36 ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
The set reading for this first Sunday of Advent is Matthew 24:36-44. I'd suggest reading all of chapter 24, and even chapters 23 through 25 as a way of getting the feel of this very small excerpt.
Being a teenager when Larry Norman was big makes it hard to read this section of Matthew with out reference to that song.
Two men walking up a hill,
one disappears and one's left standing still...
I wish we'd all been ready...
The idea of the rapture is so pervasive in popular literature it is difficult not to hear it as the standard Christian reading of this text, rather than an aberration.
John Petty's blunt summary would be news to many Christians, and scandalise others.
Unfortunately, the most common interpretations of these apocalyptic texts range from utterly bogus rapture theology to the more benign, but also wrong-headed, speculations about Jesus' second coming. For some reason, in opposition to repeated scriptural injunctions to the contrary, we can't stop fussing about "when will this be, and what will be the sign of (his) coming."
"The rapture," as seminary professor Barbara Rossing says, "is a racket." There is no such thing as the rapture. Nor is popular "second coming theology" much better. It basically says that Jesus wasn't here, then he was, then he left, but he's coming back. That makes Jesus an outsider to his own world. He's not really a part of the world, but only drops in from time to time to straighten things out--basically, a gnostic view. (The phrase "second coming" never appears in the New Testament.)
So if I am not of a mind set that holds to an intervening God who will whisk people away, what can this reading possible say? Shouldn't we just leave this bit out? Is it not some kind of Leviticus-like text that has only historical interest, and not relevance today?
Well, the history is instructive. Matthew is writing perhaps 20 years after the destruction of the temple, which was far bloodier and traumatic than can ever be encapsulated in a sentence. Since then the early Christians have lived through destruction, betrayal, torture and despair in a manner most of us can barely imagine. The church has been expelled from what survives of Judaism, and is a pariah among the people from whom it came. The words of chapters 23 and especially 24, as Matthew presents them are not foretelling of the future. They are a commentary upon recent history and the present. They are written to traumatised and desperate Christians ripe for the plucking by any impostor claiming to be the returning Lord.
We have learned to think of the returning Lord coming in glory. How did they know of him? He first came in obscurity, as an unlikely figure. It would not seem unusual for an obscure figure to arrive claiming to be the Christ. That's how it had happened before!
The first message then, is that no one knows the time or the hour.
23Then if anyone says to you, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “There he is!”—do not believe it. 24For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.... 36 ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
No one can tell you when this will be. No one knows, not even Jesus himself knows, only the Father knows.
But keep awake for he will come at an unexpected time:
42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Like the thief in the night, there will be no warning. Here is the genius of these sayings... when it happens there will be no mistaking it. It will be undeniable. You will not need to be told. You will not need forewarning. The event will be stunning and self explanatory.
Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.
So live well, because there will be no warning. All that the wars and rumours show is that the time is near. They have to happen. But no one knows the time. Live well and you will be ready.
As a strategy this outflanks all the pretenders to Christ, and any who claim to be emissaries who possess special knowledge. Anyone who claims to be the returned Lord automatically, by definition, is proclaiming they are a fraud. There will be no announcement. There will be no need of announcement. The event will happen unheralded and unmistakeable. Anyone who claims to know the date is likewise announcing they are a fraud.
But this time of Matthew's church is not my time. I have never been in this kind of suffering which will grasp at straws of hope. It's likely I'm kidding myself if I think I will ever be in such a place. Westerners who claim they are being persecuted and suffering in the way of Matthew's church are mostly kidding themselves. Is this only a passage for those who live in a refugee camp, ever at risk of rape or raids by government or terrorists, or Western drones?
I remember that in many places I have heard that it is “nearly time.” Dates have been produced. Even here in my city a cult has recently been busted; they were stockpiling weapons for the time it seems, and planning to withdraw to a safe haven. So no, this is not just a text for the refugee camps. Modern day, secure Australians still need to hear the word.
But even so, I do not expect to be lifted up in to the air, and changed in the twinkle of an eye. (1 Cor 15) That is not my kind of world. For me that expectation as much a category mistake as the foolishness of “literal thinkers wondering about flight patterns, orbits and space travel.”
This is not the kind of imagining of the return of the Lord- and that's what it is, an imagining- it is not the kind of imagining that can ever work for me. I cannot imagine the End of History, the inauguration of the Kingdom of God as a reality, in this way. It is not plausible. It does not work. It is not a metaphor which is accessible to me. The wolf dwelling with the the lamb, (Is 11) and the beating of swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hook, (Is 2) are imaginations and metaphors that carry truth for me. I suppose in the mind of this still very literalistic man, these things could actually happen.
Despite my non-connection with the imagery, the coming of the Son of Man as Matthew imagines it, is a hopeful imagination. It is hope in the reality of a kingdom of justice and peace, a Jesus kingdom, in contrast to the pain and struggle that was Matthew's world. It is a statement of faith in the face of horror and hopelessness.
As I consider my situation, where comfort and affluence are the great temptations, I can remember my first reading of Matthew.
I was not a Christian. I was reading with pre-critical naivety, literally and uninformed. I reached the the end of this fantastical document- I think it was the first whole book of the bible which I had read- and thought, “I don't know if I believe this, but if it's true, then I'm on the wrong side.”
I like to think my understanding is now a little more refined. But the essence of that first insight remains. Will I choose Life, or will I go my own way? And if I choose Life, will I hold out for Life in the hard times, or will I give into false prophets and easy ideologies like Prosperity Theology or Nationalism or Fundamentalism? And will I hold out for Life in the good times when I could just retreat into personal affluence? Or will I work on for a kingdom so glorious, so grounded in peace and justice that no one will need to proclaim it to me if it should come in my lifetime? Will I live for that, or give in to an easy way?
In some ways it is not so different from what Matthew writes in this part of the gospel. Stay alert. Stay true. Trust in God. Hope for the Kingdom.
Andrew Prior Nov 27 2010
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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