The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon, Advent I (or Advent IV, expanded season)
Advent is a season of preparation, but not just for a celebration of the first coming of the second person of the Trinity as a babe in Bethlehem. This and the end of one church year and start of another are when the readings have an eschatological focus. This week, we hear in Matthew's Gospel Jesus speak of his return saying, "About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
And yet, no date has been predicted, and guessed wrongly, more frequently than the second coming. To make matters worse for the preacher, the scripture lesson for this coming Sunday is wrapped up in many parishioner's minds with the idea of "The Rapture". That concept of Jesus’ two stage return, first snatching away the faithful and then coming back for everyone else for judgment is less than 200 years old.
In 1830, fifteen year old Margaret MacDonald had a vision during a healing service in where she saw a two-stage return of Jesus. Her vision was adopted by Plymouth Brethren founder John Nelson Darby who looked around scripture cobbling together verses from Revelation, Daniel, Thessalonians and Gospel passages like our text from Matthew. Darby’s system is the basis for all teaching on The Rapture, a concept that did not exist in any Christian church 200 years ago.
So while all Christians have taught of Jesus’ return and the Second Coming is a consistent teaching of our faith, this Sunday's lesson may easily be misheard. Yes, two people are alongside one another, one disappears and the other remains. Because of the teaching of Darby on The Rapture, where the faithful are taken away, we see this as Jesus’ teaching on The Rapture. But what did Christian’s think in those centuries before Darby? They taught that Jesus said the ones in the days of Noah who were taken away were the ones judged as evil. This is more of the image and it fits the Palestine of Jesus when they were under Roman oppression and soldiers would round up dissidents. The person taken is taken away to judgment. That is the way it was in Noah’s day, according to Jesus, and it could be the way things will be at Jesus’ Second Coming if the ones who remain, remain with Jesus.
But this idea of a two-stage rapture is problematic for at least a few reasons that are not fine points:
First, Jesus taught very clearly that not only did he suffer because he lived out the love God has for others, but his followers would suffer as well. When we emphasize The Rapture in our preaching and teaching, it starts to sound like a Get-Out-of-Tribulation-Free Card promising that though bad times are coming, Christians will be taken away before they come. This teaching is contrary to Jesus’ own words and it is hurtful to our fellow Christians in Nigeria, China, The Sudan, Indonesia, and the many other places where Christians are put to death for their faith today.
Second, an emphasis on End Times can lead to actions to try to set the events in motion. Some extremists have sought to take action to force the biblical timetable forward. This is misplaced energy as God is perfectly capable of handling cosmic events without any help from us.
Third and finally, an emphasis on The Rapture often leads to a lack of stewardship for the gifts that God has given us. The theory goes that if Jesus is coming soon, why worry about how we take care of the earth? Of course, in Genesis God told us that humans are to be caretakers of the gift of creation. And when Jesus returns, it would be nice if he found us busy about the stewardship of creation God charged us with in the beginning, rather than trying to wear out our resources before his return.
The consistent message of scripture is that God created everything that is and called it good. Things have gone awry, but God continues to love all creation, us included. God will send Jesus back for the end of the ages. Jesus said that no one, including him, could know the hour or the day of his return. Instead he taught us to keep awake and be ready.
No matter how or when, we know that Jesus is returning and that God’s vision is to make all things new. And for that we don’t have to wait for a Glorious Appearing, as God has already begun to make all things new.
So as I journey toward Sunday, I will be looking for a way to point toward that concept of readiness without getting lost in a rather recent and troubling eschatology. For our role is not to look to the sky and wonder when, but to look at those around us in need and start now. That is how we stay awake and get ready—though proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
Frank Logue is a member of the APLM Council having served previously as its secretary. He is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia and blogs on congregational development at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org
The black and white scenes above were photographed by Frank Logue. The first was shot in the Ramone Crater in Israel. The second photo was taken in the Golan Heights. It depicts Hebrew graffiti and a look through to a distant idyllic scene.