Advent Sunday - Left Behind?

A sermon preached by Clare Heard at St George's Campden Hill, 1 December 2013

 The “Left Behind” series of books (known to some as “Left your brains behind”) have sold over 65m copies. They describe an event known as “the rapture”. People are snatched out of cars, leaving them empty to crash, children return from school to find their parents gone, and husbands awake in the morning to find their wives missing.

There is also a film called Thief in the Night - The theme tune goes like this (imagine a Simon and Garfunkel type tune as I’m not going to sing!).

A man and wife asleep in bed, she hears a noise and turns her head, he’s gone / I wish we’d all be ready/ Two men walking up a hill one disappears and one’s left standing still/ I wish we’d all be ready / There’s no time to change your mind, the Son has come and you’ve been left behind.
The sequel to Thief in the Night, Distant Thunder, was about those people who weren’t quite Christian enough [most probably candle lighting Anglicans!]… that had been left behind but who didn’t want to receive the mark of the beast (see the book of Revelation).

So these backslidden Christians were rounded up by agents of the anti-Christ and were held in a church. At the end of the film they were led out of this church and the camera swings around and there is a guillotine waiting for them. If that’s not enough to convert impressionable teenagers I don’t know what is!

These books and films were and still are enormously popular in certain Christian circles (James was raised on them and has only just recovered).

The gospel for today has been the inspiration for all these films and books. All effectively seem to be using fear to evangelise. Is this really what today’s gospel is describing?

Verse 40: Two men in the field, one is taken, two women grinding at the mill, one is taken? You can see where the imagery comes from.

I have always found this passage difficult and therefore have tended to ignore it. So writing this sermon has challenged me to think about the issues and try to understand what Jesus might be saying.
The lead up to today’s gospel has the disciples asking Jesus about when the end of the world shall be and what shall be the sign of his coming (v3). Jesus starts by warning against false prophets, wars and natural disasters. He speaks of great tribulations and warns people to flee. However, he finishes by saying that this generation will not have passed away before these things have happened (v34).

He then moves on to the passage we heard today. Using Noah and the flood for illustration, and then ordinary people going about their business, Jesus explains that no-one knows when these things will happen (only the Father), and that therefore they must be ready.

Matthew is using a lot of the apocalyptic imagery found in Daniel and as such many people think this passage refers to the return of Christ. Others think it refers to death, when we meet Christ, and today increasing numbers think that Jesus was talking about the fall of Jerusalem, which effectively brought about the end of the world as the Israelites knew it.

Jesus clearly indicates a division between those taken and those left. Scholars such as Tom Wright have suggested that it is worse for those that are taken. He refers to examples of Nazi Germany, and other dictatorships, where it was far worse to be taken away than left behind - think inquisition, torture, concentration camps.

Tom Wright’s suggestion makes sense in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem where some Israelites are taken away to exile whilst others are left behind in their homeland, however decimated it may have been.

Regardless of whether we understand this passage as referring to the fall of Jerusalem, our own death, or the return of Christ, the key message is the same – “Be ready” – because you don’t know when it will happen.

What is clear from numerous Bible passages is that at some point Christ will judge us all. The call to be ready is therefore just as applicable today as it was to Jesus’ disciples and the early church.

However, Christ’s judgement is different from today’s individualistic idea of judgement. Throughout the gospels Jesus does not judge individuals as much as organisations and structures. Judgement in both testaments is usually aimed at whole communities rather than a particular person. To understand God’s judgement we need to get away from the idea that “it’s all about me” and start thinking about “us”, who we are as a family, community, and nation.

Today is the first Sunday of advent. Advent is a season which asks us to stop focusing on ourselves and instead to listen and wait for Christ. Not an easy thing to do amongst the frenzy of last-minute shopping, Christmas parties, and family gatherings.

I don’t know about you but I usually associate the word “wait” with frustration – I think about standing in queues or being put on hold. This is a passive, doing nothing type of waiting and it is not what advent is about.

Rather, consider the following description of waiting from Henri Nouwen:

“A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere…But patient people dare to stay where they are. Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there.”

The gospel passage is a loud call for us to wait for Christ to return, to stay awake and watch, to be ready – it is all about active waiting. We wait as a plant in winter waits for the spring, we wait as a pregnant mother waits for the arrival of a child, we wait as people filled with anticipation and hope.
The OT passage beautifully illustrates a vision of hope for what the return of the Lord will bring:
…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.

The passage finishes with a call to walk in the Light of the Lord.

Advent focuses heavily on the image of light. God’s light shining into our lives and communities, showing us who we are and who he is calling us to be.

It is a time to judge ourselves BUT to do that in the light of God’s love, to examine our relationships with God, neighbour and creation. In the epistle today, Paul reminds us of the commandments, he tells us to love our neighbour, live honourably and put on Christ. But he also tells us to stay awake, lay aside works of darkness and put on the armour of light.

Advent is the darkest season of the year, and yet we are called to shut out darkness and light the lamps.

We must let the light shine on the parts of ourselves we would rather keep hidden, and we must let the light shine out to the world  and all the dark places we see around us, sharing God’s love and care for all creation.

The readings we heard today are not about speculation and timetables over Christ’s return. They are not about scaring people into belief. Rather they focus our attention on how we are to behave now, in the light of Christ’s return. They thus bring about a union between eschatology (the end times) and ethics.

We should always act as if Christ were about to return. If the owner of the house had known when the thief would come, he would have stayed awake.

Above all, we should live each day in the knowledge and love of God, remembering that it is because of His grace that we can face Christ’s judgement, knowing it will ultimately lead to salvation.

Advent is a season of looking for and listening for the hope planted by God within each of us. It is a time to wait, reflect and listen. It is a time to get ready to meet the God who created us, redeems us and sustains us. Amen.
Holland Park Benefice