By Shout and By Whisper

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, December 3, 2020

The lectionary for the Second Sunday of Advent includes a remarkable passage from 2 Peter. It likens the coming of the Lord to that of a thief, then switches metaphors to the heavens exploding at the Lord’s return. Both images tell us something important about the Lord’s coming, and shape our Advent posture while we wait.

I grew up in a religious community that banned going to the movies as too “worldly.” My first venture into a theater landed me into the world of Elizabeth Taylor and “The Taming of the Shrew.” I kept that surreptitious excursion a secret, but a few years later was given a pass to go to the cinema when it briefly ran a purportedly Christian movie, “A Thief in the Night.” I remember little about it except its central message, based on the thief metaphor – Jesus is sure to come when our guard is down, and when he does, we’ll be left behind. It was meant to scare the hell out of us, quite literally.

While the biblical image of Jesus coming like a thief certainly warns us to keep on the lookout, it also highlights something else. Thieves do their work quietly, taking great pains to go unnoticed in their stealth. The Lord’s coming likewise occurs while we are utterly unaware of it, just like the righteous who had no idea that in serving the needy they were serving Jesus himself. (Matthew 25:31-40)

In Luke, Jesus told the Pharisees that God’s kingdom would come unnoticed, because, in fact, it was already present among them. (Luke 17:20-21) Likewise, the Lord’s return may be utterly hidden, just as a thief goes unseen by design. In Advent we would do well to sharpen our attention to little things that we ordinarily ignore. In so doing, we may see the coming of our Lord where nobody would imagine him appearing.

Juxtaposed to this we encounter the apocalyptic imagery of thunder, fire, and destruction as signals of the Day of the Lord. Our text from 2 Peter tells us that when Jesus comes, everything old will be destroyed to make way for “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” The world as we know it will end.

And for that we can only say, good riddance.

An end to exploitation. An end to racism. An end to sexism. An end to poverty. An end to the profiteering of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. An end to those who rule forcibly, either through word or by sword. An end to systems that support the power of the few over the welfare of the many. Jesus’ coming necessarily entails an overturning of the world as we know it, because our world is utterly ridden with corruption, greed, deceit, hypocrisy, and violence.

As those who expect the Lord’s coming to turn the world upside-down, we do well to mark Advent by considering what in our lives and institutions must be forsaken in order for the Lord’s righteousness to prevail. What are we over-emphasizing, and what are we ignoring, to our peril?

One beloved Christmas hymn marvels, “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” Yet another shouts, “He rules the world in truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness.” Both evoke essential themes of the Advent story.

Our forebears warned against the human tendency of making too much of non-essential things, while minimizing that which is essential. What are we over-emphasizing, and what are we ignoring, to our peril? We would do well to ponder these questions. Especially at Advent.

May our Lord’s peace prevail in us, among us, and through us.

Yours in Advent hope,

Sheldon

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