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The Real Second Coming

Sermon – 5/23/04
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Revelation 22: 12-21

We have been looking at the book of Revelation for the last 5 Sunday’s now, and we come this morning to the final 10 verses of our Bible. 

See, I’m coming soon, my reward is with me to repay according to everyone’s worth.  I am the alpha and omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.  Blessed are those who wash their robes so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.  Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters.  And everyone who loves and practices falsehood.  It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches.  I am the root and descendent of David, the bright morning star.  The Spirit and the Bride say “Come”.  And let everyone who hears say “Come”.  And let everyone who is thirsty “Come”.   Let anyone who wishes to take the water of life as a gift.  [And then, referring to the book of Revelation, to this prophecy, he adds:]  I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book, if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book.  If anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city which are described in this book.  The one who testifies to these things says “Surely, I am coming soon”.  Amen.  Come Lord Jesus!  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.  Amen.

Last Sunday I quoted John’s Lennon’s song “Imagine” as a way to sum up the vision of the new Jerusalem, the holy city, descending from God to earth.  Chris Turner, who picks the music for our first service suggested that after reading this text for this morning that we might sing “Here Comes the Sun”, also of Beatles’ fame.  And we thought about it – at first I thought Chris was serious, you know, change “Sun” to “Son”, It might work, but then I got to the verse where it says “Little Darling. …”, and I realized, that doesn’t work, so we didn’t sing it.

Well, Revelation with all its vivid imagery and its fantastic symbols presents the modern reader with all kinds of challenges.   And we have been examining some of those over these last few Sundays.  Several people have pestered me enough, finally, to actually write-up last week’s sermon and post it on our web site.

If you have been here you know the most important thing to remember is, first of all, that this is NOT about the end of the world.  Rather it is about providing hope to people in a time of trial and tribulation.   Secondly, it is about giving the followers of Jesus an alternative vision for the reign of God here on earth that stands in direct contrast to the reign of Caesar, the imperial power in Rome.   And thus it provides us a standard by which all imperial power can be judged.

And thirdly, that the central metaphor in Revelation for the power of God which is to rule our lives is the slain lamb.  The phrase coined by Ward Ewing that I have used is “Lamb Power” as the shorthand way of talking about the self-giving love modeled for us by Jesus. 

The basic message of Revelation then is this:  that Lamb Power, not military might, not economic growth, not technology, not political systems, that Lamb Power is what will save the world.  Now along with that is the very strong affirmation, contrary to appearances at times, that God in fact still reigns on earth.

After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, panic broke out in New York City as citizens took to the streets in massive riots.  There was a young preacher who had been elected as their representative to Congress who calmed the crowds and soothed the nervous rioters with a single message he repeated over & over again:  that God still reigns, and Washington still lives on.   In other words, the government will survive.   That young preacher was none other than James Garfield, a minister of the Christian Church, who of course went on to become President of the United States.

Writing in exile, exiled by the very imperial power that caused the tribulations experienced by the early church, the elder John’s message is very similar to Garfield’s  – that God still reigns, but that the imperial power of Rome, of Caesar, is but temporary.  Therefore, hold true to your faith at all costs.   And to re-emphasize this message he closes his vision with the promise that Jesus will come.  This promise of course is not only found in Revelation, but also in the letters of Paul, who evidently believed early in his career that he would see Jesus return in his lifetime (later in his career there is good evidence to suggest that he modified that time frame).

But what are to we make of this so-called “Second Coming”?   How can we as sensible, modern people speak of a hope that has been delayed for 2000 years?  John Mark Moore, my predecessor here, gave me this wonderful little booklet last Sunday that he thought would help me in preaching on Revelation because it provides all of the answers.   It makes it explicitly clear when Jesus will come back – it gives the definitive proof that Jesus will return on October 28, 1992!   So if you have any questions, you can get all the answers right here.  Some of us have apparently not only been left behind, we have been left out altogether!

Marcus Borg describes a T.V. evangelist he happened upon while flipping through channels on his T.V. one night, who was smarter than that guy.   He did not give a date when talking about a second coming of Jesus, he simply said “Jesus is coming soon.   We don’t know when, but we know it’s going to be soon.   And you do not want to be encumbered with any financial assets that will go to waste when he comes”.   So you know what to with it – you don’t want to be encumbered with any of those things do you?  I don’t know what that preacher knew that we don’t know, but evidently he knew something.  How to raise money, mainly.

The second coming of Christ, and its apocalyptic twin, the Rapture, as portrayed in popular Christianity are frankly an embarrassment to our faith and the greatest lie foisted upon an unsuspecting public.   So pay attention.  I want to set the record straight once and for all.   The Rapture, this notion of “beam me up” theology, that we will be taken away in the time of trial and tribulation:  read my lips, “There is no such thing”. 

And you don’t have to take my word for it, you can. . . . .[cell phone ringing] .. I hate it when people don’t turn off their cell phones.  In church, of all places.  Oh, wait a second, that’s my cell phone.  Forgot to put it on silent mode.   Excuse me, just a second. …

      [on phone] Hello?  Really?! 

      [to congregation] Jesus  – he’s calling me! 

      [on phone] It’s so good to hear from you Jesus.  Oh, they’re doing fine – how’s your Mom? …  And your Dad, er, I mean the Holy, the Big Guy in the sky –  how’s He? … Oh, She doesn’t like that, does She?.   What would She like? … Big Mama?  Yeah, well, I don’t know if we’re ready for that Jesus.   So tell me, where you calling from?  … Salt Lake City?  Uh, Jesus, that doesn’t mean what I think it means?  … Oh, you’re on vacation? Yes, it is a great place to visit – be sure to check out the tabernacle, it’s really fascinating.   Listen, Jesus – folks here would like to know, are you coming back any time soon?  … Uh huh, oh, he is?  Really!   I’ll let him know.  It’s been nice talking to you. … OK, take care, er, thank you, goodbye.

Well, it’s clear, just like I said, you don’t have to worry about the Rapture.  Some of us may get to heaven in the usual way, but not right away.  Speaking of which – Daryl, are you going to our golf tournament next month?   I don’t know how to tell you this, but you may want to give your tee-time away to someone else, as you, uh, won’t be needing it. Just thought you should know.

As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, don’t take my word for it, Barbara Rossing begins her book “The Rapture Exposed”, with  this sentence:  “The  Rapture is a racket”.[i]  She teaches at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and I’ve borrowed somewhat from her book this morning, which in other professions is known as plagiarism.  In my profession it’s known as preaching.   The notion of Rapture was created by John Nelson Darby, a British evangelist, 170 years ago, so it’s a relatively new notion in the Christian faith.  It is based on a complete misunderstanding of primarily two scriptures.  Let’s look briefly at those:

First Thessalonians 4:16-17:  "For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangels call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first.  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."

That kind of sounds like that notion of Rapture, I must admit.   But what is not obvious from the English is that the Greek term for “to be caught up” really means simply “to meet” and it was a term used almost exclusively for when a royal party (dignitaries) were coming to your town and the elders of the village, town or city would go out and meet that royal party and then escort them into town.   There is absolutely nothing in the text that says that Jesus will come part way, then reverse direction and go back to heaven.   The sense, rather, is that we will meet Jesus as we would meet some dignitary and we will escort him back into the world.  It’s that same notion in Revelation 21 of the holy city descending from God to earth.   Jesus is descending from on high – to be with us and to dwell with us, to stay with us here on earth, forever.

The second misused and abused text is from Matthew 24 verses 40 & 41, where we have two men standing in a field – one will be taken, says Jesus, and the other left.  Two women will be grinding meal together, one will be taken, and the other left.   Please read that very carefully and tell me where it says that the one who is taken is the believer – is the one who will be spared any trial or tribulation.  It’s not in the text.  And tell me this, in the first century under the Roman imperial power, who was taken and why?  Men were taken, often without warning, either because they were suspect and were then crucified on crosses, or because they were taken simply to carry the bag of a soldier.  Sometimes they were taken as a conscript to fight in a war in a far away place.  Women who were taken fared much worse.  We know what happens to women in warfare.   Concludes New Testament scholar N.T. Wright:   “’Taken’ in this context means to be taken in judgment.   There is no hint here of Rapture … it is rather a matter of secret police coming in the night or of enemies sweeping through a village and seizing all they can.”[ii] 

In other words, the whole “Left Behind” concept, which has sold 62 million books, is based on a theological fraud.  But should I tell you how I really feel about it?   No, I won’t.  Instead I want to share with you a letter that Glen Campbell shared with me that he wrote (he’s going to be sorry he ever did that, he’ll probably never do it again) in response to the cover story of Newsweek this week.  It talks about that Left Behind series, authors Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, so Glen writes:

The most telling statement from your story on Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins is this:  “The worst thing a person can do against God is to deceive people about the Bible.  That’s satanically inspired.”  If that’s true, I hope Tim and Jerry are packing for warm weather, because they’ve made a deal with the Devil himself.

As your coverage points out, the book of Revelation was written in 90 A.D. – it stands to reason that it was intended for the people of 90 A.D. as well.  What does it say about the character of your God if the “literal” message wasn’t meant for them, but was meant for us, 2,000 years later?  Was He just pulling their leg back then?

When Jesus said “Love your enemies” (and your neighbors), I’m pretty sure he meant don’t kill them.  This idea that he’s awaiting his return for the glorious slaughter of unbelievers (neighbors?) is as satanic as anything Tim & Jerry (and popular Christianity) have conjured up to date.

 

Amen.   Joined the church just two weeks ago and already he’s writing like a wise scholar.  See what church membership can do for you?!

What bothers me most about this Left Behind kind of thinking is not just that I think it is bad theology but in the hands of the wrong people it is potentially exceedingly dangerous.  Witness  Secretary of the Interior James Watt under Ronald Reagan who told the  United States Senate that we need not be too concerned with persevering  the environment, because, quote:  “I  do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns” unquote.  And worse, if you believe Armageddon is not only inevitable, it is God’s will, and that all believers including yourself will be raptured away from it so you don’t have to worry about it, how much more likely will you then be to contribute to it if it is in your hands to do so?   Why do we give that power to such people who think such ways?

Jewish scholar Theahesical Landau writes:  “The  true prophetic spirit today would address the root condition of  injustice instead of branding Eastern block nations or Syrians or  Iranians as the children of darkness who will be vanquished at Armageddon  by the virtuous defenders of the true faith executing God’s wrath”.   He concludes:  “Such abuse of Biblical prophecy boils down to this perverse parody of John  3:16:  God so loved the  world that he sent World War 3."[iii]

 If that is what the Second Coming means, count me out, I want nothing to do with it.   I instead will take my chances with Sojourner Truth, the 19th century former slave and advocate of women’s suffrage, who, when this new fangled “Darbyism” with this notion of Rapture was imported into  this country, said in response: 

You seem to be expecting to go to some parlor away up some where, and when  the wicked have been burnt, you are coming back to walk in triumph over  their ashes.  This is to be your New Jerusalem.  Now I can’t see anything so very nice in that, coming back to such a mess that will be – a world covered with the ashes of the wicked.  Besides, if the Lord comes and burns, as you say he will, I’m not going away, I’m going to stay here and stand the fire like Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego, and Jesus will walk with me through the fire.[iv]

How then should we understand the Second Coming?  Precisely that – Jesus will walk through it, with us, through the fire.   The Biblical hope expressed in the coming of Christ is a promise and prayer, not a prediction.  It is the promise that God will not abandon us, and it is the prayer for Christ to save us from tyranny and despair. 

In that famous speech that Martin Luther King gave the night before his assassination, he spoke of the Promised Land that he could see from the mountaintop, and it gave him hope even if he could not go there, because he knew that one day his people would go there.   That WE would go there.  And on that same night in Memphis, Tennessee before he was killed, he also said:

It’s alright to talk about long white robes over yonder, and all of it’s symbolism,  but ultimately people will want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here.  It’s alright to talk about streets flowing with milk & honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, about His children who can’t eat three square meals a day.   It’s alright to talk about the New Jerusalem, but one day God’s preacher must talk about the New York, the New Atlanta, the New Philadelphia, the New Los Angeles, the New Memphis, Tennessee.   This is what we have to do.[v] 

That “this” is the Second Coming.  Not only must we envision the New Jerusalem, the New Atlanta, the New Eugene, but we must make it a reality here in our midst.  

To understand that racism is not their problem, it’s our problem.

To welcome the immigrant not as a suspect, but as a friend.  

To make healthcare not a privilege, but a human right.  

To see hunger not as the shame of poverty but as the sin of wealth. 

To view war not as necessary evil but as an unacceptable means to resolve conflict.  

To believe that the reign of God is not where Christ greets us when we go to heaven, it is where we greet Christ when we do his will and live in his way here on earth.  

Come, Lord Jesus, come!  And may he come soon.


[i] Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed.  Westview Press, 2004, p. 1.

[ii] Quoted here from Rossing, p. 178.

[iii] Quoted here from Rossing, p. 44.

[iv] Quoted here from Rossing, p. 10.

[v] Quoted here from Rossing, p. 165.

 


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