The sunsets in the desert are particularly spectacular. The rugged mountainous terrain covered in stately saguaros create long shadows on the desert floor behind a crimson curtain fading toward the horizon. As you watch the sky, it slowly, but continually transforms into night. The sun disappears behind the mountains, darkness flows from the east and the evening air begins to grow cold. The dry desert atmosphere allows the heat, which was collected throughout the day from the sun, to escape unencumbered into the night. The light fades and the heat rises, until only a cold, crisp darkness remains.
Despite the chill that drives us to build a fire or retreat indoors, cold and darkness are truly powerless. They do not possess any measure or strength of energy to claim as their own. Instead, like thieves, they slip into the spaces that the light leaves behind.
• • •
One day, toward the end of His ministry on earth, Jesus was talking with His disciples about a time when the world would grow cold. A darkness deeper than a moonless, starless night would send a sharp chill across the face of the earth. I have struggled with this particular statement from Jesus over the years. It is not difficult to understand or theologically complex, but its implications are terrifying.
And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.
Matthew 24:12 (NRSV)
Over the years, when I read this warning from Jesus, I focused on the second half of His statement: “the love of many will grow cold.” My concern was that I might become part of “the many.”
I often wondered what would cause love to grow cold? Love is the most powerful force in the universe. In fact, God is defined by love. (1 John 4:8) What could possibly be strong enough to cause love to slip beyond the horizon and allow such darkness to chill the human heart? The answer that had been eluding me was right in front of me the entire time, and it becomes a little more obvious if we rearrange the verse a bit.
…the love of many will grow cold, because of the increase of lawlessness…
Jesus tells us that there is a reason that the love of many in the world will grow cold, something that our world does not want to associate with love.
According to Jesus, love and lawlessness are inversely proportional. I have never really thought of love and justice as so closely related. In fact, I think we sometimes are convinced that love and justice are independent. Or, we might believe that love is the liberator who steps in to protect us from the justice we deserve. And, that is true. But that does not mean that justice is an enemy that love overcomes. Instead, Jesus’ says that love is dependent upon justice.
This concept was so powerful, and perhaps even a little foreign to me and my assumptions, that I decided to dig a bit deeper. I remembered one of my favorite verses from the Old Testament:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8 (NRSV)
As followers of God, we are clearly told to display love, justice and humility. However, when I read this verse, I will admit that I saw them as parallel concepts that were applied at different times and in unrelated situations. There are times for justice and other times for love. But that is not what Jesus told His disciples on that day in Jerusalem. He said that love and justice are conditionally related.
• • •
In New Testament, the author of Matthew connects Jesus with a powerful figure that the prophet Isaiah said would bring hope and freedom. Written over five centuries before Jesus walked among us, Isaiah said that through this Suffering Servant God would make everything new. And here is how He would do it:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Isaiah 42:1-4 (NSRV)
Three times in this passage, God’s Servant is going to bring or establish justice. And the process by which He will bring justice, as described by Isaiah, sounds a lot like love.
• • •
When the earth grows cold and dark as the sun disappears below the horizon, perhaps love is not driven from the world. In fact, it is far too powerful for that. So, how then does love grow cold?
If justice is not allowed to hold us accountable, then how can love offer forgiveness?
If justice is not given permission to punish, how can love demonstrate mercy?
If justice is defined by any other measure than God’s righteousness, then how do we understand the God who is defined by love?
As I view our world today, I have to ask a few questions about our definition of justice.
Is it just, when lies and deceit are not only acceptable, but expected?
Is it just, when freedom is held ransom by fear?
Is it just, when decisions are made by shaming others who do not agree with a particular viewpoint?
Can true justice be qualified by adjectives, or limited to one group or another?
The simple answer is, “no.” There is only One who can define justice. The same One, who for the sake of justice, demonstrated love from a wooden cross outside the gates of Jerusalem.
• • •
So, how do the “not many” keep love alive? We start by not allowing love and justice to become separated. Love and justice are tied to one another and work together. We must also remember that love is not weak or passive. There is no such thing as “tough love.” Love — like true justice — is by nature tough, courageous, sacrificial and selfless.
For the sake of justice, Jesus chose the cross. For the sake of love, Jesus chose the cross for us. I believe that distinction reveals the greatest miracle of the resurrection. The real miracle of the resurrection is not that Jesus walked out of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. But that when He left the tomb, He walked back to us.