“For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, (39) and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. (40) Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. (41) Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. (42) Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:38-42)
And so we christen our ecclesiastical new year!
Yes, it is the first day of the Christian year – the first Sunday in Advent – which for me means that it’s the official beginning of the Christmas Season. It’s also the first day of summer (commiserations to those tuning in from the Northern hemisphere) and the first day of the last month of the year, which I think means it’s officially the 29th anniversary of my arrival at this church – the church of the Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill – my first service here being on the first Sunday in December in 1990.
One other key thing this means for me is that next week I’ll celebrate the 30th birthday of my dear eldest daughter. Veronica took her first steps in the driveway of the rectory here and would afterwards often stand beside me at the communion table on a Sunday until her legs gave out, at which point I’d have to juggle holding her with one arm while consecrating bread and wine with the other. This also means that next week will be the 30th anniversary of my priesting. Yes, as I’ve often pointed out, I became a father twice in the same week.
Indeed, it does feel like an auspicious day to me, and it feels like an auspicious time for the parish too, as we head into unchartered waters, calling on God to lead us forward into a future that, for all of us, I think, is far from perspicuous.
So we christen this auspicious Sunday – the first in Advent, the first of Christmas, the first of December, the first day of Summer, with this awful reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, about those who are taken and those who are left behind!
Now, my apologies if there’s someone out there thinking ‘but that’s my favourite passage in the New Testament!’ I doubt if there’s anybody in Dulwich Hill thinking that, but there may be someone turning in from the other side of the globe who holds this passage close to their heart. If that’s you, let me confess that the reason I find this passage so painful is because I can’t read it without thinking of the way it’s been interpreted and used by certain elements within the church – most obviously in the works of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, authors of the ‘Left Behind’ series.
In case you’re not familiar with their work, ‘Left Behind’ ended up as a series of 16 best-selling works of Christian fiction, all based on the scene depicted in this passage! They are books describing the end of the world, or at least, the beginning of the end, which is the ‘rapture’, where all the faithful believers suddenly disappear from the earth as they are snapped up into Heaven, leaving behind all the unbelievers and those who thought they were believers but who didn’t fit the definition of believers as understood by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.
if you haven’t read these books, congratulations, but be aware that more than 80 million copies have been sold and that seven of the books in the series reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list!
The books have also spawned four movies, none of which I’ve seen, though I did consider watching the last movie as part of my sermon preparation, particularly as it had Nicholas Cage in the lead role, so I figured it couldn’t be all that bad. I figured that, at least, until I read the review by Variety magazine, which suggested that the special affects must have been inspired by ‘Sharknado’ and which concluded with:
“The film hits theatres this weekend, but as for when believers can expect to see the tenets of their faith reflected with any sort of sophistication or intelligence in a mainstream genre film, we still know neither the day nor the hour.” (Variety 2014)
I did watch the trailer to the Nicholas Cage version, where you get various glimpses of the day when ‘the rapture’ happens, and some are taken and others are left.
A plane is hurtling through the sky and suddenly the pilot and co-pilot disappear, leaving the members of the crew who were left behind to figure out how to land! Likewise, numerous cars, speeding along the freeway, suddenly lose their drivers, resulting in terrible and spectacular accidents! In the maternity wing at the hospital, all the babies suddenly disappear, which is a nice touch of course, though the overall depiction of the day of rapture is indeed one of Sharknado-style calamity and carnage (though I didn’t actually notice any sharks falling from the sky).
Is this what the end of the world will look like? I really have no idea, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not what is being depicted in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, which is indeed a scene of calamity and destruction but where Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins seem to have got everything back to front.
You’ll forgive me if this doesn’t make the scene any more palatable, but I think it’s worth clearing up the technical point that those who suffer in the scene depicted in Matthew 24 are not those who are left behind but those who are taken.
“For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man … they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away … Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” (Matthew 24:37,39, 40-41)
If the parallel is really supposed to be with the coming of the great flood where people were suddenly and unexpectedly ‘swept away’, it’s pretty obvious that when the waters strike, the person who is in trouble is not the person who is left behind but the one who is taken. That may be a small point but it’s a good indication that Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins may have profoundly misunderstood Jesus.
In truth, I don’t think it’s just that they’ve got it back to front in terms of who is being judged and who isn’t being judged. I think the whole depiction of this scene as one of judgement, where the true believers are being rooted out from amongst the unbelievers, is seriously problematic. Indeed, it seems to me that the most painful part of the scene that Jesus is depicting is the apparent randomness of the way calamity hits some people and by-passes others, which is exactly how wars work.
It really all reminds me of my first visit to Syria in 2013, when the war was at its worst. We visited a hospital in Damascus where we heard people tell their stories.
One man told of how he was on his way to work and a mortar shell handed near him and blew off his leg! Others near him were killed and others somehow unharmed. Some, it seems, were taken and others were left for reasons hard to explain!
An even more horrible example was a woman we were taking to who was working in her hairdressing salon when a mortar shell came in through her shop window! She survived the blast but the woman whose hair she was working on did not. Again, some were taken and others were left. ‘Thank God I gave my baby to the shopkeeper next door just before it happened’, the woman said to us.
We had our own brush with a mortar shell in our 2014 visit to Damascus. Two shells landed in the carpark of the hotel we were staying in. They made an enormously loud explosion that shook our room, where I was having a shower at the time. Beyond being shaken though, most of us were unaffected, but two were taken – two dear souls who were members of the hotel staff who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were taken, the rest of us, happily, were left behind.
I think this is the kind of scene Jesus is depicting – that terrible scene that is so familiar in war and in natural disaster where waters strike or bombs fall and some are taken and others are left, and if often seems so horribly random.
Saint Augustine reflected on the fall of Rome in the same way – noting that the believers fared no better than their unbelieving neighbours when the city was sacked. Wherever the axe fell, there people died.
Is this the sort of scene Jesus is depicting in these verses in the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew? I think it is. Could Jesus in fact have been prophesying about the fall of Rome, or the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, which was similarly terrible, or the siege of Damascus in 2013, or all of the above?
Well … I’m not exactly sure, but what I am sure about is that this prophecy is supposed to be good news. It might not sound like good news, but I believe Jesus intended these words as good news and I think we see that when you look at His words in their broader context.
This prophecy from Jesus comes as part of a dialogue He’s having with His disciples that takes place outside the temple in Jerusalem. It begins with the disciples marveling at the majesty of the temple building itself, which prompts Jesus to give them the sobering message that the building was not going to last. Indeed, “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2)
In that statement, and in everything that follows in that scene outside the temple, two great assumptions were being addressed. The first was that the great gifts of God, like the temple, will last forever. As for the second assumption, we need to keep in mind that this dialogue between Jesus and His disciples takes place directly after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where He has been welcomed as Israel’s king. If the first assumption is that the good things of God will last forever, the second assumption Jesus addresses is that now He is here, the bad things are going to get a whole lot better.
This should be obvious to any seasoned reader of the New Testament. We know what people expected of Jesus. We know they were expecting him to lead a political coupe of some sort and wrest the government back from the Romans. We know that on the other side of that coupe they saw a return to the good old days of peace and prosperity where God’s own people could live in God’s own land under God’s good rule. And we know that they were wrong. We just find it harder to recognise when we keep making the same mistake ourselves.
Maybe we don’t say it as bluntly as Jesus first disciples did, but we tend to assume the same thing – that once Jesus is in the house, everything is bound to get a whole lot better. The marriage problems will go away, the kids will be better behaved, and hopefully that bald-spot I’ve been noticing lately will disappear as well!
Isn’t that how religion is supposed to work? As you get closer to God, you gain not only greater inner peace, but you find yourself being blessed abundantly in multiple ways. And isn’t that what we should expect of Jesus, the son of God. If He is now reigning as king, shouldn’t we expect everything to get a whole lot better and easier?
I don’t know why it doesn’t work that way, but what I do know is that Jesus spent a lot of His time trying to get through to us that while things will get a whole lot better one day, it’s not going to happen right away. Indeed, between now and the coming of the Kingdom of God – where every tear will be wiped away and where the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea – between now and then there is still a lot of pain we are going to have to live through.
That was the key theme of Jesus’ teaching outside the temple that day. ‘Don’t believe it when people appear, saying ‘I’m the Messiah. Everything will be fine. These people are lying to you! Things are going to be fine one day, but not yet.
As I say, today is the anniversary of my start in this parish. Today I begin my 30th year in ministry here, and what’s interesting is that, despite the fact that this passage from Matthew 24 comes around every three years in the lectionary, I’ve managed to duck and avoid it on the previous nine occasions I was confronted with it.
I’ve told you why I didn’t want to deal with it – because I’ve never bought into the ‘left behind’ theology that depicts Jesus as grabbing all the true believers and plucking them up from the earth to leave the rest of the world to rot. I don’t buy into that and in my earlier years I could never see anything else in this passage worth spending my energy on. Now, thirty years on, I see a lot more here.
I see Jesus reminding us of the inevitability of conflict. I hear His sobering reminder that even the greatest gifts of God – marriage and family, beautiful temples and wonderful churches – don’t last forever. I hear Jesus’ sobering words and I also hear the Good News alongside that – that when these terrible things happen and when things are at their worst, this is actually a sure sign that God is about to act!
This too I know to be true after thirty years in ministry – that when things are at their darkest and when we are tempted to lose all hope, ‘look up!’ God is at the gates! Love, joy, health and peace are on their way. God has not forgotten us. What we are experiencing is simply the darkness that precedes the dawn. Never lose hope, for the Son of man will come at the very hour you least expect! (Matthew 24:44)
First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday December 1st, 2019.