Matthew 24:36-44: A Ready Heart

I never had much use for the Rapture. I think it’s bad exegesis, bad theology, and bad Christology. So all those years ago when the Left Behind series of novels, movies, and . . . I don’t know, did they make a TV series out of it? . . . were making Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins rich as all get-out—and that’s a clue, by the way, to what that was all about—I paid no attention. And it frustrated me how many of my friends paid all too much attention.

Bad exegesis: Exegesis is digging in to Scripture to understand what it has to say to us. To counter the frightening and even threatening idea of Rapture, you really do not have to dig very deep. For me, it is a matter of weight. I could never understand why some folks give so much weight to these two obscure verses of scripture while giving so little weight to scripture’s reassurance that in the end God will draw ALL THINGS to Godself. I like the way David Bentley Hart described this in a recent issue of The Christian Century, so I’m going to quote him here. He said:[1]

There is a general sense among most Christians that the notion of an eternal hell is explicitly and unremittingly advanced in the New Testament; and yet, when we go looking for it in the actual pages of the text, it proves remarkably elusive. The whole idea is, for instance, entirely absent from the Pauline corpus, as even the thinnest shadow of a hint. Nor is it anywhere patently present in any of the other epistolary texts.

On the other hand, however, there are a remarkable number of passages in the New Testament, several of them from Paul’s writings, that appear instead to promise a final salvation of all persons and all things, and in the most unqualified terms.

To me it is surpassingly strange that, down the centuries, most Christians have come to believe that one class of claims—all of which are allegorical, pictorial, vague, and metaphorical in form—must be regarded as providing the “literal” content of the New Testament’s teaching regarding the world to come, while another class—all of which are invariably straightforward doctrinal statements—must be regarded as mere hyperbole. It is one of the great mysteries of Christian history (or perhaps of a certain kind of religious psychopathology).

If one can be swayed simply by the brute force of arithmetic, it seems worth noting that, among the apparently most explicit statements on the last things, the universalist statements are by far the more numerous. I am thinking of such verses as, say, Romans 5:18–19:

So, then, just as through one transgression came condemnation for all human beings, so also through one act of righteousness came a rectification of life for all human beings; for, just as by the heedlessness of the one man the many were rendered sinners, so also by the obedience of the one the many will be rendered righteous.

And then he goes on to quote relentlessly no less than 29 additional verses that promise God’s ultimate purpose of salvation and good for all of humanity through Christ . . . all of it, not just some. At the end of all time, God in Christ is not going to pick and choose. God in Christ is going to draw all of humanity to Godself.

But we, who are limited in our vision, exclusive in our thinking, and somehow perversely fascinated with violence, crave a violent, exclusive, limited God. We crave bad theology and bad Christology.

What kind of God goes around snatching up people as they go about their everyday lives working in the field and grinding meal? Certainly not the God who rendered all righteous through the obedience of his own incarnate self. To render two verses of “allegorical, pictorial, . . . metaphorical” language into a defining characteristic of God is to worship an arbitrary, body-snatching God, a God of rape, murder, and kidnapping, a God who rends husbands from wives, sisters from brothers, and parents from children. And to make Christ the mediator of such a God is turn Christ into a thug. This is bad theology and bad Christology. It is a weaponizing of scripture to satisfy our own violent cravings, because we invariably place ourselves in the picture, to the detriment of those whom we perceive as different from or less-than ourselves.

But this story is not about an arbitrary, violent God. It is about a God who appears in unexpected times and in unexpected ways. Especially on this first Sunday in Advent, it is about a God who came in the most unlikely form at a most unexpected time. This God is the one who identifies with us so completely as to take on the whole of our humanity from birth to death. This God is also the child in whom “all the Fullness [of God] was pleased to take up a dwelling, and through him to reconcile all things to him, making peace by the blood of his cross, whether the things on the earth or the things in the heavens.”

God knew what God was doing in coming to us in the birth of a child. Anyone who has ever waited for a child—whether your own or your partner’s or your sister’s or cousin’s or mother’s or aunt’s or friend’s—knows what it means to wait with an open-ended, open-hearted expectation. Our doctors do the math and calculate the due date, but we all know that babies come in their own time and in our own way. Our job is to prepare ourselves to receive our children in whatever way and at whatever time they come.

It is no different with Christ. Christ calls us to wait for God with an open-ended, open-hearted expectation. In an article that addressed the premillennial fear and despair that reached a height as the year 2000 approached, Eugene March wrote that “confident hope” is the state of heart with which we wait for God:[2]

Confident hope is founded on belief in the goodness, mercy and reign of God. In Jesus Christ, God has acted to defeat the power of sin, although humans continue to sin. By raising Christ from the dead God has declared the divine intention to redeem creation. Nothing, not even death, will finally thwart God’s will. In the assurance that Jesus will one day return to celebrate the fulfillment of God’s purpose, believers can sustain confident hope. Christ’s followers hope in God, not themselves. Rather than being anxious and pessimistic, God’s people trust hopefully and live joyfully because in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has revealed the divine purpose of well-being for all.

Today we lit the candle of hope. It is a an audacious move in a world that wants to convince us that there is little reason for hope, a world that threatens to overcome us with the darkness of escalating violence, intransigent racism, and intractable polarization. But we light a candle of hope because we know that God’s purpose is to draw all things to Godself. And so, with the confidence of the beloved of God, we answer that darkness with the words of Isaiah, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” Come, let us walk in hope! Amen.

[1] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/final-judgment-really-final (cited November 30, 2019).

[2] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/what-we-believe/end-of-the-world/ (cited November 30, 2019).