Last revised: December 16, 2022
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FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT — YEAR A
RCL: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
RoCa: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
“Rupture not Rapture.” In 2001 the phenomenon of the Left Behind book series was raised at the weekly study of the texts among local pastors. It piqued my curiosity to the point that I went out and bought a copy of the first book and did some substantial reading/browsing in it. Living a fairly sheltered life from Rapture theology, I needed to resist not taking this book seriously. It says “Over 40,000,000 Sold in Series” on the front cover — apparently before the ninth book in the series (in 2004 the twefth and final volume appeared). It wouldn’t be fair for me to simply write it off as too divergent from my own view of Christian theology. It’s a theology not typically popular among Lutherans, but I have had members encourage me to read them. And my colleagues said that they’ve encountered interest among their members such that they feel the need to address a rapture-sounding verse like the one in this Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew 24:40: “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.”
I would like to offer the Girardian anthropology as an alternative to the viewpoint of the Rapture. In the cross Jesus himself ultimately became the one left behind. All others had gotten swept up in the unanimous violence against him. He was the only one not caught up in the flood of violence as a perpetrator and instead became its victim for our sakes. He 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: “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 it washed over him, and he did drown in it. Was the tomb his ark? He remained sheltered for three days and then left it behind empty. He has arisen as the Forgiving Victim of all those others who were swept up in the flood. 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 as a good baptismal theology: we are already baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ such that we can face the continuing rising tide of human violence with faith.
The New Testament — I propose that Girard’s anthropology of the cross helps to show — does not so much describe a coming rapture as it describes an already come rupture in time and history. The endless cycles of rising tides of human violence has been interrupted with an incarnate, nonviolent word from God in Jesus Christ, a word that is unconditionally one of loving forgiveness. It is a rupture that begins creation again with a power of life from God that reveals itself as more powerful than our powers of violence and death. We who are already baptized into that promise of life need not hope in some future rapture. Our hope is in the coming fulfillment of what was already begun in the cross and resurrection.
1. So what might we conclude as a reading of the Gospel Lesson that presents an alternative to one which would read it as a confirmation of the Rapture? Here is my attempt at such a reading in the 2001 sermon “Left Behind: Surviving the Floods of Violence.” In 2001, I also ended up reprising these themes and extending it with reflections on our baptismal identities in a sermon “Baptized into Christ Jesus: Part Two of ‘Surviving the Flood.'”
2. In 2004, I preached a similar, updated version of the 2001 sermon, “Faith as Living Lives of Courageous Love in the Face of Violence.”
3. In 2007, I used many of the same insights from the 2004 and 2001 sermons, but used a different jumping-off point, Santa Clause and Barbara Rossing‘s book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, in a sermon “The Flood of Violence.”
4. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2010, titled “I Would Rather Be Left Behind“; and in 2013, “Riding Out the Flood“; and in 2016, “Build Your Ark!”
5. In 2013, I began a series of sermons on the First Readings in the Advent A, with the sermon “Nonviolence or Nonexistence — Choosing the Peaceable Kingdom.” For more on this series, see today’s First Reading immediately below.
6. In 2022, the stakes were higher with the world facing a number of crises, made worse by six years of Donald Trump being a lightning rod for conspiracy theories, polarized division, racist terrorism, and political violence. So this version of the sermon “Nonviolence or Nonexistence” also raised the stakes of proclaiming the Peaceable Kingdom in the face of apocalyptic violence.
1. In 2013, I’m preaching a series on the Isaiah readings in Advent, based on a presentation by Barbara Lundblad at the 2013 Festival of Homiletics, titled “The Word Isaiah Saw.” For me, the key to glimpsing God’s peaceable kingdom is seeing what Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. did in leading millions into nonviolent resistance of empire. In addition to the object suggested by Lundblad — we couldn’t find an old-time plow, so we used a rototiller — I told the story of a T-shirt I have from the King Center in Atlanta with the words “Nonviolence or nonexistence” across the chest (see #4 below for the full quote). The resulting sermon is “Nonviolence or Nonexistence — Choosing the Peaceable Kingdom.”
2. Rob Bell & Don Golden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: Learning to Read a Dangerous Book, especially chapter 5, “Swollen-Bellied Black Babies, Soccer Moms on Prozac, and the Mark of the Beast.” The first four chapters follow a progression in the story of Israel as a common progression in human history, with prominent places in Israel’s history as metaphors for human history in empire: Egypt: God hears the cries of the oppressed and frees them; Sinai: a time of choosing between life and death before settling into the promised land; Jerusalem: choosing the way of death, of oppressing others in empire; Babylon: empire collapses into exile — and a return to Egypt, to being oppressed in another land. Chapter 5: after looking at this progression, they take a hard look at America as empire, as a nation who, like Israel under Solomon, accumulate tremendous wealth and a military to protect it. Beginning with reflections on “collateral damage” in the Iraq war, they write (reformatting some of paragraphs):
Because what’s going on here is an ancient phenomenon known as empire. America is an empire. And the Bible has a lot to say about empires.
Most of the Bible is a history told by people living in lands occupied by conquering superpowers. It’s a book written from the underside of power. It’s an oppression narrative. The majority of the Bible was written by a minority people living under the rule and reign of massive, mighty empires, from the Egyptian Empire to the Babylonian Empire to the Persian Empire to the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire.
This can make the Bible a very difficult book to understand if you are reading it as a citizen of the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. Without careful study and reflection, and humility, it may even be possible to miss central themes of the Scriptures.
Because what’s true of empires then is true of empires now.
What we see in the Bible is that empires naturally accumulate wealth and resources. Solomon built terraces and stockpiled gold.
America controls nearly 20 percent of the world’s wealth.
And accumulating the wealth of empire inevitably leads to creating the military industrial complex to protect the wealth:
Which takes us back to Jerusalem. What we saw with Solomon is that his wealth and abundance naturally led to the priority of preservation. He had to allocate a growing portion of his resources to protecting and securing what he had accumulated. And so he built military bases and bought chariots and horses. This is where the priority of preservation leads: to larger and larger standing armies, stockpiles of weapons, and shows of force. Which cost more and more money. Which have to be maintained with more and more resources. More and more is being spent to preserve and protect the more and more that is being accumulated, and that, of course, requires more and more resources, which, of course, need to be protected and preserved with more and more.
This is the vicious cycle of the priority of preservation.
How much is enough? The US accounts for 48 percent of global military spending. Less than 5 percent of the world’s population purchases nearly half of the world’s weapons. In 2008, the US spent more on defense than the next forty-five countries combined. The US spends more on defense than on all other discretionary parts of the federal budget combined.
Human history has never seen a military machine like the American armed forces.
This is an incredible chapter that confronts empire and raises the need for hoping in a time when swords will be beaten into plowshares.
3. Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars, pp. 27, 181ff.; the theme of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom appears in the opening pages of the book and then becomes a sustained theme in its last full chapter. (In unique fashion, the actual last chapter of the book is one eight-word sentence: “There is no them; there is only us.”) He introduces the book with the peaceable kingdom:
But this book is mostly about Jesus of Nazareth and the revolutionary ideas he preached — especially his ideas about peace. This first-century Jew from whose birth we date our common era, this One who became the heir of Isaiah’s ancient moniker Prince of Peace preached a new way of being human and an alternative arrangement of society that he called the reign or kingdom of God. It was (and is!) a peaceable kingdom.
My claim, which I’m told is audacious by some and naive by others, is simply this: Jesus Christ and his peaceable kingdom are the hope of the world. (p. 27)
In the last (full) chapter, he quotes from Isa. 2 and 9 and writes,
Isaiah, in his prophetic poems, frames the Messianic hope like this: A Prince of Peace will establish a new kind of government, a government characterized by ever-increasing peace. Weapons of war will be transformed into instruments of agriculture. At last the nations will find their way out of the darkness of endless war into the light of God’s enduring peace. This is Isaiah’s hope.
Christians take Isaiah’s hope and make a daring claim: Jesus is that Prince of Peace. Jesus is the one who makes Isaiah’s dreams come true. From the day of Pentecost to the present, this is what Christians have claimed. But then a doom-obsessed dispensationalist performs an eschatological sleight of hand and takes the hope away from us. On one hand, they admit that Jesus is the Prince of Peace who has come, but on the other hand, they say his peace is not for now . . . it’s only for when Jesus comes back again. Bait and switch. Yes, swords are to become plowshares . . . but not today. For now plowshares become swords; in our day, it’s war, war, war! They abuse Jesus’s prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century by always applying it to the latest contemporary geopolitical events. They replace the hope of peace with an anticipation of war! They find a way to make war a hopeful sign. Think about that for a moment! And here is the worst irony: It was precisely because Jerusalem failed to recognize Jesus as Isaiah’s Prince of Peace right there and then that they rushed headlong into the war that ended with their own destruction! (pp. 182-83)
And then Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom literally drives home the last word in the book (except the final sentence mentioned above):
I believe that what Isaiah dreamed of, Jesus died for. I believe that what Isaiah said would come to pass in the last days, Jesus inaugurated in his resurrection. I’ve caught a glimpse of the better world that can be — a world that Jesus came to give and continues to offer us. I believe the world of peace is possible in Christ. I won’t let the doomsday preppers with their Armageddon obsession talk me out of it. Jesus has already spoken the first word of a new world — the word peace. So things have changed. I have changed. I’ve prayed my last war prayer and preached my last war sermon. I’ve given up bellicose flag waving and singing lustily about bombs bursting in air. I’ve bid a final farewell to Mars. From now on I follow the Prince of Peace. I know others will come with me. Maybe you will be one of them. I hope so. (pp. 193-94)
I’d like to quote one other instance of the “peaceable kingdom” in Zahnd’s work, from his excellent book Postcards from Babylon. Pertinent for our moment in history with the rising shadows of authoritarianism, he writes about the satanic as the imperial imposter of peace in place of what Jesus offers as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision:
In Isaiah’s prophetic critique of Babylon as a God-defying empire, King Nebuchadnezzar is a personification of the whole imperial project. It’s with the aims and ambitions of empire that we encounter one of the primary ways of interpreting the satanic. This is especially true when we connect the satanic with the biblical theme of Babylon. Throughout Scripture Babylon is always darkly associated with the evils of empire. What do I mean by empire? Empires are rich, powerful nations who believe they have a divine right to rule other nations and a manifest destiny to shape history according to their own agenda. Empires want to rule the world. Empires seek a hegemony producing an unholy homogeny — what Hannah Arendt called totalitarianism and what Walter Brueggemann calls totalism. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s fertile imagination, this is “the one ring to rule them all” formed by the Dark Lord Sauron in the fires of Mount Doom. (Certainly The Lord of the Rings can be read as a tale of heroic resistance to the totalism of inhuman empire.) Empires insist that the only legitimate way of arranging the world is their way. Empires claim that only their hegemonic rule will bring peace to the world. This is the satanic imposter of the peaceable kingdom of God — the Pax Romana in opposition to the Pax Christus. (p. 107)
4. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, cites Isa. 2:3-4 on p. 152 (below). His general summary of Isaiah is as follows:
Isaiah prophesied about 745-700 B.C.E. His vision of the new age includes a new Davidic king (Isa 9:1-7; 11:1-8), but there is no clear evidence that he knew or appealed to the Exodus-Sinai tradition. Likewise unclear is his view of how the sacrificial cult began. But there is no doubt that he condemns it in unmistakable terms. In fact, the connection of sacrifice and violence is made more explicitly than in Hosea and Amos. Those who bring “vain offerings,” who think YHWH delights “in the blood of bulls,” have hands “full of blood.” This image, whether hyperbole or not, pictures mass violence and murder. The prophetic alternative is an ethical exhortation given in a staccato series of brief imperatives:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Torah, which for Isaiah is synonymous with the word of YHWH (1:10), does not make victims in cult offerings or in any sort of violence. Rather, it draws all the peoples to it in peace and leads them to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4). This vision of the new age mentions “the house of the God of Jacob,” undoubtedly a reference to the Temple, but quite strikingly there is no mention at all of a reconstituted sacrificial cult. The “house of Jacob” is associated with torah, with teaching, not with sacrifice (2:3). (pp. 151-152)
The wider context of Williams’ comments on Isaiah is chapter 5, a Girardian reading of biblical view on “Kings and Prophets: Sacred Lot and Divine Calling,” pp. 129-162.
5. Paul Nuechterlein, “My Core Convictions: Nonviolence and the Christian Faith,” Part II begins with this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. (from a sermon delivered the last Sunday, March 31, 1968, Palm Sunday, before being assassinated, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”; A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington [Harper San Francisco, 1986], 276-277):
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…. I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “We ain’t goin’ study war no more.”
6. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, pp. 59, 133-34. A first question in this book is, “What is the overarching story line of the Bible?” Most Christians have grown-up with a six-line narrative: Eden/Paradise, Fall into sin, living in Condemnation for sin, God’s Salvation in Jesus to either, bliss in Heaven, or torment in Hell. But this narrative fits Greco-Roman thinking better than it does the Bible:
Christian Version (from p. 34)
Roman-Greco Version (from p. 41)
If one goes back to the Hebrew Bible for narrative threads going forward to Jesus, for which Jesus is the fulfillment, there are three main story lines: Creation, Exodus/Liberation, and the Peaceable Kingdom — God’s reconciliation of the Creation. McLaren writes:
If Genesis is the prequel to Exodus, the third narrative is its sequel: the sacred dream of the peaceable kingdom. Its primal form brims with fertile images of a promised land flowing with milk and honey — a powerful vision for freed slaves traveling through barren wasteland (or later, for nostalgic refugees dreaming of home). It burns brightly, but briefly, in the glory of the reign of King David. But the dream, once it moves from imagination to experience, degenerates and leaves the dreamers unfulfilled. Even so, the dream-refuses to die, even as the descendants of Abraham live for many generations under a long list of failed regimes. Their nation is torn by civil war, sickened by corruption, threatened by a succession of powerful enemies, and eventually conquered. Its brightest and best are carried away as exiles to Babylon. Even then, under the intense pressures of dislocation and assimilation, the dream doesn’t die, but grows even more fervent.
In fact, during the exile, the dream of a peaceable kingdom becomes even more radical and all-encompassing. It now finds expression less in the language of land or space and more in terms of a day or a time. It morphs from a promised land to a promised time, the Day of the Lord, when oppressors will be overthrown, when corruption and infidelity will be replaced by virtue and integrity, and when the blessing, justice, and shalom of God flow like a river and fill the earth as waters fill the oceans. This rich collage of images, taken from Isaiah, Joel, Hosea, and Micah, deserves to be savored slowly with the imagination fully engaged. . . . (p. 59)
Here McLaren quotes a string of passages that paint the picture of the peaceable kingdom: Isaiah 2:4; 11:6-9; 65:17-25; Micah 4:2-4; Joel 2:27-29; and Hosea 2:18-19. And he follows it with the continued contrast between reading these passages in the six-line Roman-Greco context vs. the three narrative streams of the Hebrew Scriptures:
Many of us modern Christians, having been trained to read the Bible within the six-line Greco-Roman narrative, “know” what to do with these passages. We push them into the distant future, beyond history as we know it, applying them either to heaven, a literalist “millennial” period, or a little bit of both. But what if we were to receive these images in a different way?
If we are people who live in the Genesis narrative of creation and reconciliation and the Exodus narrative of liberation and formation, what if we were to receive these images as a vision of the kind of future toward which God is inviting us in history? What if we saw them less as an eternal destination beyond history and more as a guiding star within it, less as a literal description and prediction and more as a poetic promise and hope, less as a doctrine to be debated and more as an unquenchable dream that inspires us to unceasing constructive action? What if we saw them as a good future unfolding in time, not a perfect state beyond time?
If we take this third narrative in this way, we are immediately freed from arguments about a deterministic future (a subject to which we will return in our eighth question), because the future in this approach is waiting to be created; it is not fatalistically predetermined. God hasn’t already prerecorded history so that it waits like digital information on a disk, already “made” but only being “played” in real time. No, by taking this new approach, the narrative of the peaceable kingdom becomes the desired future toward which the people of God orient themselves, the constellation they set course and sail by, the dream or goal or vision or imagination they pursue. In this view, history and life are not prerecorded: life is “live.” History isn’t a “show” — not even a “reality show.” History is unscripted, unrehearsed reality, happening now — really happening. (You might want to pinch yourself before reading on, and ask yourself if you really believe the previous sentence.)
As this approach relieves us of literalistic interpretations, it frees us to let the poetry work as poetry is supposed to. Swords into plowshares. Today that would mean dreaming about tanks being melted down into playground jungle gyms and machine guns being recast as swing sets. Wolves living with lambs. Today that would mean Christians and Jews and Muslims throwing a picnic together, or Lefties and Right-wingers forming a band and singing in harmony, or nuclear weapons engineers being redeployed to develop green energy. Children playing with snakes, centenarians seeming to be in the prime of life. Today those wouldn’t suggest snake handling in heaven or the need for bigger retirement funds, but rather a time of deep safety for vulnerable people, without gaps in the health-care system, so all can live a full life from childhood to senior citizenship. (pp. 62-63)
Several chapters later, McLaren quotes this passage one more time to comment on its geographical imagery:
Obviously, the prophet isn’t predicting a literal tectonic shift in which Jerusalem rises farther above sea level and Mt. Everest sinks, but rather a time when God’s wisdom draws nations up to a higher level of relating, so disputes are settled nonviolently, wisely, peacefully. (p. 134)
7. David Froemming, Salvation Story, the chapter on Isaiah, pp. 4-9.
Reflections and Questions
1. Verse 2: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.” This is in marked contrast to next week’s image quoted from Isaiah 40:3-4:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”
Girard interprets the latter passage as depicting the leveling out, the undifferentiation, that happens in a sacrificial crisis which climaxes in another scapegoating to bring back order and the false differentiations that mark conventional culture. Second Isaiah begins with this depiction of the sacrificial crisis and then climaxes with its account of the scapegoating of the prophet in Isaiah 52-53. Likewise, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Passion begin with John the Baptist referencing the sacrificial crisis from Isaiah 40. See the following excerpt from the conclusion of chapter 2, “The Cycle of Mimetic Violence,” from I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.
This messianic prophecy in Isaiah 2 is in marked contrast to the leveling out depicted in Isaiah 40. The hills would seem to mark out a time of order and differentiation. But does this one “mountain of the Lord’s house” mark out a true transcendence as a basis for differentiation, in contrast to all the other smaller hills, which represent the false transcendences of our human orders based on collective violence against the victim?
2. One commentary I read on this passage had this to say: “The first thing to say is that Isaiah is not making a prediction. Isaiah has a dream — a dream that things can somehow be as they ought to be, and not as they are. . . . Taking this passage literally ‘invites silly questions.’ Isaiah’s point is that anything is possible for God, even this wildly, unrealistic dream of international concord.” (Ralph Milton’s “Rumors” newsletter for the week of November 29, 1998)
When Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, was it wildly unrealistic? Is this dream from Isaiah wildly unrealistic? The passage that comes next week from Isaiah 11 makes this one look like a piece of cake: the lion lying down with the lamb, and a baby petting a snake. Yet I take even this passage as more than a wildly, unrealistic dream. If anything is possible for God, then how could it be wildly unrealistic?
Last week, we raised the question about the “Culture of Christ” (Christ the King C) being of a completely different nature. We can see this clearly through Girard’s generative anthropology, by seeing how human culture and divine culture are generated in exactly opposite ways. If the divine culture which has already begun in Christ is so completely different, then doesn’t the prophet have to paint it in terms that seem wildly unrealistic to us?
The bottom line for me to those who would see this passage as unrealistic is: what is the alternative? That God scraps this experiment called Creation in favor of an otherworldly ‘heaven’? Which is more unreal? I would maintain that the Jewish-Christian faith in one true God who created this universe is realistic by being faithful to the fulfillment of the Creation. If Christ’s peace doesn’t someday finally rule this world, so that even the lion lays down with the lamb, then aren’t we giving up the claim that Christ’s victory will someday be complete — precisely by bringing this Creation to its fulfillment?
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from December 2, 2001 (Woodside Village Church).
1. Matthew 24:38-39: “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” The Greek word for “swept away,” airo, more generally means “take up,” “carry away,” or “remove.” It occurs 19 times in Matthew. In other words, it has a similar meaning as that of being taken up in the rapture, though it does often have more violent connotations. In other words, couldn’t we say that according to this verse those in the flood experience a kind of rapture, being carried away in it? Which would mean that it was only Noah and his family who were left behind after the flood waters receded.
2. The Greek word for “the coming” of the Son of Man in 24:39 is parousia.
3. Matthew 24:40-41: “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.” The Greek word for “taken” in these two verses is paralambano (16 occurrences in Matt.). The word for “left” is aphiemi, the meaning of which the Friborg Lexicon says:
(1) send off or away, let go (MT 27.50); (2) as a legal technical term divorce (1C 7.11); (3) abandon, leave behind (MT 26.56); (4) of duty and obligation reject, set aside, neglect (MK 7.8); (5) of toleration let go, leave in peace, allow (MK 11.6); (6) of sins or debts forgive, pardon, cancel (LU 7.47); (7) give or utter a loud cry (MK 15.37).
What a range of meanings! From “leave behind” to “forgive”! Is it just a coincidence that the word for left behind here is also the word for forgive?
4. So what might we make from combining the two images, the “swept away” of vs. 39 and the being left in vs. 41? Rapture theology assumes that it’s best to be carried away and undesirable to be left behind. But if one takes the reference to Noah seriously, isn’t it the opposite here in these verses? In the days of Noah everyone else was swept away except for Noah and his family. They were the only ones left behind by the flood. They were forgiven, left in peace. Against Rapture theologians who see the “left behind” as an image in support of their portrait, I would maintain that these verses, when read carefully, actually portray the opposite of their version of a rapture. Being swept away is to be caught up in the rising tide of violence — to join in and suffer its consequences. Those who are left behind, forgiven, are those who resist joining in and ultimately survive the violence.
As I suggest in the opening comments, this is the picture of Jesus in the Gospel story. He is the only one not to get caught up in the violence as a perpetrator of it. He is its victim, but one who, in the ‘ark’ of the tomb, ultimately survives it. We are called to follow in the footsteps of his faithfulness. Baptized, we are those who die and rise with him so that we might also be left behind when the next rising tide of human violence rolls our way. We are those who resist joining in. Living in faith, we do not get carried away.
1. During Easter 2004, I used Barbara Rossing‘s wonderful book, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, to subvert Rapture theology, especially of the newly published twelfth and final book in the Left Behind series, Glorious Appearing (see, for example, Easter 7C). In the Epilogue Rossing directly addresses the exegesis of passages such as Matthew 24:38-41. I highly recommend her book in being able to present a Gospel alternative to Rapture theology.
In the Epilogue, “Debunking the Rapture by Verse,” Rossing examines some of the passages used by dispensationalists to ‘prooftext’ Rapture theology. Matthew 24:39-42 is one of the passages she considers, drawing on N. T. Wright to make the point:
In the verses immediately preceding this passage, Jesus says that his coming will be like the flood at the time of Noah, when people were “swept away” in judgment. If being “taken” is analogous to being “swept away” in the flood, then it is not a positive fate. That is the argument of New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N. T. Wright:
It should be noted that being “taken” in this context means being taken in judgment. There is no hint here of a “rapture,” a sudden “supernatural” event that would remove individuals from terra firma. . . . It is a matter, rather, of secret police coming in the night, or of enemies sweeping through a village or city and seizing all they can. (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God [London: SPCK; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996], 366)
If Wright is correct, this means that being “left behind” is actually the desired fate for Christians, whereas being “taken” would mean being carried off by forces of judgment like a death squad. For people living under severe Roman occupation, being taken away in such a way by secret police would probably be a constant fear. (p. 178)
Chapter 2 gives an explication of dispensationalism and the Rapture for those who are unfamiliar with these ideas. And the chapter opens with an anecdote and analogy that fit this Advent season and the clash with popular holiday culture:
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, Josh told this story of his boyhood experience. Others consistently echo his story of childhood fear of the Rapture. These bornagain 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.” (p. 19)
I used this as the beginning of a sermon, “The Flood of Love,” in 2007.
Finally, I have also crafted a page of excerpts from three sources — the twelfth and final book in the Left Behind series itself, Glorious Appearing; an interview with the authors; and Rossing’s book — under the title “Re-Sacralizing Violence in the Left Behind Books.”
2. René Girard, Things Hidden. It would be helpful to begin with Girard’s take on the mythology of floods. Water and drowning is a common image for disorder of violence that needs to be transformed once again into order. The Creation story in Genesis 1 begins with such images: order must be brought to the chaos of the Deep. There is nothing but a vast, dark sea, which God’s word begins to shape into Creation. What’s behind such mythological images is the chaos of a community in crisis that needs order imposed on it.
How is that done in conventional human culture? Through the collective murder of a scapegoat. Psalm 69, for example, expresses the victim’s experience of this:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. (Psalm 69:1-2)
Conventional stories of floods thus depict in mythological language a victim who is killed in a deluge of collective violence that helps re-establish a new order. But remember that the victim can receive either the blame for the chaos, the hero-status credit for the peace, or both. In a flood story, the mythological treatment often makes the victim the hero, i.e., the one who actually survives to found the new society. Here is what Girard says about the biblical flood story:
Since the single victim brings reconciliation and safety by restoring life to the community, it is not difficult to appreciate that a sole survivor in a world where all others perish can, thematically, amount to the same thing as a single victim extracted from a group in which no one, save the victim, perishes. Noah’s Ark, which alone is spared by the Flood, guarantees that the world will begin all over again. It is Lot and his family who are the sole survivors of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot’s wife, who is changed into a pillar of salt, brings back into this story the motif of the single victim. (p. 143)
It might be helpful to read this in context, which is the opening section on the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, entitled “Similarities between the Biblical Myths and World Mythology” (excerpt).
3. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, elaborates on Girard’s treatment of the Noah story by linking it to the New Testament passage 1 Peter 3:17-22:
For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
Here is Alison’s re-reading of the Noah story in light of 1 Peter 3:
The story of Noah is less obviously a story of origins than either that of Adam and Eve or Cain and Abel, yet since it, too, is subjected to a christological re-reading in the apostolic witness, I beg indulgence for a quick glimpse at this story too [cites Girard’s reading above as “a slightly different but entirely compatible vision of the Noah story”]. In the first letter of Peter it is pointed out that in the days of Noah “a few, that is eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (1 Peter 3:20-21) That is to say, the water of Baptism corresponds to the water of the flood. Yet Baptism, we know from Paul, is being immersed in the death of Christ, so as to be able to share in his resurrection, and that it is he, and after him, the Church, which the Ark prefigured. This implies a rather particular Christological re-reading of the Noah story: the implication is that the Ark actually went under the flood rather than escaping it miraculously! In this re-reading, we would have all the violence abounding on the face of the earth, and, at a time of particular mimetic crisis of indifferentiation, symbolized by the Flood, the collective putting to death of someone (Noah) or a group (Noah and his family). It was this putting to death which brought about peace, permitting the re-establishment of order, the categorization of animals, and the setting up of a new, peaceful tribal system. There are of course many myths of this sort whereby a more or less hidden collective expulsion or murder is seen as producing a new social order, where fruit, or animals, or foodstuffs, start to abound as the result of a mysterious visitation in which it can either be the collectivity which perishes at the hand of a god, or a god which perishes at the hand of a collectivity, and as a prize, leaves behind the basis for the new culture. The Noah story as we have it could very well be a Jewish demythologization of just such a story in the light of their experience of salvation from out of Egypt leading to the setting up of the Covenant. Here, Noah is saved from out of the flood, and God makes a covenant with him never more to destroy all flesh.
The Jewish re-reading already shows the Jewish tendency to tell the story from the point of view of the victim, the tendency which we have already seen with relation to their flight from Egypt. The partial de-mythologization has God rescue Noah and his family from out of the hands of violent men, so as to establish a new peaceful sociality. The Christological re-reading merely takes this tendency one vital step further back, by revealing the founding murder, and indicating that those who are prepared to share in the self-giving towards the founding death are those who will be brought to everlasting life. The new sociality is made possible because of the self-giving up to death, not a sociality derived from self-deceit following a collective murder, as in the myth behind the Noah story. Once again, the christological re-reading, already implicit in the use of the Noah story in 1 Peter, points to an originating murder at the base of human sociality. (JBW, pp. 250-251)
4. The metaphor of the “thief in the night” is one that James Alison elaborates on quite a bit, especially in the context of addressing the so-called delayed parousia. He even suggests, since it appears in numerous places in the NT, that it goes back to Jesus himself. After quoting “thief in the night” in 1 Thess 4 and similar passages, he comments:
We could multiply passages like these. Let us concentrate only on those which refer to the day as coming like a thief in the night, for it is clear that this comparison of the coming with a thief goes right back to Jesus. It is to be found in the Gospels of Matthew (24:42-44) and Luke (12:39-40). We have seen that Paul refers to the phrase as already known to his audience, presumably because it was a word of the Lord. It is also to be found in 2 Peter (3:10), and even in Revelation (16:15), where it also appears as a word of the Lord. Now it is quite clear that the concept of ‘that day’ is transformed during the first century. . . . [Raising Abel, pp. 120-121, with a parallel version and argument in The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 214ff.]
The transformation that Alison traces here can be summed up: “time exists for repentance, not as a threat of a day of vengeance.” [JBW, p. 215]
This point is brought out beautifully in the passage from which Raising Abel gets it title, “The Time of Abel, or the Inhabitability of Time,” pp.132-137. He creates a wonderful tale of Abel being raised, only to sneak up on his brother Cain’s hut like a thief in the night. Here is a relevant portion:
What I wanted to suggest is that, in this, very exactly, does the Christian faith consist: in the return of Abel as forgiveness for Cain, and the return of Abel not only as a decree of forgiveness for Cain, but as an insistent presence which gives Cain time to recover his story, and, with the years which remain to him, which may only be days, who knows, to begin to construct another story. This he will manage to do in the degree to which, at every step of that painful process of calling to mind, he manages to stand loose from what he was doing, driven on by his poorly hidden flight in shame, and to build another story in which he has ceased to swing between playing the role of hero, who has to face up to a senseless life, or that of the victim, against whom all whisper, and who must protect himself against them all; to build a story that is ‘other’, somewhere between forgotten and unimagined, the story of the broken-hearted fratricide to whom his brother has come back in peace, naked of threat. However the story is to finish, between this arrival of his brother like a thief in the night, and the end of his days, Cain will be hard at work in the construction of the story of one who can look into his brother’s eyes neither with pride nor with shame. He will look instead with the gratitude of a man who has received himself back at the hands of the one he himself killed, killed so as to fill the vacuum of the feeling that, before that other, he, Cain, had no ‘himself’ to give, no ‘himself’ with whom to love. This is the story of which we are talking when we speak of the human story in its working out starting from the resurrection. It is what I call the time of Abel. The time in which the innocent victim is made present to us as forgiveness, and thus, little by little, allows us to let go of all the sacred mechanisms of which we lay hold so as to fortify ourselves against our own truth.” [RA, pp. 134-135] (This metaphorical tale is returned to briefly on p. 178.)
Link to a sermon using this theme of “The Time of Abel.”
5. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 150-151, elaborates on the Lukan version of some of the Q sayings found in this passage of Matthew’s. Here is a relevant portion:
***** Excerpt from Alison’s Raising Abel *****
We saw, in Mark, that, owing to the self-referential nature of the text, what we have is an indication of the coming of the Son which occurs principally at his crucifixion: this is the coming of the Son, and it ushers in a period of time during which our living is to be fixed on just such ‘comings’ in our own lives. Luke takes care to distinguish the comings. He does not remove the coming on the Cross, which is for him the central watershed of history and opens the time of the nations, but he does begin to give clearer signs of a final coming in glory at the end of history, which is to be public and notorious, as a distinct happening. And this coming takes the form of the revelation, the disclosing, of the Son of man.
Let us read, for example, this passage:
The days will come when ye shall desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and ye shall not see it. And they shall say to you, See here; or, see there: go not after them, nor follow them. For like lightning, that flashes out of one end of heaven to the other, so shall also the Son of man be in his day. But first must he suffer many things and be rejected of this generation. (Lk 17:22-5 [Mt 24:23,26,27])
Here we see how Jesus explains that the victim, risen and seated at the right hand of God, will have his day: it will not be necessary to look for him in a special way, because the moment will come in which the risen victim will be the principle which illuminates all of human history and reality. And this illumination will be absolutely evident, and will happen in the midst of the most apparently normal life: the people surrounding Noah and Lot were just carrying on their entirely normal lives when, of a sudden, judgement came: “Even thus shall it be on the day when the Son of man is revealed.” (Lk 17:31 [Mt 24:39]) We begin to understand that Jesus is talking about his final coming in glory as a brilliant revelation of what has really been going on throughout the whole of normal time and life. And the revelation will be the revelation from the new criterion which we have already seen to have been introduced into history, that is, the criterion of the victim. Thus, when Jesus describes to them how absolutely normal will be the time at which all this is going to happen, the disciples ask Jesus where this is to be, and Jesus’ reply is at the same time humorous and to the heart of the matter: “Wheresoever the body is, there will the vultures be gathered. (Lk 17:37 [Mt 24:28]) That is to say, there is no ‘where’; what there is instead is the criterion of the victim, and that can happen anywhere. The question is: how have I related to the body of the victim? Do I feed on his body and blood while seeking, quietly and discreetly to create the universality of the kingdom? Or, do I rather participate, maybe without realizing it, in the production of such corpses? (pp. 150-151)
***** End of Alison Excerpt *****
7. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” offered these reflections on this passage in 2016, “On Welcoming a Thief in the Night.”
8. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2010, titled “I Would Rather Be Left Behind; and in 2013, “Riding Out the Flood“; and in 2016, “Build Your Ark!“; Suella Gerber, a sermon in 2016, “Waiting: Leavening.”
Reflections and Questions
1. So what might we conclude as a reading of the Gospel Lesson that presents an alternative to one which would read it as a confirmation of the Rapture? Here is my attempt at such a reading in the 2001 sermon “Left Behind: Surviving the Floods of Violence.” In 2004, I preached an updated, similar version, “Faith as Living Lives of Courageous Love in the Face of Violence.” In 2001, I also ended up reprising these themes and extending it the next week (Advent 2A) with reflections on our baptismal identities in a 2001 sequel sermon “Baptized into Christ Jesus: Part Two of ‘Surviving the Flood.'”