The Joy of Christmas, I
The Joy of Children

II Peter 3:8–15

A meditation at Kenilworth Union Church with a presentation of Kirke Mechem’s Cantata The Seven Joys of Christmas.

But 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. (II Peter 3:8)

Well, this is the first time in my 30-year ministry that I’ve preached from the Second Letter of Peter, and I’ll bet many of you did not know that near the back of our New Testament, there is a second letter ascribed to Simon Peter, the Chief Disciple. It is not exactly one of the New Testament’s bestsellers.

New Testament scholars are in nearly unanimous agreement that this letter is almost certainly not from the pen of the Apostle Peter as it claims to be, but more probably written by some lesser scribe borrowing, for the moment, St. Peter’s grander reputation among the early Christians, in order to give his humble missive a more lustrous sheen.

Peter’s Second Letter may have been the last and latest book of the New Testament, written perhaps as late as the second century, at least a hundred years removed from the Christ it wants to honor, and the very last book of the Bible to make it, by the skin of its teeth, into the accepted Canon of 27 endorsed New Testament works. For centuries Peter’s Second Letter has garnered about as much journalistic credibility as Rolling Stone Magazine is experiencing just now.

Yet here it is for us on the Second Sunday of Advent, and you can see why. “In the last days,” writes Pseudo-Peter to his fledgling Christians, “in the last days scoffers will come, saying ‘where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.’”

You see what’s going on, right? Before he left, Jesus had promised to come again to take the faithful out of trouble and home to glory, and he’d promised to do this soon, like before his friends had all died, but now it’s a hundred years since he left, all his friends are dead, and “all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.” Neither fleeting glimpse of nor faint whimper from the Christ who promised to come again in glory. Caesar is still dictating from his prominent palace in Rome and the early Christians are getting blamed for everything from Nero’s version of the Chicago Fire to the Roman army’s every defeat at the hands of the barbarians.

And so Peter’s Second Letter is addressed to us too, 1,900 years after it was first written, because we are in the same enduring predicament as the young Church Pseudo-Peter posted his little letter to. “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.”

The Christian Church has taught for 2,000 years that his first coming that first Christmas was God’s most definitive self-revelation in the history of time. It was to have been history’s hinge: in a shabby stable in a hick town of shopkeeps and shepherds, to an unwed teenager in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, the Creator of all the burning stars and flying worlds reclaimed God’s wayward creation for Godself, they said. Above those shepherd fields, a vast army of angels promised glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among all those of good purpose.

And yet ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation. Just when you think people of good purpose have one problem licked another rushes in to fill the vacuum. In the last 100 years, democracy has laid low in turn the Kaiser, the Führer, the Bolshevik, the Stalinist, and the Maoist. And when the Berlin Wall came crashing down 25 years ago, the free world thought that maybe the peace on earth the angels promised long ago had finally come, and then al Qaeda and Hussein and the Islamic State rise up to frustrate freedom.

Over the centuries, humanity has cornered, if not exactly defeated, terrible foes of humanity like the Plague, measles, tuberculosis, and polio, among others, and now even the scourge of AIDS is staggering backward in rapid retreat, but then a deadly new virus plagues a vast continent without the resources to confront it.

In America, slavery ended 152 years ago next month, but African Americans don’t feel free after incidents in New York, Ferguson, Cleveland, and Phoenix. “Ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.”

And so Pseudo-Peter’s gentle word of reassurance in his letter to a baby church is a word from the Lord to us today: “Remember, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day…And the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night. Therefore, we wait for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home, and while we are waiting for these things, we strive to be found by him at peace without spot or blemish.”

The season of Advent is like the Roman god Janus, with two faces, one looking back in memory to that first Christmas, and the other looking forward in hope to his next and last coming at the end of time. During Advent we remember the One who came long ago, and who will come again one day.

We wait for Christmas with the uncontainable joy of the child. We wait for Christmas and for God’s final righteousness with the intense expectation and unflagging hope of the child in the days before Christmas.

Willie, take your little drum;
With your whistle, Robin, come!
When we hear the fife and drum,
Christmas should be frolicsome.

Thus the folk of olden days
Loved the King of kings to praise.
When they hear the fife and drum,
Sure our children won’t be dumb.

God and we are now become
More at one than fife and drum.
When you hear the fife and drum,
Dance and make the village hum!

Do you remember what Advent felt like when you were a child? Christmas is so luminous and so miraculous that to a child the season of Advent seems longer than the Babylonian Captivity. Do you remember what it was like? I remember as a child when Christmas Eve finally arrived at my home after all that waiting, beginning with Thanksgiving or before, I would press my nose against the dining room window-pane awaiting the arrival of gift-bearing grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, hoping to hasten their appearance by wishing it into being. One year my younger brother, who was 17 months younger and three inches shorter than I and couldn’t press his nose against the window-pane, got so excited waiting for the relatives that he bit into the wooden window sill with his teeth and wouldn’t let go, leaving an indelible dental impression which, I am sure, remains to this day a symbol of childhood yuletide expectation. Momma was not happy. That was 50 years ago; I still remember it.

And so all our lives long we wait for God’s good news with the joy of children in the days before Christmas. No matter how long everything continues just as it was from the beginning of creation, no matter how often human freedom is thwarted, no matter what new malice rises up to replace the despots we’ve just unseated, no matter what scars life inflicts upon us, no matter how often we have our hearts broken by the loss of those we love, we continue to wait with a child’s intense Advent expectation and unflagging hope for the birth of God’s love and peace into our hearts and into our world.

While we wait, we strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, living lives of holiness and godliness. All our lives, till the day God calls us home, we wait for and work for and believe in the good news of our glad God.

December 7, said President Roosevelt, is a date which will live in infamy, and this anniversary gives me the excuse to talk about one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years. How many of you have read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand?   Just a wonderful, wonderful book. Don’t worry if you haven’t. Angelina Jolie is bringing it to the silver screen for us beginning Christmas day.

You know what I’m thankful for this Christmas? I’m thankful for Hollywood. All these extraordinary books it brings to the screen for us. Just in the last couple of years: Anna Karenina, Les Miserables, Captain Phillips, Team of Rivals, The Book Thief, The Help, Twelve Years a Slave, Gone Girl, even. We’re in the golden age of cinema and we don’t even know it.

And now Unbroken, about Louis Zamperini, a rebellious miscreant from California who gets his life on the right track by running—well, track—and accompanies Jesse Owens to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin before Adolph Hitler himself and then flies B-24’s in the Pacific campaign.

Louie’s B-24 went down in the Pacific on May 27, 1943. He spent 47 days on a life raft eating a little raw fish and catching a little rain water, then he spent 28 months in Japanese POW camps under withering persecution before finally stumbling home in October, 1945.

Louie’s is an amazing story of unflagging hope. He reached the age of 97 before finally packing it in this July. But it’s Louie’s mother and namesake Louise I want to talk about this morning.

Word reached Louise’s home in Torrance, California, on June 4, 1943, that Louie was missing in action. Instantly Louise was seized by the conviction that Louie was still alive. “To the family,” writes Ms. Hillenbrand, “Louie was among them still.” They spoke of him in the present tense, as if he were just down the street.

Louise begged the Air Force to keep looking for him. She knew, she just knew he was out there somewhere. In July the Air Force wrote her a letter to tell her they’d stopped looking for him. The Air Force hoped Louise could accept the obvious truth. Louise ripped the letter to shreds.

All that summer and fall, when the Zamperinis walked through Torrance on their errands, townfolk would avert their eyes. They looked away in consternation, pity, and puzzlement.“You poor people, You poor Zamperinis,” they all seemed to be saying in their not unkind ways. “Why do you keep waiting?   Why do you keep hoping? Why don’t you accept reality? Why don’t you face the facts?”

At Christmas in 1943, there was a big pile of presents for Louis under the Christmas tree. After Christmas, they were set aside unopened, until the day when Louis would open them himself.

After you’ve been Missing in Action for 13 months, the Air Force automatically declares you dead. For Louie, then, this happened on June 27, 1944. When Louise received the death notice a few days later, she burst into tears. And then she realized, “This is just a piece of paper. This doesn’t change anything. Louie is still alive.”

Louie’s sister Sylvia remembered later, “None of us believed it. None of us. Never once. Not for one second. Not even privately.”[1] And at Christmas in 1945, they opened the presents that had been set aside for him at Christmas two years before. I just fell in love with those Zamperini’s. They became for me a kind of parable about how to wait for good news.

While we wait, we live with holiness and godliness, striving to be found by him, when he comes for us, at peace, without spot or blemish. We wait with the joy of children in the days before Christmas, with intense expectation and unflagging hope.

Willie, take your little drum;
With your whistle, Robin, come!
When we hear the fife and drum,
Christmas should be frolicsome.

Thus the folk of olden days
Loved the King of kings to praise.
When they hear the fife and drum,
Sure our children won’t be dumb.


 

[1]From Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand (New York: Random House, 2010), especially pp. 212-219. Quotations are slightly adapted.