Matthew 24:36-44 Advent I: November 27, 2022
John Nelson Darby may be the most influential and controversial theologian for our time. You have probably never heard of Darby. He wasn’t a prominent preacher or theologian in his day. Darby had a decent start as an Anglican priest serving a parish in Catholic Ireland. He brought in many Catholic converts, but the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin insisted that Darby make all his congregation swear allegiance to George the VI of England as the true king of Ireland. Darby resigned in protest and drifted to a small sect, the Plymouth Brethren, who were obsessed with discerning biblical prophecy. Darby believed that the Kingdom of God had nothing to do with the institution of the church, whose corruption God would soon end. After a great tribulation, Christ would come and establish a thousand-year reign.
Today’s scripture reading from Matthew was a Darby favorite. “Two men will be working in the field, one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will grind corn, one will be taken, and one will be left.” Darby was the first to call this the Rapture (a word not used in the Bible.) He developed an elaborate theory of historical dispensations and what would happen as God established this new earthly kingdom. Darby’s following was small, and the Plymouth Brethren split over details of what would happen after the Rapture. But his extensive writing included the Scofield Reference Bible which shared his work on how the world would end. After his death, this Bible was a popular seller, and his theology gained acceptance, especially at Dallas Theological Seminary, the largest Southern Baptist school. Hal Lindsey and televangelist John Hagee spread Darby’s Dispensationalism, and it became a central belief for Evangelicalism by the time of Jerry Falwell. In the 1980s, people began to have bumper stickers that said, “In case of Rapture, the driver of this car will disappear.” Then came the bumper sticker, “If the rapture comes, can I have your car?”
Whatever Darby’s intent, his apocalyptic views have deeply distorted the church’s mission. The major problem is the Rapture ignores the present reality of human suffering and makes earthly life nothing more than a test. It creates a paranoia of outsiders and a persecution complex. Darby’s dispensationalism creates a mindset that easily fits with QAnon conspiracy theories, and many Evangelical pastors have been under fire for not supporting these fantasies.
In contrast, Biblical prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos were deeply concerned about human suffering and justice for the poor. Rapture proponents have little interest in social justice or climate change because the world will end. Why feed the hungry nations of the world if the end is near? James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, argued that we should not have environmental regulations because the world would end soon anyway.
Rapture theology is increasingly politicized. Evangelical Christians have supported the Likud party in Israel and justified the oppression of Palestinians (including Palestinian Christians) because of their end-times theology. Did you know the State of Israel bought Rev. Jerry Falwell a jet to thank him for his support? Falwell was as important as any Secretary of State on Israel policy. A recent offshoot of Darby’s theology is known as “Dominionism,” held by Mike Pence and Supreme Court Justice Amy Comey Barrett. Dominionism encourages Christians to “take back America, believes that only Christians should hold elective office, and fueled a strong desire to ban gay marriage and abortion.
What would Jesus think about all this? Jesus was clear no one knows the day of the coming of God’s Kingdom. Jesus also said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is among you.” A quality of God’s work is already here, even if not complete. Jesus never said, “Take back the power of government from Caesar.” Instead, he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” When things get tough, and we feel like the world is ending, what are we supposed to do? “Keep awake, for you do not know the day when the Son of Man is coming.”
This scripture sounds like an episode of Undercover Boss. The show is exactly like the title says. In one episode, the CEO of Checkers goes on hidden camera wearing the company uniform and works the fryer at the fast-food restaurant. The general manager constantly yells and belittles a cashier to tears. The undercover CEO listens on break to the cashier’s tearful complaints of being demeaned and, after the shift, confronts the manager. The manager drips with disdain and says he does what he must do to motivate employees to work hard. When he says, “If you had some experience in the fast-food industry, you would understand how to manage people,” Undercover Boss makes the big reveal. He has some experience; in fact, he is the CEO, and he fires the manager on live television. Boom! No wonder the show is on its twelfth season and has won two Emmys. Only the Olympics and American Idol had more viewers in their first year. It taps into the frustrations of unappreciated and poorly treated frontline workers. We would all like to know someone is paying attention. As long as they aren’t watching us too closely!
One of my heroes growing up was John Wooden, the UCLA basketball coach who won a dozen national championships. I was impressed by the famous line in his autobiography, “Character is measured by what you do when no one is watching.” It means you have a habit of doing your best work and being kind or honest, even if no one is paying attention. This is close to Jesus’s meaning in our reading today. Jesus follows this text with three parables in Chapter 25. First, he says there are five wise and five foolish bridesmaids. The wise ones had enough oil to keep their lamps burning in the night for when the bridegroom comes. The foolish ones were not prepared. Second, he tells the parable of the talents and commends the servants who increase the money in their charge. Third, he says that God will sort the sheep and the goats. The goats are judged, and the sheep are praised because when Jesus was a stranger, they welcomed him; when he was hungry, they fed him, sick, and cared for him. These are the final teachings of Jesus before the Last Supper. Together they form a relentless message readying disciples for the time he is gone. Be vigilant, act with character, do justice, and pay attention to even the small acts of help and kindness.
It is more important to live Jesus’s teaching in the present moment than to figure out how and when the world will end. So, what do we do with this passage where Jesus says to be ready for his coming? We need to go Bible Geek for a moment and then get practical. Much has been made of the Greek word “Parousia, ” translated as “coming.” Darby turned this word into a theological term meaning the Second Coming of Jesus, the tribulation, resurrection of the dead, and leaving your car on the freeway. But Parousia simply means to be present, to come or arrive. Plato said the Parousia was the invisible presence of the gods in the sacred fire at the sacrifice of animals. In Greek stories, Parousia refers to a god showing up and being helpful. Zeus was the sky god of rain, thunder, and lightning. When the rain fell, it was his Parousia. The thunder and lightning were his judgment on the evil doer, his Parousia of justice.
Was Jesus talking about a second coming in a final judgment, as Darby believed? Or was he saying he will be present and come to us in our time of need? Just as Plato believed the gods were present in the sacrifice, our communion theology states we welcome the real presence of Christ as we break bread together. Jesus said, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of you.” The coming of Jesus is not always a dramatic end-of-the-world event. Jesus did say several apocalyptic things, and God may bring about some final event in the universe. But we are now 2000 years down the road from Jesus and 2.4 million years into human life, and Jesus himself said he did not know the day. Paul thought Jesus would return soon. What if soon means the next moment? What if the Parousia of Christ is after a deep breath and the prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.”? Isn’t Jesus present to some degree right now?
End times speculation is the perfect distraction for the real work of being open to the present reality of Christ among us. It may even be a failure to take responsibility. Jesus said, whenever you acted with compassion to someone in need, fed the hungry, visited the sick, you did it to me. So, keep awake. If you are paying attention, you may see Christ come among us this very week.