Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
This week we read in Matthew about the birth of Christ. This story is familiar to almost everyone sitting in the pews, although we tend to mix Matthew and Luke and put the wise men and the shepherds next to each other in the manger. Nevertheless, we accept the story of the birth of Christ as true.
But when we really think about it, we’re asking our congregations to believe some pretty outrageous details. Mary becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit and is a virgin when she gives birth? An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. This baby…a tiny, innocent infant…was God’s plan for saving the world? Fast forward to Easter, and we proclaim that Christ died and was raised from the dead three days later. Let’s face it—Christianity makes some pretty unusual claims about what is true and what is not. We know these things are true, however, because we read them in the Bible. By faith we believe what we are told in Matthew today, and what we will be told in Luke on Christmas Eve, John on Christmas Day.
But unfortunately, many have taken liberties with the Bible—taking out what they want vs. discerning what is in the verses—and have made some even more unusual claims about who Jesus is. In December 2003, Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., wrote a column in the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago to review two popular books—The Da Vinci Code and Left Behind. In recent years, these two books have been touted as “true to scripture” and “the real facts” about who Jesus was, and what would happen at the point of his second coming. Cardinal George began by recalling some familiar historical and theological facts about the life of Jesus that are part of every Christian creed. When it came to scripture, he pointed out that Christ left behind no written words. Instead he formed a community of disciples and sent the Holy Spirit upon them to judge, which writings about him were truly inspired and which ones were not. “The Church, Christ’s Mystical Body, is the context for interpreting and judging every text written about Jesus,” Cardinal George wrote. “The Church tells us what Holy Scripture is and what is not.”
The Church continually encounters words about Jesus that are “untrue at best and demonic nonsense at worst.” Two popular examples of this are the two books mentioned above. From the one wing the theologians are shocked at the historical pretensions and poor scholarship of The Da Vinci Code, a novel with historical pretensions. From another wing of the church, The Left Behind series of novels are shown to have doctrinal pretensions. These publications illustrate the results of “imaginative re-interpretation of facts” instead of relying on “the authentic witness to Christ given by the Church that Christ himself founded to speak the truth about him until he returns in glory.”
Thus The Da Vinci Code, which looks into the coming of our Lord in history, reduces the Biblical Christ to “one more character” in a novel, one more cultural token to be exploited for any purpose we choose. Author Dan Brown uses the spurious history of the second-century Gnostic writings “to give a facade of scholarship to his fiction...”, and legends about Mary Magdalene to add spice to his novel and “advance an esoteric form of feminism.” The novel has an engaging but preposterous story line that cleverly plays on popular prejudices against the Church, and conveniently dodges questions such as how the apostles and martyrs could sacrifice their lives for such weird ideas. Dan Brown seems to enjoy making the self-serving heresies of the early church sound normal while at the same time repeating libels and slanders that where long ago proven to be false. The real reasons for Christ coming are dismissed and replaced by a series of modern prejudices.
Turning our attention to the Left Behind novels, Cardinal George wrote that they make prophetic claims “which depend on a misinterpretation of our belief that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins twist the theology of the Second Coming into a fear-fest. Readers are asked to believe in a literal rapture; in the opening book, the pilot of an airplane is “left behind” along with some of his passengers, but several seats are left with only piles of clothes. We are to assume that the faithful have been taken to heaven. A smooth-talking Anti-Christ comes to power and forces those “left behind” to either worship him or be killed. Large passages of scripture from the prophets as well as Revelation are quoted as literal fact in the book. As novels, they are interesting reads. But they are gross misinterpretations of scripture.
“The persuasive force of the Left Behind novels comes less from their doctrinal underpinnings about what Christ did and intended,” writes Cardinal George, “than from the fear that one might be left behind at the Rapture, when those who have accepted Christ as Savior will be spirited away by him before the time of tribulations begin in this world. The stories are poignant. Who wants to be left behind?”
Cardinal George concludes his article: “If The Da Vinci Code is a work of bizarre religious imaginings” built upon a false past “and the Left Behind novels are works of sincere but erroneous religious delusions about the future, why be concerned about them in the present?” He answers his own question in this way: “Because they betray in words the one who is truthfully described as ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (Jn 14:6), the one we call Our Lord.”
Though coming from different perspectives, these books share a common fallacy in that they expect the core of Christian faith to be found in documents alone, rather than in the living Lord Jesus Christ. “The feast of Christmas is a powerful antidote to the Gnostic fabrications of Dan Brown and the dispensationalist delusions of the Left Behind books.” The child born at Bethlehem is truly divine and fully human. The eternal Son of God became one of us in human history (the past), he is with our assemblies in a special way in liturgy (the present), and he will return at the end of time to raise our bodies from the dead and take us into heavenly glory (the future). (Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., “Was the Word Made Words or Was the Word Made Flesh?” Catholic New World [Chicago, Catholic New World Press, 2003]).
To our western ways of thinking, the relationships in this passage are very bewildering. First, Joseph is said to be betrothed to Mary; then he is said to be planning quietly to divorce her; and then she is called his wife. But the relationships represent normal Jewish marriage procedure, in which there were three steps.
(1) There was the engagement. The engagement was often made when the couple were only children. It was usually made through the parents, or through a professional matchmaker. And it was often made without the couple involved ever having seen each other. Marriage was held to be far too serious a step to be left to the dictates of the human heart.
(2) There was the betrothal. The betrothal was what we might call the ratiﬁcation of the engagement into which the couple had previously entered. At this point the engagement, entered into by the parents or the matchmaker, could be broken if the girl was unwilling to go on with it. But once the betrothal was entered into, it was absolutely binding. It lasted for one year. During that year, the couple were known as husband and wife, although they had not the rights of husband and wife. It could not be terminated in any other way than by divorce. In the Jewish law, we frequently ﬁnd what is to us a curious phrase. A girl whose ﬁancé had died during the year of betrothal is called ‘a virgin who is a widow’. It was at this stage that Joseph and Mary were. They were betrothed; and if Joseph wished to end the betrothal, he could do so in no other way than by divorce; and in that year of betrothal, Mary was legally known as his wife.
(3) The third stage was the marriage proper, which took place at the end of the year of betrothal.
If we remember the normal Jewish wedding customs, then the relationships in this passage are perfectly usual and perfectly clear.
So at this stage it was told to Joseph that Mary was to bear a child, that that child had been begotten by the Holy Spirit, and that he must call the child by the name Jesus. Jesus is the Greek form of the Jewish name Joshua, and Joshua means Yahweh is salvation. Long ago, the psalmist had heard God say: ‘It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities’ (Psalm 130:8). And Joseph was told that the child to be born would grow into the Savior who would save God’s people from their sins. Jesus was not so much the Man born to be King as the Man born to be Savior. He came to this world, not for his own sake, but for us and for our salvation.
(Barclay, W. The Gospel of Matthew [2001, Edinburgh] Third Ed., pp. 22–23)
Although Luke and John start elsewhere, Matthew’s genealogy introduces Jesus’ background by affirming that he is an heir to and the climax of Israel’s history. Whereas other genealogies of the period normally emphasized the purity of one’s Jewish or priestly ancestry, Matthew’s genealogy specifically highlights the mixed nature of Jesus’ ancestry (1:3, 5–6), preparing the way for his theme of reaching even the Gentiles with God’s good news (e.g., 2:1; 28:19). Having established Jesus’ origin in Israel’s history, Matthew now introduces his background from a different angle: in the story of Jesus’ godly stepfather, he introduces the miraculous and moral character of Jesus’ birth.
Ancient writers liked to emphasize the special circumstances of a hero’s birth when possible, and it is not surprising that the two Gospels which recount Jesus’ birth (Matthew and Luke) would do so. Of course, ancient stories about gods seducing and raping women are quite different from the biblical story of a virgin birth; although more dramatic, it is closer in kind to the miraculous births of the Hebrew Bible, in which God enabled Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel to conceive after they had proved unable to do so. But few ancient Jewish hearers would have questioned the power of Israel’s God to accomplish such a feat.
Unlike ancient hearers, many modern hearers, especially those shaped by the radical Enlightenment, have problems believing in a virgin birth. For those of us who believe, however, that God began the universe and is responsible for our existence, a virgin birth is hardly a philosophical problem. From a historical standpoint, the idea is not Matthew’s invention; his account is independent of Luke’s, indicating that both drew on earlier information. Luke in fact claims to have investigated; he probably interviewed eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1–4), and probably one of the close relatives of Jesus and Mary (Acts 21:18).
While Christians need not doubt the virgin birth, later debates about its nature may miss Matthew’s primary point. Although Matthew emphasizes the supernatural character of our Lord’s birth, he is interested in teaching ethics (28:20) and here focuses on several moral lessons which later Gospel teachings will reinforce. Matthew provides us lessons about the importance of Scripture, about commitment, mercy, obedience, and self-control.
Matthew in fact gives only one reason for the virgin birth: that Scripture might be fulfilled (1:22). From this we learn that Matthew valued Scripture very highly, a point reinforced repeatedly in his Gospel (e.g., 2:15, 17, 23; 5:17–20); following Matthew’s example, we can also stress the importance of trusting Scripture. Exactly how Matthew is interpreting the text he quotes from Isaiah is more complicated. In Isaiah’s immediate context the son that would be born would still be a child when the two kings then challenging Judah’s king would falter, ultimately leading to their destruction within a generation (Isa. 7:1–25, esp. 7:8–16); this could be Isaiah’s own son, whose name signaled the imminent end of Judah’s enemies (Isa. 8:3–4). But Matthew was more biblically literate than some of his modern critics recognize; indeed, he presupposes that his hearers will think of a broader context of surrounding chapters. Recognizing that Isaiah’s children pointed beyond themselves to God’s actions in history (Isa. 8:18), Matthew could emphasize the consistent patterns of God’s acts and look to Isaiah’s mention of a child who really would be “God with us” sitting on David’s throne (Isa. 9:6–7). This context remains fresh in Matthew’s mind as his Gospel proceeds (see Matt. 4:15–16, using Isa. 9:1–2).
This narrative not only reinforces Matthew’s consistent emphasis on the importance of Scripture but also teaches us, as narratives often do, through the examples of characters. Matthew teaches through the example of Joseph (we hear Mary’s voice more in Luke), who is explicitly called a “righteous,” hence positive, model (1:19). What can we learn from the behavior of the couple God chose to raise Jesus? This passage provides lessons about commitment, compassion, consecration, and control.
First, we learn something about the nature of marital commitment. In ancient Judaism betrothals (unlike our modern engagements) were as binding as marriage; an economic transaction had united the couple. Even though they had not yet consummated the marriage (indeed, traditional Galilean couples might not even have had time alone together), their betrothal could be ended only by divorce or by the death of one party. Unfaithfulness, however, was universally regarded as grounds for divorce, and Jewish law, like Roman law and all ancient Mediterranean custom, would have expected Joseph to divorce Mary.
That Joseph is about to divorce Mary, yet is called a “righteous” man, challenges some of our assumptions today. Whereas later in this Gospel Jesus condemns unfaithfulness to one’s marriage covenant by divorce, he does make an exception for a party wronged by a spouse’s unfaithfulness (5:32; 19:9). There are some churches today, however, who condemn anyone who has experienced divorce, never asking the circumstances, which sometimes include the spouse’s continued unfaithfulness, abandonment, or abuse; sometimes one is divorced against one’s will. Indeed, many churches will treat adultery more lightly than divorce; repentance is often accepted as more efficacious for the former. Clearly Matthew demands that we forgive our spouse and do our very best to make our marriage strong. But he also recognizes that in some very exceptional circumstances it is possible for a person to divorce yet be a “righteous” person (1:19). Adultery, of which Joseph wrongly supposes Mary guilty, was a terrible breach of commitment to marriage. (Although Joseph’s culture was harder on women, biblical stories like Genesis 38–39, which contrasts an earlier Joseph’s behavior with Judah’s, show that God expects both genders to be faithful.)
Second, Joseph illustrates compassion. Matthew’s primary point, in fact, is not that Joseph was righteous “even though” he was preparing to divorce Mary; rather, Joseph was righteous “because” he was going to divorce her privately, to reduce her shame (1:19). In his society, such behavior would have cost Joseph something significant. If he had paid a bride-price, it may have represented several years of savings; by taking her to court, he could guarantee the return of the full bride-price and also impound any dowry her father might have given her for the marriage. More importantly, he could make public his repudiation of her alleged misdeed, making it clear that he was not the child’s father. In his culture her act would shame him in any case, but by publicly shaming her his own shame would be reduced.
Yet Joseph was more concerned to guard what remained of Mary’s honor than to increase his own. By granting her a certificate of divorce in front of two witnesses instead of in a court, he could reduce the attention drawn to her pregnancy—though in small towns like Nazareth or even Bethlehem, word would travel quickly. Joseph probably had had little or no time alone with Mary; further, many young men of his day would have chosen to avenge their honor. But Matthew tells us that righteousness includes mercy (1:19; cf. 9:13; 12:7). A few churches even today expose unwed mothers and others to shame to punish sin; Joseph would not have done so because he was righteous.
Third, Joseph models consecration. Although most ancient Mediterranean peoples did affirm that dreams often revealed divine purposes, Joseph’s obedience to the angel’s appearance in his dream (1:20) is noteworthy. In view of small-town gossip and the critical centrality of values like honor and shame in his culture, Joseph was making a big commitment by embracing Mary; people would assume that Joseph himself had gotten Mary pregnant before the wedding. This offense would not be viewed as severely as adultery, but it would still leave them both as objects of gossip for years to come. Luke tells us that Mary had already valued God’s will more highly than her own honor (Luke 1:38); Matthew tells us that Joseph embraced shame for the same reason (Matt. 1:24).
Fourth, Joseph and Mary model control. If Joseph was the average age for Jewish grooms, he may have been eighteen to twenty, Mary likely being a few years younger; whatever their ages, conservative Jewish culture mistrusted a man and woman left alone together for even an hour or two. As a young married couple, Joseph and Mary likely shared the same small bed in a small space; newlyweds often roomed in a makeshift chamber on top of the home of the groom’s parents. Yet in contrast to the expectations of their culture or ours, they were able to restrain themselves at least until Mary brought forth her son (1:25). Their self-control challenges the claims of many people today that sexual temptation is too great to resist.
Yet they were married; why did they refrain? Possibly to fulfill the language of the verse quoted in 1:23: not only would a virgin conceive, but a virgin would bear. This self-control would have cost them honor, however. It meant that Joseph and Mary did not have intercourse on their wedding night, hence gave up the opportunity to prove, as virgins often did on their wedding nights, that Mary was, after all, a virgin. They were more concerned with God’s honor than with the opinions of their society.
Sometimes when I have preached from this text about betrayal, commitment, intimacy, and self-control, I have found that many of my hearers experience a deep sense of remorse for past or current sexual sins. That is why I have always been happy to point them, at the end, to another character in this narrative: Jesus, who came to save his people from their sins (1:21). He befriended sinners and put up with faltering disciples elsewhere in this Gospel; he came to us the way we were to make something better of us. The examples of righteous behavior are not pure moralism; they are examples of what we can be as we follow the God who is with us (1:23), the real hero of Matthew’s Gospel who promises to be with us today as well (18:20; 28:20).
(Keener, C. S. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids] Vol 3 pp. 1–4)
One of the most memorable movies I have seen is the film of Charles Dickens’s novel Little Dorrit. It is actually two films, both very long. The two films don’t follow in sequence, telling the first and second halves of the story; instead, each film shows the whole drama, but from a different point of view. First, we see the action through the eyes of the hero; then, in the second film, the same story through the eyes of the heroine. A few scenes are identical, but in the second film we understand many things that hadn’t been clear first time around. Like seeing with two eyes instead of one, the double movie enables the viewer to get a sense of depth and perspective on the whole dramatic story.
The story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s gospel is seen through the eyes of Joseph; in Luke’s gospel, we see it through Mary’s. No attempt is made to bring them into line. The central fact is the same; but instead of Luke’s picture of an excited Galilean girl, learning that she is to give birth to God’s Messiah, Matthew shows us the more sober Joseph, discovering that his fiancée is pregnant. The only point where the two stories come close is when the angel says to Joseph, as Gabriel said to Mary, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ That is an important word for us, too, as we read the accounts of Jesus’ birth.
Fear at this point is normal. For centuries now many opponents of Christianity, and many devout Christians themselves, have felt that these stories are embarrassing and unnecessary—and untrue. We know (many will say) that miracles don’t happen. Remarkable healings, perhaps; there are ways of explaining them. But not babies born without human fathers. This is straining things too far.
Some go further. These stories, they say, have had an unfortunate effect. They have given the impression that sex is dirty and that God doesn’t want anything to do with it. They have given rise to the legend that Mary stayed a virgin for ever (something the Bible never says; indeed, here and elsewhere it implies that she and Joseph lived a normal married life after Jesus’ birth). This has promoted the belief that virginity is better than marriage. And so on.
It is of course true that strange ideas have grown up around the story of Jesus’ conception and birth, but Matthew (and Luke) can hardly be blamed for that. They were telling the story they believed was both true and the ultimate explanation of why Jesus was the person he was.
They must have known that they were taking a risk. In the ancient pagan world there were plenty of stories of heroes conceived by the intervention of a god, without a human father. Surely Matthew, with his very Jewish perspective on everything, would hardly invent such a thing, or copy it from someone else unless he really believed it? Wouldn’t it be opening Christianity to the sneers of its opponents, who would quickly suggest the obvious alternative, namely that Mary had become pregnant through some more obvious but less reputable means?
Well, yes, it would; but that would only be relevant if nobody already knew that there had been something strange about Jesus’ conception. In John’s gospel we hear the echo of a taunt made during Jesus’ lifetime: maybe, the crowds suggest, Jesus’ mother had been misbehaving before her marriage (8:41). It looks as though Matthew and Luke are telling this story because they know rumours have circulated and they want to set the record straight.
Alternatively, people have suggested that Matthew made his story up so that it would present a ‘fulfilment’ of the passage he quotes in verse 23, from Isaiah 7:14. But, interestingly, there is no evidence that anyone before Matthew saw that verse as something that would have to be fulfilled by the coming Messiah. It looks rather as though he found the verse because he already knew the story, not the other way round.
Everything depends, of course, on whether you believe that the living God could, or would, act like that. Some say he couldn’t (‘miracles don’t happen’); others that he wouldn’t (‘if he did that, why doesn’t he intervene to stop genocide?’). Some say Joseph, and others at the time, didn’t know the scientific laws of nature the way we do—though this story gives the lie to that, since if Joseph hadn’t known how babies were normally made he wouldn’t have had a problem with Mary’s unexpected pregnancy.
But Matthew and Luke don’t ask us to take the story all by itself. They ask us to see it in the light both of the entire history of Israel—in which God was always present and at work, often in very surprising ways—and, more particularly, of the subsequent story of Jesus himself. Does the rest of the story, and the impact of Jesus on the world and countless individuals within it ever since, make it more or less likely that he was indeed conceived by a special act of the holy spirit?
That is a question everyone must answer for themselves. But Matthew wouldn’t want us to stop there. He wants to tell us more about who Jesus was and is, in a time-honoured Jewish fashion: by his special names. The name ‘Jesus’ was a popular boys’ name at the time, being in Hebrew the same as ‘Joshua’, who brought the Israelites into the promised land after the death of Moses. Matthew sees Jesus as the one who will now complete what the law of Moses pointed to but could not of itself produce. He will rescue his people, not from slavery in Egypt, but from the slavery of sin, the ‘exile’ they have suffered not just in Babylon but in their own hearts and lives.
By contrast, the name ‘Emmanuel’, mentioned in Isaiah 7:14 and 8:8, was not given to anyone else, perhaps because it would say more about a child than anyone would normally dare. It means ‘God with us’. Matthew’s whole gospel is framed by this theme: at the very end, Jesus promises that he will be ‘with’ his people to the close of the age (28:20). The two names together express the meaning of the story. God is present, with his people; he doesn’t ‘intervene’ from a distance, but is always active, sometimes in most unexpected ways. And God’s actions are aimed at rescuing people from a helpless plight, demanding that he take the initiative and do things people had regarded as (so to speak) inconceivable.
This is the God, and this is the Jesus, whose story Matthew will now set before us. This is the God, and this is the Jesus, who comes to us still today when human possibilities have run out, offering new and startling ways forward, in fulfilment of his promises, by his powerful love and grace.
(Wright, T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 [2004, London] pp. 5–8)
The very first observation is that there are multiple ways of seeing a story. This can some of the time be a very powerful way to make us think more clearly about the passages in the Bible. However, there is also the possibility of misrepresenting the story and consequently misrepresenting the Bible. So we should be aware of the power and pitfalls of multiple ways of retelling the story.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
It’s a day like any other, and then—bam!—everything changes. Millions of people disappear in an instant and all that’s left are piles of clothes, iPods and wallets. Panic and terror break out. This is the scene that viewers are faced with in the new Left Behind movie, directed by Vic Armstrong, and it’s Nicolas Cage’s job to find out what’s happened. But the viewers already know the answer: it’s the Rapture, of course! The Biblical prophecies have come true.
Or have they?
The Rapture is now commonly understood to refer to a time when believers will be snatched up to heaven by Jesus to escape the time of tribulation about to engulf the earth during the reign of the Antichrist. This chain of events has become so integral to some Christian eschatologies (end-time theories) that it’s often assumed they’re clearly explained in the Bible, especially the book of Revelation. But in fact it’s all slightly more complicated than that.
The idea of a “pre-tribulation” Rapture, where believers disappear and everyone else is left on earth to suffer, is actually a rather new one. This type of Rapture was first made popular by the work of John Nelson Darby in the late 1800s. It then spread with the release of the Scofield Reference Bible (1909), and Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins sent it viral through their best-selling Left Behind book series. However, prior to this, “rapture” had referred to the second coming of Christ in general, rather than the supernatural escape from troubles as portrayed by Left Behind.
So how did this version of the Rapture come about?
The mention of an event where believers are “taken up” into the sky in the Bible primarily comes from Paul’s First letter to the Thessalonians. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul is dealing with the fears of believers whose loved ones have died and who are afraid of what will happen when Christ returns. After telling them that the dead shall rise, Paul offers them this:
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.
1 Thessalonians 4:17
Sky yes, but no tribulation, no Antichrist.
Other passages from the Bible are seen as supporting this idea, for example, Matthew 24:40–1 and Luke 17:34–35, which speak of one person being taken and another left behind. However, these passages discuss the second coming of Christ (the Parousia), not an escape from the world. The “blink of an eye” idea is taken from is 1 Corinthians 15:51–52. But none of this is from Revelation. And none of it lays out a clear Rapture, tribulation, Antichrist plan.
The book of Revelation does not specifically mention this pre-tribulation Rapture prior to the Antichrist’s reign, either. Revelation 3:10 is the text most cited as describing it:
Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.
However, this occurs in a letter to a specific church, Philadelphia, rather than as part of the visionary material. References to this having any connection to “the Rapture” in scholarly commentaries are few and far between. And Revelation 3:10 doesn’t mention being taken up into the sky or the Antichrist.
Actually, the book of Revelation doesn’t use the term Antichrist at all. That term comes from 1 and 2 John. The beasts of Revelation are taken by many to be the Antichrist, as thought to be predicted in Daniel 7. But none of them is called Antichrist.
Other ascents to heaven by certain figures are mentioned in Revelation (John the Seer, the two witnesses, the child of the woman clothed like the sun), but these do not describe huge groups disappearing prior to the plagues, sufferings and terror which inflict the earth.
By this stage it becomes clear that the Rapture is far from an obvious and widespread concept in the Biblical text. Indeed, creating the idea of the Rapture, let alone its timeline, involves harmonizing many disparate parts of the Bible and presents the Bible as a prophetic tool. It involves reading the book of Revelation in relation to other texts, rather than reading what is contained in Revelation.
Left Behind’s Rapture, then, is more a product of how texts are read than the texts themselves. Reading the Bible as having a blueprint for the future held within it was attributed to Joachim of Fiore (1132–1202), who created a complex timeline of different ages leading to the second coming of Christ. But even he didn’t have a Rapture.
Darby, Scofield, LaHaye and Jenkins were inheritors of this tradition and put it into practice to create their own Rapturous chain of events, which is now often presented as the only possible version.
However, the idea that Jesus’ sayings, Paul’s teachings, John’s Letters and John of Patmos’s Revelation, not to mention the texts of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, represent the same branch of eschatology is something few scholars would maintain. These texts were written in different locations and time periods, to different people, with different goals. A “one end-plan fits all” attitude proves more than problematic, as richly diverse ancient texts are streamlined to an ordered modern timeframe of Rapture, tribulation and Antichrist.
What’s more, the “backbone” for all of this—the book of Revelation—frustrates its readers. It offers long pauses, contradictory timeframes and undisclosed declarations, and every time the end is announced, it never actually arrives. It is more apt to describe it as spiralling around an endpoint rather than marching toward one. It is, in essence, a text that defies any framework placed onto it.
Vic Armstrong’s Left Behind movie has been lambasted by critics as over-simplistic, formulaic and lacking all intrigue, with the Rapture in the middle as the only interesting part. The reality of the Rapture in the Biblical text is somewhat different. It’s the common concept of the pre-tribulation Rapture that is an oversimplification, a blurring of the complex texts and ancient worldviews. It is a modern creation assumed to be part of the final book of the Bible. But the book of Revelation doesn’t offer its readers the Rapture. It doesn’t even offer a clear ending. Rather, it offers wonder, awe and quite often bewildering strangeness. And that is why, unlike the new movie Left Behind, it’s so very, very intriguing. (https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/bible-interpretation/the-left-behind-movie-the-book-of-revelation-and-the-rapture/)
We must look to a baby born not with fanfare, pomp, and circumstance, but to poor parents in desperate times. Joseph and Mary, and the Baby Jesus for that matter, were real historical figures. But in a way, Joseph and Mary extend beyond themselves, beyond their particular place and time. They represent all of us. We are all poor and living in desperate times. Some of us are better than others at camouflaging it. Nevertheless, we are all poor and desperate, so we all need the promise bound up in that baby.
We are in need of a way out of our poverty of soul and the desperate state of our human condition. We find it in this child lying in a manger, who was and is Jesus Christ, the long-promised Messiah, Seed, Redeemer, and King.
The birth of Jesus so many centuries ago might have been a slightly-out-of-the-ordinary birth. Even in ancient times, stalls didn’t typically double as birthing rooms and mangers didn’t typically double as cribs for new-born babies. And that newborn baby was very much out of the ordinary. Of course, in some respects, He was perfectly ordinary. He was a human being, a baby. He got hungry. He got thirsty. He got tired. When He was born, He was wrapped in swaddling clothes—the ancient equivalent of Pampers.
An infant. Helpless, hungry, cold, and tired.
Yet, this child was the Son of God incarnate. He was Immanuel, which translated means “God with us.” According to the Apostle Paul’s account, this infant created all things. This infant created His own manger. And this infant, this King, brings peace on earth, ultimate and permanent peace. (https://www.ligonier.org/blog/real-meaning-christmas/)
The real Christmas story is the story of God's becoming a human being in the Person of Jesus Christ. Why did God do such a thing? Because He loves us! Why was Christmas necessary? Because we needed a Savior! Why does God love us so much? Because He is love itself (1 John 4:8). Why do we celebrate Christmas each year? Out of gratitude for what God did for us, we remember His birth by giving each other gifts, worshipping Him, and being especially conscious of the poor and less fortunate.
The true meaning of Christmas is love. God loved His own and provided a way—the only Way—for us to spend eternity with Him. He gave His only Son to take our punishment for our sins. He paid the price in full, and we are free from condemnation when we accept that free gift of love. "But God demonstrated His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
When I interviewed for a solo pastor position a few years ago, the Left Behind novels were enjoying great popularity among Christians. During the interview, one of the women on the committee asked if I had read them. I responded that I had not. She said that she had not only read them but had given them to her teenage daughter to read, hoping that they would “scare her into coming back to church,” and asked what I thought about that. I said that there certainly were times when people had strayed from the church and had come back because of a crisis, a close call with illness or injury, but that the message of Christ was not about fear. It was about love, a love so big it encompasses the entire world. She thought about that for a moment, and replied that since the fear tactic didn’t seem to be working, maybe she’d try the love tactic on her daughter instead.
One of my favorite Christmas songs is entitled Welcome to Our World, written by Chris Rice and sung by Michael W. Smith. The first and last verses are as follows:
Tears are falling, hearts are breaking
How we need to hear from God.
You’ve been promised, we’ve been waiting
Welcome Holy Child.
So wrap our injured flesh around you
Breathe our air and walk our sod
Rob our sin and make us holy
Perfect Son of God.
(Chris Rice, Christmastime by Michael W. Smith [Nashville: Brown Bannister RBI, 1995])
For me, it blends first century and twenty-first century heartaches and desires. The faithful of the first century were waiting for someone to save them from heartless and domineering rulers and unfair tax structures and a variety of other issues. They were waiting…. Today in our world of war and poverty and crime and apathy, our hearts await a Word from God. We want someone to rob us of our sin. Even if we can’t voice it, we long to have our broken, wounded hearts wrapped securely in God’s hand.
In the Bible, names mean everything. Abraham means “ancestor of a multitude,” for he would be the father of many nations. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, or “one who strives with God.” In Hosea, God instructed one child to be named Lo-ammi, or “not my people,” to signify the unfaithfulness of Israel. And who can forget Maher-shalal-hash-baz in Isaiah, which means, “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” In our Matthew text for this week, we hear two names for this long-awaited God/man who has been born of woman and the Holy Spirit. The angel tells Joseph in a dream that he is to name Mary’s son “Jesus because he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). “Jesus” is derived from a Hebrew word that means “Savior.” We also hear quoted from Isaiah that Jesus is Immanuel, which means “God With Us.” This baby whose birth we celebrate is no ordinary child—he has come to dwell with us, and to save us from our sins.
On August 23, 2004 the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was dedicated in Cincinnati. In an article for the St. Anthony Messenger on the center, Barbara Beckwith used the subtitle, “Looking Back, Moving Forward.” Her lead sentence read: “Cincinnati’s new ‘institution of conscience’ explores the Underground Railroad of pre-Civil War days and extends its tracks to advancing freedom all over the world.” The Underground Railroad was not a material railroad in the ordinary sense, but a scattered network of people and places that helped slaves escape from the slave-holding South into the Promised Land of the free North. The Underground Railroad had secret routes, disguised signals, risk-taking conductors (helpers), and stations (safe houses). In the words of Daniel I. Hurley, an assistant vice president at the center, “The Underground Railroad is actually a metaphor for the ongoing struggle for freedom.” The president of the center, Edwin J. Rigaud, told Beckwith that like its forerunner, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Cincinnati center is more than a museum with exhibits such as a slave pen, iron ring shackles, and pictures of lynchings. He said that it’s really an educational institution for visitors: “The particularly poignant stories from the Underground Railroad reveal lessons of courage, cooperation and perseverance. What we’re encouraging people to do is to relive those exciting stories and search within themselves for the same kind of courage and cooperation and perseverance to advance the cause of freedom today.”
A significant section after the exhibits in the center is the “Reflect, Respond, Resolve” area where visitors can enter for one-on-one or group dialogues with facilitators about what they have experienced. Judge Nathaniel R. Jones, a distinguished civil rights activist, says, “You must know the past to change the present.” Unless all people face the injustice, guilt, and shame of slavery in the past, complacency, blindness, and apathy will prevent us from making further advances in the cause of human rights. The season of Advent is an appropriate time to reflect on the past, respond in the present, and resolve for the future not only regarding social issues but especially spiritual matters. (Barbara Beckwith, “National Underground Railroad Freedom Center: Looking Back, Moving Forward,” St. Anthony Messenger [Cincinnati, St. Anthony Messenger Press, August, 2004]).
In an Adult Education publication called In Good Faith, Fr. Paul Boudreau compares the waiting we do during Advent in preparation for the celebration of Christmas to that of a mother with a baby in her womb waiting for its time of birth. As the mother feels the life of her child stirring within the depths of her being, she wonders over the marvelous mystery of a soul being made incarnate in her, through her, and for her. “Of such is the stuff of Advent,” Boudreau writes, “the season of waiting in joyful hope, and Christmas, the celebration of the eternal God entering into time, taking on mortal flesh, and becoming one of us.” We want so much to be more like God and enjoy his perfection but it appears so impossible. “It is to this seemingly hopeless situation that God reveals the divine gift of the Incarnation of Jesus. Human desire to be one with God is surpassed only by God’s desire to be one with us. So, rather than wait endlessly for the human race to do what it can never do, God takes the road of supreme humility, enters into the experience of human existence, and becomes one of us. The immortal embraces human mortality, the almighty takes on human weakness, and the eternal is born into the limitations of human time. So total and complete is God’s humanity in Jesus Christ that the sinless one endures all human sinfulness for all time; the endless one even consents to suffer and die.”
The Incarnate Word lived a full human life from conception in Mary’s womb to his death on the cross. He was born like other babies, grew up and learned like other children, and made friends, developed a carpenter’s skills, and labored the way other young men did. Except for sin, Jesus experienced the usual limitations, difficulties, and pains of other human beings. Having undertaken the struggles of human existence himself, he had compassion for others. “In the end, he was accused of a capital crime, arrested, tried, found guilty, and condemned to death. He even descended into hell to complete the total cycle of human futility. He drank fully from the cup of our humanity so that we might drink fully from the cup of his divinity. Because Jesus rose from the dead and returned to the eternal realm, we now have recourse to him no matter where we find ourselves on the pathway of our own human lives. He is our Emmanuel, which means God is with us always in every moment of our existence: in conception, birth, life, suffering, and death. Even in sinfulness and condemnation, Jesus is there with grace, forgiveness, and salvation.”
Just as a child’s birth makes a mother’s wait worth every minute, “in the same way Christmas makes the dark days of our Advent wait seem like nothing compared to the incredible gift we receive.” This was also true for the Chosen People when the promised Messiah was born in the past after centuries of waiting. It will be all the more true when Christ comes again in the future to give us the gift of eternal life. (Paul Boudreau, “Advent: A Time to Wait in Joyful Hope, “In Good Faith: An Adult Education Series [Chicago, Claretian Publications]).
Have You Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws? is a booklet written by Bill Bright for Campus Crusade for Christ. The Four Laws state: (1) God loves us and offers a wonderful plan for our lives; (2) sin separated us from God and prevents us from knowing and experiencing God’s plan; (3) Jesus Christ is only way to enter into God’s plan; (4) we must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord to complete God’s plan. Bright makes clear distinctions between knowing Jesus intellectually, having an emotional experience about him, and receiving him by faith as an act of the will.
Using a train analogy, Bright drives home what it means to be a disciple of Christ. The locomotive of the train represents the Fact that God exists and has revealed to us his Word in the Bible. The train cars after the engine denote the disciples who follow God by Faith in him and in his Word. At the end of the train is the caboose symbolizing what we may Feel as a result of our faith and obedience to God. A train will run with or without the caboose, whereas it is impossible for a caboose to pull a train. “In the same way, as Christians we do not depend on feelings or emotions,” Bright writes, “but we place our faith (trust) in the trustworthiness of God and the promises of his Word.”
We can extend Bright’s analogy to the season of Advent. God came among us in human flesh in the past, the Fact of the Incarnation. Our celebration of Christmas in the present professes and strengthens our Faith in Christ. Our Feelings that result from following the Lord give us the hope of reaching in the future our final destination at the train station of heavenly glory. (Bill Bright, Have You Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws? [Peachtree City, GA: NewLife Publications, 2000] p 12)
William Stringfellow (1928-1985) was an Episcopalian who graduated from the prestigious Harvard Law School but chose to live and practice law in the slums of Harlem. His experiences there among the victimized, impoverished, and marginalized blacks and Hispanics shaped the deep religious convictions that drove him to be an outspoken ecclesiastical and social activist. Chaplain Kerry Maloney of Bates College called Stringfellow “a prophet who prepared the way for John Paul’s New Advent,” for in 1977, one year before Karol Wojtyla became Pope, Stringfellow wrote an article in which he clearly differentiated the quality, or presence of the Lord in the First and Second Advents. Even though we do not know all there is to know of each mysterious event, what Christians believe about both Advents is known only by the conjunction, not separation, of the two. We believe that in the First Advent, Christ came as Lord; in the next Advent, Christ will come as judge of the world and the world’s principalities. To the world this foolishness, but for biblical people it is the reason why we live as church in the world for the time being.” This was the basis for Stringfellow to boldly say: “That which is known and affirmed now because of the First Advent and in the expectancy of the Second Advent, is however, enough to be politically decisive, that is to say, enough to edify choice and action in issues of conscience in obedience to the rulers of the world.”
Early Christians were able to die for their faith because they firmly believed that the absurdity of the birth of Jesus at his first coming would eventually become the ultimate reality at his second coming. The First Advent makes sense only if our hopes will be realized in the Second Advent. These convictions explain in part why Stringfellow became so active trying to make the kingdom of God more real and visible in the in-between comings of Christ of the present moment. These were some of the ideals that impelled him to take risks in trying to make a difference for good—whether in the legal system, in churches, in slum neighborhoods, or in governments. When Stringfellow died in 1985, Jim Wallis, leader of the Sojourners Community where Stringfellow had often spoken, made this statement: “In his vocation and by his example he opened up to us the Word of God.” Jesuit Dan Berrigan, an anti-nuclear protester to whom Stringfellow had afforded sanctuary, added: “He kept the Word of God so close...and in such wise that its keeping became his own word.”
In one of his Advent homilies, Fr. Brian Timoney focused on the waiting and the work we have to do, not just during Advent but also throughout our lives. We all know what waiting is in a super-market checkout line, in a doctor’s office, or for Friday to come to end our workweek. Sometimes waiting is indeed a negative experience because what we’re waiting for is not present yet. Advent waiting should be more positive because the Christ we’re waiting for in our Christmas liturgy is already present with us in what we do daily. Nonetheless, even though Christ is indeed with us, he is not yet present with us in his fullness. His kingdom is already here, but it is also yet to come. This notion of “here and not here” isn’t double talk but a paradox and part of our human experience. “What we are right now we have been, and we can be more,” Timoney said. “We haven’t yet reached the fullness of our potential.”
This paradox is also part of the gospels. Jesus announced, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” and then taught his disciples to say when they pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name, your kingdom come....”(Mt 4:17; 6:9-10) Through all he did during his life on earth, our Lord certainly established the kingdom of God on earth and finished the work he was sent to do. However, he also called and commissioned disciples to participate in the further work that still has to be done to bring it to completion before he returns at the end of the world. We still see in the world today immense injustice, poverty, violence and hatred—“all signs of the incompleteness of the kingdom of God. There is, you might say, a perpetual Advent in world affairs.... Advent gives us hope that the kingdom of God will develop and grow in our world.”Such Advent hope was never meant to be just a pious wish; on the contrary, it is intended to challenge us to trust more in the angel’s word to Joseph, “Do not be afraid,” and to take up our task to extend the kingdom of God where we are. (Fr. Brian Timoney, “Waiting for Hope,” Christ the King Parish, Pleasant Hill, CA, Dec. 17, 2000)
In his reflections on Advent, Rev. Gerry Bennett looks upon it as a dual season during which we wait for both the coming and the second coming of Christ. “We look forward to a past event, a near event, and a future event,” he writes. The past event is the birth of Jesus, which the Scriptures of Advent remind us to view in a new way and with renewed anticipation. The near or present event is our reaction to the story of the birth of Christ. We must never allow ourselves to treat this familiar story as merely a remembrance of a past event; God’s word is always alive and active and demands a response from us. The future event is the Second Coming of Christ which we cannot see but have been assured will happen. Even though it seems far off, the Scriptures of Advent warn us to be on guard against complacency lest we fail to see our place in the future. “May this Advent season prepare us,” Bennett prays, “to meet the One who has come, who continues to address us, and who promises to return with full power and majesty.” (Rev. Gerry Bennett, “‘Tis the Season to Be,” Nativity Tidings: Monthly Newsletter of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Sarasota, FL, December 2002)
On a Scout camp out I noticed some Scouts out of their tent, lying on their backs and looking at the stars. They were talking low and, since they were not disturbing anyone, I decided to let them talk rather than pull out the gruff Scoutmaster Voice and order them to bed. The next morning, when they were bragging they’d stayed up way after ‘Light’s Out!’ and didn’t get caught by the Scoutmaster, one of the other Scouts asked them, “What were you talking about?” “We were talking about girls and God, what else is there to talk about?” he said. Leaving aside their discussion of earthly divinity for another time (!) let us simply assert the human heart naturally turns to consider God whenever we have the opportunity to contemplate the wonder around us. The only genuine religious question is this: “what kind of God is there?” rather than “is there any God?”
The Advent candle of faith lit during winter’s increasing darkness speaks not only of the spirit of our faith—courage to act in the face of uncertainty. The candle also witnesses to the content of our faith—God does not leave us in darkness. The Advent candle of hope lit during winter’s gathering night speaks not only of the spirit of our hope - the expectation of deliverance in the presence of threat, it also expresses the content of our hope—the call to remember God’s delivering providence.
The Advent candle of love burning in the increasing cold speaks not merely of the spirit of our love—the winsome mystery of Divine Companionship in our loneliness, it also is a witness of love: God in Christ speaks our name for we are not alone. The Advent candle of joy pulsing in the now glowing fire of four candles brightens our heart’s spirit: we are loved! The candle also enflames our hand’s response as we offer faith, hope and love to others.
CNN interviewer Larry King was once asked, “If you could select any one person across all of history to interview, who would it be?” He replied, “Jesus Christ.” The person then asked what King, a skeptical Jew, would ask Jesus. King said, “I would like to ask him if he was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me.” (Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World: What On Earth Are We Missing? [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003], pp 162-63)
Jesus’ symbolic name, Emmanuel, reminds us that God is always with us, no matter what. In a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War, a Jewish prisoner was given the demeaning and filthy task of cleaning the toilets. As a German soldier looked down from above and laughed at him, the soldier mockingly asked, “Where is your God now?” The Jewish prisoner replied, “Right here with me in the muck.” (Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time [New York: Doubleday, 2004], p. 17)
The story of Jesus’ coming into the world helps us to prepare not only for the celebration of his birth, but also for the victory that will come when he returns. Because we trust that Jesus has come and will come again, we have confidence in what the future holds. The movie Big Fish presents a series of tales that all take place in a small Southern town. This particular Southern town has a house that everyone believes is haunted by a witch. The witch, it is believed, has one good eye and one blind eye, and legend says that if you ever look into the witch’s blind eye you will be transported into the future and see what your dying day will be like. In the movie three young boys dare to venture to the witch’s house. All of a sudden, she appears at the door and glares at them. Soon all three of the boys find themselves peering at the witch’s blind eye. As the children are granted a vision of their own deaths, two of the young people are terrified by what they see. Yet the third boy’s face lights up and with a look of joy declares, “So, that’s how it ends!” For the rest of this life he then lives confidently and fearlessly whenever he faces any trouble. No matter what confronts him, he remains unshaken. He has seen the future, and he knows, “This isn’t how it ends.” (Thomas G. Long, “Preaching Romans Today,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology (July 2004), pp 273-74)
The cost of preparing for Christmas always seems to be going up, particularly if you try to prepare the way the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” tells you to get ready for the holiday. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (12/7/03), PNC Financial Services Group determined that to purchase all the gifts mentioned in the song would cost $16,885, up $2,327 from the previous year. The dancing ladies carried the highest price tag, coming in at $4,230, closely followed by ten leaping lords at $3,921. In all, the prices were found to be as follows: twelve drummers drumming ($2,148); eleven pipers piping ($1,982); ten lords-a-leaping ($3,921); nine ladies dancing ($4,231); eight maids-a-milking ; seven swans-a-swimming ($3,500); six geese-a-laying ($150); five gold rings ($361); four calling birds ($400); three French hens ; two turtle doves ; and one partridge in a pear tree .
Although many people prepare for Christmas by focusing on sincere spiritual reflection, many others prepare for the holiday by focusing on shopping. In the United States, about a third of the year’s retail spending takes place between mid-November and mid-January. Various studies estimate that the average American household spends between $850 and $1,150 on Christmas presents. (Thomas Hine, I Want That!: How We All Became Shoppers [New York: HarperCollins, 2002], pp 169-70.
The tendency to celebrate this time of year by overspending is nothing new. Consider this comment: “The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the whole year has taken pleasure in saving...becomes suddenly extravagant. People are not only more generous towards themselves, but also towards their fellow-men.” That sentiment, or something like it, is often expressed by many people as Christmas approaches. However, that particular statement was offered by a philosopher of rhetoric named Libanius in the fourth century. In his case, he was referring to the celebratory excesses that often took place throughout the Roman Empire during the Calends holiday, which occurred each year around January 1. (Thomas Hine, I Want That!: How We All Became Shoppers [New York: HarperCollins, 2002], p 172)
Advent is a season that calls upon us to wait patiently for Jesus’ coming, something that we don’t necessarily find easy to do: “Patience implies passivity, and we wish not to be passive, we wish not merely to be spectators at somebody else’s spectacle of achievement. We want to do what it takes to get things done” (Peter J. Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998], p. 5).
Preparing for Jesus’ birth and return means preparing ourselves for the changes that Jesus has in mind for us: “Christ became what we are that he might make us what he is.” (St. Athanasius of Alexandria)
Even though peace and joy often seem to be lacking in the world, the approaching Christmas celebration reminds us of the hope we have: “The Incarnation is the place where hope contends with fear” (Kathleen Norris).
This season is not just about preparing for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem: “There are three distinct comings of the Lord of which I know; His coming to men; His coming into men; and His coming against men” (St. Bernard of Clairvaux).
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Restore us, O God!
People: Let your face shine, that we may be saved!
Leader: Let your hand be upon your Son,
People: The one whom You made strong for yourself.
Leader: Then we will never turn back from You;
People: Give us life, and we will call on your name.
Leader: Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
People: Let your face shine, that we may be saved.
All: Let us worship God.
O God of grace, how often we find ourselves in confusing situations, and we confess that we do not find it easy to discern your will. We struggle within ourselves to separate out your purpose from our own, your design from our desires. In your forgiving love, mold us into your eternal image, that we may accurately and authentically live to your honor and glory, through Christ who redeemed us, Amen.
Receive these offerings from our hands, O generous God. We gladly return them to your use. In so doing, we give order and purpose to our giving, so that we may not enrich ourselves, but empty ourselves in complete dependence upon You, the author of good and grace and peace, of Jesus Christ, Your greatest gift, Amen.
Gracious God, we like to think of the Christmas story as one of only sweetness and light. We forget the very human predicaments in the story: embarrassment, disappointment, worry, concern for reputations, financial pressures, and all the other intrigues we can read between the lines. Help us to remember the very human side of this story, and what grace and faith it took for both Joseph and Mary to move through these stressful times in love, faith, hope and anticipation.
In the confused and stressful times in which we find ourselves, give us the same fortitude, the same clarity in the midst of ambiguity, the same faith, hope and love they demonstrated. Help us to see through our current personal challenges, and receive the gift of hope in this human story. Give us grace toward others, the same grace You have shown to us in the matchless gift of your Son, Christ Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.