December 1, 2013
Although the first Sunday in Advent is technically the first day of the New Year in the church calendar, as a culture we are entering a season that is most often dramatically colored by nostalgia. For a lot of us it has probably already begun with the use of old family recipes for our Thanksgiving dinners this past week. It just deepens when the Christmas decorations come out. Isn’t it fun to say, “Yes, I made that sled out of popsicle sticks when I was your age”? Or to pull out favorite Christmas music and make cookies, and abide by strict family rules regarding when and where and how gifts are to be opened. (We could probably divide the congregation along fairly rigid lines of Christmas Day present-openers, and Christmas Eve present-openers). Each Christmas seems to be about all the Christmases that have ever preceded it.
Which is why today’s Gospel text is so unnerving for a lot of people. Matthew’s lesson is not about the past, but is filled with fantastical images of the future. His description of End Times is the basis for the idea of “The Rapture”—a theory that some religious groups espouse about the end of the world. The Rapture is a corruption of some passages from the book of Revelation and today’s Gospel text describing two people working in a field. One will be left and one will be taken. Tim LeHaye’s sci-fi, pseudo-religious Left Behind series (or, if you are older, Hal Lindsey’s 1978 best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth) are examples of this concept. The key idea of the Rapture movement and of these books is to terrify people into becoming believers in Jesus. Their premise is that those who are taken up are those who have found favor with God, and those who are left behind will have to fight the battle of Armageddon in order to earn God’s pardon and grace.
There is no Biblical basis whatsoever for the concept of The Rapture. As believers in God’s acceptance of us through our baptisms, we know that we could never do enough to earn the love that God gives us freely. And we know that we have no reason to fear anything that might happen in the future, for we are God’s own forever. Fear, however, is what sells these books, and, frankly, what sells a lot these days. Maybe it’s always been this way. Maybe that’s why angels always begin any pronouncement with “Don’t be afraid.”
But even though I do hope you cling to your baptisms whenever fear taunts you, I don’t want to minimize Jesus’ message that we are to stay alert and awake. We cannot let our assumptions about God or how God works in our world lull us into complacency. Today’s Gospel lesson is a dramatic reminder that Jesus Christ intends to surprise us with a return visit. When Christ returns, we should not be caught napping; we should be at work. The tricky part is that I can’t tell you when this might be. Even Jesus says it will not be according to anyone’s predictions or calculations.
Now, I don’t know how you feel about surprises. I know I like them when they are the “Hey, remember that show you wanted to see? I got us tickets for tomorrow” kind. I like them less when they are the “I know you thought you were just bringing in your car for an oil change, but…” variety. For non-surprise lovers, those who would just as soon follow the usual routine, who would just as soon have this Christmas resemble all the ones you remember from childhood, the idea that God is going to mess with our traditions might not sit well.
But here’s the thing: Jesus isn’t suggesting that family recipes and familiar songs are a bad thing. He’s just cautioning us against getting so wrapped up in the way things have always been that we miss what is happening right now. Jesus wants to make sure that we don’t get lulled to sleep by reliving yesterday over and over again. How God is at work among us today might not look like it did 50 years ago. Or five years ago. Or five days ago. Advent is about God’s coming among us anew. That’s why “We’ve never done it that way before” are known as the seven deadly words in a congregation’s life. Jesus advises us to be alert. Keep awake.
Contrary to all the sweet images we will see and hear in the next month, Jesus is no longer a baby in a manger. Jesus is a wounded—but fully alive—force at work with us and for us and among us right now. Jesus is engaged in the struggles and questions of today. That’s probably why Paul wishes the Roman Christians to have peace WITHIN THEMSELVES. When Christ returns in all his glory and might at the end of time, it will be unlike anything we’ve ever known before, but we need not be afraid. We will rejoice that the day of the Lord, for which we’ve been waiting, has come.
Of course, the flip side of wallowing in nostalgia is also dangerous. There are Christians who are so preoccupied with the life to come that they ignore the world around them right now, who concentrate so much on the wonders of heaven in the sweet by-and-by that they ignore the struggles of the people around them right now. Yes, heaven will be great, but meanwhile, we mustn’t overlook malnourished and oppressed and lonely and suffering people who need us right now. We can’t get so wrapped up in Jesus’ return that we neglect and damage the environment based on the assumption that this world matters less than the next. This way of thinking leads us from being good stewards to acting selfishly, ignoring God’s love for the world. That’s my real problem with the proponents of the Rapture: they don’t take into consideration the truth that God loves this world. To be zoned in on the future is, in its own way, as spiritually and emotionally numbing as being stuck in the past. We have to stay awake. Be alert. Pay attention. Because it is God’s intention to shake up the universe.
And that is the Good News of Advent. Yes, it is a good—a very, very good—thing to recall how God shook up the world over 2000 years ago on that first Christmas with the stunning arrival of the Baby Jesus. But not so we can re-enact it like a play. Instead, let’s learn from it, grow from it. So much of the significant stuff happened when the world was asleep. In the middle of the night, the angels sang, waking up those poor shepherds, giving starlight GPS directions to the magi, and bothering Joseph’s conscience when he considered dumping his fiancée Mary, who had been called to a strange and wonderful task. None of those people went to bed anticipating a surprise. But God sent them one anyway. And what a surprise! God had to wake them up and shake them up to bring them Good News! God intends to do so again. Anticipate angels barging into your lives in the next few weeks!
The Day of God’s universal reign is indeed coming. The earth will not go on as it has been. That is precious news indeed, in this world where there are still too many swords and spears, where the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen, where there are seemingly permanent security alerts warning us of a potential terrorist attack. God’s promise is that wars will not endure forever, oppression will not endure forever, hatred will not endure forever. No matter how bleak it seems, Advent awakens us to the assurance that just when we least expect it, God’s reign will come, and all people will find harmony and wholeness. If this is the end of the world as we know it, I feel fine.
The end of the world as we know it will usher in God’s kingdom, which will look like Isaiah’s beautiful image of the holy mountain. When Christ returns to reign over all, all the nations will stream to one destination—to God’s way, God’s dream of unity. The nations will no longer point their swords at each other, but instead will curl them into gardening tools, for the collective caretaking of the earth. The whole earth and all people will work for the advancement of life, of creation, and not the destruction of it. When Jesus makes his surprise return, all vicious cruelty will disappear from our universe. The all-too-familiar violence and fear that has infected every Christmas since the very first one will finally be abolished.
Yes, the End is near. But don’t be afraid. Instead, be alert. Wait impatiently for that day, for that harmonious kingdom, for that profound reign of justice to surprise us all! And as we wait, let us strive to live in line with this dream, in line with Paul’s admonition to live honorably. Let us wait actively, not passively; engaged in our communities, not stuck in the past, nor lost in a pie-the-sky future. Let us be alert to the people and places where God is longing to spend Christmas this year, and let us be caught busily at work there. And as we wait, let us pray fervently that best of all Advent prayers, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider