Let us pray: “All-powerful God, increase our strength of will for doing good that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming and call us to his side in the kingdom of heaven, where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, [now and forever]. Amen” [For All the Saints, 3].
Introduction: Which Advent?
During Advent, we usually spend a lot of time looking back to Jesus’ incarnation—to His Advent as a baby born of a virgin. And this is good; we should absolutely do this. But sometimes I wonder if by spending so much time looking to the past that, first, it’s kind of a spoiler for Christmas; and second, we forget to look to the future—to the imminent coming, or Advent, of Christ our King. Jesus’ First Advent is of utmost importance to us, but so is His Second Advent. Because He didn’t just come; He is coming again. Concerning His Second Advent, Jesus gives us some more signs of His coming as well as the disposition His disciples ought to have during these end times.
The Coming of the Son of Man (vv. 25-28)
Our Gospel reading this morning begins with one of the most mysterious things Jesus says: that there will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars as the indication that the end is nigh. Throughout the millennia, many theologians, scholars, and ordinary Christians have spent a lot of time wondering what these signs might look like. Are events like solar eclipses, blood moons, supernovas, and “super” moons such signs? Or are they going to be supernatural phenomena that science cannot explain?
Some stick to these natural phenomena, our old Lutheran theologians such as Martin Luther and Francis Pieper seem to agree that these signs are going to be supernatural phenomena, and others take a both/and approach—that these signs are both natural and supernatural. Perhaps the both/and view is the best approach to take, because the earth and the heavens are no doubt in unrest, and perhaps things will continue to get so bad that it will require supernatural forces to make these signs even more obvious.
Whatever the cause of these signs are, Jesus makes it clear that there will be “on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves.” This can also be understood in a couple ways. These could be the literal roaring of the sea such as tsunamis and floods, and the mass confusion that suddenly happens when waters flood the land. Or maybe Jesus uses this image to describe the disposition of the nations when these signs take place—the way people get frightened at surging seas and tidal waves is the kind of fright that is going to be upon all the earth. They will “faint with fear”—they will be so dispirited because of “what is coming on the world.”
This shouldn’t be too hard for us to imagine. Climate change, whether real or imagined, has climate alarmists and their disciples filled with so much fear and distress that they are expecting the end of the world to happen in about a decade if we don’t do something drastic to stop it. When they talk of the rising sea level due to climate change, they have the same look of fear on their faces as those who behold a tsunami before the raging waters consume them.
Whatever these phenomena are, whenever they’re finished, every single person will see Jesus coming on a cloud in His immense power and glory. This is not the Advent of Jesus we celebrate on Christmas as a cute, plump little baby on that silent night. No, this will be a momentous event of Christ the King’s total power and glory to bring distress and perplexity on the unbelieving peoples of the nations, yet peace and victory to His Christians. Until then, as these phenomena are taking place, our disposition is far different than the nations’. While the nations tremble with fear, we are to straighten ourselves up and look expectantly for the Lord’s coming because they signal that our redemption—and God’s kingdom—are near!
The Parable of the Fig Tree (vv. 29-33)
As Jesus is keen on doing, He tells a parable to describe the kingdom of God, particularly its nearness, and He draws from the everyday experience of His hearers. Just as they know summer is near when they see a fig tree sprout its leaves, so they will know the kingdom of God is near when they see these signs taking place. This analogy works for us too. When the flowers begin to bud on the trees and sprout from the ground, we know spring is just on the horizon and summer is near. In the same way, when we see these signs in sun, moon, stars, and the perplexity and fright of nations, we know God’s kingdom—our redemption—is near.
Nonetheless, the assurance of the coming of God’s kingdom relies not on the observation of these events or any calculation that false teachers come up with but purely on the words of Christ. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus says, “but My words will not pass away.” Heaven and earth will pass away, even these signs, but Christ’s Word will never pass away. The Scriptures make the same testimony. Saint Peter quotes from Isaiah [40:6, 8] and Psalm 136 when he writes, “‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the Word of the Lord endures forever'” [1 Peter 1:25]. These signs function not as our hope but merely as an alarm to keep our hope in Christ awake.
Remain Watchful (vv. 34-36)
In the meantime, what are we to do until Christ returns and inaugurates God’s kingdom? What do we do while our redemption is near? “Watch yourselves,” Jesus says, and do not let “your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life” because if we are distracted by these things, the Day of the Lord will come upon us like a trap. A trap gives no evidence of its presence until its iron jaws clamp on your leg, and by then it’s too late—there’s no way of escape. So, what distractions do we have among us today? Jesus describes these distractions as dissipation, drunkenness, and “cares of this life,” or as a better translation puts it, the worries of daily life.
Jesus is being somewhat redundant when He says “dissipation” and “drunkenness.” The Greek word He uses for “dissipation” denotes the dizziness or staggering a person has when they overindulge on alcohol, and the meaning of “drunkenness” is obvious enough. By speaking with such redundancy, Jesus is essentially warning His hearers not to engage in wasteful living, whether that’s the literal meaning of drunken living or metaphorically being drunk on something, like being drunk on pride, hatred, greed, lust, or some other sin. Both literal and metaphorical drunkenness easily serve as distractions in our lives—so drunk that we cannot see straight and miss the signs of Jesus’ Second Advent. Rather than being soberminded in God’s Word, what things might we be drunk on that are distracting us from Christ?
The last distraction is what Jesus calls cares of this life, or the worries of daily life. It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about the worries of our daily lives; it’s that He doesn’t want these to distract us from Him either. Emilia and I, for example, are in the middle of buying a house, we each have our own medical concerns, and we’re so close to her finally getting her Green Card. These things bring us many worries every day, and they’re so distracting that sometimes I forget to pray and trust in the Lord. So, what worries of this life might be distracting you from Christ? School projects and papers? Final exams? A project or problem at work? A televised court case? Local crimes? The agenda of that political party you hate?
Instead of being distracted by wasteful living and daily worries such as these and the Day of the Lord come upon us like a trap, Jesus warns us to remain alert. But how do we remain alert? Jesus encourages us to pray, so that we “may escape all these things that are going to take place” and “stand before the Son of Man.” If you attended my Sunday morning Bible study on Mark 13:1-13 a couple weeks ago, we talked about this. To remain alert during these end times, I suggested we do three things: pray, lament, and worship.
First, as Jesus says, we ought to pray during these end times. But how do we pray? Fortunately, Jesus has given us the words to pray in the Lord’s Prayer both as a guide on what to pray for, as well as words to pray when we don’t have the words. But what about impromptu prayer? When asked to pray at a fellowship gathering, for example, hardly anyone volunteers because we don’t know how to pray. I know because I used to be one of those people. It’s important to talk about this because if we ever come to a time where it’s illegal to worship God in public, like many times in the past and even the present in some places, how will we know how to pray to God together or privately if we’ve never learnt how to pray?
At the Bible study, I gave an acronym: simply P-R-A-Y, PRAY. P is for praise, R is for repent, A is for ask, and Y is for yield. The prayer guide looks like this: We begin with praising or thanking God for something He’s done and/or according to who He is, we repent for any sin weighing on our conscience (or just a general repentance), we ask or petition our need before God, and we yield to His will. Here’s an example prayer following this formula: “Lord Jesus, You are the Prince of Peace. Thank You for giving me peace with God through Your sacrifice on the cross. Forgive me where I have failed to live peaceably with my neighbour, especially on the internet. Our nation is in a state of unrest and hostility. Please grant peace in our nation, that we may live peaceably with one another and our rulers govern with wisdom. I ask this according to Your good and gracious will. Amen.” So, that’s prayer.
My second suggestion was lamentation, which is another form of prayer. We looked at Psalm 13 on what it looks like to lament. Lament begins with a complaint before God. Like the psalmist, we ask, “Why, God? Where are You? How long, O Lord?” Then following the complaint is the reasoning for your distress. “Where are You, O Lord? I am beset by financial stress. The frailty of old age surrounds me like wild dogs about to devour me. How long, O Lord?” After the complaint and the reasoning, the prayer of lament ends with trust and praise. The psalmist lists his complaints, his reasons, and then he ends with this interjection, But, “But I have trusted in Your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me” [Psalm 13:5-6].
The psalms of lament all follow this prayerful pattern: complaint, the reason, and trust and praise. So, as we witness these signs of the end times around us, sometimes it might be necessary to spend some time in prayer to lament before the Lord—a time for Him to hear our cries, tears, and faith in who He is despite troubling times.
The last thing I suggested in the Bible study follows from the end of a lament, which is worship. Should we only praise and worship God when things are going well for us? No! God is not a vending machine or a therapist! God is worthy of our praise not only when He blesses us with good things but even—and especially—when He permits our suffering for a little while. Job is our paradigm for this. When Job lost all ten of his children, his entire way of life, and suffered immensely with disgusting sores forming and popping all over his body, and even his nagging wife urging him to curse God and die, Job completely skips the complaint and reasoning of lament and goes straight to worship! He says, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD!” [Job 1:21]. This is not the emotional reaction to suffering we would expect; this is the response of steadfast faith and trust in the Lord.
And where do we go to praise and worship God? We come here, to church. Therefore, our regular attendance at church helps to keep us alert during these end times as we continue to receive the forgiveness of sins, fellowship with the brethren, and worship our Lord together.
I would like to add a fourth suggestion, which comes from our Lutheran Confessions. While we remain alert during these end times, our Lutheran forefathers suggest “that all are obliged to conduct themselves regarding bodily discipline, such as fasting and other work, in such a way as not to give occasion to sin, but not as if they earned grace by such works” [AC XXVI, 33-35]. What they’re saying is that while we remain alert, we simply continue to live as Christians. In other words, nothing changes for us in our daily lives. We keep doing the good works not as if we earn God’s grace by doing them but simply out of love for our neighbours who are in need. And we may also engage in bodily discipline, such as fasting, to help keep us from sin. Lent is soon approaching, so perhaps we all ought to consider if it would be good for us to fast in a couple months.
In summary, Jesus encourages prayer so that we “may have strength to escape these things that are going to take place” and “to stand before the Son of Man.” It is here that we must ask, “Where does the strength of prayer come from?” It comes not from some inner strength that is steadily waning within you, or from the persistence of your prayer. Rather, the strength of prayer comes from Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who has given us the words to pray, whose very Word will not pass away. And so, as these signs of the end times keep us alert, we raise our words to the Lord in prayer, lament, praise, and worship, trusting His Word will bring us to stand before Him when His kingdom—our redemption—advents upon us.
Until our redemption advents, may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Schumacher, Frederick J., and Dorothy A. Zelenko. For All the Saints: A Prayer Book For and By the Church. Volume I, Year 1: Advent to the Day of Pentecost. Delhi, NY: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1994.