Sermon text: Luke 21:29-38
Dear friends in Christ:
Sometimes we communicate in order to explain a situation. Sometimes we communicate in order to share guidance. And sometimes we do both – because most situations beg for some guidance, and guidance will only be appreciated when the situation is first explained.
Let me give you an example.
At St. Paul’s, we have a situation regarding our Building Fund: it’s run out. This is a problem, because we use this fund to pay our monthly mortgage. You received a letter from our Council detailing this situation.
In that same letter, you also received some guidance. We guided you to consider giving extra gifts towards our Building Fund, in order that we might continue to make our payments.
Situation described… guidance given. By the way, it seems that the guidance was well received. At this point, only a week into the campaign, we are already 3/4 of the way toward our goal. Thanks be to God for gifts given, and faith shown!
In the first part of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus describes a situation. The situation is this: “the kingdom of God is near.”
As further explanation of the situation, Jesus also tells about signs. Signs will indicate the kingdom’s coming. That’s the point of Jesus’ parable of the fig tree. “When you see these things taking place, know that the kingdom of God is near.”
What are these signs? Jesus described them in the previous verses. They include things such as “nations rising against nations,” “earthquakes, famine and pestilence,” and “distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves.”
It’s important to note that although these signs will serve as a warning, we should still be ready for the kingdom to come at any time. Earlier, Jesus had said it will come “like a thief in the night.” Here he tells us that “this generation will not pass away until all has taken place.” Even though the word “generation” here is not to be taken literally—as the span of a human lifetime—it still denotes an imminence. The coming of the kingdom is imminent. It is near. That’s how we are to understand this.
The signs themselves will be difficult to endure. That’s a part of the situation we should understand. What they point to, however, will be even more difficult. The signs point to the end of the world. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus says. Now that’s a situation!
The end of the world will take place when Jesus returns. As he explained earlier: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
The end of the world will also include a day of judgment. Jesus speaks powerfully of that in a number of other texts.
Today’s Old Testament reading, from the prophet Malachi, speaks to that judgment by mentioning how God will spare His people from it. “In that day, when I make up my treasured possession,” he quotes God saying, “I will spare them.”
When we keep reading in Malachi, we hear what his people will be spared from: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.”
The day of the Lord is a day of judgment. Some will be spared. Some won’t. This is a situation of which we must all be aware. In his sermon last Sunday addressing those previous words of Jesus from this chapter, Pastor Lehrer used the word “urgent.” Yes, the situation is urgent. We can see why.
On Christ the King Sunday, we think about such things. We remind ourselves that it’s important to know the full situation.
We also give thanks that Jesus does more than just give a report—he also gives guidance. Notice how the next part of today’s text is all about guidance.
His first words are: “watch yourselves” – sometimes translated as: “take heed to yourselves” (KJV) or “be careful” (NIV) – or “be on guard” (NRSV). “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.”
“Dissipation” means over-indulgence, or debauchery. We’ve got Thanksgiving Day coming up, and no doubt there will be some dissipating taking place as people overdo their Thanksgiving feast!
Jesus isn’t as concerned with the stomach as he is with the heart. “Watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down,” he says.
When our hearts are weighed down, we don’t function very well. We become anxious. We become depressed. We lose faith.
Dissipation and drunkenness can certainly lead to heavy hearts, for what we take into the stomach definitely affects us. But they aren’t the only things. As Jesus notes, often times it is simply the normal cares of this life which drag us down. Our job gets stressful. Our body gets sick. Our kids misbehave. Our parents become overbearing. Our friends don’t act so friendly. We get in an accident. We experience a loss. We become bored. What is it for you right now?
Jesus gives us the guidance of “watching ourselves.” We need to be aware of our sources of stress and how we are coping with them.
But that’s only half the guidance. The other half is: “stay awake at all times.” In other words, be in a state of readiness.
Here Jesus guides us to the practice of prayer. “Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things.”
St. Paul may have had these words of Jesus in mind when he told the Philippians to “pray without ceasing.” We will need regular and robust attention to God through prayer in order to be ready for all the assaults on our hearts given by this world.
One of my favorite definitions of prayer – I believe attributed to the Spanish saint known as “John of the Cross” – is “loving attention to God.” This definition encompasses both our speaking and our listening. It emphasizes prayer as conversation. It can even include prayer as meditation.
I’m glad to see you here today – turning your attention to God as you listen to His Word and speak to him in your prayers.
Back to the text. We see very clearly in these words that Jesus has described a situation to us and given us guidance. To some, this may seem like all we need. But it’s not.
As this text implies, we also need rescue… for how many of us watch ourselves well? How many of us are really, truly awake? How many of us can stand before the Son of Man when he appears, and claim to be righteous? None of us. We far too often engage in acts of dissipation and drunkenness – looking for cheap thrills instead of hard work, usually at the expense of others. We numb our pain instead of turning to God for help. We far too frequently turn our attention away from His guidance. The situation in which we find ourselves can be improved with God’s guidance, but we still need more help.
Thankfully, Jesus has taken action on our behalf. He has gone beyond the giving of guidance and become our savior. He has climbed hills. He has made transfers. Let me explain.
The text tells us that after delivering these teachings during the day, Jesus would spend the night on the Mount of Olives. Perhaps he stayed at the home of his friends there in Bethany. Perhaps he camped out with the many other pilgrims attending the Passover festival. Either way, each day he had to leave the city and climb that good-sized mountain.
Many a king over the years had stood on that same mountain overlooking Jerusalem and considered its conquest. Thirty-some years after Jesus’ time, the Roman armies under Titus would begin their siege of the city from that vantage point.
But Jesus had other plans. He wasn’t concerned with conquering Jerusalem. Jesus had a concern for the whole world.
Jesus’ plan meant climbing another mountain—actually just a small hill. His place of conquest wasn’t strategic Olivet. It was lowly Golgotha—the small rise outside the city where the city crucified its criminals.
Jesus went there to be a sacrifice for our sins. He gave himself up there to sinful men, that he might bear the sins of the world.
On his cross, written above him, were the words “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Next to him were two criminals, one who mocked him, and one who cried out: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
To that one who cried out in faith, Jesus said: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
And these words of Jesus are said to all who come to him in faith. The kingdom of Jesus will come in its fullness when he returns as our judge. But because of what Jesus has done on the cross, the kingdom has also come now. It is here through the proclamation of forgiveness. It is here through the calling of people to faith. It is here when people live under its gentle and glorious rule.
St. Paul said it this way in today’s NT reading from Colossians: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
Situation described. Guidance given. Action taken. Jesus does all we need. He is truly King of kings and Lord of lords.
One final thought from the text. Both Matthew and Mark’s Gospel also record for us the parable of the fig tree. What’s unique in Luke’s telling is that he has Jesus add: “and all the trees.” “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees.” It’s a curious addition. Fig trees stand out in that area because most of the other trees are evergreens. Maybe the addition simply means we should notice the fig trees in relation to the others. But nobody really knows for sure.
What we do know, is that when our hearts are weighed down we can look to the tree of the cross. There we will be reminded again of our forgiveness. There we will be assured of our inclusion in the kingdom.
Jesus has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of His beloved Son. Let us watch and stay awake—looking always at the cross—that we may eagerly welcome him when he comes again.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.