Essay for Advent 2B from The Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014, pages 255-56.
“The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives” (2 Peter 3:9). What an incredible declaration of grace For the later books of the New Testament canon, like 2 Peter, there was the task of answering disappointed hopes for a speedier return of Christ. And 2 Peter answers it with grace. Christ is patiently giving us more time to repent.
From the perspective of evangelical anthropology, (1) God’s patience is a dominant theme undergirding all of Scripture. Stanford scholar René Girard’s Mimetic Theory hypothesizes that religion of sacred violence, which arises out of the ritual repetition of collectively murdering scapegoats (i.e., ritual blood sacrifice), is what founds human culture and saves homo sapiens (thus far, anyway) from self-destruction in its own interspecies violence. And the gods that evolved over many eons of human evolution always include gods of wrath who demand sacrifice. So when Yahweh, the God of Israel and Israel’s Messiah, began the task of trying to break through the human evolution of religion, it was always going to have to involve colossal patience. For, if the true God is Love (as attested to most clearly in 1 John), then the question has always been: how can a God of Love, who does not ever use force by the very nature of Love, break through to human beings who have only had eyes and ears for gods of wrath? The answer, I believe, is what we have in the Judeo-Christian scriptures: a God who makes a covenant to abide with a people over many centuries and millennia, because that’s how long it will take for us to finally listen and understand.
It begins with the hugely important near-sacrifice of Isaac, the first step in moving away from sacrifice. (2) It continues with Moses and the Decalogue, the move to Torah as the heart of religion. (Was it supposed to leave behind sacrifice altogether, but the incident with the Golden Calf showed unreadiness for that?) The prophets began to speak with one voice that God wants compassionate justice, not sacrifice. (3) It comes to a climax with the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (4) — attested to by the Letter to the Hebrews as the end of sacrifice.
Even after two thousand years of followers of Israel’s Messiah, do we hear and understand yet? How often have Christians relied on a god of wrath to justify their violence? How long will we continue with doctrines like that of a God whose wrath demands the atonement of God’s Son? How much longer will we fight wars as carrying out God’s punishment against evil-doers? Will not God’s seemingly infinite patience with us begin the most amazing Christmas gift to us again this Christmas — along with God’s forgiveness that just may yet change our hearts and lives?
4. See my first essay in this volume on John 1:29-42 for Epiphany 2A. It is different that John the Baptist proclaims this insight in John’s Gospel, since the John of the Synoptics (Mark 1:1-8 included?) seems to still be at least partially bound to a god of wrath.