THE DAY OF THE LORD
Here we are on the last Sunday of the Church year. The new year begins next Sunday, the first Sunday on Advent when we begin to prepare for the coming of Jesus at Bethlehem. Today also will be the last in a three part series on the day of the Lord. If you remember from the past two weeks, the day of the Lord refers to the end times when Jesu returns in glory to judge the whole world, saint and sinner alike. And while some Christians think that that day will be one of great joy, the Old Testament prophets tell us something different. Amos and Zephaniah, whom we read the last two Sundays, describe the day of the Lord as one of darkness and distress. This is equally true not only for sinners but also for those who are brothers and sisters in Christ. Their faith will be tested. There will be no rapture to save us from the great tribulation. All of us, everyone will experience the judgment of God upon the earth.
None of that sounds very appealing and some of you may even be a little concerned by what the Bible says about the day of the Lord and our place in it and rightly so. But I also told you last week not to despair because the end of the story has not yet been told. Today, you are going to get that last chapter which tells us that on the day of judgment God will turn our despair into hope and darkness into light.
We will discover that as we move into the book of the prophet Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 34:11-12 (NIV) we read these words: “For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on the day of clouds and darkness.'”
There it is. There is hope in the midst of despair. There is light to take away the darkness of the night. God will search for his children who were scattered in the darkness along with the ungodly. God will rescue them from all of the places where they were scattered and look after them as a shepherd looks after his flock.
And then Ezekiel goes on. Ezekiel 34:13-16 (NIV) says this:
“I will bring them back from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them to their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements of the land. I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.”
I want you to note how completely different this is from the previous two prophets Amos and Zephaniah that we read the past two weeks. Both of them talked about scattering the people and causing despair. Ezekiel talks about gathering the people and giving them home. Amos and Zephaniah talked about the defeat of the people and how their land would be taken away from them, that they would not live in their houses or enjoy the fruit of their fields. Ezekiel talks about God giving them back their landto reclaiming their inheritance. Amos and Zephaniah talked about how God was done with the people because of their unfaithfulness. Ezekiel talks about how God will care for them and strengthen them like a shepherd tending his flock.
And there is that last word – justice. God promises justice. But what does justice look like? That’s important to consider because God’s justice is not always what we think of as justice. We think of justice as people getting what they deserve. If that’s the case, then justice has already been served. Remember that Amos and Zephaniah railed against Jerusalem because the people of Judah and not been faithful. They had not fed the hungry or comforted the broken hearted. They had left the homeless on in the cold and the naked without proper clothing. They had not lived the way that God had commanded them to live with compassion and generousity for others. And so God had called the Babylonians to defeat Jerusalem and take the Israelites back to Babylon where they would serve as slaves for seventy years. If justice is getting what you deserve, justice has been served and served well.
But Ezekiel talks about a new kind of justice, God’s kind of justice. It is not about the people getting what they deserve – that’s already happened. God’s justice is about people getting what they need. God says, “I will take you back to the land that you came from and when you get there I will provide more than enough to meet all of the needs of all of the people. My justice means that all of those resources are shared so that each will have enough.”
This is where we get confused in our society. In our world, people are motivated by jealousy and comparisons. It’s us vs them, those who have less against those who have more. But that’s not God’s justice. It is not about the 1% vs the 99%. It is not about the 10% vs the 90%. It is not about half of the people having more than the other half. It is about everyone having enough. There is no precedence in Scripture that suggests that everyone should have the same amount. It’s just not there. The Bible recognizes that some will have more than others and the Bible never calls that a sin. But it does say that it is unfaithful when some have too much and others not enough. That is unfaithfulness and that is what God calls injustice.
We have to remember the audience to whom Ezekiel is prophesying. Ezekiel, like everyone else, was taken captive when Jerusalem was defeated and destroyed in 586 BC. The people have been in captivity in Babylon ever since, Ezekiel with them. But it is the midst of their captivity, their time of tribulation, that God, through Ezekiel, gives the people words of hope. It is the midst of this context that God tells the people that one day they will return home and that they will be fed and cared for and loved and that life again will be good.
FILLED WITH HOPE
I love this passage. It is so full of hope. It is one of those passages that you can read again and again and again, especially when going through tough times. It is the story of people who experienced great tribulation in the midst of the judgment of the day of the Lord and yet found hope to survive and thrive.
This is a passage that also rang so true for me this week. It was an amazing week for Cottam United Church. And before I tell you why, I want to remind you of what has been happening around here for the past year. We have gone through a lot of changes recently with a new Board structure. Quite a few of our key leaders have been ill and unable to continue in the same capacity as they previously had. And there are a number of other people in this congregation who are sick. It seem that every month, someone else is diagnosed with cancer or some other serious illness. On top of that, this was supposed to have been the 150th anniversary of the founding of this congregation in 1867. Even with that emphasis, we tripped up. Some of the things we planned got done. We managed to get a pretty spectacular float in the Cottam Horse Show parade. But our anniversary dinner in May was cancelled because of lack of ticket sales. The prayer garden we were planning to establish in our side yard has not happened because we haven’t been able to find anyone to do it. It’s been like pulling teeth to get any landscaper to follow through on any commitment.
I’ve been feeling the effects of that and so have others who have been used to things going pretty smoothly around here for the past ten years or so. More than one person has said that it hasn’t felt the same around here during the past year. I get that. I’ve even heard the word tribulation used more than once to describe people’s experiences. It was as though the prophets Amos and Zephaniah were speaking to us about the despair and darkness and devastation that comes on the day of the Lord.
But that all changed this week. I don’t how to describe it but my experience is that last Sunday, the heaviness lifted. It was a though a fresh breath of the Spirit blew through this place and brought hope. We had a great worship last week despite the theme of despair and destruction on the day of the Lord. I don’t know if everyone felt it but to me it was like we turned a corner.
And then came this week – turkey week. The turkey supper is one of the three events that puts Cottam on the map – the other two being the community yard sale in June and the Cottam Horse show in September. This is an important event, not just as a fund raiser – that almost secondary – but as a way of bring our community together.
This year was different. We formed a whole new planning team. Rosemary was able to provide so much wisdom from past dinners that had been so successful. We scouted out other turkey dinners in the area to see how they did things and we learned some important lessons. Set up started on Monday. The vegetables were pealed on Wednesday and pies baked. And then the main event happened on Thursday. I have to tell you that we were all a bit nervous. We didn’t know what to expect. It was a different set up with different equipment. And while we thought we had a good plan, we didn’t know how it would work in practice.
And finally at 2:30, we started to sell tickets. Before long, the line was out the door and down the sidewalk halfway to Victoria Street. And we realized that we were going to have big crowd. I’m not going to say that everything went off without a hitch because that isn’t true. There were times when we had to adjust on the fly but we did that too.
In the end, I think that all would agree that it was a successful event. It was built on the solid foundations of past turkey suppers, supplemented and tweaked by things we learned from other churches. And we are already excited about doing it again next year and we will.
After all of the misfires and issues that we faced during this past year, it was so important that we had a successful event. It was as though God came down and blessed us, wrapped his arms around us and said as we already read in Ezekiel 34:15-16b (NIV): “I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.” That’s the kind of God we have.
And I don’t want to overstate what happened this week. I just want it to be a reminder that God is here. God is always here to bring light and love and laughter into our lives no matter how much we are threatened by tribulation. The message of Ezekiel 34 is that, in the end, God wins and God will always win. In the end, God’s will will be done and God’s love will prevail. The prophet finishes up with these words in Ezekiel 34:22-23 (NIV): “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.”
I want to close this morning by telling you one more story of hope. I was visiting Sharon on Tuesday when she was still in hospital – she’s home now and pleased to be there – and she was amazingly upbeat for being on the oncology ward. You may or may not know that Sharon, like so many others it seems, is struggling with cancer. And the latest news has been discouraging. But while Sharon’s body is battling, her faith remains strong. She told me that she is determined to live every day to the fullest regardless of how many days there may be.
That’s a message that we all need to hear because that is the message of Ezekiel. No matter what you may be going through, do not despair. Do not lose hope. Know that there is a God who loves you and who will take you home wherever that may be. As Ezekiel says, he is the one who gathers his sheep and leads them to green pastures. He is the one who protects his sheep from those who would harm them and lead them astray.
Sharon was very up beat when I spoke with her. And she made me promise to do something. One of the things that has really helped her was a video that her son Paul took in for her to watch. It’s a video by the Christians group Veritas and it’s called Hope Survives. You will see in the video various people who have gone through times of tribulation. One was an alcoholic. Two others lost spouses at a young age and were left to raise children on their own. And there are others. But in the end all of their experiences are brought together and from those experiences of tribulations a message is unveiled that we all need to hear.
That’s what Sharon wanted you to hear because that is that she believes. The message of Ezekiel is clear. Do not fear the Day of the Lord. Although it may come with darkness and despair, the final chapter of the story turns it all around. In the end, God saves his people and takes them home to be with him forever. And because of that, hope survives.
Next week, we are looking forward
to the first Sunday in Advent as we prepare for the coming of the baby Jesus at
Bethlehem. And we will start that off in the best possible way as the Sunday
School presents their Christmas programme. Don’t miss it. It’s always the best
way to start off the Christmas season.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
God our Shepherd, God our Friend, God our Heavenly Father, we come before your throne of grace to give thanks for all that you have done and been for us. You created us. You protect us. You call us home. In our times of turmoil, you give us peace. In our times of stress, you offer relief. In our times of doubt and fear, you give us comfort. Hear our prayers and the prayers of all of your people.
We give thanks for another year ended on the Christian calendar. Even as the new church year begins, we see signs of the coming Christmas season all around us. Houses are being lit up. The choir is practicing for this year’s performances. With the coming of Advent, next week, we are looking forward to the Sunday School Christmas programme. May we not wait until Christmas to invite him in when we can ask him into our hearts even today.
We thank you for another successful turkey dinner last Thursday. It is always such a good event and we are so thankful for being able to host it again. We give you thanks for all of the hard work that went into this event.
In this time of turmoil, we pray for peace. There is so many mindless terror attacks in this world. We remember today the people of Egypt where a mosque was bombed and so many were injured and killed. This reminds us once again that terrorists need to hear the healing message of Jesus. May we be bold to proclaim it. May your peace reign and my your kingdom come, O God. We also pray for wisdom, that better ways other than the threat or use of force will be use to bring people and nations together for the purpose of peace and justice.
We lift up in prayer the sick of our congregation and community. We especially pray for Sharon, Don, Helen, Lyle and Jim. Bless them and all of us and heal us in those places where we need most to feel your touch.
Finally, today, we pray for your
justice. Your judgements are good and holy. Sometimes, we do not understand
what happens in our world. We question events and decisions. Enable us to
change the things that we can and accept the things we cannot change. Help us,
O God, as individuals and as your church, to live by your standards, to seek
your justice in all things and to support the poor and needy. May we use our
abundant resources for your purpose and glory. We lift up these prayers to you
in Jesus’ name who gave all that he had for us. Amen.