30 Aug Second Sunday in Advent, December 6th, 2020
Epistle: 2 Peter 3:8-15a
Rev. Phil Schmidt
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was a member of the U.S. Supreme Court for 30 years, from 1902 to 1932. When he was 88 years old he was still traveling alone by train, but maybe this was not a good idea. It is reported that on one trip he saw the conductor approaching and started to search for his ticket. He looked in his wallet and in his pockets, but could not find it. He became agitated and checked out his briefcase, but the ticket wasn’t there. The conductor saw that Holmes was extremely upset and said to him: “Justice Holmes, I know who you are. Everyone knows who you are. Just send in your ticket afterwards, whenever you find it.” The justice replied: “My dear sir, the problem is not just that I cannot find my ticket; my problem is that I cannot remember my destination.”
This incident can serve as a parable. One of the biggest issues which all of us face is the question: what is the final destination of life? What is ultimately going to happen to us, to our loved ones and to the world in which we live? If we do not know the answer to this question then it is inevitable that we will react like Justice Holmes, becoming increasingly anxious and restless as life approaches journey’s end.
With regard to our final destiny there would seem to be only two options: either eternal darkness or eternal light, either total extinction or total fulfillment, either nothingness or everlasting glory.
There are people who would say: it doesn’t really matter what we believe regarding our final destiny, because no one can say with certainty what will finally happen to us; so, we should try to make the most out of life and not worry about what comes afterwards. Muhammed Ali expressed this stance when he said: “I don’t want no pie in the sky by and by when I die, but I want my castle on the ground while I’m around.”
However, what we believe about our final destiny will determine how we live “here on the ground while we are around.” In this context I have to think about a small town in Maine by the name of Flagstaff. This town is buried under a lake, because a damn was built downstream from it. When the construction of the damn started, the occupants knew that their town was destined for extinction, so they stopped taking care of their homes. Nothing was repaired or renovated. In the course of time everything looked decayed and dilapidated. People became apathetic about everything. One former occupant of Flagstaff summed up what happened by saying: “Where there is no faith in the future, there is also no strength for the present-day.”
On the other hand, hope for the future unleashes energy. C. S Lewis asserted:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.
So, what is the future going to look like? The epistle reading from 2. Peter addresses the issue of final destiny. The focal point of this text is the so-called “Day of the Lord”. “The Day of the Lord” is a theme of Old Testament prophecy. The Day of the Lord signifies that a day is coming, on which God will reveal himself publicly and definitively, bringing life as we know it to fulfillment. As we heard in the reading from Isaiah: “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together”.
It is very difficult to talk about the Day of the Lord because it is a mystery which defies human comprehension.
For us Christians, the Day of the Lord is identical to the second Advent of Jesus Christ. The word Advent means “arrival” or “coming”. As we confess in the Nicene Creed:
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end…We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
2. Peter uses apocalyptic imagery to describe this Day of Advent. As we heard in the reading:
The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise (literally: “a crackling roar”), and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”
These words should not be taken literally. The message behind these dramatic images is that what we call “reality” is full of deception. On the Day of the Lord “everything…will be disclosed”, which means that all lies, manipulations and conspiracy theories will be exposed. They will be dissolved and give way to the ultimate reality. This final reality is described with the words:
“In accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”
Once again, this imagery is beyond human understanding. It is useless to speculate about how or when the future shape of reality will be revealed, because it will come like “a thief in the night”. The main thing is the ultimate promise, namely that we are not destined for eternal darkness, but for “new heavens and a new earth”, filled with “righteousness”.
Righteousness is another word for the justice that God intends for humanity. And what is justice? Most people equate justice with retribution, with payback. Justice seems to mean that everybody gets what they deserve. But as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, if everybody gets what they deserve, who will escape whipping? However, God’s justice does not give us what we deserve, but what we need. Righteousness means that everything has been made right, that all wounds have been healed, that all conflicts have been resolved, that all sin has been forgiven, that complete harmony has been restored – not a fake harmony which sweeps injustice under the rug – but a harmony in which all of the cruelty, humiliation and bloodshed which have occurred on this planet have been dealt with. God’s righteousness is embodied in the resurrected Christ, who revealed that the scars of crucifixions will be integrated into a new creation.
In this context I have to think of my favorite mystery writer. I love to read crime stories. I have read every Sherlock Holmes story of Arthur Conan Doyle at least 3 times. I love Agatha Christie. But my favorite mystery writer is Tony Hillermann. His stories take place on the Navajo reservation which encompasses parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. In the novels of Tony Hillermann the Tribal police officers who solve crimes are rooted in Navajo tradition. They look at crime and punishment from the perspective of the ancient wisdom of their people. Navajo tradition does not believe in punishment as the ultimate form of justice, but the focus is on restoring harmony. Harmony means that every sickness of the soul has been healed, that brokenness has been transformed into wholeness. Harmony means that creation is not treated as an enemy to be conquered, but respected as a gift of grace. This emphasis on restoration of harmony through healing is also the focus of Biblical promise.
People who do not live with promise will eventually become like Oliver Wendell Holmes on his train ride: increasingly agitated, impatient, restless. People who know that they are destined for healing and harmony in a renewed creation will live with patience. As we heard in the reading from 2. Peter:
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… Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace.
The accent here is on patient waiting. God does not lose patience with anyone, because he wants to wait as long as it takes for all people to find healing and harmony. It is our role as followers of Christ to reflect this never-ending patience of God and to embody the peace and harmony for which all people are destined. This means that we should never be vindictive, that we should never degrade or humiliate anyone, that we should never become apathetic about the fate of our planet.
In closing, I would like to share with you words of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who describes how he sees the final destiny of humanity according to Biblical promise. I find his words inspiring:
“I am convinced.. that finally at the end of the world, in the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will appear that it will be adequate for all hearts, for the stilling of all dissent, for the atonement of all blood that has been spilt, that will be adequate not only for the forgiveness, but also for the justification of all that has happened to man.”
Epistle: 2 Peter 3:8-15a
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. 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. 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. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading 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.