33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time: Nobody Left Behind!

Today’s readings

Today’s readings make me think about the Left Behind series of books. Written by Evangelical authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, these books take a fictional look at what might happen if the end-times were to happen in our lifetime. While they are fictional, there is a theology underlying the fiction that is very intentionally being fed to their readers. And their readers are not just a tiny group. Over sixty million of the books have been sold worldwide; there are also movies, video games, and a whole bookstore of stuff to buy based on the series. I myself read them for a while, mostly for entertainment since I didn’t agree with the theology. Later on they just became too much and I gave it up.

If you haven’t read any of these books yet, good. There are so many reasons not to read them, not the least of which is that they have the end-time theology all wrong. If you have read them, and were able to get past their fiercely anti-Catholic undertones – apparently LaHaye and Jenkins lump Catholics in with the vast non-Christian masses who will be left behind – you need to know these books should be left behind because they miss the point in a huge way. The whole idea of the “rapture” – in which those who are “saved” are taken up and just disappear one day and those who are not saved are left behind wondering what happened – this idea has never been part of Catholic theology. It hadn’t been part of any Protestant theologies either until the nineteenth century.

But the success of these books points out a very important thing about our culture, and maybe just about human nature. As humans, we are intensely concerned about the end of things. Whenever we let ourselves stop and think about it, we wonder things like how and when we will die, what the afterlife looks like, and how things will all work out at the end of time. I think it’s just natural that we would want to know where we’re going and when we’ll get there.

This is such an intense fascination for some, that there have often been some very strange interpretations and responses. Those who have tried to figure the end times out have certainly not been right, and have had tragic consequences as well. We might think of people like Jim Jones and David Koresh to realize how tragic it can be when we give in to this curiosity in a way that leads us apart from others. A good litmus test of these ideas is whether they take the group apart from others or not. If the idea causes people to leave their families and join a cult-like group, it’s probably an idea that is tragically flawed. We may not know much about the end times, but we do know this: if we don’t go together, we’re not going at all. The Kingdom of God is about unity, not separation.

So having said all that, what are we supposed to do with these readings? How can they possibly make sense for us? The imagery is just astounding, I think we would all agree. The first reading from the prophet Daniel speaks of a time “unsurpassed in distress” but promises that those who are wise, that is, those who have a relationship with God and heed his commandments, will “shine brightly” and be “like the stars forever.” In the Gospel, Jesus speaks of a time of great darkness, a time where everything that seemed so firm: the moon, planets and stars, shall be destroyed and come falling out of the sky. Having passed through that, his angels will gather up the elect. The imagery we hear in these readings is absolutely frightening, but also gives us a future worth looking forward to.

But I wonder, really, if we can even relate to these readings. Both readings are examples of a specific Scriptural genre called Apocalyptic writings. Apocalyptic writings are a type of prophecy that is written to or for a community in great distress. They foretell future events, especially about the end times. Both the Israelites to whom Daniel was prophesying, and the early Christian community who received the Gospel of Mark, were undergoing persecution. The early Christians were being thrown out of their synagogues and often enough being killed for their beliefs. Apocalyptic writings then minister to these communities by foretelling a bad end for their persecutors, and a time of relief and salvation for the persecuted community.

The early Christian community, in particular, enjoyed the prophecy of these apocalyptic words because they expected the return of Christ to be very immanent, within their own expected lifetimes. They needed the words Jesus spoke in this Gospel to get them through the intense persecution they were undergoing in order to remain faithful until the time of Jesus’ return.

So, again, what do we do with these readings? It seems like we are not the intended audience. I mean, it being a Catholic is probably not intensely popular these days, and the message of the Gospel seems to get lost in today’s secular society, but, let’s face it, people in Naperville aren’t dying because they are Christians. Those who insist on worshiping God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit aren’t being cast out of the community. And let’s not forget that in these readings, the drastic events they foretold, which they expected to happen immanently, have not taken place in two thousand years. The sun did not fall out of the sky. The moon was never darkened. So these readings may not even have much of a ring of truth to them. Well, then, how do we understand them today?

But, you know, when we take a deeper look at them, we can see the truth in these words. Back in Daniel’s day, the Israelites probably felt like their time was that period of unsurpassed distress. The persecution they were undergoing was probably the worst thing they could possibly imagine. For the early Christians, too, there was horrible distress. They were being cut off from the community and murdered, so it probably felt like the darkest time of all, a time when the heavens and the earth were all collapsing so fast and they couldn’t do anything about it.

We’ve had some of that in our day, haven’t we? This past September, we had the fifth anniversary of 9-11, a day that we will never forget. Who didn’t feel like everything was crashing in around us in those days? What about the vast cloud of darkness and fear that has lingered ever since, making us afraid to travel at times, or even go out in public? What about the devastating hurricanes in the south last year that destroyed New Orleans and all the areas around it? Talk about your world crashing in on you – most of these areas will take years and years to be rebuilt. Add whatever you’d like: tsunamis in Asia, earthquakes in many places, and the list goes on. When we hear about all that, we have to know that people affected by these tragedies feel that their world has come to an end. What could be worse than what’s happened to them?

And I really believe that if I were to ask for a show of hands or go around and ask people about how their lives were going, we’d see a lot of cataclysm right here in the lives of the people sitting around us. Who hasn’t felt like everything that was solid and sure has crumbled to pieces when we’ve experienced the untimely death of someone we love? Who hasn’t felt persecuted when they have had to go through lay offs on the job, marriage troubles, domestic violence, alcohol or drug abuse, or any one of hundreds of possible calamities? The truth to be found in these readings today is that life will rarely leave any of us unscathed. At some point or another, everyone goes through something horrible, and it seems like everything is falling apart.

If that’s what you’ve been going through this past year, maybe these readings are speaking directly to you. If your life has been unraveling in some way, then these readings are offering you hope. They speak the truth that we will indeed have to go through trials and distress, but they also speak the truth that God is our salvation. Even if everything is crashing down around us, God is our sure foundation. We can trust that the Kingdom of God will have no end, and that Christ will come again to save his people.

And when it comes down to it, the knowledge that our God is in control and is faithful to us is worth more than knowing when the end of time will come. If we remain faithful in persecution and unite ourselves to Christ our Savior, we don’t have to worry about details like that. We know that of that day or hour no one knows, and we don’t really care. Those who trust in God as their allotted portion and cup can truly trust in his mercy and grace and salvation, even when it seems the whole world is falling apart.

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