[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Every few years, there are forest fires out west not caused by the carelessness of campers or the crimes of arsonists. They happen as a result of spontaneous combustion. The fires simply erupt when the trees in forest have become brittle and lifeless.
Foresters tell us this is a good thing. The canopies of dead and dying trees prevent sunlight and rain from reaching any plants or trees trying to take root and grow beneath. Fires take those canopies away.
But often, within days of such massive natural conflagrations end, a TV camera crew will be allowed to go into forests seemingly devastated and dead and find, amid the charred remains of once enormous trees and the still-swirling smoke of the fire, signs of new life: sprigs of mighty oaks or sequoias starting to sprout all around.
Any of you who has ever endured a fire in your home know how destructive fires can be. But, it seems, fires can also be the engines by which new life supplants the dead.
Fire can bring life.
The Bible knows this truth. In fact, the Bible associates fire with God, the giver of all life.
Hebrews 12: 29, for example, finds the Christian preacher who is its author say, “Our God is a consuming fire.”
That phrase “consuming fire” carries with it the notion that our God, like forest fires, consumes or destroys that which is dead or not filled with the life that only He can give.
No wonder then, that the ancient Israelites were afraid of God. Remember when Moses returned from spending time with God on a mountaintop while he and Israelites were in wilderness? Go to Exodus 34, starting on v. 29 pew Bibles and read what it says:
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.
Moses had been in the presence of God, the consuming fire.
This is why the Old Testament prophets warned the people about what the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, calls the "day of Lord." The day of the Lord is when God will set all things right. Jesus will return. The dead in Jesus will rise. And Jesus will judge all. All that is not of God will be burned in the fires of hell for eternity. Those who have turned from sin and believed in Jesus will live with God for eternity. And Jesus will destroy the old to give rise to new heavens and a new earth in which His kingdom will be fully established for all eternity.
The day of the Lord isn't an occasion to be anticipated casually. It will be wonderful. But it won't be peaches and cream for everyone. Turn to Amos 5:18-20 in the pew Bibles to see what the Old Testament prophet Amos said about the day of the Lord back in the 8th century BC:
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? 1920
The Season of Advent is a time when we remember that just as Jesus once came into our world to reveal the glory of God, to die for our sins,and to rise again in order to give life to all Who believe in Him, He is returning when God brings an end to this world and supplants all that is evil and dead with the kingdom of God.
Look at how Peter explains the day of the Lord, the second Advent (or coming) of Jesus, in our second lesson:
...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. [After all, things can be seen clearly with fire.]
11Since 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, 12waiting 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? 13But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
Our Gospel lesson from Mark, written of events that occurred two-thousand years ago, just before Jesus began His ministry, John the Baptizer points both to Jesus’ first advent (remember adven
t means coming
) and to His advent at the end of this world’s history, when He will judge the living and the dead.
Look at last thing John says in verse 8 of Gospel lesson: “I have baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Matthew indicates that John said not only that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit, but "with the Holy Spirit and fire."
We believe that when we are baptized, the Holy Spirit comes to burn or purge us of all sin and fill us with the life of God
. That's exactly what happened on the first Pentecost, you'll remember. Jesus' first followers gathered in prayer, awaiting the risen and ascended Jesus' direction for their lives. As they prayed, the Holy Spirit came on each of them with tongues of fire!
At Christmas, we celebrate and remember the act of deep selflessness and love that caused the mighty God of the universe to lay His glory by in order to live as servant for our salvation
. But when Jesus returns, He will come in His full blazing glory
This is why the prophet Malachi, writing about 430 years before Jesus, considered the day of the Lord and asked, “Who can endure the day of his coming…?...For He is like a refiner's fire...
The bottom line of all this fire talk is simple. God is not our buddy. God is our Friend, for sure. But God is also our Master, our Lord, our Creator, our King, our Savior. And at the end of history, God intends to destroy all that is not of God, whether it resides within us as believers or in the unbelieving universe around us.
God has already come into the lives of Christians with the fire of His Holy Spirit, of course. But, the fact is that most Christians only toy with God. They like to bank the fire of God, turning Him into a pilot light they can turn up when things are going badly and they need help and then turn down whenever having God in their lives is inconvenient.
A pastor friend of mine once said that "The problem with Church is that we're afraid of the Holy Spirit." The fear he was talking about isn't the holy awe we all should have before almighty God. Rather, the fear we have of God most of the time is the fear of turning over the keys of our lives to the God we know in Jesus. We want to be in control. Our inborn human arrogance, our sin, makes us want to leave God out of our lives, to leave God standing in a corner until we're ready to call Him.
But this approach to God will never do on the day of the Lord, when all that is within us and all around us not of God will be dissolved in the fire of His holiness.
Years ago, I heard the true story of a group of engineers and their wives having dinner together. The talk turned to all the projects the engineers had been working on: bridges, buildings, towers, water treatment facilities. The whole talk seemed to be turning into an ode to their accomplishments. But then, one of the engineers, thinking of the day of the Lord, put things in perspective. "Some day," he said, "all of this will burn."
So, how can we be ready for Jesus’ second great advent? Three ways, I think.
First: We repent for sin
. We let God’s holy fire burn away all that is not pleasing to Him, all our sin.
As we've said before, repentance is not a "one and done" proposition. Just as was true of the crowds who came to be baptized by John, we prepare the way of the Lord into our lives and into the lives of those we touch by engaging daily in repentance.
In repentance, we submit to God’s holy fire putting torch to all our sin, egotism, selfishness. We say, "Thy will be done."
It's in repentant believers, long before the return of Jesus, that God begins the process of replacing the dead and sinful in us with His life. One of my favorite passages of Scripture, 2 Corinthians 5:17, says, "If anyone is in Christ Jesus, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new." We make way for the new life Christ wants to give us each day through repentance.
Second: We trust in the Lord
. That is, we believe in Jesus Christ. We trust that Christ, the fiery light of the world, will guide us from here to eternity. This is essential. The Bible teaches that we are saved not by our works, but by our faith--our belief, our trust--in, our surrender to Jesus Christ.
Our eternal destinies, whether we will be with God or the devil, depend on whether we entrust our lives to Christ. In Luke 18:7, after saying that He would make things right—bring God’s justice to those who call on Him, Jesus asks chilling question: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith?”
When we believe in Jesus Christ, our
priorities are no longer the most important thing to us. God’s priorities are. I’ve told the true story before of the experience of a woman Ann and I came to know years ago through her daughter, Valerie. When Valerie was two years old, she got away from the watchful eye of her mother, as two year olds can do, and made her way to the family pool and, without a soul in sight, then fell to the very bottom.
Now, you should know by way of background that just two years before, another daughter, just one year older than Valerie, had died from leukemia. From that moment, this woman made Valerie the center of her universe. She did everything for Valerie, at the expense of her husband and their marriage, all her friendships, her work, everything.
When Valerie was found in the pool, some time had passed and her life hung in the balance. She was taken to a hospital ER. Valerie's mother was understandably hysterical. She went to a room in the hospital and began screaming at God: "Not again! Not again! You can't do this to me again!"
Finally, she had no more words and, sobbing in silence, she heard within herself the voice of God: "You shall have no gods before me
She realized at that moment that she had made Valerie her god. All was done for Valerie. You see, if we make the things we see--whether it's a loved one, our families, our jobs, our finances, our possessions, our status--the most important things in our lives, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we have control.
What God was telling that woman was simple, "Stand aside. Let me be your God. I can take care of Valerie. I can take care you. I can take care of everything, now and for eternity."
When Jesus returns, all the worldly things we have thought so important, including our pretense of control, will die. Only that which is under the Lordship of Jesus will stand. Jesus tells us, "Even in the face of things you will not understand until you see me face to face, believe in Me."
Third: We share Good News with others
. We pass on the life-giving fire of our crucified and risen Jesus to others.
In our second lesson, Peter says that God is not slow about day of Jesus’ return, but is patient. God is waiting for not only the Church to repent and believe in Christ, but for world to repent and believe in Christ. God is giving all of us the chance to get our lives in order and get in sync with Him.
Our job—the job of every Christian—is to share that Good News with others. Jesus has given each of us the Great Commission to go and make disciples
Paul writes about that commission when he asks about those who need to know and believe in Jesus
: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”
Jesus sends us to be His witnesses to everyone we know, because everyone we know is someone Jesus wants with Him for eternity.
Repentance, belief, and witnessing for Christ. This is the lifestyle of "holiness and godliness" that Peter describes in our second lesson. These are the things we need to be about as prepare the way for Jesus' second advent.
One day, Peter says at the very end of our lesson for today, God's righteousness will be at home in all of God’s universe.
Until that day, may God’s righteousness be at home in us.
And until that day, may we live in God’s grace through lifestyles of repentance, belief, and witness. Amen