18th Sunday after Trinity
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
I want to deal, today, with a subject that is very close to the hearts of many Christians around the world, the return of Jesus Christ, also known to many as, ‘The Second Coming’. Whether we believe in it or not is almost inconsequential because some of the most powerful people in the world, particularly on the republican side of the USA, do believe in it, and it is quite possibly behind some of the political decisions being made, particularly with respect to the ongoing US support of Israel.
This is theology with a real world application which is why we need first to understand it and secondly to be able to deal with the theological misunderstandings that it is centred on and which have predominantly grown out of this passage.
Let me begin by first reminding you of what we think we know. There are sections throughout the New Testament, but specifically in Thessalonians and Revelation, which seem to indicate that at some future time Jesus is coming back and that the Father is going to put all of creation in subjection to him.
It is natural that we assume, therefore, that all of this section, indeed this entire chapter in Matthew’s Gospel, is also to do with the return of Christ. It seems to suggest to us that at some point the whole world will see Jesus coming back in great power and glory. The Americans and many evangelical Europeans often call this, ‘The Rapture’, with the idea that as he comes Jesus will send out his angels to collect Christians from everywhere.
Books have been written and films have been made about those who will be left behind in a time of great tribulation and suffering caused by the absence of Jesus’s followers and by God letting the devil have his way on earth, totally unfettered. Those who watch the news will know that a prominent American evangelical predicted all this would take place om Friday last week. Yet here we all are still.
You see the trouble is, I’m not sure how much of this is theology and how much of it is wishful thinking by those who relish being separate from the world, or maybe even pure fiction. In fact this particular passage may actually have nothing to do with the second coming, and if we don’t recognise that then we could end up doing some very bad theology, as has indeed happened.
Now I use that word, ‘...may’, with great caution. This is a very difficult passage to deal with, and I’m not going to use it to say that there is no such thing as the second coming. But if we have been thinking about this passage in the wrong way then that will, of course, affect our theology of the end times. Most of the modern ‘Rapture’ interpretations revolve around a belief that Jesus is about to return anytime.
It strikes me that they are in fact based on a false belief that ours is the most important generation in history. From a social point of view I think one could argue that they stem from people wanting to feel they are the most important people to live because they are living at the end of time. But actually it seems likely to me that this passage is saying that all of the important work necessary to our salvation happened two thousand years ago.
The line which should make us stop and think is this one:
“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”
You see if this passage refers to the second coming of Christ, and he said that this generation will not pass away until these things have happened, what are we still doing here nearly two thousand years later, may years after that generation has in fact passed away?
One of the standard ‘wiggle-interpretations’ is that once the things Jesus was prophesying about actually started to happen, then they would happen quickly, within a generation, it’s just that they haven’t started to happen yet.
I am not convinced that’s really a proper way of looking at it, and having read what some biblical scholars have to say on the subject of this passage, I am more or less convinced that Jesus was referring to something much more imminent which actually has far more real life application in our lives today.
In order to get at what Jesus may actually have been saying we have to look at the context of his words. He was speaking in response to a question that the disciples had asked him right back at the beginning of this chapter. The disciples had been marvelling at the amazing temple in Jerusalem, and it truly was astounding, significantly larger than the Muslim Dome on the Rock which stands in its place now.
But Jesus had told them that the temple would fall. Their response was to ask him when this would happen and what would be the signs that he would appear as king and the end of the age would be upon them. So the context is one of the temple falling, and the reason it had to go was because the reconciliation of God with his people was to take place through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In other words he was the new temple, and the work which was accomplished in part in the temple through the system of sacrifices would be accomplished in full through him by the laying down of his life once and for all: the two were tied together. If we hold that in mind then we can see a series of events that took place two thousand years ago, and about which Jesus had a degree of foreknowledge that they were coming.
Firstly he saw that there would be a time of great turmoil. The events immediately preceding this passage are described in a quote from Isaiah that refers to the heavens being shaken, the stars falling from the sky and the sun and the moon not giving their light. It seems likely that this is apocalyptic language for a time of great turmoil in the world rather than a literal description.
It’s a little like phoning someone to cancel an appointment with the words, ‘I’m sorry, but something’s come up.’ We don’t literally mean that a big pointy thing of unknown definition has just reared up through the ground in front of you. It’s just a manner of speaking.
So what then does it mean when Matthew refers to the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven. In order to understand that we need to realise that Jesus is quoting from Daniel chapter 7. Let me read you the full quote:
I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.
That second line is vital. Jesus is not referring to the Son of Man, of he himself, returning to earth on great clouds of glory. He’s actually referring to the Son of Man returning to heaven. This then is all about the ascension of Christ, not the second coming. It’s actually a remarkable vision because in the Old Testament clouds are often associated with the presence of God, so for it to be someone who is in the appearance of a man says something special. This is an allusion to the divinity of Christ and yet also his humanity.
This also puts a context on the fall of the temple as being the sign of the Son of Man in heaven, that Jesus had predicted that it would fall, and its falling was the sign that everything about Jesus being the saviour was true.
What then about Jesus sending out his angels to collect the elect? Once again right wing conservative theology has declared that this is about the miraculous disappearing of Christians from the earth as a part of the rapture, but that is probably not what is being said here. Our word angel comes from the Greek angelos which literally translates as messengers.
This verse about gathering is not necessarily about a supernatural and unmistakable disappearance of Christians. Instead it could well be a prophetic word about the church. After all, as well as the supernatural angels, all Christians are also in that category of being a messenger of Christ. The church is engaged in living out this verse because it is our job, as Christ’s messengers, to be gathering the elect from all over the world.
So this passage, it appears, is not a description of a future event. I am not for a moment saying that Jesus will not return, it’s just that this passage is about something entirely different; his victory over death and sin two thousand years ago, and his ascension into the presence of the Father, and about the coming destruction of the Temple as a sign of what Jesus had accomplished.
If this interpretation is correct, and I wouldn’t be preaching it if I didn’t think it was, then it changes our approach to this life. Many people, many Christians, live their lives as people who are focussed on the next life rather than this one. They make decisions founded on the belief that Jesus is coming back any day now, and this world is for the chop, and so they don’t care much for what takes place here.
But the writer to the Colossians had a different and far more valuable perspective.
...clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
This is about having a focus on this life, this world, this fellowship, these neighbours, this community. Scripture seems to suggest that there will one day be a Day of the Lord, a return of Christ, but this Gospel passage isn’t about it. Instead it should be encouraging us to give thanks for what Jesus has already achieved, and that he already stands, vindicated, in the presence of the Father, and that we are his messengers, called to gather the elect. We have been given rules for living this life. Let us not be too eager to escape it, because it is now that we can help gather in the elect. Amen