For many modern people, the theology of Advent is a hard sell. I think that might be one of the reasons why we prefer to skip it, and get to Christmas as fast as possible.
What do I mean by saying ‘the theology of Advent is a hard sell’? Well, the message of Advent is that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. In other words, we’re telling people that one day that world as we now know it will come to an end in a miraculous way, and be replaced by something new. And the biblical language about this ‘ending’ is very strange to us: it talks about signs in the heavens, the sun being turned to darkness and the moon to blood, and the heavens being folded up like a tent; it talks about the last trumpet sounding, the dead being raised imperishable, and all of us meeting the Lord in the air. And it talks about these events happening ‘soon’; the New Testament authors seem to assume that they are already in ‘the last days’. How is it possible for modern scientific people like us to believe in these kinds of things?
Of course, we know that the earth will not last forever. Scientists tell us that eventually, over a billion years from now, our sun will turn into a red giant, scorching our world into extinction, and it will then collapse into itself and go dark. But this is a scientific theory; it doesn’t involve the intervention of supernatural beings, like angels blowing trumpets. And furthermore, a billion years is a long time, and it’s not very likely that any of us will be around then! So we go about our daily lives, working our jobs and paying our mortgages and paying attention to significant events like the fact that the Edmonton Eskimos won the Grey Cup! And in the same way, even though every week we stand up in church, say the creeds and proclaim our belief that Jesus will ‘come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’, we still make plans for retirement, because deep down inside, we don’t really think he’ll come again any time soon.
And of course, another thing that makes it difficult for us is that Jesus’ return has been predicted so many times before. Back in the 1500s many Protestant theologians claimed that the Pope was the antichrist; in the early 1800s some people said it was Napoleon Bonaparte, and in more recent times people have claimed it was Hitler, Stalin, and even Henry Kissinger! The other day I saw a conversation on Facebook that pointed to the fact that Russia and the European Union are all involved in fighting in Syria and the wider Middle East; apparently this was all predicted in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, and this is evidence that we are now, finally, in the ‘Last Days’! And over and over again, despite Jesus’ warning that ‘no one knows the day or the hour’, there have been preachers who thought they were smarter than him, and who insisted on predicting ‘the day or the hour’ – all in vain, of course.
Well, who wants to keep company with obvious crackpots? If you tell your friends at Starbucks that you believe Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will never end, they’re likely to quietly consign you to the religious lunatic fringe! And so, as I said, the theology of Advent is a hard sell. It’s much safer to move as fast as we can to the child in the manger and the guy in the red suit.
Now, here’s the thing: apparently it was a hard sell in biblical times, too. In our second reading for today, we read that even in the late New Testament period, people had a hard time with it. We’re not exactly sure who wrote the second letter of Peter; it might have been Peter, or it might have been a later follower of his, writing in his name and trying to apply his teaching to the situation in the later years of the first century A.D. But whoever it was, here’s what he says:
First of all, you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation”’ (2 Peter 3:3-4).
This all sounds very contemporary, doesn’t it? The scoffers are saying, “So he promised that he would come again, did he? Well, where is he? Everything’s pretty well carried on as normal for as long as we can remember. So why do you Christians continue to cling on to this foolish notion that he’s coming again? Wake up and smell the coffee; he’s not coming!”
How does Peter respond to this? Well, I’m not going to spend a lot of time this morning with his argument from the story of Noah’s flood. That’s because I expect that if you’re the sort of Christian who has doubts about the second coming of Jesus, you’re probably not sure what to make of the story of Noah’s flood either! But Peter has two other arguments that he wants to share with us, and I think they might be very helpful for us today. Let’s look at them together.
The first argument concerns how God sees time. And here, it helps if you’re a little older.
When we’re young, a summer holiday seems to last forever, and we’re genuinely surprised when school starts again in the Fall; it seems so long since we’ve been there that we can barely remember it! But as we get older, each passing year takes up a smaller and smaller proportion of our life, and so time does indeed seem to get shorter for us. A year, for a six-year old, is one sixth of their life! For a sixty-year old, it’s only a sixtieth, and you might have noticed that it seems ten times shorter as well! So when we old folks tell a young child to be patient and wait for something, it really is harder for them, because it seems a lot longer to them than it does to us!
That being the case, consider these words of Peter:
‘But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day’ (v.8).
Of course this makes total sense. Given that the entire history of the universe is present to God, and that the earth has been around for at least 4.6 billion years, a thousand years is truly as short as a day in the experience of God.
But most theologians would go even further than that. Most theologians would say that even time itself is a creation of God, and that therefore God is outside of time. God doesn’t look forward to the future and somehow ‘foresee’ it; this would mean that the future is fixed, and human choices would be meaningless. Nor does God look ‘back’ on the past, as we do. Rather, the past and the future are all present to God; he sees our life, and the life of the whole earth, as complete, just like a book that I’ve finished reading is totally present to my mind, from beginning to end.
So no, God might not necessarily be delaying. He might just have a very different view of time than we do. But there might be something else in it as well, and here we go on to Peter’s next argument.
The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel tells us that God has no vested interest in the death of a sinner; God would much rather that we turn from our wickedness and live. And that, Peter tells us, is another reason why God is not in a hurry to call the last curtain on the story of the world:
‘The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance’ (v.9).
So this point concerns God’s desire for everyone to repent and return to him. This is sometimes difficult for us, because we tend to think that the Day of Judgement only applies to desperately wicked people: ISIS terrorists, for instance, or child molesters, or other hardened criminals. But we need to be very careful about that way of thinking, and I’ll tell you why. In verse ten Peter says,
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Peter uses the term ‘the day of the Lord’, and I believe that this is the only place in the entire New Testament that this term is used. It comes from the Old Testament, and apparently it was originally used to describe the day when God would take vengeance against the pagan nations who were invading and ravaging Israel. In other words, ‘the day of the Lord’ was a day of judgement on somebody else.
But the prophet Amos turned this idea on its head:
Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? (Amos 5:18-20).
Amos is saying that the ‘day of the Lord’ will not just bring judgement on the enemies of Israel, but on Israel herself as well. It’s not just the pagan nations who have sinned against the Lord; God’s people, too, have been faithless to God, have worshipped false gods, and have oppressed the poor and needy. Do they really think that they will escape God’s judgement just because they bear the name of Israel?
Jesus says the same thing to us as Christians. We believe that in Jesus, God has come and lived among us, and has revealed to us what life is meant to be all about. We have accepted Jesus as our Lord, and in our baptismal covenant we have committed ourselves to obeying him. Well, then, let’s listen to his words:
“That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating, but the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating” (Luke 12:47-48).
In other words, as C.S. Lewis once said, if you’ve receive the light of Christ, you’re playing for higher stakes. We cannot assume that God’s judgement will always fall on someone else! Remember the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. When the King said to the Goats, ‘Depart from me, because I was hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison or naked or a stranger and you didn’t help me’, the goats were surprised; they didn’t remember that. They hadn’t connected the dots; they didn’t realize that in refusing to help the needy they were refusing to help Jesus. So this parable reminds us that there may be some unpleasant surprises on the Day of the Lord.
Are you glad, then, that God has decided to give us more time to repent? I know I am! To be honest, I’ve only done a very half-hearted job of repenting of my sins so far. I’ve gotten far too comfortable each week with saying “we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves”, and then not doing anything about it! The Advent message is meant to be a wake up call to me.
And this, of course, is what Peter says at the end of our reading for today:
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in living lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. (vv.11-15a).
Don’t get distracted by the apocalyptic language about the heavens being set ablaze and the elements dissolving; it’s symbolic, as we said last week, just like when we talk about something being ‘an earth-shaking event’, even though we know that the earth was not literally shaken. In the same way, after 9/11 many people said that we were now living in ‘a different world’, and Peter certainly agrees that the world after the coming of the Day of the Lord will be very different.
But what will the difference be? Peter says, ‘We wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home’ (v.14). What a beautiful phrase! In the world as we know it today, too often it seems that righteousness is not at home. War, injustice, oppression, violence of all kinds, greed and covetousness, hatred and prejudice – you name it, the nightly news reports it. So often, in the world as we know it, people who want to do the will of God feel out of step with those around them. Yes, of course, there are many people of good will out there, and we shouldn’t exaggerate the wickedness of the world, but there’s no doubt that there’s an element of dissonance that we all experience as believers.
Well, Peter says, the new world will be different! In the new world, the law of love for God and love for neighbour will be the way of life we all practice. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control – the fruit of the Spirit – will be completely at home in this new world. Selfishness, greed, lust, hatred – not so much. Which of course is why we need to be weaning ourselves of those sinful habits now. Why would we think we would enjoy the new world, when we haven’t trained ourselves to enjoy it? So that’s our agenda: while we wait for the Lord’s coming, we need to be consciously growing as Christians, daily practising the virtues that will describe our way of life after the Day of the Lord comes.
So yes, we continue to believe that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will never end. And we aren’t worried about the fact that he’s taking a lot longer to fulfil that promise than many people thought he would. Our reading for today ends with Peter telling us that we should ‘regard the patience of the Lord as salvation’ (v.15a). God sees time differently, and he is also delaying the judgement to give everyone as much time as possible to repent and come back to him. This delay is giving the opportunity for salvation for many more people.
Including me. And this is where I must end. The New Testament is clear that believers have no room for presumption. Am I at peace with God, living at peace with my neighbours, living a life of holiness and godliness, and waiting patiently for the Lord’s promise to be fulfilled? If I’m not, then I can be thankful that the day of the Lord is being delayed! But I must not presume on this; I must respond to God’s call. And I must not delay this; I must give it my best attention, today and every day.
Does this sound negative? It isn’t. In the last two verses of this letter, which we didn’t read as part of our reading today, Peter says this:
‘You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (vv.17-18).
‘Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’. There’s a text for us to chew on! Don’t get complacent; don’t be satisfied with mediocrity; don’t think there’s nothing more for you to learn, or no further progress for you to make in holiness and love. ‘Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’. That’s the agenda for us as followers of Jesus. That’s what we should be doing while we wait for the promises of Advent to be fulfilled. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.