27 November 2007

rapture

Matthew 24:36-44, "But about that day and hour, no one knows . . .
Isaiah 2:1-5, " . . . neither shall they learn war anymore."

Some of you may know about the large wooden cross set up at a convenience store named Doug’s in Dudley, Georgia.

My wife and I drove by it again recently, going from the hometown of my wife to my hometown. You see the town of Dudley is in between. And Doug’s convenience store is the kind of place you don’t miss if you drive through Dudley on Highway 80 . . . especially since Doug’s has that huge white cross that has red letters painted on it that read, “Jesus is coming soon”.

The cross sits right next to the convenience store. We have driven between Dublin and Warner Robins many, many times, passing by Doug’s convenience store and that cross.

You see, that cross has been there a long time.

Presumably "Doug" thought that Jesus was coming back pretty quickly whenever he erected it. I remember many times even when I was very young that people in churches started talking about Jesus coming back. It happened in 1980 and again in 1988 and then of course in the year 2000. We seem to always think that it is going to happen "soon".

And when Jesus said these words so many years ago, and when they were written down about thirty to forty years later, the people of that day thought too that Jesus was coming soon.

Although they didn’t build a forty foot white cross and paint red letters on it. But what they did do was lived in that promise; they lived in such a way as to show that they knew that it could be anytime.

The people of Israel too had been given a promise through the prophet Isaiah. This is the promise is referenced above. It is a promise of peace, of beating swords into plowshares, an image of a time when the things that were normally used to make war would be turned into plows, to help tend the fields, to help feed everyone. A vision of a time when all nations seek God, when everyone is drawn to this “mount of the Lord”, all people, from everywhere. And there will be no more war. What a wonderful promise!

And so we hold that wonderful image, that word-picture in one hand . . . and our reading from the gospel in the other. Because to be honest, this particular gospel reading makes everyone think of the “rapture.”

This rapture, if you believe the people who write exciting fiction about it, this rapture is a time when the Christians are just whisked away before the “end times”. This is what the Left Behind series is based on, this theory that there will be people driving along, and then Jesus comes back and suddenly no one is driving that car anymore. Or maybe someone is on the job, people working alongside each other and then suddenly, a couple of people are just gone.

And because this is such a part of our culture now, this is what we think of when we hear this passage from the gospel of Matthew. Two are in the field, and one is taken. Two are grinding meal, and one is taken.

It’s a little bit scary in a way. In some ways it plays on anyone’s fear of abandonment, fear of being left, fear of trusting in someone to take care of you, or a fear that maybe I haven’t been good enough and I’m the one left while my friend or wife or husband is taken, . . . that that person is just gone, not there, maybe one of you is taken and the other left.

Suddenly what was hidden has been revealed; the promise made long, long ago, or seems long, long ago to us, that promise has been fulfilled.

But truth be told, the question I think we really ask, the thing I think we really ponder is whether this promise will be fulfilled sometimes. It is just like my wife and I driving by that big cross at Doug’s convenience store. And it is almost comical in a way . . . like that cartoon character you see sometimes of that haggard looking fellow carrying a picket sign that reads, “Jesus is coming soon”.

We drove by again this time and saw that the sign had been painted once again. And I wonder what Doug thinks about that . . . because sometimes, we wonder if God has forgotten; sometimes we wonder if the promise is going to be fulfilled at all, if in some way we haven’t been abandoned, been left to our own devices . . . for sure when we look at the world most of the time we do not see things getting better; we don’t see this wonderful vision from Isaiah of swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, of peace and everyone seeking God.

Most of the time we just shake our heads and wonder what the world is coming to. And I’ll admit that I do that too.

So what do we do then? What do we do? We have the vision from Isaiah. We have the promise of Christ’s return from the gospels. What do we do?

I think sometimes that deep inside of us, we all wish for things to be different, especially at those times when we feel so very helpless, when we feel so closed in, sometimes so lost. In that moment our deepest wish is to be taken out of the situation, to be released, to be taken away. That’s why some of us want to be so far out of the city, to be away, to be in an area where we feel safe and out of all the crime and violence and everything else in the city.

One of our responses when we are waiting for the promise, waiting for Christ to come again, waiting for that second advent, that second coming, is to go to the mountain and wait, to retreat, to pull in and circle the wagons.

But it is a reaction based on fear, not trust, sometimes we are acting as if we just wish it all away, if we just wait on Christ to come back and God to snatch us out of the mess we are in, then everything will be okay. Sometimes we just want to wait on that release, that savior.

And this is one way to think about Christ’s return . . . and it appeals to us when we are in trouble, but this is not trusting God to help us through . . . it is not trusting in that this is the kind of God who can help us turn swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, who can draw all nations, who can create a world with us where there is peace, and no more war. Where the implements of war become tools with which to farm, to provide food.

One of the people that I read this week a pastor by the name of Peter Gomes. His father farmed cranberries in the northeast. I don’t know a thing about how to grow cranberries or raise them or harvest them.

But what he said about planting . . . and waiting . . . and harvesting . . . is instructive for us . . . as we wait for the promise, as we wait for Christ’s return heeding Jesus’ warning to be ready, to be watching and waiting.

Gomes talks about how the farmer plants in hope of the harvest, plants praying for the harvest, working toward the harvest, knowing that it will come, knowing that many things can happen between now and then, but continually working to be prepared.

I remember when I helped my father plant the fields and how we would get those seeds in the ground, well mostly as I plodded along behind him until I was older, then I could pick up the bags of beans and pour them in the hoppers. We planted knowing that it was a beginning, not the end. We planted knowing that there was more to be done. We would have to return to the fields to pull weeds, sometimes to spray for weeds.

That time in between was not a time for being idle, for not watching, for not working. I remember talking with one of the farmers at the church that I served at a men's breakfast. And we would talk about just how much work farming required . . . it is not something you can just plant and leave.

Trusting God means knowing that ultimately the harvest, the whole world is in God’s hands, but it also means doing our part in the in-between time, knowing that God has asked us to work, to be a part of that harvest, to be a part of making peace, of feeding the hungry, of helping this be a better world . . . and not just waiting for a time when we are suddenly taken away . . .
This is what being ready means.

It doesn’t mean going to the top of a mountain and waiting, but being ready. You see Jesus is coming soon.

Even though Doug’s convenience store has had that sign up for at least fifteen years now, Doug is right.

And our job as people of faith, as the church is to watch, as Jesus told us to do, to work, to be ready. In this first Sunday of Advent, let us be mindful, let us be watching and waiting for Christ to return, not just in the memory of Christmas, but in our lives again, being born in us and through us again, working toward that harvest.

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