One of the many interesting things about traveling back to Arkansas and Northern Louisiana on our annual Thanksgiving trek is passing the many small, congregational church buildings along the highway. We keep an eye out for them, tucked away in the middle of fields or at intersections that long ago must have seen more traffic than they do now. Most of them are white, wooden, single-room buildings with a few windows and a tiny steeple. We’re not sure how many of them are even used anymore, but they stand guard there, keeping watch over the soybeans and cotton.
Some of the more used churches have wonderful signs out front, often in a hodge-podge of letters of different sizes and shapes. I love these signs, how the church members are so clever with two or three-line descriptions of their current focus—or fear. I’m glad we don’t have one here at Grace, because it would be dangerous in my hands!
They really are like Southern haiku, beckoning the weary, sinful stranger to come to the “little church in the wildwood” as a hymn from my congregational childhood days described. They are pithy and often wonderful, with sayings like “Stop, drop, and roll don’t work in hell” or “Don’t worry, Moses was a basket case too.”
There was one that caught our eye on this trip: “Rapture: Separation of Church and State.” I’m not even sure what that means, but we saw it on the way and wondered.
The Rapture: an interesting theological development from our Puritan past, especially pronounced in Increase and Cotton Mather’s earlier work, and spreading around American Christianity in the mid-19th century and then a bit later with the Scofield Reference Bible, if you’re familiar with that resource. This belief that, at some point with the Second Coming of Christ, the believers will be suddenly taken away into heaven while the unbelievers—those “left behind”—will remain on earth to face a thousand-year tribulation. Millions have been made off the book series, and to be sure the image of the Rapture has had an enormous impact on many Christians.
As a child, I was terrified that I would wake up and find myself alone in our house, my family being taken away and me left behind. Later, as a teenager, there were days when such a scenario was all I could hope for!
You may be wondering why I bring up the Rapture today, on this first Sunday of Advent. Well, our reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel account, as we begin Year A in our lectionary cycle, which is the year we explore St. Matthew’s writings, today’s reading is one of the pivotal texts that have been used to support this image of a Rapture.
“Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one left.”
Two are there, then, in the blink of an eye, something happens. It’s an iconic image for a Rapture-oriented theology. And, it also happens to be the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent. Why?
Because it’s all about the Coming of the Son of Man, this apocalyptic moment that Jesus describes to his disciples. This eschatological event—an event that draws our eyes toward the fulfillment of the promised coming of Christ—where something happens and life is changed. When will it happen? “About that day and time no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Interesting that, instead of manger scenes and carols, we have “two will be in the field” with one taken and one left behind. It really is the most wonderful time of the year, isn’t it?
These texts are challenging us to see the true radical nature of the faith we practice. For all its beauty—and I do think Advent is the most beautiful season of the liturgical year—Advent is so radical in what it calls us to see: namely that we are guaranteed to be shaken up. Our lives are promised to be challenged and broken open, making room for Christ to come among us: Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, yes, and also coming at the end of all things, as well as within our hearts each and every day. It’s a three-fold Coming of Christ, and it is relentless. Thanks be to God.
The message of Advent is not the First Noel, but rather “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Keep your eyes open. Pay attention. Don’t get lazy now. Don’t dare get comfortable.
Looking back on my childhood, I thought the Rapture was a scary thing. And, to be sure, it has been “used” to provoke fear and a certain je nai sais quoi or quality of life that keeps folks looking out of the corner of their eyes for…something. Keeping them on the straight and narrow…
But, I think such an image of a Rapture has it all backwards. Much more challenging than the Rapture is a Rupture—a theological awareness that sees God as always breaking into this life and challenging the way we live here and now. It may indeed be a bit frightening to imagine two standing there grinding meal with one taken and one left looking around, but how much more provoking is it to come to understand that God always seeks to Rupture our tired, old patterns here and now?
Far more than an image of a rapture, the Scriptures show us a God who constantly challenges our complacency and self-preoccupation. The prophets and sages always show how God enters into the world, again and again, to restore wholeness, to offer glimpses of the Kingdom of Heaven. To challenge us to see we are called to care for the orphan, the poor, the widow, the sick, the alien in our midst, those suffering, those in need. Not negotiable.
Isaiah’s image today speaks to this: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains…” God’s presence does not remove anyone from the struggles of life here, but rather reorients the way we are called to live: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
That isn’t exactly an image of suffer through, Jesus will come back and take us all away from this struggle and we can live with him in peace. No…this image of God is one that ruptures our patterns, our greed, ambition, warmongering, selfishness, and anger.
To this challenge Isaiah offers, the text today ends with this beautiful prayer: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
Here and now. In this life.
So, we are called to prepare for this, as best we can…this reorientation. This challenge. This judgement against what we so often value as important.
We are called to prepare ourselves…to keep our eyes open.
“Therefore, you must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Advent I, Year A
Isaiah 2:1-5; St. Matthew 24:36-44
November 27, 2016