Saturday, November 27, 2010
1st Sunday of Advent: Jesus is Coming...Everyday
But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 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, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 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. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
At that time there would be division between families and colleagues: one would be taken, another left. It should be noted that being 'taken' in this context means being taken in judgment. There is not hint, here, of a 'rapture,' a sudden 'supernatural' event which would remove individuals from terra firma. Such an idea would look as odd, in these synoptic passages, as a Cadillac in a camel-train.
N.T. Wright on Matthew 24:36-44/Luke 17:22-37
Disciples are not in the game of prediction. Rather, they are called to be ready and prepared. Disciples, like Noah, are to build an ark even if it is not raining. The name given to that ark is church. The builders of the church will be surrounded by many who go about their lives, eating, drinking, marrying, living as if nothing has changed, even though Noah has built an ark. But the floods will come drowning all. The only difference is that when the Son of Man comes not all will be swept away, because his coming is a quite different flood. It is the flood of his blood meant to save the lost.
Stanley Hauwerwas on Matthew 24:36-44
Back in 1776, when the patriots of the American Revolutionary inserted "We hold these truths to be self evident" in the Declaration of Independence, they were echoing a philosophical foundation for the Enlightenment period which started on the European continent with Rene Descartes about a century earlier. The Enlightenment erased "God" as the answer to every important question and replaced it with common sense, which every child of God had as a vital resource. The quest for certainty and objectivity of the Enlightenment were inaugurated during a time of chaos in Europe, religious wars run rampant across the continent. "Can't we just all get along?" they asked 450 years before Rodney King. The American patriots were appealing to the reason of King George, the nobility and every other child under heaven. They were basically saying, "Don't give us any more of this 'divine right of kings' crap." Everyone who had any sort of common sense knew that all humanity should be able to live freely and equally (except women, non-landing owning males and African slaves, of course).
Churches throughout North America were greatly affected by the Enlightenment, transforming the Bible from an elitist code (interpreted by the Pope/Bishop/Priest guided by the Spirit of God) to an inerrant textbook of self-evident Truth (interpreted by the everyday Christian guided by the Spirit of God). Again, under this framing of what the Bible is, anyone (if they are truly guided by the Holy Spirit) with common sense has access to the basic truth of the Bible. God's Original Google Search for Truth. Simplicity. Certainty.
This trend was a move in the right direction, but the problem with this construal of Scripture is that, first of all, scholars throughout the ages have pointed out literally thousands of contradictions and inaccuracies and, second, pastors, theologians and biblical scholars (all guided by the Holy Spirit and with more than their share of "common sense") come up with diverse interpretations of literally thousands of key biblical passages. Unfortunately, millions of North American Christians (and all over the globe, thanks to the Enlightenment Christian missionary project) still hold on to the Enlightenment Dream of vanquishing chaos and complexity for a simple gospel with a no-nonsense biblical reading strategy.
The first Gospel passage this Advent season (read in thousands of churches this Sunday all over the world) presents a nice case study for examining the very sensitive nature of how Christians grapple and grope for "biblical truth." Throughout the Christian ages, Matthew 24 has been interpreted as Jesus' prediction of his parousia (Greek), or "Second Coming." Just as the ancient Hebrews waited for the coming of the Messsiah, the anointed king, to come and rescue God's People and restore God's Kingdom, so also contemporary followers of Jesus look to the future, hoping for the Return of the King to make all things new. This was called The Rapture in youth groups and classes at the Christian school of my own Fundamentalist Christian upbringing.
Despite this majority opinion within the Christian tradition (including leaders within the dominant Evangelicalism of North America), there exists a minority report of scholars and pastors who are second-guessing this interpretation. Stanley Hauerwas, the legendary Duke theologian, proposes that Jesus, in Matthew 24, is originally referring to his death on a cross which shocks the crowds, disciples and his family ("about that day and hour no one knows"). This apocalyptic passage "unveils," in a strange and metaphorical manner, the way that God ushers in a new age through the death of the messiah at the hands of the rulers of the world by unmasking their corruption, arrogance and death-dealing policies. Just as Noah built the ark in a culture defined by normal, everyday life without God's direction, so also Jesus hammered away at constructing God's Kingdom, the spiritually activist movmement of the church which was committed to re-enacting Jesus subversive way of life before the distracted world. After all, Jesus had just told his disciples: "this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (verse 34).
In addition, British New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright interprets Matthew 24 as a prediction concerning the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 66-70AD, which had just recently taken place in the world of Matthew's first audience. For these Jews for Jesus, the loss of their beloved Temple would have been a horrific apocalyse, a literal sign of the end times! Wright's reading of Matthew 24 makes a lot of sense in light of the entire Matthean narrative, which is packed full of Jewish elements, including a description of Jesus as a new Moses who brings a new Torah to a renewed Israel (the Gospel of Matthew is laid out into 5 teaching narratives that echo the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: the Pentateuch).
So which interpretation is right? Which path leads us down the road to Truth?
C. Temple Destruction
If we read the Bible as an inerrant textbook, there is tremendous pressure to find the One Answer to the mystery of Matthew 24. What did the original authors of Matthew 24 mean and what sort of universal, timeless truth does that lavish on us today? Christian scholars committed to the task would pull out all their tools, including historical criticism, the original Greek language and pray for the Spirit's guidance to have the once-and-for-all interpretation passed down to them. Most biblical readers of an "inerrant" text, however, go it alone during their "quiet times" with God or simply ask their pastors for the "right answer" and, then, "apply" it to their lives. The main problem I see with this biblical task of timeless truth, with all due respect, is the intellectual dishonesty and lack of humility that it produces in the biblical reader. It promises a black-and-white Bible and a black-and-white world by promising a self-evident, common sense reading which actually makes sense to many Christians who only know of one way issues about faith and God can be framed. This "subconsious framing" is comforting (for millions) but not compelling for those of us who have read Scripture, over and over, and read biblical scholars, over and over, coming to different conclusions about the same Word of God.
If, however, we are compelled that the best way to construe the Bible is to read it as an authoritative script, we ask the key question: what is this episode in Matthew's Gospel doing and how can we participate in it? Both Hauerwas and Wright have an edge on the old, tired "Always Be Ready Because Jesus is Coming Soon" interpretation because they point to the very chaotic and disorienting events that shocked the earliest followers of Jesus (just like our own world--for anyone with eyes to see: chaotic and disorienting). Hauerwas calls us to consider what it must have been like to be one of Jesus' originals who failed in their vocation to live out Jesus' way (after all, if they were successful, they too would have surely been crucified by the rulers and powers). Of course, the "kingdom of God" inaugurated in Jesus is marked by forgiveness and grace for all those who strategically attempt, but painfully come up short, in this kingdom mission. Wright focuses on the powerfully paradigmatic twist of where exactly God would be worshipped and served. In the Temple, right? Not any more. After the Romans destroyed God's House, the Spirit of God was on the move, in the churches and bodies of Jesus' followers! This was truly apocalyptic.
On this first Sunday of Advent 2010, as we are scripted to "keep awake," may we be careful and critical readers of both the complex biblical text and our increasingly anxious world, searching for a God who works mysteriously and surprisingly, in the places we'd least expect it. If God ended the world as they knew it for 1st century followers of Jesus through the torture, mockery and crucifixion of God's body and through the violent leveling of God's house, then we can be energized (keep awake!) by finding God in the very worst of news--personally, relationally, socially, economically and politically. That's just the sort of God Who keeps showing up in the biblical Script. We are not called to keep awake for Jesus' Once-And-For-All-Second-Coming, but because everyday Jesus just keeps on coming, showing up where hearts are broken, hope is dying and, yes, common sense is shattered. Perhaps if we take our eyes off the skies, waiting for his dramatic arrival, we will see him all over our world.