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When I was probably around six years old, I spent the night at my grandparents house as I often did. I loved to sleep in the bedroom across the hall from my grandmother, because there were interesting things in there like a wine bottle with a candle whose wax had dripped all over it.
In the morning, I woke up and went down the hall like always to curl up in the rocking chair and watch the early news that forecasted at what point in the day the fish would bite the best. Through sleepy eyes, I noticed that I didn’t hear anyone else in the house. No one was in the kitchen making breakfast, and neither my grandfather nor grandmother were anywhere to be found. As panic began to rise, I stepped out on the covered driveway and patio and saw no one out there.
I ran back through the house and realized I was completely alone. After pausing for one moment in sheer terror, I realized what had happened: the rapture had come, they had been taken to heaven, and I had been left behind. Although only around six, there was no doubt that my sins must have accumulated to the degree that I was deserving of such damnation. I had always been advanced for my age.
Of course I did what anyone would do who found themselves on the receiving end of apocalyptic judgment: I ran out to the edge of the highway in only my sleeping shirt to stand and wait…on something to happen.
My timing ended up being good, because at that moment, Mrs. Beulah, who ran Meme and Daddar’s mailroute, drove up to the mailbox and noticed me standing there crying. I remember thinking how sad it was that Mrs. Beulah was left behind too, but I was also glad not to be alone in my sinfulness.
Interestingly, Mrs. Beulah intuited what had happened and gently told me that she had seen my grandmother just down the other road walking with her friends. She told me to get in the truck, and she took me to my grandmother, who promptly realized that my grandfather had gone out to chop firewood and had forgotten to stay in the house with me while she went on an early morning walk. As we drove back to the house, me tucked between Mrs. Beulah and Meme, my world came back together.
I can’t tell you how relieved I was that the cosmic spiritual crisis had been averted. I had been given a second chance, it seemed, and I intended to make the most of my life to ensure that I avoided being on the bad end of the rapture when it finally did come.
Because that seems to be what we hear in today’s text, here on the First Sunday of Advent, isn’t it? This image of a rapture. “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory,” St. Mark’s Gospel describes. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”
It is enough to make a person keep strong coffee always at the ready. But why do we have this text today, as we find ourselves fully in the holiday season?
Well, first, the word “rapture” never occurs in the Biblical text. There is a certain school of thought that has pieced together these images and other narrative lines into a well-organized sequence of events that seem to describe what will come at the end of our days. It makes for the stuff of great movies.
The Coming of Christ is a strong theme in today’s texts, marked by these signs of the sun being darkened and the stars falling from the sky. The sun was not darkened that day when I stood by the highway in a sleeping shirt, but it was enough to put the fear of God in me.
What is going on here?
Well, each year we are reminded that the Season of Advent is truly one of the most extraordinary times of our year. It is a season full of significance as we prepare for the birth of Christ into our world and into our lives. Advent is a Season which leads to the Twelve Days of Christmas and then Epiphany, and we have this wonderfully rich season to reflect deeply.
If any one were to ask me if I believed in the Coming of Christ, I would have to say “yes, to all three of them.” Because there are three. There is the Coming of Christ in the person of Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary. And there is the Coming of Christ at the end of time, which is a complex understanding of the redemption and restoration of all things in God’s all-compassionate dream for reality. And there is a third Coming as well: the Coming of Christ into each of our lives, at any moment and at every moment, as we realize just what it means to be filled with the Spirit and to participate in God’s dream.
So, Keep awake indeed! Keep awake for all of these. Keep awake for the invitation we have, at every moment, to celebrate the presence of Christ. And, let us prepare our own hearts to receive this Good News. That is the full wisdom of Advent, my friends.
Sure there are verses in, say, First Thessalonians that speak of God suddenly taking the righteous into heaven–and there is an entire historical context for that writing. And if you take those verses and put them alongside these from today’s Gospel reading from St. Mark, you could very well push for a particular image of a so-called rapture. But, if we look at the entire thrust of the narrative and wisdom of the Gospel and the whole New Testament, what we actually see is an emphasis on God suddenly breaking into our lives. The deep wisdom of Christianity is not focused on an abrupt taking out but an abrupt breaking in, and that is well worth reflecting on.
As a slight aside, here, if the point is that God is always breaking into the world to redeem it, then it is unfaithful for us to focus on escaping the world. Instead, we should honor it and focus on healing it. So, we cannot reject our call to care for the environment. This shows how our ethics is an embodiment of our theological reflection.
The truth of God’s compassionate presence is marked not by a rapture, but by a rupture of our limited and sinful way of living. The Spirit of Christ breaks into our lives, shaking us up, and it can feel very disorienting and even uncomfortable for a people who have prided themselves on having everything figured out. For a people who long for control. The Spirit breaks in and challenges the patterns of willful ignorance, arrogance, and pride that seem to mark so much of our culture now.
Perhaps the question for us is this: how will our lives be marked by this in-breaking of the Spirit? What will we–can we–learn about the movement of God in the world?
Looking back on that day, when I stood by the mailbox taking my first steps in an apparent post-apocalyptic journey as a six year-old, I remember feeling such fear. And that makes me sad, that my faith was marked by such fear. I have longed to move beyond such fear, in hopes that I can see how God’s judgment of my limitations are not marked by some desire to inflict pain but are rather driven by God’s desire for my wholeness. God doesn’t poke us in the eye; rather, God gives us new eyes to see. So, I can move past fear and instead experience a fascination with how the Spirit is at work. I can be curious about how Christ is going to come into my life today. And I can be grateful for the ways God invites me–invites all of us–to share in this in-breaking grace.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
November 29, 2020
First Sunday of Advent