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Gracefully Late

December 7, 2008, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Second Sunday in Advent
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor Emeritus

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8;

How late is late? In college we had a formula for it: five minutes for an instructor, ten for an assistant, fifteen for an associate, and thirty for a full professor–even they had their limits. In graduate school, like the doctor’s office, you simply wait! After all, there can be all sorts of legitimate reasons why someone is late. In New York City, we have a stack of such reasons: traffic is a big one, weather another; couldn’t get a cab–especially handy when it is raining. The President is in town, the U.N. is convening, or a parade blocked my route. We’ve all used one of those at some time or another. And those of us found waiting nod in polite agreement when the excuse is offered, not terribly resentful because we know those reasons can not only be true, but more, one day, we too may need to use the excuse.

Being late seems to be an epidemic in New York City. Does anything start on time here besides the Metropolitan Opera? It took me some time to become accustomed to this–especially on Sunday mornings. But I take comfort in knowing this is not just an MAPC thing but a New York phenomenon. One well-known pastor in this city, now deceased, instructed his ushers not to count attendance until midway through his sermon. Imagine my astonishment that first summer in 1984, when as his guest preacher, I saw this cadre of six boutonniered men, all dressed in black suits and matching silver stripped ties, rise from their pew in the middle of my sermon and begin what I later learned was counting the congregation. At first, I thought they were trying to send me a message. When I later asked my host why they waited until then, his response was, “In this city, everyone is late–even to church. New Yorkers try to pack 75 minutes into an hour.” Twenty-some years later, and no longer a guest in this town, I’ve discovered he was right. All of us, at one time or another find ourselves late, whether because we’ve tried to pack 75 minutes into and hour–making one last phone call or answering one last e-mail–or have gotten out of the building to discover we just missed the bus, it is raining, and there are no cabs. Everyone is late at some time or another–everyone has a good excuse. So what’s Jesus’ excuse? Why is Jesus so late in returning? Has he forgotten his promise, or did his first disciples simply misunderstand? That is the question facing the church to which Second Peter was written: why is Jesus so late?

It had been at least seventy and possibly as many as ninety years since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. The church had seen its founding leadership–the twelve apostles and other leaders, who earlier in this letter they call their “ancestors”–die before Jesus had returned.1 As time rolled on, and with the eyewitnesses gone, a new generation of preachers and teachers emerged, bringing with them a new message.2 Jesus was not late; he was not coming at all. The awaited return of Christ, the ushering in of the day of God’s judgment and the coming of the new heaven and earth, so central to the gospel proclaimed by the early church–all of that was wrong. Either the apostles and prophets of the early church had misunderstood Jesus, or worse, Jesus was simply wrong about it.3 There was no coming day of judgment, no end of the world we know; just more of the same. If the gospel had any meaning at all, it was Paul’s word that Jesus has set us free from the law, so that we are free to do as we please, knowing that at our death we will be saved and join him in heaven.

If that were true; if Jesus were not coming back, if there were not to be a new heaven and earth and they were not part of a new creation, what possible sense did it make to strive to live differently than anyone else in the world, especially when it excluded them from the centers of business and social life? What sense did it make for them to hold to a whole different order of sexual ethic and morality than the society in which they lived? If there were no final judgment, what sense did it make to deny themselves all sorts of things in pursuit of something as illusive as a holy and godly life? That was the question.

For the scoffers and preachers within the church, the world had rocked on from the beginning, pretty much, if not entirely on its own, and so it ever would. Talk about a God who lay behind it, instigating it as Creator, who sustained creation, and who continued to intervene in the affairs of the world, let alone the lives of women and men, a God who had standards by which it was expected they would live, seemed absurd. The notion that there would be a “Day of the Lord,” when all the evil in the world–systemic or personal–would be judged and dissolved in purifying fire, after which a new heaven and a new earth would emerge to be the home for those who were God’s new creation, was simply a ridiculous myth. And so they preached: “Jesus is not late; he is not coming. Don’t waste your life waiting for him.” In the words of a television commercial that will surely date me, “You only go round in life once; go for the gusto–make the most of it.” Though this was life in the church at the beginning of the second century, it is not all that unlike life in much of the church of the 21st century.

This word is directed to any who live in a world that believes there is no final and ultimate accountability for our actions. In such a world, ethics and accountability–social, personal, business or political–cave in to moral laxity and pragmatic cynicism about whether there is any ultimate justice in the world.4 When that happens, truth becomes expendable; all is nothing but opinion. Sound familiar?

Our text calls them back to their sources: the word of the prophets and the commandments of Jesus that were passed on to the church through its apostles.5 Do they not remember that both Jesus and his apostles warned that in the last days there would be scoffers, and false prophets and preachers who, in order to indulge their own appetites and lusts, would say, “Where is the promise of his coming?”6 It is these who had become their teachers. And though they taught that the world would simply roll on without judgment and that the promise of the coming of the Lord is false because it has not yet happened, Second Peter says, “do not ignore this one fact, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”7

God does not tell time the same way you and I do. Remember the words of the Psalmist: “For a thousand years in [God’s] sight are like a yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.”8 God is not bound by time the way you and I are. God is beyond time. And though the period before Jesus’ return would seem long to humankind, it is not long to God. But more, the Lord is not late or even slow about his promised day. Something more profound than being late is going on here, is embedded here. What is it? God’s gracious patience. God waits because God wants none to perish in the coming judgment–Jesus is graciously late, giving time for others to repent.

Yet, do not presume on God’s patience or grace by your own delay, for though Jesus is graciously late, he is coming, and with him, the Day of the Lord. Using the idiom of their day, the last judgment is portrayed as a cosmic conflagration where all is dissolved and consumed by fire, less as a matter of destruction than of purification. The sinful structures of this world will be destroyed–“dissolved into nothingness”–as God, at the same time, brings forth a new heaven and earth, a new, good, just and trustworthy creation where righteousness is at home.9 A world where righteousness is at home: is there any place in our lives where righteousness is really at home? Think of how your life would change if righteousness could be naturally at home there. That is what is promised after the Day of the Lord.

Until that time, you and I are to pursue lives of holiness and godliness. Why? Not simply to reveal an earnest desire for such a world. To be sure, it is that, but more; in some mysterious way, our lives of holiness and godliness actually hasten the coming of the day. They do so, not because they make it happen–that is God’s province alone. They do so by demonstrating the very repentance that God is looking for–the goal and purpose of God’s patience–is taking place. Can it be that God will continue to delay Jesus’ return until a day comes when no one repents?

Now as then, you and I await that day in hope, knowing we have nothing to fear. For in our baptism, we have been made part of God’s new creation. We are now intended and destined for the new heaven and earth that will emerge from the fire of God’s judgment, however and whenever it may come. Pursuing lives of holiness and godliness simply reveals our claim on that identity, and that God’s patience is not in vain. Lives of holiness and godliness are actually preparing us to live in that new world where righteousness is at home. Who of us could live there today? There is more repentance in order.

Why is Jesus late? God only knows. What’s his excuse? He is being gracefully late, so that you and I can grow in holiness and godliness and be ready for that coming world where righteousness is at home. Regard God’s patience as salvation.

The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God!

  1. 2 Peter 3:4
  2. Scholars regard Second Peter as the work of an anonymous author writing in Peter’s name for the sake of lending authority and credibility to the book. Such practice was common in the world in which the latter portion of the New Testament was written. Dating the book cannot be done with any certainty. Dates range from the 60s, if the assumption is this was written by Peter in Rome (most unlikely), to as late as the mid-second century, the latter based primarily because of the circumstances revealed in the letter itself.
  3. The word prophecy in the New Testament generally refers to what we today call “preaching” and therefore this would be a reference to their preachers.
  4. Carl R. Holladay, Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year B, (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993), p. 11. See also Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching–Year B, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 16.
  5. 2 Peter 3:2
  6. Matthew 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; Acts 20:29-30; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 4:4-3, 1 John 4:1-3
  7. 2 Peter 3:8
  8. Psalm 90:4
  9. Marion Soards, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Advent/Christmas/Epiphany, Year B, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993), p. 34.

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