Now you see her and now you don’t. There you are sitting in an aircraft and the person you are talking to in the next seat just disappears – whoosh – vanishes in an instant – dissolves into thin air. You come home and realize you have been “left behind” as your spouse or your family has been snatched up into the air, heaven-bound, and you are left all alone. Driverless cars crash all over the road; food burns with no one attending to it. These images represent what has commonly become understood as the “Rapture” and our gospel reading today from Matthew echoes what has become rapture theology. It is a bizarre sort of theology grown mainly in America, and is promoted and fictionalised in the “Left Behind” books by Tim Le Haye. There are twelve books in the series and they have sold over 60 million copies worldwide. These books are based on the fear of being bad and condemned by God, of being left behind on earth; and conversely, on being good and desirable to God and being whisked away to heaven. They invest heavily in the notion of being saved or damned, and portray the world as a sordid sort of waiting place till the self-proclaimed righteous escape to heaven, leaving the rest behind to suffer.
This objectionable sort of theology, based on a literal reading of apocalyptic or ‘end times’ writings like today’s Gospel, is divisive, adversarial and is about judgment, fear and death. That old notion of God’s elect – the chosen few, comes to mind. I can’t help thinking; where is God in this? More specifically – what sort of God is this? Where is the unconditional love and hope?
In spite of the popularity of the “Left Behind” series of books, most of the Americans I have met are rational and reasonably aware, pretty much like you and me. Live and let live you could say. Often they are people I like to talk and eat and share ideas with. I even work with a couple. However, it appears that the views carried in these books may encourage or perhaps have emerged alongside misguided conservative policies.
Bernard Shaw said; “A nation armed for war can no more help going to war than a chicken can help laying an egg.” If he is right, then America, an avowedly Christian nation, with all its massive military might is a nation predicated on war, further legitimised by this lethal and aggressive fundamentalism.
This might help to explain why the powerful, in that potentially and sometimes magnificent country, continue on what is seen by much of the world as a course of intimidation, violence and domination.
It encourages a demonizing of “the other,” or anyone or anything that is alien or outside the chosen, the elect or the saved that we see typified in rapture theology. It seems that the most powerful nation on earth reflects a theology that is life-denying and hostile to the world – a theology that takes no account of the beauty and complexity of creation, and has no particular interest in preserving it. This is a sad and chilling vision; one that I desperately hope is not true.
This brings me to today’s gospel from Matthew where we hear about the “parousia” or the second coming. It speaks of the end of time, and the breaking in of a new time with the second coming of Jesus. It also alludes to the story of Noah and the Flood, where, yet again, all the sinful are rejected and swept away to their doom.
For the person who lives and engages openly and freely in a 21st century pluralist world it is impossible to take this sort of reading literally, so it is important to examine context and worldviews. Matthew is written for a largely Jewish audience in the 1st century, many of whom live into a strand of Jewish thought based on the apocalyptic expectation of the coming of the Messiah and the end of history. Here this Jewish notion is transferred and adapted to the gospel, and consequently to the imminent and cataclysmic return of Christ.
So, in a literal sense, this small band of followers is urged to live faithfully in difficult and unsafe times. They don’t know exactly when Jesus will come again so the admonition, the message, is to be awake, to be aware and prepared.
For us today, while we are celebrating the beginning of Advent, looking towards the birth and coming of Christ as saviour of the world, we are also reading in this passage in Matthew about the second coming of Christ as judge of the world.
Our reading from Isaiah appears to tell a very different story. Overtly the hope here is for peace and concord amongst all people. From a loose confederation of tribes where people lived in communities, Israel had become a nation with a monarchy and a temple. Lots of foreign and domestic enemies assailed Israel, so war was an ongoing reality.
While this outwardly reads as a beautiful passage of hope and justice, the God of Isaiah, Yahweh, is still a primitive God of war. It contains the same external and punitive God of apocalyptic writing as in Matthew, a God who zaps and acts from on high in savage fashion to magically rescue Judah.
Isaiah is writing in the time of transition of Yahweh being the local God of the Jews, to the only, the one God of All, a God who will vanquish Judah’s enemies. Yahweh will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. It is somewhat reminiscent of America believing that their brand of democracy is the only way for all people, and that those who demur are wrong and evil. This is an external and dictatorial God – a God based on might and victory.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent and we are entering a period of life pregnant with the coming of Jesus. This is the gift; that we are made whole from within as we enter more deeply into the life of Christ. We do not need nor want an external and judgmental God that underpins our readings today.
Just like those disciples and the faithful in our passage from Matthew we are waiting. But our visions and expectations are vastly different.
We don’t necessarily live into the firm belief that Jesus will suddenly pop up again any minute and rid the world of ugliness, pain, mortality and fear, – however attractive the notion may be.
We have realized that it is the Christ who resides within and between us, the Christ who inspires and teaches us through encountering each other, through our prayer and our worship, our mistakes, our fears and our tears, our joys, and through our often very frail ordinariness. We welcome the Jesus who embodies compassion and forgiveness, who speaks of love and peace, and who comes to rid the world of life-denying literalist theologies and bring life, laughter and generous love.
Advent is about anticipation and new life, and the coming of love among us.
It reveals the gift of vulnerability and connectedness, and asks us to prepare afresh time after time for something special and wondrous. Our rapture, our delight that can be the growing awareness of this particular joy, awakened in us over advent. Like Mary, we too are pregnant with the mystery that is the Christ within and we wait and we hope.
God swells inside our hearts and minds and we are transformed inwardly so to see our oneness with “the other.” Free to dream of a world where all spears and swords are beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks.