Advent 1A Sermon (2007)

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


“Ten-year-old ‘Josh’ came home from school to an empty house. His mother, normally at home to greet him, was nowhere to be found. She might have been at the store or at a neighbor’s, but Josh was terrified. His immediate response was a terrible fear that all his family had been ‘Raptured’ without him. Josh was sure he had been left behind.

“Now a grown-up in my seminary class on the book of Revelation,” says Barbara Rossing, “Josh told this story of his boyhood experience.” Rossing is a professor of New Testament at our seminary in Chicago, who wrote a very important book called The Rapture Exposed. She continues in that book: “Others consistently echo Josh’s story of childhood fear of the Rapture. These born-again Christian children were exhorted to be good so that they would be sure to be snatched up to heaven with Jesus when he returned. Raised on a daily diet of fear, their view of God resembled the song about Santa Claus coming to town: ‘You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry.’ Only it was Jesus, not Santa, who was ‘coming to town’ at an unexpected hour: ‘He knows when you’ve been sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.’”

I like Prof. Rossing’s analogy of Santa Claus and God, especially at this time of year, because it gives me a chance to say why we don’t do Santa Claus at our house — at least, not with the same kind of urgent belief that we see in our culture. Santa Claus can be a fun thing, entertainment, but we do need to be careful about the message it sends. The popular song about Santa Claus that Rossing quotes uses fear of Santa not coming as an inducement to be good. This might seem harmless. But I can’t tell you how many times, when our children were small and getting antsy while shopping at this time of year, we’ve had total strangers walk up to them and tell them, “Now you better be good for your Dad or Santa won’t come.” With the number of people who say this to total strangers, I’d hate to guess how often it’s said to children we know.

We’ve downplayed Santa at our house not just because he interferes with the person who really needs to be the center of this season, the “reason for the season,” but because this way of presenting Santa Claus is 180̊ from our message of grace in Jesus. We sing that you’d better be good or Santa won’t come, while our message here at church is that Jesus came into this world, sent by God his heavenly father, precisely because we were bad. Jesus was sent into this world to save us from ourselves. The truly Good News is not that Jesus comes again if we’re good, but that Jesus comes when we’re bad to help set us back on the right path to live lives of loving service. Because Jesus came the first time, we are able, in that beautiful image from St. Paul this morning, to put on Christ Jesus in the morning as if we were putting on our clothes. Because Jesus came, we are able to live different lives. We live lives of constantly remembering the promises of our baptisms, watered and fed by Word and Sacrament. We are able to love because Jesus loves us and continues to pour out that love on us through the Holy Spirit. Can Santa make that claim? According to our songs anyway, it would seem that Santa can only induce us to goodness out of fear of his not coming.

I agree with Prof. Rossing that this sort of difference is what is at stake with the popular Christian belief in the Rapture. Just in case you don’t know what the Rapture is — which is possible for those not raised in the Anabaptist traditions — it is the Christian belief about Christ’s second coming of which there’s two stages: First, that Jesus will first Rapture away all the faithful believers. And. Second, he will bring terrible tribulation to all those unfaithful people who are “left behind” when the final defeat of evil comes. This way of looking at the Second Coming of Christ was fictionalized in the best-selling series of books called Left Behind. I checked the website this morning to glean in the first paragraph that sales for these books currently top the 65 million mark. The popularity of the books signals the popularity of the theology behind it. The Rapture is a very prominent view within Christian denominations in this country because the Anabaptist traditions have been so popular here, especially in the South. The Rapture is a dominant view among the so-called Religious Right.

So what is at stake here? The same kind of difference, I believe, between Santa Claus and Jesus. First of all, it is the difference between love and fear as what motivates our being able to live changed lives. Does the “goodness” we are able to achieve in our lives come from the power of love unleashed when Christ came the first time, or out of fear of what might not happen to us — namely, the Rapture — when Christ comes the second time? Do we live loving lives because Christ loved us and sends his Spirit to us so that we might put on his love each morning as we put on our clothes? Or do we achieve loving lives because we are afraid of not being Raptured when Christ comes again? That’s a pretty important difference, isn’t it?

But there’s an even more important difference behind it, signaled by the question, “Who is the God behind such comings of Christ?” Who is the God who sent Jesus in love the first time? And who is the God, according to the Rapture theology, who will send Jesus the second time? Are they the same God of love?

And here’s the most important question behind these questions: If we truly believe that God chooses to save the world from evil by sending Jesus to die on the cross, then, when the promised final defeat of evil comes, will it look somehow different than the cross? Here’s what I mean. In the popular beliefs about Christ’s second coming as Rapture, he takes all the faithful believers away to the safety of heaven, because he’s going to win the final defeat of evil through superior firepower. He’s going to fight fire with fire. He’s going to defeat the powers of violence and death by wreaking a sacred and righteous power of violence and death upon them. Now, we need to ask ourselves: is that way of defeating those powers the same or different from the cross? On the cross, I see a loving God who suffers our human powers of violence and death — and I can’t underline or emphasize enough the stress on “our” violence. In the cross, I believe we finally see a God whose very way of defeating our powers of violence and death, of saving us from ourselves, is precisely different from those very same powers of violence and death. God, in Jesus Christ, has suffered our powers of violence in love and raised Jesus on the third day as a promise that that power of love is the power of life itself. Thus, when Jesus comes again, it won’t be to change tactics from the first time, this time wielding our same powers of violence in order to defeat violence. No, when Christ comes again, it will once again be in love, but this time it will be when those powers of violence and death bring about their own inevitable end, collapsing in on themselves.

What is that old definition of insanity? To keep doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. We human beings keep trying the same way to defeat the powers of violence and death by trying to find a superior firepower of violence and death. Well, this is the very epitome of insanity, then, because superior firepower only brings with it an ultimate power of destruction. Gandhi said that ‘an eye for an eye only makes the whole world go blind.’ We human beings have been caught up since the beginning of time in just this kind of insanity. We keep trying the same way to defeat the powers and violence and death, and it is by using those same powers and violence and death! Only the true God in Jesus Christ has given us the only true way out of such madness, and that is to suffer the violence in love exposing it precisely as the powers we are desperately trying to rid ourselves of.

I’ve taken on Rapture theology this morning primarily because there is the line in our Gospel Lesson about the time like Noah when ‘one will be taken and one will be left.’ It sounds a bit like Rapture theology, doesn’t it? But I want to assure you that it’s not. We can only see this by seeing the whole context of Matthew’s Gospel, which we begin this morning. We have a whole year to see and explore. We’ll continue next week.

I end this morning by pointing again to the cross, where Jesus was taunted on the cross that the Messiah should expect some sort of miraculous Rapture, some sort of supernatural rescue mission on God’s part. Jesus is taunted, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son’” (Matt. 27:43). Even the criminals hanged with him derided him so. He was cosmically alone as the scapegoat of all. There was no Rapture to save him from the cross. Instead, Jesus quoted the psalmist in crying out the forsakenness of the sacrificial victim, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) A flood of collective violence had swept up everyone in its path. Jesus alone resisted it.

Yet even though it washed over him and he did drown in it, the tomb became his ark. He remained sheltered there for three days and then left it behind empty. God had met our flood of violence with God’s own flood of love, the power of new life itself. Jesus has arisen as the Forgiving Victim of all those others who were swept up in the flood of violence. There was no Rapture that saved him from the cross, but the Resurrection did pull him from the clutches of death. What is needed is not so much a Rapture theology but instead a good baptismal theology: we are already baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ so that we can face the continuing rising tide of human violence with faith.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, December 2, 2007

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