Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming! — Matt. 24:36-44
Last Friday, a large trailer truck carrying 2 million South African Rands ($1.7 million) worth of Creation Wines wine down the Hemel en Aarde Valley road, crashed through the trees on the bend above our house, and turned over. It was a total wreck. Most of the splendid bottles of wine were ruined. There is a rumor going round that I had ordered the wine but gave the driver the wrong instructions. So he took a short cut in order to bring the stuff to our front door, which he nearly did. But that is patently untrue. Nor did I go up to the truck in the middle of Friday night to try and steal some undamaged crates.
What is true is that unexpected and often dangerous or unwelcome things happen. Boomslangs arrive unannounced, and fanatics take innocent people hostage. Who knows what surprises, pleasant or otherwise, are around the corner. It’s important to keep awake, as Jesus says, even if some of us can’t even watch the TV for more than five minutes without dozing off.
But more serious things are at stake in this parable of Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, for it is part of a sequence on the last judgment. “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore for you do not know on what day our Lord is coming.”
These words are a warning that the day of judgment will arrive at an unexpected, inconvenient time. So you had better be prepared. Taken very literally, that is the message of a series of thirteen novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins entitled Left Behind, some of which were rated number one bestsellers in The New York Times a few years ago. The novels are fictional accounts of the end times, when Jesus returns and, in what is called the Rapture, takes all true born-again believers up into the clouds to be safely ensconced with him in heaven. The rest are left behind.
Now some might mischievously think that they would prefer to be left behind with all the other sinners rather than travel with all born-again believers. But not if you know about what comes next. For now the world falls into total moral collapse until it erupts in the final battle between the few good people left behind and the Anti-Christ who turns out to be the General Secretary of the United Nations aided and abetted by the Pope. The point of the novels is obviously to evangelize people through fear so they too can escape with Jesus from being left behind, and at the same time to send out a clear right-wing militaristic political message. Such interpretations of Jesus’ Second Coming or Advent are nothing new, but they are dangerous.
Having said that, the Second Coming is part of Christian belief and central in the New Testament. As the Apostles’ Creed puts it: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” It is also one of the mysteries of faith we affirm at the Eucharist: “Christ will come again,” and as we break the bread, we do so, as we say, “until he comes.” The early Christians certainly believed that Jesus would return soon, that is why they cried out “Maranatha! Come quickly Lord Jesus!”
But what does this mean today after 2,000 years of keeping awake and waiting, only to be disappointed again and again? Even Paul had to deal with this problem, and did so by reminding believers that God’s time-table is not ours.
There are various ways in which the Second Coming has been interpreted. For me, the place to start is with Jesus’ prayer: “your will be done on Earth as in heaven.” “Heaven,” as we know, does not refer to a place to which we are taken up on “clouds,” it refers to the reign or kingdom of God. Heaven is wherever God’s justice, righteousness, love, forgiveness and compassion are evident. Heaven is where God’s will is done whether in this life or the next.
So when we pray with Jesus “your will be done on Earth” we are praying with him for the coming of God’s reign in all its fullness, we are praying with the prophets for the birth of a new creation; we are expressing our faith in Jesus as the one in whom God’s reign, already revealed in the first coming, will be brought to completion at the appropriate time in the second. In short, we do not believe that Jesus gave his life for the world in vain.
Sometimes, maybe often, it is difficult to hold on to this belief for the world does not seem to be getting better, but rather worse. The events of our day in Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and even Australia, don’t encourage us to believe that “all shall be well” in the end. But that is the Christian hope. To believe in the Second Coming is to live expectantly in the hope that God’s promise in Jesus will ultimately triumph. It means living and working for the coming of God’s kingdom even though we do not know when that might be or how it will come about.
That is why we have to “keep awake,” watching and praying, witnessing and serving, because all of this points towards the coming of God’s reign. In other words, faith in the Second Advent is a way of living in hope, of erecting small sign-posts of the kingdom that point ahead to its eventual coming. In fact, everything we do now that embodies the love of Christ, everything that expresses God’s justice, mercy and compassion, is an anticipation of the Second Advent. Even though we do not know when the Lord will come, we keep awake by doing his will.
So, keep awake — by sharing the good news of Christ’s gift of love and peace on Earth. That is how we live expectantly. For the rest, you can safely leave the Second Advent in God’s hands. It is one of God’s surprises, a genuine mystery of faith, something that will happen unexpectedly. But you need not fear being left behind if you keep awake and share in Jesus’ ministry of healing and love, justice and peace today. This is the message at Christmas; it is also the message of God’s coming kingdom.
John W. de Gruchy is emeritus professor of Christian studies at University of Cape Town in South Africa, and extraordinary professor at the University of Stellenbosch. This is a weekly meditation given at the Eucharist service at Volmoed Christian Community Centre, Hermanus. He writes at anisa.org.za where this originally appeared.