The Promise of Better Days
The Promise of Better Days
As a 5th grader at Cornelia Elementary School in Edina, Minnesota, I always felt sorry for a fellow student named Gary. With his high squeaky voice, hyperactivity, social ineptness, and tall, skinny body, Gary was an easy target for grade school thugs. People teased Gary until he wouldas we called itspas-out.
I never actually participated in the teasing, but I certainly didn't stop it, either. That is, until one day in December, when we were on the playground during recess, and Gary was trapped on the top of a large snow hill. Six boys surrounded him and were taunting, teasing and flinging snow at him. As I watched, something snapped inside me. I raced toward the snow hill and dove sideways into the throng of boys, knocking down three of them. After I scampered up the snow hill and joined Gary at the top, I screamed at the thugs, "Hey, if you want to come after Gary, you'll have to go through me." After a moment of confusion, one of the bullies yelled, "Yeah, let's pound both of their faces into the snow." And so they proceeded to pummel both of us. But it was great! For the first time in my career as an elementary student, I actually cared about something beyond myself. I was a freedom fighter against oppression and injustice.
That day on an elementary school playground, my heart cracked wide open. I looked at the worldor at least Cornelia Elementaryand a voice whispered into my ear, "This isn't right. It's not supposed to be this way. Violence and injustice should not have the upper hand. There has to be better way." I have no idea where the voice came from, but it was loud and clear and obvious. Of course, if you go to any playground where children are playing, you'll eventually hear someone scream the same thing: "Hey, that's not fair!" As New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has said, "A sense of justice comes with the kit of being human."
I didn't know it at the time, but the voice I heard on that playground was the same voice that comes out of the pages of the Bible. It's begins quietly, but by the time we reach the books of the Prophets, the voice gets louder and louder. The voice of God, through those wild-eyed, visionary, peace-hungry Prophets went something like this: "You were made for better days. The strong oppress the weak; the rich pummel the poor; nation goes to war against nation. But I, the Lord, have made you for better days, and I will bring those better days to pass."
The ancient Jews had a word to describe those better days. They called it shalom, Hebrew for "peace." In the Bible, God's shalom meant much more than simply the absence of war. It indicated more than a positive state in my soul or a private transaction between God and me. The longing for God's shalom included those things, but for those radical Jewish believers, peace was much bigger and broader. Shalom meant not only inner peace or spiritual peace; it meant wholeness and completeness throughout all creation. It meant the end of injustice. It meant the rich would no longer devour the poor. It meant all brokenness would be set right and healed. It meant that people would love one another. Shalom would flow deep and broad, embracing all of creation, including plants, animals, and the earth itself.
As the story of the Bible unfolded, God dropped clues that would awaken our hearts to long for better days. For the Jews, the hope of shalom was wrapped up in a person. Someone is coming, they believed, who will open the door to peace. The question was who. The prophet Isaiah put it this way: "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." In Isaiah 11, God whispered again, "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bear fruit." Who is this bearer of Shalom? Where will he come from?
Micah remembers the promise of shalom.
The prophet Micah lived about 700 years before Jesus was born in a mid-sized town called Moresheth, about 25 miles south of Jerusalem. The Hebrew word for prophet literally means "to see;" like the other prophets, Micah saw things everyone else wanted to ignore. Micah saw things much worse than gangs of thugs beating up little guys on snow hills. He records unspeakable violence and injustice in 2:9 and 3:12. Not only did this injustice outrage Micah, it also connected him once again with those ancient promises of better days. God whispered into his ear, "Remember, Micah; someone is coming who will bring peace."
As a result, the promises of better days pop up again and again in this short book. Micah describes the coming One in 4:3 as someone who "judges between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide." Under this person's leadership, the nations "will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." This is a beautiful picture of deep and rich and wide shalom.
Perhaps many of us echoed this longing for better days when we were young, but then we got busy and decided to settle into "real life." Who has time to dream about better days when we're not sure how to make it through this day? We have bills to pay and kids to drive and term papers to finish and health problems to resolve and a retirement plan to build. The list of responsibilities goes on and on. Longing for peace and justice, aching for better dayswe just don't have time or energy anymore.
After all, if we actually looked long and hard at the world around us, we'd just get depressed and cynical. For instance, try this experiment. Purely at random, pick up a copy of the New York Times and ask yourself how many of the articles in that issue relate to the world's longing and aching for peace and justice. I tried this experiment on December 20th, 2006, and I got so depressed that I tried to escape by turning to the sports section. But there I read one article about a football player who was fined $35,000 for spitting in another player's face, and another story about a brawl during a basketball game that resulted in mass suspensions for both teams.
No wonder we're cynical. No wonder we stopped longing for better days. Nevertheless, every once in a while something cracks our hearts wide open and a voice whispers, "You were made for better days. You long for peace because there is a peace giver."
The Messiah comes quietly.
Micah's times were much like ours. Micah 5:1 describes a king being publicly humiliated: "They will strike Israel's ruler on the cheek." In verse 3, the prophet describes the time when the nation would be conquered, divided, and sent into exile. Micah compares these days of abandonment and groaning to a woman's groaning during childbirth. Yet into this violent and seemingly hopeless situation, God will send his peace bearer.
But look carefully, Micah warns, or you might miss his coming. When God brings peace, he will do it so quietly that you just might miss it. That's the way God's shalom comes: not with a marching band and hoopla and press coverage, but quietly and to unlikely people. In Isaiah 11 God told us that the Messiah would come like a branch growing out of a dead stump. From death and decaypoof!the peace-bringer would arise. Now Micah tells us in 5:2 that the coming one, the Messiah, will come from a very quiet place: Bethlehem. Bethlehem literally means "house of bread," and it was a small, insignificant town.
Though he comes from an insignificant place, he is nevertheless God's peace giver. Verse 4 tells us, "he will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord and they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth." How big and broad and all-encompassing God's shalom is! Finally, Micah says, "And he will be their peace." This promised shalom is wrapped up in one person. This reality we're aching and longing for that seems always out of reach has come, and it's wrapped up in a person, the Messiah. Who is it? Micah hits a dead end. He knows God's shalom is big and beautiful and real, and he knows it will come through someone sent by God. But it will have to wait until Christmas.
Jesus is the peace giver.
Seven hundred years later, as it is recorded in our New Testament, there is a strange birth. Someone is born, and the clues begin to point in the same direction. Just as Micah predicted, this peace bringer comes from Bethlehem (Matthew 2:112). Another witness proclaims the following about the Coming One: "By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:7879)." When he comes, an entire host of angels start singing, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to all whom God favors" (Luke 2:14). Could it be? Is this the one all the clues were pointing to?
Around the globe on Christmas Eve, followers of Jesus will celebrate the coming of the peace God intended for his creationonce lost because of sin and longed for by all creationhas come in Jesus. He is the one Micah pronounced, who would be our peace.
This may all sound abstract and impersonal. You may wonder, How does this affect my life? In 1992, I met Gary again at my 15-year high school reunion. I was living as a follower of Jesus; Gary had become a full-fledged member of the communist party. He was spending most of his time in Southeast Asia trying to topple the government in an unidentified island. Gary asked me, "So, comrade, why are you a Christian? What difference does it make? Why don't you do something really worthwhile with your lifelike toppling a government in Southeast Asia?"
I can't remember what I said. But if I could have that conversation over again, I would respond to Gary with two simple points. First, I need peace with God. I wanted peace everywhere in the world, but the message of Jesusthe revolution of peace that started on that first Christmasmeans that peace has to start in my heart. I can't be an effective instrument for peace until I find peace within in my relationship with God. According to the biblical story, everything Jesus did, including living, teaching, dying on the cross, and rising from the dead, was designed to reconcile us with God the Father. The Bible tells us that our relationship with God was not at peace. As a matter of fact, the Bible tells us that we are at war with God. We're not victims; we are rebels who must learn to lay down our arms and surrender if we ever hope to find real peace. That's why the New Testament declares so wildly and joyfully that peace has been offered: "Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1). As a good Jew, Paul was steeped in the story of the Bible, including the promise of shalom in Isaiah and Micah. Paul resisted the Good News for a long time, but then Jesus broke into his heart, and Paul knew that Jesus was the promised shalom-bearer he knew about from Scripture.
Unless I'm at peace with God, I'm not part of the solution; I'm still part of the problem. But in Jesus, I can become a peacemaker in this world. I can be an instrument of God's peace. Following Jesus is not simply a matter of enjoying peace in my heart or in my relationship with God. Messiah calls us to join his revolutionary movement of bringing shalom to a broken world.
Second, as a follower of Jesus, I am now called to announce the good news that others can be reconciled to God. We begin this peacemaking journey in our homes and neighborhoods and families. Peace does not mean the absence of conflict; it means working through the conflict to bring peace into our relationships. We stand up for those who are treated with unjustly. We ask for Messiah to bring his peace into our city and community.
Finally, being a peacemaker under Messiah's reign also propels us to live in hope. Left to our own devices, we can never finish the job of peacemaking. We build programs and institutions and hospitals and schools; we start movements and initiatives; but they tend to run down or grow corrupt. All of our efforts are partial at best; at worst, they are deeply flawed, filled with our own ego and unmet needs. But King Jesus the Messiah promises to finish the job. That's why when people ask, "Why can't I just bypass that peace with God stage and move right into the good stuff?" the Bible reminds us that we are sinners with crippling limitations. But God has a plan; God will bring his peace (Revelation 21:1-3).
God doesn't call the perfect and unbroken to be his peacemakers. Isaiah 4:67 says God chooses the lame and outcast. The Messiah brings shalom to the earth and he calls us to join him. But he doesn't call the perfect; he calls the wounded, the limpers. That's good news to me because I'm a lifelong limper.
For the outline of this sermon, go to "The Promise of Better Days."
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.