Matthew 24:36-44 – The Necessity for Watchfulness
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
There’s an old youth ministry tale of unknown origin about a full-hearted but overzealous youth group kid and his hilarious-but-slightly-sadistic youth pastor that has become a favourite of mine.
The kid, who had recently learned of the idea of ‘the rapture’ (the popular Christian belief that all believers, both living and dead, will be caught up in the air to meet Jesus during Christ’s Second Coming), had been annoying the youth pastor and the rest of the youth group with his constant questions and excited speculation for months and, particularly, throughout their annual youth camp.
On the final night of the camp, the youth pastor and other leaders planned an elaborate prank and, while the kid was asleep, had all the other kids from the dorm sneak out of the room, leaving their pyjamas and bedding undisturbed. Once the scene was set, a student from the music team stood outside the door and loudly played a short and triumphant tune on his trumpet.
The kid awoke to the trumpet sound and shouted, ‘It’s here! The rapture is happening!’ before looking around, realising he was the only one in the room and falling to his knees, crying, ‘Noooo! I’ve been left behind!!’
The concept of the rapture as it is taught today is actually relatively new in historical terms (having its origin in the 1600s) and this week’s lectionary reading from Matthew 24 is one of two key verses (the other being 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17) that underpin rapture theology.
While popular and commonly accepted in many evangelical churches around the world, there is actually much theological debate about it.
The New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg argues that the Greek verb for ‘taken’ that Jesus uses here may actually indicate that those who are 'taken away' are to be judged while those who are ‘left behind’ will be with Christ.
NT Wright, one of the most (if not the most) significant biblical scholars of our time, dismisses the idea altogether. He argues instead that Jesus is actually referring to the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple by the Romans in 70 AD and that taking Jesus’ poetic language literally here has resulted in a ‘pseudo-theological version of Home Alone’.
Though the full scope of the theological debate about Christ’s return is way beyond the scope of devotional reflections such as this one, it does raise an interesting question for us as Christians entering Advent and preparing ourselves for Christmas.
As our beliefs about Jesus grow and deepen, are we becoming people who embrace the world? Or people who long to escape it?
Much of Christianity today seems focused on the life after this one, on life in another place and another time. On escaping our imperfect lives in our imperfect bodies in this imperfect world. And yet, at Christmas, we celebrate the God who incarnates. The God who, as Eugene Peterson puts it, became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood. The God who did not shout his message from the heavens as a disembodied voice but, instead, instead embodied his message as one who walked among us.
As we dive deeply into Advent, we must confront the consumer-driven desire to selfishly use Jesus as a mechanism for escape. Instead, we must allow ourselves to be confronted with the challenge of his loving embrace of the world and everyone in it. We must learn to love, rather than long to leave.
Scott Evans is the Church of Ireland chaplain to University College Dublin, producer of The Graveyard Shift Podcast and co-founder of Paradoxology, a prayer space at Ireland’s Electric Picnic music festival. He grew up in Bangladesh and his life has been a series of crazy decisions, odd adventures and bad haircuts. He is also the author of 3 books, Closer Still, Beautiful Attitudes and Failing From The Front (& Other Lessons From The Lives of Losers.) He loves Vietnamese food, coffee, writing, Aston Villa and Jesus.