2 Advent B—12/7/14
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2,8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
The heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire…the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire. –2 Peter 3:10,12
A deafening roar filled the room and the entire ship shuddered…One and a half million pounds of gunpowder exploding in a massive fireball disintegrating the whole forward part of the ship… Seconds after the explosion the lights went out and it was pitch black. Almost immediately a thick acrid smoke filled the magazine locker…Behind me, a marine lay dead on the deck, his body split in two. I began to realize there were dead men all around me. Some men were burning, wandering aimlessly.
George Phraner was an Aviation Machinists Mate on the USS Arizona. What you just heard was an excerpt of his memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor, seventy-three years ago today.
I saw a bluish-white flash like a magnesium flare outside the window. Streams of stunned people were slowly shuffling from the city centre toward nearby hills. They were naked or tattered, burned, blackened and swollen. Eyes were swollen shut and some had eyeballs hanging out of their sockets. They were bleeding, ghostly figures like a slow-motion image from an old silent movie. Many held their hands above the level of their hearts to lessen the throbbing pain of their burns. Strips of skin and flesh hung like ribbons from their bones.
Setsuko Thurlow was a 13 yr-old girl when an atomic bomb was dropped on her city of Hiroshima. What you just heard was an excerpt from her memory of that experience.
The heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire…the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire.
These images of fire and total destruction in today’s reading from 2 Peter echo the experiences of ordinary people on opposite sides of any war. In so doing, these images invite us to ponder our common humanity. In spite of the cruelties and atrocities we commit against one another we hear in v.9 of our second reading the gospel assurance that God is “patient with us, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
It’s the season of Advent, a season of wakefulness, of expectation, of hope; it’s a season of waiting. Our second lesson writer speaks of “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” and waiting “for new heavens and a new earth.” That’s a vision of the future; but Mark’s gospel begins in the present tense with John the Baptist, and John the Baptist begins with repentance.
In the two accounts you just heard of death and total destruction, one by an American soldier and one by a Japanese woman, where did your heart go? Where does your sympathy lie? If your personal story intersects with one of those stories more than the other than it’s natural that your emotions, your sympathies, go in one direction more than the other. But are our personal stories the final word? Are some people better than others? In today’s reading from Isaiah the prophet proclaims, “All people are grass!” Grass is easily consumed by fire, and we so easily allow ourselves to be consumed by the fire of hatred, prejudice, anger, and resentment.
Repentance simply means a change of direction, a change of heart. Maybe the catastrophe of war seventy years ago is too far from your experience to generate a strong response. Maybe your heart is able to hold both the stories of an American soldier and a Japanese girl as equally sacred. Maybe your challenge is not a whole raft of unfinished spiritual business from seventy years ago. Maybe your need for repentance is fresher.
When you open the paper, for example, where does your heart go? To the grand jury, the police officer who is absolved, or to the family of a dead man? Our human instincts to be judge and jury are very strong, and we live in a world full of people who will gladly voice their convictions and make their views heard. In the midst of controversy, disciples of Jesus Christ will be slower to judge and more courageous in first doing their own inner work of repentance.
The same is true much closer to home, and maybe more so. If the stories from history or stories from the news don’t touch our need for repentance, how about closer to home? Where in our households, our neighborhoods, our church communities is there anger, resentment, hatred? Where in our daily lives is there indifference, hostility, or self-interest? Where do we play judge and jury closer to home, rather than doing our own inner work of turning to the one who calls each of us anew to the work of repentance?
What do you think repentance is about, anyway? Satisfying an angry God? No. Even if we don’t ask for forgiveness, even if we don’t think we need it—even if we don’t want it–it makes no difference. Your sins are forgiven. “God loves you, no matter what.”
So why turn? Why change? Why repent? If each and every one of us is forgiven for the unspeakable things and the petty things we’ve done to one another, and all the things we’ll ever do, what is the point of repentance? St. Peter’s epistle reads, “Strive to be found by God at peace.” As the psalmist writes in v.8, “For God speaks peace…to those who turn their hearts to you…Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” No, repentance is not for God’s sake; it’s for our sake. It’s for the sake of peace, not just for peace among people but deep peace in our own hearts.
This past week someone asked me, “Where is joy in the churches?” It’s an important question. It’s a wonderful question as we prepare in Advent for the coming of the Prince of Peace. Where there is repentance there can be peace, and where there is peace there is the possibility of joy. Where there is little joy, it may be because a soul—or a community–is weighed down by a need for repentance.
Dear friends in Christ, let us allow the waters of baptism daily to extinguish the fires of bitterness and resentment. Let us lay aside anger, fear, injustice and self-interest. May God’s beloved people be the advance guard of “new heavens and a new earth” that God is creating among us for all people–even now!