ADVENT: DAY 2
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"This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you; in them I am trying to arouse your sincere intention by reminding you that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken through your apostles. First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless. 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. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen."--2 Peter 3:1-18
I have regularly avoided delving into the Petrine letters, early in life because they were simply never addressed in church and more recently because in my theological training I have fostered an aversion to fire and brimstone. “The present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire.” “The elements will be dissolved with fire.” “The heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire.” This passage is chock full of exactly that—fire and brimstone. I have consistently had great difficulty reconciling my image of God with an image of God-initiated fiery death and destruction for all of Creation. Over the past three months, though, I have been finding that I have given woefully short shrift to the eschatological tradition in the latter books of Scripture. I have been blind to the context, the relevance, and even the hope and liberation of this tradition. On this second day of Advent I am coming to terms with the fact that I must engage it.
Ever since coming to Zambia, I have been immersed in a veritable deluge of day-to-day eschatology. Moon phases, President Obama, national prayers, Pope Francis, animagus snake- becoming prophets, Beyonce, wars in the Holy Land, the Freemasons, international cooperation, Nicki Minaj, public massacres around the world, witches, climate change, and T. B. Joshua—all have been brought up in discussions as harbingers of or participants in the end of the world and the end of history. I usually find myself shaking my head in a bemused manner and refuting the arguments, enforcing the tyranny of rationalism. “This is not my first rodeo with end times ministries,” I say to myself, “I’ve been through this in the U.S as well.” I know how to respond in a way that preserves my fortress of denial.
To be clear, I do not believe that we are in the midst of the end times unless we take a geological perspective and see all of human history as part of the end times. I fully believe that Jesus will come like a thief in the night and that we do not and cannot know when the end times will be. I think this belief is Scripturally sound, and it makes the most sense to me in the depths of my being.
The problem, though, is that after I rationalize I say that it does not matter anyways; we should always be living lives that would fit the command, “Strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.”
Although this is a right contention, I stop there and treat it as the end of the discussion. In essence, I declare the latter Scriptural tradition of eschatology meaningless.
I am a scoffer, saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!”
I am learning, though. I am learning to embrace ways of knowing outside of that tyranny of rationalism which has dominated my mind- and heart-scape for most of my life. I am learning from the wisdom of those around me. I am learning from my own experience and growth. I am learning that there is a well of meaning beneath the surface of fire and brimstone.
This past month especially has been a difficult one for me and indeed for the world. Ongoing entrenchment of State-sponsored violence in Syria, Iraq, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Palestine, and the lands occupied by ISIL has led to gut-wrenching loss of life. So-called “developed” countries are creating and enforcing laws of hate to dehumanize and keep out refugees fleeing State violence. Iraq, Lebanon, France, and Nigeria have all suffered public massacres in the name of fundamentalism. Here in Zambia people are becoming more and more desperate because of consistently low values for the local currency and consistently rising prices of staple foods. What has hit me the hardest is the recent release of video showing the gruesome execution of a 17-year-old black male by a white male police officer in Chicago, my beloved city. For powers and principalities, the value of life seems to me to be at an all time low.
Again, though, I am learning. For, this seeming rock-bottom is simply a perception born from the fact that I am grasping the depths of systematic oppression and persecution for the first time. I use “grasping” because as a white male I am not truly experiencing. I have always marveled at the persistence of eschatological communities and teachings throughout all of history that say the world is on the verge of destruction. It is finally dawning on me that such has been and continues to be the case because those depths of oppression and persecution I am grasping have also been persistent throughout all of history. Life is precarious to begin with, and then those with institutional power in society systematically rob life from whole communities based on contrived but lived categories of identity. For those communities that have historical trauma persisting into the present, every day certainly has the pressing possibility of being the end. Such is reality for Black and First Nation peoples in the United States, for Palestinians in the Holy Land, for Syrian civilians, for Muslims in the West, for many Africans in their colonized homelands. Such was reality for the writer of 2 Peter, who was living under the notoriously brutal reign of the Roman emperor Domitian.
The fiery eschaton can bring great hope in such situations. To begin with, in most renderings it entails ultimate justice for the righteous and unrighteous. How profoundly encouraging such a promise sounds in today’s landscape of injustice for the oppressed and impunity for the powerful! Secondly, the scenario makes it explicit that God is actively making a stand for God’s people. For those who have been forced at all times to ask, “Where is God in this?” the belief that God will decisively act is strong solace. Finally, the fiery destruction is coupled with new heavens and a new earth. I am reminded of the exquisite image of Shiva dancing the world into fiery destruction and then to resurrection and new creation.
The fullness of Creation has been willfully denied to so many by so few for so long! As such, only the possibility of a New Creation brings hope. Yes, Paul tells us that anyone who is in Christ..new creation. This is true at the individual level. What people are longing for, though, is a new beginning for the entire ordered universe. They are longing for a Creation in which they do experience it to the fullest, in which powers and principalities of structural evil do not deny life. The eschatological visions are very real manifestations of this longing, and I know now that though they should be viewed critically they should not be taken lightly.
The Israelites longed with this same hope for the messianic eschaton. In God’s unexpected and wonderful way, God entered history and started a new Kin-dom, indeed reordered the entire universe. We had a glimpse of a reality in which the mighty were brought down from the thrones and the lowly lifted up. We had a time in which God Almighty, the Ancient of Days, intentionally chose to serve all who were considered outcast and even untouchable by the dominant society. We had living, breathing love walking with us and showing us the way. Then we almost immediately lost that way. We slipped back into our pattern of having relationships based on power, that original sin decried by God as God warned the Israelites against wanting a nationalist human kingdom.
Yet, that Kin-dom has not ended; it has persisted in spite of our slippage. The Holy Spirit has thrived in those very same communities that Jesus chose. The Holy Spirit is clearly moving in the communities that have been oppressed, dispossessed, and violated. Perhaps this is the secret of the eschaton, that Creation is always being made anew in ways that we cannot perceive. Or, perhaps a chosen generation is about to bring the Kin-dom to full form. Or, perhaps we are indeed on the verge of a single event that will be the end of history as we know it. We do not know. We cannot know. We must hope and believe, though, that there can and will be an end to impunity for systemic evil and a flourishing of righteous justice. The passage bears the difficult- to-grasp phrase: “Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” Maybe the Lord is patiently waiting on us to work out the salvation of Creation that was begun when the Word became flesh. We must be laborers in bringing about this reality. This Advent, at this specific time in history, we should ask, “What is God waiting for that we have not yet brought to fruition?” I think the answer is that we must finally choose to live according to the Kin-dom, for in that is salvation. Then something truly unexpected and wonderful will happen. May it be so!