December 04, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Imagine yourself a Kindergarten teacher who gathers a group of wide-eyed five-and six-year-olds onto the square of carpeting in the classroom that is reserved for “Story Time.” You smile into their innocent faces and begin your story.
“Once upon a time a little girl named Goldilocks was fast asleep in a lovely little bed—a bed that she thought was just right for her. But one morning as she opened her eyes and prepared to stretch out her arms to help herself wake up, she was scared half to death to see three bears staring at her! So even though she was still in her pajamas, Goldilocks jumped out of bed, ran out of the house, and then went on to start having a real adventure as she tried to find her way back home through a thick and dreadful forest.”
Were you to do this, the faces of those innocent little Kindergarteners would no doubt quickly darken as scowls would come upon their lips and even young brows would furrow. Any number of them would quickly jump all over you to say, “That’s now where that story begins! That doesn’t make any sense to tell it that way. You have to start at the beginning, with porridge that’s too hot and all that stuff! Start over, teacher! Start at the real beginning!”
Kids can be pretty unforgiving when you change a well-loved story. Even slight changes earn a child’s ire! (I remember nearly nodding off at times while reading stories to my kids and this would now and then make me miss a word or a phrase in a familiar story. I never got away with it!)
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
That’s where Mark starts his story and before we’ve even had time to figure out what that opening line means, Mark takes us farther back into the past to the words of a dusty old prophet named Isaiah from centuries and centuries earlier. And in this Advent Season, not a few people would want to object as vigorously as any five-year-old hearing a fractured version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”
“That’s not the beginning of the story! That’s not even fitting for this season. Come on, Mark, go back, get back to angels and shepherds and stars and stables and mangers and all that good stuff. This is Advent not Epiphany. It’s Christmas, for pete’s sake, and the last place we want to be in December is in the middle of some dry, dusty wilderness where someone is screaming purple-faced at us about our sins.”
Were we able to say that to Mark, he’s likely be nonplussed. Mark is, after all, the one evangelist in the New Testament who is forever in a hurry to get the story of Jesus told, as I point out in a short essay at the head of this year’s Advent sermon resources page. He writes at a break-neck clip, motoring along his narrative through his favorite little Greek adverb, euthus, “immediately.” Everything in Mark happens immediately, right now, fast. There is no time for narrative niceties and no time to lose. The greatest story ever told needs to be told and tell it Mark will.
Mark knows that we must begin in the wilderness. We must begin with John. We must begin with getting baptized because if you’re not willing to meet the Savior with repentance in hand, then you may not find any motivation to meet and greet the Savior at all. Mark knows that Jesus came for but one reason: to liberate the cosmos from its bondage to sin and decay. If you have no interest in seeing your own complicity in all that, then you’ll have no more use for Jesus showing up in your life than you would for a plumber who showed up on your porch on a day when—to the best of your knowledge—you did not have a plumbing problem in the world. In such a situation there’s really nothing to do other than to tell the kindly plumber to toddle off.
But Mark’s beginning means something else. It means that at the end of the Advent day, all the stuff we want to constitute the real “beginning” of the story—the stuff that is to us what the too-hot porridge was to the Three Bears—is not the core of the story after all.
Yes, Virginia, you can tell the story of Jesus without Bethlehem’s stall. If Mark were the only gospel we possessed in the church, a great deal of what fills up our imaginations in the month of December would disappear but the one thing that would not disappear would be the Gospel, the core of which is recognizing Jesus as the One sent from God to save us from our sins.
Of course, in God’s good providence, Mark is not our only gospel. We have three other wonderfully composed portraits of Jesus that round out the picture of our Lord, and that’s a profoundly good thing. And since two of those other gospels—and one in particular—tell us a lot about the birth of Jesus, it’s fitting and fine to note that and celebrate it.
But if we forget what Mark taught us, if we forget what the real core of it all is, well then the gospel story for us is finally no more meaningful than . . . well, than a fanciful tale about talking bears and an overly curious little girl.
Mark tells us he is presenting “the beginning” of the gospel, but scholars will tell you that it’s a little difficult to know just how much of what follows constitutes that beginning. Does “the beginning” end at verse 8? Are verses 1-8 the preamble, “the beginning,” with the real story getting started in verse 9 the moment Jesus appears from out of the heat vapors emanating from the desert floor to get baptized by John? Does “the beginning” go all the way through verse 13 at the end of Jesus’ time of temptation in the desert?
Or, as Tom Long and others have suggested, is “the beginning” nothing less than the entire Gospel of Mark? Does “the beginning” = Mark 1-16 and so right on up to the point in Mark 16:8 when Mark concludes on such an unfinished note of fearful post-resurrection silence that the reader is forced to say, “This is clearly not the end of the story—there has to be more to it than this!”
Maybe just that is the point. The gospel cannot end where Mark leaves it in chapter 16:8. There has to be more. But maybe that’s because to Mark’s way of thinking, even the entire story of Jesus, from the appearance of John to the resurrection of Jesus, is only the merest beginning of a gospel that—as the Apostle John would later say—is really bigger than the world can contain (cf. John 21:25).
Advent is the beginning of the new Church Year. We re-set the ecclesiastical clock and bring everything back to the starting line as the Son of God becomes flesh and gets born into this world. It’s the one time when the rest of the world at least vaguely tracks our theological and spiritual location in the Church. You can pass through the whole of Epiphany without ever hearing an Epiphany hymn being played on a department store’s Muzac. The Season of Eastertide is for most people a one-day event marked by a ham dinner or a lamb on the barbie. Mostly and in most seasons of the Church Year people outside the Church have no idea what we’re thinking about or singing about inside the Church.
Advent is different. True, no one calls it “Advent” in the wider society. The whole shebang from slightly before Thanksgiving in the U.S. to around New Year’s Day is generically called “Christmas,” but at least people have the basic nub of understanding of what we’re doing in worship across four or five Sundays. If someone who had not gone to church in fifty years were to slide into a pew somewhere in December, he would not be the least bit surprised to hear what Scripture readings were being proffered and what music was being played and sung.
But for all the attention the world—and let’s just admit, also the Church—gives to Advent/Christmas and all that goes along with this season, Mark is here to remind us that even all of that is not really the beginning of the gospel. The Christmas Story is not the beginning, it’s just a tiny piece of the entire gospel which is itself, in its entirety, only “the beginning” of a cosmic tale so vast, we’ll never comprehend it but can only let ourselves get gracefully and delightfully caught up in it all.
A voice in the wilderness. A single voice calling out from the midst of evil chaos. And it is a voice that comes “in the beginning” of what Mark wants us to understand is a new creation story parallel with the first creation story “in the beginning” that we read in Genesis 1. A voice calling out in the void to create a new world. It reminds me of that lyric image from C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” book The Magician’s Nephew when the children witness Aslan creating Narnia through his lone voice singing in the pre-creation darkness.
“In the darkness, something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it . . . Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale; cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently one by one as on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out . . . If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.” (C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, Collier Books, New York, pp. 98-99).
Author: Scott Hoezee
Today “comfort” conjures up a cloud of images ranging from La-Z-Boy recliners to Royal Caribbean cruises. “Comfort food” is all about the personal satisfaction that can come from mashed potatoes and meatloaf. “Creature comforts” are all about having the nicest stuff even as the words “luxury and comfort” get yoked to describe things like the all-leather interior of a Lexus. “Comfort” connects to all that is warm and fuzzy and satisfying. Hence, we don’t usually connect the idea of comfort to strength or power. Comfort is putting your feet up after a hard day of work, sipping some wine, and enjoying the cozy fire crackling on the hearth. Comfort, we think, is a soft concept. It is not “working” word.
However, a professor I once had named Fred Klooster knew that even as the English word “comfort” is a combination of the Latin words “cum-fortis” or “with strength,” so the theological concept of comfort is likewise vigorous. Klooster loved the Heidelberg Catechism and its opening question “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” because he knew that there, as elsewhere in the theological tradition, comfort is a word with muscle. Before it is some tender and cozy sigh of relief, comfort comes first as a bracing, in-your-face message about what is what in life. We need to be discomfited and made profoundly uneasy before we will be able to experience the depth of our only comfort.
If comfort is going to come to us at all, it needs to begin by confronting all that is wrong with life. Isaiah 40 says the same thing. Although this is one of the Bible’s more famous passages about comfort, we sometimes forget how stark these same verses are, too. Obviously the comfort Isaiah is commanded to proclaim is valuable only because the people had been suffering recently. What’s more, verse 2 makes clear that the source of their suffering had been their own sinfulness. Comfort comes not to those who deserve a reward but instead to those who have already felt the pain and the sting of where sin can lead you in life.
But the rest of this passage also conveys the link between getting serious about life’s jagged edges and the emergence of true comfort. Verse 3 says that the way of the Lord begins smack in the middle of the desert. It is in the wilderness, that biblical location of evil that God begins to construct his highway to shalom. If the salvation of God is going to emerge from anywhere, it will be from the middle of life’s ugliness. What’s more, the following verses say that we need God to be the One who will lead us out of the wilderness because on our own we can do nothing in that we are like fragile grass.
Apparently, if we want to access the comfort Isaiah is declaring, we need to do so first of all by acknowledging all that is difficult, even ugly, about life and about our own lives and hearts, too, while we’re at it. We need to own up to the reality of sin. We need to meet God in the wilderness and then admit that we are too weak, too grass-like ever to save ourselves. In fact, given our sin, considering the mess we are in, and being weak, we need to turn ourselves over to God completely. If we do, then the bottom line of Isaiah 40 can become our reality: we will be the lambs safely nestled into the arms of the shepherd.
That is, of course, a lyric image and as images go, it will receive a mighty boost in the New Testament when Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. But how often do we realize that to some people, that may not seem like a comforting image at all? We need to be carried by Another precisely because we cannot make our own way, we cannot construct our own highway out of sin’s desert wasteland. So we turn ourselves over to God in Christ and, in so doing, declare that we are not our own anymore. We do not belong to our own selves. Another has a prior (and a total) claim on us. Again, however, some people find that idea to be anything but comforting.
It is difficult for those of us who are so thoroughly familiar with the gospel to conceive of how this may sound in the ears of an outsider to the faith. In fact, it may even strike some of us as bizarre that anyone could look at the image of the Good Shepherd and see something offensive in it. But let’s give the world some credit: maybe those who are offended by that image are more in touch with its radical nature than those of us who look at it without batting an eye.
The Second Sunday in Advent brings us to another location that is at least as un-Christmasy as the First Sunday in Advent’s consideration of the day when all the cosmic lights will wink out as the Son of God prepares to return to judge the living and the dead. If looking ahead to an apocalyptic time seems at variance with “the Christmas spirit,” then week two of Advent may seem that way, too, as we are thrown out into the wilderness where grass withers and flowers fade and there is no human hope to be found. The Gospel lection for this day will take us there and confront us with John the Baptist and his no-nonsense message of repentance.
But this lection from the well-known passage of Isaiah 40 does the same thing. Yes, it’s a wonderful message of comfort but it comes to people who have long suffered for their sins. And Isaiah 40 makes sense, therefore, only if one is willing to own up to one’s sins. Isaiah 40 and Mark 1 tell us together that Christmas has no place in this world—there is quite literally no use for this season of Advent/Christmas whatsoever—if an honest, almost brutal, engagement with sin and human weakness cannot be undertaken first.
Lots of people want Christmas to be a time that can make us feel special, loved, embraced. We want sweetness and light, peace and serenity, charm and beauty. But the Lord comes to Isaiah and tells him what the real message for the season is: “All people are nothing! They are weak! They have no substance! Death is inevitable!”
Bracing stuff, that. But without it, not all the “Comfort, Comfort” in the world can find its proper resting place in the human heart.
Sad, tragic, racially charged, and violent events seem to have been stacking up like cord wood in recent years and in recent months. Ferguson, Charlottesville, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Texas; a mosque in Egypt: again and again on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram we are reduced to saying “I have no words.” “Shocked.” “Lord, have mercy.” Ours is a world that knows so little peace.
Images on CNN on any given day are not redolent of shalom. The news, the riots, the unhappiness, and certainly the despair out there in society threaten to choke all things “Christmasy” or the “holiday spirit.”
The “comfort, comfort” of which Isaiah speaks and the call to repentance that John the Baptist issues in this Sunday’s Lectionary text from Mark 1 emerge straight out of the harshest realities of life in this world. Christmas and the incarnate advent of God’s Christ does not shoot out from a thoughtful arrangement of poinsettias nor from some tastefully laid our front yard crèche. The incarnation comes into Ferguson and into Charlottesville, and into shot-up churches and mosques and finally into our sinfulness so that what can emerge from all that is newness of life and the hope of a New Creation one day.
Advent is not celebrated because the world looked like some Currier & Ives print to begin with. Advent is here because our reality is so very often so very far away from all that is pretty and peaceful. There is only One who leads to that restoration of shalom but we do people’s apprehension of that One no favors if we shutter our church windows to Ferguson on Sundays so as to focus on more positive and upbeat themes.
John the Baptist would have had none of that. Neither would Isaiah.
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 85 is a fine choice for this second Sunday of Advent. Anticipating the Gospel reading from Mark 1 in which John the Baptist begins to announce that salvation is near, verse 9 declares, “Surely his salvation is near those who fear him.” In the same vein, verse 13 concludes the Psalm with words that recall the promise of Old Testament reading from Isaiah 40. “Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps.”
Psalm 85 is also fitting because the prayers of God’s ancient people so accurately foreshadow the Advent prayers of Christians today. The Psalm begins with a recollection of God’s past deliverance. “You showed favor to your land, O Lord; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sin. You set aside your wrath and turned from your fierce anger.” Though those words could be an allusion to any time of trouble, it is likely that they are primarily a reference to the return from Exile.
Not only had God restored them to their Land, but he had also reconciled them to himself. Not only had he covered their sin (expiation), but he had also satisfied his wrath (propitiation). God had “restored the fortunes of Jacob.” The word “restored” is the Hebrew word shub, which we heard again and again last week in Psalm 80. It is that classic word for repentance, but it also means simply turn, turn again, cause to turn, restore. It is found 4 times here in Psalm 85 (verses 1, 3, 4, 8, and an allusion in 6). Because Israel had turned from the sin that led to Exile, God had turned from his anger and had returned Israel to the Land and restored their relationship with himself. They had been completely saved from all their trouble by the Lord.
But now they are in trouble again, and they beg God for help, again. We aren’t told what the new trouble was, but based on hints in the text, scholars think it might have been the opposition of enemies in the early days of the return from exile, in the days of Nehemiah and Malachi. Or it might have been a time of drought to which Haggai refers. Their plea for restoration is not part of our reading for today, but even a quick reading of verses 4-7 gives a sense of their desperation.
Those verses are the prayers of Christians in Advent 2017. We’re saved completely. Christ has come and is coming again. But in the meantime, how can we live in hope? We are saved, but life is still hard—sin remains, we keep failing, enemies surround, even nature seems to be our enemy, and it sometimes seems as though God is angry, again. Robert Davidson sums up our situation on this second Sunday of Advent. “How do we continue to live in hope, trusting in God, in a world where there is so much that seems cruelly meaningless?” (I wrote the first draft of this article the day after that horrific slaughter in Las Vegas and a few weeks after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria devastated the United States.)
Of course, the answer to Davidson’s question is, prayer. In such troublesome times, when it is hard to hope, we must pray for God to come again. But how can we be sure of an answer? I mean, Jesus came a long time ago, and we have waited a long time for his second coming. It has been a long time since we have seen the glory of the Lord in our land. How can we be confident that “surely his salvation is near?”
Well, says Psalm 85, first of all, we have God’s promise. In verse 8, the Psalmist says, “I will listen to what God the Lord will say….” In a world filled with cries for help, I will pay attention to the voice of Yahweh my God. In this season of Advent, we spend a lot of time reminding ourselves of the promises of God fulfilled in the coming Christ. The Psalmist reminds us of the importance of actually listening to those promises. One of my favorite carols asks, “Do you hear what I hear?” A prior question is, do we hear at all? Are we listening to what God says today?
The rest of verse 8 summarizes all the promises of God in one word, shalom; “he promises peace to his people, his saints….” Shalom, of course, is that comprehensive word describing the state of affairs that will prevail when God puts everything right. The chaos caused by sin will be reversed and all will be right between God and humanity, between humans and each other, between humanity and nature, and within each human. There will be no more sin or suffering or death or weeping or warring or moaning anymore. And, says verse 9, that day of shalom is not far off. “Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.”
That is the central promise of Advent, but it seems so distant, so unrealistic, so unbelievable. Of course, that is because the human folly that caused the chaos in the first place is still so much with us. Psalm 85:8b issues a strong warning: “he promises peace to his people, his saints—but let them not return to folly.” That last phrase is hard to translate, but the NIV reading seems best. And it surely fits the realities of life. It is the sinful folly of humanity that destroys the shalom of God. When we act like we are God, all hell breaks loose. When we take control of our own lives, establishing our own rules for success and prosperity, assuming that we can save ourselves, we will surely die.
That’s why the end of Psalm 85 is such a comfort and delight. It reminds us that the peace of God depends not on human effort, but on God’s character. The only guarantee that our prayers for peace will be answered is the glorious person of God. Verse 9 ends with the assurance that when salvation comes to the saints, “his glory [will] dwell in the land.” Then the following verses reveal the glory of the Lord, using all the familiar words of the covenant—love (chesed), faithfulness (emit), righteousness (sediq), peace (shalom).
Verses 10-11 are among the most beautiful description of God’s glory in the Bible, because of the way those familiar words are combined. One scholar summed them up like this. “God’s sure mercies spring from his covenant love, to which, in his faithfulness and righteousness, he remains true, and that assures his people’s shalom.” That is lovely, but how much lovelier is the picture of “love and faithfulness meeting together,” or of “righteousness and peace kissing each other,” or of “faithfulness springing forth from the earth, and righteousness looking down from heaven.”
In his landmark book, When Justice and Peace Embrace, Nicholas Wolterstorff, points out how the interests of justice and peace are often in conflict. Those who seek justice are often not very peaceful; we must make things right even if it means war. Those who seek peace, on the other hand, are sometimes blind to the concerns of justice. Wolterstorff points out that true shalom will come only when justice and peace embrace. That, says Psalm 85, is already the case in the person of God.
Human beings are always divided, not only from each other, but within ourselves. We have competing ideas, warring desires, conflicting loyalties. As Paul put it in Romans 7, “The good that I would, I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do.” We have split personalities, have double minds, and so we are full of inconsistencies. But God is not like that. All the dimensions of God’s personhood are unified. All of God’s attributes are integrated. All of God’s thoughts and desires are in perfect harmony. Thus, we can be sure that God’s desire, intent, purpose and plan to bless his people will be fulfilled.
The closing verses of Psalm 85 look with assurance to the day when God will restore his creation to its primal goodness. “The Lord will indeed give what is good” (an echo of God’s recurring blessing in Genesis 1, “it was good”). His “righteousness (his perfect faithfulness to all his covenant promises) goes before him and prepares the way for his steps.” Thus, we can be sure God will keep his promises. And when he does, he will put everything right and there will be shalom, as II Peter 3:13 says. “In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”
We can be sure that the beautiful promises of Advent will come true, because they have come true in Christ. The lovely description of God’s integrated attributes in Psalm 85 has become an historical reality in the incarnation of the Son of God. In him heaven and earth met. In him the promises of God were fulfilled and peace came upon the earth. In his cross, justice and love intersected for the salvation of sinners. St. Ambrose read verse 7 as humanity’s cry for the Incarnation. “Show us your unfailing love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.” And he saw verse 9 as the answer to that prayer. “Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.”
That is not a far-fetched interpretation. Think of Luke 2, where the birth of Christ the Lord is followed by the song of the angelic hosts. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those with whom he is well pleased.” Or remember John 1: 14. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling (the same word as in Psalm 85:9b) among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
So, yes, we are in trouble again. And it is hard to believe that there can be peace in this chaotic world. But our hope is anchored in who God is. And we know who God is, because “God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known (John 1:18).”
Contrast the perfect unity and harmony of God’s person with the shocking chaos of human persons. After that 64-year-old Nevadan slaughtered 59 people and wounded over 500 hundred in the Las Vegas massacre, the shooter’s brother said with horrified incomprehension, “But he was just a guy. Just a guy.” A guy who seemed normal to everyone, but inside were other forces, desires, thoughts that led to the horror. God is not like that. In God, all the multi-faceted aspects of God-ness are unified, integrated, focused on blessing even troublesome humans.
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” So some Christians have characterized ecological stewardship efforts within the church. And it is not difficult to discern why parts of this passage in 2 Peter 3 have been used to prop up the idea that Christians who work to save the environment are battling a lost cause. This earth has no future anyway, some Christians have claimed. It’s like the Titanic that is inevitably sinking into oblivion. Re-arranging the deck chairs is a waste of time. Turn your eyes instead upon Jesus and those things of earth will grow strangely dim.
It will all go up in smoke in some great end-time conflagration, Peter says. Dissolved, burned-off, melted. Gone. Poof. Spotted Owls? History. Wetlands? Dried up and destroyed in God’s cleansing fire. Coral reefs? Exposed and reduced to dust once the ocean’s waters boil away. So, you know, go ahead and save the whales and preserve the rain forests if you must but God has other plans.
That would, of course, be a misuse of these verses. Make no mistake: Peter is pointing to a final end of all things. There are going to be cleansing fires of renewal and judgment one day. The pollution of sin and evil needs to be washed away and/or burned up. But when viewed in the larger context of the Bible—and when properly seen in how even Peter wraps up this pericope—we realize that this is not spelling the final doom of all things earthy and material and physical.
These are fires of renewal, not extinction. We are anticipating a new heavens, Peter says, but also a new EARTH, a New Creation where everything that is familiar to us—maple trees, bobcats, tiger lilies, vineyards—will return in a world where righteousness will be at home. Or to invoke Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, it will be a world “landscaped” in righteousness. The creatures and plants and oceans we know will still be there but no longer threatened by human sin and pollution, no longer groaning under the weight of a sinful world (to invoke Paul’s image in also Romans 8).
In the Bible, matter matters. And that is why this is a fitting text for the Second Sunday in Advent. It is fitting not just in the sense of what we saw last week in terms of focusing on not only Jesus’ first advent but also anticipating his second coming or advent. No, it is also fitting because in what we anticipate in Advent and celebrate at Christmas is nothing less than the eternal Son of God taking on matter, taking on flesh. “The Word was made meat” to riff on John 1.
If ever we needed proof that materiality matters to God, the incarnation of God’s own Son provides it handily and amply. The coming down into this world as a real human being signals the enduring importance of humanity as embodied beings but of also all other embodied beings, of all the things God made in the beginning. “Without him nothing was made that had been made” John tells us in his Gospel’s prologue, and by coming down himself into the midst of all that he had made, Jesus of Nazareth showed us that this world has a future. God the Son did not make himself a flesh-and-blood person with a real voice box and larynx to then use that voice to declare the futility of all things physical. God the Son did not make himself a permanent human being—albeit now with a resurrection body but a human body now and into everlasting life nonetheless—to say that God’s goal was to beam us all up out of this world of grass and rivers so we could spend eternity in some wispy, ethereal, non-physical realm.
But, of course, the other aspect of 2 Peter 3 that has only gained in poignancy over time is the idea that God seems slow to deliver on all this. If people in Peter’s day wondered when in the world this all was going to happen, two millennia later, the question has only deepened. Or maybe it’s been so long we actually don’t actively wonder as much about it as people did when they thought it would happen within a generation. Do we actively wonder when God will finally rid this world of all its filth?
Probably not. Or not very often. Or only when we have occasion to experience the groaning of this creation up close and personal. But whether or not we wonder whether it’s ever going to happen, questions as to the when and the why of it would likely garner today the same answer Peter gave 2,000 years ago: God is in charge, God is working it out, and God’s patience in all this just gives the Gospel a change to grow and to spread more and more and more. And that is a fine thing!
In the meantime, though, that means we keep at it with witnessing and yes, such witness can even take the form of creation care and stewardship of so-called “natural resources” (but that are really creation resources, gifts from God’s creative imagination). But we do not give up on the Gospel, we do not underestimate how much this world needs Good News. We do not give up on our God who now 2,000 years later remains patient, wanting to draw all people and all creatures to himself.
If Jesus is not coming again to usher in a New Creation, then there is precious little sense in celebrating his birth long ago. The former has meaning only if the latter is true and will one day manifestly come true for all. We look forward to that day, as Peter wrote, and in the meantime, we rejoice, we work, we witness. All for God’s Advent Glory!
My great-grandmother spent fully 50 years praying for one of her sons who had become wayward and far from the church. Late in his life when my great-grandma was well into her 90s, he returned to the faith. “Just goes to show you what a little prayer can do,” she said to me. I was all of 18 at the time and thought I already knew something about praying for a long time (I mean, I had prayed for several whole MONTHS that a certain girl would like me and at that time, thus far, zilch!). Great-grandma showed me a patient faith I knew nothing about at that time and still maybe don’t fully possess today, either. But she had the long look of eternity, the long look of the kingdom, and an abiding faith that God in Christ was here and heard each of that half-century’s worth of prayers for her boy. She stuck with prayer because she knew God was sticking with her. That’s not always an easy truth to reconcile with a world as fractured as this one. But the fruit of patience motivates us to keep trying as we patiently stick with the God who patiently sticks with us.