Advent 1A Sermon (2001)

1st Sunday in Advent
Texts: Matthew 24:36-44;
Isa. 2:1-5; Rom. 13:11-14

LEFT BEHIND: SURVIVING THE FLOODS OF VIOLENCE

For as in the days of Noah…, they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then 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. (Matt. 24:37a, 39-41)

One taken, one left. These verses in our Gospel Lesson this morning make it sound a bit like the theme of the phenomenally selling book series called Left Behind. (1) I ‘ve heard so much about them, and we talked about them again at our pastor’s bible study this week, so that I actually went out and bought the first in this series of what is now nine books and counting. This little bull’s-eye on the front cover says that over 40,000,000 copies have been sold in the series. Odds are that at least several of us here have read one or more of them. They’re all the rage in so-called “born again” Christian circles.

I’d like to talk about this book, as a way into talking about our Advent theme of Christ’s coming. In four weeks, we will once again celebrate Christ’s coming into the world the first time. Especially this first Sunday in Advent, we also look ahead to the Second Coming of Christ. How do we prepare with hope for his coming into the world a second time? What do we look for? What do we do?

The Left Behind books suggest an answer to such questions. Let’s examine them for a few minutes, with our readings from Scripture in mind. The first thing to keep in mind about these books is that they are fiction. The authors, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, give their own made-up account of how they think Jesus’ Second Coming might happen. And they base their account on an idea that is controversial for Christians. It’s an idea that I don’t personally find meaningful. It’s never been a part of Lutheran theology — which doesn’t make it automatically right or wrong. It’s just a fact that it’s never been a part of our Lutheran tradition.

This controversial idea is called the Rapture. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s the idea that when Christ comes again, the first thing he will do is to take all the faithful believers off the earth. The unfaithful people will be left behind for a time of tribulation, as Good will battle Evil for what remains of the earth. Those who are snatched up in the Rapture will be spared all the suffering from that battle of Good vs. Evil. I’m told that most of the idea for the Rapture, and the ensuing time of tribulation, is taken from the Book of Revelation.

You might get a better flavor for this idea if I give you a brief synopsis of the first book in the Left Behind series. There’s no big build up to the Rapture. There’s nine books in the series so far, and the Rapture takes place in the first chapter of the first book. Surprisingly, we never get to know a single character who is raptured away.

The first book opens with the main character, airline captain Rayford Steele, halfway over the Atlantic on a flight from Chicago to London. Captain Steele is contemplating an affair with his flight attendant, Hattie, because he has grown distant from his wife since she has become a “born again” Christian. Just as he turns things over to his second in command and heads back to flirt with Hattie, she comes running to him with news that lots of people all over the plane have vanished into thin air, leaving only their clothes behind in a pile. Rayford finds out from a passing Concorde jet that the same thing has happened to them, and he is advised to turn back to Chicago, one of the few airports still open because of the utter chaos the Rapture has produced.

Now, most of the people who are left behind have no clue about what has happened to cause millions of people to suddenly disappear from the face of the earth. Their best guess involves some sort of alien abduction. But someone like Rayford does have a clue, since his wife Irene talked to him about the Rapture all the time. When he finally gets back to his home in the Chicago area, sure enough, he finds only the bed clothes of his wife and son under the sheets of their bed — raptured away in their sleep. In despair, he does find out that at least his daughter, Chloe, a college student at Stanford, is still alive, and she makes it home so that, together, they can grieve their loss.

The Rapture takes place around midnight on a Monday night. By the first week’s end, Rayford feels drawn to the church that his wife Irene attended. There he finds only Pastor Bruce Barnes, the visitation pastor, left behind, along with a video tape that the senior pastor had left behind to view in the event of the Rapture. Pastor Barnes confessed that he was the only one in his family left behind, and one of the only members in the church left behind. He explains to Rayford how he had called himself a Christian all his life, but had never really turned his life over to Christ. Now, in his grief, he would do so. Rayford Steele, over the next several days, follows Pastor Barnes’ example, and turns his life completely over to Christ. Together, they preach Christ as best they can in the face of what is becoming the time of tribulation. Two of the first characters they convert are Rayford’s daughter Chloe, and a well-connected journalist, named Buck Williams, who had been on the aborted flight to London. As the first book ends, these four are preparing themselves for the tribulation to come — which is what I understand the next eight books to be about.

Personally, I would not recommend these books. I could give a detailed account of what I think is wrong with the theology, which is even dangerous, I think, in some respects. But I don’t have time for that this morning. If folks are interested, maybe we could study this a bit more at another time and in another setting.

Instead, this morning, I’d like to take off from what I see as the more positive aspect of this book, even if it ends up being an ironic starting place. I say ironic because the best place to be, according to these books, is to be among those believers who will be raptured away someday. But, as I mentioned, we never get to know a single one of those characters! The rapture occurs in the first chapter of the first book, so we only get to know those unfortunates who are left behind. The characters we come to identify with are Rayford Steele and his gang of resisters against the forces of tribulation. We come to know them as people of strong Christian faiths who put their lives on the line for Jesus. They come to be decent models for discipleship — at least, in this first book.

I find this ironic because, according to rapture theology, there’s such a strong negative connotation placed on being left behind. Yet that’s all we come to know in these books, and the main characters are those left behind who end up being positive examples of living lives for Christ.

What I would seriously suggest, then, after reading this first book, is that we might do away with the rapture idea altogether, along with this period of tribulation after the rapture, and simply see the first coming of Jesus as the significant rupture in time. As Christians, it’s the Cross and Resurrection that we claim to be the decisive moments in history. Do we really need another event that changes everything?

Let me begin with this supposed time of tribulation to come after the rapture. Do you mean there is a worse tribulation yet to come? After two thousands years of deepening violence and bloodshed, is it our hope(?!) that things will get worse yet for those left behind? After the most deadly century yet in human history — after two world wars that took lives in the tens of millions; after several genocides against whole peoples; after the advent of nuclear weapons and Cold War and now terrorism; and after even ending in the closing decade with things like teenagers opening fire on teachers and classmates in their own high school — after a century like that one, I hope to God that things can’t get much worse. Perhaps they might. But it’s always my hope that they won’t.

No, let me suggest instead, that Christ himself was the one left behind. He let himself be left behind. And, after rising and ascending into heaven, he has left us, his disciples to survive the times of tribulation unleashed by the Cross, by that rupture event in history. We don’t have to dream up some fictional account of a rapture and ensuing time of tribulation out of the Book of Revelation. St. John already dreamed up a vision for us, and I believe that his attempt was more of what I’m saying. Revelation is an account of the Cross and the difference it makes in history — St. John’s own history of the closing first century and dawning second century. He wasn’t trying to predict events in some distant future, he was describing the effects that the Cross would make on history, beginning with his own time, with the horrors of the Roman Empire. If we look at the Book of Revelation for ‘prophecy’ at all, it should be to see the effects of the Cross on our history, namely, on the rising tide of violence over the last two thousand years.

Again, I don’t have time this morning to show you all of this. And St. John probably did a good enough job the first time in condensing such things down to images and metaphors. Let me simply give you a hint of what I mean from the main image of our Gospel Lesson this morning, that of Noah and his family surviving the flood.

Our usual way of looking at the story of Noah and his family would be like the Left Behind stories. Noah, his family, and the animals were raptured; they were taken up safely in the ark so that they weren’t left behind to suffer the deluge that destroyed everyone else. But I believe that Jesus’ main teaching strategy was to take our usual way of looking at things and to begin to turn them upside-down, inside-out. “For as in the days of Noah…,” he says, “they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” What if we look at it the other way? That everyone else was swept away in the flood, and it was Noah and his family who were left behind, saved by the ark, so that they could begin life on earth anew. The story of the flood begins with this observation (Gen. 6:11): “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” Filled with violence. The earth was flooded with violence, and only Noah and his family were left behind to begin again.

Why would Jesus want to turn things around in this way? Because, as we suggested, he would be the one par excellence who would be left behind in precisely this fashion. There was a rising tide of violence that lifted him up on the cross, and he was the only one not swept up in it. By that I mean, he himself resisted the temptation to respond in violence. Jesus remained steadfastly nonviolent in a rising tide of violence that swept up everyone else in its flood. Not just the Jewish council, but the whole mob, and Herod and Pilate, too. Even Jesus’ own disciples got swept away: one betrayed him, one denied him, and they all ran away. When Jesus was crucified, even the Roman soldiers got swept up in it, as well as the criminals who hung beside him. (2) They all deride him precisely with a rapture sort of theology: ‘If you are really the Messiah, then God will save you from this! God will rapture you away! God will send armies of angels to defend you.’ But not only is it all of them who are swept up in the flood of violence, they assume God would be, too. They assume that the Messiah’s God will someday use a divine counter-violence to save the day. Jesus alone resists the temptation, alone remaining faithful to the God of life who lovingly creates, and not giving in to our idols of death who save with a sacred, righteous violence. Jesus is so alone among our idols that he even cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s being left behind!

But, in a sense, isn’t Jesus also swept up in the flood of violence? In fact, isn’t he the victim of it? It certainly would appear so. For three days, at least. But, no! The cross and tomb are really his ark! Being sealed up in the tomb has really been his ark of salvation. For in three days, Jesus emerges as the only one to truly survive the flood of violence. And this time God’s act of salvation will be the one to finally change history. Jesus Christ is risen to begin life, to begin creation, again. And he does so as the One who can help us to survive the continuing floods of violence.

So we, too, are left behind. We are left behind as those who, with Jesus’ help, can survive the rising tides of violence that continue to surround us. Increasingly, floods of violence will come along and get folks easily swept up in them, but there will be a growing number of faithful who resist and are left behind. A tide of violence will come along, and one will be taken, but one will be left. Think for a moment of the times of rising conflict in you own life. At work? At home? Right now, we face it as a nation. Terrorists have swamped us with an unthinkable act of violence. How easy is it to get swept up in that violence? It can still be a lonely feeling to be left behind when so many others are caught up in the violence of our ‘righteous’ national response to that terror.

But the empty tomb of Christ is our promise. Since Jesus has shown us and promised us that we can more than survive, we are able in faith to resist getting taken up in the flood waters. Even if we become victims to such violence, we aren’t really. For the tomb is but an ark of salvation until that day when Christ will come again, and his reign of peace will be all in all. The flood waters of violence will someday recede forever.

That’s the day we await. Not some rapturing away that will spare us from being left behind. But the day when all of Creation will have survived the last flood of violence, and we are all left behind to the rapturous joy of Christ’s reign in peace. The hope of the Book of Revelation is not some Rapture yet to happen, but the rupture in history that has already happened at the Cross. What we are to look for is not Christ’s coming that will somehow be different from the first coming. Jesus won’t do the second time around what he faithfully resisted doing the first time. He won’t give in to being a Messiah who calls on righteous divine violence to finally save the day. He didn’t do that the first time, and my faith is that he won’t the second time, either. No, the Resurrection already shows us how God will finally win the day — precisely by wholly and completely resisting our violence with a power of life that loves us and forgives us into being made new. So we look to follow in the life of the Christ who came that first Christmas. We look to the Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace, so as to not get swept up in the eddies and tides of violence that swell and recede, until one day they will recede forever and leave behind a new heaven and new earth. On that day, we will be among the white robed witnesses who sing God’s praises. On that day, God will stoop to wipe away every tear from our eyes. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, December 2, 2001

Notes

1. Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995.

2. Luke’s account has one criminal who defends Jesus, but we will go by Matthew’s account since we are beginning the year of Matthew’s Gospel for the lectionary. The following word from the cross is also Matthew’s lone word.

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