“Signs of the Time”Dr. Brett Patterson Luke 21:25-36 Year C - First Sunday of Advent
You may use a phrase without realizing the full meaning of it. It often comes out when weather patterns change significantly–when we experience an unusually warm winter, a wide-scale drought, or the largest storm in recorded history. In these moments we again have to come to terms with how small we are and how little control we have over the universe. Perhaps you have said that these are “signs of the time” in which we live. This phrase, of course, may have come up in other contexts too. If we look around our community and through most parts of the United States, we see that church attendance is down. I have heard many say that people no longer value going to church as they once did. This low attendance is also attributed by some as a sign of the time. Have you ever used this expression? What do we mean by it?
The phrase implies that we are in the last days of human history. We read in Daniel and Revelation visions about the end of time. We come away apprehensive about the possibility of large-scale warfare or suffering. There is much discussion about the “end of the world.” We fear suffering and judgment. Some of us may even joke that we are ready for Christ to come back, though we would not mind if He waited a little longer. We are scared of what may come. When bad things happen in our world–when weather patterns change and famine crushes farmers, when yet another war breaks out to claim more lives, when crime is up and church attendance is down–we comment on how mixed up our world is. We think that the end must be near.
Our generation certainly has not been exempt from those who have shouted that the end of the world is near. I think back to the general anxiety that our society faced in turning the calendar from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000. Remember all those discussions about Y2K–fears about how the computers would go haywire, how all the information in our culture would get thoroughly confused–bank records would no longer be accurate; Wall Street and then our economy might fail.
Think about all the radical groups who each year are speaking about the end of the world. William Miller predicted that the world would end in 1843 or 1844, but when it didn’t, his followers formed the Seventh-Day Adventists. William Branham predicted 1977. Hal Lindsay thought that it would be before December 1988. Harold Camping touted 1994, then 1995, and most recently May 2011. There are those who talk about the end of the Mayan calendar, which was to be in May 2003, but now is supposedly coming up on December 21 of this year. There are Catholics who debate whether the world will end with the successor to the current Pope Benedict–fulfilling the so-called prophecies of Malachy. The Left Behind series of books has made it to volume sixteen and sold tens of millions of copies worldwide. There are others who talk about solar flares, apocalyptic floods, a cataclysmic pole shift, or galactic alignment. Still others speculate about the earth’s collision with meteors, secret planets, or a massive black hole. Some even seem convinced that there will be an alien invasion. Every generation there are voices out there that prey off our inherent fears about the future. Once these rumors get out there always seems to be a run on the grocery stores to get canned goods and water bottles.
Why would we be so afraid? We like to have a measure of order in our lives. We like to know that things are going to work out. There is so much in our lives that is beyond our control, though. We fear the trials and pain that are in the world. We look around at the ongoing conflicts in the world; we see chaos and hear horror stories. Can we escape H1N1? Are our countries going to be able to avoid a nuclear war? Can human civilization move forward without destroying the planet on which we live? Yet in the midst of such a world, God is calling us to live in hope, in a spirit of expectation. The Church has the responsibility of preaching that human history has turned from a tragedy to a comedy–there will be a happy ending to it all because of God’s redeeming love.
We Christians, though, have not always been very good at remembering how that image of hope is to transform the way we live now. We speak about heaven and Christ’s return, but do not understand how that relates to our lives here and now. Thus, the Christian life is to be focused on God’s work, which encompasses our past, present, and future. We are to live a life of prayer that recalls what Christ has done for us and seeks the way we can work out our salvation in the present, yet we are also to live a life of expectation, realizing that God has yet to reveal the fullness of His glorious plans. We are to draw hope from the future while also focusing on how we prayerfully serve in the present.
We find such reminders throughout the Bible, particularly in today’s selection from Luke. Chapter 21 marks one of the more difficult passages in the Gospels. Here Jesus is speaking about a future time of testing. Earlier in the chapter Jesus is telling the people that there is coming a day when the Temple will fall. It will not always stand. Armies will invade Jerusalem. We today looking back at these words understand that the Romans later in 70 AD invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. Then in the 130s the Romans razed Jerusalem, literally wiping it off world maps, to replace it with a Roman city built on the same site. There is much evidence to connect Jesus’ initial words with these terrible events in Jewish history. The Romans would drive the Jews into exile. For centuries they would be without the homeland, the nation that they had depended upon. Jerusalem would be occupied by many empires in the years, centuries, millennia following. Only in 1948 with the establishment of the modern nation state of Israel would that history change.
Yet Jesus’ words speak of something else in the future, the return of the Son of Man, coming in a cloud with power and glory. Christian theology identifies this as the “second coming” of the Son of God. This day will be a day that affects the entire universe: “there will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars.” Fear will run among the peoples of the earth; they will “faint from terror,” not knowing what to do. Such images which we find here and in the books of Daniel and Revelation do make us anxious. We do not want to live through earthquakes and the “tossing of the sea.”
Yet we should not let our imaginations run in that direction. Jesus tells us directly how we are to approach that day: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” When we first read this command, we might think that such behavior would be foolishly prideful. How could we stand to face such a dramatic display of divine power? It will be one of those moments where there is no ambiguity. We will not be second-guessing ourselves, wondering what is going on. Instead, we will have definitive proof of who is in control and what is most important. If we have given our lives over to Christ, then this day will be a time of celebration. Standing becomes not an act of foolish pride, but a statement of our loyalty to Christ.
Jesus tells us that we are to note the signs of the time, not with anxiety, but with hope and anticipation. We know that springtime is here, that the long winter is over, when we start to see buds on the trees. Jesus says that there will be such signs to let us know that the Kingdom of God is coming. Jesus asks us to depend upon his words, upon God’s promises–saying that heaven and earth will pass away, but God’s word will always stand. There is an anchor in this life. When all else fails, when we are confused about what we should do, when we doubt that we can trust anything, we still can find a firm foundation in God’s word.
Jesus does offer a warning too in this passage. Those who are watchful will find the Second Coming a time of celebration, but those who are not attentive, who have let the concerns of this life weigh them down will be caught off guard. If we are spending our time living it up with “carousing” and “drunkenness,” or if we, on the other hand, are so worried, so caught up in the anxieties of this life, then that day will “close on [us] suddenly like a trap.” The Lord’s return will also mean judgment, and we must be ready. Not one will be able to escape this day or the consequences of the decisions that he or she has made in this life. Jesus calls us to be watchful, praying that we will be able to escape judgment, so that we will be able to stand before the Son of Man in humble confidence, declaring our loyalty.
The expectation that we share about that coming day gives us a hope to face the situation in front of us. We know where history is ultimately going. God will claim us as His children. That is the coming day, yet during our time, we Christians must face a world that does not acknowledge God’s rule, that often ridicules and persecutes God’s children. In the midst of dark days, we are to remind ourselves of the completion of God’s plan. We must hold onto hope that God will triumph. There is both a “now” and a “not yet” quality to the Christian life. Today we commit our lives to Christ, receive forgiveness for our sins, and live in fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Today we taste the first-fruits of our salvation, yet we find ourselves waiting for the fulfillment of the promises of Jesus’ resurrection. God has yet to draw this history to a close, bring the world to judgment, and reveal the new heaven and the new earth. We live in anticipation of that day. We wait patiently, understanding that God now uses our lives to reach others.
Jesus calls us today to live in expectation of what God has in store for us, but also to face our current situation with courage and prayer. Prayer will lead us to a peace that we did not think was possible. Prayer will center us so that faith, hope, and love will guide us. We still have the urge to jump to the end of the story to find out what is coming. When we do jump to the end of the Bible, we come to the Book of Revelation, one of the most misunderstood books of the Bible. Many Christians read Revelation with much fear, yet Revelation was written to remind us where history is going. Despite times of persecution, despite days of great suffering, despite wars and famines and great sacrilege, God will be triumphant. God will shape all history toward a day when the redeemed will live in God’s presence, when God will wipe the tears from our eyes, when God will lead us into the new heaven and earth. God will bring fallen humanity back to the joys God originally intended in the Garden of Eden. On that day we will be allowed to eat from the Tree of Life, which will bring healing to the nations. On that day God’s promises will open up new possibilities that we cannot understand today. We live in expectation.
This does not mean that we are not attentive to what is going on around us now. There have been critics over the years who have attacked Christianity for not focusing on this life, saying that we Christians are only concerned about the life after this one. Karl Marx said that religion was the “opiate” of the people because it distracted them from facing economic injustices in our world today. Although we disagree with Marx’s attack on our faith, we should also understand that our hope in the fulfillment of God’s promises does not distract us from being the presence of Christ in the world around us today. We are called to give testimony in the time that God gives us. Lives can be changed here and now. Then others will share the hope that we share. Others will join us on the day of fulfillment.
We work to accomplish the tasks that are in front of us, to show our devotion to our Lord here and now. We live a life prayerfully considering what God wants us to do. We invite others to join us in this adventure. Our time here is for the benefit of others. Christ calls us to reach out and share what we have received. We are to be engaged and active in the world today, touching lives. Yet we also look forward to a great wedding feast one day, when God will deliver us from the suffering that we now endure, when our hope will not be disappointed, when God will open up riches beyond our imagination. We will not fear the future when we know that God is in control. May we be faithful in the time that we are given; may we realize that in all things God is working for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purposes. A-men.
About the writer: Dr. Brett Patterson is a South Carolina native, having grown up in the Lowcountry and pursued a B. A. in English at Furman University. After receiving an M. Div. from Duke University, an ordination from the Baptist Church of Beaufort, and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, he taught biblical studies, theology, ethics, and church history at Meredith College and Anderson University. In 2009, through encouragement from the CBF of SC, he entered into full-time church ministry. He and his wife Stephanie currently serve as pastors for First Baptist Church of Lake View, SC. He is particularly interested in ecumenical efforts and in theology and the arts.
First Sunday of Advent – Year C
Scripture and Music
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
The Advent of Our God
Lo, How A Rose E er Blooming
Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Lo, How A Rose E er Blooming (Michael Praetorius)
Arise, Your Light Has Come (David Danner)
Arise, Shine, Your Light Has Come (Mary McDonald)
Advent Alleluia (Douglas Wagner)
E en So Lord Jesus (Paul Manz)
Of the Father s Love Begotten (Paul Wohlgemuth)
There Shall A Star Come Out of Jacob (Mendelssohn)
Dona Nobis Pacem (Hal Hopson, Carl Nygard)
Come Peace of God (Eugene Butler)
Comfort Ye My People (Handel)
Every Valley Shall Be Exalted (Handel)
The Gift of Love (Domingo)
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (Plainsong)