An Advent sermon on peace and waiting. This sermon was originally written for a liturgical class in Divinity school, and I preached it this morning. The text is 2 Peter 3:8-15a:
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, last year, about this time of year, I remember hearing on the radio that the average person spends about 3 years out of 70 in his or her life just waiting. Think about that: three years of waiting, out of seventy. That averages out to about sixty-two minutes a day. Does that sound about right? This includes waiting in line, waiting at a light, waiting on the bus, train, or plane, etc. And, of course, some days you spend more time waiting than others; some days it feels like the majority of your day is spent waiting – like those days when a trip to the DMV is simply unavoidable! I remember the longest single period of time I spent just waiting: It was August 2011, and I was on my way home from field school in Peru. I’d gotten to do a lot of really exciting stuff over the past six weeks, but I was quite anxious to be home – at least back in the United States. Now, the bus from the mountains to the capital city – Lima – left early in the evening and arrived early in the morning, around 4 am. My flight technically wasn’t until the next day, around 1 am. I was pretty much out of money, having just enough left for a cab to the airport, so I decided I would just go and spend the day waiting on my flight. Now, remember, I had spent six weeks in the Peruvian mountains. I hadn’t had a decent shower, familiar food, nor had I seen my lovely wife – whom I was dating at the time – in six weeks. Sitting in that airport was, quite possibly, the longest day of my life. I cannot tell you how relieved I was to hear the “Now Boarding” call over the intercom 21 hours later. I could not possibly convey the giddiness that welled up inside me, the anticipation, with the realization that, finally, I was going home.
Now, there’s a problem with this story. A real problem. I told you that I didn’t have any money left – well, that was true, but I could have easily gone to an ATM. I could have easily spent my last day in Peru touring and sightseeing. I could have spent it with the good friend I had made during my time there who had come back early on the bus with me. I could have foregone waiting all day in the airport. But I was so focused on going home, I felt that if I could just get to the airport, I would be that much closer, even if I had to sit there all day. And so I exchanged one type of waiting for another – I decided that I was going to sit there and do practically nothing, focused solely on the thing for which I was waiting, literally staring at the clock – and folks, I remember that clock quite vividly – for hours until it was time to check in for my flight, rather than living in the moment and experiencing all of the joy that Peru had to offer that day, all the while knowing that my return home was soon approaching, but not really letting it distract me from the goodness that God had given me in each moment. No, I chose to sit and wait.
Much like Peter’s audience in our text this morning. Now, we don’t really know who this audience was – Peter doesn’t specify – but it was likely a multitude of different churches. Early Christians had been told that Jesus would be coming back soon, and they kept waiting and waiting and waiting with no results, and they started getting agitated, asking – “When is Jesus coming back?” So Peter writes to them, basically saying “I don’t know! Nobody knows; I mean, it could be a thousand years. But, in accordance with the promise, we wait. We wait because we know God is coming, even if we don’t know when.” But is this waiting supposed to be the first type of waiting? Is it the sit there and watch the clock kind of waiting? Peter tells them – “while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.” And, furthermore, “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,” and as all of us know, time doesn’t move faster if you sit there and stare at it! It’s this beautiful paradox where the more you focus on an event, the longer it takes to reach that event! It’s the watched pot that never boils. But we also know that the opposite is true – time flies when you’re having fun! Things seem to come on quicker or go faster when you actually aren’t actively waiting on them. See, Peter wants his audience to experience the second type of waiting – the kind where, sure, we are expecting something important, but that expectation doesn’t detract from our ability to experience the fullness of life that God has so graciously bestowed upon us at this very moment.
In this sense, we are all always waiting for something. We are all always expecting something. Some of us know the joy of expecting a child – we have the assurance that he or she will come, though we do not know exactly when. Some of us are expecting to be reunited with family and friends over the Holiday season. During this time of Advent, we Christians are expecting the crazy, all-consuming love of God made manifest in a slimy, wrinkly, helpless little infant. And of course, we are at all times expecting – as Peter mentions – the day of the Lord – that final in-breaking of the Kindom of God, where God’s justice and peace will reign over all Creation. We could easily make expecting these things the object of our lives; we could easily live our lives constantly anticipating the next big thing. But, in doing so, we may find that in 70 years of our lives, we have only truly lived for 3.
Now, I’m not saying that we should never engage in the first kind of waiting. There are times when we kind of have to, don’t we? You might miss the bus if you leave the bus stop to go play in the park while waiting for it. You most certainly won’t get anywhere in a line if you decide to step out of it and go do something else; and if you try and cut you will definitely be the most disliked person in the line. As the author of one of the most curious books in the Bible – Ecclesiastes – states, “there is a time for everything.” And I believe there is a time for waiting. Indeed, as they say, “patience is a virtue,” and it is a virtue distinctly lacking in our society. We’re all about instant gratification in our culture – we’re just so used to getting things now; and I myself succumb to this mindset quite often. Indeed, just like Inigo Montoya – the brash Spaniard set on vengeance in the move The Princess Bride – “I hate waiting!” If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Inigo’s instructions are to kill the Dread Pirate Roberts just as soon as he reaches the top of the cliff, if he reaches the top of the cliff. Inigo is so impatient, however, that he can’t wait around to see if Roberts falls or not, so he tosses him a rope! Like Inigo, for us patience can be an incredibly hard virtue to learn. But patience can also be salvific – as Peter points out at the end of our passage today. God is willing to wait on the repentance of the entire world, says Peter, therefore we can stand to wait a little longer. So, though we may not like it, there is a time for waiting.
But there is also a time for living, for moving, for experiencing, as I hope I have already made clear. Similarly, there is a time for expecting, just as we are now expecting the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in both the incarnational – that is, Christmas – and the eschatological – that is, the day of the Lord – sense. There is a time for expecting the Kindom of God to break into our lives; there is a time for expecting justice and peace to come; there is a time to wait, in the second sense of the word, for the injustices that we see around us to be overturned, for the powerful to be brought down, for the lowly to be lifted up, for the hungry to be filled.
But – but – there is also a time for acting. There is a time for taking Peter’s words, “hasten the day of the Lord,” quite literally, and actively working with God to bring about the reign of justice and peace in God’s Kindom on Earth. There is a time for resisting injustice, for overturning powerful, oppressive societal structures, for feeding the hungry, even when the city ordinance tells you not to! We do not have to just sit there and wait. It is not God’s calling on our lives that we just sit there and wait for things to happen. We may look forward in expectation, but we do not just sit still and wait. We may expect the coming of Jesus this Christmas season, but that does not mean we simply sit in these pews from the first Sunday in Advent all the way through until Christmas, believing that everything will be taken care of just as soon as Jesus gets here! No, there is preparation involved – the Salvation Army is out in full force collecting for the needy; we are out buying gifts for fathers and mothers in prison to give to their children because they do not have the ability to go shopping themselves – Advent is an opportunity not only to look forward to Jesus’ arrival in all glory and righteousness to overturn all injustice but also to prepare for that arrival by getting things started! In the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, when he is proclaiming the coming of Jesus, John the Baptist doesn’t say “Jesus is coming, so let’s just sit here and wait for him” – no, John baptizes people while awaiting Jesus! So there aren’t two separate times for expecting justice and enacting justice – the time for expecting and the time for acting are one and the same!
So what does that mean for us, as Christians? What does it look like to both expect Christ and to act out Christ’s commands? Well, I think it looks like taking angels off of that tree and buying presents for the kids for Christmas, instead of relying on someone else to do it. I think it looks like dropping some change in the Salvation Army bucket, instead of waiting until you have enough money to make a more “significant” donation. I think it means encountering the homeless person on the street, engaging with him, buying him a meal, developing a relationship with him, instead of waiting to see whether or not he sobers up, and might be worth your time. I think it means actively confronting racism and sexism in our society, and working toward its eradication, instead of just waiting around for it to disappear. I think it means coming together to try and find a reasonable, statistically significant solution to gun violence in our country, instead of polarizing ourselves into paralysis so that all we can do is wait for the next inevitable shooting. I think it means recognizing that the world’s problems are not solely God’s responsibility – that at the very same time we expectantly await the awesome healing power of God’s grace made manifest in Jesus Christ, we are that power.
Some of you may be thinking that what I’m saying sounds a little heretical – humans can’t help build the Kindom of God here on Earth – only God can do that! And I would say absolutely, you’re right – only God can fully build the Kindom of God on Earth. But, see, there’s this tricky thing that happened about two thousand years ago. And every year about this time we look forward to not just remembering that thing, but actively experiencing it anew. It is the Incarnation – put simply, God made human. As believers we recognize that, two thousand years later, we are that incarnational representation of God on earth – we are the Body of Christ, and it is not, strictly speaking, us that accomplishes the establishment of God’s Kindom, but rather the Holy Spirit working through us. That being the case, with injustice all around us beyond ready to be overturned, and the world standing by for God’s reign of justice and peace, what are we waiting for? Amen.