Sunday, November 27th, 2016 – the first Sunday of Advent
Central Christian Church, Lexington, KY
Scripture: Matthew 24:36-44
Hymns: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, “One Candle Is Lit”, “When God Is a Child”, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”, “Come, O Long Expected Jesus”
Stranger Things the Eye Has Not Seen
Do you all remember Left Behind? Not the Nicolas Cage movie of questionable quality from a few years back, but the source material – the series of books that were written in the late ‘90s and early 2000s by theologian Tim LaHaye and author Jerry Jenkins. They were a nationwide phenomenon, selling millions upon millions of copies. Taking their primary conceit from today’s Gospel passage – that some would be taken, and some would be left – the two weaved a fantastical science fiction series that spanned well over a decade, using a very particular interpretation of texts from throughout the Bible, especially Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation. While there have been a great many questions about the theological soundness of the stories crafted by Dr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins, there is no question that Left Behind had a significant impact on American culture, with some elements of the story having become commonplace in our literary zeitgeist.
So too have they significantly impacted our popular culture, from the least religious to the most. In the twenty-one years since Left Behind was published in 1995, popular culture has grown a seeming obsession with what it refers to as apocalyptic stories. Movies like Independence Day, Deep Impact, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, as well as TV shows such as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The X-Files, 24, Homeland, and especially HBO’s The Leftovers have focused on stories that could result in the end of America, the world, or even the universe. The Leftovers even borrowed the “rapture” conceit from Left Behind, with numerous people disappearing without warning or explanation.
The idea of being on the lookout for apocalyptic events is certainly one way to interpret this text from Matthew 24. After all, at its outset, it invokes the story of Noah – “In those days… they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.” As far as the book of Genesis was concerned, Noah’s flood was not just a world-altering event, it was a world-ending event. To the writer of Genesis, that flood covered the entire known Earth, leaving just Noah, his family, and the various animals onboard to repopulate the Earth. So it seems that when the author of Matthew, writing to what scholars believe was a largely Jewish audience, invoked the legend of the great flood, he was telling this audience that would have grown up hearing this narrative that they needed to be on the lookout, because some serious stuff was about to go down.
And indeed, seeing the examples of two men working together, or two women working together, and one of them is taken and one of them left, would have certainly made the people sit up and take notice. After all, who would those people be? Would they be the righteous, taken to the Lord? The sinners, taken to damnation? Parents? Children? Siblings? And when was it going to occur? “No one knows the date and time,” the text intones ominously. “You must be ready, for the Son is coming at an unexpected hour.”
This text had a strong influence on people throughout history long before Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins first collaborated on a sci-fi novel. All throughout history, clergymen and scholars have found themselves interpreting this text to mean that there’s going to be some sort of world-changing event that results in the sudden disappearance of millions, even billions of people, as the trumpet sounds and the world as we know it comes to a screeching halt. Indeed, a year and a half into Richard Nixon’s presidency, at the very height of the Vietnam War, Hal Lindsey loosed The Late, Great Planet Earth upon the world, predicting the Rapture and subsequent Tribulation to come beginning in 1988, and to a people who saw civilization seemingly falling apart, it seemed like a legitimate possibility.
But before we get too far afield, we may want to stop and re-examine the text in a larger context. The entire Gospel of Christ is a message not of fear and condemnation, but of the hope of our eternal fulfillment in God’s kingdom. Jesus preached blessing and healing, his works were for the good of his followers, and even when he did demonstrate anger, it was when he saw the corrupt usurping the rightful place of people who had come to the temple to worship God. And so, if we re-think through this passage with a filter of hope rather than fear, what does that get us? And indeed, has that different way of looking at this text found its way into our culture?
Enter Stranger Things. A wildly popular eight-episode mini-series that Netflix released over the summer with no fanfare and little forewarning, Stranger Things focuses on the sudden and unexpected disappearances of several persons from around the town of Hawkins, Indiana – a scientist, a teenage girl, and a grade school boy. Framed within the 1980s middle-America, with all the high notes and low notes therein, the story’s prologue features the horror-movie style disappearance of a US Department of Energy scientist, snatched away by an unknown being. Not long thereafter, the true story begins, set from the point of view of a group of eleven year old boys obsessed with the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, as well as two of their teenaged siblings. In short order, one of the boys, Will Byers, disappears, and soon thereafter, one of the teenager’s best friend disappears as well – both vanished into the night with no apparent suspect whatsoever.
Now, this being a TV show with horror-style elements to it, there is a rather macabre moment wherein the taken teenager is revealed to be quite dead, consumed by a monster. However, the boys never give up hope on their friend, working with a ragtag cast of characters including an alcoholic police chief, Will Byers’ mother – herself something of an outcast in Hawkins – his older brother, another of the boys’ older sister, and a mysterious eleven year old girl who just shows up in town one night. Eventually, it is revealed that this monster dwells in a parallel universe known as the Upside Down, where Will is hiding from it and sending signals across to our universe.
Strangely enough, this is where the show, and our interpretation of the Gospel text, takes a turn for the hopeful rather than the apocalyptic. You see, twice in this text, Jesus refers to the “coming of the Son of Man”. It is crucial to note the active word he uses here – “coming” is the translation of the Greek word parousia, which translates literally to arrival or even presence. In the apocalyptic interpretations of this text, it is always assumed that Jesus is referring to the day that the Son of Man – himself – returns, but that is not what he said. He said parousia. He was speaking of the appearance of the Son of Man. And we know that that particular event has already happened. It’s what marks the culmination of the season of Advent upon which we are about to embark.
And think about it. Jesus’ audience for this text was the disciples, who, aside from Peter, took a really long time to recognize his being as the earthly incarnation of God. The audience for the Gospel of Matthew was the Jewish people, a people who Matthew was probably trying to persuade of the divinity of Christ. Jesus was talking to them about an event that has already occurred, but they may not understand that yet. He’s trying to get them to see the truth, that being prepared for the coming of the Son of Man is not something they need to do for the future, it’s something that they need to do for the right here, right now, because the Son of Man has ALREADY appeared in the world, and He’s just waiting for them to see and believe!
That idea, that the one who has been sent for our salvation is already here, is a driving force behind the climax of Stranger Things. I’m not going to spoil the ending for any of you, because it really is a fantastically made show that I would strongly recommend to anybody, but suffice it to say that at the climax, when the monster shows up to lay waste to Hawkins and particularly the group of boys, they are saved from the beast by one who is already in their midst, one who lays down their life that their friends might live.
There it is. The one who will save us is already in their midst. Jesus has already laid down His life that we might live. Sometimes we get so focused on the troubles of this world, looking anxiously toward a future that we fear might hold the end of all things, that we forget that the parousia of the Son of Man has already occurred, that He is here among us in this world.
This season of Advent is about reminding us of Christ’s presence among us. We spend these four weeks symbolically preparing for the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, and it is a time for us to step back and remind ourselves of the presence of Emmanuel with us now and for the last two millennia. On Christmas Day, we often sing the song “Joy to the World”, the last verse of which is as follows:
He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love.
We must keep watch for the Son of Man, indeed, but not because we will be left behind if we don’t, but because He’s already here among us. We sing for praise of the wonders of God’s love, because they have been revealed to us, things that we have seen but may not yet understand – the glory of God’s grace and the mystery of God’s mercy are wonderful things that we must view through the lens of the presence of Christ, lest they be nothing more than those stranger things the eye has not seen.
Let all God’s people say, Amen.