For Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Pleasant Prairie, WI
December 6, 2009 (The Second Sunday in Advent)
The signs of the end times which Jesus lists in today’s Gospel are pretty serious. Some might even call them horrifying. “And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” It doesn’t conjure up a pretty picture to my mind. In fact, Jesus describes the reaction of most of the world to these events rather vividly: “men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth.” And, of course, the reminders that this old world is slated for destruction are not a pleasant thing to contemplate. In addition to the fact that these signs are unpleasant in themselves, they are also reminders that “security,” which is probably the biggest buzzword to sum up this entire decade since 2001, is only an illusion as long as we live in a world that’s been infected by sin, despite how we would like to think of ourselves as safe and secure, despite whatever steps we may take or what steps the government takes on our behalf. And that’s not a comfortable thought. The idea that no matter what we do or what the government does, we will never be truly safe from death or disaster, is not something most people like to contemplate.
And what comes after death is something that most people are even less equipped to handle. Facing the Judge who will hold them accountable for their actions is not something people appreciate having to deal with. It’s something that man by nature dreads. It’s something that our own old sinful natures dread. We haven’t been righteous. And we know it. Even our best attempts to please God are against the First Commandment because they come from us and not from Him. And so the reminders that this old world is headed to destruction are not something we like to contemplate. We’d rather wrap ourselves in as much “security” as we possibly can. Because as far as the old self goes, the alternative is death and judgment, panic and chaos. We want the illusion of safety, not just because of the potential of terrorism, but because we don’t want to face the judgment and would rather pretend we can ward it off by making ourselves as “secure” as possible.
And so it sounds a little bizarre when Jesus says a couple of verses later on, “Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.” In the context of all the death and destruction and chaos that results from sin and warns us of the eventual doom of this old world, the idea that such things are a hopeful sign which should cause us eager anticipation, is more than a little perverse, from a human standpoint. And of course, Jesus isn’t saying we should take a twisted delight in wars or rumors of wars; even when necessary such things are murderous, bloody events which remind us daily just how far man has strayed from his creator. And we definitely shouldn’t take a perverse delight in natural disasters or the other symptoms of the impending destruction of this old world. None of these things in themselves are causes for rejoicing. Instead they are causes for compassion for the victims caught up in such things.
But in light of the Christian faith, they are reminders to us that “our redemption draws near.” And that is a cause for rejoicing for those who are in Christ, because it is a reminder that we will inherit a new heavens and a new earth that are not corrupted by this old world sins, where death is no more, and war and disease and disasters are no longer a possibility. That’s why Jesus uses the budding of trees in springtime as an illustration of what looks to the world like wintry chaos and judgment. The end of this old world signifies the beginning of eternal life.
But there still something a little strange about what Jesus says in this text. Here we are, nearly 2000 years later, and Jesus still hasn’t returned in glory. What, then, did He mean when He said that “this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place”? Well, remember that the paradox of things that look bad being good news for us is not only true of the end times. The same paradox is true of something that did happen before the generation that was then alive passed away. Good Friday doesn’t look very good when we look at it with human eyes. In fact, it bears a strong resemblance to the signs of the end of the world Jesus mentions in our text. On Good Friday, something happened which shook the entire creation, which caused the sun to become dark, earthquakes, the opening of graves, and the shaking of the faith of even Jesus’ most stalwart followers. The Son of God died on a cross. God Himself suffered the punishment for the sins of the world. At first glance, that, too, sounds like an occasion for sorrow and fear. After all, it was our sins that put Him there. It was our selfishness that caused Him to be tortured and die. It was our failure to love and trust in Him that caused Him to be abandoned by everyone, even His Father. At first glance, this doesn’t seem like cause for rejoicing.
But Good Friday is still known as Good Friday. And that’s because our sins were, in fact, paid for by Jesus’ death on the cross. God no longer sees them because Christ took our place, and so now we take His place before His Father’s throne. And that means that the events of Good Friday, though horrifying in themselves, are now a sign to us that sin has been done away with and our salvation has been won. An instrument of torture and execution is now the symbol of Christianity itself, the symbol to which we look for comfort when our conscience will not let us rest because of our sins. Likewise with Judgment Day. The reminders to us that this old world is won’t survive forever because of the sin of its inhabitants, is also a reminder to us that what happens then is the new heavens and new earth in which we will live forever with our God. Good Friday and Judgment Day are very closely related to one another, which is why the signs of Judgment Day were seen on Good Friday, with the darkness and the earthquake and the resurrection of the Old Testament saints. In both cases, events which are in themselves horrifying and upsetting are reminders to us that something better is coming.
After all, we already know what verdict will be pronounced upon us on Judgment Day. When Christ said from the Cross, “It is finished,” He was telling us that our redemption has been accomplished. What the Judge says about us on Judgment Day, namely that we are innocent and pure and sinless, is what that same Judge said already on Good Friday with the words, “It is finished.” And it’s the same thing He says through the mouths of His messengers every Sunday with the words, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Not only that, but the new heavens and the new earth which will replace this old world also already exist. And we are already partakers of that heavenly kingdom. Christ’s body is the first-fruits of the entire new creation. In Christ’s resurrected flesh the new creation itself is begun. And it is that new-creation body and blood of Christ which we eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper. Even while we must suffer the insecurity and the sorrow and the pain that so often accompanies life in this old world, we not only hear about with our ears, but we eat and drink into our bodies the new creation in which neither sin nor any of its effects exist at all. We already know the verdict of Judgment Day, and we are already citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Of course we don’t see that glorious reality with our physical eyes, and so we are in danger of walking away from it by the lure of this old world’s illusions of peace, happiness, and security. Which is why God continues to come to us to refresh and renew His promises to us by His Word and His resurrected body and blood. We are worthy to stand before the Son of Man, because He has made us so. And so the sorrows and troubles of this old life, even though in themselves they are a reminder of the sin and evil that has corrupted the world, have become for us reminders of the new life which is to come. Even the worst that Satan can throw at us, death, has become the gate to eternal life. And so all the things that lead up to death are reminders to us that this world will eventually be replaced by the new heavens and new earth of which we are already citizens. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +