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Saturday, December 08, 2007

On Being Left Behind

Here I am, nearly a week later, and last Sunday’s gospel lesson is still rattling around in my head, Mt. 24:26-44. When it was read in chapel it quite struck me and my mind lingered over it for some time; I’m still not entirely sure just what to make of it, but I’d like to share some of my thoughts in process.

First, this is a favourite prooftext for premillenial dispensationalists to quote in support a rapture from the earth in which Christians are taken away to heaven and the world bears the brunt of God’s righteous wrath. This is the basis of the Left Behind novels – from the passage saying ‘one will be left [behind]’. This is a troubling doctrine in a number of ways, not least because it seems to indulge our own (self-righteous) thirst for others’ blood, at times even endorsing a sort of prurient voyeurism on others’ misfortune – I have heard some seriously suggest that they would enjoy being in heaven looking down and seeing everyone get theirs. It seems when doctrine fuels anything like these sorts of attitudes in us, we ought to take pause and soberly reassess where we’re at and how we’ve gotten there. But this is also not a true doctrine; in any event, it is abundantly clear that it couldn’t be supported on the basis of this passage: just as those in the flood were ‘taken’ in judgement, so also those at the coming of the Son will be ‘taken’ in judgement as well. This isn’t a matter of believers being raptured away out of the world, but of them being left in the world. (So much for the old Larry Norman song, I guess.)

This gives a slightly different sense to ‘apocalyptic’ – at least here – such that it is not about the rending of creation, but rather its judgement and continuation. In fact, there is almost the opposite sense, and nearly the opposite sense of the flood, that actually life goes on. The man in the field, the woman grinding: do they simply continue their work in the following days? It seems likely (although presumably there is now more work to do).

But I wonder if those left feel ambivalent about those taken? Or to put it more strongly, I wonder if they are left in grief, in loss, feeling the massive hole where these other valued people used to be: co-labourers, but also presumably friends, family, loved ones. Life does not merely continue for those who remain, but it continues with loss, and visible notable gaps where others used to be.

What is clear on the basis of this teaching is that although those left may live with grief and loss, no smugness of self-righteousness is allowed. There is a discreet veil over what happens to those ‘taken’ in judgement; there is no room in the kingdom, it seems, for satisfying our bloodthirsty curiosity. We are instead to be ‘ready’ for when the Son comes at an unexpected hour, a readiness which (I think) speaks of a certain integrity of life, such that we deeply appropriate and live the gospel of Christ, and its grace, service and love.

I trust that God’s judgement will be just and good and loving and in accord with the grace and holiness manifest in Christ. But at least now it takes a bit of graced imagination to think how this might work out, and I’m not sure I see it at this point. Even so, I join my voice gladly – though with perplexity – to the church’s chorus down the ages” Mara natha, O Lord Jesus, come!

This is also posted over at Hopeful Imagination, a group blog for Advent - check it out throughout the Advent season for more postings!

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