“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”.
Amos 5: 18-24 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Wisdom of Solomon 6: 17-20 Matthew 25:1-13
The Rapture of the Saints?
You may know that the second coming of Jesus is a popular theme in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. The series of books that started with “Left Behind” continues to sell. Total sales in excess of sixty five million copies are reported. There are at least four movies and dozens of video games based on these books-yes, video games. One of the key concepts is “the rapture of the Saints”, in which the elect of God are suddenly removed from this world and transported into the heavenly sphere. Those left behind have to struggle with the forces of evil that have been unleashed. You may have seen bumper stickers that read: “If I am raptured, grab the wheel”, the idea being that if an elect driver is called to heaven it will be instantaneous, and a person left behind and riding as a passenger in a car should grab the wheel to avoid an accident. If a jumbo jet is flying a full load of passengers at the moment of the rapture, the pilots may well be taken along with the elect among the passengers, and the remaining folk will crash along with the pilotless aircraft. In these scenarios, is God love? Do they portray God as tenderly loving his creation?
John Nelson Darby, Plymouth Brethren, 1830
You may be surprised to learn that this kind of thinking is not a part of mainstream historical Christianity but originates with John Nelson Darby who founded a group that came to be known as the Plymouth Brethren and set forth his views starting around 1830. In Darby’s view there will be an event in which the elect will be instantly removed from this world to join with Christ-this is called by some the “secret rapture” and is what is referred to when you are invited to grab the wheel of a suddenly driverless automobile. This event will precede the Great Tribulation, a period of great suffering and turmoil in which those left behind will suffer greatly.
What can we say about those who expect to be raptured? They may appear to us to suffer from smugness. They seem to be secure in the self-righteous belief that they are among the chosen of God, and that the world is divided into two categories of people: the elect (them) and the damned. That they have the favor of God appears to be uppermost in their thinking, but it is unclear how the love of God is put into practice by them, or how they love their neighbors as themselves. These neighbors of theirs may or may not be among the chosen. Of course, if the neighbors are not among the chosen, why should the elect reach out to them?
Three of today’s readings touch upon the topic of what can be termed the “End Time” In many of the Old Testament Prophets there are reference to the Day of the Lord, a day in which the wickedness of Israel is punished, and a remnant are left to start again. The fulfillment of these warnings is seen in the fall of the northern kingdom to Assyria, the fall of the Southern kingdom to the Babylonians and subsequent disasters such as the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., and the razing of Jerusalem to the ground in 132 A.D.
In today’s reading from the prophet Amos, the prophet is predicting the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians. “Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light”. “Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light-pitch dark, without a ray of brightness.” Be careful what you look forward to, Amos is saying, because it will not go well for you on that day. Why? That’s because God does not care for feasts, offerings and sacrifices, for songs or the music of harps. What God wants is justice and righteousness, and this is precisely what is lacking in the northern kingdom.
I invite you to relate those words to our own times, to pay attention to God’s continuing call to establish justice and righteousness. Do you think we are doing well on that score? Will those who consider themselves elect but neglect righteousness and justice be safe from the coming destruction? Self-righteousness and being judgmental are not what God means by righteousness and justice.
Paul’s First letter to the Thessalonians is dated by scholars to around 52 A.D. It is considered the first book of the New Testament to have been written. The death of Jesus is dated by many scholars as having taken place in 32 or 33 A.D. Saint Paul then is writing a scant 20 years after the death of Jesus. Our reading from Thessalonians reflects Paul’s belief that the second coming of Jesus is imminent, and this colors many of his recommendations. Think carefully about marrying or having a family he writes to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 7, “Because the time is short”. In the letter to the Thessalonians that we read today St. Paul comforts those who worry that their relatives who died will miss out on the second coming of Jesus. No, he says, the dead in Jesus will be raised first, and then the faithful themselves will rise to meet the Lord in the air. Please note that the resurrection of the dead comes before the moment when those left on earth join Jesus in the skies. There will be no sudden rapture, since the resurrection of the dead in Christ will have taken place first. Normal everyday life will not be carried on in these circumstances.
The Gospel according to Saint Matthew also tells of the coming of the Lord. In Jesus’ parable ten virgins go out to meet the bridegroom. Five are foolish, and five are wise. It is nighttime, and the ten go forth with their lamps, but only five of them have taken extra oil with them. All ten doze off while they wait for the bridegroom. The foolish ones have neglected to prepare for the delayed coming of the bridegroom, so they are running out of oil at the time the bridegroom appears. They panic- the wise virgins will not lend them oil, so the foolish ones go off at midnight to buy oil.
Perhaps the foolish ones should have trusted that their lamps would still be lit when the bridegroom came. Perhaps their oil would have lasted. Even if their lamps went out, they would still be able to see by the light of the lamps of the others in the procession. Perhaps they could have joined the bridegroom’s procession anyway. In any case, they miss out on the arrival of the bridegroom, and the doors are closed. When they come back from buying oil and knock on the door the bridegroom refuses to recognize them. Where have they erred? I think their mistake was going off in search of oil, rather than keeping watch. They should have stayed to greet the bridegroom, and not gone off in search of oil-surely the bridegroom’s procession had oil and light enough for all. Surely the bridegroom would forgive their lack of oil, because they would have been on hand to greet him.
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”. Indeed we believe that Jesus will come again, but we know neither the day nor the hour. What does it mean to keep awake? It means, I believe that we remain open to the coming of the kingdom of heaven and work to further its coming. I don’t think it means hoping for the rapture where we are taken into heaven and the people we don’t like are left behind at the mercy of the forces of evil. It means that we need to live our lives as though the Lord might come at any moment. It means also that we focus on the here and now, that we seek to live in the present, that we love God not in ceremony and ritual but by building justice and fostering righteousness with our fellow humans. It means quite simply that in the expectation that the Lord may come when we do not foresee it we shall seek to be about his business at all times. We need to Love the lord with all our strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. In doing so, we will keep awake.
PLANNING TRAVEL TO GUATEMALA?