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First Sunday of Advent - November 27, 2022



The Late Great Planet Earth.

Like a Thief in the Night.

The Left Behind Series.


For those of us who grew up in a certain strand of American culture, our Gospel passage today really had its media moment, didn't it?


I can actually remember going to a slumber party where when the first girl fell asleep, we all arranged our clothes and shoes around her as if we'd been raptured and she’d been left behind. We left the room and banged on some pots and pans to wake her up . . . I mean, a certain dramatic interpretation of this Gospel passage hit the culture hard in the 80s.


If you ever lost friends in middle school over whether you were a pre- or post millennialist,

or maybe you slept in the same bed as your sibling for years just to make sure one of you wasn't left behind . . . then you know exactly what I’m talking about.


[That's a thing that could have happened. Allegedly.]


If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you're probably a cradle Episcopalian.

The mid 1800s rapture theology of John Nelson Darby never really made it into the matrix of our “Scripture, tradition, reason” paradigm, so it makes sense that it wasn't on your radar.


In fact, most of you probably know by now that I live in far northwestern Washington state - right up by the Canadian border - and I was in church there a couple of weeks ago. Coffee hour. Like one does.

And I answered a question with a tongue-in-cheek "Well, that depends if you're a pre or post-tribber ..." and the other person just looked at me very blankly,


But thankfully I was saved from the awkward task of trying to explain the joke, because someone came into the parish hall and announced that a white Subaru in the parking lot had its lights on. So, naturally, half of us had to leave to check our cars.


Which, incidentally is the closest that Episcopalians get to being raptured - two will be having coffee, one will be taken, the other left behind.


*


Joking aside, Deacon Tammy did a fabulous job a couple of Sundays ago conveying the FEAR that passages like this have instilled in people, and the lingering anxiety many people are still carrying around. Deacon Tammy referred to the movie she saw depicting children being torn from their parents arms as the child is raptured up to heaven leaving behind the rest of the family.


Many of us could relate to Tammy’s story because many of us have been evangelized in this way.


Did it manage to scare people into a loving, life-giving, liberating relationship with Jesus? I doubt it.

Afterall, 1st John says that there is no fear in love, and perfect love casts out fear.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.


Ever notice that angels in the Bible spend a lot of time saying "Fear not!"? I mean, this is probably because it is super disturbing to see one, but also

because fear has a tendency to push us in a very distinct direction – first towards anxiety and ultimately towards apathy.


For instance, marketing culture has been using fear for decades.

"Hurry! If you don't act now you'll pay too much!" "Act now or lose out on this deal forever!"

There is an entire 24 hour news industry that's made a fortune by saying something just scary enough to get you to sit through a commercial break to tune back in to the "breaking news" on the other side.

We just had midterm elections - y'all know that half of the mailers you got were:

My opponent wants to kick all puppies and burn the Constitution.

I mean, okay, man, but like, what's your vision for the state?


It's just been like fear fear fear fear all day long for as long as I can remember.

And young people just aren't buying it.

We've grown up with it. We are acclimated to it.



You're not going to scare people my age into following Jesus. I'm sorry. We're cooked.

The cultural moment has passed.


I’ve heard it referred to as the “Oh well, whatever, nevermind” generation.The fear we might have once had has turned into apathy.


*


So when we come again to this Gospel which had a very specific and terrifying portrayal in the media for a few decades, I think the temptation is to skip over it. And if we do that, we miss out on something that the text is saying about God and about us.


This Gospel passage is not asking us to be afraid of what’s going to happen in the future.

It’s asking us to be awake to what could be breaking out at any minute.


As spooky as it sounds for one to be taken and one to be left behind, there’s a very good chance that it sounds a little different in Greek. The verb here that's translated "taken" has been used other places in Matthew's Gospel with reference to the disciples. The disciples are "taken" up the mountain to pray. They are "taken" aside for Jesus to instruct them. They are "taken" to the garden to stay awake with Jesus.


There actually is a Greek word that means "taken away" or "lifted away" but it is NOT the one used here. Instead we get the word that more closely leans towards “taken aside.”


So, there’s a real possibility that this passage is supposed to imply a yes, immediate, and yes sudden, and yes surprising, taking – but not necessarily a permanent one.


How might we hear this passage differently if to be taken implies not being taken AWAY but being taken ASIDE?

To suddenly find ourselves in a holy moment?

Being summoned by Jesus to listen?

To be called aside by Jesus to act?


I think this passage merits a response. And not only a response but a much more curious response than we’ve been conditioned to give it.


You don't know when it's going to happen, says Jesus, so stay awake.


Not "stay afraid." Stay AWAKE.


To stay awake. To watch. To keep an eye out for something that Jesus refers to as “the kingdom of God.”


And then Jesus goes on to tell the gathered folks a series of parables about what it means to watch for the kingdom of God . . . and these teachings culminate in the story of the sheep and the goats.


You all know the story? Matthew 25 – there’s a king separating those who are going to inherit the kingdom from those who will not. And the king says to the “sheep” Great job y’all, I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink, sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me, I was naked and you clothed me.”


And the sheep are like “wait, what? We don’t remember seeing you hungry or sick or naked”


And the king says “when you did these ordinary, everyday things – feeding, clothing, visiting - for the ordinary, everyday people that I put in front of you, I tell you, you did those things for me.”


They were serving the king, participating in his kingdom by being attentive to the needs around them.



Two men are working in a field

Two women are grinding grain

One is called aside

The other is left behind.


*


I’m not so much worried about what happens to me in the end.

I trust that, as Marcus Borg put it: “the one who has buoyed [me] up in life will also buoy [me] up through death.”

I know who I am. I know to whom I belong. I know whose seal is on my head.


I’m not anxious about the end.


BUT – I am a little concerned about staying awake in the right now.

Not like, literally awake, of course. But watchful. Present to what God is doing in the world.


There’s an extremely good chance in the hustle and bustle of this time of year – in my haste to do work or do school or do Christmas shopping to do, do, do - that I’m going to blow right past to the holy that is happening in real time.

That I’ll miss out on being part of the loving, life-giving, liberating work God is doing in the world.


It would be great if I knew exactly what God was doing and when. I’d put it in my planner. Pencil in an encounter with God. Then just do my own thing until then.


I don’t know when.


But . . . God is up to something.


God is present and at work in the world.

In the twinkling of an eye.

At an unexpected hour.


God’s kingdom is breaking in.

In unexpected times

In unexpected places

through unexpected people

in the midst of what we thought would be a normal day

just working in the field

or grinding grain.

And here God comes again,

Inviting us into something new.


I love that Jesus suggests in this passage that the kingdom comes to us like a thief in the night trying to break in.


Can you imagine Jesus breaking in?


When Jesus breaks in,

He's gonna rearrange the furniture;

Donate half of the stuff in your cabinets;

Clean out your junk drawer.


When Jesus breaks in,

stuff gets transformed.

Where Jesus breaks in,

Stuff gets turned upside down;

When Jesus breaks in to the world,

he turns things rightside-up.


Light breaking into the darkness,

A new world breaking into the world.


A kingdom that has already been born

And is being born

and that we – miraculously enough - are invited to participate in birthing.


Everyday stuff is where following Jesus happens. Everyday stuff is where God's kingdom is breaking in.


Some day in the future? Yes.

But also in the here and now.

Some great final day? Yes.

But also today.


Every day God is present and at work in the world.

Every day God is inviting us to be present and at work in the world.


And man, if my options are to be part of that or to be left behind. I hope that more often than not, I’ll say yes. Yes, I will. With God’s help.



Not afraid of what might happen if I don’t, but AWAKE to how sweet it might be if I do.


Not afraid. But AWAKE.







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