An old spiritual says, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, but the fire next time. The second reading in today’s Mass speaks to us of the “Fire next time” and again reminds of the need to be ready for the coming of the Lord. Note four aspects of this reading:
1. The PATIENCE that is PURPOSEFUL. The text says, Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
Though the Lord seems long delayed in coming (2000+ years!), the text tells us that this patience is so that as many of us can be saved as possible.
But notice that the text says that God wants us to come to repentance. So God’s patience should not be seen as a place for presumption, but, rather, a time for repentance. This is no time to say, “Later.” This is a time to be serious about repentance and preparation to meet the Lord.
Note too that the Greek word here translated as repentance is μετάνοιαν (metanoian), referring not just to better behavior, but also to new mind. For our transformation is not merely external but also internal. When, what we think changes, so does our behavior. When our thinking is conformed to God’s revealed truth, our priorities, feelings, desires and decisions all begin to change as well. Conversion and repentance are the result of being a changed and transformed human being with a new mind.
2. The PASSING that is PERILOUS. The text says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
In effect, the text says that God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days. And when he comes it will be
A. Sudden – For the text says that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief. This is quite a consistent image that Jesus used for the Day of Judgement as well. But the image should not be true for us who wait and watch. St. Paul says, But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief….So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. (1 Thess 5:4,6).
Further the image of the thief is also not for us if we realize that all we have and are belong to God. For those who are worldly, and claim authority over themselves and ownership over their things, God is a thief who comes suddenly, and in a hidden way. He overtakes their apparent ownership and possession and puts an end to it. To them he seems a thief as he “steals” what they consider theirs. They are badly misled.
But for we who watch and are prepared (pray God), the Lord comes not to take, but to give; to bestow and reward as we inherit His Kingdom.
B. Shocking – For the text speaks of the heavens as roaring and of fire which overwhelms, and by it, all will be dissolved with fire.
Now here too, the image, though shocking, should not alarm us if we are already on fire. At Pentecost, and personally, at our baptism and confirmation, the Lord lit a fire in us to set us spiritually on fire; to bring us up to the temperature of glory. Thus, for those in the Lord, the “weather” on that day will seem just fine.
The prophet Malachi speaks of the twofold experience of the Day of the Lord in this way: “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. Notice therefore, that for some the Day is burning with wrathful heat, but for the Just, it is a sunny day wherein the Sun (Son) of righteousness will bring warmth and healing (Mal 4:1-3).
An old spiritual glosses on this verse saying, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no water but the fire next time. Thus God wants to get us ready by setting us on fire with his love and grace. If God is a Holy Fire then we must become fire ourselves in order to endure the day of his coming.
C. Showing – for the text says, all things will be revealed.
So it would seem that this fire burns away the masks many people wear and they are seen for they are. The Lord says, But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). And again he says, There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. (Lk 12:2-3).
Now even the just may wince at this, for all have a past and would prefer the past stay in the past. But I have sometimes seen, when I have visited 12 Step meetings, how many will recount vividly what they did when they were drinking. And they do so with little shame and much laughter, for they share it among those who understand, and as one who has been set free from the source of the problem. Perhaps for the just on that disclosing Day it will be like that.
But for those who are among the unrepentant, consider the embarrassment and fear as their secrets, sins and injustices are disclosed among those who are also unforgiving and unmerciful. A bad scene really.
3. The PRESCRIPTION that is PROCLAIMED – the text says, Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire….Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.
The text asks rhetorically “What sort of persons ought you to be?!” The answer in a word is “fiery.” God has lit a fire in us to purify and refine us. Hence on that Day, when the Lord will judge by fire, we will pass through. And though some final purifications (purgation) may take place, the fact that the fire has been kindled in us, and fanned into flame, will mean just that, purification, not destruction. St Paul describes the just as going through the purgatorial fire that leads to purfication rather than destruction in hell: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:12-15).
So the prescription for us is that we let God set us afire now so as to purify us, making us more holy and devout. The fire now of His Holy Spirit is the only thing that can truly prepare us and permit us later to endure the day of his coming and be spared the “wrath to come” (cf 1 Thess 1:10; Matt 3:7; Romans 5:9; 1 Thess 5:9) when God will judge the world and everything in by fire.
4. The PERFECTION that is PROMISED – The text says, But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
This text presents the possibility that the created world will not so much be destroyed as purified by this fiery judgment of God. While the text may also signify a total destruction of all that now is, and a replacement of it by a new heavens and earth, it is also debated that the created world will instead be renewed, rather than destroyed and replaced. This view would correspond with other texts (e.g. Isaiah 11); and Romans 8 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.(Rom 8:20-21).
Whatever the solution, to the debate, the bottom line is that the new (or renewed) world will be a heaven wedded to earth in which full righteousness of God will be manifest. Further, we will be without spot or blemish and at peace. Yes, God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days, Hallelujah. And God’s fire purifies that which is holy, and burns away all which is lacking or unholy. God will restore all things in Christ!