Sunday, November 12, 2017
Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost
Someone told me the other week that a group of very pious Christians were visiting each other one evening when one of them asked, “Have any of you seen my dog?”
“No, I haven’t seen your dog,” came the numerous replies from around the room.
“You know,” someone said, “I usually hear my neighbors’ dogs bark every morning, but over the last few days I haven’t heard a sound.”
In fact, as they continued talking it became apparent that no one had heard or seen a dog since the start of the new week. Everyone looked puzzled, until some concluded, “Oh, my God! The ʻraptureʻ has already happened and we’ve been left behind.” [Editor: in the photo, Kiko is saying, "Shape up. Or I will SURELY leave you behind." ::chuckle:: She is, of course, not talking to her beloved Kahu, but to those pious Christians. heh]
The word rapture does not appear in the Bible but the “event” is described in our reading this morning from The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. Another account is recorded in Matthew 24:37-42. Although Paul says nothing about dogs, he does say believers who died will have their bodies resurrected and along with believers who are still living will meet Jesus in the air. This will occur in the twinkling of an eye.
The Book of Revelation speaks of the wrath of God that will follow (Revelation 16-20). It will then be followed by the return of Christ to earth where he will reign for 1,000 years before the final judgment. Some trace the rapture as a doctrine to the Puritan preachers Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather in early 17th century. Both father and son were a part of the witchcraft hysteria that swept through Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. It was then popularized by an Anglo-Irish religious figure known as John Darby (1800-1882) of the Plymouth Brethren in the 1830s and further popularized over a century and a half later by the Left Behind series of 16 best-selling novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
The books dealt with the “end times” – the pre-tribulation, pre-millennial, Christian eschatological view - of the end of the world. The series began with its first publication in 1998. Eventually the total sales of the series surpassed 65 million copies.
Despite its popularity over the years, there is an ongoing debate about its efficacy of the rapure. As a young adult that I first read Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth.” It became the number one non-fiction best seller of the decade. The book was later made into a movie.
A review of the film highlighted the following: “Moving from ancient times to the looming apocalypse, the story warns of false prophets and focuses on the problems besetting the globe during the 1970s, including pollution, famine, and military conflict, with fictional events leading up to tension between various nations. What follows are increasingly large battles and, ultimately, World War III and the destruction of the planet.”
That was almost fifty years ago. I must admit that at the time the book and the film caught my attention. The signs of Christ’s return seem indisputable. A cyclone in 1970 killed 500,000 people in the Ganges Delta in East Pakistan. An oil crisis followed in 1973. President Nixon resigned after the Watergate scandal in 1974. Saigon fell and the devastating war in Vietnam came to an end in 1975.
The Iranian revolution ousted Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and was replaced by an Islamic theocracy led by Ayatollah Khomeini. An earthquake in China killed over 10,000 while another earthquake in Peru killed more than 47,000.
Another cyclone in 1971 killed 10,000 in India. In the spring of 1974, a Super Storm of 148 tornadoes in the U.S. killed a total of 330 people and a famine in Bangladesh the claimed the lives of at least 26,000 people while other sources claimed at least 1,000,000 people died.
A typhoon struck China in 1975 and caused over 200,000 people to perish and an earthquake in Guatemala and Honduras in 1976 killed more than 22,000. That same year another earthquake in China killed over 242,000 people and a tsunami killed over 5,000 others in the Philippines.
If the “rapture” was to occur, it was Lindsey, LaHaye and others who were quick to point to the signs of earthquakes, famines and wars as signals that the end time was at hand. They sought to validate their points of view through their interpretation of the accounts recorded in the books of Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation.
Five decades have come and gone and as far as we know the “rapture” has not yet occurred. The signs of earthquakes, famines, wars and rumors of war that we see today, we have seen before (Matthew 24:7, 12, 14, 37-39; 2 Peter 3:3-4; Revelation 6:4-6; Luke 21:11, Revelation 11:18, 12:7-12; 2 Timothy 3:2-5; Daniel 12:4).
What makes anyone think the time is upon us now? Some say, “Sure, we have seen the signs before but this time they are more intense.”
Well, I am not sure measuring the intensity of natural disasters or our penchant as individuals and nations for violence and war are signs that Jesus will be coming anytime soon. If that were the case, Jesus is long overdue.
Paul offers us a word of caution in his letter to the church in Thessalonica and Jesus offers his word of caution by the telling of parable of the ten maidens. For the Gentile converts in the church in Thessalonica, there was worry about what would happen to those who died prior to the coming of Christ (Preaching Through the Christian Year A, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity International Press, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1992, page 505) Their concern was understandable. After the church was established in Thessalonica, Paul spent only a short time with them.
In his early preaching, and the preaching of Timothy who accompanied him, they both proclaimed the risen Christ and the reassurance that Christ would come at a future date to rescue the saved from coming wrath of God (1 Thessalonians 1:10). That was their central message. There was an expectation that would happen soon, or at least in their lifetime (Romans 12:12; 1 Corinthians 7:29, 31, 16:22; Hebrews 10:37; James 5:8; 1 peter 4:7; Revelation 22:20).
Our reading from The Gospel According to Matthew marks the end of Jesus’ public ministry. He now turns his attention to his close friends and disciples pointing them towards the suffering he will undergo as they prepare for their final journey to Jerusalem.
The parable of the ten maidens is a story that concerns the future, of what is to come – the certain but uncertain final day and hour (Matthew 24:36-25:46) of Jesus’ own life. The emphasis in the story is the delay of the bridegroom to the wedding. In this case the bridegroom is Jesus (Matthew 25:5).
It has been said that the church to whom The Gospel According to Matthew was addressed was perhaps like Paul’s church in Thessalonica. Both were faced with the problem of how to appropriately live and work as Christians in view of the delay in Jesus’ return. “We do not know how widespread and how intense the expectation of the imminent return of Christ really was” for those in the early church but it was a concern (Op. cit.).
Paul himself expected at one point that he would be alive at the coming of Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:17). In the end, it appears that even he concluded that he might die prior to the Lord’s coming (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10).
So the assumption made by those in the church was about what would happen to them if they died (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Does that person lose out on the promised deliverance of the coming Messiah? (Op. cit.) Paul’s word to the people is not to terrify them but to comfort them and to give them hope that God’s promise will be fulfilled. (1 Thessalonians 4:18)
Like the Thessalonians we may feel that the world is coming to an end and that we too have grown anxious Christ’s return. But Paul’s words and Jesus’ parable reminds us that we ought not resign ourselves to believing there is nothing for us to do but wait.
The point of the parable is that we must watch and keep awake; that we must tend to God’s light. Paul called those in the early church and he calls us today not to grieve “as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Like everyone else, we too will die.
It may feel like the world is coming to an end. But no one knows the hour or the day. What we do know is what distinguishes our understanding of death and that is our belief that Jesus died and rose again. It is from this element of our faith that our hope springs.
It is from this element of our faith that we are reassured by the words of Paul – “and so we will be with the Lord forever” (1Thessalonians 4:17). It is from this element of our faith that we rejoice in the promise Jesus made to his disciples then and the promise he makes to us now – “ . . . remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
As we await his coming, we are to be about the work of doing God’s will. And what does God require of us, “but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8). May it be so. Amen.