The Signs of the Times – Sermon for December 6/7, 2015

The Signs of the Times
Luke 21:25-36
2nd Sunday in Advent (Populus Zion)
December 6th/7th, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

The signs of the times.  We are all too familiar with them, and over time we become quite adept at recognizing them, even if we don’t realize that we’re doing it.  All throughout our calendar, every season, every holiday, every milestone is marked by the signs of the times. Consider the signs that winter and Christmas are here.  At first, these signs are exciting and invigorating.  The lights come out of the attic and once again decorate yards and houses everywhere, people rearrange their living rooms so that they can fit in the Christmas tree, the stores are open later, the holiday music plays over the speakers, the cold air is almost refreshing as we count the days till Christmas.  It’s too bad that winter doesn’t end with Christmas 2012-0156Christmas.  Because the signs of winter hang around long after the holly and jolly has worn off.  There is the muck and slush at the side of the road, the salt residue that sticks to your car and your shoes, the six weeks of overcast skies and gloomy weather, the long hours of darkness where you drive to work in the dark, drive home in the dark, and go days at a time without ever seeing the daylight.  All part of winter.  All signs of the times.  When we see them, we act accordingly.

The signs of the times.  These are exactly what Jesus is talking about in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke.  “There will be signs in the sun and moon stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves.”[1] He talks about it more clearly in the Gospel of Matthew, but his words read for us today have the same basic theme: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”  “You know how to interpret the fig tree: when you see buds on the branches, you know summer is near.” When you see the lights come out and the trees go up, you know Christmas is near. Jesus expects us to be able to read the signs, and so he has laid out those signs for us in detail.  In Matthew 24 he says, “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.”[2]  Well, let’s look at the signs: Earthquakes? Check.  Wars?  Check.  Rumors of Wars?  Check.  Famine?  Check.  All these signs lead to one conclusion:  The end times are now.

All too often we speak of the end times as if they are a distant reality, something that will begin at some future date and last for a short burst of time.  But that is not that way that Jesus speaks of the end times.  “Look at the signs,” Jesus says, “and learn to read them!  The end times are now!”  We live in the end times.  In fact, when we look at the signs we see that they are nothing new. Wars and rumors of wars have been around for as long as there have been kings and nations. Earthquakes and famines are not a modern phenomenon. No, the point Jesus is making is that for as long as there have been Christians, those Christians have been living in the last days.  The end times began when Jesus ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, and they will continue until he comes again toChristian_Persecution_02_230px judge the living and the dead.

What a tremendous sense of urgency this should give us! “Watch yourselves,” Jesus says, “lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.”[3]  We don’t often think of it in this way, but the simple reality is that Jesus might come back before we finish this church service; he might come back before I finish this sermon; he might come back right now . . . well, I guess not, but you get the picture.  The very literal reality is that we don’t know if Jesus is coming back in ten thousand years or before we take our next breath.  But what we do know is that when he does come back, he definitely means business.

In the words of the Prophet Malachi, “Behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.”[4]  Some will be turned into stubble, leaving neither root nor branch. Some will go out like a calf leaping from its stall. There will be division, the type of division that always follows the introduction of truth.  Think about it like a football season.  There are 32 NFL teams and all of them have fans.  At the end of this season, only one group of people will be fans of the Super Bowl Champions.  31 other teams will be on the outside looking in.  There will be a division between them.  Families will be split.  Bets will be made.  Trash will be talked.  But at the end of the day, one person is right and another wrong.  There is only one champion.

And there is only one Jesus.  You are either for him or against him.  Division.  Separation.  There is no half way with Jesus.  He is coming back at any moment, and when he does the fire will be cast, the division will be clear, and those who believe and are baptized will be saved, while those who do not believe will be condemned.[5]  The time is coming.  Look at the signs.  The end times are here.

But the promise of Christ’s return is for Christians just that: a promise, not a threat.  All the talk of judgment and fire and hell, it’s all true, but when it boils right down to it, it’s not for you.  When Jesus comes back, he is coming to take you to be with him in paradise.  He is coming to take you to the throne of his father.  Hear again the words of Jesus for his children as we see the signs of the times: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”[6] Yes, the signs of the times demonstrate to anyone paying attention that the end is near. The increase of mass shootings overEaster_Christ_is_risen the past 10 years, the threat of terrorist attacks, the building threat of war, and any number of global events place this reality squarely before our eyes. But in these last days, we must never lose sight of the promise of God.

Rather, we follow the great cloud of witnesses who went before us.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, and others listed by the writer of Hebrews as shining examples of the effect that the eyes of faith have on the way you view life in this world, and how to act accordingly.  The pages of the Old and New Testaments are filled with many more examples, Joshua and Elijah, Paul and John.  All these examples have one thing in common – they kept their eyes focused on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.[7]

The last times are now, and Jesus is coming again.  But in your baptism he has already claimed you as his own.  In your baptism you have already been judged. Think about it like this. Paul tells us that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us. For God made his own Son, who had no sin, to be sin. [8] Our sin. All sin. And then he judged that sin on the cross.  He punished that sin on the cross by abandoning it, turning his back on it and exiling it far from him, as Jesus cried out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[9]  God judged sin when he judged Jesus. The death of Jesus was the death of sin.

But do you not know that all of you who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?[10] That means in your baptism your sin was judged. Your baptism day was your judgment day.  Your sin has already been judged – there is nothing left to judge.  When Christ comes again, it will not be to judge you. That’s already happened. No, when Christ returns it will be to bring you into his resurrection – for if we have water baptismbeen united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united to his resurrection.[11] We have nothing to fear when we think about the end of the world, for we are in Christ.  Rather, when we read the signs and see that Jesus is coming soon, we rejoice in the fact that his arrival here means our arrival in Heaven.  We rejoice that the birth pains of this life, as painful as they may be, signal our birth into the life to come.

We live in what some theologians have called the time between the times. Others have described it as a life of now, but not yet. The point is that we live in the certainty of our forgiveness, for it has already been won on the cross. But we’re not in heaven yet; we’re still struggling with sin in a fallen creation. So we don’t live our lives as if we have all the time in the world.  We don’t live in sin and just plan on repenting and cleaning up our act some time later.  No, as Jesus says, we watch ourselves lest that day come upon us like a trap. The last day may not be here yet, but it is coming. You can be certain of that.

Instead of living like we have all the time in the world, we see the signs of the times, for these things were written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope.[12] We stay awake at all times, praying that we may be kept in the strength of our Savior so that we might escape all these things that are going to take place when Christ returns.[13] May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another as you wait for the day of Christ’s return.[14] And when you see these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.[15]

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[1] Luke 21:25

[2] Matthew 24:6-8

[3] Luke 21:34

[4] Malachi 4:1-2

[5] Mark 16:16

[6] Luke 21:28

[7] Hebrews 12:1-2

[8] 2 Corinthians 5:19-21

[9] Matthew 27:46

[10] Romans 6:3

[11] Romans 6:5

[12] Romans 15:5

[13] Luke 21:36

[14] Romans 15:6

[15] Luke 21:28

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