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December 8 2002
2 Peter 3:8-15a
by Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to 2 Peter chapter 3 and follow along as I read verses 8-15a. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
8 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.
9 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.
10 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.
11 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,
12 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?
13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish;
15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Two years ago today, we were still counting ballots in Florida, wondering where all the votes were. A year ago, we were scrambling to stay ahead of Al Qaeda, wondering where the vice president was. The airwaves were full of jokes. Here are three that made the rounds:
Leno: "Everybody is talking about finding bin Laden. How about finding Dick Cheney? Where did he go? What, have we got caves over here now, too? Where did he go? I think his Secret Service code name is 'Waldo.'"
Jay Jaroch: "With the new threats, the Secret Service has taken Dick Cheney to an undisclosed location. Nobody knows where he is, who he's with or what he's doing. The agents call it 'Bill Clinton dreamland.'"
And Leno again: "The White House is sending Vice President Dick Cheney to the Middle East this month. You get the feeling that President Bush's opinion of Cheney has changed since the Enron thing broke? You know, a few weeks ago, all they would say about Cheney is that he was in a safe, undisclosed location. He's hidden away. As soon as Enron popped up, they sent him to the most dangerous place in the world."
Enough of the jokes. let's talk about secure and undisclosed locations. Probably the worst kept secret of the US is that provisions have been made for a hidden federal government to survive a nuclear holocaust--or any other disaster. There is a micro-Washington stuffed into tunnels, with communication links, emergency food rations, and stale air. In fact, there are several such underground command centers around the country. Throughout the Cold War our government maintained these secret places. Then, surprisingly, the Soviets went out of business. The Cold War ended. International relations shifted, then relaxed. Collectively we heaved a long sigh, plopped down exhausted, mopped our brows, looked about and said aloud, "Whew, that was close." We did not need Secure and Undisclosed Locations anymore.
Now our planet is a tense place again. Terrorist threats thrive. Once more we have opened our super-secret hideouts. These are the places where we put our powerful people, like the vice president, when they are particularly endangered, such as after the Pentagon attack. We send Dick Cheney to a "secure and undisclosed location," or S.A.U.L. for short.
S.A.U.L., of course, reminds us of Israel's first king. King Saul was jealous of David, the story goes, because David was the giant killer, the savior of Israel, defeater of enemy armies and beloved by the people. King Saul, feeling threatened, hunted David, wanting to kill him. David, understandably, preferred to live, so he spent much of his time running from Saul and hiding in S.A.U.L.s--secure and undisclosed locations.
Modern S.A.U.L.s are pretty much like the ancient ones David used, except now they're equipped with cell phones, computers, beds, hot water, fishing rods and Secret Service agents.
There is a tiny problem with our S.A.U.L.s, however, which could have enormous consequences. When the Cold War ended, their locations were publicly disclosed. Now oodles of people think they know where our S.A.U.L.s are concealed--in bunkers in and around Washington, D.C.--or at sites several hours away. Nowadays our government is hoping - probably praying - that we will forget. Fat chance, the Internet never forgets anything.
But information on SAULs is a vital matter of national security. After 9/11, Vice-President Cheney was placed in one, or two. Where? We don't know. And we don't need to know. All references on S.A.U.L.s have been systematically removed from the public sector. It's rumored Mr. Cheney's S.A.U.L. was, more often than not, a fishing stream in West Virginia or somewhere.
David probably did not fish in a brook when he hid. Neither, probably, did Vice President Cheney, rumors notwithstanding. Of necessity, both men had a hunker-in-the-bunker mentality. Stay put, stay quiet, stay hidden, stay alive. At times hunkering down is necessary, as when your king with his hostile army, or an enemy terrorist organization, is hunting you.
The early church often had a hunker-in-the-bunker mentality, too. They had reason to be afraid, to stay put, stay quiet, stay hidden. Scoffers were scoffing. Tongue cluckers were clucking. And those apocalyptic images in Peter's letter were, and are, frightening.
God's Sense of Time
The general orientation of 2 Peter is eschatological. That is to say, it deals with the end times. The world is corrupt and bound for destruction because of lust (1:4), and the writer admonishes us to escape the coming destruction through right moral conduct which brings union with God (1:4-11). Part of the corruption of which the letter warns is that of false teachers, whose pernicious and destructive teachings are denounced especially in chapter 2 (which is similar Jude 4-8). Chapter 3 returns to the admonitions of chapter 1 and warns of the judgment.
Today's passage begins with a statement about God's sense of time: "that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years." This statement, based on Psalm 90:4, is meant to refute the "scoffers" (v. 3) who point to the passage of time as evidence of the absence of the promised divine judgment. We imagine these scoffers saying, "You say that Jesus is coming back and you say that there will be a judgment day, but it has been a long time now and nothing like that has happened." But the recipients of the letter, the "beloved," are not to be misled by God's apparent slowness to judgment. In the book of Genesis, scoffers ignored the evidence of coming judgment in the form of the flood that destroyed creation in the time of Noah (Genesis 6:5-8:19). Even so, Just as the scoffers chose to ignore the evidence from the past, so also do they choose to ignore the evidence of an impending future. 2 Peter urges us not to share that error.
What appears to some as "slowness" on the part of the Lord is in fact patience, divine forbearance, that allows as many as possible "to come to repentance" prior to the final judgment (v. 9). The language of God's wanting none to perish but all to be saved echoes language found elsewhere in the New Testament, especially John 3:16 ("... so that everyone who believes in him may not perish ... ") and 1 Timothy 2:3-4 ("... God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved ..."). In Ezekiel, God says, ("I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live." 33:11).
Day Of The Lord
Nevertheless, 2 Peter assures us that there will be judgment. The day of the Lord is coming. References to the "day of the Lord" in the OT, although relatively few (the exact Hebrew phrase occurs only sixteen times), formed the core of a powerful theme in prophetic literature. The day of the Lord is the God's decisive intervention in history to punish the wicked, to deliver righteous, to exalt in glorious vindication the faithful remnant, and to establish, in the person of Jesus Christ, a worldwide reign of righteousness and peace. The prophetic books of Joel and Zephaniah are wholly devoted to announcing the Day of the Lord, although the concept and phrase occur in other prophetic works (such as Amos, Micah and Isaiah).
When the writers of the New Testament employ the term--Day of the Lord--it is invariably related to the second coming of Christ, sometimes modified into such forms as "the day of the Lord Jesus" (2 Corinthians 1:14), "the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:8), and "the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). Significantly, the phrase does not occur in the gospels, where the substitute expression "the day of judgment," used only in Matthew (10:15; 11:22; 11:24; 12:36), conveys the same set of ideas.
Ordinarily, the Day of the Lord is described in the New Testament, as coming "like a thief" (v. 10). That is to say as sudden and unexpected (see, for example, Matthew 24:43; 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 4; Revelation 3:3; 16:15; in contrast, see Matthew 25:31-46; 1 Corinthians 4:5). The purpose of the imagery of thievery appears to be twofold: to emphasize the watchfulness necessary for those who would not be caught out in improper living, and to discourage the "stupid and senseless controversies" (2 Timothy 2:23) that often emerge from speculations about the exact moment of the Lord's arrival in judgment. Unfortunately such speculations have not been discouraged. Every few years or so, still another crank pops up who can tell you that the end of time will be on a certain day or in a certain year. You would think after 2000 years we would get tired of this stuff and just admit that we do not know and cannot know when that Day will be. No one does. And if you meet someone who says they do, you can be assured that you have met someone who does not know what he or she is talking about.
But you can also be assured that the Day will come. 2 Peter says that God will make an appearance and his appearance will be a time of judgment and fiery destruction. The heavens disappear with a roar! The earth is laid bare! This is the end of time, and life, as we know it! It sounds eerily like the results of an all-out nuclear exchange. The term for such an event during the Cold War was Mutually Assured Destruction, or M.A.D, which was good name for it. It is scary stuff.
The Unseen Duke
Understandably, the ancient church wanted to hide, to lie low for a while. Probably the record for hiding out was set by an English nobleman, the fifth Duke of Portland. Born William John Cavendish Bentinck-Scott, the duke went to huge lengths to avoid people--possibly out of fear of having to repeat his name. The bachelor hid in one small part of his estate, Welbeck Abbey, passing notes to his staff through a slot in his bedroom door. If he was spotted, servants were told to pass him "as they would a tree." Meals were sent to his room on a miniature train.
Like anyone terrified of human contact, the duke hired hundreds of people to build a network of tunnels and underground rooms beneath his house, including a large library, a horse-riding school, and a ballroom big enough to hold 2,000 people--perfect for all the huge parties the reclusive duke never had. When he had to travel to London (he was a member of the House of Lords, after all), he was sealed inside his carriage and driven through a mile-long tunnel to the train station unseen. ["Man of the year: Duke Digger," Maxim, May 2002, 40.]
Peter says that is no way for a church to behave, not even in times of trouble.. He insists that when the going gets rough in uncertain times--like then, like now--rather than hiding in a S.A.U.L. somewhere, we must live holy, godly, spotless and blameless lives, and be at peace with God.
Good advice, you might say, but how? For starters, don't just sit there doing nothing. Perhaps the fiery obliteration predicted by Peter will come next week, next year or not for 500 years or 5,000 years. Who knows? So our task is not just to kick back, waiting for the end of the world as we know it. Instead, we are called to every day as if it is our last day on earth, because it might be. God's measurement of time is infinitely different from ours. Peter says the planetary cataclysm will come like a thief in the night. In other words, quietly, and when we least expect it.
Don't be lulled, pacified, placated or mollified into a S.A.U.L.-like state of mind. Peter proclaims: Don't hide yourself away. Pay attention, not to whether or when the thief is coming, but to our responsibilities as Christians.
Peter says it is all right to wait for the new world, for kingdom come. Waiting is okay; idleness is not okay. So while we are waiting, let's do something valuable and significant in our spiritual lives. For example, we need lives that are peaceful and lives that are spotless.
Peace with God (v. 14).
There is one thing I have noticed about people when they die--not all people but most people. As they come near to death's door, they begin to settle up old accounts and set straight old paths. They tie up the loose strands, they say "I love you" to special people, they ask forgiveness, and give forgiveness, then they discover, unexpectedly, that they are at peace with their Maker. To be at peace with God is to do that sort of thing on a regular basis--to forgive, to be forgiven, to love and to say "I love you." To be at peace with God means taking the time to fix the broken parts in our lives, to heal the wounds, and if not possible to heal, then to apologize and love. To be at peace with God is to be ready at any moment to go home to God. Staff in hand, cloak on, sandals tied, standing at the door! To be at peace with God is to know Christ as part of your life now, to really know him.
John McCain writes:
When I was being mistreated by the North Vietnamese, many times I found myself asking to live just one more minute rather than one more hour or one more day. And I knew I was able to hang on longer [as a prisoner of war] because of the spiritual help that I received through prayer.
[At Christmas] I was the room chaplain, not because of my excessive virtue, but because I knew all the prayers that went with a church service, since I had been in boarding school and I was Episcopalian. We asked for a Bible, and the Vietnamese said they didn't have any. Later we learned thousands of Bibles had been sent to us.
Four days before Christmas, I was told that I could copy prayers and stories from the only Bible the Vietnamese had available ... . Our service consisted of a biblical passage read by me, followed by an appropriate song by the choir. I talked about the birth of Christ, and the choir sang "Silent Night."
I looked around the room and there were tears in those men's eyes. They weren't tears of anger or fright or sorrow or bitterness or even longing for home. They were tears of joy that, for the first time in seven years for some of them, there was a celebration of Christmas together as Americans.
[John McCain, quoted by Larry King in Powerful Prayers (Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1998), 213-14.]
Those Americans had peace with God in a prisoner of war camp. We can have peace wherever we are.
And we are to be spotless. Peter is not talking about moral or sinless perfection. There is not such animal. The word "spotless" is a reference to a stain on our clothes. When we step into the world or into God's presence, our clothes should be clean. We should be careful not to suffer the embarrassment of preaching about the stain on someone else's clothes when our own garments are soiled with the stain of bad conduct, immoral behavior, shady deals, uncertain character.
In an age of uncertainty and fear, people are looking for those who are able to live without staining themselves, without puking all over themselves, without spilling moral filth on their clothes, without being the oaf with gravy in his lap.
To live holy and Godly lives is to remember every day that God is present. We are to know that God is alive in our lives, and to respond accordingly. We cannot be Christ to the world if we insist on living anonymously in a spiritual cocoon, in a secure and undisclosed location.
The world - not to speak of God -wants to know where we are. Such self-disclosure may not be safe or secure, but for the Christian, it's the only way to go. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 2/12/03