The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent (Matt. 24:36-44) is one I remember from the days I clutched a Scofield Reference Bible. Along with Scofield’s infallible notes I carried around a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth — you know, the premier text on the future of the world. He called it the late great planet earth because he believed that the earth was headed toward Armageddon, which would culminate in the Second Coming of Christ.
He also believed, as was taught in the dispensational notes of the Scofield Reference Bible, that the church would be raptured — that is, snatched away, evacuated into heaven before the tribulation and suffering that would engulf the earth. This view originated in Europe by a man named John Nelson Darby who later brought it to America. Here, it was largely spread through the preaching of popular American evangelists. It should be no surprise that this was an invention of the Western world. Here in the West we tend to gravitate toward a theology of comfort and privilege. How convenient that God would snatch us out of the world before all the tribulation and suffering starts right? We are so exceptional.
This text in Matthew is part of Jesus’ end-times discourse. Actually, it may be more of the early church’s end-times discourse than it is Jesus’ discourse. New Testament scholars are divided on how much of this actually originated with Jesus and how much of this originated with Jesus’ first followers. I read texts like this symbolically and metaphorically, which, I would argue, is the way all religious texts should be read. The question I ask and the question many spiritual seekers ask is: What is the deeper truth behind the end-times speculation. Here I think it is simply: Be ready!
The same theme is echoed by Paul in his words to the Roman church (Rom. 13:11-14). I love the story about the little boy who learned to tell time by listening for the chimes of a grandfather clock. One afternoon he was playing in the house while his mother was out working in the yard. The clock began to chime; he expected three chimes. It chimed once, twice, three times, then four, five … it just kept going. The clock had obviously malfunctioned. Totally disconcerted the little boy raced outside to find his mother. “Mommy, mommy, listen to the clock,” he screamed. His mother said calmly, “Billy, what time is it?” He exclaimed, “I don’t know, but it’s later than it has ever been before.”
It’s true, you know. It is later than it has ever been before. Paul says to his readers, “You know what time it is, it’s time for you to wake from your sleep. It’s time to be ready. For your salvation, your healing and the earth’s healing (this goes together; Paul tied our fate together with the earth’s fate in Romans 8), your liberation and the liberation of the planet, is nearer today than it was yesterday.” Of course, Paul, in his particular historical time and place, did not have the benefit of knowing what we know in our time and place. There’s no way he could have known that the earth has been around for billions of years and life has emerged ever so slowly in stages. But deeper spiritual truths of sacred texts transcend historical context.
As the Rev. King said, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but it bends slowly. And there are always forces trying to bend it back. And sometimes they do push it back. But they cannot permanently stifle the force for good in the world, because that force, that energy is inspired and empowered by Spirit (capital S). Sometime it is three steps back before we move forward again. One of the great truths the apocalyptic texts of scripture teach us is that deconstruction precedes reconstruction, that the line of progress has many ups and downs, that sometimes the powers that be have to collapse like stars falling from the sky in order for a new creation to emerge.
The prophets prophesied of a day of justice and peace (see Isa. 2:1-5), when the light of the Lord would shine brightly, but they also spoke of times of injustice and violence that would precede the new age. If you will remember the Gospel text from a few weeks back, Jesus warned that before the day of peace and justice arrives there will be deception, calamity, persecution, conflict and violence. In Matthew 24:29 the text says, “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heaven will be shaken.” This occurs before the coming of the Son of Man. All of this is symbolic language. The coming of the Son of Man is a symbolical way of talking about the coming of a new day for humanity, when humanity reflects the image of the divine, when the law of love is written on all our hearts and minds. And though that day may be a long time yet in coming, we are closer to that day today than we were yesterday, even though there are days, months, and even years when that doesn’t seem to be true. We view progress from within our own limited, boxed in view of time. But if we are open to a larger vision, we can see that we are slowly making progress.
So what Paul says is true in a deeper way than he intended, I’m sure: Salvation is nearer. The darkness will give way to the dawn of a new day. That is our hope, which is rooted in the very narrative, the very story that is at the heart of our faith — the death and resurrection of Jesus.
If we judge Jesus by the visible outcome of his work we would have to say he was a failure. His anti-establishment critique and his positive vision of the kingdom of God landed him — where? On a Roman cross. He was executed by the powers that be. When he died, according to the passion story in all three of the Synoptics, darkness descended over the earth. The symbolism of that is fairly clear, I think. Hate had done its deed. It seemed as if injustice and evil would prevail.
But then the tomb turned up empty. And Jesus appeared to his disciples. Then it became clear to Jesus’ followers that God would not allow the darkness to last forever. God raised Jesus, giving hope to all who would dare to believe that love and justice would one day prevail, showing us that somehow, someway, when death seems to be the strongest, life springs forth. You can’t keep love down. Love springs up. Hope springs up. Faith springs up. And so the praying and preaching for a just world will not be silenced. The dreaming goes on. The work goes on. The teaching goes on. Hope springs eternal, because love is eternal.
And so our discipleship to Jesus compels us to be ready. Ready to speak when the occasion calls for speech, and to be silent when the occasion calls for silence. Ready to pray, ready to serve, ready to love, ready to work, ready to protest, ready to confront the powers that be, ready to do whatever it is that will further the cause of justice and peace and the common good that God wills for all of us. And we must be ready to face the darkness and refuse to allow the darkness to engulf us, by refusing to respond to hate with hate, and to violence with violence. Let us be ready, sisters and brothers, to clothe ourselves with the compassion and courage of Jesus and walk the narrow path that leads to life for all God’s children.