Sermon preached at Lifesign, Burke UMC 12/3/2011
Text: 2 Peter 3:8-15
Have you ever wanted to hit the reset button on life? I remember the original Nintendo had two buttons: power on the left and reset on the right. And whenever my friends would talk too much smack about beating me at a game, I could always hit the reset button so that the score would disappear and we would start over from scratch. I’ve had a similar feeling in adult life whenever my wife and I clean house together and the hopelessness of our clutter makes me want to hit reset. I say, “Honey, can we just burn the whole thing down, collect the insurance, and start over?” (She doesn’t think it’s funny.)
The day of the Lord that Peter is talking about in our text tonight is like God’s reset button for the universe. This day had been prophesied by the Israelite prophets for centuries. They longed for God to obliterate all the oppressive messiness of our world that was hurting people and “create a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness could dwell.” In our day, when people talk about the end of the world, it usually takes a different tone. I remember as a kid drawing pictures in art class of nuclear war with Russia. Then there was the Y2K craze, when everything in civilization was supposedly going to collapse because computers wouldn’t be able to handle the date January 1, 2000. Nowadays, it’s global warming or the war on terror or some kind of monster-flu.
What separates us from the early Christians who were reading Peter’s letter is that we’re afraid of the end of the world or we ridicule people who talk about it, while the early Christians desperately wanted for God to put an end to the world that they lived in and replace it with a new one. So I’ve got an uphill battle tonight as a preacher. I’ve got to make a case for why something we ridicule or fear is actually a good thing that we should long for just like the early Christians. In order to do this, I’m going to use an imperfect human analogy: the day of the Lord is God’s perfect version of what humans try to accomplish when they hit the reset button on their society through the act of revolution.
First let me give you some background. The prophecy of the day of the Lord first appears in the opening chapters of the book of Isaiah. Isaiah was an Israelite prophet during the reign of the King Uzziah when Israel was at its peak in military strength, wealth, and territorial expanse. It was a prosperous time, but because of this, Isaiah’s people put their trust in things other than God. Isaiah writes: “Their land is full of silver and gold; there is no end to their treasures. Their land is full of horses; there is no end to their chariots. Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.” The Israelites worshipped their weapons and their treasure instead of God. Their idolatry created a culture thoroughly permeated with sin, because sin happens every time we replace God with something else, like our ego, our pleasure, or our power.
Now here’s the thing about sin that’s essential to understand why the day of the Lord is necessary. Sin is never a private, victim-less crime that only concerns our relationship with God. It is not just breaking the rules; sin pollutes our social environment and ruins communities. Sometimes we sin directly against other people, but often our pride or greed or gluttony creates a climate that hurts people in ways that cannot be traced to our individual actions. When whole nations worship things other than God, corrupt systems and power dynamics develop, which cause tremendous suffering even if no one person can be blamed.
Isaiah writes that the rulers of his day were drunkards and thieves who chased after bribes and wine but refused to defend the widows and the orphans. Instead of looking after the needs of their people, they “add[ed] house to house and join[ed] field to field until there [was] no space left in the land” for anyone except them. Such a thoroughly corrupt society could not have its problems solved piecemeal; it needed for its sin to be overthrown and destroyed completely. Isaiah saw that his people needed a day of the Lord, a day when God would overthrow everything that was “proud and lofty,” a day on which “the arrogance of man would be cut down and human pride humbled” so that “the LORD alone [would be] exalted on that day, and the idols [would] completely disappear.”
God’s purpose for the day of the Lord is to destroy the world’s corruption so that His people can be set free and given a new world to live in. That’s the background for our text tonight. When Peter writes that “the heavens will disappear, the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare,” he’s describing a deep cleansing of corruption from our reality. And this is precisely what people throughout history have tried to do through starting revolutions. I know the word “revolution” has almost lost its meaning through its use in advertising, but it originally meant to overthrow a corrupt social order and replace it with a completely different one. In revolution, you don’t just change a few laws here and there; you hit the reset button and rewrite the Constitution. There are only a few times when revolution has worked, one being the American Revolution, largely because an ocean separated the colonies from the government they overthrew.
What usually happens in revolutions is that after the corrupt ruling class gets overthrown and guillotined, the revolutionaries become the new corrupt ruling class. The mistake that most revolutions make is thinking that one set of people is completely responsible for the sin of the whole society, whether it’s the nobles or the politicians or the bankers. But you can’t purge a society of its corruption simply by sending its rulers to the guillotine, because a society’s sin involves and corrupts every member of that society. God is the only one who can do revolution right because only God has the power to untangle all the messiness, to melt away all the ugliness of the world and replace it with a world of perfect beauty.
Of course, we would all be in big trouble if God went about revolution the way that humans do since we’re all tangled up in the ugliness that needs to be destroyed. Everyone would have to go to the guillotine since we’re all guilty. But thankfully God does revolution in a better way, a perfect way. God doesn’t just want to destroy evil; He wants to untangle as many of us from it as possible. To accomplish this, God’s revolution has two prongs: the first and second coming of Christ.
First, God comes to Earth, not with lightning bolts or an army of angels, but as a baby born in a manger to a poor Jewish teenage girl. And through this baby Jesus who grows into a man, God starts inviting humanity to step out of the corrupt world we’ve created into the new world of His kingdom. And then Jesus seals this invitation into new life by sending Himself to the guillotine, which in His case was a Roman cross, in order to pay the price for all of our sin. In God’s revolution, He doesn’t look for scapegoats to blame and punish for the sin that has corrupted everyone; God makes Himself the scapegoat through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and resurrection from the dead so that the power of sin could be destroyed forever.
Now I know that looking around our world today, it’s pretty hard to find evidence that the power of sin was destroyed forever 2000 years. It’s easy to get discouraged looking at our impossible world problems, the corruption of our politics, conflict in the Middle East, poverty in Africa, the fragility of the world economy. Even a few decades after Jesus died, when Peter wrote the words we read tonight, the early Christians were already worried that maybe the revolution had failed. The explanation Peter gave can be words of comfort to us today as well. Peter explains that God is taking His time to destroy the world’s corruption because God not only wants to wipe out the wickedness that hurts us so much, but He wants to do so in such a way so that no one would perish but everyone would come to repentance. God loves both the victim and the culprit in all of us.
But God is not going to wait forever because He sees how much suffering the world’s sin is causing to people whom He loves. So God’s revolution will have a second prong: Jesus will return a second time, not as a helpless baby in a manger, but as the world’s triumphant king, and He will set everything right. All the truth will be laid out plain; none of our world’s spin doctors will be able to lie any longer. God will fix everything, and the only reason He hasn’t already done so is because He still wants to rescue people who would otherwise be destroyed.
So the good news is not only that God will remove all of the ugliness that seems impossible to fix, but also that God loves people who are tangled up in this ugliness enough to wait as long as He can before hitting the reset button. In the meantime, we don’t have to wait until God ends the world’s corruption to live in the new kingdom He’s already created. We can “live holy and godly lives,” according to God’s new reality even as we look forward to the day when He consummates this reality completely. With the freedom Jesus died to give us, we can live in the world without being corrupted by its sin. And most importantly, we can be part of how God invites other people to leave sin behind and enter His kingdom.
One final thing: waiting is not the same thing is apathy. If we see our belief in God’s final triumph as an excuse not to love our neighbor and not to care for God’s creation, then we’re embracing the corruption God wants to liberate us from. When we live in the hope of God’s final victory, we’re the opposite of apathetic, because nothing holds us back from giving our lives to spreading the good news of God’s kingdom through the witness of our love. We don’t have to fix the world; God will do that. But let us make every effort in the meantime to love God with all our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves so that we may be found spotless, blameless and at peace when our King finally returns.