Left behind? I’m hoping

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent

There is a popular series of apocalyptic books called “Left Behind.”  The premise is that in the future, God is going to rescue – the word is ‘rapture’ – the righteous from this wicked world and leave behind the unrighteous to fend for themselves among Satan and all his minions for 1,000 years. 

It has a certain appeal.  The world is so messed up that many long for the day that Christ will come and sweep them away from this brokenness and find a peaceful spot for them in heaven. I’ve heard many say, “I’m ready for God to take me out of this evil world and bring me to heaven.”   

It has a certain appeal, but it’s wrong.  Our ultimate hope is not that God will whisk us away from this messed up world, but that God will redeem the world and restore it to its original goodness.  God has been working on the world’s redemption since the Fall of Adam and Eve.  The final age of redemption began with coming of Jesus as an infant two thousand years ago.  The final act of redemption will be complete with the coming of Jesus as the Son of Man. 

During the Advent season, we highlight these two comings of Christ, as an infant in the first coming and as the Son of Man in the second.

Part of the popularity of this idea of the ‘rapture’ comes from the shocking images in the gospel of Matthew (24:37-44): 

Two men will be out in the field;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding at the mill;
one will be taken, and one will be left.

Those who support the rapture say that the one left behind is the wicked.  A closer reading of the passage might support the reverse.  The ones left behind are the righteous.  Immediately before this passage, Jesus supports this position as he describes Noah and the flood:

“In those days before the flood,
they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,
up to the day that Noah entered the ark.
They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.”

In other words, those who were ‘taken’ (i.e. raptured) by flood were not the eight righteous members of Noah’s family.  They were the others, possibly unrighteous but most definitely oblivious to the warnings. Those who were ‘left behind’ (i.e. Noah’s family) were left behind to continue God’s work of redemption. (For more on this, read Karlo Brussard’s You Want to Be Left Behind)

From the beginning, God’s plan has been to redeem this fallen world, not rescue people from it.  God does not look at the world and say, “Gee, that was a big mistake.  I think I’ll toss that aside and just bring all the good people into heaven.”  God sent his son to redeem the world, not to abandon it. God hasn’t given up on creation, and neither should we.

The Nicene Creed ends with our ultimate hope: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Everlasting life is not a disembodied soul in heaven, but a resurrected and glorified body in the new heaven and earth, the ‘world to come’.

We should not be working on our escape plan from this world so we can be with God in heaven.  We should be working with God to complete his plan of redemption and bring heaven here on earth. 

The world is upside down.  You see signs of this brokenness everywhere.  It feels desperate, beyond repair.  It is tempting to want to escape from it.  “God, take me now!”  God, however, wants you to be part of this redemption, not to escape from it.  God wants your help to turn this upside down world right-side up.

Through Jesus, God reunited heaven with earth.  Our bodies will one day be raised as Jesus was raised.  The garden of Eden will be restored.  God wants us to continue the task of Adam and Eve: to offer praise to God and be good stewards of God’s creation. 

The implications of this plan are huge.  If your bodies will one day be resurrected, what you do with your body matters.  If bodies of others will one day be resurrection, how you treat the stranger matters.  If your ultimate goal is to be stewards of God’s creation, how you work together today as a human family matters.  If God is going to restore his creation and say once again, “It is very good,” how you treat the environment today matters. 

If you’re wondering what the new heaven and earth might be like, the prophet Isaiah offers a number of visions. Here’s one: 

In days to come, the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain…
All nations shall stream toward it;
Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain
that he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
(Is 2:1-5)

Imagine. All nations being instructed by the Lord and walking in his paths. Weapons of vengeance and destruction are beaten into instruments that bring beauty and fruitfulness. Sounds like heaven has coming to earth to me.

There is a third coming of Jesus that is also the focus during Advent, it is the coming of Jesus into our hearts.  In the gospel passage, we notice the weirdness: “One will be taken, and one will be left.” It’s an image meant for Hollywood. What we miss is the ordinariness.  People working in the field, grinding grain, marrying and giving in marriage.  These are ordinary human activities.  It is a reminder that the Lord comes to us in the ordinary activities of life.  Planting, harvesting, working, and raising a family. 

On the surface, you cannot tell the difference between the two in the field.  Underneath, there is a huge difference.  The one ‘left behind’ has the interior disposition to receive the Lord into his or her heart. One continues the work of building up God´s creation, the other does not. Jesus is going to come in the ordinary parts of our life – if we let him.

This Advent, look for ways to bring about this new heaven and new earth.  Instead of seeing the world around you as one that is falling apart, look for signs that the world around is being redeemed:  signs of love instead of hatred, signs of generosity instead of greed, signs of peace instead of division.  As in the Christopher Prayer, instead of cursing the darkness, look for ways to light one candle.

You pray these words each day: “Thy kingdom come.”  This Advent, look for ways you can make them come true.