Taken or Left?…Keeping in mind that Christ is Lord of both the dead and the living.

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1st Sunday in Advent; December 1, 2013, Year A

Isaiah 2.1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13.11-14, Matthew 24.36-44

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Last Sunday evening I was flipping through channels and came to a TV station in which a man was quite animated, talking about the immanent return of Jesus.  He had proof.  He held up news articles about Israel and Palestine, how Israel was acquiring more and more land, which meant that Christ would come.  He pointed to natural disasters in the world, how this is also proof that Jesus will show up any day now.  He jumped all over the Bible, naming verses right and left to further emphasize his prediction of when Jesus would descend from the clouds and take up those who were righteous enough.  I could only stand to listen to it for less than five minutes, but not once in those few painful moments of listening to what he had to say, never once did he mention Matthew 24, where Jesus himself says that not even the angels in heaven, not even he himself knows.  It doesn’t surprise me that he didn’t mention our Gospel reading today.  He would then need to admit that he actually doesn’t know and can’t know.

I can certainly understand the desire to know when the world as we know it will end, when Jesus will return.  We like to be as prepared as we can for whatever will happen.  We have fire, tornado, and earthquake drills so we know what to do should a disaster fall upon us.  We carry a spare tire in the trunk in order to not get stranded, and an emergency car kit in case we do.  In most homes and buildings there are fire extinguishers.  Jon and I thought it would be a good idea to buy one ever since our microwave started on fire in our kitchen.  When possible we like to have insurance policies and are relieved to know that if and when we need to call 911 we can, and somehow someone will show up to help us and quite possibly save our life.

We are now in the season of Advent, meaning “to arrive” or “to appear.”  It is a season of expectant waiting, of repentance, and of preparation.  In the next couple weeks we will hear from John the Baptist calling us all to prepare the way of the Lord.  There is a sense in us being able to get ready for something, to expect something, and to be prepared, particularly for the arrival of Jesus.

In all of this beauty and movement towards the birth of God into the world in Jesus Christ, we are met here today on the first Sunday in Advent with a Scripture text that has the potential to raise the hair on the back our neck.  We can hear this Gospel reading, read things like the fiction series, Left Behind, and hear these TV preachers who think they know when Christ will return, as if they were God, and we can get scared or confused.

There are two significant ways for us to interpret the Gospel reading today.  One way is to understand this Scripture in such a way that speaks of the end of this age when Jesus returns to earth to judge the living and the dead and usher in the new age…we may know it as “eternal life” or the “resurrection of the dead.”

If we think of it in this way then what we know of the return of Christ from our Gospel reading is that it will be in the ordinariness of any given day.  People will be doing what they do every day…eating, sleeping, and going to work or school.  This is a much different picture than what is often thought of as the end of the world: chaos, wars, and huge natural disasters.

Why is it when the topic of the return of Christ and the end of the world as we know it is mentioned, the first emotion to usually well up in our chest is fear?  Even in my reading of this text a number of weeks ago to prepare a sermon for today I felt my heart start to beat faster.  Why?  I have a few theories:

  1. One is judgment.  We are afraid of having our thoughts, our deeds, and all of who we are exposed before God.  How many of us at the end of our lives can stand before God confident that we deserve life in the new creation, in heaven, in eternal life?  I would venture to say not even one of us.  The thought of judgment can indeed raise up legitimate fear, but perhaps there might be comfort in remembering that your judge is the very One who already died for you on the cross out of love.  When fear of judgment gets the best of us, we can forget Jesus dying for you and for me.
  2. Two is wondering whether you will be taken, or will you be left.  I find this one to be the most challenging.  What does “taken” even mean?  The two people are doing the exact same thing, whether they are grinding or in the field.  It has the sense of we’ll be going about our everyday business and suddenly Christ will be here again whether we are ready for him or not.

i.     The Typhoon in the Philippines – one taken, one left…Some died (perhaps some might even say they were “taken”) and many were “left” to grieve, to bury, to rebuild.  I’m not saying this is Jesus returning, I’m simply saying that people die and people live in the midst of tragedy and disasters.  Every day people experience the end of the life they know it.

3.  One thing is for certain, when Jesus comes again, nothing will ever be the same, which leads into the 3rd theory of why we might feel fear or confusion when reading this text.  The end of something, whatever it is, even whether good or bad, is difficult.  I know that for many of you after your stay here is done, it is both terrifying and exciting to leave this campus.  When Jesus comes again it will be the end of what we know and the beginning of something new that God will do and this is meant to be good news for us.  “…the end always comes to rest in trust in the presence of God.  When all is over, at our end, is God (Sundays and Seasons).”

4.  The fourth is that not many people know whether or not they believe that there is anything for them after their life on this earth is said and done.  There is the famous saying “YOLO” – “You Only Live Once.”  Our faith tells us that this is not true.  We will live again, but only on the other side of death; we simply trust that it is and God is.  Arland Hultgren assures us that “there is more to the human story than that which has been experienced already.  The promises of God urge Christians to lean forward toward the future in its entirety (www.workingpreacher.org).

5.  The fifth and last reason I will name is not knowing when.  We ask with the disciples, “Jesus, when will these things take place?”  The answer we get from him is unsatisfying, “Neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father knows.”  We do not know and cannot know when, which makes Christ’s return totally out of our control.  Even though the unknown can well up fear and frustration in us, it can also give us an opportunity to trust God.  That, whenever it happens, you are in the loving arms of your Creator.

What I have just described is one way to understand our Gospel reading, in which Jesus returns to earth to judge the living and the dead and usher in the new age.

The other way to interpret the text is to understand Christ coming to us already and all the time.  If we understand it this way, then “one taken and one left” is like the call stories of the disciples.  Two were fishing in a boat and Jesus calls to them from the shore, saying, “Follow me!” and one gets out of the boat to follow and one stays behind continuing to live as he or she has always lived.

The one who follows is “taken.”  “Taken” in this sense means, “coming along side with,” which can change the whole meaning of how we think about this Scripture.  Being taken up into the life of Jesus can and does happen as we still live all the time.  It is what makes life exciting.  We know this in the ways Jesus already is present with us: in the sharing of the peace, the giving of quilts, at the table, in the word, in each other…

In some ways I think: Does it matter the way we interpret this Scripture: one way being the second coming of Christ and the end of the age; the other being Christ coming to us now and always as we get pulled into the joyful work of the Kingdom of God?  Either way we interpret this text has truth to it.  Christ has already come to this earth, is present now in the work of the Holy Spirit and will fulfill his promise to come again.  Regardless, shouldn’t we be awake to how God is working in the world, how God is working in our own lives?

We practice trusting now and we get to know Jesus better now in order that when he does come again we may welcome him with great joy and not fear.  “For those whom Jesus is a part of their lives now, the “coming” will not be a surprise.  He already comes into our lives now (www.crossmarks.com/brian/).”  Now is the time to wake from sleep to wake up to the ways that Christ already comes to you in your life, giving you strength, giving you peace, giving you forgiveness, giving you hope.

Pastor Richard Jensen writes: “The call to ‘be ready’ is a call to put our lives in the hands of the One who knows: our gracious God.  Our first day with God, our baptismal day, was full of grace.  Our last day with God will be gracious as well.  We trust in that grace.  Trusting, believing, we shall certainly be prepared for the coming of the Song of Man (Richard Jensen, Preaching Luke’s Gospel, p. 214).”

Until then, may the love of God keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.