The First Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Dec. 1, 2019


Isaiah 2:1-5

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

Psalm 122

Many of you, most of you, will know the famous prose-poem or, if you prefer, the famous confession by the Lutheran Pastor, Martin Niemöller. It’s about his time in Nazi Germany, and it goes like this:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

There are certain ideas that just hang out in our cultural waters. Even if you have never seen the original Star Wars trilogy (and I am appalled to think that there may be people who have never seen the original Star Wars trilogy), you know the broad arc of its tale: if someone puts on their James Earl Jones voice and says, “Luke, I am your father,” you probably know what they are talking about. Even if you have neither read Treasure Island nor seen Pirates of the Caribbean, you probably have a mental image of someone with a peg leg, a parrot, and an inexplicable fondness for prefacing sentences with the word arr.

And even if you have never read the Left Behind series, even if you have never hung out in a church that has something Left Behind-ish as part of its theology, you probably know about the rapture. And as a consequence, Left Behind probably shapes how you hear Jesus’ words today, it certainly shapes how I hear them:

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.

Thanks to Left Behind, what do we know about what Jesus is teaching us here?

Well, first, to be taken is something supernatural. One minute you are standing there and the next – Pop! – you are not. Maybe you just vanish or maybe an angel come and gets you or maybe you are sucked into the sky. Julianne Moore was in a movie that came out maybe 15 years ago that featured people getting sucked into sky. Folks flew up, up, and away out of the frame as though on an invisible bungee cord. The movie was okay. But that effect was amazing.

The second thing that we know from Left Behind, that we know about the rapture, is that to be taken is good. You want to be taken, to be taken means that you are good with God. If you suddenly find yourself alone in a field when, just a moment ago, your co-worker was standing beside you, that is not good news. To be the one saying, “I have been left behind” or, as they express it in French, “Je suis gauche derrière,” means either that God has found out who is naughty and who is nice and you are in the wrong column or, at a minimum, it means that God has a seriously difficult task waiting for you.

Either way, being left behind in the field sucks.

Here is my thesis for this morning – or at least the first part of my thesis. I want to suggest that if you and I were to learn Aramaic and then hop into our time machines and hang out with the crowds following Jesus, and if we were to stand up on a rock and announce these two assumptions – to be taken is a supernatural event and to be taken is good – both the crowd around us and Jesus himself would be utterly gobsmacked.

Because what Jesus and his friends living under empire know is the same thing Martin Niemöller knew. And that is that there ain’t nothing supernatural about being taken. And there sure ain’t anything good about it.

If you are working in the fields and one of you is taken it is because the men in uniforms have come. If you are grinding meal and one of you is taken it is because those same men have just kicked the door off of its hinges. If you are taken, you are not going to heaven, at least not directly. You are going to a cage or to a box car or to a place remote enough that no one will hear either the screams or the gunshots.

My father is 94 years old. And like Martin Niemöller, he lived through Nazism, although Dad was a generation younger. And Dad has stories of people being taken. People who criticised the government or complained about the wrong thing of the wrong public figure. Usually the disappeared were never seen again. Although Dad does tell the story of one person who had been taken returning to their village. All of this man’s teeth had been kicked out. And no one, no one, dared to ask him:

What happened to you?

Taking people is how empire functions. Rome had its famous peace, the Nazis at the height of their power were able to occupy huge amounts of land without a whole lot of soldiers keeping an eye on things because everybody knew that to cross empire was to risk being taken and to risk the ones whom you loved being taken.

In a sense, therefore, there were and there are two ways of being taken by empire’s violence. The first is the obvious one, this is the scenario in which the soldier’s come and grab you. This is what happens to John the Baptist and to Saint Stephen and to the folks in my father’s hometown and to Jesus himself. Jesus is taken by the soldiers to the cross. But there is a second way of being taken, and that is the way that Niemöller talks about in his poem, in his confession. This is when we are taken up and into empire’s violence by witnessing and doing nothing.

I am not a communist, so I will not speak out.

I am not a homosexual, so I will not speak out.

I am not a Jew, so I will not speak out.

I am not black in America, so I will not speak out.

I am not transgender, so I will not speak out.

I am not an undocumented immigrant, so I will not speak out.

And while in this second scenario, in this second kind of taking, we may not be taken away in chains, our liberty is nonetheless taken from us, our consciences are taken from us, a part of our humanity is taken from us. Here is Peter, near the end of the story, denying that he knows Jesus.

And so while, a moment ago, I said that Jesus is taken by the soldiers, there is a sense in which Jesus is never taken at all. Because Jesus is the one who, up until the very end of his earthly life, refuses to be taken up into empire’s hatred or into violence. Remember what we read last week: as he hangs on the cross, Jesus could be excused for cursing the soldiers, he could be excused for cursing the thieves who mock him. What he says is forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing. What Jesus says is Today you will be with me in paradise.

And maybe this is the choice that all of us as Jesus’ followers must make. When empire and its violence comes, will we be silent, will we allow ourselves to be taken? Or will we do something hard and good, something Christ-like, and choose to be left behind?