While friends were going out for the football team and discovering their fathers’ liquor cabinets, I was fretting about the imminent return of Jesus Christ, and coincident rapture of his chosen ones. Of course, I counted myself among his chosen ones, so in some sense, my worry was academic; still, I thought I had better do what I can to help those sure to be left behind at the second coming. Admittedly, my prom date was rather unromanced by talk of my millennial-reign-of-the-Lamb timetable. (Perhaps she would thank me later.) And my parents, wicked, perfidious, non-churchgoing people they were, did not appreciate that their child had rebelled into religiosity and taken less to lipping off as to leveling against them prophesies of doom. (“Kids these days.”) Some teenaged boys maintain secret stashes of reading material of a certain sort; imagine my mother’s shock and surprise when she pulled out of my sock drawer and from between my mattresses – Bibles: with pages dog-eared, relevant passages highlighted, inside covers become will, testament, and last wishes of their soon-to-be-taken son, Bibles annotated with scrawl, stowed away as guidebooks for those unlucky whom the Lord had left.
Among the scriptures that little Anthony had marked, the clues left for my lost loved ones’ consideration, were these verses from Matthew: 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. It was obvious enough to me then that what Matthew had written of was a worldwide reaping of all the righteous, a grand disappearing act, orchestrated at God’s abracadabra, in which millions of true believers would be beamed up to the mother-ship (I mean, to heaven, to the beyond), leaving run of the world to heathens and lowlifes and mainline Protestants, in effect abandoning the world to sinners, thus ensuring its total annihilation. It was obvious enough to me then that when Jesus said … the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour, and about that day and hour no one knows, he sort of misspoke, and what he really meant was that if only you relate to the Bible like it were a work of low science fiction and everywhere in scripture see secret codes to be cracked, you can outwit God, predict the world’s end, name the very date of it with a bet-it-all-on-black bravado. It was obvious enough to me then.
Now, I’m not at all certain what to make of Christ’s second coming. Probably I don’t believe he is going to carpetbag in on a cloud; that imagery strikes me as more creepy-Mary-Poppins than of saints Matthew or Luke or Paul. Also, larger-than-life-type stunts leave me underwhelmed, like, vanishing every Christian on earth? Meh. That’s David Copperfield. That’s small potatoes. Pull every Christian on earth out of a hat? Alright, God, you’ve got my attention. More seriously, though, it makes some sense to me to think about how these verses would have rung for their first readers. For an audience at all familiar with the Roman triumphs – the victory parades whereat residents would stream forth from the city gates to greet a returning general, circle back behind his retinue and follow him to the temple square in one great, swelled procession – the scene of a coming Christ having drawn to himself a train of devotees would seem impressive but not an imaginative stretch, stately and not strange. Could that be what we are to picture? And then if Chicken Little sorts and street corner preachers have made a cottage industry of peddling metaphors they have forgotten are in fact metaphors, can we chock up the rapture, etc. to that and call it a day?
I don’t want to be let off the hook so easily. Just because I don’t believe the second coming of Christ is a doomsday scenario, inviting cataclysm and meltdown, doesn’t mean that I don’t see the stakes are high here. For my money, and I think maybe for Matthew’s, the risk isn’t that God will be sucking up saints and stranding scoundrels in a world of suffering; both sound like bad deals. The risk isn’t that God will either take you or leave you – God help you, whichever it is … Let’s zoom way, way in: You know, the word that we read as ‘taken’ (… two will be in the field, one will be taken, and two women will be grinding meal together, one will be taken) is paralambanatei in the Greek, and while it could be construed as ‘taken’ – its range of meaning is stretchy – it most often is translated as ‘received.’ And not only ‘received’, because in this case, the verb has been compounded. Note the prefix para- slapped on the front, like in paralegal or parallel. If we mind this word’s richness of hue, it should read something like ‘was received alongside.’ I don’t mean to geek out on you all, but how I conceive of God and God’s ways of relating to us shifts with those new resonances. Think of what a difference it makes if God does not take people – by ordaining accidents and cancers and calamities, but rather receives us whenever, however we come.
So, again, the risk isn’t that God will either take you or leave you. No. Let’s zoom way, way out now: Matthew invites us to imagine workaday folk busily about their business – farmers out in the field, millers grinding meal, we might think of an attorney at her desk, a doctor on rounds, a father doing dishes, someone in a classroom or an office cubicle. And Matthew invites us to imagine that in and through these regular people’s daily lives, in and through meetings and housework and errands, their eating, drinking, and marrying, as he puts it, in and through the ordinary and unspectacular way of things, Christ comes. Christ comes to us. The risk, this Advent, is neither in being taken or being left; the risk is settling for flat, unleavened lives and closing ourselves to that of God which is always almost brimming over in our work and play. Make no mistake, the stakes are high here. Matthew invites us to imagine that there is another dimension and an invitation to it hanging ever over us, that there is a way of being received alongside God in relationship that is open to us and is as thrilling and dynamic and beautiful in its effect as it is run-of-the-mill and routine in its being revealed to us. Matthew, I think, invites us to imagine not leaving this world behind nor watching it burn, but coming to love it more and more – because it is here, if you look, if you look hard, it is here, it is now, that you might find God beside you, feel God present with you. Matthew, I think, invites us to imagine not Christ’s second coming only, but his third, and fourth, and fifth, and fifteenth, and fiftieth, Christ’s daily, Christ’s over and again and always coming to us, welcoming us into intimate life with God. May it be so … And may your days be merry and bright – and all signs of apocalypse be ever out of sight. Amen.