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Peace on Earth:  The True Second Coming

Sermon - 12/07/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

2 Peter 3:8-15a

The text this morning for our reflection may seem a rather peculiar one for Peace Sunday, but it is the reading from the epistles for the second Sunday of Advent.

In keeping with our motto of 'transforming Christianity', as well as transforming lives and the world, I want to transform and redeem the way we read this text.

It's from the second letter of Peter, widely regarded by New Testament scholars to be written in the name of Simon Peter long after his death, a common way in antiquity of honoring a revered leader.  So, probably written toward the end of the first century or the beginning of the second, and hence it is one of the latest additions to scripture.  And the reasons for that conclusion are many, such as the style of Greek used (which reflects a classical Greek education unlikely for a Palestinian Jewish fisherman), and a quote from the gospel of Matthew that is found in the text (and of course Matthew was written in the 70s or perhaps early 80s according to scholars). 

But another reason for the late-dating of this second letter of Peter is the problem that is addressed in this text for this morning.  Namely, why has the second coming of Christ not yet occurred?  A problem which grew in intensity with each passing decade, and reaches its zenith at the end of the first or beginning of the second century.  And this is, probably, the reason for the writing of this letter.

So then, our text from 2 Peter, chapter 3, verses 8 through 15:

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. 9The 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. 10But 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.

11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12waiting 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? 13But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

 

Rejecting the scoffers, who had given up on any hope of Christ ever returning, the author (perhaps, likely, a student of the Apostle Peter) explains this delay in two ways:

First of all, quoting from Psalm 90, that 1,000 years for God is like a day, the author suggests that God's time is not the same as ours.  That what we see as a delay, for God, is hardly a blip on the radar.

Second, the author makes a remarkable argument, I think, and that is that this delay is to allow for more people to come to repentance.  Indeed, the suggestion is made that God's desire is for ALL people to be saved.  And since God is patient, God is willing to wait until that can be achieved.

Now, if that isn't an argument for universalism, the notion that God's love for us is so great that all will be saved, I don't know what is.

In that popular best-seller, The Shack, God (who is called "Papa") says to Mac (the principle character), "I am especially fond of you".  Later, she says (and if you want to know why 'Papa' is referred to as a 'she', you'll have to read the book J) of one of Mac's kids, Missy, "Oh, I'm especially fond of her".

And then she says to one of Mac's friends:  "Oh, I'm especially fond of him".  And then she says of Mac's father, of whom Mac is not fond at all, "I'm especially fond of him". 

And pretty soon you get the idea that this God, Papa, is especially fond of everyone.

By the way, I've said I'm going to preach on that book later, so if you don't want me to spoil the end of the book for you, put it on your Christmas wish list and read it soon, because it'll probably be early next year when I'll devote a sermon to the book.

The primary reason that the author of 2 Peter argues against abandoning the second coming as an important concept in Christian teaching is because of the need for Christians to live lives full of preparedness.  And thus the author uses the same image used by Jesus and by Paul of the thief who comes without warning.  And so, therefore, we must all be ready.

And to add even more to this urgency of our readiness, the author then adds this idea of a fiery destruction that will consume the earth.  Now, those who lived through the wildfires of Southern California, you have a notion of this image of this all-consuming fire that comes almost without warning.

I was talking to Greg Flint, pastor at First Congregational Church, his son lives down there, and his parents-in-law have a house in one of those canyons where the flames, spread by the dry Santa-Ana winds, just blew up the canyon with frightening speed.  The father had gone to the house to save their dogs, and like many in that area, they are required to have a large body of water on the property (which of course means a swimming pool) to fight such fires.  So he thought, he had a hose, he was equipped, he was going to fight it, save his house.  And then he saw the hundred-foot wall of fire moving up the canyon, and he said 'This is nuts'.  Wisely abandoned his plan, grabbed the dogs, and got the heck out of there.

His home was the only one in the area that was spared -- it was featured in a picture in the L.A. Times with all of the houses destroyed around it.

When we were traveling in Greece this summer, we saw fire-fighting planes flying overhead, landing in the Mediterranean to pick up a load of water and then heading off inland to fight some fire that was raging somewhere in Greece.  And later I actually drove through one of the areas that had burned a previous summer, and I learned that those kind of fires are very similar to Southern California -- they have a similar landscape, dry, hot winds in the summertime there, and they have this problem every summer with these fires that move quickly and wipe out acres and acres of land.

So it's easy to understand how an author in ancient times, who lived in that area, would have experienced those kinds of fires (did not have the modern means to fight them as we do) and would come up with this image of this devouring fire that consumes everything.

But what are we to make of that image today? 

In November, I made my case against the Rapture, as a notion that simply is not found in scripture.  It's an invention of the 19th century, a total mis-interpretation of scripture.  And I argued for an understanding of the second coming as a metaphor for God's reign on earth, rather than as an historical event.

Now, if you heard that and took that to mean "Oh, well, good, we don't have to worry about that, we don't have to take these texts seriously", then you grossly misunderstood what I'm saying.

If you read these texts literally, as describing a future historical event, perhaps a nuclear war as some have suggested, and then you ask yourself "OK, so what are we to do?", the answer would be "Be prepared, live at peace".

If you understand it metaphorically, as describing the world-cleansing power of God's love (as I do), and ask "OK, what are we to do?", the answer would be "Be prepared, live at peace".

You see, in that sense, it doesn't matter which way you read the text.  But I would argue that there's one difference:  if you take those texts literally, word-for-word, then the emphasis is on us waiting for God to act.  But when you read it metaphorically, the emphasis is on God waiting for us to act.

In other words, the second coming of Christ is not going to happen unless we, working with God, led by the spirit of Christ, make it happen.  To paraphrase Pogo from a few years ago, 'We have met the Messiah, and he is us'.

And if you think about it, that's really what the Apostle Paul taught, calling the Church the 'body of Christ'.  We are the ones called to be the manifestation of Christ in the world today.

And so understood, the idea of the second coming as a metaphor for doing God's will on earth as in heaven means we have to take this text even more seriously, because it places greater importance on our responsibility to do as the text says -- to live lives of holiness and Godliness, waiting for, and hastening the coming day of God.  And while waiting, to strive to be found by God at peace.

In other words, to prepare for the coming of the Lord by living lives as if the Lord has come.

A little over a year ago, I received an article written by Martin Hellman, Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, a former Director of "Beyond War".  And in that article, Hellman argues for understanding universal peace-on-earth to be the actual second coming of Christ.  And he says that if Christianity succeeds in initiating a process of global peace, it will prove messianic theology to be true.  And the promise of scripture, such as Isaiah 2:4 -- when swords will be beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and none shall learn war any more -- that the promise will be realized.

And it's a rather stunning understanding of the second coming, especially given that Hellman is Jewish, and is actively advocating for that understanding.

Well, when I first read it, I thought this is a wild re-interpretation of the second coming.  But the more I have reflected on it this past year, the more I see it as a visionary, imaginative re-telling of the second coming that doesn't just make a lot of sense, it is desperately needed today.

With the ever increasing number of nuclear nations, now North Korea on the verge of joining the nuclear club, perhaps Iran soon to follow, the choice we face is not the choice between war and peace, but war and survival.

War today is like a game of global Russian Roulette.  With each new war that is fought, the odds go up that the next time someone pulls the trigger the chamber will be loaded with nuclear weapons.  Only be renouncing all war as an acceptable means to resolve conflicts between nations will we have any chance to survive as a human species.

Writing on the Isaiah passage, Daniel Berrigan says that the abolition of sword means an end to war.  An end to playing God.  He says:  "The prevailing crime of the powers--that human institutions would claim life and death power over the living.  The end of war-making would suggest at once the spirit of God, dwelling in the nations, and the coming of God's realm.  Isaiah has said it's so.  Swords into plowshares".

So if this idea of the second coming were widely understood to mean God's reign of peace on earth, think how attractive such an idea would be.  Instead of seeing Christians as religious nuts talking about the complete destruction of the world and all things good and beautiful in it, people would see us perhaps as utopian idealists talking about the true salvation of the world in every sense.  Physical, spiritual, emotional.  Still, nuts!  For sure!  But which group of nuts would you rather be associated with?  It's a crazy idea, I know.

In 1840, James Burney had a crazy idea.  He ran for President of the United States on the platform of ending slavery.  He received less than 1% of the vote.  Twenty-two years later, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  Crazy idea.

In 1872, Susan B. Anthony had a crazy idea that women could vote, and she did in the presidential election.  Crazy idea.  Forty eight years later, women's suffrage was written into the U.S. Constitution in the 19th amendment. 

In 1955, Rosa parks had a crazy idea.  I think it was on December 1st, she got on that bus, and said people of color don't have to sit in the back of the bus.  Crazy idea.  In 1964, nine years later, the Civil Rights Act was approved, making such discrimination illegal everywhere in the country.

By the way, have you heard that saying that is going around:  Rosa parks sat, so Martin Luther King could march, so Barack Obama could run, so the nation could fly.  Maybe, we hope.

Is this idea that we can abolish war any crazier that any of these?

And in fact, given the reality of weapons technology today, is it not crazier to think that we cannot end war?

It just may be that seeing the return of Christ in the end of war will be what it will take to make it happen.

So how can any of us participate in something so grandiose as hastening the return of Christ through world peace?

Well, let me suggest 12 things you can do for the 12 days of Christmas that celebrate the birth and re-birth of the Prince of Peace:

First, to be at peace yourself.  As the text says.  To be found by God at peace.  And to that end, I would invite you to come any morning, Monday-Saturday, to our Chapel where a spiritual direction task force has set up a wonderful meditation center to find that peace.  To make Advent all about cultivating a sense of peace.

Second, send Martin Hellman's essay to 10 of your friends.  It's posted here on our web site.  Send it to 10 of your friends, and see how they react.  And if they right back and say "This is crazy!", send them my sermon to go along with it J.

Third, participate in the Lane Interfaith Alliance season of non-violence, that extends from the anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King (corresponds closely to the assassination anniversary of Gandhi), and extends through to the anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination in April.  There will be a number of events that the Lane Interfaith Alliance offers for the season of non-violence, you'll hear more about that in the weeks and months to come.

Fourth, support and contribute to the Nobel Peace Monument here in Eugene.  An incredible, visionary idea to build a monument in Alton Baker Park (already been approved by the City), to the 22 or 23 American recipients of the Nobel peace prize.  It has been endorsed by all the mayors of Eugene for the past 20 years, that includes Jeff Miller, Jim Torrey, Ruth Bascom, and Kitty Piercy.  If you're keeping count, that's 2 Republicans, and 2 Democrats (not sure how much more balance you can get) -- peace isn't about any one political agenda, it's about all of us, and the Nobel Peace Monument is a very visionary project to help lift that up.  Not just for our community, but for our nation and our world.

Fifth, purchase an alternative Christmas gift for someone, at least 1 person.  We have those suggestions on our back table that you can see.

Sixth, join an organization that works for peace in some concrete way.  Locally, the Community Alliance of Lane County.  State-wide, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, or the Peace & Justice network (they will be starting a monthly conference call that discusses some activity that we can join in as Christians to make a difference).  Subscribe to magazines such as Sojourners, or Fellowship of Reconciliation.  Joining the Disciples Peace Fellowship.

Another great example, we don't have to look any farther than our own congregation, Kelsey Hertel, did you read Bob Welch's column on Thursday, and then again this morning?  Kelsey Hertel, a member of this church, started the "Random Acts of Kindness Club".  Mr. Welch wrote about it in his column in the Register Guard, and then got these wonderful responses that he shares in his column today, about an individual's life literally changed by a random act of kindness.  Very powerful story of what a little act like that can do.

Seven through 12?  Repeat steps 1 through 6!  You were worried that we were never going to get done with this sermon J.

You see, Advent is about preparing the way for the coming of the Lord.  And what better way is there to do that than to make peace our daily practice until it has spread across the earth?

And when that happens, we will know that the day of the Lord's coming has arrived.

May it be soon.

 


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