Sermon for ADVENT 2022
“Then two will be in the field: one will be taken and another left. Two women will be grinding meal together: One will be taken another left”
Whilst I was back home in England – despite stories you may have heard of chaos on the rail network – apart from on one day I had had little trouble travelling around. On that Sunday towards the end of my stay was actually just a few miles from my destination when – late in the afternoon as the light was dimming, the train stopped. After a while we slowly made our way into the nearby station and then stopped again. After a wait of a few minutes we were informed that the train was going no further as there was a tree across the railway line.
What then? Well I made my way into the nearby village and found a bus was due to take me to Sheffield, my destination. Gradually a small crowd from the train gathered, but only a few of the couple of hundred possibly on the train. So the bus set off towards Sheffield, but in the direction of the train station . . . at each stop more and more folk got on . . . until we reached the stop outside the station . . . where there were about one hundred people waiting – all of whom bar a couple we had no choice but to leave behind . . . Being left behind is of course a source of some anxiety for us as human beings, and a careless reading of our gospel this morning might suggest that such anxiety is well placed . . .
This phrase ‘Left Behind’ is one which, as it has largely been used in Christian circles for many years is entirely back to front. There was a series of popular Christian books 20 or so years ago ‘The Left Behind series’, which played on fears of ‘being left behind’. Odd that they were so popular.
To paraphrase the idea, prevalent amongst Christians, a day will come when All the good Christian people will be taken and all the others will ‘Left Behind’. I wonder if you’ve come across this idea?
But it’s entirely wrong and is the product of the sort of false Christian consciousness which, as we’ve been exploring St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we’ve had cause to call into question. A consciousness so false that may leave many Christians puzzled to say the least when Jesus fails to recognize them. ‘ Many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord! . . . and I will say to them, I never knew you. Away from me . . .’ Who then is ‘left behind’?
You see those ‘left behind’ have a very significant role in the culture into which Jesus is born – as in a deep sense he has in any culture, not least our own. Who are the Left behind?
Firstly think of our culture – the way in which the sudden acceleration in technology is leaving people behind, especially the poor and elderly . . . Who of us are not getting just a little exhausted by constantly having to update passwords, or losing them and everything that means. If ‘Everything is going digital’ is really what is happening, who is paying attention to those ‘Left Behind’?
But also, what is the character of those left behind? What is the character of those left behind say by the rapid rise in house prices? Or, again by rapidly rising food prices? What do they have in common?
To the culture of Jesus these words ‘One will be taken, another left’ would have had a very different resonance, to that of popular Christian literature. They would of course have no idea about airplanes from which without warning the pious Christin pilot would be taken, leaving behind the hapless pagan co-pilot, one of the early ‘incidents’ in the Left behind series, but more than that – they would have heard the words ‘One taken and another left’ very very differently with regard to the story of God . . .
Whilst I was in England I went to church a couple of times in a place where they weren’t using the lectionary but rather were having a preaching series on . . . Daniel . . . I could have groaned – I possibly did. I’m not sure how many times in church services and conferences and Christian gatherings I’ve heard all about Daniel and his friends, but possibly enough for ‘three score and ten, or fourscore if one is fortunate’.
For those who in the time of Jesus knew the Daniel story and there would be quite a few, it would be a go to for those in power, the Judeans, for it was their story.
But for the people of Samaria and Galilee, it was not their story. For in the so called exile of the South – it was the powerful like Daniel and his friends who had been taken into captivity, upon their return they were for the first time – The Judeans . . . – it was the peasantry, the humble poor, the useless to modern society who had been left behind . . .
When Jesus arrives on the scene, this story of captivity and the long awaited restoration of the Judean Monarchy was The Context, not least with several other occupations having occurred since their return. But Judea and the culture of the Temple had proved oppressive to the poor . . . the left behind. After all the widow had put in all she had . . .
North of Judea – Samaria, and the hated Samaritans were the higgledy piggeldy hodge podge of a people who had been left behind . . . this perhaps throws more light on Jesus use of one of the Left Behind as the paragon of moral righteousness in the parable. One of those whom the Assyrians (Samaria was the Northern Kingdom) couldn’t be bothered to take – after all they weren’t the sort you needed to run a modern economy, or whose labour would produce much in the way of taxes. They were disposable . . . The Samaritan recognizes a fellow ‘nobody’ in the world’s eyes, abandoned and ‘left behind’ at the side of the road.
This is the context into which Jesus speaks the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. (Just to remind you, because this is Advent Sunday we have moved from Luke as our Gospel food, to Matthew) When Jesus says ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit’, the word he uses is the description of those who are the people of the land. The people who were left behind . . . or, more precisely, those whose only hope is in God, the people of Jesus who dies commending himself entirely to God’s judgement and justice, for he cannot help himself . . .
This is Advent Sunday – the first Sunday of the Church’s year and we come to it in the season of preparing ourselves to receive Christ. That our hearts are a fit dwelling place for the presence of God, and our readings place this front and centre. As St Paul puts it, we are to live as in the day, that the secrets of our hearts when revealed do not bring upon us shame. That we are not caught up in foolish disputations, the sort which we spoke of last week, as St Paul says, ‘Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?’ Of course he is saying this to people who think they can help themselves and his words are shocking to those who seek to ‘live their own lives’, who have no intention of ‘being left behind’
For as the prophet says God will judge the nations with righteousness and the peoples with his truth. When God is our context, When God is the light of our life, both waking and sleeping His presence our might, when our inner attentiveness is towards his love, mercy grace and truth, that we are filled continually with his Life, then what people might do to us is of no consequence except as an occasion for us to love them, and be merciful towards them, perhaps because there is nothing else in truth we can do . . . seeing we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves . . .
Humanly speaking in Advent we look to the humility of Mary who as poor and humble looks with a clear eye to the Salvation of the God, to whom the eye of the mighty, the powerful, the wealthy and those who can help themselves is blind.
As Jesus says “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.
Blessed are all those who are left behind