The days were drawing near for Jesus to do His saving work, and the disciples asked Him how it would all end. A sense of anticipation was in the air, but for what, they did not yet know. Things could go great, or very terribly. The mood and their fears are not unique to those disciples on holy week, but are often common to us disciples even today. So along with the continued predictions of His death and resurrection, Jesus teaches us His disciples about the end of all things, and how faithfully to forebode the things that are to come.
He says: “25 And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world.”
This saying from Jesus holds some fascination for a deep part of our psyche. We don’t know the future, so the future often causes us to fear. The fear of missing out, or the fear of the unknown, can hold us captive. The hints of what might happen fascinate us even as they might terrify. [Maybe because it sounds violent?] Think about how both the fortune tellers and the doom-and-gloom-news alike have devoted followings, making quite a bit by selling us their vision of how things might play out. And at times it does seem like the world is falling apart. Society is actively crashing under the weight of our human sin. We tend to put an oversized amount of trust in created things: either what humankind has made for ourselves, or on God’s creation itself. Depending on who you listen to, it all comes crashing down because of something to do with the economy, the environment, or the results of the next election. Everyone’s got something to dread. Who knows what will happen next? What shall we eat, or drink, or wear? What lengths do people go to when driven by anxious fear of the unknown?
To that, it might be worth hearing a passage from Isaiah 8[:11-18], one we didn’t hear read aloud earlier. It was written for the people of Israel when their nation was in dread of an immanent Assyrian invasion. The passage helps set the priorities of Christian people as we fear possibilities for “what might happen.” Isaiah 8 says: “11 For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: 12 “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. 13 But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. 14 And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 15 And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.” 16 Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. 17 I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.”
When things seem like they’re coming unraveled, when your world or the world seems like it’s falling apart, maybe it is a sign, but a sign of what? That the world won’t last forever. The same Lord Who created all of this will bring it to an end for a good purpose. Revelation 21:5[a] says : “...He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”” The creation itself recognizes the gravity of the Advent of Jesus, of His wrath against sin, and His redemption. Fear and hope in Him. When creation cracks and society struggles, it’s a sign that we cannot put our lasting hope in the created orders.
So for the wicked, that’s a cause of distress. If the atheists were right and we’re all just an accidental collection of atoms [and void],1 then our short-lived existence should be nothing but fearful. But they are wrong. You know – you are beloved by the creator Himself, because Christ gave Himself up for you. You have God’s promise on it. The Lord God has created us, body and soul, and sent His only-begotten Son to redeem you. He is risen and He is our hope. We need not fear what those people fear. Over against all the dread of the unknown future, Jesus tells us that we can lift up our heads and smile in the face of it all.
Christ is near. He is coming. He is Lord. He will not long let all the nonsense prevail. So what if the idols that tempt us burn away? The Lord’s Advent only brings dread for the wicked, but for the righteous, joy. The signs by themselves might terrify us, but when we recognize what it means for We Who are the redeemed, the ransomed of the lord, then we’ll be able to leap with joy. God’s people thought the same thing when the disastrous plagues of Egypt approached: they were signs that they were being delivered.2 What did it all mean for God’s people? Redemption. Re-creation. The promise of freedom to live under Him in His kingdom.
He tells us through the prophet Malachi in the Old Testament reading today: “ 2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. 3 And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.”
That’s it. When God decides to end the world... it will be obvious, there will be no question or wonder about it. It’ll be as obvious and happy as the approach of summer. notice that Jesus uses the illustration of a good thing. And even before the stars fall and creation bends a knee before it’s maker, what should all these disasters and hysterics-inducing indicators of doom and gloom signify for us Christians on a day to day basis?
Remember what He said: “28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”” That phrase “straighten up and raise your head conveys a lot. When we are fearful, our body language shows it – curving in on ourselves, hunching down to brace ourselves. When we have hope, we stand up straighter, confidently. Likewise also to “straighten up” is a phrase for renewed vigor in righteous living. Jesus says: “34 “...watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” Rather than drowning our foreboding fears in drunkenness or dissipation into a life of consumption… lift up your head to coming redemption, and be encouraged.
That’s the purpose Jesus taught His disciples all this. Encouragement. It’s not just an escape from doom and gloom, but the answer. God’s answer. In Romans 15 it is written: “4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Your redemption draws near. “5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” To + Him be the glory, now and forever. Amen.
1The Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote about this in his book “On the Nature of Things.” He was convinced that the universe was nothing more than “atoms and void,” a position held by many materialistic atheists even today.
2I owe this insight & connection to Rev. Johann Gerhard, in a sermon he preached in Advent of 1612AD.