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Love is Life

Sermons

Left Behind

January 02, 2005

Bible Reading

You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I tell you: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

(Matthew 5:38-48)

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, "We know that God's judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth." Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things, and yet you do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one's deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth, but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God's sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their thoughts will sometimes accuse and sometimes excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.

(Romans 2:1-16)

Reading from Swedenborg

"Anger" means turning away, as is clear from many places in the Bible, especially where anger or wrath, meaning a turning away, is attributed to Jehovah or the Lord. Not that the Lord ever turns away, but that humans do. And when we turn away, it appears to us as if the Lord is turning away from us, since then we do not hear the Lord. The Bible speaks according to the appearance. . . .

The reason Jehovah is said to punish people and to turn away in hostility, and is described as angry, wrathful, and enraged, is that the nation descended from Jacob had to be kept bound to the mere external symbolic representations of the Church. And they could not be kept bound to these except through fear and dread of Jehovah, and through a belief that in his anger and wrath he would do evil to them. . . . It is the same with simple people in the Christian Church. The only idea they can grasp, based on appearances, is that God is angry when someone does what is evil.

Yet if we stop to reflect, we can see that there is no anger at all in the Lord, still less any rage, since he is mercy and goodness itself, and is infinitely beyond wishing evil on anyone. People who have compassion toward their neighbor do not do evil to anyone; this is also true of every angel. How much more must it be true of the Lord himself? (Arcana Coelestia #5798)

Sermon

As a child, were you ever left behind in a restaurant, supermarket, department store, or park? Three of my six children can tell you of such incidents. To cut down on these traumatic events, we adopted the practice of counting off before we drove anywhere in the car.

It is terrifying to be lost, separated, or left behind. This may account for the remarkable appeal of the Left Behind series of twelve novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The twelve books have had sales of 60 million copies, and have been translated and sold throughout the world. Have you been one of the more than 100 million readers? If so, what was it that drew you to the books? Did you identify with the people who were left behind? Or were you gratified with the thought that you would be among those caught up in "the rapture," and embraced by a loving God?

I suppose most of us take it for granted that we will be among "the saved." After all, we are good, law-abiding citizens who accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior; and we are more or less regular in our church attendance.

The twelve novels are based on the Book of Revelation, and its account of Jesus' return to redeem the faithful and transport them to heaven. The title of the series, "Left Behind," comes from those who are not saved, and are left behind to be destroyed by God.

Christian theology of the first century was built around the belief in the speedy return of the Lord. Early Christians assumed that all who accepted him and received the Spirit would take part in the blessed event. But time passed, and the Lord did not come! No trumpet of God sounded. The Christians were still being oppressed and harried. They were victims of the inevitable scoffing of the pagans and Jews around them, who ridiculed the Christian hope. Why did the Lord not come, when the need was so great? And what would happen to members of their community who had died? Would they have a glorious resurrection and become part of the new age?

The Apostle Paul addressed these questions in his first letter to the Thessalonians:

We do not want you to remain in ignorance, brothers, about those who sleep in death; you should not grieve as do others who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again; and so it will be for those who died: God will bring them to life through Jesus. According to the Lord's own word, I tell you that we who are still alive until the Lord comes will not precede those who have died. For at the word of command, at the sound of the archangel's voice and God's trumpet call, the Lord himself will descend from heaven. First the Christian dead will rise, then we who are still alive will join them, caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17)

Paul was convinced that Jesus would return during his (Paul's) lifetime; he hoped personally to present to God the members of the churches he had formed. He was wrong in this, and changed his views as the years passed. Still hoping for the coming, he was forced to accept the possibility that death might cut him down before his hope was fulfilled.

The early Christians were persecuted by the Roman officials for their refusal to worship the emperors, both living and dead, as gods, and to worship Roma, the personification of Rome, as a goddess. To give hope to the early church, the Book of Revelation was written and circulated among the churches. It was in the form of apocalyptic literature--which means a vision or revelation of things to come. It was a short book, about twenty-five pages in modern Bibles, with twenty-two chapters. The essence of Revelation was the conviction that the power of evil would be overcome by the direct intervention of God, who would create an entirely new, perfect, and eternal age under his control, for the everlasting enjoyment of his righteous followers from among the living and the resurrected dead. This theme was common in the Jewish, Christian, Persian, and Muslim cultures. The Book of Revelation was accepted as part of the Christian Bible in the year 367.

The common Protestant Bible as we know it today consists of sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. It includes mythology, history, poetry, prophecy, biography, letters, and visions of things to come. It was not until the invention of the printing press that the Bible became more available to the public at large, and was translated into native languages.

With the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, the Bible came under attack from the scientific community. Swedenborg, a scientist and mystic, said that the Bible should not be seen as a science textbook, but as a spiritual guide, and that it was written with an inner, spiritual meaning. But Protestants declared that if the Bible was the inspired Word of God, every word must be interpreted literally. Through a study of Bible genealogy, Archbishop Usher determined that the world was created in six days, in 4004 B.C. Yet a Nova TV program last week proclaimed that the world is billions of years old. Take your pick: creation or evolution.

Christian Fundamentalism emerged in the United States in the nineteenth century as a response to what was seen as the deterioration of the Protestant faith. Tension developed between the seminaries of the mainline denominations and people back home in the pews. Ministry students were taught to view the Bible critically, in the light of 2,000 years of church history and scientific advance. Swedenborgianism and Unitarianism developed in the northeast of our country in the early 1800s. Their adherents spoke out against many of the orthodox doctrines of Christianity, including the Vicarious Atonement: that Jesus died as a substitute for us, to spare us divine punishment. They also declared that the stories of Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, and so on, were not historical. Twenty-second and Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, where the Swedenborgian Church and the Unitarian Church stood side by side, was labeled "Heretics' Corner."

Today, the Swedenborgian Church is part of the National Council of Churches, and our contribution is respected by the mainline Christian Churches. Still, there is a great divide within Christianity, as evidenced in the recent Federal elections. Much of the credit for the Republican victory has gone to the evangelical or born-again Christians, who turned out in record numbers to support the candidates whom they believed shared their moral values--such as being against abortion and gay marriage.

There is a growing polarization between mainline Protestants and the right wing Fundamentalists or conservatives. And there are also divisions within Christian churches, as evidenced by the efforts of the worldwide Anglican Church to separate itself from the Episcopal Church in the U.S. because of the U.S. Episcopal Church's action in consecrating a gay priest as a Bishop.

I point to the sixty million copies of the Left Behind series of novels as further evidence of the polarization. These novels claim to be based on the Bible, with the focus being on the rapture, in which Christ would return and sweep up the faithful into heaven, and then destroy everyone else. There are the saved and there are the damned, and between them is a great gulf fixed.

Polls show that 17% of Americans believe that the Lord will come again during their lifetimes to put an end to history. I have mentioned the belief of Paul and the early Christians that the Lord's return was imminent. A number of Christian churches, including the Millerites, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, set dates for the Second Coming of Christ, ranging from 1874 to 1918 to 1975. Nostradamus is said to have predicted the year 1999. Psychics and astrologers have had other dates.

The language of the Left Behind novels is strong: Jesus appears on a white horse and "eviscerates the flesh of millions of unbelievers merely by speaking. . . . Men and women, soldiers and horses, seemed to explode where they stood. . . . Their flesh dissolved, their eyes melted, and their tongues disintegrated." New York Times columnist David Kirkpatrick observes that "the gentle, pacifist Jesus of the Crucifixion now shares the spotlight with a more muscular warrior Jesus of the Second Coming, the Lamb making way for the Lion." Church historian Martin E. Marty calls the Left Behind Lord "the Rambo Jesus."

Speaking of the Second Coming, Jesus said: "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, or the Son, but the Father only. . . . Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (Matthew 24:36, 42).

Perhaps you have seen the bumper sticker: "Warning: In case of the rapture, the driver of this car will disappear." Other stickers say: "When the rapture comes, can I have your car?"

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor remembers one of her professors saying, "The truth is that Christ comes again and again and again--that God has placed no limit on coming to the world, but is always on the way to us, here and now. The only thing we are required to do is to notice--to keep our eyes peeled."

Tyndale Press claims that millions of people have been converted through the Left Behind novels--although one critic failed to find a single convert who traced her or his conversion to the books. The same claim is also made of the film The Passion of the Christ.

One reviewer says that the Left Behind series suggests "a more exciting life than most of us lead--a life full of mystery, intrigue, and moral certainty. . . . It suggests that the now invisible divide between the righteous and the wicked will be revealed."

I am disturbed by the crude literal interpretation of the Bible that is the basis of the novels, which picture the faithful being whisked up into the sky to meet God, and then transported to some materialistic heaven. If the Lord appears over Jerusalem, will I be able to see him in Seattle, given a spherical earth?

The nature of God portrayed in the literalistic Second Coming is even more disturbing. Stephen Koke, author of Hidden Millennium: The Doomsday Fallacy, sees the reigning picture of God as very Old Testament Judaic: "God as jealous and vengeful, even merciless, and by implication self-centered; not the loving God we know." Where is the God of love and compassion who told us we were to love one another, including our enemies?

Swedenborg said that the Second Coming of Christ is a spiritual coming into the lives of each one of us as we open ourselves to his presence. Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is within, not up in the sky somewhere, among the planets. When we experience love for one another, we experience the presence of God in the innermost being of our souls.

God grants us the freedom to choose, and gives us minds to use in making wise and informed decisions. May we employ our God-given capacities to support one another in our spiritual growth and development, in service to the neighbor all our days, without fear of being either whisked skyward or destroyed.

Prayer

O Lord, we thank you for providing our world with a new and deeper view of the prophecies of the Bible before literalism and fundamentalism could make its effort to engulf the nations. We pray that you will open the eyes and the hearts of all who are ready to return to you as a God of love and compassion, and not a God of anger and destruction. We ask you to touch our hearts and minds today, O Lord, with a commitment to love and serve both you and our neighbor all the days of our lives. Amen.

Rev. Ernest O. Martin