to see how different God wants the world to be – and helps us to begin to want a different world too. The vision of a day of the Lord has been a hope cherished by the victims of world history. So maybe it’s time to decide – whose side are we on? Do we belong to the night or to the day? (as Paul might put it)
As I look back on my life so far – I can see that I have sometimes been the one longing for the world to change; so that women have more power and voice, for example. But I have to admit that I am also very often now among those who have the privilege and the wealth, among those who have a lot invested in the world as it is (sometimes literally invested in….). But I now see the faces of my friends who are from Pacific Islands as they see in me someone from the home of the industrial revolution which caused the climate change that is submerging their islands beneath the sea. I see my friends from African countries or from the Caribbean and I know I live in a land made rich through 400 years of slavery, while for them those centuries have meant bitter suffering and exploitation. I look at the poorest people in the UK and see how I have a house, a good diet, the prospect of a pension and the world at my feet. I see how the world is not as God wants it to be – but that I have interests in the world as it is… I might well fear the day of judgement, but I know that it must come, and the world must change – and I must change!
In my work now in the WCC too I recognize that it cannot go on being people like me who run things or write all the documents or chair all the meetings or have all the say. A different day is coming. As I look at the strength of Christianity, of those people who follow Jesus, I see it’s not in my part of the world anymore. A different day is coming. As I listen to my dear friend, who leads the indigenous people who are Christians in Canada, now made an Archbishop, I see that a different day is coming… It may not be my day, or our day, but it will be the day of the Lord.
There are things that those of who are wealthy in the West will have to give up. There are things about our ways of living that will end. And this might be hard for us. But it will be good for the world, the planet and the people. The day of the Lord will come – and for the poorest it will be a good day. Some of what makes us feel secure might well disappear, but nevertheless we know that, if any changes that come belong to God then the day will be bright – and we will find a new kind of joy.
The purpose of God is to restore this world and to put everything to rights. The day of the Lord is the beginning of a new creation – in which sinners are redeemed, the hungry are filled, the humble are lifted up. It is the great getting-up morning. But it will mean the end of some things; and some things from which now I, or we, benefit. So we are asked to choose whether we are ready to let go of privilege, wealth and complacency to embrace the light of a new day and a new world. And perhaps today the most challenging thing we have to let go of is that cynicism that says that nothing changes for the better, that we are doomed to perish, that there is no hope. Zephaniah, Paul and Jesus came to tell us that a new world is coming, that there will be distress and clouds for those who like the world just as it is (with all its injustice), but there will be light and joy and hope for those who suffer now.
If you want the world to be as God would have it (peaceful, just, fruitful for everyone), then the Day of the Lord is not to be feared, but to be longed for. The poor will not suffer forever, murderers will not finally triumph over their victims, the Kingdom of God will come. God will one day put things right and all creation will awaken to new life. And, we can begin to live already in this world – as people who hold together justice and mercy, righteousness and love – and as those who watch and wait for the great getting up morning to come. May it be so. Amen.