Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
One of the major gaps in my theological education is that I have never read any of the Left Behind books. Nor, for that matter, have I seen any of movies or TV shows that fall into the same broad genre as it does, a genre that, I suppose, we could call “rapture action” – here are a lot of people disappearing, here is a lot of stuff blowing up, here is a lot of Second Comingitude in general.
Notwithstanding this deficiency in my training, I have a hard time hearing the passage that we just heard from Matthew without thinking about the rapture. Maybe you have the same experience. I suppose that’s because the notion of rapture so thoroughly permeates our collective imagination; it permeates it in the same way that the story of Dracula and Frankenstein permeate it. Even if you have never read Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley, even if you have never seen a screen or stage adaptation of their work, you know about guys wearing capes with pointy fangs and shambling monsters built from stolen corpses. And even if you never read even one of the seventeen, count ‘em seventeen, bestselling Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, you know about people abruptly vanishing from their homes and their cars, you know that these disappearances are evidence that God is on his way and that he’s feeling cranky.
You know that there’s going to be some wailing and some gnashing of teeth.
Rapture gives us a ready-made hermeneutic for reading Jesus’ words this morning. “Hermeneutic” is a three-dollar academic word. And notwithstanding its multisyllabic and slightly pompous nature, all that it refers to is the lens or the technique or the method that we use to interpret something. A hermeneutic is the set of glasses that we put on in order to read scripture or – let’s try a couple of different metaphors – it is the shovel that we use to dig into scripture, it is the X-Ray machine that we use to examine scripture’s body.
The given hermeneutic that we employ radically affects how we understand scripture. When you read with the hermeneutics, with the assumptions, of Calvin or Luther or Augustine you will end up in way a different place than when you it with the hermeneutics of Nadia Bolz-Weber or Sallie McFague or Rob Bell.
And that may tempt us to say, “Well, I’ll just read or listen to scripture without a hermeneutic.” But – and I’m going to risk making a bold claim here – that is an impossible goal. The popular turn of phrase notwithstanding, there is no such thing as “the plain meaning of scripture.” All of us come to scripture with a particular perspective, a particular set of assumptions, a particular set of biases, a particular history, a particular context. How we understand scripture is shaped by the culture and the time in which we live, by the people around us, by the very language in which we read the Bible. (There are all sorts of plays on words in Hebrew, for instance, that just don’t translate into English. And there are fascinating studies that explore how human beings actually think differently when we speak or write or read in different languages.)
Our choice, therefore, is not “Will I or will I not read the Bible with a hermeneutic?” Our choice is, “Will I be aware of the hermeneutic (or probably more accurately, the hermeneutics) that I bring with me to the Bible? Will I name those hermeneutics and will I engage with them critically?”
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.
What does the hermeneutic of Left Behind and of similar stories tell us when we apply it to these words of Jesus? What are the assumptions of the “action rapture” genre?
Well, here are three of the assumptions that I see in Left Behind. One, the people who are being taken are being taken by God. They are being taken back home to heaven. Two, with the exception of a handful of people whom God deliberately leaves in order to carry out some kind of divine special mission, it is the good and the devout and the holy people who are taken. When the rapture comes, you want to be taken. It is bad news to be left behind. And three, this business of being taken will happen at the end of days – at the apocalypse, if you like – when Jesus comes back.
But let’s try a different hermeneutic. Let’s see if we can recapture the hermeneutic of Jesus’ audience and of Matthew’s audience, which is to say the hermeneutic of an oppressed people, a people who live under the boot of a brutal empire.
What does it mean to be taken when you live in a context like that one?
My paternal grandfather knew the answer to that question. Born in the late nineteenth century, he lived in Germany, first under the Nazis and later under the communists. And I don’t think that he saw a lot of distinction between the two of them. While the Nazis were officially far right and the communists far left, my grandfather’s experience was that the political spectrum is actually a political circle, so that far right and far left end up in the same place, a place of cruel totalitarianism.
Both under the Nazis and under the communists, my grandfather saw people taken. To use slightly different language, he saw people disappeared. In rare instances, the disappeared people would resurface. My grandfather told the story of a neighbour who returned home after a number of months. All of his teeth had been kicked out of his mouth and no one dared ask what had happened to him. But most of the time, the disappeared were just gone.
And my grandfather saw neighbours who were taken in another way. These were the people who didn’t physically disappear. These were the folks who disappeared morally, the people who responded to the violence of the state with silence, with indifference, with apathy. And maybe with collaboration.
The Roman soldiers who oppress Jesus and his friends and, later, Matthew and his friends wear different uniforms than the Nazis and the communists. Their instrument of death is the cross rather than the gas chamber or the bullet to the back of the head. But there isn’t actually a whole lot more than distinguishes them from one another. In every case, the reality of Empire refutes the hermeneutic of Left Behind.
Let’s go through the three points that I listed earlier again.
One, those who are taken (and I mean those who are taken physically as well as those who are taken morally) are not taken by God. They are taken by the state.
Two, being taken is not a reward. Being taken is a terrible kind of punishment. The hope, for your body and your soul alike, is that you will not to be taken. Notice that Jesus likens being taken to being swept away in the flood, he likens it to a brutal death by drowning. It is only Noah and his family who survive. The hope is to be like those on the ark. The hope is to be left behind.
And three, being taken does not occur at the end of days. For Matthew and for my grandfather after the taking, after the disappearances, the world continues. For Jesus’ friends after Jesus is taken, taken to the cross, the world continues. For better or for worse, for those left behind, life continues and they have to figure out what to do next.
I don’t want to dump on the left behind books: they have strengthened a bunch of people’s faith, and that matters. I do want to suggest that Left Behind is entirely unhelpful for interpreting Jesus’ teaching today. I want to suggest that, once we escape the hermeneutic of the Left Behind books, once we stop reading this passage from Matthew in an action-movie kind of way, Jesus’ words start making a whole lot more sense and carrying a whole lot more power.
Because when we realise that Jesus’ words are about right now, that suddenly means that the coming on the Son of Man is not some apocalyptic future to be hoped for or to be prayed for. The coming of the Son of Man is a reality that, with God’s help, we are called to create today.
And how do we create that reality? Well, the command that Jesus gives us is as simple as it is difficult:
Notice that a number of liberation movements use the language of waking up or sometimes, simply, of being woke. To wake up is to become aware of the oppression that is part of our culture: the oppression of women, of people of colour, of GLBTQ folk, of undocumented immigrants, of the physically or mentally atypical, of the poor. And having become aware, it is to offer resistance to that oppression. Now, some of us are waking up pretty slowly. And there is a temptation to be impatient or disdainful when we see a slow awakening taking place, to react with a hoot of derision when a straight white man first allows the possibility that privilege might be part of his life.
But I hope that we can celebrate every step closer to being awake, even as we push for that awakening to deepen. And – this might be harder – I hope that we will accept the pushes that our allies may give us when they ask our own awakening to deepen.
A number of my colleagues, including Grace’s own Ken Powell, travelled a couple of weeks ago to Standing Rock to join those protesting against the pipeline, to join those protecting the water. They slept in tents. And my colleagues say that the day began early when a voice from outside the tents began to chant:
Wake up! Wake up!
This call was one of those moments when the literal and the figurative intersect. Because, on the one hand, this call was purely functional in nature: like at summer camp, it was a call to get out of bed and to get the day started. But it was also a deeper call, a kind of parable.
Wake up, that voice called. Wake up and see what we are doing to the earth.
We often speak of Advent as a season of waiting. And that is, indeed, what it is. But what Jesus tells us today is that waiting is not a passive exercise. Waiting is something that we do intentionally and actively, it is something that we do as a community, it is something that we do with God’s help. The kind of waiting that we do in Advent is about connecting with those on the margins, it is about seeking out allies, it is about learning. It is about declaring that we are ready, that we are awake and that we are getting more awake every day, that we will not be taken without a struggle, that we will not disappear, that we intend to be among those who will be left behind to greet the Son of Man.