“Caught Up in the Clouds”
Six months ago, with the year 2000 approaching and End-of-the-World fever running high, here is how Time magazine began its review of a best-seller: “Things are not looking particularly good for the late great planet Earth. Things are looking very, very bad. Two hundred million demonic horsemen are galloping across the smoky skies, and a third of the world’s people will be slain — a third of those who remain, that is, following the recent Christian Rapture, which has literally snatched believers from cars and offices and carried them off bodily to heaven.”
In a way it seems strange to be talking this morning about a much-advertised event which over and over turns out not to happen, but several questions directed my way in recent weeks have made me feel there may be others who would not mind hearing a brief response from the pulpit. One of those questions came during an 80th birthday party for two of my favorite members of this church. I happened to sit across the table from one of their relatives, a delightful young man who told me he was reading a book called Left Behind , a book that alternately fascinated and confused him, and if I knew it would I share my opinion of it. Another recent question came from an intelligent woman who began the book on the recommen-dation of a friend and gave it up halfway through. “I didn’t know what I was being given,” she said. “I don’t believe any of that stuff.”
The “stuff’ she found incredible was in one of a series of books about something called “the Rapture,” a sensational event which millions of people believe — or at least feel they are supposed to believe — could take place at any moment. Accepting quite literally the notion of Christ’s return to earth in spectacular fashion, these believers combine some controversial New Testament verses ( Revelation , Matthew 24, 1 Thess. 4 ) to say that before this Second Coming he will abruptly and mysteriously snatch certain people away from the earth to be with him for a time before he descends in a final Judgment.
These few chosen people, the true Christians, may be eating a breakfast bagel, working the second shift at Boeing, typing in an office at Sears, or changing oil in their Ford Explorers, and they will suddenly disappear to be in the company of Jesus — “caught up in the clouds” because in one of the many ways lst century culture influenced the authors of the New Testament, the earth was flat , and heaven was “up,” although they could not begin to imagine the incredible immensities of space — how many light years away “up” might be. For those who read this acculturated description quite literally, and add a few touches of their own, this is the “Rapture.” If you are living when it happens, and you are a true believer, you will be spared from death. A few billion other human beings will be left behind to endure seven horrific years of world war, famine, plagues and utter chaos.
If words fascinate you, you may be wondering how it came to be called the “Rapture” since that word does not appear in English Bibles. It came into use, appar-ently, because when the Greek word for caught up, carried off was translated into Latin, the word raptura was used — the same root from which we get the word “Raptores” to describe birds like eagles and hawks that seize and carry off their prey. Spin-off definitions include the idea of people being rapt or enraptured by emotion, as, of course, one would be who was seized and whisked off to heaven without having to die first.
I’m sure the first impulse of most people is to say, “You’re putting me on. Surely no one really belives that!” But what I said earlier is true: millions believe it now, and millions of others have died believing it. Some have died because they believed it. We have only to recall the hundreds whose lives were cut short at Jonesboro and Heaven’s Gate and in March of 2000 in Uganda. I first devoted a sermon to this extraordinary conviction 25 years ago, and in the years since I have kept notes as proof piled up of how appealing the idea of the Rapture is to many. First, there are the bumper stickers — not common but enough so that you must have seen them, even if you were not quite sure what they meant. One of the favorites: IF JESUS COMES, SOMEBODY GRAB THE WHEEL. Another which says, IF YOU MISS ME, I’VE GONE TO BE WITH HIM. Or the one with simple advice to friends and family: DON’T GRIEVE. I’VE BEEN RAPTURED.
Through the years of teaching a course called The Bible as Literature at the University, I encountered quite a number of students who believe in the Rapture. Sometimes they mentioned it in casual conversations, but I remember most vividly a day in the classroom when something came up about death, and a young man who had been rather passive until then suddenly spoke up to say calmly but firmly, “I can’t get very interested in this topic because I’m not going to die.” While we looked at him in amazement, he explained. “I’m not going to die. I expect to be raptured before that can happen to me.” A girl across the room, who had apparently only been waiting for moral support, said joyfully, “Me, too!” and shared her conviction with the rest of us. When both of these students missed class once on the same day, we wondered for a moment if it had happened, but it turned out to be only the flu. These were nice kids whom somebody had sold completely on the idea of the Rapture.
My barber, a pleasant man who reads all sorts of books, had one about the Rapture lying beside the hot shave machine and asked if I had read it. I said I had, and asked what he thought of it. He said, “Well, it seemed pretty far out to me, but my Sunday School class is going to study it,” and then he told me about a television show which was apparently based on the book and was called A Thief in the Night. In that movie, a few people experience the Rapture, while others are left bhind in some rather poignant ways. A wife wakes up, stretches and yawns, and calls out: “Bill….where are you?” When Bill doesn’t answer, the camera pans to the bathroom where his electric razor is shown bouncing wildly around in the washbasin, still plugged in and running. Bill has been snatched.
Another man is out running the lawn mower when the moment of rapturecomes for him. When friends go out to get him, only the mower is left, still racing its motor in the back yard. The director of this film knew, of course, that there would be sceptics like me around, so he took care of that problem. A minister in the story does not believe in the Rapture, so when others are taken around him, he is punished for his doubts by being left behind.
Most people in what are called “mainline churches” — United Methodist, Disciples, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Congregational, American Baptist, Lutheran — hear almost nothing about this so-called Rapture and have no expectations about it, but millions in fundamentalist churches do, and are buying the the recent series of books about it in such record numbers that they have become runaway best sellers. More than 10 million copies have been sold so far, with a paperback series for kids ages 10 to 14 and a Web site known as www.leftbehind.com. which is said to get 800,000 electronic visits a month! The books have been called page-turners, a publishing industry phrase meaning that they are written so well, so graphically that readers have a hard time finding a stopping place.
It is rare for a book with a fundamentalist agenda and the imprint of a Christian publishing house to cross over into the secular market, but these books have done so in spectacular fashion and are selling briskly at places like Barnes and Noble and Wal-Mart. Within three weeks of publication the latest book in the series, called Assassins , was No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list — a list that usually doesn’t even count sales by Christian bookstores.
So wildly anticipated was this 6th book by fans hooked on the series that at midnight on the morning of its release, a line of nearly 1,000 buyers had formed outside the Jesus Chapel Discount Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. No wonder the publishing house decided quickly to add over a half million more copies to its huge first run of a million. This amazing success has meant a multi-million dollar fortune for the two collaborating authors, Tim LaHaye, a former Southern Baptist preacher and longtime student of Biblical prophecy, who prepares a plotline from various Bible verses, and Terry Jenkins, a skilled professional writer who then creates characters so appealing to fans that they write letters begging him to have their favorites raptured instead of facing the predicted terrors of the Last Days.
Terry Jenkins doesn’t look like a man who expects to leave the world soon. He had been living in Chicago before the stunning success of the series, but he has since moved his family to a fine new home in Colorado Springs, the New Jerusalem of fundamentalism, to be closer to his collaborator. Most of the credit for this latest publishing sensation should go to the literary skills of Jenkins, who cut his teeth on books about professional athletes like Nolan Ryan and Walter Payton, but who now says the Rapture volumes are the fulfilling passion of his life. A woman named Kellie Tolson, 40, who directs a hospital child-care center in Tucson, is typoical of readers who can’t get enough of LaHaye and Jenkins’ work. She says, “I think the books are so real that Left Behind could happen today, this minute, to all of us.”
People who live on the edge of such dramatic hope are not bothered by the fact that first century Christians, including Jesus, Paul, Peter, James and John, all write of a Second Coming as if it were certain to take place right away. They were wrong. People who are convinced they couldn’t have been wrong will twist and strain their unequivocal language in an attempt to rescue them, but any careful and honest student of New Testament writings knows that its authors thought the end would come within their genration, and it didn’t. Since they were wrong, and since Jesus himself once said that we shouldn’t waste time trying to figure such things out, one would think later students would be cautious, but they are not. From the first century on, in every single generation, some Christian group has declared that Christ would arrive within the hour.
I looked at an old June, 1981 newspaper story about the Rapture which I had kept in my files. Out of Tucson, Arizona, it told about a religious group there who were sure they would be lifted to heaven by the end of that month. As has happened so many, many times before, the 50 members of this group quit their jobs and disposed of property. John Vickers sold his home, Dr. Jim McCullough donated a Porsche. An award-winning bodybuilder stopped his training since there would be no more contests. Their pastor said, “There’s no such thing as a secret rapture. The people not saved will be able to see us being saved.” He predicted that seven years after this June rapture, in May of 1988, Christ would return. One father, a blue-collar worker, said his family was ready, although his “little one sort of wants a three-wheeler before it happens, but we’re ready to go.” I hope the little one got the tricycle. She would bet 22 by now, perhaps just graduating from college, because nothing happened — one more false alarm in the bizarre history of the Rapture movement.
Tim LaHaye, who has been preaching for more than 25 years that the Rapture would occur at any moment writes luridly of what a wild scene it will be. “Some have suggested that there will be airplane, bus, and train wrecks throughout the world when Christian operators are suddenly taken out of the world. Who can imagine the chaos on the freeways when automobile drivers are snatched out of their cars!” Mr. LaHaye knows who the sceptics are. He says that “liberal churches, where heretics in clerical garb have not preached the Word of God” will be filled after the Rapture with frantic churchmembers who had not been properly warned.
As you know, many prophets of the Rapture thought it would happen on the last day of the century just ended, but they are not easily discouraged, and so when it didn’t they began looking at December 31st of this year as the “true” end of the millennium. And just in case it doesn’t happen then, some are already hedging their bets and pointing to the year 2003 as the second millennium of the crucifixion and resurrection. If that date also passes quietly, these sincere and passionate folk will be looking at still another deadline. And why not? In this game, you only have to be right once.
Meanwhile, some unexciting possibilities remain. The hungry wait to be fed, injustices wait to be made right, children are born who need love, those of us in this room, even the youngest, will grow old and weary and want desperately the assurance that we are still appreciated. If there is enough energy left over from the guessing games which Jesus himself so strongly discouraged, perhaps the best way to honor him is to go about quietly meeting those needs.— without worry about being “left behind.”
Bless life for us this week, gracious God, and keep us busy doing
good in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.
Bless life for us this week, gracious God, and keep us busy doing good, in the name of our Lord. Amen.