Benediction Online

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Left Behind?

In October a new movie Left Behind came out starring Nicolas Cage. Even if, like me,  you didn’t see the movie, I imagine most of you have heard of the very popular Left Behind novels on which it’s based. They imagine a world in which Jesus returns and calls to heaven 140 million people, leaving behind billions of stupefied, confused, and grief-stricken others. In the HBO show of the same name, a mother loses her baby, who disappears. A boy's father seems to have vanished as he pushes a shopping cart. Cars collide as drivers go missing. Chaos strikes in the fictional Mapleton, New York -- and throughout the world.

If you haven’t heard about Left Behind, I’m sure you will have heard something about the rapture during which it is said that God’s chosen will be snatched up to heaven. For some Christians this has become a core belief, and they ask whether you will be one of the lucky ones, or whether you will be left behind to endure a time of tribulation. Usually, Episcopalians are not considered good candidates.

The main passage on which this idea is based is the first reading we just heard – the one from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Let’s take a look at that together.

 It seems that Paul is responding to questions about what happens to those who have died before Jesus’ Second Coming.  This must have been quite a problem for the early church because they expected Jesus to return at any moment. Now some of their number were dying – did that mean that they would miss Jesus’ coming and the resurrection of all believers?

Paul tells them not to worry. We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” In other words, “Don’t worry - God will include all those who have died.”

“For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.”  We’re in this together regardless of whether or not we are physically alive when Jesus comes again.

“For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” This is a picture, a metaphor. We know that because it draws from three important images.  The first is Moses coming down the mountain after he’s been given the law – a trumpet sounds and a loud voice is heard before he descends form Sinai. The second is from Daniel in which the saints – the people of the Most High - are vindicated over their pagan enemies by being raised up to sit with God. The third and final picture is that of an emperor visiting a colony where the people would go out into the countryside to greet him and then accompany him into the city.

The Greek word translated meet is one used for a gathering of visiting dignitaries, so the people of God will go out to greet Jesus as he comes from heaven. Given that they figured heaven was in the sky, it makes sense that people would meet him in the air. But the word for air used here is not one for the stratosphere but for the air we breathe. So the image is not of people suddenly being lifted off their feet or “snatched up” and jet-propelled into heaven, but rather of God’s faithful people going out to meet him in a wonderful and wondrous celebration.[1]

The idea of the so-called Rapture is quite a new one. It was invented in the 1830s by John Nelson Darby, an Anglo-Irish theologian with a fundamentalist bent. Darby read Revelation as being a literal description of the end-times and created a theology based on how he understood it. His ideas were later popularized by Cyrus Scofield who published a reference Bible in 1908 on which generations of American preachers cut their teeth. Although it’s poor theology, it has become part of the thinking of many Christians because it’s very useful to revivalist preachers.

When you want to make people feel that they should immediately repent and commit their lives to God it’s very helpful to have a theology which suggests that if they don’t they are in eternal peril. The theory of the end times of which the Rapture is an integral part suggests, correctly, that we don’t know when it will happen. So we need to be prepared at all times and in a place of communion with God lest we be left behind. None of us wants to be abandoned in an unruly and terrifying world, so the fear of being unprepared may lead us to long for a new conviction, a revival, in our spiritual life. Which spells success for the revivalist preacher.

The gospel reading today lends itself to that same interpretation. Be prepared because you don’t know when Jesus is going to come and find you out! Better not be found napping or without enough oil because then the doors might be locked against you for ever. Wake up! Wake up!

I imagine that if Jesus were telling this parable today he might tell it rather differently. He might tell us that the five foolish bridesmaids had brought too much with them. They brought two or even three suitcases, not to mention their ipads and ipods. So when the bridegroom was delayed, they started going through their things and checking Facebook, playing games at the same time as sending selfies to their friends and looking for that special pair of pink shoes that they’re sure they packed and they wished they’d put on.  So when the bridegroom came, they weren’t ready. They weren’t ready because they had to put their shoes on, repack their suitcases and finish their games and by the time they’d done all that it was too late.

This week I saw an ad on CNN which shows a man in an airport focused on his ipad. We’re told that he’s worrying about his insurance. While he’s doing that, another man sits down nearby and attempts to start a conversation, but then leaves because he can’t get the worried man’s attention. The advertisement tells us that worrying about his insurance just cost him a big business deal.  Then the scenario replays. This time, he consults a friendly insurance agent so by the time he sits down at the airport he has taken care of all his worries. This time he starts the conversation and, yes, you guessed it, gets the big business deal.

Now you may not be worried about what insurance you have or where you put your pink shoes, but I’m prepared to bet that there are things that take your attention away from the moment. Things that stop you from being fully present in your life. Most of us are only half here much of the time. We’re either tied up in the past nursing old resentments, grieving for what was or what might have been; or we’re planning and worrying about the future. It’s as though we’ve been given 100 units of energy everyday but instead of having them to use here and now, 25 of them are spent thinking about what might have been and another 25 on what may happen and so we only have 50% of our energy available for the moment.

All the great spiritual teachers of our time agree that living in the moment is one of the most important goals of spiritual practice. In the moment, we have what we need. In the moment, God can break through into our lives with a sudden glimpse of the holy. It only takes a holy instant to transform our lives – to change our understanding of God and the universe for ever. But if we are distracted by many things we may not notice that instant and it will be gone. God does not give up on us, so there will be other opportunities – but who wants to miss the first?

Centering Prayer and meditation are practices which help us to live in the moment. Because when you are sitting in silence, opening to the presence of God, you are creating a time when you consciously choose to be present to Spirit. During this time you let go of all the thoughts and feelings which crowd into your mind– you don’t get involved.  It’s tempting to allow the activity of your mind to pull you away from your central focus, but when that happens you just gently pull your attention back and continue to sit in silence, in the presence of God. It isn’t easy and it isn’t just emptying your mind. It is a practice, like going to the spiritual gym, which builds up your ability to be present in the moment and open to the movement of the Spirit within and around you. It also increases your serenity and your ability to be centered in your life rather than reacting to everything that happens around you.

This week I visited with a woman in her late 90s who wanted to talk with me about dying. She is a lively person who is annoyed by her increasing need to sleep and her body’s reluctance to continue the active life she is used to. Unfortunately she did not develop a meditation practice when she was younger. If she had, it would help her to be far more comfortable with herself in the moment and not so concerned about how she will die. Waiting to start centering prayer until we need it does not work. We have the opportunity to cultivate inner quiet and inner listening today. It’s like a muscle – you can’t expect it to work when you need it if you haven’t used and exercised it – if you haven’t trained it.

Although God goes on giving us opportunities to turn towards God, the older we get and the more we have ignored, the harder it gets to spot them. So there does come a point where turning towards God is almost impossible. There does come a point when our minds are so distracted by the effects of old age that we cannot easily begin to practice mindfulness. We can no longer begin a meditation practice. So the time to begin is now.

And that is I think what this parable is pointing to. I do not believe that God intends us to be fearful or wants us to turn to her out of fear. I am not a revivalist preacher threatening that unless you turn to Jesus you will be left behind!  But we do live in a space-time continuum and as we know time flies – can you believe it’s nearly Thanksgiving already? So we need to be aware of that. We have opportunities today to deepen our spiritual walk, to serve our world, to open to the unexpected moments when the holy breaks through.

If you are like the traditional bridesmaids and you need to have more oil in order to be ready for those moments now is the time to get it. If you are like the modern bridesmaids and need to cut loose of your baggage so that you can be present to the moment when it happens, now is the time to do it.

One thing John Nelson Darby had right is that we don’t know. We can’t predict Jesus’ Second Coming. We don’t know if it will be a cosmic event in our physical lifetimes or a personal event after we die. Neither do we know how long we will live – we can’t predict our own deaths. We don’t know and so there is no room for complacency. Now is the time to do whatever it is you know in your heart of hearts that you need to do. Now is all that we have; the past has gone, the future is yet to be revealed.

When Jesus the Bridegroom comes we want to be ready to go out and meet him, whether he comes in our hearts or in our world. Now is the time of preparation.




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