Sunday, December 4, 2011

Waiting to Be Found

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. (2 Peter 3.14-15)

Not Pretty

Friday before last, I mentioned to my pastor that I’d scanned the lectionary for the first Sunday of Advent. “Not pretty,” I said, referring to Mark 13’s “Little Apocalypse.” (See The Tender Time below.) “All of this year's Advent is like that,” she sighed. “Turning the gloom and doom into something that builds hope and faith will be a challenge.” Opening Sunday’s readings, I see what she meant. The Old Testament texts—Isaiah 40 (“Comfort my people”) and Psalm 85 (“Righteousness will go before Him”)—nicely synch up with the Mark 1’s Gospel: “Prepare the way of the Lord”. But the real meat turns up in 2 Peter 3.8-15, which is full of the same kind of nightmarish imagery that made tough-going of last week’s Gospel. “The day of the Lord will come like a thief,” verse 10 says, “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.” Not pretty. Or so it seems until we set the pyrotechnics aside and consider the pertinent question rising out Peter’s sulfurous clouds.

The Context of Their Lives

Although he's discussing the day of the Lord—i.e., the end of time—in vivid detail, Peter's teaching vigilance. And one of the odder aspects of his decidedly odd approach is how casually he predicts we’ll go out with a big bang that blows the heavens and earth to smithereens. Such prospects don’t frighten him one bit. Nor is he concerned about frightening his readers. Since the Early Church spends every moment watching for Christ’s return, time can’t end soon enough for them; they eat this apocalyptic stuff up. Yet Peter’s not all that interested in feeding their Second Coming fixation. He’s providing pastoral nurture for Christian living. He deliberately sets his remarks in an end-time context because that’s the context of their lives.

It’s a mistake to hear Peter’s cataclysmic predictions and lump him and his readers with Christians who abdicate present priorities to fantasize about a future finality. Without certainty when Christ will come, Peter says time is of the essence. We must be present and accounted for now. In light of our perceived shortness of time, he poses a perceptive question: “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?” (v11-12) He reprises his day-of-the-Lord scenario, keeping before us the urgency to remain vigilant until Jesus comes. Then he gives us the answer in verses 14-15: “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.”

At Peace

Peter sets loose some really big ideas in this passage: holiness and godliness; pursuing lives uncompromised by clumsy stains and nagging imperfections; viewing our allotted time to wait for Christ’s appearance as a literal grace period, when preparing the way of the Lord opens us to the Lord’s way. The nub of Peter’s counsel surfaces when he says, “While you’re waiting, strive to be found by Him at peace.” Exaggerated expectancy for Christ to come and lift us out of our anguish is the surest route to anxieties that defeat why Christ comes—as a mortal Infant, our eternal Lord and King, or the gentle Savior Who gives rest to our souls. We want to rush Christ’s arrival to ease our suffering. Yet impatience hobbles our vigilance. We overlook the legacy of peace Jesus wills to us in John 14.27: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Waiting impatiently for Christ to establish peace on Earth robs us of peace Christ offers us now.

Advent rehearses Israel’s anticipation of the Messiah as our means to discover the two-fold nature of Christ’s coming. The road to Bethlehem is as much about waiting to be found at peace as finding the Prince of Peace. It’s learning that miracles take time, and fretting about why we must wait to hold them in our arms only unnerves us. Advent guides us to realize nothing God does ever goes as we expect, yet when we reach grace’s destination, everything we need is there. It’s a stable, not a palace. It’s the delivery of a needy Infant, not the mighty Deliverer we think we need. It’s an angel choir in the country, not an extravaganza in the city square. It’s brought to us on a humble donkey, not an intimidating steed.

The vigilance Peter encourages looks inward. It illuminates tiny beginnings and thin places, not booming climaxes and epic canvases. Bethlehem proves that. For centuries, Israel sits on edge, watching for the first sign of an awesome spectacle. When it unfolds, Jesus comes so quietly and unobtrusively they don’t believe in Him. In similar fashion, those anxiously awaiting an over-the-top Second Coming may be too underwhelmed to recognize it when it happens. If they’re right, and it's as earth-shattering as they predict, we’ll all be thrilled. But suppose it’s not what they expect. Will they be ready for that? Peter teaches us the importance of watching wisely while we wait. If we abuse the promise of Christ’s coming to percolate grandiose expectations and gratuitous excitement, we’ll not be found at peace when Christ appears.

God of tiny beginnings and thin places, turn our eyes from what we impatiently expect, so we may discover what’s waiting to happen inside us. Heal our addiction to anxiety and overkill. Come to us in Your own quiet magnificence and find us at peace. Amen.

Advent is as much about waiting to be found at peace as finding peace when Christ appears.

Postscript: “Waiting…”

Preparing the way of the Lord by opening ourselves to the Lord’s way will result in waiting to be found at peace.


Sherry Peyton said...

Such wise words. I was reading something just today about this time and the lesson, was patience! Silence! Listen! I think you have captured that just perfectly here. Blessings to you Tim as we approach His Coming!

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Light and bright, rather than gloom and doom, can be a matter of perspective. I hope your Advent is one of light and bright. Wishing you the peace of Christmas!

Tim said...

Sherry, every Advent reacquaints me with the core question in patience's lesson. It's more "What's in the wait?" than "Why must I wait?" I'm convinced much of the clatter of modern existence results from our romance with instant everything. We drive by--or is it drive through?--life, our stereos and TVs blaring and everyone shouting over one another to be heard. We have no idea what we're looking at and listening to these days, let alone what we should be seeing and hearing. That Baby's cry is fast approaching and without the patience to wait for it in silence, to watch for it in the night, we won't hear it.

Elizabeth, I completely agree. Some of the texts' edgier aspects mislead us and if we don't listen closely we'll miss the light and brightness they emit. I loved our pastor's comment this morning. These passages are part of our repertoire, she said, and it's up to us to decide how we greet them. If we seal them in seasonal wrappers and freeze them in our past, we steal their newness by not acknowledging that constant changes in us make them new. The wisdom and light they bring to our lives shines brightly. Comfort comes. Prophecy illuminates our past as well as where we are now and what's before us. Gloom gives way to glory--as it must when Christ comes.

What joy to hear from both you. And I'll borrow shamelessly from Elizabeth and echo her words. I hope your Advents are light and bright and wish you both the peace of Christmas!