Reading the Signs

Reading the Signs

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Fall has come, such as it is here in Texas. It’s not the sort of autumn I grew up with in the northern reaches of the country, where by now the leaves would mostly be well past their peak color and many would be brown and dry and already fallen. We might’ve even had some snow on the ground by now.

Yet even here in the Lone Star State, where we’re a little bit south of the northern-most reaches of Mexico and the Gulf of the same name, fall is still distinctly different from summer, isn’t it? No more 100-degree days until next year, almost certainly. I haven’t seen a mosquito in weeks. We’ve had a couple frosty mornings already, and a sweater or light jacket has been a good idea when out for an evening walk.

At this time of year, we don’t have to consult the calendar to figure out that it’s not summer anymore. There are signs of it in the air, in the plant life, around town. Let’s see… football games, a few lingering election signs, college students on campus—yes, it is fall. Fall is a signpost, a way-marker, of the cycle of seasons.

But even the worst pessimist in the worst climate does not think that fall is the sign of a permanent winter. We all know that as sure as fall gives way to winter, so too will winter yield in the face of the spring, which in turn will surrender to the heat of summer. Such are the ways of seasons as we know them. They cycle ever onward and are for the marking of days and weeks and months and years. We know how to read the signs of the seasons. People have been reading them a long time.

The prominent signs of seasons are one thing to read, but the changes from era to era of history are quite another. What of the signs of these changes? At times the words of the Bible, the words of Jesus Himself, proclaim these signs as being there for the reading as well. Just continue reading in Luke’s gospel after today’s text for more examples of this. At other times, we are warned that the days and weeks are coming, but at an unexpected time, and thus we should stand ready to meet them at all times.

But in our text for today, the disciples puzzle over Jesus’ words of warning. The beauty that they see, signified by the splendor of temple in Jerusalem, seems much more permanent than trees or temperatures that change with the seasons. Yet Jesus warns them that it will all pass away. What will this catastrophic destruction mean? Is it the start of a new epoch of history? Does it mean that the age of the Messiah and Israel’s vindication are upon them?

If so, then the destruction of so important a national symbol seems to bode ill for these people. Puzzled, the disciples ask Jesus what it all means.

Jesus’ answer is surprising. The wars, the destructions, the persecutions—yes, these will all will take place. Lots of the sort of spectacular events that many associate with “the end of the world” will happen. But the end is not associated with those things. They are almost like the cycles of the seasons. They have happened, they do happen, and they will continue to happen. They have continued for nearly two thousand years since Jesus spoke of them, and certainly existed before then, too. But these signs are not to be read or speculated about as determining or indicating the time when history will change from one era to another. That change is also certainly happening, but not with the spectacular cosmic events some think and expect.

Israel, at the time of Jesus and for centuries before, had its own national stories, just like we do here in America. Chief among the Israelites’ story was the account of the Exodus. This was the story of their origins as a people, a nation. It was a family story, dealing with their ancient ancestor, Jacob—who had been re-named Israel, one who struggles with God. It was an appropriate name to be carried by those who carried his blood in their veins, too.

The Exodus was a patterned story. It included an oppressive nation (Egypt) with an oppressive king (Pharaoh). It told of God’s intervention and the people’s vindication. It was a repeating story, too: Egypt could also be Babylon or Greece or Syria; Pharaoh could also be Nebuchadnezzer or Alexander the Great or Antiochus Epiphanes. Time and again, though, God still intervened for them, and the people who had once come out of Egypt were vindicated once more.

The way that Israel told the story at the time of Jesus’ ministry followed the same pattern, and they expected the same result. Rome was the new oppressor; Caesar the new Pharaoh. The expectation was that the intervention of God and the victory of the people were near. Certainly the Maccabees had raised the nation’s expectations when—with God’s help—they had taken matters into their own hands and defeated the Syrians. That era, 200 years before Jesus, also had employed imagery of the end of the world to explain the cosmic significance of political events.

With this story also came the ability to see the pattern and predict when it would happen again. The rebuilding of the temple, even under the auspices of an evil dynasty of kings like Herod, was seen as a sign that God was about to dwell with the people again.

The presence of John the Baptist, a new prophet like Elijah the one who was foretold in the final words of the Old Testament to be the forerunner of the great and terrible day of the Lord, raised expectations. Many were convinced that the Messiah and the victorious army of Israel’s resistance and liberation were about to re-appear. The stage was set for God to do it all again.

And in a sense, with Jesus, God was doing exactly that. The story was repeating. In another, more important sense, however, the story was being completely re-framed. It was no longer going to be part of a cycle. This time, God’s intervention was different. No longer was this the story of Israel alone. Now the story would include an intervention within Israel, within the people of God that would restore her vocation as “light to the nations.” However, it was a story about—and for—all peoples; all those whom God had created through Adam and Eve, and whom He had sustained with the bounty of His creation.

Furthermore, this time the story would not revolve around the symbols of national pride and idolatry: the Promised Land, the temple, the ancestry from Abraham. Instead, these symbols are transformed as God’s promises going back as far as Genesis 3 are fulfilled. The land, the temple, and their ancestry are returned to their rightful, limited place in the national narrative.

The people of Israel are no longer exclusively blessed, but are blessed to be a blessing to all nations. The land which had been promised to Abraham on account of his trust in God’s promises is now hallowed as the location from which the source of healing for the whole creation will flow. The temple is replaced; God’s dwelling place is no longer within a building, but Immanu-El now resides within humanity in Jesus Christ.

The more the story is re-framed, the more it echoes with the themes of the prophets, both in warning and in promise.

In the middle of all of this reframing of the story, it’s important to observe that Jesus never does answer the question, “When will this be?” He talks around it. He talks of signs, but not of the end. He talks of persecutions, even within families, but says that comes way before the end. He talks of endurance, but never states how long that endurance must be. We are so likely to get caught up in the images and the themes that we almost do not recognize that Jesus breaks another tackle on His way to His goal. He will not be pinned down on this subject. And so, His answer could leave you asking, “Where is the good news in all of this?” Are we simply to brace ourselves for suffering? Are we waiting only for the promise of the future? What is God doing for us in the face of all the cycles of tumult and violence and uncertainty that whirl around us, day after day, year after year?

The first answer to these questions is found in Jesus Himself. When He suggests that we need not “prepare a defense in advance” because He will give us the words to say, He is telling us that He is with us; He will support us and will not abandon us.

Indeed, in the book of Acts and the epistles of the New Testament, Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are not seen as His absence from the disciples. Rather, they are emboldened by the presence of the Holy Spirit, whom He has sent to lead and guide and strengthen them, just as He had promised. This leads us to the second and perhaps most important answer to what God is doing. God is already establishing the new age among us.

Here is the paradox, then: The new age of the Lord comes not with wars and tumult, but in the quiet of a night. The new era begins not with a violent uprising, but rather with the quiet birth of a child in Bethlehem. The new world comes about not by resisting the forces of a powerful empire, which controls its subjects with the threat of death, but rather with the surrender of a Servant King to His own death, that through that death, He and all His followers would come to new life.

This is how God, in Jesus, undertakes to destroy death and its power. The wars and the tumult, even in our day, are merely the dying cries of the kings of this world. The God of the universe has subverted their power and sown the seeds of the new kingdom, the new reign of God, within our world, within our limited perspective and imagination and comprehension. Yet, for those with the Spirit-granted faith to see it and the Spirit-led courage to endure, the tumult of the world becomes both more and less than what it is to unbelievers.

Let’s be objectively honest, though: Certainly the wars, the violence, the disasters, the plagues and pandemics and cosmic signs are indeed terrible. All humanity suffers, oppressed and oppressors alike. God too, suffers with us, for He has bound Himself to us in Christ, in Spirit, in creation—and in Word and Sacrament. Still, the tumults of this world, of which our lesson today speaks, assumes and conveys terrible power in the face of such honesty. But these do not have ultimate power, nor does the prince of this world. The tumult and its instigator cannot control Jesus, and can never control those who are named and claimed by God in baptism. Though these may kill us, yet they do not harm us. God’s love is stronger still.

So, we are not fooled by the endless cycles of violence and hardship in our world. We take them for what they are, the death throes of our own sinfulness, both personally and on a grand, global scale. We struggle against them, even while we know we are just as responsible for them and for the suffering they cause as is anyone else. But apart from them, we see God’s hidden action, too. We have hope for the eternal reign of God. It is promised, is already begun, it is just not yet fully present.

Therefore, we neither trust in, nor fear, the powers of this world. We don’t depend upon the interpretation of signs and wonders and events to judge or to fret over how history will play out. And, we look not to our great cities, our military might, or even to beautiful church buildings for our hope in a dark, disturbing, and dangerous age. Our hope rests upon the blood and righteousness of the crucified and risen One alone—our ever-present Lord, Jesus Christ.

In His holy name (+), Amen.