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The Parousia: Good News for the World’s Future | Matthew 24:36-44 & Isaiah 2:1-5

Updated: Dec 19, 2022

Have you ever seen the movie This Is the End? It’s a comedy about the end of the world. In it, actors Seth Rogan, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and others all play themselves set in modern day Hollywood when the Apocalypse happens. They’re at a party at James Franco’s house and Seth Rogan leaves for a moment to go to a convenience store. While there, the rapture happens and he sees people disappear into heaven. Then all sorts of destruction starts happening around him. He rushes back to James Franco’s house party. Everybody’s still there and no one’s noticed anything different has occurred. Until suddenly, sinkholes start sucking everyone into hell. A small group is left to live in a post-apocalyptic world where they have hopes of doing enough good deeds to earn their way into heaven.

It’s a fun movie, certainly not theologically accurate, but a fun movie nonetheless. It does, unfortunately, portray a number of common misunderstandings about Christian theology and the biblical view of where the world is heading.

In the Gospel text today, Jesus is teaching his disciples about what they will encounter after he’s gone. About what to expect in their personal futures and the future of the world. The text uses the Greek word parousia, which means “coming.” The Bible never talks about the “Second Coming” it’s always simply “The Coming” the Parousia. It can also be translated “the advent” or “the presence.” It describes a future time when God’s presence will pervade the whole world and God’s Kingdom be established on earth as it is in heaven. Here Jesus is teaching that to see the coming you have to be ready, aware, awake. When we look at how the Gospels describe this teaching, it appears Jesus is talking about what we might call mindfulness today. Being aware of the divine presence around us is how we prepare to experience the coming, the Parousia.

Now it’s important here to address a common misunderstanding about this text: the idea of the rapture. Rapture theology is a new idea that came about in the 1800s in the United States. It’s the idea that the end of the world will be like the movie This Is the End. But there’s good reason most Christian traditions reject this rapture understanding. As Dr. Stan Saunders of Columbia Theological Seminary wrote:

For first century audiences familiar with the ways of the Roman Empire, being left behind was surely preferable to being taken…these sayings simply depict sudden, surprising separation, without indicating cause for judgment or reward on the part of those taken or left behind. Rapture theology, which has little or no scriptural support, may offer comfort for those who seek certainty or presume to have secured the inside track to heaven, but the focus of this [passage] is on remaining vigilant amidst the uncertainty of a long wait [and] discouraging circumstances.[1]

Dr. Saunders shows this passage is about a call to vigilant attentiveness so that disciples can recognize the Coming, the Parousia.

Now there were a lot of different understandings of the world’s future in Jesus’ time, as there are today. In Jesus’ time some believed the Messiah would come and establish the messianic kingdom, defeating Rome and establishing the line of David to rule forever. A second point of view taught that the Messiah would come on the clouds, as described in the book of Daniel, to save the chosen and destroy everything else. A third view held to the vision of the Hebrew Prophets, exemplified in Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom that we heard this morning. This promise portrays an optimistic vision for the world’s future with the wolf laying down with the lamb, swords turned into plowshares, a transformed humanity living in union with God, and world peace forevermore.

Jesus was certainly familiar with all these traditions and understandings of the world’s future. And in his teaching, he brings them all together. He often warned his disciples of the trouble ahead, the risks and dangers and violence and disasters. What he called the birth pangs. But he also said repeatedly that these dangers would not be the end. The painful birth pangs would lead to a birth. A rebirth of humanity and the world. The trials and tribulations he prepares his disciples for will not lead to the end, but to a new beginning, a bright future.

Jesus knew the beautiful promise articulated by Isaiah. Isaiah’s God-inspired vision for the world’s future is the most common vision among the Hebrew prophets and scripture in general. The idea that God will one day beat our swords into plowshares, turn human hearts toward God, and establish a world without war where all people live in harmony and peace and love.

It sounds like pie in the sky idealism. But if it sounds that way to us, imagine what it sounded like to Isaiah’s original audience! They had incredibly difficult lives, full of struggle and hardship. They experienced war and violence and oppression on a regular basis. Constantly threatened by foreign powers, unknown diseases, and the possibility of not having enough food. The relative peace we experience today would have seemed unimaginable to them! Just like Isaiah’s vision may seem unimaginable to us. But the consistent biblical promise is that, slowly but surely, God is establishing the kingdom here, uniting human wills with the divine will, and moving history toward the Parousia when God will be all in all and God’s plan for creation will reach its fulfillment.

Paul writes about this beautiful vision too. In Romans 8 he said:

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:18-21).

It's a wonderful promise that we should share with the world! Creation itself looks forward to the day humanity will live into the divine image we’re created to be. By this, all creation will be liberated and experience the freedom to manifest God in the world!

Jesus tells His disciples that yes suffering will come. But a new birth is coming, a new birth for the whole world, a transformation of the universe! A world in which all beings manifest the glory and love of God. The birth pangs lead to a birth: the birth of the peaceable kingdom, God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

So as much fun as it would be to float up into heaven like Seth Rogan and his friends finally do at the end of the movie, that’s not really a biblical perspective. There is eternal life yes, but not a rapture or the destruction of earth. What is much more the biblical perspective is that God is at work transforming our world to algin with heaven, into a planet that manifests God’s peace and justice and love.

What’s more is that we can live into this Kingdom now. Though it’s a future reality, we can participate in the Kingdom today. This Kingdom is what we live into every time we gather for Word and Sacrament. It’s what we live into every time we do spiritual practices like contemplative prayer. It’s what we live into every time we serve those in need. It’s what we live into every time we share God’s love. And it’s what we’ll celebrate Noah living into in a few moments when we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

Jesus calls us to live into the Kingdom in this place. That’s what the church is for: to manifest this promised future here and now. The church is called to be a midwife for the birth of the new creation. To practice living into this new reality. To be attentive to Christ’s coming among us. To be a place where Christ’s kingdom come is already present.

It's an exciting mission we have! And so this Advent, as we await the birth of Christ’s first coming among us, let us be mindful of how he is present with us now and will bring the Coming, the Parousia, when God will be all in all.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Brian Rajcok, 11/27/22

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