St. Paul’s – Advent 2 – 12/6/2020
‘I know you’re in a hurry.’ I wonder if you’ve ever said that, asking for a person’s attention, when it’s clear they’re rushing to something else. And you could simply say, ‘Don’t worry, we can talk about it later, I’ll send you an email, it’s not urgent,’ and permanently or temporarily fade into the background of their life. But sometimes you don’t, something urges you to press on despite their haste, to delay their urgency, with a question only they can answer or a fact that you really need them to know. Maybe what you’re really saying is, ‘I need to know that I’m more important than this thing you’re rushing to.’
That’s the spirit of Advent: a pause to reflect on what the rush is, what it is that’s hastening on, and how to relate to it. The Second Letter of Peter, from which we’ve just read, is all about these questions. It’s full of florid and graphic language about the fire of judgement, but its questions are as important today as when they were written. These are the questions: What is heaven? Why doesn’t it come straightaway? And, How should we act in the meantime? You could call those the Advent questions. I want to spend a moment pondering them together.
What is heaven? Second Peter calls heaven a home for righteousness. The popular notion of heaven is of a secluded other place, an ethereal realm that gathers souls to itself, a disembodied paradise that shares no correspondences with earthly existence: in short, a place we go to but where we don’t do a whole lot.
The New Testament for the most part portrays heaven rather differently. It sees heaven as creation renewed. The universe was created for God to dwell with humankind, and heaven is that full, uninhibited, uncomplicated dwelling of God with humankind amid a renewed creation, and the installing of reconciled human relationships in a restored pattern of created well-being. To put it succinctly: we don’t go to heaven – heaven comes to earth. There’s no rapture. Creation isn’t ultimately jettisoned as a useful but dispensable prototype. Heaven is the fulfilment of all God’s intentions for creation.
And the way heaven comes about is that it’s constructed backwards. Heaven isn’t all brand new and shiny, like a whole new creation from scratch. The kingdom of God is made up of two ingredients: God’s original intention for our flourishing; and God’s painstaking reintegration of the rejected, neglected and ignored elements back into the story. In other words heaven is the vindication of all the good that’s been lost and trodden down, and the transformation of all the bad that’s distorted its created purpose. In short, heaven is a mixture of God’s design and the redemption of all that went astray. If we want to imagine heaven, we don’t need to picture clouds and harps and wings: we must simply envision what it would be like if all in history that has been wasted, ruined, lost or excluded were brought back into the story and allowed to flourish. Jesus’ ministry embodied and inaugurated the kingdom of God because it did both of these things: it depicted and modeled heavenly relationships and it reintegrated those who were rejected and lost.
So that’s what heaven is: the renewal of creation brought about by the reincorporation of the wasted and the cast aside. And that’s why Jesus’ resurrection is the epitome of heaven: because his crucifixion was the most horrendous waste of God’s most sublime purpose, and the resurrection shows how even that can be reintegrated into the story. The resurrection is the perfect heavenly moment.
So, onto the second Advent question: why doesn’t heaven just come straightaway? It’s a question that becomes more than a theoretical question in the face of horrendous human experiences like the Syrian civil war or indescribable crimes and suffering like the Holocaust and the pandemic we are in the midst of. Why does God let the agony continue if heaven is available?
I believe the reason is that when time comes to a stop there’s something lost as well as something gained. The something that’s lost is all the good that there’s been in the world in the 2000 years since the ascension of Christ. We’ve noted that heaven works retrospectively: it restores all that’s been lost and vindicates all that’s been trodden down. But heaven also highly exalts all that’s been faithful and cherishes everything that’s been genuinely hopeful. In simple terms heaven doesn’t create new life: it restores the life that’s already been created, healing the wounds and mending the flaws.
Pause for a moment and dwell on what would be lost if there were no new life: not just the joy and fulfilment and wonder of bringing new creatures into being, but the renewal and replenishment and enrichment of existence. There’s no question that the prospects for retrieval of what’s been lost in the neglect, rejection and oppression of so much of humankind and the wider creation is beyond enumeration; but if heaven is truly everlasting, a point will surely come when the joy of restoration will seem insufficient without the dynamism of new beginnings. That’s what’s lost in moving from creation to new creation.
It’s also true to say that while profound suffering, pain, distress and evil undoubtedly display the worst in human nature in particular and creation in general, they can also elicit the best in human character and created virtue. I’m not suggesting God creates or permits evil in order to construct a vale of soul-making. I’m pointing out that, if God hastened forward the last day and the infusion of heaven on earth, these outstanding moments and qualities in human courage and selflessness would never surface. Some of the best, perhaps the very best dimensions of human nature come to light in the face of adversity. Abolish adversity, and they would never come to light. Just as in the body pain can be distressing but it usually serves a purpose to draw attention to something that needs urgently to be addressed, so adversity in life becomes the opportunity that brings to the fore gifts, talents and merits that would otherwise have no outlet.
So that’s the answer to our second Advent question. We don’t get heaven straightaway because there’s a real joy in making new things and because even the worst adversity can yet have some silver linings. But what about the third question: How should we act, given that the end of all things has been promised, and could come any time, but has not yet come?
Well here’s the interesting point. When we talk about the continued creation of the good and the new, and the paradox that adversity can elicit qualities that benign existence suppresses, we’re more or less looking at a definition of church. The church is a community where the Holy Spirit continues to bring forth new life, and empowers people to face adversity with dignity, solidarity and hope. Think for a moment about how the story of the church ends. I think there’s two contrasting reasons the church’s story might one day have run its course. In the first scenario, the whole earth has turned to the God of Jesus Christ in faith and hope and love. There’s nothing left for the church to do. In the alternative and diametrically opposite scenario, there remains not one single believer, no not one. There’s not a single Christian left in the world.
In the first scenario, the church would have fulfilled its destiny both in breadth and in depth, in evangelism and discipleship, in witness and holiness, and arrived, like Pilgrim in John Bunyan’s story, at the celestial gates. It would be a celebration of the fruitfulness of the gospel in the soil of the human soul. In the second, rather more gloomy, outcome, the outstretched fingers of God would have become utterly loose from the receiving hand of humankind, and there’d be no golden thread, no inner meaning of history, no willing vehicle for God’s grace amid a turbulent and fervid world, and there’d be no further reason to postpone the full disclosure and completion of God’s original purpose. We seem about equidistant from either scenario right now.
And into this fascinating historical situation comes this intriguing phrase of Second Peter. It talks about waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God. On the face of it the phrase sounds absurd. How can you wait for something you’re at the same time hastening? It sounds like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. But you only need to think for a few moments about the crises of your life to see how helpful and accurate the phrase is. You’re sitting in intensive care by the side of your loved one, and you want the doctors to be frantic and busy, but you know deep down that only time will heal. You’ve just had a terrible relationship breakup, and you desperately want to do something to take the pain away and make it better, but again deep inside you know that only time will help you come to terms with it. You see a reports of this horrendous Hurricane season, and you want agencies to rush aid to the situation, but you know it’s going to take years for the country seriously to recover.
The hastening that waits. I wonder if that’s a description of your life. I wonder if that’s an apt definition of love. I wonder if that’s a suitable self-understanding for the church – perhaps especially, this church. It’s what we’re doing together right now: pausing to wait on God in the midst of all our urgency. It’s certainly a phrase that sums up the season of Advent: the hastening that waits.
Second Peter goes on to offer us another interesting injunction: while you’re waiting for new heavens and a new earth, strive to be found by him at peace. Again it sounds like an oxymoron: if you’re striving, how can you at the same time be at peace? But maybe striving to be at peace is the same as the hastening that waits: it’s a perfect summary of our lives before God, in all its paradox and purpose. If it was just striving, there’d be no faith and you’d be impossible to live with; if it was complete peace, you’d be in heaven already and no earthly use.
I want to take you back to where we started, with one person saying to another, I know you’re in a hurry. I know you’re hastening, but I’d like you to wait. I’d like you to imagine the two conversation partners as you and God. We’ve spent a few moments reflecting on how much we want God to bring heaven, but also on some very good reasons why heaven hasn’t come just yet. Advent is a time for the hastening that waits. But ponder this: who’s talking to whom? Is God the one that’s hastening, while you say, Wait a moment, can you? I’ve got some questions, some requests, and some things to tell you. Or is it the other way round: you’re the one hastening, and God taps you on the arm and says, ‘Could I have a moment? In the midst of all your striving, can you and I find some peace?’
Maybe what you’re both saying is, ‘I need to know that I’m more important than this thing you’re rushing to.’
I close with a prayer by Henry Nouwen who wrote the prayer as part of the response to the Rembrandt painting and the book we are currently discussing….the Return of the Prodigal Son…. Let us pray:
I will remain,
restless, tense and dissatisfied
until I can be totally at peace in your house.
There is no certainty that my life
will be any easier in the years ahead,
or that my heart will be any calmer.
But there is the certainty that you are waiting for me
and will welcome me home when I have persevered
in my long journey to your house.