by Rev. Dr. George Mason, Second Baptist Church, Lubbock, Texas
2nd Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2023 | Isaiah 40:1-5; 2 Peter 3:8-15a
It’s an occupational hazard, I suppose. Whenever bad things happen—9/11 terrorist attacks, COVID-19, Hamas’s savage massacre of Israeli citizens and Israel’s bloody retaliation in Gaza, someone will ask me if I think we are living in the End Times. Usually not just one someone. All the signs are there, they say. It just feels like the end of the world. You’re the preacher, George, what do you think?
To be honest, I don’t think they want to know what I think so much as have their feelings confirmed: fear of coming judgment on the world; hope that they themselves will escape it by their faith.
On this Second Sunday of Advent that is both Peace Sunday and Bethlehem Sunday, we feel both things, don’t we? Hopes and fears. In his carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Phillips Brooks gave us that memorable line: … the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. I’ll bet every one of you can tell us about both hopes and fears you harbor right now. Maybe they are personal, maybe global, maybe congregational. But what’s going to win out, the hopes or the fears?
The writer of 2 Peter felt them both in his day, probably after the turn of the 1st Century and under persecution from the Roman Empire. And in times before then and since, the world has indeed felt dark and worrisome.
A hundred years ago, the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, penned a poem titled The Second Coming, borrowing and twisting Christian themes. Scholars have analyzed it to death, without much consensus, but the first part isn’t hard to figure:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while
Are full of passionate intensity.
You can almost feel things falling apart in his language, can’t you? Yeats expresses the fear that what we call civilization is threatened on all sides. The falcon is on its own in the skies, untethered from its disciplining master. The rules of society aren’t holding us together anymore. Morality is failing. Religious ceremonies of innocence like baptism and confirmation have lost their force in the face of the violence that tears us apart.
Some of that violence is literal and some relational. We have wars in Ukraine and Gaza. We also have a national election 11 months away, and whether you lean right or left hardly matters in the face of democracy itself being on the ballot. If you can even get a ballot, what with voter suppression becoming more real with every election.
Trust in leaders is hard to find everywhere. We used to think our country was the exception. We used to think our churches were the exception. No longer.
Yeats was writing during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919. Ireland’s bloody conflict with England was fresh in his nostrils, and the West was still reeling from the Great War in Europe that took so many lives. He believed Christianity had failed. The values of justice and mercy could no longer stem the tide of bad actors who were gaining control over the future.
Sound familiar? Many today feel the same. In fairness, I have heard this jeremiad from people on the Right and Left both.
The Right bemoans that the stable world they knew where America was Christian and noble and, well, right, is being torn apart by people who don’t have the values that made our faith and our country great. They think every religion gets a pass except Christianity. They believe public schools have become secular and undermine their faith by teaching tolerance toward gay and transgender youth. People seeking equality and justice in the streets and in Congress are really trying to impose immorality on everyone in the name of freedom. So, they look for a strong leader to stand
up for them and rescue the world as they have known it before it’s too late.
The Left cries for freedom and a new order after centuries in which some people have been oppressed by those who have held the reins of power and privilege from generation to generation. They want to smash systems that have kept women, people of color, immigrants and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in our society. They often find fault with Christianity for propping up these systems and not proclaiming a gospel of liberating power that brings justice and equality for all. They see those who have profited by these ways of organizing society as the biggest threat to the common good. They aren’t looking for a strongman to take us back, they are looking for a revolution that would move us forward to make the promises of democracy real at last.
In other words, people across the cultural and political spectrum all feel the hopes and fears of our time. So, where is God in all of this and what is God calling us to do?
The writer of 2 Peter uses language similar to Yates in saying that things are falling apart and that the world as we know it will be judged. Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and the Hellenist Stoics of his own time, he talks in cosmic terms about the dissolution of the heavens and the earth, the burning fire of judgment that will bring an end to things as we have known them. But what does he mean by this sci-fi sounding imagery?
Apocalyptic language was commonly used to speak about coming moral judgment in which the righteous would endure and inherit a new heaven and new earth. It was their version of end-of-the-world horror movies that are so popular now. While some take all this literally—and God knows, climate change makes me wonder if we shouldn’t, we should ask what the spiritual meaning is inside it. The message is this: God is coming to fulfill God’s promises of enduring shalom. The world set to rights. Justice and peace. Justice first, then peace. Always justice first.
The Rev. William Barber is an African-American minister who leads the Poor People’s
Campaign in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. He believes God is at work to bring a moral revolution to the world, but the means by which that comes is by a knife that cuts. Figuratively, that is. There has to be division for healing, he says, citing Jesus when he talked about how being his follower will cause division between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law. Sounds like many a family Thanksgiving table, don’t you know?! How did yours go this year?
Peace will not come by patting each other on the back and being nice in the face of evil. It won’t come from being less passionate about important things and just trying to get along as moderates. There’s no [part of] scripture, Barber says, that ever speaks to a peace that is with the absence of justice. Even in the Hebrew language, shalom is “peace.” But shalom is not just the absence of tension; it’s the presence of justice. And … Jesus never discussed some way of people being okay spiritually but still broken physically.
2 Peter counsels us to holy living and patient waiting upon the Lord’s coming. That doesn’t mean we retreat and wait for Jesus to show up and deliver us in the Second Coming. It means we actively wait by being living witnesses to the new creation God is bringing. Holy living requires patience and self-discipline.
Some of us become impatient and undisciplined with tragic results. One of the saddest stories I heard during COVID was a Michigan couple in their 70s who died together in a hospital room within one minute of each other. She had been a nurse, and they had been vigilant about staying home and wearing masks, doing all the right things during the pandemic. But they got tired of waiting and went out to a restaurant where people weren’t wearing masks. They both contracted the coronavirus and died side by side in the very hospital where she worked. Their children buried them side by side, prematurely.
The lesson is not just about COVID precautions. It’s a spiritual parable for Christians to hold on to their faith and not to give up in the face of a world that is falling apart. We must stay vigilant. Holiness and patience combine to overcome fear with hope.
Yates looked at the world a century ago and said Surely some revelation is at hand;/ Surely the Second Coming is at hand. But his hope was in some rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ [who] Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? He used the imagery of the Savior being born in Bethlehem, but in this second coming he saw a different creature altogether who would emerge to deliver the world on terms other than what Jesus preached and promised.
The phrase slouching toward Bethlehem is apt, nonetheless. It suggests a slowness and plodding rather than a swift and violent coming. And 2 Peter says something like that too. 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.
Today we light the Bethlehem Candle of Peace. We believe the Prince of Peace was born in Bethlehem and the promise of peace still radiates from that little town. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight, we sing.
I was in Bethlehem at the beginning of October. I attended a conference on the plight of the Palestinians who have been living under Israeli occupation for 56 years. Little did I know that two days after the conference, while I was in Jerusalem awaiting a group to arrive from Dallas for a nine-day tour on peacemaking, Hamas would strike with such brutal inhumanity that the world would lose its collective breath. Hamas got tired of waiting and opted for savagery of historic depths.
Christians have cancelled Christmas in the Holy Land this year. They will observe it religiously in their homes and churches, but not in public celebrations out of deference to those who are dying in Gaza.
My friend, Pastor Mitri Raheb, is a Palestinian Christian and theologian who likes to say that Jesus was born across the street from where he lives. Twenty-six years ago, Dr. Raheb started the first and only university of arts and culture in Palestine. He knew that the occupation wouldn’t last forever. None ever has in the history of the world. But he also knew that taking up arms wasn’t an option for Christians who claim the child of Bethlehem as their savior. Dar al-Kalima University brings together Palestinian Muslim and Christian young people, teaching them creative ways to reimagine the world beyond the politics of domination and exploitation that God is bringing judgment upon and that will dissolve at long last. What will endure are people who know how to live together in peace and care for one another with respect.
“Hope is what we do,” Mitri says over and over.
It’s slow work—slouching toward Bethlehem, you might say. But it’s where and how hope overcomes fear, whether in Bethlehem this very day or in Lubbock, Texas this very hour.