…what sort of person ought you to be?
One thing is clear from this passage and that is that God has a different view of things than we do. We are thinking about little baby Jesus, after all, and this passage is about fire, sacrifice, losing it all.
The first thing you’ll notice this morning is that God’s timing is different. That’s good news if you’re running late. You can just say that you’re on “Godly Time” where a day is as long as a thousand years. You’re not an hour late, you’re 999 years, 264 days, and 23 hours early! You might convince someone that that’s clever once, but probably not twice.
It seems that the writer of 2 Peter wanted to convince his readers that Jesus really would return just as he had said. At this point, people would have begun to wonder. It sounds like some people were saying that Jesus wasn’t going to return, maybe they had stopped believing in the Kingdom of Heaven altogether. Or, maybe they had just returned to more comfortable beliefs. The writer chastised these former members of the church who held to different beliefs, and he offered reassurance to those who may have been wondering about Jesus. He had promised to come back, after all.
Even today, some are still waiting. Others hold different beliefs. The Christian story has never been uniform. We are people who disagree about almost everything. As in the days of 2 Peter, some Christians today believe Jesus has already returned, some believe that he never will, and others are waiting for him to get here and work his magic. Which leads us to another point about “Godly Time.” It is not just a linear concept that moves constantly forward, faster or slower, but also a conceptual device which allows reality to move in all directions at once. Albert Einstein said that the only reason we have it at all is so that everything won’t happen all at once. But, who knows? Maybe it does.
Jesus has, of course, already returned. Now we call him The Holy Spirit, but it’s Jesus, and Jesus is God, and yet Jesus is not… and, well, it’s not Trinity Sunday just yet so let’s hold off. But, Jesus is here. At the same time, we are waiting for him. Remember what the sages say, “In Torah, there is neither earlier or later.” Time doesn’t work that way, not “God’s time” anyway.
I know that sounds like something that might make a good plot-line in a Star Trek episode. We might even spend a good bit of time in a reverie about the river of time and the eddies and pathways it may take when we remove it from a single linear existence and allow it to flow over us in all directions at once. But the very next verses in our consideration this morning say basically, “Don’t worry too much about it because everything that exists within time, all reality, is going to dissolve into nothingness anyway.”
The actual text is stronger than that. It says, “the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire.” The Didache also warns of a “fire of testing” which all creation will be subject to. It seems likely that both the writer of 2 Peter and the writer of the Didache were influenced by the Stoics who also believed that all things would be annihilated by fire. Those of you who have experienced a wildfire like the ones currently raging in California right now may have a better appreciation of the destructive power of fire.
Regardless of where this fiery annihilation rhetoric came from, one thing is for sure: Everything that happens within this realm of time is going to disappear. The things we value so dearly, our highest goals and aspirations, even our very selves… poof!
So, once again, we are faced with the question of how to live “in the meantime.” If everything is going to be utterly destroyed, what kinds of people should we be? How should we live?
The writer — not known for his subtlety — sort of slides it in there on this one. He says that we should live “without spot or blemish.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Pure. Justified. Righteous… all those things we Christians love best about ourselves. But anyone who has taken even a passing glance at the rest of the Bible knows that “without spot or blemish” is the language used to describe sacrifices.
- Numbers 19:2… bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish,
- Numbers 28:3… ye shall offer unto the LORD; two lambs of the first year without spot
- Numbers 28:9… And on the sabbath day two lambs of the first year without spot
- Numbers 28:11… ye shall offer… two young bullocks, and one ram, seven lambs of the first year without spot
- Numbers 28:17… And… ye shall offer twelve young bullocks, two rams, fourteen lambs of the first year without spot
- Numbers 28:26… And on the fifth day nine bullocks, two rams, and fourteen lambs of the first year without spot
and, finally, 1 Peter 1:19… But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot
In fact, this is not the only time Jesus is compared to a sacrificial lamb. John the Baptist called him the Lamb of God. The writer of Ephesians says that Jesus gave himself for an offering, a sacrifice. And the writer of Romans beseeches us all to “…present your bodies a living sacrifice…”
So, this is the answer to our question. If everything within time is going to be burned up, then we should live as if we will also be subjected to this terrible fire.
Fiery annihilation may not be what you were hoping to read about this morning. It is Advent, after all, and we should be thinking about the incarnation.
Let me tell you a story that might explain it a little differently: One time my friend Bob and I went to the museum. I don’t want to say for sure, but I think it was the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The exhibit we went to see was about Gold. We learned a lot too. For example, did you know that about 80 percent of Earth’s gold is still buried underground? It is. And did you know that gold can be found on other planets? Some scientists think so. So, we learned a lot. Towards the end of the exhibit, there was a display of pure gold coins, ingots, and bars. They were shiny too. You can really see why the Aztecs called it the excrement of the Gods. But I noticed that each of the bars and ingots had a rough patch on them, usually on the back. I asked the docent about it and he explained that it was from the refining, the fire. It leaves a mark, but it also purifies.
Here’s where I think the Stoics got it wrong. The fire is not annihilation, it’s purifying. It will come. Maybe there will be a blaze of cosmic fire which instantly ushers in a new Heaven and a new Earth. It seems more likely, though, that each of us will go through some kind of purifying fire, maybe more than one, all by ourselves. I suspect it’s different for everybody. There are the searing fires of loss, and disappointment, or ruined hopes; the churning fires of anxiety and anger; the smoldering embers of resentment and bitterness. These things are hard to deal with in a season that is supposed to be marked by joy. But, the hard truth is that a lot of people are in pain this Sunday because the hype of the season isn’t living up to its billing. Because even though Jesus has come, we are still waiting. It’s as if there is neither earlier nor later.
The fire in your belly may be for a passion or a project that you’re working on, but it might be a painful and purifying fire. You needn’t worry about that. All sacrifices are burned, made pure and pleasing to God. That is how we are supposed to live, with the ongoing purification of the world taking place in our own lives. This is what it means to present your body as a living sacrifice. It’s how we participate in the healing of the world, by taking it in, letting it burn awhile, and rearranging the atoms of pain into atoms of gold.
The fire leaves a mark, to be sure. But, it also makes gold!
Linda McMillan is vacationing in Sweeny, Texas where it SNOWED this week!
Some Notes of Possible Interest
It is not likely that 2 Peter was written by Peter. If you want to know why you can read this article.
I have cited this one line which is reminiscent of Stoic Philosophy, but many scholars believe that the writer’s real enemies in this text were Epicurians. I wasn’t there. I don’t know.
I think it would be good for all Christians to know more about the Stoics. They were a big influence on early Christianity, and thus on us too. You can get The Stoic Six-Pack, including Meditations by everybody’s favorite Stoic Marcus Aurelius, the Enchiridion, and the discourses of our other favorite Stoic, Epictetus, and it’s just a buck or two at Amazon if you put it on your Kindle. I’ll be honest, some of it is pretty dense, but you don’t have to read it in a day. Take your time, especially with Marcus Aurelius. Other famous Stoics were Seneca, Cicero, Zeno… I think you’ll find a lot of people you know among the Stoics.
The phrase “In Torah, there is neither earlier or later” is from the Talmud. There are lots of books in the Talmud and this one is in the book about Passover. It’s called Pesahim. You can get it for your Kindle for only a couple bucks. There are plenty of places in the Bible where time is clearly out of whack. The story of Noah is one, as well as Deuteronomy where the Bible talks about when God spoke to Moses and it’s just not chronological.
John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God in John 1:29, 36.
Ephesians 5:2… And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savour.
Romans 12:1… I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.