In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
It’s interesting the way Jesus talks about signs in Scripture. On the one hand, He says that it is an evil and adulterous generation that seeks a sign. People that need signs to prove God’s existence or to verify the truth of His Word are only exhibiting their unbelief. If you insist upon a sign or some special experience, if God has to jump through your hoops before you’ll trust Him or follow Him, that only reveals an absence of faith. Faith is believing without seeing, knowing that you have a trustworthy Source who is speaking to you. Sign-seeking is adulterous, going after what fulfills your spiritual lusts and desires. To those who were seeking a sign, Jesus said that the only one they would be given was the sign of Jonah, a man “buried” in the watery depths but who comes forth to a new life on the third day. Jonah points us to Jesus, whose death and resurrection is our true and ultimate sign, the sign that our sins have been fully paid for, that He has conquered the power of the grave and brings us resurrection and life immortal. We need nothing more than that Word of good news, the Gospel, to bring us to faith and save us.
However, to Jesus’ disciples, to those who believe and don’t require signs, Jesus still actually gives many signs. Not only did He perform a multitude of miracles in His ministry, signs that proved He truly was the Messiah, not only do we presently see many signs of His loving kindness toward us even in the midst of this fallen and broken world, but He also gives us an abundance of signs of His second coming and the end of this world.
In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks in particular about signs in creation, in the sun, moon, and stars, and even climate and weather-related signs. After mentioning the fig tree and all the trees budding, Jesus speaks of the sea and the waves roaring, nations in distress, and people in perplexity as the powers of creation are shaken. In other words, nature itself will give us signs that the return of Jesus is almost upon us.
The problem is that unbelief misreads the signs. This happens all the time; people see the signs in creation, like earthquakes, like variations in climate and weather, like floods and fires and storms and droughts, and instead of reading these things as a call to repentance and to faithful watching for the Lord of creation to return, they see it as a call to preach the gospel of climate change and to worship creation itself as their lord. And so the signs don’t help them. Signs only help the faithful.
The world misreads the signs, and so they have the wrong diagnosis of the situation. They know that there’s a problem, that things aren’t right. Even unbelievers sense that things are messed up in the world and need to be fixed. But they misidentify the enemy and the source of the problem, and so they also misidentify the solution. Virtually every political cause that is out there does this. For environmentalists, the enemy is fossil fuels and overpopulation. For feminists, it’s men and the patriarchy. For socialists, it’s capitalism (and vice versa), for conservatives, it’s progressives (and vice versa), for those feeling oppressed, it’s racial privilege or gender conformity or big corporations or big government. And the list goes on. We have this intrinsic spiritual need to set up a system of good and evil that explains why reality is the way it is. But when we do that apart from God’s Word, we end up with a system that is comprised of half truths (at best), and people end up embracing delusions and lies. Scripture tells us that the real issue, the real enemies are the devil, the unbelieving world, and our own sinful nature. But we don’t like that diagnosis. Because it means that the problem is not just some neatly defined external system or group of people that we can blame. It’s a deeper, spiritual matter, and it involves a sickness that is actually inside every one of us. Worldly groups and causes only address symptoms and not the disease. Only Jesus, our coming Lord, gets to the heart of the matter.
Jesus once commented on people misinterpreting the signs of the times in Luke 12. He said, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Christians know that when creation seems to be coming apart, that’s because it’s a fallen creation, in bondage to decay under the curse of sin. Christians aren’t surprised by the upheavals of creation because they know that this creation is passing away, as Jesus said, “The heavens and the earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” Just like us, creation is wearing down and wearing out. It has to die in order to rise again as the new heavens and the new earth, which God is preparing to be our eternal dwelling with Him. Romans 8 says, “the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.” Creation itself trembles with anticipation of Christ’s return, when the hidden things of our salvation will finally be uncovered and brought to fulfillment, and all things will be made new. Until that day we cling to Jesus’ words, which endure forever, and which will surely deliver what they say.
So when we see the signs of the end, our reaction as Christians is different from the unbelieving world. To the faithless, these signs bring pessimism and panic. Jesus says here that men’s hearts will fail them from fear. There will be a sense of retreat, that things are spiraling downward. Our pop culture reflects this with the incredible number of movies and shows that focus on a dystopian future world, after some apocalypse occurs because of disease or war or climate catastrophe. Creating these scenarios is almost like therapy to deal with this dread of what’s coming.
Of course, Jesus also warns against another way that people deal try to with this. He says, “Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly.” Some people think to themselves, “Hey, everything’s going downhill; I might as well have some fun while I can. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Indulging in food and drink and pleasure, throwing yourself into your work or your hobby helps you to forget about this looming future.
But our reaction as believers is quite different. For these signs are not just pointing to the end but to a new beginning. And above all they are pointing to the return of our Savior. Whereas the world is weighed down with anxiety as things come apart, Jesus tells you that when you see these signs, “look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.” These signs are actually good news in that they point us to Him. We can have peace even in the midst of the chaos, because we know what this is all leading to. We can deny ourselves the sinful pleasures of this world, because we know there is much greater joy and holy delight to come in the presence of our gracious Lord. Your future is assured in Jesus. Your merciful Lord is coming. Your redemption draws near.
That’s really how we should think of the Last Day, not as doomsday, not only as Judgment day, but as Redemption Day. It’s a good day that is coming, “the great and dreadful day of the Lord” as Malachi puts it–great for those who are in Christ, dreadful for those who aren’t. Judgment day has already taken place for us. For we are baptized into Christ, and He bore all of the judgment against our sin on the cross, on that great and dreadful day, Good Friday. Remember that there were great signs in creation on that day: the sun was darkened for three hours, and the earth quaked at the death of the Son of God. For the curse on this old creation was broken, and a new creation was dawning in Christ. As a result of that, Romans 8 says that we are “eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” So the punishment and the condemnation is all done for you now. It’s all taken care of. You’re redeemed by the blood of Christ. It’s just a matter of time before your Redeemer returns to reveal that truth before the world, so that you may enjoy it in all its fullness.
Jesus urges you today in the Gospel, “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Lift up your heads in watchfulness and prayer, keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. For it is only through Him that you are worthy; it is only through Him that you can stand in the final Judgment without fear. Psalm 130 prays, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” Not a single one of us could. However, the psalm continues, “But with you, Lord, there is forgiveness. Therefore you are revered.” Jesus Himself makes you worthy to stand tall in His presence, not in pride because of your merits but because of His cleansing forgiveness, poured out upon you in your baptism.
So lift up your heads, then, and lift up your hearts to see the sign that the Lord is giving to you today, the holy Sacrament of the Altar. To the unbeliever it seems like nothing all that important. But to you who believe and are baptized, it is a marvelous sign. For it assures you that the One who comes to you now hiddenly with His body and blood for your forgiveness will come again visibly on the clouds with power and great glory to deliver you. It is written, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” And so the church continually prays, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit