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Is the End Near?

Isaiah 2: 1 – 5
Matthew 24: 36 – 44

Advent 1

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

God of Advent and new birth
you come in unexpected ways.
Come into our presence with power and glory.
Give us new insights and vision.
May we be open to surprising revelations
as we explore your Word for us this morning,

Happy New Year! No, I have not gone even more crazy than usual. I know it is the twenty-eight of November. But in the church calendar, this is the beginning of a new church year. So , Happy New Year! You see there are many different beginnings to a new year. The school year begins in September with new clothes, new teachers and new school supplies. The fiscal year begins usually on April 1 with a new set of books, or at least a new page to set out budgets and financial reports. The calendar year begins with a variety of traditions. For some it is watching the football game on TV. For my grandmother it always began with opening the back door to the house and then the front door to let the old year out and to welcome the new year in. It did not matter how cold it was this was a ritual to begin the new year.

For the past twelve months we have been reading mostly from the gospel of Luke. Beginning with this Sunday, we now turn our attention to the Gospel of Matthew. And every year on the First Sunday of Advent, we begin the new cycle of celebration and following the life of Jesus with lifting our eyes to beyond the horizon. We begin the season of celebrating Jesus’ coming as a baby by looking to the end of the story, to what has traditionally been called “the second coming of Jesus.”

Years and years ago now, I had a vision of the end of time. It was probably no coincidence that the world itself was looking pretty terminal at that point. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated; Martin Luther King had been assassinated. There were Vietnam protests; and here in Quebec, we were going through the beginnings of the independence movement with René Lévesque forming the Parti Québecois and the rise of Quebec nationalism.

One of the very popular books at the time was Hal Lindsay’s apocalyptic blueprint for the future called The Late Great Planet Earth. At the time it was the best-selling book of non-fiction in the English language. He painted a very bleak picture of the future of the world and showed how the Bible made it clear that we were all headed to a time of crisis, calamity and catastrophe in the near future.

So, Hal Lindsay made the bleak prediction that the world would come to an end in the year 1988, which of course did not happen.

So, with all the events of the world happening around me and with the influence of this book, I had this vision. I was laying on my bed during a terrific thunderstorm. I could see out the window and see the sky light up with blast after blast of raw electricity. Even though it was past midnight, the sky was filled with light. I could not sleep. I was not sleeping well anyway. I was not sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t even know if I wanted to grow up in such a violent, crazy world. Then I heard myself saying, “Come, Lord Jesus, come” – just like that – and then I said it again: “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” I remember thinking I should be afraid to say something like that, but I wasn’t. I was relieved to go ahead and ask for the end. “Please come back and finish this thing. We are no good at it. We need your help. Come, Lord Jesus, and do not delay.”

Then I looked out the window and saw or imagined a bright spot in the sky that grew bigger and bigger, with clouds boiling all around the centre of it like big surfing waves. Then the head of a beautiful white horse pushed through them, then the front legs, then the chest until finally this gleaming creature was galloping right toward me with a rider on its back, who was too bright for me to see. There were all kinds of movement going on in the background too, but I could not take my eyes off the horse and rider. It lasted only for a second or two. Then I stopped seeing or imagining it and the thunderstorm moved on. Then I fell asleep.

Now, I know that some people would be happy to tell me that I had a vision of the end of time and would probably also want to tell me where it appears in the line up of the final days of this world. But I know now that those people do not get their information from the Bible.

It seems today that questions about the end of time are popular for some people. I am aware that many young people today have been very affected by the recent Movie 2012. In the movie starring John Cusack, the prophecy of the Mayan Calendar that the world will end on December 21, 2012 comes true. I won’t give away the story, in case you want to watch it, but it is interesting to note that in the film, there is an attempt to save some people from the disaster by building arks in the Himalaya Mountains, in the style of Noah. This is an action packed science fiction adventure film, but many people treat it as fact. If you google on the internet “2012” you will find numerous sites dedicated to this prediction about the end of the world, based on the Mayan prediction.

However, people seem to forget that Jesus said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only God”

I don’t know if you have ever seen the TV series called Six Feet Under. It is about a family which runs a funeral parlour It is a little off-beat and quirky, and although I do not watch much TV, I did enjoy catching some of the episodes of this show. Each week begins with a death of some stranger who ends up as a part of the story line.

One episode, called “The Case of the Rapture”, centres on a 40 year old woman named Doris, who is a devoted member of First Baptist Church. The opening scene begins with two workers who are busy filling up inflatable sex dolls with helium, so that they can be used in a display. They load the inflated dolls onto the back of their pick-up truck and head out. At one point they slam on the breaks to avoid hitting a skate boarder whizzing by but the sudden stop loosens the net that is holding down the dolls. So the dolls start floating upward toward the sky.

Now, meanwhile Doris is coming down the street in her car, with a bumper sticker that reads: “I break for the rapture”. Suddenly she stops the car. She can hardly believe her eyes. Seeing the dolls floating up towards the heavens, she thinks they are real people being lifted up. She concludes that it is the beginning of the Rapture, which is the belief that when Christ comes again in glory, all right-believing Christians will be lifted up to heaven to spare them from the terrible End of Days.

“Oh My Lord, Sweet Jesus!” Doris exclaims. She cannot contain her joy at witnessing the Rapture and people vanishing into heaven. So she gets out the car and with her arms outstretched towards the heavens, she moves toward the scene of people floating into the clouds, she walks onto the road and gets hit and killed by an oncoming car.

In the next scene the husband is in the funeral home making arrangements and says that it was God’s will that his wife was taken away.

Now normally I would avoid talking about the rapture, but some people take the scripture passage which I shared with you this morning as proof of the concept of the rapture, and there is this strange passage on the lips of Jesus in the middle of the Gospel of Matthew. “Then two men will be working in the field and one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding meal together, one will be taken and one will be left.” What does it mean? And what does all this have to do with the story of Noah?

So in case you are talking with some friends and the idea of the end of time and the rapture comes up, let me try to make some sense of this. First thing you need to know that while I take the Bible very seriously, I do not take it literally. And if you try to take this passage literally it can only get you into a lot more trouble. For example, if someone says to you, “It’s raining cats and dogs!” you do not expect to look out the window and see cats and dogs falling from the clouds. We often use metaphors and images to explain what we mean, but we do not need to take them literally.

Like so much of the Bible, we need to look below the surface meaning to find out the true meaning of the passage. First of all, the word “rapture’ never appears in the Bible. This concept was created in the year 1910 when an American evangelical minister by the name of Cyrus Scofield, wrote the Scofield Reference Bible and used the word “Rapture” in a heading and commented on it in the marginal notes for this passage. Then the Moody Bible Institute and other Bible schools began to spread this message and kept repeating this mistake.

You see the idea of the rapture is an old heresy. The heresy is the belief that the world is evil and the goal in life is to escape from the world as we know it. But the Bible and Christian teaching consistently says that God created the world and the world is good.

You see, the message of Advent is not about escaping the world, but about getting ready to receive God, who is coming into the world and into our lives. When? Well, no one knows – no human, no angel, not even Jesus.

I also want to say that those who speak of the rapture have got it backwards. It is not those who are taken up who are saved. It is those who are left behind! Notice how Jesus talks about Noah and the flood just before he gives us the image of people being taken or left behind. So what happens in the story of Noah and the flood? There is evil on the earth and God decides to destroy the earth but save a few people, Noah and his family. So the ones who are taken away by the flood are the ones who are punished and the ones who are left behind are the ones who are saved and given new life. So when Jesus uses this metaphor of being taken away and being left behind, he is using the image of Noah: those who are taken,…… are taken into judgment, those who are left, ……. are those who are saved and given new life.

Anyways, the whole point of his passage is not about the rapture, but about the coming of Jesus into our lives. And the real point of this passage is “Keep Awake”. You see sometimes it seems that we are going through life as if we are asleep. We are a sleepy lot! Jesus’ message for today is “Wake up, Keep awake!” And he uses three images to get us to wake from our slumber. He uses the image of the flood, a kidnapper who takes people away, and a thief. The message with all three images is the same. Keep Awake!

Why should we stay awake? Because God is up to something. God is active in the world. God is coming, so we better be ready. We are called to be Detectives for God.

It is like the experience of getting a warning and then we have a choice. We can choose to ignore the warning and suffer the consequences or wake up and take steps to avert the disaster. God is not the one who doles out the consequences, t is merely a result of our decision to ignore the warnings. One way or another, a life-changing, world changing crisis and opportunity is announced. If we choose to sleep through it, it is going to hit us like a flood or a thief in the night.

Imagine these scenarios. You are driving in the car and feel a terrible pain running down your left arm. The doctor has been telling you to lose some weight and to exercise. The pain comes like a thief in the night. You know you should do something about it. You have a choice. You can sleep through it or wake up and act.

Another scenario. Your partner tells you out of the blue that the marriage is over. You are blind-sided, except you can recall the exact moment five years ago when you were hurt by something and rather than speak up, you shut down and started pulling away, ending the real intimacy in the relationship. You had a choice, but you slept through it and did not wake up to the reality that was before you.

One last scenario. I am reading a book called A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright, who gave the CBC Massey Lectures a few years ago. He points out that every civilization in the past 5000 years have unintentionally destroyed itself. They were unable to see or unwilling to face the consequences of their commitments or their technologies or their belief system. The signs were all round, but they chose to sleep through their own demise.

He tells the story of Easter Island, off the coast of Chile. This is a true story. Easter Island was inhabited by migrants who arrived in the fifth century. They had a tradition of honouring their ancestors through creating impressive stone images. Each generation in an attempt to outdo the others created bigger and bigger stone images. This demanded more timber, more rope and human resources. It became clear that they were cutting down trees faster than they could be grown. By the 1400’s there were no more trees on the island. They cut down the last tree, knowing that without trees they could no longer build boats, or make roofs for their homes. Wars broke out over old planks of wood. Yet, they continued to build bigger and bigger monuments, even when there was no wood to transport them into place. Today Easter Island is abandoned. While it once was a tropical garden teeming with wildlife, today it is a desert. The people slept through the disaster that killed them off and killed their land. Today when you see pictures of Easter Island, you see huge stone monuments, but no natural wildlife.

The Easter Islanders knew what they had to do, but they ignored the signs. They slept through the disaster. They did not wake up. The flood or the kidnapper or the thief came and took them away.

God comes to us again and again, warning us through modern-day prophets, through friends and family, doctors and scientists, through dreams and visions. It’s time we opened our eyes to what is most precious to us before it is swept away, kidnapped or stolen from us.

God is not going to come and lift us out of the world. But God is going to come again and again to wake us up to the precious gift of life on this planet. God is the God of new beginnings and fresh starts. The greatest example of this is the birth of the child of Bethlehem, whose coming we await.

Keep your eyes open to the presence of God in our lives. Be Detectives for God. Keep awake!

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