Wednesday, December 20, 2017

December 21: Advent, Day Nineteen

Today we tackle the final, and perhaps most significant, of the hopes of God’s people: to be united with God in such a way that the fullness of his blessing comes to us and all of creation. I have argued that this was God’s intention in creation in the first place and that seed of this hope was given to Abraham (and from him to Israel) by God in Genesis 12:1-3 (“you will be blessed… all nations will be blessed through you”). Today I will argue that this hope was expanded by the coming of Jesus to include the fullness of God’s blessing for all creation.

Unfortunately, much of the content of this hope has been lost by modern, western Christians. We are far more likely to believe that God plans on destroying the world and taking the faithful to a celestial heaven than we are to believe he will redeem the earth and resurrect his people. This is a problem! So today I am going to tackle three passages that interact with this hope for the redemption of creation, and argue that they are misunderstood or underused.

Romans 8:18-21
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

2 Peter 3:9-13
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10 But 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.

11 Since 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, 12 waiting 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? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Revelation 21:1-5, 22-25

 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples,and God himself will be with them;4  he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,for the first things have passed away.” 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.


#1: God is not going to blow up creation.

As Paul makes clear in Romans 8, creation is longing “to be set free from its bondage to decay.” That does not mean creation is longing to be blown up by God, but to be redeemed. Paul here is echoing Jesus, who discussed the “renewal of all things” (Matthew 19:28), and who in turn was echoing Israel’s prophets (Isaiah 25:6-10). Also, we spent the last two days talking about the promise of Jesus returning, establishing his rule, and freeing/resurrecting his people. Why would that happen if God was going to blow up the world?

#2: Apocalyptic language is tricky!
 So what do we do with verses like 2 Peter 3:10-12, with the elements “dissolving” and earth and heaven “set ablaze?” Both 2 Peter, Revelation, and other passages like this in scripture are known as “apocalyptic literature.” They all share some common traits, including the use of figural language (they also use a lot of symbolism, of heavenly messengers, visions, etc.). The point of these passages is not give a “newspaper” account (i.e. an accurate historical account) of what is coming, but rather to illustrate how dramatic and life-altering it will be. The prophets of Israel commonly used this sort of language to discuss the destruction of Israel and the exile (see Amos 8:9, Daniel 8:10, Zephaniah 1:18, for example). And we see within the passages themselves why they cannot be read literally. How could a world which is “dissolved” then have “everything done on it” be “disclosed” (1 Peter 3:10)? If it’s dissolved, then it’s all gone. The point is that God’s judgment is coming to earth and that evil will be destroyed (Rev. 21:1, the old earth “passing away”)… a new age is coming, and creation is renewed by it.

#3: All of creation will be brought into union with God.
This is the final hope; this is what Revelation 21 is all about. God’s ultimate promise is to bring heaven to earth (note how the new Jerusalem comes from heaven to earth, not the other way around!) and to dwell in union with his people (personally and corporately). This is the dream of God’s people. We are not told to dream of escaping from creation or of the destruction of everything material in favor of an immaterial heaven. We are told that God will finish the work he began in creation by coming to it with the fullness of his blessing. It means an end to suffering, loneliness, death, disease, hate, violence and all other evils. And it means that every person in the new world would walk in perfect alignment with God in a bond of love and joy and peace, and serve as his loving and just stewards of his creation.

God’s renewal of humanity and creation is the hope that Jesus came to preach and fight for and establish through his life, death and resurrection. He expanded the hopes of Israel, taking their hopes for an Israel redeemed to hopes for a world redeemed. And that hope-expanding mission began in earnest on the first Christmas. On that day the hope of creation was just a vulnerable child who shared in the sufferings of all of God’s creatures. Yet that same hope persevered and drove him to the cross, to the tomb, and into the resurrection itself. If we are to be his people then let us hold to this same hope. Though we experience times still that seem as dark as that first Christmas, full of “Herods,” full of poverty, alienation, suffering and grief, we are called to trust in what is to come. Our hope is not just surviving the day (though that’s important too!) or having a good holiday season, or having our material wants met, but in God’s ultimate renewal of creation.

Now, that of course raises big questions, like, “How does one live into that hope? How should that hope shape us?” But we’ll leave those for tomorrow! For today, let’s just take that hope to heart and name it as what we’re putting our faith in this Advent season. 

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