by Brian Walsh
This morning at Wine Before Breakfast I preached on Matthew 24.36-44 and Isaiah 2.1-4. The gospel text, set in the context of the whole chapter, addresses a situation where there is war and rumours of war. But the prophetic text offers a vision of swords being beaten into plowshares. In the service we also heard The Doors‘ classic song, “The End” resonating with the Scriptures. Here’s what came out of it all. The reader also needs to know that in this community we have spent the last eleven weeks allowing the Sermon on the Mount to shape our worship and our imaginations.
Isaiah may anticipate a time when nation will not bear the sword against nation, but Jesus knows that such a time is not yet.
Isaiah may proclaim a time when nations will learn war no more, but Jesus lives in the real world where there are wars and rumours of war, where nation rises against nation and kingdom against kingdom.
Isaiah may speak of nations streaming to Mount Zion to be instructed by Israel’s God, but Jesus sitting on the Mount of Olives, looks across the valley at Mount Zion, and says that the nations are coming alright, but they are coming for destruction, not instruction.
This is the context of Jesus telling his disciples that they’d better be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. All hell is about to break loose, so you better be alert, stay awake, and anticipate this coming.
I don’t know, maybe Jesus is closer to Jim Morrison than Isaiah today. The end that he speaks of is a dangerous one, on “the edge of town.” Maybe as Jesus rides that “King’s highway” he knows that it is “the end of laughter and soft lies,” “lost in a Roman wilderness of pain.”
While Isaiah meditates on new beginnings for Mount Zion, Jesus only sees its end.
So we have moved from mountain to mountain to mountain.
We have moved from the Sermon on the Mount to the Sermon on the Mount of Olives, and through both sermons Isaiah’s hopes for Mount Zion have always been echoing – in both resonance and dissonance.
But I’m more taken by the dissonance today. Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom is not in Jesus’ vision on the Mount of Olives. Maybe that is because he knows that if his Sermon on the Mount is to be fulfilled, then it must pass through the crucible he depicts on Mount Olive.
If there is to be a light for the world, if that light might indeed shine from Mount Zion then somehow the light of Zion will need to be extinguished.
If the nations are to be drawn to Zion, then maybe Zion must first execute the Saviour of the Nations.
If spears are to be made into pruning hooks, then the Son of Man must first be pierced by such a spear.
The dissonances are painful. I feel them not just in my mind but throughout my body.
But the dissonance is not just there between these texts. It is tragically played out in the way in which these texts have been interpreted in recent history.
Nowhere in Matthew 24 does Jesus call his disciples to arms. Nowhere does he call his followers to take sides in the violence to come. He simply wants them to be ready when the sacred structures, the sacred canopies, the institutions of normality collapse.
But Christians in North America today can be counted amongst the most violent, most war-mongering, most national-security-ideological, most pro-military-spending people in the population. And sadly, much of the spiritual justification for that kind of ideology hangs on this text from Matthew’s gospel.
You all know the interpretation. Jesus is coming back in judgment and you had better stay alert to see it coming. On that day one will be taken, one will be left. One will be whisked out of this vale of tears, out of the coming cataclysm, away from the bloody battle of Armageddon, one will be left behind. One will be taken to heaven to be with Jesus, the other will be left to face the violence of a world given over to its own satanic devices. One will escape, one will remain to face the consequences of his own sin.
Well, my friends, nothing could be further from the truth. You see there is not one verse in all of Scripture – not one! – that says that our ultimate destiny is to live eternally with Jesus in heaven. And certainly this passage says no such thing.
Take a good look. It doesn’t take any fancy interpretive tricks to figure out what is going on here. It is clear enough that Jesus is talking about real historical judgment and that he is making a distinction between those who are taken away and those who remain. But where in the text does it give us any indication that those who are “taken away” are to be taken to heaven, or even that to be “taken away” is the more desirable of the two destinies?
Listen closely. The coming of the Son of Man will be like the days of Noah, when before the flood “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.”
They knew nothing. They could not discern the times, they couldn’t see the cataclysm that was coming, they had no sense that their normal lives were about to be tragically interrupted. And what happened to them? “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, one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill, one will be taken, one will be left.”
Who is taken and who is left?
The context makes it crystal clear. It is like the days of Noah, when the flood came and “swept them all away”, so “one will be taken, one will be left.” The metaphor of being taken is here a metaphor of judement. In Luke, the disciples ask, “Where, Lord?” Where will they be taken. And the answer is, “where the vultures gather, that’s where the bodies are.” To be taken is to be taken to judgment.
Salvation is found in being left behind, not taken away!
Now why is this so important?
It’s important because this kind of theology will strip you of the depths of Advent hope.
Such a spirituality of escape will actually lose the creative dissonance between our texts this morning and replace it with a dualistic heaven theology that can only result in losing the radical hope that is on offer in Isaiah and Jesus. Replacing the hope of a kingdom in which justice and peace reigns in the lives of real people in real history with some sort of eternal ethereal existence in heaven trades a richly biblical creational hope for a mess of evangelical pietistic pottage.
And the malignant nature of that pottage ought not be missed. This is a theology that legitimates violence now because its ultimate vision is of an eschatological violence to come. This is a theology and a piety that has no interest in swords being beaten into plowshares because those swords remain necessary to mete out the “justice” of the victors over the vanquished.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a theology that will make common cause with empire precisely because its understanding of the kingdom has more in common with Caesar than it does with Jesus.
We’ve spent too long with Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount this semester to settle for such a truncated and false kingdom.
We’ve spent too long with Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount this semester to settle for cheap escapism when he has called us to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world.
You can only be light in darkness, a spirituality of escape hides that light in a heaven totally removed from the pain and darkness of this earth.
Such an escapism makes a mockery of the Gospel.
Such an escapism domesticates the Sermon on the Mount.
Such an escapism makes a lie of Isaiah’s vision.
Such an escapism is unworthy of the cross of Jesus.
You see, my friends, if in the face of rising military tensions on the Korean Peninsula, in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and throughout the world, you don’t achingly long for a time when nation will no longer rise against nation, then you miss Advent.
If in the face of gun shots ringing through this city and young men and women lying in pools of blood doesn’t make you cry out for swords to be beaten into plowshares, for guns to be transformed into garden tools, then you miss Advent.
If the foolishness of much ideologically driven scholarship at the University of Toronto doesn’t make you long to see the nations coming to learn wisdom from the God of all of creation, then you miss Advent.
And if the anger, enmity, jealousy, prejudice and hatred of your own heart and your own life doesn’t make you seek out the Prince of Peace to transform your life and lead you on the path of peace, then you miss Advent.
Jesus says that one will be taken and one will be left.
Let us pray that we are left.
Let us pray that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Let us pray that we would be an Advent people,
…left behind to beat swords into plowshares,
…left behind to replace implements of violence with the instruments of peace,
…left behind to transform tools of destruction into tools of cultivation,
…left behind to face the violence and embrace the peace.