John comes with a call to repent and the impending judgment of God but Peter speaks of God’s patience today. The Christian has a bit of a dilemma in Advent. God has said he is coming “soon.” But what is soon? Many read the New Testament and have come to the conclusion that the first generation of Christians believed that God would end it all within their lifetimes or shortly thereafter. Did they believe they were living in the last days? I am not there and thus a loathe to put too much trust in the doctoral dissertations and books written by theologians who make a living off such things. At the same time, however, it does seem that judgment and our final accounting before God loomed large in the imagination of the NT’s authors. Have we lost sight of that? A few weeks ago Zephaniah spoke of those who have concluded that God will never come. Is that us?
As Christianity proceeded through the subsequent generations, there have been many who have suggested that in fact they had some secret knowledge or insight into the exact date of that soon. Tertullian seems to have fallen in with the Montanists who such a group in the ancient world. Constantine the Great seems to have at least fostered the idea that he was the second coming of Christ. Whether he believed it or not, we are not certain, but he did not discourage the idea. The turn of the first to the second millennium was a time of intense eschatological fervor because of the verse in Revelation 20 which had spoken of a 1000 year reign. William Miller thought he had sussed out the exact date in the 1840’s. That is still referred to as the “Great Disappointment” in some circles of American Protestantism.
Others have made the “soon” apply to the individual. Much Medieval and Reformation era preaching focused on the personal accounting all will make upon death. When bubonic plague stalks the land, judgment day may well come much sooner than expected. But the Bible talks about the sky being rolled up, the heavens being rent asunder, the nations trembling before the approach of God, etc., which does not comport with my death. My own death is a small thing and it feels like the “soon” of eschatology is applied to the undoing of all creation.
C. S. Lewis finessed the “soon” with the idea, drawn from the Epistle reading today, that all times are soon to God. Being an eternal being does not mean that he lasts a long time, it means time is not a one way street for Him. God exists always in all times. Tomorrow does not mean the same thing as it does to me. But this is also unsatisfactory, I think. God tells us that He is coming soon. The preacher needs to wrestle with this. I do not have the easy answer. The kingdom of God is at hand according to John. It was at hand in the first century when he preached. It is as hand even now.