"They 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" (Isaiah 2:4).
I suppose it is inevitable that people will fashion for themselves heroes. It is a natural desire to have someone to look up to, someone to admire, someone to pattern your life after. Looking for heroes seems all the more necessary as people place their hope in those who flood the airwaves with their fake smiles and false promises, only to be disillusioned and disappointed again and again... and again. Fallen man needs heroes in order to manufacture the hope that somehow the problems facing mankind are not as impossible to overcome as they appear to be. If one person can do it, if one person can have an impact, then perhaps we can yet conquer the nature within and create a bright new world where justice reigns and peace and prosperity abound for all people everywhere.
Is that what Isaiah was writing about? Was Isaiah looking for a hero? Was he writing about some imaginary figure who would come riding out of obscurity into public view just in time to save mankind from destruction? The words of Isaiah 2:4 are engraved in concrete on a wall outside of the United Nations Building in New York City. The people of the world long for someone to lead them, to show them the way to unite mankind. So as the world celebrates the life of Nelson Mandela this week, most people are talking about his bold stand for justice and his fight for equality in South Africa. Having grown up in the 1960's as the United States was going through its own struggle for equality among the races, I saw the ugliness of segregation from afar in the glimpses of news reports on the two stations of our black-and-white TV. Even the words, "black-and-white" sound somehow inappropriate in our world today.
It is being said by many that Mr. Mandela lived by his "Christian principles." The prophets certainly spoke about the importance of justice among the people of God. Isaiah himself wrote one of the most impassioned pleas for justice in the 58th chapter of his treatise: "Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: (says the Lord) ... to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? ... Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard ... If you do away with the yoke of oppression ... and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday ..." God cares about the oppressed and He calls His people to care about the oppressed.
Jesus certainly knew what Isaiah had written. When He began His ministry He came to the synagogue in His home town and was handed the scroll of the prophet, Isaiah. He intentionally unrolled it to Isaiah 61 and began reading, "The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Jesus was concerned about the poor and the oppressed in Israel. As a nation the Jews were being severely oppressed by the Romans. They were slaves in their own country, not unlike they had been in Egypt centuries before.
So what did Jesus do about it? Did He organize a march on Herod's palace? Did He tell His disciples to organize a food and clothing drive? Did He open up a free medical clinic so those who were sick could get the best possible health care? The saying, "What would Jesus do?" (WWJD) became popular some time ago and motivated many to at least think about their actions with regard to others. But what DID Jesus do? Jesus preached about the kingdom of God and then showed what that kingdom looked like. He revealed what life in God's presence can and should be and then He did something that only He could do: He gave His life on the cross to satisfy God's justice, to pay the just penalty for sin for all who would believe …
… but there's more. Jesus rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and poured out His Holy Spirit. The book of Acts records the work of the Spirit in empowering the disciples to proclaim the good news of God's kingdom in Jesus' name and then to be His hands and feet in the world. By His Spirit Jesus distributes different abilities and talents to His people and calls them, empowers them and sends them into a variety of vocations where they can make an impact. Through God's people the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the hurting are ministered to, the sick are healed, the sorrowful are comforted … The majority of social compassion is carried out by those who have heard Jesus' voice and who have responded to His call.
Yet, we are left with a world and a nation that is spiraling downward in every area that matters … in government, in morality, in the family and in the church … drifting, even running, farther and farther away from the God who alone can save. Some of us are aware that God has said it would be so, but it is nonetheless painful to watch - very painful. What WOULD Jesus do … if He were alive today, here, in these United States of America, and in our world? You see, here's the thing … Jesus IS alive and by His Spirit He IS here and He IS doing what He did when He walked the earth as a man: Preaching the kingdom of God and showing what that kingdom looks like.
Whether or not Nelson Mandela was a Christian, God knows. Some would label him as such because he claimed a belief in God and said he was a Christian and did some things that could be called "Christian" behaviors. But in reviewing his life and words (admittedly somewhat briefly), I cannot find him speaking about his love for Jesus Christ and his desire that others would come to know Him as their Savior and Lord. He had a public forum that few of us will ever have, but I don't find any evidence that he boldly proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ wherever he went or that he ever spoke about the kingdom of God that is coming when Jesus returns. Even his forgiveness of those who imprisoned him seemed to be motivated by his own desire to be free of hatred and bitterness, not because he was following the command of Christ, confessing that he, too, was a sinner in need of grace and forgiveness. Instead, he declared those like Fidel Castro as his friends because they, too, struggled for freedom from oppression … … … even as they oppressed others. I cannot judge his heart, nor would I presume to do so. I can only say that a view of God's kingdom seemed to be missing from his vocabulary and his presentation to the world. Like many - most today, he was focused on fixing this world, and that is not bad in itself. But it is not enough. People need to know the One who is ruling and who alone can redeem us and change us from the inside out. People need to know Jesus Christ! As we do good deeds people need to know why and we need to be willing to endure persecution for the sake of God's kingdom and in the name of Jesus.
So, as people, including our President, gather to pay their "respects" to Nelson Mandela, they will be talking about what a good man he was and about the brave stand he took against injustice. That's certainly something worth talking about, but that's not what I want people to be talking about when I die. You see, there was another man who died last week. His name was Ronnie Smith. He was a teacher and he and his family had traveled to Libya, of all places, so Ronnie could teach youth there, but more than that, so he could tell them about Jesus Christ. God had placed in Ronnie a desire for the lost to be found and for some reason he was drawn to Libya.
Nelson Mandela had at one time been drawn to Libya. He had met with Muammar Gaddafi - then tyrant, dictator of Libya. It was not to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, to declare the kingdom of God and to offer forgiveness and eternal life to those lost in the deceit of Islam and other religions. He was there to find friends wherever he could find them. "It was ultimately for a just cause," some would say. I heard Newt Gingrich explain that he couldn't find support anywhere else, so he had no other choice. The truth is, Ronnie Smith understood God's call and his mission in this life better than Nelson Mandela did. Perhaps God used Nelson Mandela to bring a type of freedom to the people of South Africa, however it appears that many of them are left with poverty, hunger and various kinds of oppression, as is the case in our own nation. How many have come to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord through the testimony of Nelson Mandela? Or have they simply been "called to arms" to fight injustice and to make THIS world a better place to live? Again, we need to be engaged in some way in social justice, but there's MORE!!
What WOULD Jesus do? Wrong question. What DID Jesus do? He did what Ronnie Smith did. He went to obscure places for one purpose, to tell people about a kingdom this world knows nothing about, and never will, knowing that perhaps one, or perhaps a thousand, would hear His message and be moved by His Spirit to respond and believe and be saved … to be delivered from the false hope that this world will EVER beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and given a better hope - the hope of a new world where Jesus Christ reigns and where there is peace and joy and love for eternity.
It will begin as Isaiah says, when Jesus returns to establish His kingdom on the earth for a thousand years - the Millennium. We are approaching the time when the nations of the earth unite and the religions of the world join together to anoint a leader whom they believe will lead the earth into a new era of peace. He will be an impostor, an "anti-christ," and most of the world will follow him, believing that he is the hope of the world. Even most of those in churches all over our country and around the world will agree that we must all compromise our beliefs and unite for the good of mankind. It is already happening … here … everywhere.
Jesus says, "When the Son of Man returns, will He find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). The writer of Hebrews says that all those listed in Hebrews 11 "were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised, they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. … They were longing for a better country - a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them" (Hebrews 11:13-14,16).
By faith God calls us to live in this world, to do good deeds of righteousness, to show the world what the kingdom of God looks like, but more than that, to proclaim the kingdom of God, the reign of Jesus Christ in the world that is to come. Isaiah wasn't writing about what would happen by the efforts of men. The United Nations is not God's idea and it should be obvious to all that neither this organization nor any other is going to produce world peace or the new world that God has promised to those who know and love Jesus Christ, who believe, who trust in Him alone for eternal life, for salvation, for deliverance from the oppression of sin and the judgment which our sins deserve.
When I die, I don't want people talking about me and how good I was … I want them talking about Jesus and how good He is! I want them talking about a God who is mighty to save those who come to Him through faith in His Son. I want them talking about a kingdom that far exceeds anything we can imagine, where those who are true children of God because they are united to Christ by grace through faith rejoice in the God who created them - forever!! I want to be a Ronnie Smith, who is willing to live his life for the desire to make Christ known, in any way I can, to as many as I can, so long as God gives me breath.
How about you? Compassion and deeds of mercy are part of the calling of disciples of Jesus Christ. But we have an even higher task. As we are doing one, we must do the other: we must proclaim the kingdom of God and point people to the narrow road that leads to life through faith in Jesus Christ. God calls His children to persevere, to endure, to hold fast to the testimony of the Gospel. No other message, no other religion, no other leader can or will bring LIFE, even eternal life, to those who follow them. Only Jesus … only Jesus can fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 2:4 and all the other prophecies of Scripture. Only HE can and will usher in the kingdom of God.
To you who believe, celebrate His birth well by telling others about Him. Don't miss the opportunity to proclaim this message of hope during this season when most of the world is distracted and when we are being told not even to mention the One whose birth we remember. Talk of Jesus. Speak of Him often. Tell people who He is and why they need to believe in Him. Be like Ronnie Smith … right where you are, or wherever God may lead you. And pray that when you die people will talk about JESUS more than they will talk about you!!