“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.”
– Matt. 24:40-42
We begin Advent with apocalypse. Yikes!
Last Sunday this lectionary text was preached by thousands of preachers around the world. If we use Tim LaHaye’s method of interpretation popularized by the Left Behind series (more than 63 million sold), then Jesus is saying when he returns to judge the world, the good guys will be “taken” away to be with God (i.e. raptured) and the bad guys will be “left behind” to suffer untold torments. Therefore, WATCH OUT! In other words, Jesus is coming back and boy is he mad.
Apocalypse means “unveiling,” or seeing things as they really are. When we see this passage through the eyes of Jesus perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to be left behind. In fact, I want to be left behind. A more careful reading of the text shows that Jesus does too. Read Matt 24:36-44.
Jesus sets up this passage by recalling the stormy days of Noah when “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). Jesus reminds us that people were “swept away.” The flood was a violent cataclysmic event – perhaps it was a flood of violence itself that swept them away. Noah and his family were not taken by this outbreak of violence. Instead, they were left behind in the ark of peace.
In Christ, we too are left behind. We are not swept away by the violence. And here is the interpretive key – this business of being left behind happens when we come to know ourselves as forgiven. In fact, the phrase “left behind” can also be translated as “forgiven.” It is through forgiveness that we escape the violence that is flooding the world and our hearts. 
The flood story makes a lot of sense when read against the backdrop of violence. Perhaps violence spread at such a massive scale that it not only annihilated the community, but was seen as an act of God’s wrath by those who survived it. When a cataclysmic event happens aren’t we tempted to give it divine power? Jesus invites us to see the “taken” as those who are swept away, not by God’s wrath, but their own violence perceived as God’s wrath.
To press the point further Jesus shifts the image of the flood to the image of a thief who comes in the middle of the night. This is an equally terrifying image unless perhaps we are talking about a good thief. Unlike Satan who comes to steal, kill and destroy, Jesus is the good thief who comes to give life. While we are asleep, he breaks in with the gift of forgiveness. The good thief comes quietly, humbly and without fanfare, as a child, or a bit like the Hobbit. He is the good thief who smuggles grace into our prison that we might discover ourselves as forgiven, left behind. This is the point of the text.
The image of the good thief shows up again on the cross where he is one of three thieves crucified. The good thief says, “Father forgive them…”(Luke 23:34). After this “the tombs were opened” (Matt. 27:52). The good thief shows up again at the resurrection when the disciples are locked inside the upper room. He mercifully breaks into the locked room and says, “Peace be with you, as the Father sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). He breathes on them the Holy Spirit, empowering the disciples to also be good thieves who open prison doors with the key of forgiveness.
You see, the apocalypse is only terrifying to those of us who are blind to the great unveiling of God’s forgiveness and who project onto God our own violence and wrath. Jesus is the good thief who breaks into this craziness that we might discover ourselves forgiven and leave behind this nonsense that has taken us captive.
This is our Advent prayer.
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