Luke 21:25-36
Advent 2

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

More and more on the news and in the media, our attention is being drawn to unusual weather phenomena and natural disasters and the like–hurricanes and floods, droughts and fires, earthquakes and volcanoes and abnormal temperatures.  When these things occur, the focus is usually on trying to find a scientific explanation of why these things happened and what the human role in it may have been.  “Climate change” is the big mantra you’ll often hear.  The presence of human beings is the problem.

But today’s Gospel teaches us to look at abnormal phenomena in creation from a completely different perspective.  It teaches us to see upheavals in creation not only as scientifically significant but also spiritually significant, to see them not merely as the result of man’s presence but of God’s presence.  And I’m not talking about the punishing of sin.  Rather, Jesus teaches that disruptions in the physical order of things are to be viewed by Christians as signs of His coming.  When the world seems to be coming unglued, that is a sign that the Creator of the world is drawing near.

And really this is the way it has always been.  Throughout the entire Old Testament, as God intervened in the life of His people Israel and entered into this world, there were accompanying signs in the physical order of things.  Creation reacts, often strongly and violently to the real presence of her Creator.  For instance, when Israel came out of Egypt, the Red Sea was parted, not merely because Moses raised His staff, but because of the awesome presence of the Lord from which the sea shrank back.  Psalm 114 says, “The sea looked and fled . . . Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord.”  Likewise, when the Lord descended on Mount Sinai it is written that “the mountain quaked greatly.”  And the prophet Micah predicted a similar reaction to the presence of the Lord: “For behold, the Lord is coming out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.  Then the mountains will melt under him and the valleys will burst open like wax near the fire, like waters poured down a steep place."

Signs in creation continued in the New Testament with the coming of the Son of God to this earth to become true man.  Not only were there signs in the heavens in the special star that led the Wise Men to the infant Jesus, not only did the sea and the waves roar at Christ’s presence in the boat, but there were also more fearful signs at Jesus’ crucifixion.  At the time of Jesus’ death there were earthquakes in the land which caused many graves to be opened.  And it is written that for the last three hours of Jesus’ life, from noon until three p.m. on Good Friday, darkness covered the land.  Luke specifically says that the sun was darkened.  This was a miraculous event, a sign in creation marking the real presence of God on the cross, suffering at the hands of the powers of darkness in order to win our salvation.  Even as the sun, moon, and stars bowed down to Joseph figuratively in the Old Testament, so at Calvary, the sun bowed down to Jesus literally in His sacrificial death to redeem this fallen world.

Until the close of this age, throughout these last days which Christ has ushered in, there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them from fear, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then finally Christ will come, and this old creation will pass away as the new creation is revealed.

The Scriptures say in Romans 8, “All creation groans.”  Creation in its present state is compared to a woman in labor pains moaning with increasingly severe birth pangs until all of creation itself is reborn and recreated.   The physical order of things is in tumult until the old gives way to the new.  

That is so for two reasons.  First of all, this creation is under the curse of sin and is therefore in bondage to decay and disintegration.  It’s just plain wearing out.  Sin has brought death not only to humanity but also to the whole universe, and so this old order is expiring.  In this sense, the presence of fallen human beings is indeed the problem.

But there is another reason, too.  This creation groans and convulses because already now the Creator is entering into His creation.  Just as the earth did in the past, so now it reacts to the fact that the Lord is coming to His people, particularly in the Sacrament of the Altar.  The physical order shrinks back and trembles and responds to His real presence in the church throughout the world.  Signs in the sun, moon, and stars, and tumultuous events in the earth and the sea are to be interpreted by Christians not only that Jesus will come, but that He is coming even now.  The Gospel says, “When you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near.”  And the kingdom of God draws near whenever the risen King Himself draws near in His true body and blood. 

So when you see or hear about unusual astronomical occurrences or earthquakes or volcanoes or hurricanes or tornadoes or floods or storms or droughts, let them be a sign and a reminder to you that Jesus will come again to bring in the new creation and the kingdom of God, and that in fact the kingdom and the new creation are already here in the church, hidden under lowly elements of the old creation, until those elements finally fly apart and give way on the Last Day.

It’s not just that the old is perishing under the curse but also that, in a sense, it’s being demolished by the new.  Slowly and methodically Christ’s sacramental presence among His people is causing the universe to come apart at the seams.   The end of the age will occur when this creation reacts for the last time and literally falls apart and collapses with a final groan in complete exhaustion, and He who makes all things new is revealed.  Isaiah 51 prophesies, “The heavens will vanish away like smoke, the earth will grow old like a garment, . . . but My salvation will be forever, and My righteousness will not be abolished.”

As we live in the midst of an unstable world that is progressing from a state of order to disorder–not only in the physical realm but also often in the realm of society and culture and politics and even in our own lives–Jesus bids us to take the posture of faith rather than unbelief.  When it seems like all hell is breaking loose, don’t lose heart; for heaven is about to break in.  When life is being shaken, trust that the Lord of life is near. 

While unbelievers cower and hide their faces in fear from the turbulent signs of Christ’s coming, Jesus’ disciples are to straighten up and lift up their eyes in faith to see Him coming to liberate them.  What is a cause of apprehension and uncertainty to the world is a cause of confidence and hope for believers.  For these signs tell you that the Lord for whom you wait is about to return, at the very gates to deliver you.  Jesus says, “When these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.”

The ungodly, in their bent over state, can do nothing but hunch and burden themselves even further.  Therefore, Jesus warns us not to follow their ways: “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.”  When your heart is all wrapped up in this passing world, all you can do is either worry yourself to death or else eat, drink, and be merry and try to ignore reality.  Either way, the final Day will come as a snare and a trap on such people.

And so our Lord exhorts you, “Watch therefore!”  Don’t let your heart and mind and sight be weighed down by earthly things, but look up and open your eyes to the coming heavenly King!  Be on guard!  Be alert, so that Day won’t catch you by surprise.  Call upon God’s name for strength to endure and persevere in the faith.  “Pray always that you may be able to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

On your own, you are unable to stand before the Son of Man.  Psalm 1 says, “Sinners [shall not stand] in the congregation of the righteous.”  And Psalm 130 prays, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?”  Not one of us.  However, the Psalm continues, “But with you, [Lord,] there is forgiveness; therefore you are revered.  I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I put my hope. . .  For with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.  He Himself will redeem (His people) from all their sins.”

Your redemption draws near, for your Jesus draws near.  That’s why you may stand before the Son of Man on the Last Day.  Jesus Himself makes you worthy to stand tall in His presence, not by virtue of your own merits but by virtue of His cleansing forgiveness.  Jesus was weighed down with the fallenness of mankind, bowed low in the humiliation of the cross.  He experienced in His own body the full judgment against sin in your place.  Jesus has already weathered that for you; it’s in the past.  Now all that remains is the revealing of your redemption in the return of Christ the King, who was raised from the dead in the flesh in order to give you a standing in heaven.

That’s why, for the believer, the end of the world is not a reason to fear, but a reason to stand and look up, because the Eternal Savior is about to be revealed.  So it is that in the Communion liturgy I say, “Lift up your hearts.”  And you respond, “We lift them to the Lord.”  For your redemption draws near to you and comes to you in this very place.  It is written, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”  This same Jesus who comes to you hiddenly with His body and blood for your forgiveness will indeed come again visibly on the clouds with power and great glory.  And as the fallen creation passes away, He will bring into being the new creation, incorruptible and glorious which, like His words, will never pass away–all this, for you.

So do not fear; do not be downcast and hunched over.  You have every reason to throw your shoulders back, look up, and lift up your heads.  For your redemption, your Redeemer, your Jesus draws near.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to Dr. Thomas Winger, whose article in Logia was the seed for several of the above thoughts)