Monthly Archives: November 2014

Staying Put. Matthew 24:36-44 November 2014

In Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus telling his disciples that at the return of the Son of Man “two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
This passage–which has got to be among the ten most often twisted in all of scripture–is often used underpin a naïve and hopelessly silly doctrine that has served to make the Christian faith a laughing-stock in eyes of the wise world. I’m talking about the so-called Rapture, a belief popular among evangelical Christians that at the return of the Lord Jesus the “saved” will abruptly soar off into the atmosphere to meet him among the clouds, leaving the world and the unsaved in it behind to face the music. The Rapture notion was a great favorite among the uber-righteous members of my own family back in North Dakota, who considered themselves more pure and holy the rest of us. They loved to talk about the imminent hour when they would fly away, waving ta-ta to the rest of us sinners, who would be left behind to face the music. None of those relatives got as far as Fargo, to my sure knowledge. And from the time I was a small child the thought of soaring off into space with that bunch was not an attractive one to me. When they started on the Rapture I remember thinking to myself—silently, of course–If they’re going, I’m staying put.
And this parable of Jesus—it is a parable, by the way, not a prediction—speaks to the desirability of staying put. In it he is making a point about those who are ready for his return—the Greek word is “parousia,” which means “arrival.” Two farmers are working in a field and two women are about their household chores. They may look as alike as two halves of an apple, but there is a crucial distinction between them. One is watchful, the other preoccupied. One is mindful of God’s coming Kingdom, the other is caught up in trivial matters. The Lord, however, knows the difference between them, and at his arrival, that difference will be revealed. “One will be taken and the other left.”
But in order to really understand this parable, we need to understand the precise meaning of those terms “taken” and “left.” Jews of the First Century, notably the Pharisees who shared with the first Christians a belief in “the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come,” taught that on the last day the wicked would be either cast into hell or annihilated utterly—there was some division on this point–and the righteous would be left behind to share in a renewed and glorified creation. That is the belief that lies behind the beatitude which says—“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). With the unrighteous disposed of one way or another, the world will pass to those for whom God intended it, his legitimate heirs. So the righteous—the “saved”–are one ones who are “left behind”—and the wicked—Surprise! Surprise!—are the ones who are taken—“raptured,” if you like.
Now I want to make one thing perfectly clear—I am not ridiculing belief in the Lord’s return. I myself live in expectation of The Day. Every Sunday I confess that the same Jesus who died and rose bodily from the dead “will come again with glory and judge the living and the dead. And his kingdom will have no end.” I have a close acquaintance, a Methodist minister as a matter of fact, who once asked me—“Do you really think Jesus will come back? Really?” And my answer was that I do believe it and strive to make my life conform to that belief. And believing in The Day means being ready today. And ready means having your zipper zipped and your socks pulled up. It means having said everything that needs to be said and having done everything that can be done. It means forgiving those who have trespassed against us so that we may also reasonably expect to be forgiven. It means fulfilling our responsibilities to the fullest.
But ready certainly does not mean expecting any day now to shed my responsibilities with my clothes and getting beamed up, leaving behind the whole bloody mess for someone else to muck through. God cares even more than I do about who will feed the cats and who will water the geraniums. He is the God of little things. And helping him take care of little things is what living a holy life is all about, beloved. Living completely in this world, and loving everything in it. Taking pity on the creation, and being passionately concerned for its redemption.
When he was asked what he would do if he knew for certain that the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther is supposed to have replied—“I would plant an apple tree.” Whether he did actually say that I don’t know. Luther is supposed to have said a lot of things he probably didn’t. But it does certainly seem like the sort of thing Luther might have said—sensible, pragmatic, worldly, and at the same time wholly faithful to the Gospel. That was the kind of guy Luther was–the kind of guy I would like to grow up to be. It is the kind of the person all of us should want to be—holy and at the same time wholly of this world. The Lord will arrive someday, but nobody knows which day. His First Coming happened in a completely un-expectable way, and there is no reason to suppose his Second will be any different.
The New Testament writers believed so fervently in the imminent “parousia” they could not help trying to give shape and form to their hopes. They were so excited about their Lord’s return that they could taste it in their bread and see it in their waking dreams. But the Second Coming belongs to the world of the Really Real, the realm of miracles, of things that have the never been seen before, and once seen will never happen again. We can try to describe what we imagine, but in doing so we always have to fall back upon the “soft” language of poetry and metaphor. Concrete descriptions and exact predictions of “the day or the hour,” as the Jesus repeatedly told his disciples, are a big waste of time.
Of course, you can’t stop people from wasting their time if they set their minds to do it. And you have to forgive the weaknesses of others if you expect your own to be forgiven. Still I can’t help resenting these periodic attempts to try to make book on the time and manner on the Lord’s arrival. And now there’s yet another out there, and this one particularly gormless and vulgar.
You may recall a pot-boiler novel that appeared in the uneasy year 2000 entitled Left Behind. It was by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye–who will in my humble opinion have quite a lot to answer for when the Lord really does arrive. The book caused quite a sensation, spawning a particularly awful movie adaptation starring Kirk Cameron. It used a fictionalized Rapture as its background, and for a while that word was on everyone’s lips. Wacky predictions were made. People sold their houses. Bumper stickers were seen that said—“!!WARNING!! In case if Rapture this car will be unmanned.” The secular press picked it up, and there were jokes were bandied about it on the late-night shows. But when several Rapture alerts failed to pan out, and no one floated off into the stratosphere leaving their cares and woes behind, the whole thing quieted down. Lately I have noticed that copies of Left Behind sitting sadly unwanted in the used book section at the Salvation Army—which for fiction is usually the end of the line. So we might be forgiven for hoping that Left Behind–the novel and the notion that spawned it–had itself been left on the shelf and forgotten.
But no such luck. Another, somewhat higher budget Left Behind has now appeared, produced by Willie Robertson. Robertson is one of those huckleberries from Duck Dynasty, the widely popular television series which has single-handedly lowered the IQ of the nation by a full three points. The movie stars Oscar-winner Nicholas Cage, of all people, who under the influence of drugs and alcohol has apparently come completely unhinged. (Block out an hour sometime and check Nick out online for some frolicsome reading.) He has, for instance, become convinced that he is a vampire–which he may in fact be for all I know. With the passing years he has indeed started to look a little like one. He also has drug-induced visions of a quasi-religious nature. One night on David Letterman Nick related how Lewis, his pet cat, once accidently consumed half a bag of hallucinogenic mushrooms stored in the refrigerator. (Some people obviously have much more interesting refrigerators than we do.) When Nick realized that the cat was tripping, he ate the rest of the mushrooms so that the poor kitty wouldn’t have to go alone. It turned out to be a revelation. As Nick was lying on his bed, swimming in a sea of peyote-induced euphoria, he locked eyes with Lewis, who was apparently sitting on the bureau looking down at him, and suddenly realized the cat is really his brother. Really, really…..
Now obviously Charlton Heston would have been the obvious choice for the lead in this newest versions of Left Behind. But the star of the Ten Commandments and Ben Hur is unavailable, being currently dead. And obviously Nicolas Cage does not have the sort of life-style that would automatically recommend him to the producers of a movie aimed specifically at evangelical Christians. But Nick has gotten himself so deeply into debt with the U.S. government—apparently he didn’t pay his taxes—that he has been ordered by the court to take any script that is offered to him. So he couldn’t say no.
And on a deeper level, Nick may be the perfect choice for the part because he is a poster boy for every imaginable sort of irresponsibility. And the notion of the Rapture is the slickest possible theological excuse for human irresponsibility, the idea that we can have a picnic in the park and then walk away and let someone else clean up the mess. And it could happen any day now, so why worry about global warming or poverty or injustice or anything else. We’re outta here. As producer Willie Robertson writes on his Facebook page: “Like most Christians, my family and I can truly say that we’re excited about the soon return of Jesus. And I’m sure if you’ve been watching the news lately, you know that return could be any day now. . . . I believe that people are going to make that life-changing decision to follow Christ on the way home from the theater.” But just in case of Rapture, I have to hope they aren’t tailgating my vehicle too closely when they get beamed up. Or that they don’t wipe out a group of school children waiting to cross the street.
Seriously—indeed, very seriously–I am also excited about “the soon return of Jesus,” but my expectation of his arrival is different. I don’t believe Jesus will come in the clouds to rapture us away to some other place, some Big Rock Candy Mountain where all our wishes will be magically fulfilled. When Christ comes again it will be with a well-stocked toolbox and a determined look in his eye, ready to repair what we in our carelessness have broken. All of us have experienced the helplessness of having something break–something we depend on every day, like the starter on the car or the plumbing in the downstairs bathroom. And all of us know the relief—nay, the joy—or having someone who really knows what he or she is doing, someone with the right tools for the job, come and make one go and other flush. The Bible does not actually say that Jesus of Nazareth was a carpenter and a carpenter’s son—that’s an old mistaken translation of the word that actually means not carpenter but “skilled workman.” And when Jesus does indeed return, it will be with the strength and expertise of a “skilled workman” who can fix this world, so seriously messed up by our selfishness and stupidity. Indeed, that is what his Holy Spirit is already doing—fixing the things that break and wear out, like fragile relationships and aging bodies.
Getting older is hard—do I need to tell you that? And what point would there be in getting older—it is far too painful and humiliating—if you don’t discover something worthwhile in the process? So I ask myself—So what have I learned with time? What do I understand now that I didn’t start out knowing? And the answer is—Not a hell of a lot, perhaps, but some things, at least.
For one thing I have learned that you can’t ever escape the consequences of your actions. Oh, you can avoid them for a while—some people are real wizards at that–but you can’t ever avoid them entirely. “What goes around comes around,” my mother used to say, but when she said it I always used to think she was just being Norwegian—unnecessarily pessimistic and gloomy. But time has taught me the truth of it. Then my chiropractor sounded the same sour note this very morning. We were looking at an x-ray of my neck together and he was pointing out whence my pain was coming. “You know,” he said, “you can never cheat the past. Oh, you may have thought you got away with them at the time, but the things you did to your body, thirty, forty, fifty years ago, come back to haunt you. You know what they say–What goes around comes around.” He already caused me considerable anguish, and he pronounced this in such an annoyingly cheerful tone I wanted to smite him. But, he was right, of course—we end up suffering the consequences of the things we did—even things we didn’t intend to do–even things we didn’t do, but would have if we had had the chance.
People who are critical of the Christian faith like to call it “escapist,” but it isn’t that at all. Only God was able to break the circle of “what goes around comes around,” and he could do it only by the most extreme means imaginable. Jesus, the Son of God, had to die on the cross to accomplish it. And his cross was not an escape for anyone—certainly not for Jesus and not for us. The cross proclaims our forgiveness, but forgiveness that takes place only in the harsh light of honest self-reflection and confession.
We have been dirty birds, beloved. We all detest those folks who have a picnic in the park and then get up and leave their trash for someone else to clean it up. But if we are honest with ourselves we have admit that we have each done that. Each of us was made personally responsible for creation, over which in the beginning God gave us dominion. So if it has been turned into the dog’s breakfast, which is indeed the case, if we are honest we each have confess our part in making it that way. We have each sinned greatly against ourselves, against one another, and against the creation. We have been forgiven for Jesus’ sake–but that is not all there is to say. Forgiveness does not release us from our responsibility. An honest confession of what we have done and left undone demands that we commit ourselves, body and soul, to the redemption of the world for which out Lord’s died and rose again.
This world is our world, no other. When we confess our belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, we are affirming that in some yet to be revealed away, our ultimate destiny is here, not someplace else. I must confess that I find myself wishing from time to time that if there were someplace to else to go. Like Huckleberry Finn I would like to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest.” So I can readily understand why people fall for a notion like the Rapture. It seems like the easy way out of a tough situation, and who doesn’t want that. But it won’t work, beloved. Escape is delusion of our own making. We have to do the best we can right here, while we wait for Christ the Repairman to arrive.
But it ain’t easy, beloved–staying put, that is. Most of our leaders—religious and political–do not offer us very good examples of how to do that. A woman wrote to me the other day expressing her grief and disappointment with the leadership of the church of which she is a member. Going to services there has become more of a chore than a pleasure. “But I am not leaving,” she wrote, “This is my church and I am determined to stay put. No one is going to drive me out.” Well, I can sympathize. I am pretty disillusioned with the leadership of the world of which I am a part. It often seems as if it is governed by a bunch of unreflective, self-serving gits. (That is a word, but you may not find that word in your dictionary. But I’m certain you can pick up its meaning from its context here.) Some few, masters of the rhetoric of escape, have gotten themselves elected, but most, by money and guile, have elected themselves to power. They never tell the truth unless there is gun to their heads, and they are prepared to let everything else fall into destruction and ruin if only they can hold onto the power they have grabbed for themselves. And we let them. You and I keep our mouths shut and let them rule us acted as if their greed and irresponsibility didn’t matter.
But it does matter! We confess an incarnate God, beloved. When God in Jesus Christ took on flesh and became a part of the universe he had created, he did so in order that the material world might be saved and glorified together with us. By his death and his rising Jesus Christ made the earth his body and the waters his blood. He became like us not to release us from our responsibility for this world, but in order that that he might share our responsibility for it.
And I have come to the place in my life where I do not want to escape that responsibility—most of the time, at least. This is my earth and I am determined to stay put. Even if I were offered gossamer wings to fly away to heaven, I’d say no thanks. I’m deathly afraid of heights, for one thing, and besides this is where my heaven is located, in my own garden. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” Many people’s idea of heaven is an exclusive gated community in which they will spend forever with the people who share our own religious ideas and political predispositions. But nothing could be further from the truth. The brilliant shadow of heaven is behind everything around us. It is there, in with and under a leaf or an acorn.
Everything real we see around us is an image of the Really Reality we cannot see. No one has ever seen God, but looking at Jesus Christ we behold the image—the icon—of the God we cannot see. And in other human beings we see images—icons–of Christ, and we worship him in loving and caring for them. That isn’t easy—do I need to tell you that? They don’t act much like Christ, and the world doesn’t always look much like heaven. But heaven is there nevertheless. In the visible world around us, even in its more repellent aspects, we see the icon of the coming Kingdom of God. Earth is the mirror in which the new heaven and the new earth of the Book of Revelation is darkly reflected. And according to Revelation that renewed creation will still be a place of earthly realities—of cities and houses, mountains and trees.
Now all this last part about images and icons may seem a little thick, beloved, and I’m sorry for that. I just working it through. I don’t pretend to know what the last act of the drama will be. We are all waiting for the big reveal, and it is certain to be a big surprise for everyone. But this much seems clear to me– following Jesus is something that has to be done in this world and for this world. It is a bewildering mess—do I need to tell you that?–but this is where we belong, beloved. So to leave it behind and float off into some stratospheric never-never-land of our own imagining is the ultimate cop-out. The Gospel is not a means of escape, beloved; it is God’s plan for the transformation of his creation—ourselves included. And taking our part in that plan means refusing to hide our eyes from the suffering of the creation.
That’s what Jesus did—he never turned away from the world’s pain. Looking down from the Cross he saw it all, and as the scriptures witness, he died not of his wounds but of a broken heart. Staying put and following Jesus here in the world is the hardest thing anyone will ever ask of us. At times it will threaten to break our hearts just as it broke his. Everywhere around us there is fear and loneliness and confusion, but for a true follower if Jesus escape from all that is neither possible nor desirable. To follow Jesus means sharing his compassion and making that fear and loneliness and confusion our own. As St Silouan of Mount Athos put it—“The heart that has learnt to love has pity for all creation.” It was said of St. Silouan that he prayed and wept for the whole world as if for himself. Illiterate and living in monastic isolation, he grasped the deepest truth, you see–that those two things are essentially the same.

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Filed under Gospels, New Testament