This past week the Huffinton Post carried a short article with the title: “Harold Camping apologizes for faulty rapture predictions and retires.” You may remember that Camping had predicted that the rapture would occur on May 21st of this year, which would involve believers being caught up to heaven followed by a time of great suffering on earth for those left behind, moving along toward God’s day of final judgment. This made for all the elements of a perfect news story and was picked up by the major news networks. When this did not come to pass, the updated date was October 21st of this year, a little over two weeks ago. As far as I can tell, this did not make the national news in the same way, which is a positive sign. The article on the Post this week gave a brief review of these facts and mentioned that Camping is now stepping down from his radio ministry at Family Radio Stations, Inc.
Harold Camping takes his place alongside other faith leaders who have given precise dates for when they believed Jesus would return to earth and claim believers as his own. Lest we feel too superior, we can recall that the Anabaptist steam of Christianity of which we are a part, has also had its share of such leaders, one of the more famous perhaps being Claas Epp, who led a group of migrating Mennonites into central Asia to await the Second Coming of Christ which was to be on March 8, 1889. He too then rescheduled the rapture to a later date, which, needless to say, was also not correct.
Like it or not, if you call yourself a Christian, or identify with the church in some way, part of the package is this vein of apocalypticism that runs through our scriptures and our history. Today’s readings are a case in point. Amos the Hebrew prophet speaks of a dark and terrible Day of the Lord. The Apostle Paul speaks of a time when believers will be “caught up together to meet the Lord in the air,” a key passage for rapture theology.
What one believes about all of this matters. What a community believes about this matters. One’s view of the end affects how one lives in the present. If the world is going down the drain and will only be rescued with divine intervention to draw us out of the world, it affects how one thinks about one’s relationship with this planet earth. If God’s ultimate job is to separate the good guys from the bad guys, it affects our view of those bad guys, since, if there’s one thing we are certain about, it’s that we’re the good guys.
If one believes that we are participants with God in redeeming the earth, if one prays, with Jesus, that God’s kingdom come “on earth, as it is in heaven” it affects our view of ourselves, the earth, and how we approach our purpose in life.
What I’d like to do is to look at both of these texts and see what they have to say. They are, in many ways, strange and wild texts, coming at us from another time, almost another world, and they are one of the many examples of the importance of understanding a text in context – how it draws on the current understandings of the people to whom it was originally addressed. I would like to push it a little further than that and get to where we are asking what all of this means for us, what we make of this supposed Second Coming of Christ and how it affects us in the present.
So, we’ll start with Amos. If you’d like to have the text in front of you you’re welcome to turn to Amos chapter five.
Let’s come at this passage by looking at it backwards, starting at the end and working our way back to the beginning. The end of this passage 5:24 is one of the great prophetic utterances of all time, one that has found resonance with those who work for justice. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” When I hear that, I hear coming out of the mouth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The reason Amos calls for justice and righteousness to roll down like mighty waters is that they weren’t. The people of Israel had a lively worship life, complete with song and ritual and liturgy, but it was void of justice. This is what is mentioned before, starting in verse 21, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” This statement most likely would not have made Amos all that popular of a guy when he stood up and shared it during the Joys and Concerns portion of worship.
Before this, starting in verse 18, we have the earliest prophetic reference to “the day of the Lord.” “Alas, for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light.” It’s the first time this concept appears in the prophets, but it’s pretty clear that Amos is referring to something already present within the consciousness of his people. A day in which God would set things right in the world.
Prior to this, it seems, there was a prevailing notion the Day of the Lord would be the day when God would finally take out Israel’s enemies. God would destroy the enemies and save Israel, the covenant people. Reward the righteous and punish the wicked. If you’re on the side of the good guys, you’re safe. If you’re a part of the enemies, you’re in trouble. So bring on the Day of the Lord, say the people. Amos’ words here reinterpret the meaning of the Day of the Lord and note that Israel is not exempt from this judgment. They will be judged by the same criteria as all the other nations – justice and righteousness – and the actions of worship in and of themselves do not somehow make them superior.
The opening chapters of Amos give the same message. He starts out with this litany of naming all these different nations that God will judge. He lists Damascus and tells about their sins, then Gaza and the bad stuff that’s going to happen to it, then Tyre, and Edom, and the Ammonites, and Moab. All the enemies of Israel. One can almost see the people of God getting more and more gleeful as Amos goes down the list of most despised nations and tells of their demise. But it’s a total set up. The next nations Amos mentions are Judah, and Israel, who, shockingly, aren’t exempt from the call to do justice. For Amos, anyone would do well to think twice before wishing the coming of the Day of the Lord.
That’s the twist that Amos gives to this. “It’s not what you thought it was.” Amos teaches that only a small remnant of people will be restored on that day. Later prophets also speak of the Day of the Lord. The prophet Joel speaks in terms of cosmic signs, “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (2:31) Good times.
The notion of the Day of the Lord persisted, with various interpretations, throughout Jewish history, right into the mix of first century Palestine.
This is where things get really interesting. For those first followers of Jesus, those who had heard his teachings, those who had witnessed his healings, his love for the poor, his justice and righteousness, his death on an instrument of Roman capital punishment, his rumored resurrection – for these followers, the Day of the Lord had happened right there in front of them. The Lord had come, the sun had been turned to darkness, judgment had been made, and salvation had been made available. When the gospel writers narrate the scene at the crucifixion, they are sure to include many of those apocalyptic signs of darkness and earthquakes, cosmic shifting that was associated with the day of the Lord.
The early Christians, like Amos before them, spoke of another twist in the Day of the Lord, another reinterpretation. It’s not what we thought it was. Rather than this day being one in which God’s wrath was violently unleashed against a guilty humanity, the day turns out to be a time when humanity’s wrath is violently unleashed against an innocent agent of God. God had come to God’s people in the form of a peasant rabbi. To confuse matters, he had made friends with the bad guys, the outcasts, and called for a love of enemies. The coming had happened. The day was at hand. And rather than God judging and condemning humanity, humanity had judged itself by unleashing its destruction against a nonviolent, loving, forgiving, representative of God. Big twist.
This is the tectonic shift that happened through Jesus that still hasn’t worked its way into our spiritual consciousness. The Day of the Lord has already happened. Judgment Day has already taken place. And it throws off all of our ways of making sense of the world. We are all enemies of God, and none of us are enemies of God. We’re all guilty and innocent at the same time, our own victims, our own judges. Christ is our judge, and our defense lawyer, defending us against ourselves and forgiving us before we even realize we’re guilty. Everybody is saved whether they realize it or not. Yet only a remnant, a small group of people from all cultures and religions and philosophies, lives out this salvation in the pattern of the loving, forgiving Christ. Everything is partially realized. We live in a post-apocalyptic world and we’re still picking up the pieces of the mess that Jesus made of this world that we thought we knew.
This is what the early church was coming to realize and scrambling to understand. Early in the Book of Acts Peter quotes the Prophet Joel about these being the last days, a time when the Spirit would be poured out on all people. Everybody, men and women, sons and daughters, old and young shall prophesy. Christ is available to everyone in this supernovae of spiritual richness. Christ is currently coming in the lives of all people. An ongoing present tense coming.
So there was this sense that the day had arrived, yet this sense that it had not yet fully arrived. That it was not yet here in its fullness. Rather than being post-apocalypse, it’s more like the apocalypse just takes a very long time, a time that we’re still in. There was, it seems, an anticipation that Christ would come to be more fully present with people.
It’s impossible to know for sure, but scholars mostly agree that the earliest writing of the New Testament is 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s letter to the group of believers in Thessalonica, this capital city of the Roman province in which it was located. It’s kind of remarkable to think of this letter as existing before there were any gospels written, but that’s what scholars believe.
Just as Amos spoke to the people about their pre-existing notions of the Day of the Lord, the Apostle Paul addresses the pre-existing notions of Christ’s return. He does this in chapter 4 verses 13-18. The pastoral concern that Paul addresses is that some members in the community have died. Verse 13: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” So the crisis is that everyone had expected Christ to come and be more fully present in their lifetime, yet some people had died. Were they going to miss out on this coming?
This hope for in my lifetime might give us a little more compassion for our brother Harold Camping. He is 90 years old and, no doubt, more aware than ever of his own mortality. If we have a generous spirit toward him, it can make sense that he has a longing for things to be set right in his lifetime. To put an end to these days of partially realized salvation. Perhaps he has some things in common with this community in Thessalonica. But the rapture idea of leaving earth, based on this part of Paul’s writing, would be foreign to Paul’s intentions.
To speak of Christ’s presence with this community in Thessalonica, Paul draws on both Jewish apocalyptic understandings, and protocol for a Roman ruler’s state visit, something that would have been a recurring experience in this capital city. When a ruler would visit they would be preceded with loud calls and blowing trumpets. Upon hearing these announcements in the distance, city officials were expected to come out and greet the ruler and join him in his escort into the city – a very dramatic entrance. This event had been given a technical term – parousia. Which could mean coming, or arrival, or more literally, presence. Every time there would a parousia of a Roman official, this ritual would be reenacted.
Parousia is the term adopted by the early Christians for how they came to view the coming of Christ. The presence. Paul tells the Thessalonians confused about their dead ones, starting in verse 15, “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the parousia of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
In keeping with the metaphor of the visiting ruler, the Thessalonians would not have heard this as an exit earth, don’t be left behind, experience. They would have heard it as a picture of hearing Christ’s coming announced, of the dead and the living joining together in going “up” to meet him, and joining his escort, not out of the atmosphere, but back to earth, the place of visitation. The presence of Christ is coming to be with them and no one is excluded for experiencing this presence, living or dead. It extends beyond the grave and the dead are a part of this welcoming committee. This, it appears, is Paul’s main point.
“Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
This speaks to some of these rapture rumblings of our time, and undoes the standard rapture and left behind narrative, for which there is no solid biblical basis – but doesn’t address all of our questions about the Parousia. We, who live 2000 years after the beginning of the apocalypse, who get only partial glimpses of salvation, who live amidst justice not yet fully realized. We look back at Amos and Jesus and Paul and everything in between and since. We notice the twists, the reinterpretations, the new understandings that have turned previous understandings on their head, inside out, backwards. We wonder if our notions of the coming of Christ might endure the same fate. Does Christ come with a definitive loud call and trumpet blast, or does Christ come disguised as a peasant, someone we could pass by without noticing? Is Christ’s coming a definitive end, or is it yet another new beginning? Should we look to the skies, look to the earth, look to our neighbors, look to our enemies? And what of our dead? Our loved ones with us in spirit but not body?
We still live in this tension. This uncertain time. Christ is present with us, but we want more. And we having a haunting suspicion that the more of Christ seeking to be expressed in the world is wanting to be expressed through us. “Listen, I tell you mystery! We will all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” (1 Cor. 15:51-52)