1 Thessalonians 4.13-18

13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Had a chuckle when I saw what today’s lection is.  See, I spent about 10 minutes trying to convince my students on Thursday night that this infamously notorious “rapture” passage is not in Revelation, but here in 1 Thessalonians. Amazing; they eventually conceded it was indeed here, but some of them continued to resist the idea that the rapture is part of John’s vision in Revelation. Anyway…

What does this have to do with Advent? Well, Advent not only deals in the hope of Incarnation and Nativity. It also has deals in the expectation of Return and Consummation. Which is what Paul is dealing with here. The passage is a favourite of dispensationally-inclined believers and of evangelicals and fundamentalists generally. Orthodoxy is defined in some churches on whether you believe this will occur at certain points in various theological chronologies developed in the nineteenth century.  Whatever, man. As an Advent passage, located in the context of the hope for the arrival of Messiah and the Word dwelling among us, we have to see it as Paul and the recipients of the letter would have. And it connects well with the magnificat and with Isaiah’s passage from two days ago.

Paul isn’t giving a blueprint or play-by-play of  “the rapture” or describing in detail how this is going to transpire. Far from it, and in fact, quite the opposite. When Christ returns, Paul is saying, it will be like how the Emperor (of Rome) arrives in a city far away from home. When the Emperor/King/basileus arrived, the loyal citizens of the city would meet him “halfway” amid trumpets and much fanfare, welcoming the savior of the world (as he was known) and then escort him back to the city. They aren’t being caught up with him to be taken away back to Rome! By describing the Advent of Christ’s return in this way, Paul is effectively saying that Christ is the Basileus, the Emperor, the King, who has auctoritas and imperium and Caesar doesn’t.

The question then today is “who is Caesar?” Who does the Advent of the Savior Challenge? It’s a disturbing question, one that most of us Christians in 21st century America try to dismiss by answering “well, the Devil/Satan” of course. Sorry. This is a cop out. For Paul and Mary and for Christ, the competition was much more “real” than a cosmic spiritual being responsible for evil. (Frankly, I’m not sure that we need that kind of help.) It was the powers and principalities of Paul’s own day who presented the challenge to Christ and his inevitable return.

Do we dare name it for what it is?