(Luke 21: 25-36)
Two of my favorite books are The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer which follow the adventures of Natty Bumppo also known as Hawkeye, and his Indian companion Chingachgook. I love these books because of the attention to detail that James Fenimore Cooper includes in his narrative. After reading them I feel as if I could easily track deer, bear, and man through the woods and over rivers. Hawkeye learned much from his Delaware brothers in reading the signs of those not only left behind, but the signs indicating what lay ahead. But in order to be able to spot the signs and interpret them correctly he had to pay keen attention to what he was doing so he wouldn’t be taken by surprise.
And paying attention to the signs is what the Apostle Luke is talking about in our scripture reading for this morning. Luke wrote his gospel around 60 A.D. with his audience primarily made up of Gentiles due to the fact that he himself was Greek and a Gentile Christian. As a physician and man of science he paid close attention to detail, to what the signs were telling him not only as a physician but now as an Apostle reaching out to the Gentiles. Not being one of the original twelve disciples it is obvious to anyone who reads the Gospel of Luke and his writings in the Acts of the Apostles that he interviewed and fact-checked many people to give as accurate accounting as he could for his future readers who one day would have to interpret the signs themselves.
Earlier in chapter 21 he had warned his readers about the signs that will announce the arrival of the kingdom of God. He tells them that wars and false prophets, though many and convincing, are not the signs that indicate that the time has come. You see, I think that’s interesting because every time there’s a conflict in the Middle East people start speculating that this is it, the beginning of the end. Just look at the wars and listen to the prophets. I remember quite some time ago during a Presidential election that some Evangelicals were pushing for a certain candidate as they felt this person, if elected president, would be the best bet to get us involved in a war in the Middle East that would bring on the End of Times. I was astounded that such a qualification would even be considered by the voters. Not that God can’t and doesn’t use man to accomplish his purposes, but it’s a perfect example of man trying to play God. In all fairness, it is confusing as Luke reports that Jesus did say that nation and kingdoms will fight against each other, that there would be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. It sure seems like we’re living in a time running up to the great day of judgment with all of these natural disasters, famine around the world, and the COVID pandemic. And Jesus says that everyone will hate us because of his name but do not worry as not a hair on our heads will be lost and that by holding fast, we will gain our lives. Jesus gives us a hint when he says that when we see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, we will know that the destruction is close at hand. So pay attention.
In speaking of his return Jesus says: There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. Again, I don’t want to be one of those who tries to read too much into it, but then again, like Hawkeye, we have to read the signs. I mean, on the earth there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring seas and surging waves? Is Jesus talking about the increasingly more powerful hurricanes and typhoons we’ve been experiencing, the heavier than ever recorded rains, the massive flooding of record proportions? Is he talking about the great debate over global warming and rising sea levels? I guess you can scoff at the scientists if you want to but ignore the word of God at your own peril.
Jesus says: Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near. In Matthew’s accounting Jesus says: But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. It’s going to be a surprise for everyone, believers and non-believers alike. But Jesus is giving us a heads up to stay vigilant and look for the signs so that you will know that the day of redemption is near.
Jesus then tells them a parable about a fig tree that they can relate to. He says: Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. Essentially, what he’s saying is that the signs he has told them about are like the budding leaves of the fig tree. When you see the trees budding you know that summer is right around the corner. When they see these signs, they can be assured that Jesus is coming sooner than they think or expected. Now this next passage can be confusing as Jesus tells them most assuredly that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. To me, if I’m hearing it when Jesus is speaking it, I’m thinking it’s going to happen during my first-century lifetime. However, generation has been translated to mean when this “race” as in, I imagine, the Nation of Israel and, by extension, us Followers of the Way of Jesus Christ. Jesus is saying that a lot is going to happen and that we will be around as a people to see it happen. Jesus continues by admonishing us to: Take care that our hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don’t let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One. I think this is something we can identify with. Not that we spend an inordinate amount of our time drinking and getting drunk, but we do have our fair share of anxieties that comes along with making ends meet and trying to survive in today’s world where we’re bombarded on all sides by events that are scary and unnerving. I know that after I quit a job that paid good, had great benefits, and a retirement plan, I worried about the future. We were able to feed and clothe our kids, but I was concerned about being able to take care of ourselves if and when we got to retirement age. Watching for the signs that foretold the coming of Jesus Christ was not foremost on my mind. And I think that’s the way it is for the majority of people who are just trying to make it in this world, who just want a little peace and security. As I was writing this, a woman who called looking for some assistance. She was almost out of propane for her little camper trailer, and she heard we could possibly help. I doubt she is spending much time looking for the signs as she struggles to stay warm and fed and wondering what she will do when these two tanks of propane run out.
And that’s, I think, where we come in. Jesus didn’t tell us when these great events are going to take place because he doesn’t want us getting lazy or complacent. He doesn’t want us biding our time until he returns. He wants us to spend our time out there in the mission field helping those who are struggling and fighting to exist so that maybe they will find time someday to look for the signs too. Of course, that’s assuming they are believers in the first place which is also of great concern to Jesus. Jesus seems to be more concerned about the broken creation and the brokenness of relationships than he is about timelines and detailed predictions. He is saddened by all of the human misery he sees in the world and agonizes over those who are suffering needlessly. He will come when God’s work on earth is finished, work performed by his people for his people. But it’s up to us. So rather than being terrified by what is happening in our world, we should confidently await Christ’s return while we work to bring justice and restoration to his people. To be God’s somebodies who do something. To be a church that is a part of God’s solution for what troubles and plagues his kingdom. In the meantime, do watch for the signs, and as we await the coming of Christ, let’s save and serve as many as we can in Jesus’ name.
Let us pray.
All merciful and gracious Father, how we praise you for your love and compassion for us, your children, who need your guidance and wisdom now more than ever. We pray for calm during these troubling times when worry and anxiety overwhelms us. Remind us that when the storms of life are raging that you are standing right there by us. Comfort us during those times of tribulation and give us the strength to go on when we think we are about to fail. And in spite of our faults and failures and when our friends don’t understand us, stand by us and help us to better ourselves through your service. Keep us ever vigilant as we watch for the return of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, and guide us through the Holy Spirit to be a part of the saving and serving experience of your kingdom here on earth. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.