“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But 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. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. Matthew 24:36-44When I was growing up in the 1970's and 80's, I was sure I was going to die a slow death from the fallout of a nuclear war. There were two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States. Both had nuclear weapons. Each nation held back from launching a nuclear holocaust because of the certain knowledge that the other superpower would launch its warheads in retaliation . . . but we feared that such restraint could not last forever. By mistake or intention, a foreign government would launch its weapons, we would strike back, and the world would end -- fire, followed by ice and the likely extinction of life on earth. My friends and I asked ourselves whether it would be better to try to survive a nuclear blast, or just be at ground zero during the attack. We decided it would be better to be near the blast, so we wouldn’t live to see the aftermath. Anxiety over the end of the world provided the backdrop to much of my childhood and adolescence.
In my college years, my fears of the end of the world paired with a fervent, Evangelical Christianity, which taught Jesus was coming again, and very soon. The narrative was fairly straightforward: We live in the End Times. Soon, on a day when the world situation is so terrible it will explode at any moment, Jesus will appear in the sky, visible only to true-believing Christians who, in an instant, will get beamed up to be with him. If you are not a true-believing Christian, you will get left behind to watch the world disintegrate. After seven years of Tribulation, with earthquakes, plagues, famines, wars and the rise of a charismatic, power-happy, and murderous Antichrist, Christ will return a second time, defeat the Antichrist, and reign over the earth for 1,000 years.
Between my fear of nuclear annihilation, and the extreme Christianity that formed my worldview, I really freaked out when I read a book that predicted the actual date of Jesus’ return. It didn't matter that people had been predicting this date, incorrectly, for centuries. This book was called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture is Coming in 1988, and it literally scared me like no tomorrow. I was 17 years old, in my first week at a small Christian college. Many students were talking about this book, which presented clear evidence that Jesus would return in October of 1988. The book sold 300,000 copies when it came out. The Trinity Broadcast Network took the author so seriously, the cable channel interrupted its regular programming to give viewers instructions on how to survive the coming tribulations. For whatever reason, I knew I wasn’t going to make it through the end times. If the book was correct, I only had a month to get my act together before the return of Jesus. And even if I was faithful enough, I was worried about friends and family whom I thought were not following God and would spend eternity treading lava in the lake of fire mentioned in the Bible. Of course, 1988 came and went with no end times. Another Doomsday of Yesteryear for the history books. However, all these years later, I still get cold sweats when someone predicts a new deadline for the return of Christ.
What about you? What worries overwhelm you? Do you ever feel lost in a past that haunts your life; lost in the present concerns that this moment brings when we are struggling to live one day at a time – when we are trying to be all things to all people; lost in worries of a future over which we have no control? Do you ever get that gut-tightening sense of anxiety when you watch the news or read the paper and realize that senseless horrors continue in our world, in our nation – even in our own backyards; that crime, and starvation, and terrorism, and war, and natural disasters abound and seem to be increasing? Has your life ever been taken over by one worry or another so that you can’t appreciate the wonderful things happening around you?
I know myself well enough to be aware when I’m focusing so much on what’s wrong in this world, I lose my sense of context. Sometimes I feel almost paralyzed by all the anger and fear. How about you? What floods you with worry and causes your stomach to twist in knots and your mind to lose perspective on the big picture?
The audience of Matthew’s Gospel had some similar struggles. When The Gospel according to Matthew was written, around 80 CE, the situation was dire. Christianity was small and fragile. There were just a few thousand Jewish citizens who identified themselves as followers of Jesus. They were overwhelmed. On one side, the Roman Government oppressed them. On the other side, the Jewish majority no longer wanted anything to do with them. On top of that, most people live in poverty under the domination of Rome, who had recently devastated the country during the Roman-Jewish War and destroyed the Temple. People knew all about upheaval. They lived it every day. It must have brought Jesus believers some hope to think that he would return soon, vanquish oppressors, and rescue the suffering faithful.
I think his followers began to lose heart as decades rolled by without the promised return of Jesus. They wondered, “Will Christ ever come back and save the faithful?” Could they dare to hope for an end to injustice borne of violence? Would there ever be a renewed earth where everyone has enough, where children survive, where the oppressed are set free, and the grip of evil is finally defeated? When would the poor and needy have enough? When would those on the margins of society be cared for with dignity and respect? When would foreigners and immigrants be welcomed?
Sound familiar? Sound familiar you dreamers among us, you who can see a renewed world in your mind’s eye – a word where beauty is restored, tears wiped away, and thirst satisfied at the waters of life? Sound familiar you prophets among us, you who demand that we build societies based on fairness and equality where people hunger no more? Sound familiar you fearless champions for peace among us, you who renounce violence with the embrace of love? Sound familiar you servants among us, you who put hands and feet to work to soothe and heal the pain of injustice? Sound familiar, you who are tired and weary and worn – you who are sucked down in a quicksand-world where the rich get richer, the middle class gets poorer and the poorest among us are forgotten? We are deluged with dire predictions, our imaginations stoked with images of disaster, and our minds inundated with this-or-that appeal to save ourselves from this-or-that catastrophe. We live daily in situations of "quiet apocalypse"--domestic violence, job loss, disease, addictions. The unravelling of the world spoken about in apocalyptic texts matches the unravelling that people feel in their own lives.
Before these predictions of the end times, Jesus tells a story – we call it the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It is a description of two worlds. Jesus says, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him … he will gather all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” The sheep represent a world order where the hungry are fed and those who fed them are happy. There is clean water to drink, strangers are welcomed instead of mistrusted, people share clothing so all can be warm, and prisoners treated as human beings instead of commodities. Those who work for a more compassionate, humane world are ushered into an era of peace. Then there are the goats – those who fail to address the real needs of the least fortunate -- those who buy into the "rich get richer and the poor get poorer" system of the ruthless present order. Rome perfected the technique of using violence to accomplish peace. Violence is redemptive, the citizens were told. Violence saves. The goats are left in the darkness in which they left others.
Jesus puts a choice out there for those who call themselves believers: Follow Caesar, who conquers others and forces them to behave through brutal military and political power, or follow Jesus who invites believers to forge a better world through loving acts of compassion and generosity.
First Jesus asks people to choose. Only then does he talk about what it will be like when he returns like a thief in the night. In God’s new order, the ruthless masters do NOT get the last word; love gets the last word.
I choose the Jesus way. But honestly, it’s easy for me. I’m a person of privilege. I have the luxury to hope when times are hard, and rely on self-sufficiency when times are good. I can choose when to use my resources to leverage social change and when to invoke my privilege for my own comfort. In our country, people who are victimized, or persecuted; those who are treated as less because they are not white, or Christian, or heterosexual, or male, or able-bodied, or able-minded, or living below the poverty level; they don’t get a choice about how they will be treated today. I think of African-American friends who tell me about the fear they have just walking out the door each day, wondering what types of aggressions or threats they may encounter and what the appearance the face of racism will take – and that’s here in Montgomery County.
If we affirm Jesus is coming, it means Jesus is coming to be with those who need to know that their lives can be better.
Jesus comes to march with Black Lives Matter protesters who refuse to watch their sons being killed for the crime of being African American.
Jesus comes to walk alongside Syrian Muslim refugees.
Jesus comes to stand with victims of gun violence and the families who cannot get the most basic safety regulations put in place.
Jesus comes to feed the hungry, clothes the naked, and go behind bars with prisoners who serve decades of jail sentences for petty crimes in a for-profit prison system that treats human beings like capital.
Actually, Jesus is not coming. Jesus is already here. Jesus us here in you and me, in the hands, feet, and hearts of anyone who reaches out to offer even the faintest glimmer of a new world –anyone who works of compassionate justice to make our communities healthier.
Can peace really come to the earth? Can Jesus Christ come among us in some way that our minds can never imagine in a scenario that would simply erase our smug confidence about where the lines of reality are drawn?
The answer is yes, because Christ comes to us, and Christ works through us. We pray for those who cannot pray anymore. We hope for those without much hope left. And one more thing, one more tough thing. We work in the same direction as we hope, drawn forward by the magnet force of the Kingdom of God. We stand together, blessed and broken, working hard and partnering with God to be shepherds of peace. You dreamers and prophets, you servants and peacemakers, you wounded healers, go now, dry the tears and nourish the bodies of those who live in this beautiful, terrible, wonderful world.