Our text is from Luke 21:25–36: 25 [Jesus said:] “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. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 “But 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. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (ESV)
The God you worship is, in St. Paul’s words, the God of hope[, who fills] you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope (Romans 15:13). Now, if you have no hope, then perhaps you are struggling to take God at His Word. You see, your calling in Christ is to abound in a hope given you by the Holy Spirit. Your Spirit-filled hope is concerned not with the passing things of this fallen world but with the things that are eternal, such as the resurrection of the body to life everlasting.
Your Spirit-filled hope is built on the certainty that your Saviour Jesus keeps all His promises, including the one in today’s Gospel: Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Do not be surprised or discouraged when you see the chaos and confusion, the strife and suffering, of this old creation, for one day it will make way for the new creation. And as you yourself suffer, remember your Saviour’s promise that His Word will never pass away. And know this: that all who trust in the Lord’s Word will not pass away but will stand before the Son of Man in eternal glory. This is Good News for you personally, for, as by God’s grace, you abide and remain in God’s Word, you will never pass away but you will stand in the presence of Jesus forever.
Our Saviour Jesus desires us all to remain faithful, so that we may stand before Him in heaven. To help us remain faithful, in today’s Gospel, He gives us four admonitions of how we are to live as those who are baptized into Christ.
First, Jesus tells us that our attitude is to be quite different from that of unbelievers. When the world’s end is drawing near, there will be such distress that unbelievers will cower in fear and hide their faces from the signs in the heavens and the roaring of the seas. In the Book of Revelation, St. John prophesies that unbelievers will call to the mountains and rocks, [saying] “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (16:6-7). When the end of the world draws near, unbelievers will be bent over in fear and fainting and will try to hide from God. But it is completely different for you and me, who confess Christ. For us, our Lord gives us this admonition: when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
As baptized children of God, you and I are not to fear the end of the world, because for us, it is not just the world’s end but also our redemption that is drawing near. Oh, living in these last days, we Christians may suffer from wars, famines, natural disasters, social upheavals, and economic crises, along with everyone else. But we also live knowing that the day of our redemption is just around the corner. And so, by God’s grace, we refuse to buy into the world’s doom and gloom; rather, we lift up our heads expecting our Lord to return at any moment. Children lined up along a parade route will stand on their tip toes and strain their necks to catch a glimpse of the action. That is how we are to live, standing erect in the faith and lifting up our heads to see the Son of Man coming to set us free from this world’s sin and sorrow and death.
The world has been living in the last days ever since Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. The signs in the heavens and the distress upon the earth have already begun to take place—sure signs of our Lord’s return. Jesus may return in our lifetime, or He may delay for a few thousand years more so that even more people may repent and be saved. We do not know the day of His return, but we do know He has already saved us from our sins and has already saved us for heaven. And so, we should never drop our heads in despair. Do not fear what the unbelievers fear; do not faint with fear and foreboding at what is coming on the world; rather straighten up and raise your heads because your Saviour Jesus brings you the glory of heaven!
Our Lord’s second admonition is to look at the fig tree. Here, our Lord tells us to live in such a way so as to expect His return at any moment. The fig tree comes to leaf in late spring, and so when you see the fig tree in leaf, you know that the summer is already near. This second admonition is really a continuation of the first. We who are baptized into Christ, we are not to live in fear of the end; rather, we live in holy expectation of our eternal redemption. We lift up our heads, expecting our Lord’s return, knowing that it is as near as summer is when a fig tree is in leaf. Even though the Lord may delay His return for another thousand years, we live with the expectation that He will indeed return in our lifetime, for He will certainly come for each one of us when we die in the Lord.
Our Lord’s third admonition is to watch: 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. The world is not expecting the Lord, and so the day of our Lord’s return will suddenly spring upon the world like a snare. But just as you know the signs for summer, so you know that the day of the Lord is near at hand. And so beware of all the things in life that might cloud your awareness of Jesus’ return and the end of the world. Watch yourselves, so that your hearts do not become weighed down by the worries, riches, and pleasures of this life. The word used by Jesus is dissipation, which refers to a life of wasteful self-indulgence. Self-indulgence can take many forms: one can indulge in fear and worry or in greed, envy, and lust or in love of pleasure and possessions or in hatred and bitterness. But all forms of self-indulgence are really a symptom of unbelief. The Last Day will [certainly] come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. And so, by God’s grace, watch yourselves and avoid all forms of self-indulgence so that you can keep a clear head as you wait for your Lord’s return.
Our Lord’s admonition to watch ourselves is a pastoral word from our Good Shepherd, who laid down His life for the sheep, that we may live forever with Him. This admonition to watch ourselves is both a warning and an encouragement. O flock of Christ, beware, lest you give yourself over to self-indulgence. And O flock of Christ, take courage and keep a clear head, always lifted up in expectation for your Lord’s return.
And then our Lord gives a fourth admonition: stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place. “Staying awake” means “remaining watchful”. With the third admonition, we are to watch ourselves in the sense of guarding our hearts and minds so that we avoid a sinful life of self-indulgence. But our life in Christ is not simply a matter of avoiding sin. Our life in Christ is also a matter of embracing a life of watching and praying. As St. John wrote already in his first epistle, we are in the last hour (2:18) of world history; the time is short. And so let us be watchful in prayer at all times for Jesus to return.
We are prone to think of prayer as a quiet activity, but prayer also is an earnest request. Prayer, in this sense, is saying: “Lord, I beg you, have mercy on me!”. This kind of praying pours forth in times of distress as pleas to God for help. This kind of prayer Jesus Himself prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane while contemplating his imminent final suffering on the cross (Luke 22:39–46). There, in the Garden, Jesus also exhorted His disciples to pray so as not to fall into temptation (22:40). And that is how we pray as we live in the anguish of these last days. The faithful pray for strength to endure, to persevere in faith in the midst of suffering and through all the terrible things that are about to happen upon the earth. We pray for the strength to shun the distractions of this world and to remain faithful during the apocalyptic catastrophes. In short, we pray daily that our Father would deliver us from this world’s evil and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven. In heaven, we will no longer need to pray the Kyrie Eleison, but here on earth we live in a great and constant need of praying “Lord, have mercy!”. And God, in His mercy, gives us the strength so that we are able to stand in the presence of the Son of Man.
Four admonitions given by Christ to His Church, given to prepare us for His return; given not to condemn us but to call us to repent of all the ways we have lived like unbelievers. Let us then repent, confessing our sins, turning from sin to Christ, finding our relief, comfort, and strength in His forgiveness. And living in our Lord’s forgiveness, let us prepare for His return. Do not fear what the unbelievers fear, but trust that the Lord always keeps His promises and that your redemption is drawing ever nearer. Guard your hearts and minds from sinful self-indulgence, and always be watchful in prayer. These are not burdensome commands meant to rob you of life’s joy. Rather, these admonitions are like the regiment prescribed by a wise physician who wants his patient to fully recover from an illness. These admonitions are like the commands of loving parents who want their children to survive childhood and so tell them not to play with matches and to look both ways before crossing the street. These admonitions are overflowing with joy and peace and hope, for they are given you by your loving Saviour Jesus, who died in your place on the cross so that you may stand in His glorious presence for all eternity.
You are baptized into Christ, and so your life’s primary goal is to one day stand by God’s grace in the presence of Jesus and to hear Him say to you: Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34). By God’s grace, you patiently endure personal suffering and this world’s troubles. And you live in high alert at all times, not knowing when but fully expecting Jesus to come for you. And you trust that, just as Jesus forgives you now, so He will pronounce your acquittal on the Last Day, so that you may stand in His glorious presence and sit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the eternal banquet in the kingdom of God.
In the Book of Revelation, St. John prophesies: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more (Revelation 21:1). Now, the old creation is not going to pass away quietly. As the end draws near, the world will moan and ache with great fear and distress. But what gives you the strength to have hope and to endure is the Word of God.
God’s Word gives you all you need to remain faithful so that you may one day stand in the presence of Jesus. God’s Word proclaims Jesus as the world’s Saviour, who died and rose again to set us sinners free from the condemnation we so justly deserve and to give us the hope and joy and peace of heaven. God’s Word attaches itself to water in Holy Baptism to make us God’s children and to fill us with the Holy Spirit. God’s Word attaches itself to the pastor’s voice, so that Holy Absolution is truly Christ absolving us of all our sins. God’s Word is spoken over bread and wine so that we actually feast on the true Body and Blood of our Saviour. The word of the Lord remains forever (1 Peter 1:25). And so will we! For God’s Word bespeaks us righteous and holy in God’s sight. Oh, what a gracious, loving God we have, who gives us the strength to abide and remain in His Word. And remaining in His Word, we will never pass away but will stand in the presence of Jesus forever. Thanks be to God! Amen.