God’s time

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2017
“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8)

The first time I remember hearing Peter’s poetic line, “that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day,” it was unfortunately used to distort its message of the patience and timelessness of god. Instead of the humility of Peter’s late-life acceptance that God was not running to his, Peter’s, schedule, but was in fact free from the tyranny of time; instead of humility, the friend who quoted this verse to me used it to try to bolster a fraudulent calculation of the date of creation.

For a long, long time, it was sufficient for the people of God to know and understand that time is itself a creation, subject to the same laws of dependence, mortality, and decay as the rest of our cosmos. It was a comfort to the people of God to know that our God, as its creator, is greater than and beyond the confines of time, unbounded by seasons and untroubled by nightfall.

It was not until a few hundred years ago that a biblical scholar, Bishop James Ussher, became quite over-enthusiastic over his scriptural arithmetic and calculated the creation of the world to have begun, definitively, on October 23rd, 4004 BCE – a date accomplished by flattening every parable, play, and poetic encounter with God throughout the history of the Bible onto a calendar page, and by ignoring the very witness of the world that God had made. The friend who quoted Peter’s thousand-year days to me did so to argue that Ussher was, in fact, wrong – but only because he forgot to add 999 to each of the six days of the first of the Genesis creation stories, since each of these, and the Sabbath day that followed them, should obviously have been assigned a value of a thousand years each.

Let’s be abundantly clear: Ussher, doing his level best and carrying out phenomenal feats of biblical research in the seventeenth century, was wrong. And my friend, with her half-baked twentieth-century rationalization, learned in the lap of her devout but devastatingly naïve parents, was just as adept at missing the point.

So what is the point? Last week, I talked a little about how Advent messes with our sense of time, mixing up what was with what will be, endings with beginnings, Alphas and Omegas, the Genesis and the Revelation of the Christ. The theory of relativity and the paradoxes of time travel are nothing compared to the complexities of the Advent calendar.

For the past few weeks leading up to Advent, in fact, we have received repeated warnings that no one knows the day or the hour of God’s intervention in the world (“when the heavens will be set ablaze and the elements melted with fire”). The relationship of God with us is not bound by the mediations of time; God’s relationship with our time-bound world is much more poetic and less literal than a counting down of days between the first and the second creation to come.

It is admittedly difficult to read the fiery imagery this week without considering the people of California and their continuing winter of disaster and destruction. It is difficult to read the poet’s petitions for Jerusalem, for Zion, without remembering the political news of the day, and the concerns that follow on its heels. At this moment, a pilgrimage of Episcopalians led by Washington National Cathedral, including people from this diocese and state, is in the Holy Lands, praying in place for the peace of Jerusalem. The timing was a simple coincidence, as is often the case.

The nature of time itself has been the subject of theological as well as scientific discussion for longer than Bishop Ussher could imagine. In the Christian era, Augustine summed up the consensus when he wrote, “It is by your work that all times are made … You made all times and before all times you are; nor was there ever a time in which there was no time.”[1]

Notwithstanding the complications of Advent or of relativity, and our finite understanding of time and its dimensionality; it is a fundamental doctrine that time, as much as anything else seen or unseen, is a creature of and subject to the majesty of God.[2]

There follow two lessons from this realization: one is that when God gave humanity stewardship and care of all of creation, that included time. We are to care for time, to keep it well and spend it wisely, in cooperation with God’s creative purposes, loving God and loving our neighbours being our first and second priorities. God has sanctified time from the inside out, creating the Sabbath for our rest and reflection on the majesty of our Creator, and using it, in the person of Jesus, for the purposes of healing, and salvation, resurrection, and redemption, to show us the right and holy use of time and of history.

The other lesson is that we are only stewards of time. God is the only one who can create time, including what we sometimes call the End Times. Nothing that we can do will change God’s relationship with time, which is as loving and as intimate as with any other part of creation, as witnessed by the birth of Jesus into our history, into our time, enshrined forever in the continuum of our calendars and seasons. God is also unbound by time, and as unpredictable, patient, and faithful in that as in any other dimension of our lives.

The nonsense that follows from following Bishop Ussher comes out in the opposite direction as a tendency to count down to the end of creation; even to make wild predictions based on similarly dubious calculations; even, on occasion, to attempt to bring them to fruition by force.

But Jesus has said time and again that we do not know the day nor the hour of the new creation; and Peter writes to his faithful followers that the promise of God is not dependent upon our pace, but upon God’s patience and steadfast love. As Augustine, again, wrote, “Your today is eternity.”[3] The presence of God with us within our time transcends our plans for one day or the next; the love of God is our bridge to eternity, since it endures forever. The patience of God exceeds that of the saints. And that is good news for any and all times.


[1] Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book XI, Chapter 13, translated by Rex Warner (Signet Classics, 2001),  261-2

[2] See also David Kelsey, in Creation and Humanity: The Sources of Christian Theology, edited by Ian A. McFarland (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 53

[3] Augustine, op cit, 261

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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