Sermon based on 2 Peter. This past week, I had to call customer service. I hit number 1 on the phone pad and waited. Then there was a voice. “Thank you for waiting. Your call is important to us.” I heard those words, and I knew I was on hold.
“The waiting is the hardest part,” sang Tom Petty in his hit song with the Heartbreakers in 1981. Back then when Petty wrote the lyrics to his song, it was certainly true that waiting was hard. At least that is what I remember. Imagine, for example, waiting for the doctor with no smartphone and only some outdated magazines to peruse. We would have had no contact with the world beyond the bland, antiseptic, boring room until we were mercifully called back to the examination room where we would wait some more, this time without magazines! No wonder they call us “patients.”
Today, however unlike the dark ages of 1981, we have multiple entertainment options right at our fingertips to keep us occupied while we wait. Besides our smart phones, we even have smart TV’s!
Yet, despite all our technology, waiting is still hard. We wait at airports; we wait in waiting rooms; we wait in traffic; we wait at the post office; we wait at the bank; we wait for a human when calling customer service. We wait ... and our patience runs thin.
A little planning, however, can make that wait time productive and perhaps even fun. For example, here's a list of things I thought of and have done in the past: I have struck up a conversation with a stranger and learned their story. I have pulled out a book or a note pad. I have worked through my unread emails. I have made other appointments. I have brought postcards with me as well as thank you notes to my friends and family to mail later. I have spent time culling through my phone's photo gallery to delete pictures I don't need.
Although those are just a few things I have done to help pass the hour or two I am sure you have other suggestions. But what if the wait time is going to be longer -- like, maybe, thousands of years or longer.
That's the dilemma the early church was facing after Jesus' ascension into heaven. Jesus had promised to return, and many in the church believed that return was imminent. As time passed, however, and as the persecution of Christians intensified, the waiting became the hardest part for the church. In fact, some were beginning to question whether Jesus would return at all.
That's the situation the writer of 2 Peter addresses. This letter, which is a follow-up to the first letter that bears the name of Peter the apostle, reads more like a theological instruction manual than a typical epistle and for good reason. In the first letter, the writer encourages the church, which is being pressured by external forces, while here in the second letter the author addresses the problems arising from internal sources -- namely, teachers who were skeptical about Jesus' return. This 2nd letter reminds the church that Jesus will, indeed, return as promised to bring justice to complete fruition and finally set aside the continuing complications of evil, ushering in a restored creation, and that the way they conduct themselves as they wait for his return has implications.
The author of 2nd Peter understands that the waiting is the hardest part, but what the author also reminds us is that what seems like a long, slow waiting period for Christ's return is a gift from God. The Lord is not slow or tardy but like our choices while waiting on hold, time is a gift to allow for us to as the author says to “come to repentance.”
In other words, we are not to be overly concerned as to when the doctor will call our name, because that time will come like a “thief” and on that day the deeds of all on earth will be “disclosed.” Rather, in the interim (even if it's a long interim), the author asks, “What sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness?” What can we be doing while we wait?
The short answer for the author is that those who follow Christ should begin living the joy of the future as though it has already arrived. There will be a period of waiting, but it's not to be a passive one in which we, like the disciples at the ascension, keep staring up at the sky concerned what to do or where to go to next. Instead, the author says that there are certain things we should “strive” to do in the interim.
If we were to look closely at the full message of the 2nd letter of Peter, we would discover a list of four if not more things we can do while waiting for the new Advent:
First, we are to remember the promise of the first Advent --- the first coming. The author opens the letter by reminding his readers of the faith that they received “through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” That opening line is a reminder of the powerful witness to the Incarnation, that Jesus is both God and Savior. Peter and the other disciples were eyewitnesses to the incarnation of God in Christ, remembering the voice of God during the transfiguration proclaiming, "This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” So, as we celebrate the season of “Coming” or advent, it's a chance for us to remember again that God has already come to us in the person of Christ and, in doing so, God has confirmed the truthfulness of God’s promises toward us.
Second, in this time of waiting, we can grow in the image of Christ. When Jesus returns, the author urges his readers to “be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.” Now for us in the 21st century we need to be careful with those words because what we may hear are echoes of the European Middle Ages --- roughly the period from the decline of Rome to the reformation --- that period was characterized by feelings of internal control. People felt that they were controlled by forces within themselves, like sin and disease. It was thought that the “spots and blemishes” are something inside of us we need to somehow “cure.”
Instead the author is reminding us that in fact, we are meant to live like God’s beloved, filled by grace, created in the image of God. “Corruption” then is any thought or action that falls short of God’s desire for us which because of what Christ has done in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, we can once again become “participants of the divine nature.” The author of Peter therefore urges us to make every effort to support our faith in Christ through acting out the virtues of our creation which are goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection and love. Focusing on those things will keep us from being “ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is what the author means by living lives of “holiness and godliness” -- lives that look more and more like Jesus.
Third, while waiting we are to pay attention to what it is that masters us. As we move through the Advent season, that's a great question to ponder: What is it that controls us? To what have we become a slave? As Bob Dylan once sang, “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you're goanna have to serve somebody.” Who are we serving?
Now for those of us in the 21st century who are characterized by desire for our external freedom, who believe that we can use the laws of the universe to be free from being controlled, we believe we are the masters. We can be in control. The great gardens of Europe, for example, are creations of that modern thinking. The gardens express the sense that nature itself can be manipulated and molded --- even controlled --- by human beings. A further sign of that view that we are the masters is racism, homophobia, and sexism. All are signs of control and that the universe must have laws based on skin color, or sex and that we are the masters. So, in this time of waiting, it is an opportunity to once again reconsider, the promise laid out in the first creation story in Genesis, we are not God and that God is present in all. That it is not in mastery but in trust and dependency that we grow.
Fourth, we are to use our time as we wait wisely. The author of Peter urges his readers to “regard the patience of the Lord as salvation.” In this interim period as we await God’s promise, we can for example, use the time God has given us to share our faith with others. Disciples of Jesus recognize that God has given us time to spread the word, and we need to use that time wisely. In other words, in our daily conversations we might have with people in the waiting room or on the plane are opportunities to have conversations as the Spirit leads, not with all the answers but as members together in human community. As the author says in the first letter, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you.” “Defense” in this case, does not mean ready for war, rather able to explain ourselves in love without fear and without instilling fear in others.
The waiting might be the hardest part of being a Christian, but it's also the most important part. I’m reminded of a scene in the movie “Ironweed” when a homeless woman, played by Meryl Streep, goes into a church to get warm. Looking up at one of the side altars, she said, “I don’t call it sin. I call it decisions.”
We must act in the world. We make daily decisions. We cannot escape this. Naturally, we will make mistakes. Nonetheless, while we wait on hold, we can curse the insurance company that has put us on hold. We can seek “control.” Or we can live waiting dependent on God because the good news is not about waiting in fear. Rather, God has given us tools and in the wait to bring God’s good news to the world in anticipation of a second Advent. Let's wait well for this time, our time, is a gift. Amen.