Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 10, 2017
2 Peter 3:8-15a Commentary
“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.
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