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Remembrance Day

Web posted on November 10, 2017

Hey Jude!

When I was an undergraduate back in the 1960s - that was when the war in Viet Nam was giving soldiering a bad name - the pacifists and draft dodgers who came to UBC liked to quote the promise from the prophet Micah about a day when "they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks", a day when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Micah 4:3).

I got caught up in their thinking for a while, until I realized that we had not only been reading Micah out of context, but had also secularized his vision. Even a cursory reading of Micah should have been enough to show that we had badly misunderstood the prophet's vision: we had radically secularized it, thinking we were able to bring it to pass by human effort without much reference to God.

Preaching during the latter decades of the 8th Century BC and just into the 7th, Micah (along with his elder colleague Isaiah) was the conscience of the kingdom of Judah. He was a thorn in the side to the priests, the business community, and the politicians. He saw how Judah's Northern neighbor, Israel, had been conquered by the Assyrian army, and how the Assyrians had dispersed the Israelites throughout the Assyrian Empire. He said that that had happened to the Israelites because they had neglected the religion, morality, business ethics, and political ideals that they had received from God through Moses. Micah warned his fellow Judeans that, unless they cleaned up their religion, morality, ethics, and politics, God would likewise reduce "Jerusalem to a heap of rubble, and Zion to a plowed field" (3:12). Of course, Judah's leaders disdained Micah's advice, and a century later his predictions came true.

The next 700 years were a time of recurring wars and conquests. The Assyrians were subsequently conquered by the Babylonians, who destroyed Jerusalem and took the people of Judah into exile. The Babylonians in turn were conquered by the Persians, who set the Judean exiles free. Then the Persians were conquered by Alexander's Greeks, who gave the Mediterranean world the universal language in which the New Testament would be written. And after Alexander's death, his empire was fragmented among his generals, and eventually fell to the Romans, who built the roads by which that New Testament was spread throughout the known world.

Micah says that the beating of swords into ploughshares will occur "in the last days", or "in the latter days" - literally, "at the end of days" (4:1). It's clear that Micah's swords-into-plowshares world was going to be a long way off - at the end of time. When the end does come, Micah says, the God and the faith of the Jewish people will be sought-after worldwide. "Come," the nations of the world will say, "let us go up to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths" (4:2).

Only after the nations of the world acknowledge "the law that goes forth from Zion" will it come to pass that "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore." Only after the nations acknowledge "the word of the LORD that goes forth from Jerusalem" (4:2) will every man "sit under his own vine and his own fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid" (4:4).

That was Micah's view in 700 BC. But how did he think that might come to pass among a people who were few in number, politically divided, militarily vulnerable, and largely unfaithful to the covenant that God had given them? You and I have often heard Micah's answer to that question, but even though it comes in the very next chapter, I doubt that many of us have ever made the connexion:

"But you, O Bethlehem-Ephrathah, who are [almost] too small to be [counted] among the clans of Judah: Out of you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore [God] will put things on hold (Heb: give them over) until the time when she who is in labor has given birth. Then the rest of his brethren shall return to the people of Israel. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace" (Micah 5:2f; compare Matthew 2:6).

Advent begins three weeks from this Sunday. In three weeks Christians will begin to celebrate, in confident anticipation, the peace that Remembrance Day looks forward to. That peace can be found only in Jesus. Individually, we can even now enter into that peace by faith; but as a universal reality it's still in the future. Jesus said, "You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet" (Matthew 24:6).

Like our changing climate and the shifting tectonic plates of the earth's crust, the history of nations is in constant flux. When St Paul was in Athens addressing the Council of the Areopagus, he told them: "The God who made the world and all things in it -he who is Lord of heaven and earth - who gives life and breath and all things to all people - he created all nations to dwell over all the earth, fixing the allotted times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would seek after God, and perhaps [even] find him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:25-27).

That is the Bible's philosophy of history. It says that all nations have a shelf-life, with changeable geographic boundaries and limited time-spans. We've seen how the maps of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East have changed in our lifetime. Some of us remember a day when the wall maps at school showed all the British Empire in pink. There's not much pink any more. In the flux of war and peace, of political and demographic change, the Biblical writers see God at work in history with one over-riding purpose: that we should seek, find, and build our lives and our eternity on the unchanging God who came to us at Bethlehem in the person of Jesus, who in the midst of all the flux is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Even Canada and the USA are not exempt from the judgments of God in history. So if we really appreciate our veterans - those who, whatever their personal views, gave their all for freedom and peace - we owe it to them to conduct our political, commercial, and personal affairs in a way that will, under God, prolong the shelf-life of this nation. And once again, the prophet Micah tells us how: "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8). "For all the nations walk, each in the name of their god, but we [Canadians, including our government] will walk [publicly and unapologetically] in the name of the LORD our God forever and ever" (4:5).

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Rev Robert Lyon is the assistant at St Jude, Guelph, a congregation of the Anglican Network in Canada, that meets at 10 o'clock on Sundays at the Evergreen Centre, near Riverside Park. Robert welcomes your questions and comments, and will be pleased to discuss topics on request. Contact him at nm@albedo.net.
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