Scripture reading for today:
We Need a Little Fire
It’s always the fire, isn’t it? As a young lad, I would spend an hour every week stuck in a church pew without a kids program or snack bag to comfort me. Perhaps it was here that I first heard
this 2 Peter 3 text read, assigned in generations past to our lectionary, now stewarded by some sweet old German Lutheran, who would putter up to the pulpit and proclaim the opening line of the text: “Since everything will be burned up in this way…”
That’ll sear its way into your memory.
Everything. Burned up. To a crisp. Yikes.
To a nine-year-old this vision is equal parts terrifying and awesome: The idea of my friends and family being on fire filled me with horror, while the pyromaniac in me relished the idea of the school being torched. My imagination shaped itself around this image of fire, forming some lazy theological conclusions: Someday the fire would burst out of the earth and engulf every place I’ve ever been (and a decent portion of the people I’d ever loved). Since satan was typically depicted on fire, it seemed safe to assume that he would get the earth. All l I could hope for would be a last-minute escape, off to pearly gates and fluffy clouds and Philadelphia Cream Cheese.
The biggest challenge to this poor theology lay in the other texts the Lutheran’s would read: “For God so loved the world,” and “Through him to reconcile all things to himself,” and “He will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” How could the God who revealed himself to be the Prince of Peace, who died on the cross and was born in a humble manger, let the devil torch the whole earth?
How could a God who was so clearly bound to his creation, so wildly in love with his children, abandon most of it to the fire?
These two ideas, God torching the world and God loving the world, lived in tension for years. It wasn’t until I re-read the text in adulthood that I realized how little of it I had actually taken in.
This is the last letter the Apostle Peter will write before he is executed by the emperor Nero, which is why he’s writing like a man who has nothing left to lose. He confronts a number of influential “leaders” in the church who have begun to teach that Christ won’t actually appear again, therefore there is no future resurrection or judgement of the living and the dead.
Which is really convenient, because they’ve become monsters.
Their greedy hearts have led them to exploit the Christians who look up to them. Not only that, but they’ve seduced the most vulnerable and unstable people in the congregation, manipulating and abusing their power in order to feed their own endless appetite (2 Peter 2:13-14).
In a #metoo world, this sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it?
These so-called “leaders” have grown arrogant and haughty. They think that they can do whatever they want to whoever they want. They mock God, mock the poor, mock the vulnerable, and teach that they are above judgment. When I read about these ancient boasters and their modern contemporaries (the priest sexually abusing children under the guise of mentorship, the faith healer asking widows to empty their wallets to seed a miracle, the countless men who have abused the most vulnerable in order to get more despite already having more than enough) – well I don’t know about you but I think we could use a little fire.
To torch the wickedness. To reveal their shameful nakedness.
To burn all this sh*t up.
Which is, of course, exactly the point Peter is making. The original scrolls have a few variants when it comes to the language of fire, but the best seem to suggest that this fire is not designed to “destroy” the physical creation, but rather to “expose it” or “lay it bear.” To reveal what has actually been going on. To burn up the spin and expose the truth. To destroy all the mansions and profit (which burn so quickly), and to purify all the precious jewels and foundational stones which are never threatened by fire (you can read more about this imagery in 1 Corinthians 3:13).
Which means, yes, we need some fire.
Our hope as Christ-followers is a restored and renewed creation. The word “new” in verse 13 could be properly understood as “renewed” — less like a shiny new iPhone that makes the old obsolete, and more like your parents’ old washing machine, which was always built to last, but needs a good fix if it’s going to really get the job done. Peter wants them to dream of this world as a place where justice could make its home. (NT Wright, among other scholars, thinks that the word “righteousness” in verse 13 could be equally translated “justice” – but I’ll let you google that if you’re interested)1
What does this mean for us, as we walk through Advent in the midst of a broken world?
Don’t let it discourage you. Don’t lose hope or forget for one moment that history is heading somewhere. Yes, the wicked prosper, opportunist investors will displace the poor and the real estate market will bubble. Yes, the creation will groan when she is ripped open for her resources, drained of her freshwater and sold off to the highest bidder. Yes, the community without clean water and the sexually abused and the opioid-addicted will cry out…and God will hear their cry.
But until that day we remember that it’s coming, and encourage it in our Spirit-empowered actions. We listen to the cry. We pray for peace. We steward the creation. We comfort the afflicted. We keep the faith.
And we watch for the fire.
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