We are coming to the end of the church year. One more week and counting. With the end comes talk of the end. The end of all things and the coming of Jesus, the Son of Man, coming in a cloud with power and great glory. The end is a source of endless fascination. Fanciful speculations. All sorts of books and movies analyzing the times. When will it happen? What are the signs?
Perhaps you haven’t considered it for a while. Perhaps not at all. Maybe you think that this world will just keep on going as it is with its business as usual. It probably doesn’t enter our thinking when we are stuck in traffic or planning for the holidays or dealing with the endless stream of things we need to deal with every day. I’d be willing to guess that there aren’t too many of you here today who got up this morning and thought, “Hey, you know, this could be the last day of the cosmos.” It doesn’t really enter into our day to day thinking, which is one reason why we have a church year that ends with the business of the end.
We look at our institutions and buildings, our nation and its government, our way of life, and we think to ourselves, “This can’t possibly end.” We plan to hand things on to our children; we expect a tomorrow and a next day and a day after that. We have one year plans and five year plans and even ten year plans. How can everything for which we’ve worked so hard come to an abrupt end?
As Jesus was walking about the temple courtyard, He heard the religious sightseers admire the costly materials and workmanship of Herod’s renovation. There were big bucks invested in that temple. Jesus drops a shocker: Not one costly stone will be left on another. In our context, that might have been considered a terrorist threat against the major religious institution of Jerusalem. The temple – the dwelling place of God’s name, the place of His sacramental presence among His people. And Jesus says plainly, “This thing’s going down.”
When will it happen? What are the signs? Talk of the end brings such questions. Jesus prepares them for the near and the distant future, for the coming day of judgment on Jerusalem and the coming day of judgment on the world. And He does it in a single breath.
First a warning: Many will come in my name, other christs, other saviors, false messiahs, saying “I am he.” Ignore them. They may sound religious and spiritual, but spiritual is not necessarily of the Holy Spirit, and religious isn’t necessarily true. They will say, “The time is at hand.” Don’t follow them.
Jesus prepares His disciples for hardship and persecution. Don’t expect things to get better, just because the Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us. Things will get worse – nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, famines, diseases. It sounds like something out of the Sunday Times. Terrors on earth and signs from heaven. End times living is not easy. Jesus never said it was. This universe is tumbling toward its death, and the death throes are never pleasant.
They will be persecuted, arrested, brought before kings and theologians. This Gospel they preach, the good news that the world has its Savior in dead and risen Jesus, won’t play well in the world. They will be called to testify, to bear witness, to give their martyria even by their own martyrdom. Some will be put to death. But there is a promise in all of this. Don’t worry about what you are going to say; no need to cram for the exam. “I will give you a mouth and wisdom,” Jesus says to His disciples. He never leaves His church breathless or wordless; He never leaves His baptized believers without a word of witness. Don’t worry ahead of time about what you will say when it comes your time to speak. You just keep reading and praying and worshiping, and the Spirit will use all of it – every Scripture, every devotion, every sermon, every psalm, hymn, and spiritual song as raw material for the time when you must speak. You will have a mouth and wisdom for it will be the Lord’s mouth and His wisdom.
Some of you they will put to death, Jesus says. Of the Twelve, all but John died a martyr’s death. It comes with the territory. The world crucified Jesus; it won’t be too enamored of His followers. Don’t expect Christianity to be popular. Jesus Himself says, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” That should put to rest any notion that Christianity is going to top the religious hit parade. Hated! Persecuted! Betrayed by family and friends! This is hardly the health, wealth, and happy “gospel” you hear preached on television and from the religious best-seller list these days. Are you surprised?
But there’s a promised imbedded in all these dire warnings. “Not a hair of your head will perish.” Your Father knows their number, and He knows you. Your life is held in the hands of the One who loved you and laid down His life to save you. Even if you die, not one hair on your head will be unaccounted for on resurrection day. And then your faith, your trust in the promise of God in Jesus will be vindicated, and by your patient endurance you will gain your life. Though you die, yet you will live; and living and believing Jesus, you never die forever.
The world as we know it will die, however. Institutions have their lifespan. Nations and empires rise and fall. The splendid temple in Jerusalem they were admiring that day eventually did topple at the hands of the Roman army in AD 70, just as Jesus has predicted. He prepared that first generation of disciples for the unbelievable event, as Roman armies surrounded the city and laid siege. His disciples knew in advance to flee the city and head for the hills. Jesus had warned them ahead of time, and those who took Jesus’ words seriously and heeded them were spared.
The end of the temple was signaled on Good Friday, when the curtain was torn in two from top to bottom as Jesus died. The time of the temple was over. The greater temple, the temple of the body of the Son of God was now established in His death. From that point on, God was to be approached through the death of His Son. No longer a building, now a body. No longer through the blood of bulls and goats, but now through the blood of His Son. It took nearly forty years for God to dispose of the temple at the hands of the Roman army, but that’s how God works. He’s in no hurry; when God has spoken, it’s already done.
Again, there is good news imbedded in Jerusalem’s destruction. The time of the Gentiles had begun. As St. Paul put it in Romans, a branch of the Israelite was tree was cut off and a wild branch grafted in. The Gentiles. The “nations.” Once outsiders, now insiders, drawn near by Jesus who came to save all. We continue to live in the “times of the Gentiles,” the times when the “all nations” are made disciples through baptizing and teaching. Jerusalem, yet today, remains trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, as a lasting testimony of God’s judgment against all, including His own people, who would refuse the salvation that is theirs in Jesus.
In the same breath, Jesus pushes to the end of all things. The destruction of Jerusalem was only a foretaste of the destruction to come, a picture-type of the cosmic end when the sun is darkened, the moon turns to blood, the stars fall from the sky, the sea roars and foams, and humanity is shaken to its core. This is the true thing to fear – not global warming or rising oil prices or economic distress or war in the middle east. But the great cosmic end of everything when the heavens will be shaken as never before and people will faint with fear and foreboding at what is coming on the world.
Then faith will be vindicated. Then your patient endurance will give way to beatific vision. Then you will see with your own eyes what you now must hear and believe. Just when things are at their worst and you are left with literally nothing in this world, precisely then sit up and lift your heads, Jesus says, because your redemption draws near. Jesus is near, now in Word and Supper, and soon to be in visible glory, and with Him there is redemption, forgiveness of sin and eternal life.
In a very real sense, all the events of the end have already happened in that one, dark death on a Friday afternoon when the Son of God in the flesh hung on a cross and cried “It is finished.” There the world is judged and condemned by God under the Law for our sin. There the world is saved, atoned for, redeemed, reconciled to God. So as you go about your days in these last of days, serving others in the various aspects of your vocation (as St. Paul reminded the Thessalonians, the end times are no time for idleness), remember that the One who comes in the clouds with power and glory is the same One who came by a virgin Mother and a manger and a cross to save you.
The end draws near.
Your redemption draws near.
Your Jesus draws near.
Any day now.
In the name of Jesus,