Advent 1A Sermon (2004)

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


“…one will be taken and one will be left.” — Matt. 24:41

As the book Left Behind begins, Rayford Steele is contemplating adultery with his flight attendant. He is captain of a 747 over the Atlantic ocean, midway between Chicago and London. He has been growing more distant from his wife back home in Chicago, primarily over a difference in values. She has become increasingly involved in her church and faith; Captain Steele doesn’t really go to church. So here he was in the middle of the night, turning the plane over to his co-pilot, and thinking about going back to flirt with Hattie, his flight attendant.

But he never gets a chance, because Hattie first comes running to him in a panic. Numerous folks on the plane have suddenly vanished in thin air, leaving behind only their clothes in a heap where they had been. For the people who are left behind a terrible panic ensues. Upon radioing another nearby plane, Rayford Steele finds that the same thing has happened to them. After turning around and heading back to Chicago, he listens in on many panicked radio conversations. Pandemonium reigns everywhere, as thousands, perhaps millions, of people have suddenly vanished from the face of the earth, leaving behind car crashes, train wrecks, and every manner of chaos. The early theories from newscasters is that a mass alien abduction has taken place. But Rayford has another, better explanation — something he had heard his wife talk about a lot from her renewed faith. No, these disappearances had been caused by the Rapture. Rayford was sure of it.

And so begins an adventure that took twelve volumes for the authors, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, to complete. Oh, and over fifty million books sold, in all. This first book appeared in 1995. The twelfth and last volume hit the bookstores this spring. 60 Minutes did a news story on the phenomenon called “The Greatest Story Ever Sold.”

“…one will be taken and one will be left.” It sure sounds like Jesus is talking about the Rapture, doesn’t it? Some will be taken and some will be left behind, like Rayford Steele, in these fictionalized stories about the Rapture. But I think we need to take a closer look. This is an important passage that proponents of Rapture theology point to. It seems to back their idea that, before Jesus comes a second time to judge the earth, he will first rapture away all the faithful to safe-keeping in heaven.

We need to take a closer look at our Gospel lesson. The immediate context for Jesus talking about some who are taken away and some who are left are the ‘days of Noah’ when everyone except Noah and his family “knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.” Do you see where I’m going with this? If Jesus is talking about the story of Noah, then in that story all the wicked people are carried away by the flood waters, with only Noah and his family left behind. Which is exactly the opposite valuation of Rapture theology, isn’t it? In Rapture theology, those who are carried away are the good and faithful folks, while the unfaithful are left behind to endure the hardships of God’s judgment. But in the days of Noah, it is the unfaithful who are carried away in the flood, while faithful Noah and his family are the ones left behind. So I don’t think that Rapture enthusiasts want to use this passage to back their case, do you?

Now, there’s not enough time this morning to go into all I think that’s wrong with Rapture theology and these fictionalized books about it. But I do think that the mistake of Rapture enthusiasts trying to use this morning’s Gospel as a proof-text can lead us into something positive, namely, an insight into what a life of faith is truly all about.

And I begin with what I see as a great irony about this series of books, in general. The heroes of Rapture theology itself would presumably be the faithful who are carried away by Jesus — and, of course, Jesus himself. I already related to you the opening moments of the Book One, in which the Rapture has already happened. What’s helpful to know is that, in any of the twelve volumes, none of those raptured ever appear as significant characters. The only thing significant about these supposed heroes of the Rapture is their disappearance. In the books themselves, those raptured-away are mere memories.

No, ironically, the heroes in these books are unfaithful people, like Rayford Steele, who have been left behind, but who then also convert to the Christian faith and so live their lives of faith very courageously in the face of increasing violence. I would submit to you this morning that this is more properly what a life of faith is about in the first place: namely, living our lives of faith courageously in the face of increasing violence.

But this, at the same time, is my main beef with these books: that they have the wrong answer as to what it means to live faithfully in the face of violence. In the Left Behind books, this means fighting back and waiting for Christ’s second coming when he will carry out the greatest violence of all-time, the slaughter of all the wicked. That’s what happens, finally, in the twelfth book. Jesus comes and melts the millions of unbelievers — not just the wicked, really, but also those who live moral lives but don’t believe in Jesus. Their bodies melt like the final scene in the movie Indian Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Dear People of God, this is all wrong. Such ultimate violence by Jesus is to hope for some sort of reversal in his second coming of what he actually revealed to us in his first coming. Our hope isn’t in some future rapture. But rather our hope is in the rupture in history that Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection caused the first time around. God’s solution to human violence is not some more ultimate divine violence — at least, that’s surely not the case if we believe in the cross as the center of our faith, is it? No, in the cross of Jesus Christ, God is giving us a solution to the problem of human violence that the world has never seen before. In a world still filled with our violence such that it can scare us half-to-death, we have the Good News to tell about God’s salvation from that violence which is completely unique. God’s answer is to stay the course of Love, nothing less than the way of powerful love that created this world and gives us life in the first place. Having faith in that power of Love is what distinguishes Jesus’ way from ours. It’s the power of life that raised him on Easter morning, the same power that thus promises to raise us when we courageously and faithfully steer that course through a world where human violence still reigns for the time being.

What is our way? It’s either fight or flight, right? We either fight back, or we run away, hoping that it won’t hunt us down and get us anyway. But Jesus came with a third way, a way which neither fights back nor runs away. He stood his ground against the violence through the way of God’s love and suffered our human violence on the cross, while trusting in the power of God’s love to raise him again.

God’s third way of love in the face of human violence still raises as many questions as it answers — certainly more than we can answer today. But this First Sunday of Advent is a day of hope, and so I want to finish with an emphasis on hope, one that more fully uses Jesus’ image of Noah and his family. First, we might notice what the problem was, even back then in days of pre-history. Genesis 6:11 sums it up. Quote: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” In other words, Noah and his family were the only ones not carried away in a rising tide of violence. Safe in the ark, they were the only ones left behind. But it is also crucial to remember the end of the story: God promises with the rainbow to never do that again. In short, God promises never again to use our usual human solution to violence by fighting it with more violence. And so begins God’s third way, in Genesis 12, with the covenant of love to Abraham and Sarah, the covenant that comes to fulfillment in their ancestor, Jesus of Nazareth.

The Gospels all make clear that Jesus came as the Messiah, the anointed king of Israel who would lead them to victory. What kind of victory? Well, we human beings can only imagine one kind of victory, one of fighting fire with fire. So Jesus’ people expected a Messiah who would lead a military victory over their enemies. Jesus’ actual coming, not with a Rapture, but as a rupture into our history of fire against fire with God’s third way of love was completely unexpected. Not even his disciples could understand until after the fact. They ran away while others crucified Jesus, mocking him as a false king.

Now, notice first of all the response of Jesus’ disciples at the crucial moment of Jesus’ arrest. They give evidence to both our human ways, fight and flight. In the garden of Gethsemane, Peter cuts off the ear of a servant. Jesus says, ‘No! Those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ And so the disciples all choose the other route of running away — except Peter who further abandons Jesus by denying he even knows him. But Jesus chooses neither fight nor flight. He instead stays the course of loving forgiveness in the face of violence.

Notice a second thing. Even while on the cross Jesus is taunted that the Messiah should expect some sort of miraculous Rapture, some sort of supernatural rescue mission on God’s part: “He trusts in God,” they yell at him, “let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son’” (Matt. 24:43). Even the criminals hanged with him deride him so. He is cosmically alone as the scapegoat of all. There is no Rapture to save him from the cross. Instead, Jesus quotes the psalmist in crying out the forsakenness of the sacrificial victim, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 24:46) A flood of collective violence had swept up everyone in its path. Jesus alone resisted it.

Is Jesus forsaken? No! The grave itself becomes his ark which keeps him safe until he is raised to life on the third day as the only one left behind by the violence. Brothers and sisters in Christ, you and I are baptized into this same ark, this same promise of life for those who faithfully hold the course of love in the face of this world’s continued violence. In St. Paul’s baptismal language, we have already died with Christ and risen with him so that we need not fear death. In the ark of our baptisms we can courageously stand and not be carried away with those who would use violence as the ultimate answer to violence. In the ark of God’s love, we hope in the promise of God’s power of life to see us through so that not even the grave can stop us from someday being left behind when the whole creation comes to live in that power of life. We can even now faithfully and courageously answer the call to live that life of love, even in the face of violence. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Atonement Lutheran, Muskego, WI
November 28, 2004

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