Last Words on Last Things

Luke 21:5-32 / Proper 27A / 14 November 2010 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees; as soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Nothing quite captivates our interest like the end, what the theologians call “eschatology,” last words, the end times, the last days, the Last Day. Some folks have their eye out on 2012 as being a significant year because the Mayan calendar runs out of steam in 2012, though the Mayans ran out of steam as a culture a long time ago. That makes almost as much sense as concluding that the world will end in 2051 because the Lutheran Service Book only lists the dates of Easter to 2050. That may even be a bit optimistic, both for the world and for the hymnal. Remember Y2K, the year 2000? What a snoozer that was! Even the local ATMs and gas pumps didn’t hiccup. Let’s face it, whenever we try to predict the end of the world and prepare for it as though it were an appointment on our day planner, we’re going to wind up with eschatological egg on our faces.

Jesus was walking around the temple courts during what we call “Holy Week,” the week leading up to His death and resurrection. The temple was undergoing an extensive renovation under King Herod who was trying to curry the favor of the Jews, seeing as he wasn’t one of them but wanted to be their king. The temple that had been built after the return from exile was built on a bit of a shoestring budget, you know how renovation projects can be, and so Herod was throwing a bunch of money at the temple to bring it up to Solomon’s specs, hoping the people would love him for it.

As Jesus and His disciples were walking around the temple courts, they could see the scaffolding and hear the stone cutters hard at work. People were admiring the craft and the materials – the noble stones and offerings. And Jesus says out loud, “The days are coming when one stone won’t be left standing upon another that will not be thrown down.” That’s a bit like saying the word “bomb” in a TSA line in the airport. It could get you crucified.

The temple was the national and religious center of Israel. It was the place where the glory of God had formerly dwelt. It once held the ark of the covenant with its mercy seat. It still was a place of sacrifice, though the sacrifices had become pro forma transactions and the priesthood went to the highest bidder. The temple was still the center of Israel’s religious life, it’s history, it’s dreams, hopes, expectations. When Messiah comes, he will restore the temple, they thought. And Jesus says, the days of this temple are numbered.”

Jesus made two predictions in His earthly ministry – that He would be crucified and on the third day rise to life again, and that the temple and Jerusalem would be destroyed within His generation. The way you tested a prophet was whether his words came to pass. Both of them did. Jesus did actually, historically, factually die and rise as He said. And the temple and Jerusalem were destroyed by the Roman army in the Jewish wars of AD 66 to 70. Anyone who wants to call Jesus “a great prophet” needs to deal with these two prophesies of His, and then the claim that He is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

Jesus doesn’t tell us when the end will come. There’s no point. If you knew the Last Day was a week from Tuesday you’d be doing all sorts of things, good and bad, right up until the last moment, anything but trusting in the promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation for Jesus’ sake. And so for the sake of your faith, Jesus doesn’t tell you when the end will come.

Instead, He lays out the signs and interprets them. He warns us that the end times will be filled with false Christ, false prophets, false religions. People will claim to come in His name, publish “Left Behind” books in His name, say “the end is near” to try to scare the bejeebers out of you. The will be wars and tumults (think terrorism here). And Jesus says, “Don’t worry about it, and don’t be afraid.” These things have to happen first as things go from bad to worse to even worse. The end times will be a time of war, of upheaval in the creation (earthquakes, famines, pestilences, global warming, you name it). Persecutions too. People delivered up to death for confessing Christ. It happens today all over the world. Not so much here. At least not yet. Here we just whine when things don’t go our way. Wait’ll the persecutions begin.

Family will betray family. Remember what Jesus said about “hating father, mother, son, daughter”? The greatest temptation to forsake Christ may come from your own family. Jesus says, “This will be your opportunity to bear witness.” Don’t worry about what you are going to say. Just keep studying your Scripture, your catechism, your doctrine and Jesus will give you a mouth and wisdom and words. I can attest that He will. That doesn’t mean I don’t prepare a sermon. I do, and I write it out. But I’m under persecution here. He says some of His followers will be put to death, martyred, as all the apostles except John were martyred. You’ll be hated for the name of Jesus. But don’t worry. Why would you worry? He’s conquered sin, death, hell, the devil, the Law, and the world. What do you have to worry about? “Not a hair of your head will perish.”

Do you get the impression that end times living is not exactly a bed of roses? You’ve got it right then! The fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple are a picture, a type, a pattern, for the end of all things on the Last Day. Jesus prepares them. When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, head for the hills. Christians believed that and were spared the destruction. Jesus said that Jerusalem would be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled, meaning until the end. What is sitting on the temple mount today? A mosque. The Dome of the Rock. Just to ensure there is never a temple again. Ever. There is no need for one.

The true and final temple was not that building in Jerusalem. It was the flesh of Christ, His body. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.” The Jerusalem temple never rose, it never will. The temple of Jesus’ body rose from the dead after being destroyed by the Gentiles. He is the true temple. His Body and Blood are the true sacrifice for sin. His covenant is the last and everlasting covenant of forgiveness and life.

The true and final city is not Jerusalem, but the city of God, the Church, made not with human hands but by the hand of God Himself. Not rising up from the earth, but coming down from heaven. On Good Friday, at three in the afternoon, in the darkness, the time of the temple and Jerusalem ended. The curtain was torn in two. Forty years later the city and building were destroyed, just as Jesus had predicted.

If Jesus was right about all that, and He was, He’ll be right about the coming Day, when the sun and moon and stars will be darkened, as they already were on the day of His death. The awful Day when the heavens are shaken. The Day when Jesus, the Son of Man, comes in all His Messianic glory and power. In fact, He’s already gone down that Last Day road ahead of us, through the darkness, through the death, through the persecution and destruction. And He has come out alive, risen from the dead, glorified. And you, baptized into His death, are alive and glorified already in Him.

And so, “when you see these things beginning to take place,” these signs of the end, this distress and darkness and destruction that mark the last days and foreshadow the Last Day, then “straighten up, lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Notice that. Your redemption is drawing near. Not your destruction. Not your demise. Not your death. Your redemption.

Jesus gives a picture. The fig tree in spring and all the trees. The branches fat with sap. The buds ready to burst. The leaves ready to break out because summer is already near. So it is with the kingdom. The world may be sitting in the dead of its winter. The whole creation may be groaning as in labor pains. But the sign Jesus gives to His disciples is not a sign of death but of life. The budding fig tree. Summer is near, even in the dead of winter. “These are but the birth pangs” of the new creation.

We worry, we fret, we doubt, we tremble because we do not believe. We do not trust Jesus or take Him at His Word. And so the end times, eschatology, causes us anxiety. We search for security in the false messiahs, the false Christs, the false religions. We bury our heads under our comfortable security blankets of denial. You can see why Jesus doesn’t tell us the day or even the year. He didn’t tell the Mayans or the editors of the hymnal either. It’s not for us to know the times or the seasons. It is for us to testify when called upon, to flee when necessary, to confess Christ at all times, to straighten up, to lift up our heads and our hearts to God from whom all blessings flow.

Christ is coming soon, even as He comes now in bread and wine and Word. Your redemption is drawing near even as it has already drawn near in your baptismal union with Christ. Your Jesus is drawing near. Heaven and earth will pass away. His words will never pass away. His words of forgiveness, life, and salvation spoken to you will never pass away. Nor will you, dear baptized believer. Not a hair of your head will perish.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

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