Texts: Rom 13:8-14; Matt 24:37-42, Delivered at St. Vincent's Cathedral Church (Anglican), Bedford, TX, Nov. 28, 2004
“For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand.” From St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The scene is aboard a Boeing 747 heading across the Atlantic. It is night, and many of the passengers are sleeping. Suddenly, one of the passengers calls out her husband’s name in surprise. She summons a flight attendant and asks her for help tracking down her missing husband. He is gone, it seems, but his clothes are laid out neatly on the seat where he had been sitting. Why had he suddenly wandered off, stark naked? But he isn’t the only one. We soon find out that many others on the aircraft have suddenly disappeared, including one of the cockpit crew. Only their clothes are left behind where they had last been seen. Radio contact with the mainland reveals that chaos reigns worldwide, as millions of people have suddenly and inexplicably disappeared without a trace.
Some of you may recognize this as an early scene in “Left Behind,” the first installment of a best-selling series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which was made into a major motion picture a few years ago. The “Left Behind” movie is a gripping portrayal of the End of Days, and I will admit to having enjoyed it a good deal more than I thought I would. For tens of millions of Americans and others around the world, the sudden disappearance of faithful Christians as described in “Left Behind” has shaped their understanding of what will happen when our Lord Jesus returns in glory. The missing passengers, of course, have been taken away in what is popularly known as “the rapture, ” and those left to puzzle over their disappearance have been “left behind.” The crucial Scripture text behind LaHaye and Jenkins’ fictional depiction is our lesson today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew: “Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left.”
I suspect there are not many Anglicans among the millions who have purchased the “Left Behind” books. To the extent these novels have been mentioned from the pulpits of Episcopal churches in the last decade, I am sure those references have been overwhelmingly negative. But I have not brought up “Left Behind” in order to trash it. The speculations of LaHaye and Jenkins do go beyond what can clearly be demonstrated from Holy Scripture and some aspects of their theology were unknown to Sacred Tradition before the nineteenth century. Consequently, these books should be read with considerable caution. But with those caveats in mind, I believe these authors have performed a valuable service in getting Christians to think again about the Last Things. The people who buy the “Left Behind” books take the Bible seriously. These Christians want to make sense of mysterious Scriptural teachings concerning our Lord’s promised return and apply them to the world in which we live. This is quite understandable, even laudable. Until we Anglicans share their zeal for the written word of God, we should hesitate to cast the first stone at them as mistaken or ill informed. The sheer number of people who have purchased these books tells us this is not a “fringe” phenomenon. We share the New Testament with the Christian readers of “Left Behind,” and it will not do for Anglicans simply to ignore the bits of the Bible we don’t “get.” Our Scripture lessons today stand challenging us to grapple with them. Some serious refection on the end of the world is in order as we enter a new Church year.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the season when we prepare for the “coming” of our Lord Jesus Christ—his adventus in Latin. It is a season of beginnings and ends. During Advent we will wear Biblical bifocals as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s first coming into our world more than 2000 year ago and look forward to his coming again in glory at the End of Days. Even as we mail colorful cards to friends and family bearing images of the Blessed Virgin Mary cradling our infant Lord, in the coming weeks our worship here at St. Vincent’s will resound with the divine Judge at our door, the axe at the root, and chaff burning in unquenchable fire, as well as lambs lying down alongside lions, the lame leaping like deer, and swords beaten into plowshares. We await the descent of the New Jerusalem as well as the coming of the Holy Family into Bethlehem.
We hear Advent readings about the future Day of the Lord for a month every liturgical year, but I suspect most of us don’t spend much time reflecting on these Scriptures. Such texts are difficult to interpret and their relevance to our day-to-day lives isn’t always obvious. After all, the mysteries they describe are completely outside our personal experience. The End Times language of the Old Testament prophets and the authors of the Apostolic age is deeply poetic, rich in metaphors and double-entendres relating to the ancient Mediterranean world—a far cry from the standard reading fare of twenty-first century Americans. But the events these texts describe--the “resurrection of the dead,” the Lord’s coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead, the life of the world to come—are professed by the universal Church every Sunday in the Nicene Creed. They are integral to the catholic faith. Evading challenging Scriptural passages about the Last Day is not an option. If we ignore the consummation of all things we have a truncated faith, a faith that does not fully grasp the great benefits procured for us by Christ’s holy Incarnation, his precious death and glorious resurrection.
There are dozens of references to the Close of the Age spread throughout the Bible. In the New Testament, for example, we find a host of passages that describe a general resurrection when the Lord Jesus returns. According to the twentieth chapter of the Revelation to St. John, this resurrection of the dead will be followed by the Last Judgment. While the various inspired authors use different imagery to get their points across, the same presuppositions span the New Testament: the Son of Man will return and the dead will be raised and judged, with the result that everyone will either enter into eternal life in God’s presence or be separated from Him by an impassable gulf—a fate so bitter it can be described as “burning with unquenchable fire.”
None of this sits very well with the spirit of this present age, of course. There may once have been a time when Christians were so focused on the life of the world to come that they did not fully appreciate the spiritual gifts God gives us in our earthly lives. But this is clearly no longer the case in the western world. Most Americans focus overwhelmingly on this life, with physical health, material wealth and peace of mind summing up secular salvation. Bodily resurrection and a final Judgment with eternal consequences are a far cry from the consequence-free “spirituality” of this New Age. But Resurrection and Judgment are found in most books of our New Testament, and are alluded to in the Old Testament as well. They have always been central to the faith of the Church. They are not optional extras. We may not discard them in order to make Christianity more marketable to contemporary Americans.
Today many sincere Christians seldom give a thought to the eternal backdrop against which we live our lives. But this is not the approach found in Holy Scripture. The apostle Paul today in his letter to the Romans grounds Christian ethics in our future hope, “for salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand.” As St. Paul sees it, you and I are in the final stages of a Titanic battle against the spiritual forces of darkness, a battle that will finally be won on the Day of the Lord when our salvation is manifest in full. “Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” Paul commands. This armor of light—our equipment for the battle at the End of the Age—is the fruit of a righteous life. The apostle therefore instructs us to “conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.” Instead, we must “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” The whole of a believer’s life ought to be lived in wakeful expectation. It is time to wake from sleep. We should live as if we really did expect to see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with his holy angels tomorrow morning. What would it mean if we truly made every moral choice with an eye to what would best equip us to stand in the Lord’s presence forever? We would be shining warriors, indeed, if we could pull that off!
In our Gospel lesson today we find the Lord Christ himself teaching much the same thing we have just heard from St. Paul. Our passage from Matthew 24 is not primarily a description of a sudden departure of the faithful before the tribulations of the Last Day. Instead, Jesus exhorts his followers to live their daily lives as if the return of the Son of Man was immanent. The behavior of lost humanity in the days of Noah provides a counter-example for Christians. Jesus takes it for granted that his hearers remember what Genesis 6 says about Noah’s world, “the wickedness of man was great in the earth.” The human race had lived as if there were no consequences to moral actions, “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” as if they could carry on that way forever. But it is not to be so with the followers of Christ. Instead, the Lord commands us to “be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour [we] do not expect.” Jesus turns us away from sinful complacency and toward expectant, faithful living as we await the close of the Age. According to Jesus and Paul, we are to be fully conscious, not sleep walking through life. We should understand our moral choices and the consequences that flow from them. Above all, we are to remember whose we are and where we are heading.
I do not pretend to know exactly what Jesus’ enigmatic statement “one is taken and the other is left,” means here. It is not even clear from the text whether those who are “taken” away are the good guys or the bad guys, and there is little elsewhere in Scripture to shed further light upon the question. The rapture theology of “Left Behind” reads a great deal into the Biblical texts in the quest to have clear answers. Even as we cannot follow the secular world in ignoring the End Times, we also must guard against saying more about this mystery than God has chosen to reveal to us. We stretch these mysterious verses to the breaking point if we press them for details about the mechanisms of the Second Coming. They are simply not there to be found. That is what makes Christ’s return in glory a mystery of the Faith, after all. The Bible has never revealed a consistent, detailed itinerary of the end of the world, despite the best efforts of countless readers looking for signs of the times. The whole point of Jesus’ teaching here is that mankind will be caught by surprise when God acts decisively to set the world right. We have to be ready for anything, keeping on our toes. You and I are not going to figure it all out in advance.
The flowing poetry of prophecy often refuses to yield to the rigid demands of the modern western mind, and this is especially true when it come to the End Times. The questions we typically ask are too mundane to comprehend the eternal truth of the revealed word of God, particularly when it touches upon ultimate things. No mere human construct—as any timetable for the End of the Age would certainly be--can ever match the fullness of Spirit-breathed Biblical reality. But despite the limitations of our understanding, Christ still calls us to await the consummation of all things with eager expectation. That is our special charge this season. The message of Advent could be summed up in brief, “Don’t let your attention wander. This is going to be awesome!” May God grant us the grace to wake from sleep and remain alert, for the night is far gone, and the day is at hand. Amen.