What's with all this "fire and brimstone" stuff every Advent? The world is preparing for Christmas. Families are hanging lights on houses and decking the halls, putting up treas and lighting the hearth. So what's with all of this "fire and brimstone" stuff? Is the Church really rejecting this time when people want joy, hope, and peace on Earth, goodwill to all people?
Here's some readings from Advent:
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.
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, 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? - 2 Peter
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil--
to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! -Isaiah 64
Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. - Mark 13
So much for joy to the world, the Lord has come, right? Not so fast. Let's hone in on 2 Peter.
I selectively edited the text for this Sunday from 2 Peter. This is actually one of my favorite texts in the New Testament, and its about promise, hope, and endurance. Here's the whole reading:
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 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. 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. 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, 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? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
Yes, there is an element to Advent about the Lord Jesus returning to judge the living and the dead. But what I think Advent is more about is the work that Jesus is doing in us now to prepare us for his coming. That is why we say Advent is about Jesus coming to us in different ways, as in the nativity on Christmas morning, in our hearts, in the faces of our neighbor, and as our judge. But Paul in Romans makes it clear that the verdict of the final judgement is known now. That verdict is pardon and grace.
God's judgment is about justice and reconciliation. In order for there to be true justice and actual reconciliation, all that has been done on the Earth must be brought into the light, all voices must be heard, all facts weighed, and all that is not Good must be burned away, dissolved, as if purified with fire. This is good news for those who suffer under injustice and oppression. This is good news for those living in brokenness. And it is good news for the oppressor and oppressed alike! God's judgment is about salvation, and God does not want any single one to perish, but to reconcile all persons and all things to God's self and one another.
Another way, perhaps, to view this fire can be found in this quote from George Appleton:
Give me a candle of the Spirit, O God, as I go down into the deeps of my being. Show me the hidden things, the creatures of my dreams, the storehouse of forgotten memories and hurts. Take me down to the spring of my life, and tell me my nature and my name. Give me freedom to grow, so that I may become that self, the seed of which You planted in me at my making.
Salvation isn't about fire and brimstone, salvation is about a fire that lights the way home to God, that illuminates the hidden places and brings out truth, that purifies and burns away the wrongs we've done so that God can set all things right. God's plan of salvation is the Christmas story, God and human brought together and made one. May God give us all a candle of the Spirit this Christmas to light the way home.