Sunday, December 4, 2011

Anybody in a Hurry?

2 Peter 3:8-15(a)
Advent 2
December 4, 2011

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. 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.

It’s the first Sunday in December. I hope you know what that means. It means everybody is in a hurry.

This is the time of year when more people are on the road. They drive faster. They tailgate closer. They generally express less patience and offer more gestures. Everybody is in a hurry.

I don’t know what I was thinking. Yesterday, about fifteen minutes before noon, I stopped to mail five packages at the little post office at the bottom of my hill. There were ten people ahead of me, and the first one was taking her sweet old time.

She tried to strike up a conversation with the worker behind the counter, while others in line just rolled their eyes. “How’s your little boy?” she asked and the man ahead of me groaned. She had a form to complete, and rather than take it to the side counter, she stood at the head of the line and read each question out loud. Then she asked the clerk what answers she should write down. Did I mention there were ten people ahead of me? Soon there were another six behind me.

She stepped outside, we breathed a sigh of relief. Two minutes later she came back in and everybody groaned. She stepped right to the front of the line as if she owned the postal service. The guy ahead of me said, “Lady, we don’t have time for this.” She spun around and said, “But I’m in a hurry.” Everybody is in a hurry.

The lines were long at one restaurant, so we went to another and had to wait. I stopped by a new bookstore to check it out and noticed clumps of shoppers, every eye glazed over, all of them rushing through the store. It’s enough to make you shop online. Besides the packages will get here faster, especially if we are in a hurry.

Maybe it’s me, but I was astonished to see how early the Holiday Shopping Season began. Personally I thought Valentine’s Day was a little bit premature, but merchants assured us this was going to be a big year. So the overnight lines started forming outside Best Buy sometime around the Fourth of July. All those shoppers wanted to be in the front of the line. They were in a hurry.

Everybody is in a hurry. Have you noticed that? Everybody . . . except God.

We have a brief letter near the back pages of the New Testament. It’s called the Second Letter of Peter and purports to be from the apostle. Can’t say if that is true. The so-called author misspells his own signature. And there’s evidence the church has been around a lot longer than Simon Peter would have been. The apostle Paul is long dead; he’s been gone long enough that the church had begun to collect his letters and critique them. That had to take twenty, thirty, maybe fifty years for a non-internet church to chase them down.

Then there’s some evidence that the church was infected with heresy. Actually it wouldn’t take very long for that to happen. It happens all the time around here. Except that it sounds like the false prophets had become institutionalized. Second Peter fires his cannon at them for four long paragraphs. And he condemns them fiercely. “They malign the way of truth,” he says (2:2). “In their greed they exploit you with deceptive words.” Sounds like some of those TV preachers we have seen over the years.  “God threw the rebellious angels into hell,” he says, “so just think what he’s going to do with those people.” (2:3-4).

Second Peter is pretty upset. He describes what the false teachers are doing. “They speak bombastic nonsense. They entice people with the desires of the flesh. They promise freedom even though they are slaves to corruption.” (2:18-20). Makes me wonder what kind of sermons they were putting into the air!  

And the point is: all this was going on and God wasn’t doing anything about it. God was in no hurry to come and fix the world, much less purify his own church. Of all the accusations anybody could put against God, the greatest accusation is that God never seems to be in a hurry.

You can pray and pray and pray, and wonder if anybody is listening. The deafening silence can almost be enough to make you give up praying.

You can work and work and work to make a difference in the places where you live, and wonder if God will ever get around to validating your work.

You can take a stand and speak the truth, in an effort to improve your neighbors’ situation. I think of the county official who spoke to an Adult Ed class here two weeks ago. He’s a good man, an astute public servant, who has tried to work honestly. And he told us he couldn’t believe how much money actually talked in the politics of our region. He knew it, but he had no idea. It’s enough to make you think, “Why bother?”

I did a little research on a phrase that appears in the Psalms. About twenty times, somebody in the Psalms will ask, “How long, O Lord?” Apparently that’s an important way to pray. You raise your hands and say, “Is this going to go on forever?” The God of the church is the God of Israel, and we have a God who rarely seems to come when we want. So we watch and we wait and we pray, “How long, O Lord?”

Now, to be fair, I continued the research. There are even more occasions in the scriptures when God raises the hands and says, “How long, O people?” How long will you ignore me? How long will you forget me? How long will you complain? How long will you do the stupid things that I tell you not to do? Everybody may seem to be in rush, but humanity and God are often waiting one another out.

So Second Peter clears his throat and offers a pastoral word. On the one hand, down here we are waiting for the Day of the Lord. All the prophets told us to wait for the Lord. That’s the Great Day when God will make everything right. It will come at the end of human time. God will re-balance the world and establish the great shalom. The hungry will be fed, the corrupt will be toppled. Those who grieve will have their tears wiped away. Those who hope will be satisfied. The prophets make those promises, and we’ve heard them. We sing them.

And when we heard Jesus say, “I will come again,” we know that will be the Day of the Lord. In his ministry among us, he showed us the priorities of God: feeding, teaching, healing, forgiving, restoring. Jesus will come and all shall finally be well. So we wait for his return. We wait as constructively as we can.

But God is waiting too. And this is the genius of Second Peter’s word. He says, “You may think God is being slow, taking his sweet old time, grinding it out step by step. But I tell you that God is not slow. God is patient. God is so very patient.

Certainly, he says, when the Day of the Lord shall come, heaven and earth shall be blasted away. All things shall be dissolved in fire. But God is so very patient, that before God lets that happen, God wants every single one of his children to come to their senses, to stop all of the destructive nonsense that they do, and come home.

I thought of that last night as I considered the Advent sky. The sunsets this time of year are evocative. They stop me in my tracks, and cause me to wonder as I wander. What exactly does God want from me? From us?

"Think of what kind of persons you ought to be," says Second Peter. I think that means to build a life that is never ashamed of God. It means to sweep away the cobwebs from our souls. To pursue a life of peace. To regard God’s great patience as our opportunity. This Advent, every one of us has a real chance for a new beginning. It’s more than some temporary change for the holidays, like slipping back into a size four dress or 34-waist pair. It would be a real change of some permanence. The continuing invitation of the Gospel is to leave the past behind, to break free from bad habits, and to live the new life offered in Christ.

There comes a point when we need to get on with the kind of life that God sets before us: a life that is generous, and loving, and merciful, willing to forgive, full of patience ourselves, and ready to drop all burdens at the foot of the cross. God wants more than last-minute recruits for heaven. God wants servants who are well marinated in grace.

“Think of what kind of persons you ought to be,” says Second Peter. When you leave this place, show the love and joy of Jesus Christ. Just like Jesus, feed the hungry and embrace the outcast. Bind up the wounded and dance with the saints. Advance the mission of the Gospel and, always, no matter what, take care of the little ones.

I need to tell you all of this because there’s no telling how much time we have left. 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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