The Days of Noah
In 2006, ten years ago, in February, I came home from a typical day at work. My wife, Becky, had taken the day off to spend the day with the daughter of her best friend. So I had to drive home from our school alone. As soon as I walked in the door, Becky had me sit down. And then she took my hands in both of hers and said through tears, “Paul se murio” I don’t know why she told me in Spanish, but she did. It took a few moments for the information to sink in. Paul was dead.
Paul Besbris was my best friend. I had known him since high school. We had been roommates for several years before I got married again. He had been my best man at the wedding. I had spoken to him only a couple of days earlier.
It seems, according to his mother, Esther, that he woke up that Thursday morning, stood up, and then immediately collapsed back onto the bed. He had suffered a pulmonary embolism and died instantly. The paramedics were unable to revive him.
I spoke at his funeral. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. You just don’t expect someone that young—and 52 is young—to die so unexpectedly. If only I had known he was going to die, we might have had a more profound final conversation during that last call. I would have told him how I valued our friendship. But then you never know, do you? If only I had had some warning.
The people who followed Jesus during the first century felt the same way. Jesus spoke about a final judgment. The prophecies all spoke about a time when the messiah would return and Israel would once again regain its rightful place as God’s chosen people. And they wanted Jesus to tell them when this would come to pass.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“As it was in the days of Noah,
so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
In those days before the flood,
they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage,
up to the day that Noah entered the ark.
They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.
So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.
Two men will be out in the field;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding at the mill;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” (Matthew, Chap. 24).
Of course, Jesus is referring to the story of Noah and the ark, the myth which describes a time when God finally got pissed enough at humankind to wipe out all but Noah and his family. I don’t know why S/He felt the need to wipe out nearly all of the animals also. I can’t imagine what they did. I guess the fish were okay, though.
Evangelicals will tell you this story is history and I suppose it could be. I mean, if God is the creator of the universe and all, I suppose S/He can pretty much do whatever the hell S/He wants. But it isn’t really important whether is actually happened or not; I suspect it didn’t. I imagine it is pure allegory. Still, it teaches the same lesson. There are consequences to our actions. As we face the consequences of the actions that have brought about global climate change, we can appreciate that.
Most evangelicals will also tell you that this story refers to the second coming of Christ and the end of the world, too. But I’m not so sure that’s the case. Of course, the world will come to an end one day. It will be consumed by the sun when it finally expands and becomes a red giant in about five billion years. But our day, the day of humankind, will come to an end long before that. We probably have only a few hundred million years at best. And I’m sure that what we know as humankind will have evolved into something else by then.
Maybe Jesus is going to return before that day or not, but one thing is certain. There will come an end of the world for each one of us. That day when we breathe that terminal breath will be our end of the world. It doesn’t really matter if the world ends for everybody else or not, if it ends for me.
Most of us go on about our business every day as if we were going to live forever. But as my friend, Paul, discovered the hard way, and as I discovered the relatively easy way, we can shuffle off this mortal coil at any moment. Nothing is guaranteed. Any moment could be our last. We make plans. We put things off. We let opportunities pass us by always believing that we can always do it later, whatever “it” happens to be.
Evangelicals will also tell you that that part of the story where Jesus tells us that one person will be taken and one person will be left refers to the “rapture”–that moment when Jesus comes back and all the true believers will suddenly fly up into the sky. You’ve seen the bumper stickers. “In the event of rapture this car will have no driver”. But the belief in some kind of “rapture” only began around 1849. It was not a part of early Christian doctrine.
Other traditional Christians will tell you those verses refer to some people being taken off into heaven while others are left to be punished in Hell for all eternity. However, the Greek word for taken, Paralambano, can be either good or bad. It means “taken in”. One might presume that means to be “protected” from whatever is about to happen. Although its opposite, aphiami, is also both positive and negative. It can mean “sent away”, or it can mean “released”, or “forgiven”. Perhaps some are protected and others forgiven. I don’t know. It’s above my pay grade.
As we look at the world we know and our own lives, I would suggest that it describes perfectly ourselves, our friends, and our family. Some of us are taken; some of us are left. Paul was taken. I was left. My mother and father were taken. As we age, more and more of the people we know are taken. Someday, I will be taken. Hopefully, my kids will be left.
The Rabbinic tradition tells us that we should focus more on the lives we live now than on the life that is to come. Someday, we’re all going to die, but none of us knows when that day will be. It will come as a thief in the night, as Jesus says. And it won’t do us any good to say to ourselves, “ if only I knew I was going to die today, I would have been more loving and forgiving. I would have been kinder.” Because, as in the days of Noah, there are consequences to our actions.
The Buddhists and the Hindus teach us that we are governed by the laws of karma. All we do to others will come back to us. Or as The Beatles told us, “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” Jesus told us the same thing. “What you do to these, the least of your brothers, you do to me.”
This seemed to me at first as an odd reading for the first Sunday in Advent, a time when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But upon reflection, it seems totally appropriate. Everyone wants to know when the kingdom is coming. But the kingdom is already here. Jesus said the kingdom is within. It is in each one of us. And what we do to each other, we do to the king, we do to ourselves.
And so it seems of little importance when the world will end, or which day will be our last. We can never know, except for a very few of us. We should live each moment as though it were our last. What matters most is how we live in the time we’ve got. And we should remember that there is never a better opportunity than now to share our love with the people around us. Isaiah told us that there was one coming, Immanuel—God with us. God is with us. S/He is all around, in everything you see. The kingdom isn’t coming. The kingdom is here. That is what we celebrate this Advent season.