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Visions from the Catacombs, December 1, 2013

Matthew 24:36-44

36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

What I Am Learning

Almost every blog and sermon on-the-web on this text from Matthew deals with the Left Behind (LB) series. The LB books sold over 63 million copies. Just the words themselves leave the impression that Jesus is coming again and you had better be a good Christian or you will be in deep trouble. Jesus is coming soon to destroy a world near you, and you don’t want to be around when that happens, do you?

What excellent marketing! But then fear has always been useful in marketing.

We certainly have a lot to fear. Our culture is going through tremendous changes and change is scary. We are concerned about the impact of the gigantic amounts of carbon that we are putting, collectively, into the atmosphere. We continue to see our world population rise. We see a growing disparity in wealth in the US and in the world. We doubt that our forms of government and other institutions can respond to these challenges.

For many on the Christian right, these fears have found voice in the LB series.

The people in Matthew’s community had fears of their own. When Matthew wrote his gospel, probably between year 80 ad 90 CE, the Roman Empire was still very much in power. The Jewish Christians of his community had witnessed the destruction of the Temple after a Jewish revolt. They were experiencing persecution from the Empire and an ongoing skirmish of words with their fellow Jews.

They must have wondered if their trust in Jesus was in vain and that their world was falling apart. They must have at least teetered on the edge of finding an easier Lord to follow. They must have been tempted to reduce Jesus’ to a wise and kind teacher who tilted at the windmills of empire only to be killed for his efforts. All of Matthew can be seen as the writer’s attempt to deal with this sense of despondency and disengagement.

Before we go on let’s deal with the elephant in the room: “one will be taken and one will be left.”

The word “left” can mean many different things. It can mean “to let go” or “to bid to depart” and can even mean “divorce.” But it can also mean “to forgive” in terms of debts being forgiven.

The word for “taken” can mean to “receive as a guest” or “to bring along.”

These words are unclear in their meaning. Hardly what I would want to base my whole vision of Jesus’ message to the world!

In any case, Matthew’s Jesus tells his disciples that whatever they are doing, they are called to a kind of watchfulness. But this watchfulness is not about when Jesus will say, “Scotty, Beam them out of there.” Matthew is not proposing a theology of abandonment of the earth and our neighbors.

N.T. Wright says that the word for “coming” which in Greek is “parousia” means “continuing presence.” Jesus then is not gone, he is not absent from the earth, but continues to be present in a way that calls for participating with Jesus in the overthrow of empires and expansion of God’s reign of mutuality.

How could Jesus be gone, when he says, I “Where two or three are gathered, I will be in the midst of them.” A quote about this from Progressive Involvement’s Lectionary Blog:

It appears then that Matthew’s emphasis on the final judgment does not rise out of any preoccupation with the end of the world but rather from a recognition that the final judgment is forever pressing upon the present with both offer and demand. How could it be otherwise in a gospel which begins with the birth of him whose name is Immanuel, God with us, and ends with his promise, ‘I am with you to the end of the world’ ?" (http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2010/11/lectionary-blogging-matthew-24-36-44.html)

Barbara Rossing, a Lutheran biblical scholar who has done much work on the whole Left Behind perspective says that Matthew’s intent in these passages is not to promote a theology of abandonment, but to spur people to engagement with the world.

The ever-present Jesus is continuing his work of bringing God’s reign of mutuality more fully present on the earth. Matthew is encouraging us, whether we work in the field or at grinding grain into meal, to do so as partners with this ever-present Jesus.

The challenges we face as human beings can lead to a debilitating fear. This is as true of us as it was in Matthew’s day. Matthew shows Jesus as one who understands this debilitating fear and encourages us to recognize it. But this Jesus calls us, in the midst of such fear, to live and work in watchful hope for the fullness of God’s reign.

In Matthew it is not Jesus who is absent. He is always with us. But it is true that God’s reign of mutuality is still overshadowed by ways of domination/empire. We experience this in our selves, in our personal relationships and in the way our culture and economy work. Jesus invites us to realize that empire is doomed and to join him in the healing and creation of the world.

Jesus always intended to bring a huge change to the world. He invites us to take part in that change as his ever-present self reconciles the world to God.

Three Good online articles

http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=402&C=132

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=9

http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2010/11/lectionary-blogging-matthew-24-36-44.html

A Great Article in PDF about the “Left Behind” hypothesis

www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/106715.pdf