From the Common English Bible
Don’t let it escape your notice, dear friends, that with the Lord a single day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a single day. The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. On that day the heavens will pass away with a dreadful noise, the elements will be consumed by fire, and the earth and all the works done on it will be exposed.
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be? You must live holy and godly lives, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God. Because of that day, the heavens will be destroyed by fire and the elements will melt away in the flames. But according to his promise we are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
Therefore, dear friends, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found by him in peace—pure and faultless. Consider the patience of our Lord to be salvation.
From the Common English Bible
The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:
Look, I am sending my messenger before you. He will prepare your way, a voice shouting in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.”John was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Giving all glory and honour to God.
We talked last week about how we expect to look back in this Advent season at the first Christmas, and instead our readings are telling us to look forward to the end of time. Well, this week our Scripture does look back, but not to the Christmas story. Instead we get the story of John the Baptist, who appears when Jesus is an adult, as the prophecy comes true that a voice will cry out in the wilderness, prepare God’s way. And we get more bizarre and upsetting imagery: last week Jesus spoke about the sun and moon ceasing to shine, and the stars falling from the sky; today in our reading from the Second Letter of Peter we have more about this day of the Lord, the end of this world, coming by surprise as the heavens are destroyed and the elements melt away. This part of the Bible was written in Greek, and the Greek word for elements could mean earth, air, fire, and water, or the sun, moon, and stars, or even atomic particles – the point is, all will disintegrate and burn up. On this Advent Sunday of peace, this doesn’t seem like that peaceful a picture.
We know from science that all this will come true – in about 5 billion years our sun will become many times brighter, causing the oceans to evaporate and eventually the earth’s surface to become molten rock. In another billion years or so our planet’s orbit will decay and the earth will be destroyed as it enters the sun’s atmosphere. So the elements will indeed be consumed by fire. Although this could happen earlier if the Andromeda Galaxy collides with our galaxy, the Milky Way, 3 billion years from now and the earth’s orbit changes. All this sounds like the plot of a Star Trek episode. I remember watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Captain Picard is on a planet where increased radiation from its sun will eventually cause all life to become extinct.
I doubt that I will be around in 3 or 5 billion years, but that’s not so long in geologic time – I was in Ottawa this week and stopped by a booth in a mall, and they had fossils and rocks on display and I saw insects preserved in amber that is 2 million years old, and fossilized ferns and fish and dinosaur bones that are much older.
And John the Baptist gets in on all this frightening language too. We read from Mark’s Gospel, which is the shortest story about John, and he doesn’t have too much to say. In Luke’s version, John calls the crowds children of snakes, translated in some Bibles as brood of vipers, and goes on about the people listening to him being like trees that do not produce good fruit and will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.
All this just makes us uncomfortable. We’re not featuring these verses on our Christmas cards, or sending cards that say “from our brood of vipers to yours.” I said last week that all this scary stuff about the world’s end is really symbolic. The destruction of the heavens and even atoms is a symbol of how total the transformation is when God’s vision is fulfilled. I think the key part of this reading is what it says next, the earth and all the works done on it will be exposed, meaning human achievements and actions will be held up for divine judgment.
All this apocalyptic language is written from a certain perspective, that of people on the bottom of the heap, people with so little that they have nothing to lose, people who have given up hope that the systems of this world will work for them. These symbols of stars falling and elements burning up, the Bible’s language about the last shall be first and the humble exalted and the poor raised up from the garbage heap and all things will be made new – these express the only hope oppressed people have, that God will flip over the existing powers that keep them down, God will expose all human works to judgment.
Look at the stories we hear during Advent and Christmas. God doesn’t come to or with the powerful people at the centre of empire. God surprises everyone by coming where people don’t expect, on the margins, with the marginalized. Isaiah’s prophecy comes true in a weird guy shouting in a desert on the fringe of the empire, a guy eating locusts and wild honey. John the Baptist is the guy we avoid when we’re walking in the city. Joseph and Mary are forced to migrate by an official directive, to Bethlehem to be taxed to pay for the empire – which sounds pretty familiar, bureaucracy and taxes and controversy over a census, and families forced to move by a corporate decision made far away. And then later in the story they are refugees, barely escaping state violence that sounds like Syria today. The news that God has come among us is told to ordinary shepherds, country folk, who are at work, not participating in a worship service. God comes to Mary, a teenage, uneducated girl in a society in which women were powerless, when pregnancy before marriage was a dangerous state to be in, yet in the story she sings that God will pull the powerful down from their thrones and lift up the lowly, God will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty-handed. Mary is not the timid figure of our nativity sets. She is preaching revolution. And God comes to humanity, not in the capital city that is the centre of the known world, not even in one of the great cities of the empire, but in an obscure, one-horse town on the border, not to a palace or temple or mansion but to a stable with its smells and dirt, not as a mighty emperor or wealthy merchant or respected priest – God is born as a baby, tiny, vulnerable, completely dependent on humans.
So this story should be good news for us, country people who know about paying taxes, being pushed around by bureaucracy, decisions made far away which change our lives as a plant is closed and people are thrown out of work or families forced to move. But the story has been taken over by the powerful, sanitizing it and making it less uncomfortable, glossing over the poverty and violence and dirt, making all the characters well-dressed and clean. Well, except for John the Baptist – he’s still a wild man. We lit a candle for angels today, and now serene angels in lovely robes are Christmas decorations, as we forget that when angels appear in the Christmas story their first words have to be, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ because a message from God is so terrifying. And all the bizarre Advent stuff about the end of time and completion of God’s rule gets left out.
Yet we still know that there is something jarring here. We know that as we’re surrounded by lights and buying and nostalgic Christmas specials, somehow the Bible story pulls at us. We hear about World AIDS Day, last Thursday, how HIV has infected 34 million people worldwide and 1.8 million people will die this year of AIDS. We know that something is wrong. We hear about the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, this coming Tuesday, and we remember 14 women killed in Montreal in 1989, and all the victims of gender violence. We know that something is wrong. Today is White Gift Sunday, and many families in this county rely on food banks to eat. We know that something is wrong. And we have to wonder, what if all our works on earth are exposed? How will what we have done, what we do, be judged?
The writer of Second Peter, after describing all this cosmic drama at the end and the final judgment of human actions, asks what we ask, “Then what sort of people ought you to be? You must live holy and godly lives, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God.”
Holy and godly lives. A holy and godly life means trying to follow Jesus in his way, and so, seeking to transform both ourselves and our world. A holy and godly life means prayer, devotions, moral living, and labour for the common good of all. People often talk as if personal spirituality and work for justice and peace are completely separate, but we can’t disconnect them. Second Peter says, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found in peace – peace with ourselves, peace with each other, seeking peace in our world.
The planet being destroyed and elements melting are symbols of the transformation God brings. Our White Gifts are a symbol too – a symbol of our own path to transformation, as our faith changes us to dedicate ourselves to serving and loving others, particularly our neighbours who are in need.
We are to bring food to food banks and women’s shelters, but also to ask why systems perpetuate hunger and poverty and violence. We are to recognize how the characters in the Christmas story were trapped in systems that kept them poor and powerless, yet today the systems that benefit us hold us just as captive. We live a holy and godly life by waiting, praying for the completion of God’s rule of peace and love and justice – not waiting passively, but waiting actively as John the Baptist did, working within the structures of which we’re a part while waiting for these systems to end, looking with the Spirit’s help to recognize where God is coming among us today in the margins, in the cracks, to identify the prophets and angels that bring God’s message to us now and to heed their words, each of us being in our own way a voice shouting in the wilderness.
You know, there is a slogan this time of year, keep Christ in Christmas. Yes, and we are to keep Christ in our lives, Christ who tells us to love our neighbour, Christ who tells us blessed are the peacemakers, Christ who tells us that in him we can overcome the world, Christ who is coming to make all things new. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.