Sermon: Who wants to be Left Behind?


This was a sermon I preached on Sunday 9 November, 2014 at Gosford Salvation Army. We follow the Revised Common Lectionary. One of the passages for that day was 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, a passage which is frequently suggested to make reference to the so-called "Rapture". This is a very pervasive, and I think incorrect, theology that many people take for granted and so I decided to challenge it.
I've had more conversations about this sermon than any other I've preached before.  I apologise for the very low volume in the videos. I've included the full text underneath so you can read it if listening becomes too difficult. I'd welcome your comments on this one.








Who wants to be left behind?

Harold Camping from Family Radio had calculated that on May 21, 2011 the Rapture would occur. Hundreds of these billboards were put up all around the world to warm of this coming event. Well, on May 20, 2011 I wrote the following prayer and posted it on my blog

Dear Lord...

Well, it’s May 20, 2011. Rapture Eve. There’s been plenty of excitement building. Expectation abounds. Christians all throughout the world are packing their bags, saying goodbyes, and waiting like little children on the night before Christmas; wondering what tomorrow will bring.

Cloudy with a chance of firey hail?

At the risk of sounding impertinent, though, I do have a couple of questions for you. Don’t get me wrong here, I am really looking forward to meeting you face-to-face. But this whole “taking the Christians off to the clouds while leaving the rest of the world to suffer through tribulation” business leaves me with a few questions. Actually, they’re your questions. At least, they’re from your Word. Here they are...
“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15)
You see, Lord, I struggle with the logic of the Rapture. Ever since you ascended to the right hand of the Father you’ve called us to partner with you in preaching the gospel and making disciples. “Go and make disciples” were your famous last words. This is one of the many reasons why I love you and love serving you. You’re a relational God, who invited us into relationship with you, and amazingly you ask us to invite others into relationship with us and you too.

That’s been a pretty good system, I think. At least, when we’ve actually done what you’ve asked us to do, that is. So, I just find it a little “out of character” for you to go and change the game plan. I do like a good action film, but the thought of sitting on the clouds, eating popcorn and sipping on a supersized Diet Coke, whilst we all watch the earth be systematically and progressively destroyed actually isn’t that appealing. Maybe it is to the disconnected and desensitised, but to me, it pains me to my very core. Something within me tells me it pains you too.

So, I have a request. A last minute one, I know, but I’m hoping you may be able to consider it as you’re getting all the angels together and preparing to part the sky. So, here goes...
Leave me behind.
Again, I really am looking forward to seeing you, and I promise to wave as you take everyone else up to the party on cloud nine. But there’s unfinished business to be done here. Call it “taking one for the team” but I’d rather suffer through the so-called tribulation alongside those who don’t know you than spend it doing next to nothing with those who do.

So my prayer today is “Here am I, my Lord, leave me”.

Your servant.
Adam
_____________________________________________

In the past 50 years or a particular type of theology has become increasingly prevalent. Leaving aside the fruit loops like Harold Camping, there are many vocal parts of the Evangelical church that promote a particular set of beliefs about the way the story is going to end. So much so that for many everyday Christians it is taken as a given. It’s called dispensational premillennialism, but we’ll just call it Rapture theology for short. In summary, this particular view of what we call “eschatology” (the study of the end) suggests that there will be a two-stage return of Jesus Christ. The first stage is where he will take to him all of those people who have believed in him, both past and present, and leave behind those who have not. Those left behind will have to endure seven years of tribulation as a kind of “last chance”, turn or burn, scenario. At the conclusion of that seven years period Jesus will appear again, destroy all evil, take to him anyone else that has repented and rule for ever and ever, Amen.

This particular understanding of eschatology was first embraced by John Nelson Darby in the 1800s. He was one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren. There is some evidence of this theology appearing in the middle ages, but apart from that it is unheard of in the 1800 years of church history leading up to that point.

I remember the story of an undergraduate student who raised his hand in the class of a well-known theology professor. When called upon he made his suggestion to the professor on the particular point they were discussing to which the professor replied, “You know, I’ve never thought of it in that before.” Filled with a sense of pride that the student had revealed some new piece of knowledge to this respected scholar he went home, shoulders back, head held high and a skip in his step. Later that night the penny dropped. He came to the realisation, if this professor had never thought of it in this way before, then chances are he was probably wrong.

The “newness” of this theology alone should give us some cause for concern, and that before we’ve even considered the biblical support for it.

Several things happened along the way to help give this theology some traction. Firstly, the American Civil War. Whilst in the United Kingdom the industrial revolution was beginning to fill the English with a sense of imperial pride and optimism, the disastrous effects of a brutal internal conflict led to a form of national pessimism on the other side of the Atlantic. Whilst it was relatively easy to preach a gospel that says that God is transforming the world and we have a part to play in it (this, by the way, was the preaching of William and Catherine Booth) in the streets and towns of England, to do so in America was more difficult. Rapture theology lent itself to this pessimistic viewpoint that looked at the horrors of the world and said that it’s all going to hell in a hand basket, but don’t worry because a day is coming when Christ will come and remove his people from it.  This escapist view of the end times helped people endure the horrors of a war that divided a nation. 

Secondly, in 1909 the Scofield Reference Bible was published. We’re used to seeing study Bibles on the shelves of Christian bookstore. We’ve seen them, we’ve used them but this was a relatively new concept at the beginning of the 20th Century. There, in one book, was the text of Scripture, along with brief notes at the bottom of the page, and cross-references to other related verse marked in the centre column. Having the words of Scripture, plus an interpretation from one scholar all on the same page, whilst convenient, is accompanied by danger. Dangerous in the sense that if you aren’t discerning it can lead to an assumption that the commentary is just as authoritative as the text itself. Scofield’s notes picked up the Rapture theology of John Nelson Darby and used it to interpret some key texts. This was very influential.

Finally, in the later parts of the 20th Century a lot of books were written based upon this theology. The most well-known of recent years is the Left Behind series. With 12 books in the original series, and several spin-off books, including an entire series for children, these novels have had a huge impact on the way Evangelicals understand what is referred to as the end times. The first book in the series, Left Behind, begins the story with the mysterious disappearance of millions of people worldwide, an event called the “Rapture”. The story then follows, over the course of the next 11 and ½ books, those who are left behind after this amazing event as they journey through the tribulation.

Herein lies one of the first major difficulties I have with this theology. This series of books, and others like it, are targeted at Christians. Those very same Christians, who according to this theology, will be whisked away into the clouds and have nothing to do with the dramatic events that are to unfold after the Rapture – and millions of copies have been sold. This, at the very least, promotes to the readers of these novels a kind of Christian escapism – here’s an account of the terrible events that are to unfold, but don’t worry because this is only going to happen to unbelievers. Christians will all be safe up on cloud 9, BYO popcorn. There is a real danger of viewing the world as a place to be escaped from, not a place to be transformed. Furthermore, when events leading up to this Rapture transpire around us, wars and rumours of wars, natural disasters and so on, they can become little more than a box to be ticked off on a prophecy checklist. It promotes a desensitised and disconnected view of creation, the world and those who are not yet believers in Christ.

Let’s turn now to some key Scriptures used to support Rapture theology and see if there is an alternative interpretation. Firstly, Matthew 24. Here Jesus refers to the coming of the Son of Man and tells his disciples that on that day two men will be in the field, one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill, one will be taken, the other left. Rapture theology would have us believe that to be taken is a good thing and so to be left behind a bad thing. However the pretext to this is a reference to the story of Noah. Jesus is recorded as saying this:
For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. This is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:38-39)
This is the pretext to the part about one being taken and the other left behind. The “took them all away” in the account of Noah is people being taken away in judgement, not for reward. Noah and his family were the ones “left behind” whilst the rest of humanity was taken away by the flood. So when Jesus then goes on to say “one will be taken and the other left” you want to be one of the ones left behind, not taken!

The next key Scripture I’d like us to take a look at is the one read earlier from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. In this passage we have half of a metaphor that Paul is using here and so requires a little more background understanding. This is Paul’s earliest letter, written at a time when Christians thought Jesus was returning in only a matter of days. So when those first generation of Christians began to die before Jesus’ return there was an explanation needed. What will happen to them? At this point in 1 Thessalonians Paul is trying to provide some hope and comfort to the relatives of the Christians who have died already. To do this he uses half of a metaphor that would have been well understood at the time. His audience would have been familiar with life lived inside of city walls. At the beginning of the day the gates were opened to allow people in and out and at the end they were closed to protect those inside. You would be familiar with the story of Jericho, the walls of Jerusalem rebuilt by Nehemiah and so on. Thessaloniki was built in a similar fashion. During times of war it was important that the city was fortified to protect those who remained in the city; women, children, the elderly in particular, since the men went off to battle and so often the gates were kept closed for security and protection. It was the job of the watchmen on top of the walls to keep an eye out, either for the enemy approaching, or the victory party. Once the watchmen had identified that it was indeed the victorious King returning they would blast a trumpet to sound the victory to all the city. Then, and here is what is particularly important for us today, everyone in the city knew their responsibility. They would immediately leave what they were doing, go out of the city and run to meet the King, as well as their returning loved ones from battle. That, in a nutshell, is the half of the metaphor that Paul has used in 1 Thessalonians to encourage those whose loved ones had already died. The half that is missing is assumed. Paul doesn’t need to state it for he’s made his point already. When the people from the city meet the triumphant King outside the city walls, they immediately join with him in triumphant procession back into the city for a great celebration.
Psalm 24 gives us another perspective on this theme.
“Lift up your heads, you gates, be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. (the plea from the returning warriors to enter the city)Who is this King of glory? (cries the watchmen)The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle (comes the reply)Lift up you heads, you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. (the plea repeated)Who is he, this King of glory? (cries the watchmen)The Lord Almighty—he is the King of glory (comes the reply)”
The metaphor is not about Christians being taken away to avoid the tribulation. It is an encouragement to those whose loved ones have died to know that when the King returns, “God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (verse 14). It is not about escaping this world. It’s an assurance that those who have died in Christ will return alongside the triumphant and risen King Jesus.

It’s clear by now that I do not agree with Rapture theology. I used to. I read all of those Left Behind novels and was one of the first down to Koorong when each one was released. Over the course of time and reflection upon the Scriptures as well as several years studying Christian theology, I’ve come to appreciate an alternative view. One I believe is more consistent with the rest of the Bible, the great story of the Gospel, what we have come to know about God and the way he interacts with the world, in particular through his Son, Jesus Christ.

In simple terms, if we want to know the path that is before us as Christians, where we are headed and what God is ultimately doing in the world, we need to look to the path set before us by Jesus Christ.

What is that path?

Well, Jesus Christ lived, he died and was buried and he rose again victorious.
Firstly, he lived a very human life. He walked the earth as we do now. He journeyed through life as a human. He ate, he drank, he got a cold, he stubbed his toe, he went to the toilet and all of those very normal, human things that all of us do every day. Yet, he did it all without sin. We too live a very human life, and by the power of the Spirit cleansing us from our past and renewing us into the future, we can also do so without the power of Sin controlling our lives.

Next, Jesus died and was buried. He was crucified on a Roman cross outside the city of Jerusalem and buried in a brand new tomb nearby. A very real, a very cruel, and a very underserved death and a very real and normal burial. There will come a day when we too will all die and we too will be buried or cremated as well. There is no avoiding that reality.

Finally, on the third day Jesus rose again to new life. Some of the most important details here are the small ones. The empty tomb, the folded grave clothes, the scars and the wound in his side. All of these things point to the realisation that this resurrection was not some new body disconnected from the old. No, it was that same lifeless body that was laid in the tomb now transformed by the power of God, the risen Lord, the firstborn of the new creation. Amazingly, this is the transformation that we who place our faith in Jesus Christ are to expect.

I’m no expert on gardening but when we moved into our house David and Lea Palmer had left some beautiful roses growing in the garden. There are three different roses and they are all flowering at the moment. One is pink, another is a peach colour, and of course there is a deep red colour as well. I don’t mind looking after the roses because I’ve already discovered that they’re pretty hardy plants. I just hack, I mean prune, them right back and sure enough they grow back and flower once again. Even though I’m no expert, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that the plants that are growing the pink flowers will continue to produce pink flowers in the future. So too with the peach ones and of course the red ones. It would be a great surprise to see a purple one suddenly appear. Even more so if an apple started growing!

In 1 Corinthians 15, a very important passage as it relates to our topic today, Paul describes Christ as the firstfruits of the resurrection. Just like the roses in our garden, Christ is the first bloom of the new creation. When we look at his resurrected body we see a sign of what is to come for us. We too will be transformed by the power of God and our lifeless, once dead bodies will be raised into new life, just like his. But more than that too, his transformation is a sign of what is to come for all of creation. For the creation God united himself to when the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and joined in an inseparable bond within in her very womb grew inside her body, was born in a barn in Bethlehem, raised on the streets of Nazareth, ministered in the towns of Galilee, crucified on a cross outside Jerusalem and raised into new life from the empty tomb. Creation itself was united with God in the incarnation and journeyed throughout Christ’s life all the way into new creation in the resurrection. This is a sign that all of creation follow that same path. It, too, will be recreated. It’s not doomed for destruction while we all sit on a cloud and watch it happen. Just like Jesus’s body the old will be transformed into the new, for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, and the love he has for that world will see it enter into the new creation.

Well, so what? What do we do now? Do we just wait until that day comes, do a few nice things, sing a few songs, but ultimately just wait for Jesus to come back and see him then transform creation?

Next weekend in Brisbane will be the G20 summit. Representatives of the world’s leading economies from 19 different countries as well as the European Union will meet together in Brisbane to discuss significant issues facing our world. Now imagine, if you will, if Jesus turned up at that meeting, sat at the head of the table, and said to all of those leaders, “Thank you for coming, I’ll take over from here.”
How would the world be different? 
How would our nation be different? 
How would you be different?
Here’s the thing, though. It’s already happened. When Jesus was raised from the dead all of those years ago; “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

When we confess “Jesus is Lord” we are saying to God, ourselves and the world that we submit to a higher authority than any authority that exists on earth. This is a faith statement. This is THE faith statement. And so, when we confess “Jesus is Lord” we enter into new creation and begin to live in a way that evidences that “Jesus is, in fact, Lord”. In everything we say, everything we do, all of our interactions with other people and indeed our interactions with creation itself there should be evidence of that confession – “Jesus is Lord”.

Not only that, as we live this way, under the lordship of our risen King Jesus Christ, the one who was and is and is to come, we don’t just await new creation. New creation has already begun.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor 5:17).
St Jerome once said, “Begin now to be what you will be hereafter.” We live by faith now that which we expect to see by sight then.

We look forward to the day when Christ will return. We long for it. We cry “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus”. But we do not live as if we’re sitting in God’s waiting room. We live as if we’re participants in his arena of transformation, actively doing all that we can to see new creation take root in every location, to help it grow and develop and to bloom wherever it is planted. Until that day when Christ does return and we hear the trumpet sound. We will run out of the city and meet our victorious Lord on the road into town. Then, along with all the saints, we will join in the victory procession, join our Lord at his banquet table celebrate his reign for all eternity.

How then should we live? I’ll let Paul answer than one.

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor 15:58)

Comments

  1. Great message! I'm glad God is freeing his church from "escapist" theology. Keep preaching the Word with boldness, my brother.
    Dan Jones
    Deposit, New York
    U.S.A.

    ReplyDelete

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