Fire is Still Coming!: Some Josh Ritter for Advent

The one year anniversary of Thinking After is fast approaching.  Right around the time I started the blog, I preached an Advent sermon at Tyndale Seminary for the MDiv In-Ministry students.  The sermon was one of my first blog postings.  The theme of judgment sounds forth mightily from many of the traditional texts for the first week of Advent.  Having been encountered afresh by these Scriptures, it seemed like it might worthwhile to re-post last year’s sermon, both for those who may have missed it and those who might like to read it again.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sermon on 2 Peter 3, much less one that includes appearances by the Toronto Blue Jays, Westboro Baptist Church, Karl Barth, Glen Soderholm, a Pizza Pizza theologian, and that has the music of Josh Ritter as its soundtrack.

To get you into the proper mood for the sermon and the season of Advent, here is Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band performing “Birds of the Meadow.”  Interestingly, in this performance Ritter includes a refrain from Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild.”


“Fire is Coming!”

An Advent Sermon

December 3, 2015

Tyndale Seminary


I didn’t come to ask how you’re doing these days
Didn’t come to roll no stones away no
I come to tell you the end is nigh
I come to prophecy

You wanted a messenger and I be he
Your heebie jeebie man in ecstasy
My eyes a blazin’ and my mantle dark
You better hark

Fire is coming
Fire is coming

With these words Josh Ritter launches into the growling apocalyptic opening track of his recently-released album “Sermon on the Rocks.” “Sermon on the Rocks” is the eighth studio album from the son of neuroscientists from Idaho who has been identified as one of the top-100 living songwriters. Ritter, who is frequently honored with comparisons to Bob Dylan, describes his new album as “messianic oracular honkytonk,” which makes it a fitting companion for an Advent sermon. In several interviews following the release of the album, Ritter has commented how upon how he has come to recognize the importance of a good opening line for his craft as a songwriter. The opening lines to this first song on his new album conjure up images of a soap-box prophet wildly gesticulating as he warns of impending doom and calamity. If we’re honest, we have to admit that such figures are somewhat of an embarrassment to refined and educated modern Christians like ourselves. If there’s anything that we can pride ourselves on, it is that we are not one of those primitive fire-and-brimstone preachers. Of course, this could also explain why we so rarely hear a sermon on 2 Peter. For here in our passage we hear Peter, like the prophet in Ritter’s song, warning the early church, “Fire is coming! Fire is coming!” Although it must be admitted that Peter is not actually making any claims for originality at this point. Rather he is simply reminding the faithful of “the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken through your apostles” (2 Pet 3:2). In speaking of the coming fires of judgment which will consume the earth, Peter is simply channeling many of the Season of Advent’s usual suspects – Isaiah, Zechariah, Malachi, John the Baptist, even Jesus himself – and joining his voice to the great chorus proclaiming, “Fire is coming! Fire is coming!”

“Daddy, I’m going to miss you when you die.” Chunks of pepperoni pizza almost fell out of my mouth as I sat stunned by the sudden turn introduced into the conversation by my five year-old daughter over supper at Pizza Pizza a week ago today. Perhaps sensing that I didn’t quite know what to say, she quickly chimed in with a follow-up question. “Will we still be a family in the new creation?” My mind started racing, “I’m a theologian! I have to be able to answer the theological questions of a kindergartner!” Jesus words tumbled around in my head, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven.” So I tentatively replied, “Well, in the new creation we will all be part of God’s family.” My daughter pondered this for a moment as she chewed her pizza, before responding, “Yes, but will you still be my daddy?” The best I could manage was, “Of course, I’ll always be your daddy!”

Now I don’t think that this was merely a sentimental answer or that it can simply be attributed to wishful thinking. Having had some time to reflect upon the conversation, it seems to me that this was a good and true answer. However, as we study theology we come to realize that by God’s grace we are allowed to speak many true statements without actually knowing how these statement are true. We don’t know exactly what father-daughter relationships will look like in the new creation. Certainly all the ways that sin mars and deforms the parent-child relationship will be undone. However, it’s hard to conceive how a person can still in some sense remain the same person – even if they are an eschatologically-reconstituted person – without retaining the particulars of their birth and parentage. There must be some continuity between the current heavens and earth and the new heavens and the new earth.

I think we catch a glimpse of this in what is perhaps the most difficult verse in our Scripture passage. “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done one it will be disclosed” (2 Pet. 3:10).  Now there are various interpretive questions that arise in this verse, but one of the big ones involves this last verb which is the future, passive, indicative form of the Greek verb heurisko.  There are a variety of textual variants that appear in the different historical manuscripts at this point. All of the variants seem to suggest that the context of the verse requires a word equivalent to ‘destroy’ rather than the verb heurisko. Yet heurisko is the most widely attested reading and it is the more difficult reading, which taken together seem to suggest its originality. The verb heurisko in a passive voice suggests a sense of being found out, revealed, uncovered, brought to light. As such, it carries with it forensic or juridical connotations. While the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, everything that has been done upon the earth will be revealed for the sake of judgment – suggesting that all that is good, all that is beautiful, all that is true will, in some way, be preserved.

This reading of verse ten is in keeping with the understanding of the prophets and apostles who spoke of the righteous passing through the fires of judgement. There are passages in the writings of the prophets Isaiah, Zechariah, and Malachi that each seem to point us in this direction. The apostle Paul also spoke in this way, when he wrote about how the fire of the Day of the Lord will test the quality of each builder’s work (1 Cor 3:10-15). This idea of the righteous passing through rather than being consumed by the judgment is in keeping with what Peter himself wrote in the immediately preceding chapter of this letter. There he spoke of Noah, “the herald of righteousness,” being brought through the floodwaters (2 Pet 2:5) and Lot, “a righteous man greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the lawless,” being rescued from Sodom and Gomorrah before those cities met their fiery demise (2 Pet 2:6). Furthermore, understanding the fires of judgement in a purifying sense, rather than simply in an annihilating fashion, seems to be the only way to make sense of Peter’s question in verse eleven. “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be?” If there were absolutely no continuity between the current heavens and earth and that which is to come, it seems hard to argue that it could in any way matter how we live in the here and now. However, how we are to live in “leading lives of holiness and godliness” is of supreme importance, because we are waiting for the new heavens and the new earth. In this passing world fast bound in sin and nature’s night, righteousness appears as an alien and exile, but in the new heavens and new earth righteousness will finally have arrived at home. “Fire is coming! Fire is coming!” How then shall we live?

The problem I run into at this point is that those who seem to take most seriously the coming judgment represent versions of Christianity that I can hardly stomach. For example, the people of Westboro Baptist Church seem to recognize that fire is coming. That’s why they took the opportunity a little over a month ago to picket Game 6 of the American League Championship Series between the Kansas Royals and the Toronto Blue Jays. They wanted to take advantage of this special opportunity to let the world know that “God hates Canada.” Josh Ritter lampoons fundamentalist Christianity of this type and even more moderate forms with their legalistic tendencies on his new album in the delightfully ridiculous riposte of a song, “Getting Ready to Get Down.” Again the opening lines immediately catch one’s attention:

Mama got a look at you and got a little worried
Papa got a look at you and got a little worried
Pastor got a look and said y’all better hurry
Send her off to a little Bible College in Missouri.

While the rebellious girl of the song returns from Bible College more knowledgeable, unfortunately for her family and concerned church community that knowledge only seems to reinforce her supposed intransigence and depravity. While the influential voices of the social circle in her small town were saying, “Jesus hates your high school dances,” the lyrically audacious last lines of the song before the closing chorus, feature the young woman brazenly proclaiming, “If you wanna see a miracle than watch me get down.” While Ritter in this song clearly has legalistic forms of Christianity in his cross-hairs, it seems as if he can’t avoid advancing his own form of antinomianism in response. Antinomianism is a fancy name for lawlessness and the idea that there are no external ethical demands placed upon the Christian. The protagonist of “Getting Ready to Get Down” expresses something of what she has learned at Bible College in the following way, “Eve ate the apple cause the apple was sweet, what kinda God would ever keep a girl from getting what she needs?” Then in the following verse reflecting upon her experience of coming back to her home town she says, “the doctor thinks a devil musta got you by your senses, but to live the way you please don’t sound like possession.” While we may take delight in Ritter’s takedown of legalistic forms of fundamentalist Christianity, the final position of the heroine in “Getting Ready to Get Down” doesn’t sound all that different from our prevailing cultural consensus in which we are each the master of our fate and captain of our soul. In this way, Ritter becomes something akin to the scoffers that Peter warns the church against in our reading from his letter this afternoon. While Ritter’s lyrics are suffused with biblical language and imagery, he lacks a sense of how the various biblical images and stories hang together. When recently asked about his take on the stories of the Bible in light of the surprising prominence of biblical motifs in his songwriting, Ritter replied, “I prefer to think of them as a number of confusing and colorful stories about the things people do to each other.” Like Ritter, the scoffers who had infiltrated the community Peter addressed in his letters had lost the plot. They openly questioned the promise of Christ’s coming, which became a license for the descent into the depravity of the depths of the human heart. The lyrics from perhaps the darkest song off of an earlier Josh Ritter album, could have easily rolled off the tongues of the scoffers: “Nothing that is hidden will be revealed” (“The Remnant” on So Runs the World Away).

Empirically speaking, the scoffers have good reason for doubting the promise of Christ’s coming. After all, within the short span of a human life it does appear as if the world is simply carrying on as it always as. The letter of 2 Peter addresses a community decades after their Lord had ascended into heaven. After all these years, the scoffers asked, why should we think that Christ is ever coming back? Why should we believe things will ever be different than they are today? Peter offers several different arguments to counter the scoffers. First he points to creation and the flood as a reminder that things have not always been as they currently are. Then, picking up on the language of Psalm 90, Peter goes on to say, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).

It was Glen Soderholm who first introduced me to the music of Josh Ritter. Glen is a Presbyterian pastor and a church-planter, on top of being an accomplished songwriter and musician in his own right. Several years ago Glen was lamenting the absence of decent contemporary Advent music in the church today. There are some wonderful traditional Advent hymns like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “Hark! The Glad Sound” but there is a paucity of contemporary Advent songs for congregational singing. So Glen set out to write his own song for Advent worship. I remember talking to Glen when he was in the midst of writing the song. He described how in each of the verses God addresses his people by drawing upon the stories of biblical figures traditionally associated with the season of Advent. So for example, the first verse begins, “With Mary on the journey will you wait for me?” The following verses refer to Joseph, Simeon and Anna, and finally John the Baptist. The chorus provides the opportunity for God’s people to respond to the questioning invitation of their Lord by singing, “We will wait, we will wait for you.” But something theologically interesting happens towards the end of each verse and chorus. The language of the verses shifts from “Will you wait for me?” to “Will you wait with me?” Similarly, the chorus shifts from “We will wait for you?” to “We will wait with you?” Glen realized that with this shift he was taking a bit of a theological risk that could be frowned upon in some quarters. I remember him asking me, “Do you think there’s solid theological grounds for saying that we wait with God?” Our reading from 2 Peter that speaks of God’s patience suggests that there is.

Glen’s song “Will You Wait for Me?” is a wonderful addition to the Advent repertoire of any congregation. I highly recommend it. (“Will You Wait for Me?” can be found on the albums This Bright Sadness and Do Not Be Afraid.) Of course, this doesn’t mean that all the members of your congregation will like it. Some inevitably will not. Their dislike of the song will likely have nothing to do with the music or the lyrics, but rather it will boil down to the fact that they have no idea what to do with the season of Advent. This perhaps shouldn’t surprise us. After all, Starbucks has been serving coffee in their red seasonal cups since November 1 and the stores and shops have been piping Christmas tunes through their aisles for almost as long. But the problem is larger. In an age of instant gratification where anything you could ever want is no more than a mouse click or finger swipe away, waiting is extremely difficult. So it’s perhaps not surprising that our people would struggle with a season whose primary virtue is patience. The season of Advent is a reminder that we are a people who are waiting for and with God. In the midst of our culture of quick fixes and instantaneous results, perhaps one of the most important spiritual disciplines and counter-cultural activities we can recover in the church is a rich and robust congregational observation of the season of Advent.

What does it mean to be an Advent people who wait with God in the time between Christ’s coming in the flesh and his coming again in glory? Well for one thing we must not confuse waiting with idleness. The towering 20th Century Swiss theologian Karl Barth picks up on the language of our reading from 2 Peter to describe the existence of the Advent people of God. He asserts that those who have been claimed by risen Christ cannot simply acquiesce to the status quo and the prevailing conditions of unrighteousness and disorder in our world. Rather, they must “wait and hasten toward the dawn of God’s day, the appearing of his righteousness, the Parousia of Jesus Christ. They not only wait but also hasten. They wait by hastening. Their waiting takes place in the hastening. Aiming at God’s kingdom, established on its coming and not on the status quo, they do not just look toward it but run toward it as fast as their feet will carry them” (The Christian Life §78,4). Just a few pages earlier in his exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, Barth had described prayer as the beginning of the revolt against the unrighteousness and disorder of the world. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in the great prayer of Advent, “Marantha! Come, Lord Jesus, come!”

This Advent prayer, “Marantha! Come, Lord Jesus, come!” reminds us that “the end is not an event, but a person” (G.B. Caird, brought to my attention by Peter Leithart). The fire that is coming is the fire of the presence of the glory of God – the fire that enveloped the mountain and shone forth in the face of Christ. It pains me to say it (because I clearly have such great respect for Josh Ritter as a songwriter and musician), but the antinomianism of Josh Ritter and the legalism of Westboro Baptist Church represent the flip sides of the same coin. Both represent the employment of biblical motifs and images loosed from their anchoring in the person of Christ. Because both legalism and antinomianism have lost sight of the person of Jesus Christ, their centers do not hold. This, of course, is a theological judgment, hopefully of the sort that you will learn to make over the course of your time in the In-Ministry program here at Tyndale. We see Peter exercising such a theological judgment in his comments about the scoffers’ twisting and misinterpretation of the apostle Paul. This type of work is at the heart of the theological enterprise. One of the central tasks of theology is to wrestle with the question of how this disparate collection of texts commonly referred to as the Bible coinheres in Christ? In other words, how do we read the Bible as Holy Scripture? The short answer is that it involves recognizing that in the Bible we are not just presented with a collection of interesting human stories or with a collection of rules or principles for living, but rather in the pages of Scripture we are confronted by a unified witness to the One, who in the words of the opening chapter of 2 Peter, “received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (2 Pet 1:17).

The failure to consider the whole counsel of God in the light of the person of Christ, leads to theological and moral failures like legalism and antinomianism. Please note that theological failures always lead to moral failures, for if we get the identity of God and the nature of our world wrong, we can’t help but get our lives wrong too. In the terms of our passage from 2 Peter, legalism is a form of hastening without waiting and antinomianism is a form of waiting without hastening. However, Peter rightly recognized that to be a Christian is to have a Lord, and this Lord provides us with everything we need to be prepared for his Day. “Fire is coming! Fire is coming!” But we have already been given a foretaste of the fire that is coming, in the fire that has been poured out at Pentecost for the sake of fashioning a people purified by the holy fire of God’s love. Such a people, illumined and enflamed by the Holy Spirit, find themselves on pilgrimage growing in the grace and knowledge of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as they anticipate the new heavens and the new earth in which righteousness will finally be at home. Luther like to say that the world is now in its working clothes, but on that day it will be arrayed in its Easter garments of joy (referenced by Charles Spurgeon). So we wait for and hasten towards the day when we will see all things set free through the fire of God’s holy love so that all things may radiate with the glory of God. As we await that Day we hold out in hope, regarding the patience of our Lord as salvation. Salvation not only for us, but also we hope and pray for those who may have lost their way. Even haters like the members of Westboro Baptist Church and scoffers like Josh Ritter.

The closing song of “Sermon on the Rocks” suggests that Ritter might not be as far from the Kingdom as we might imagine. In a song whose genre may best be described as “mildly inebriated cowboy,” Ritter sings:

Waiting I’ve been waiting
For the day the hour the moment you’d appear
Now just look at you
My man on a horse is here

Praying I’ve been praying
And though some would say my prayers fell on deaf ears
I never doubted you
My man on a horse is here

With a little ingenuity we could even claim this as an Advent song, for we too await our man on a horse called Faithful and True (Rev 19:11). While Ritter has drawn our attention to the importance of first words, the biblical tradition also stresses the importance of last words. With this in mind, perhaps we could even consider the final words of “Sermon on the Rocks” to be an Advent prayer: “You come to save me, my man on a horse is here.” At the very least they direct us to the final words of 2 Peter, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity” (3:18). These words remind us that the last word is the Word. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. So it seems appropriate to end a sermon about the last things with the last words of Scripture, “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen” (Rev 22:20-21).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *