published on Wednesday, December 2, 2009 by admin
"They asked him, 'Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and ‘The time is near.’ Do not go after them. . . . ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.'” -Luke 21: 7-8, 20-36
We human beings are not too good at reading the signs.
On the door to my office hangs one of my favorite Gary Larsen Far-Side Cartoons. In it a somewhat nerdy-looking boy is trying to enter the Midvale School for the Gifted. He’s carrying a book under one arm and leaning with his other arm, with all his weight, pressing against the door, straining, trying to push open the door with all his might to get in. On the door there is a sign in great big letters that explains his problem. It reads, “PULL.”
That’s us. We’re not too good at reading the signs.
But that’s also the people Jesus dealt with. All throughout the Gospels, people are coming up to Jesus and asking for a sign from heaven. And often, Jesus would oblige. He’d perform one sign or wonder or healing, more than John’s Gospel says he can even tell us about, but then the people will just ask for another sign. Even when Jesus is dragged before King Herod just before he’s murdered, Luke tells us that Herod was kind of excited to meet him, because he wanted to see Jesus do some sign. As if each sign were a kind of parlor trick.
Seemingly everybody in the Gospels that meets Jesus wants some sign, but when they get one they still don’t seem to be able to read those signs for what they mean. They’re pushing at a door that says, “pull.” At one point, Jesus throws up his hands in exasperation and says, “You people look up in the sky, and you see some dark cumulonimbus clouds gathering up, and you’re perceptive enough to say, ‘Uh, oh, it’s going to rain.’ And when you see the south wind blowing signaling summer, you realize that hot weather is on the way, you put on your shorts and T-shirts, and sure enough, the thermometer goes through the roof. You can interpret the signs of the sky: why can’t you interpret what it means that I am here?”
We’re not too good at reading the signs; at least, not the signs that matter.
Neither are the disciples in our Gospel story. The disciples are sitting there opposite the massive mega-church-St. Peter’s Cathedral sized-Mall of America-looking Temple, gaping at the shining stones and dazzling jewels, perhaps thinking silently that the Temple building, the central pivot point of Judaism, is what connects them to God. Suddenly Jesus unimpressed, tells them, “All of that is going to be nothing more than a pile of rubble.” He said that in part because he knew that he had been made the new Temple by his Father: he would now be the Temple through which people approached God. The disciples don’t get this and they’re shocked. They ask, “Teacher, when will this be? What will be the sign that this will take place?”
They want to know when the Temple will be destroyed. They want a sign to look for. Maybe they’re expecting Jesus to tell them something kind of esoteric, mysterious, some hidden knowledge: like, in the month of April, a blackbird with red eyes will land on the steeple and craw three times: it will then be eaten by a hawk wearing a purple sash and suddenly lightning will strike on the north portico and crop circles will appear in the cornfield and solar flares will pulse outward from the sun, and then you’ll know . . . or something like that.
I can’t help but chuckle at Jesus’ very different answer, because it’s so obvious. The sign is not esoteric hidden or mysterious at all. Basically Jesus tells them, “Well, when you see a great big old army camped around the Temple about to take it over, and they have really big weapons, well, that’s going to be the end of it: they’re going to tear it down.” Here’s your sign. And then Jesus says, “And when you see a great big angry looking army about to take over the city of Jerusalem, here’s my advice. Run. Don’t be prideful or brave, or think it’s your patriotic duty to stay and go down with the ship. Run. Head for the hills.”
There’s no mysterious sign here: it’s a very obvious sign. Even disciples who aren’t very good at reading signs, who are always pushing on doors that say “PULL” can get this one. It’s like Jesus says, “Trust me, you’ll know when it’s happening. The sign will be obvious and right in front of you.”
Sure enough, we know from history that around the year A.D. 70, about 40 years after Jesus was crucified and raised, a large Roman army will encamp around the Temple, and eventually they will raze it to the ground, take it apart piece by piece: it was the avalanche Jesus had foreseen, not one stone left on another, every one of them thrown down.
The sign Jesus gave could be trusted.
In the next breath, though, Jesus goes on to speak of other types of signs. Jesus moves from describing the signs of the destruction of the Temple to describing the signs that will be seen when he returns in glory, when he comes again in final victory. And this is what we believe, what we proclaim every time we receive Holy Communion, that “Christ has died” (he was crucified for our sins). “Christ is risen” (that he has forgiven us and is alive among us). And that “Christ will come again”, that a day is coming when Christ will appear in glory. And again, as Jesus talks about this, his message seems to be, that signs of the final victory will be obvious. They won’t be esoteric or mysterious or hidden. He says, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, the roaring of the sea, people fainting, the powers of the heavens shaken, the Son of Man coming in a cloud.” Just a star in the heavens signaled the Messiah’s birth to the Magi, so would signs in the heavens signal that final coming of Christ. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “In my first coming, the first Christmas, I came in hiddenness, born in a manger, cloaked in flesh, visible only to the eyes of faith, no matter how many signs I performed. But when I come again in fullness, it will be in power and glory.” It won’t be hidden: it will be obvious to all, like when you go to the eye doctor and they ask you to read the largest line of letters on the eye-chart first: the signs will be that clear to see.
And again, the sign Jesus gives can be trusted.
I don’t know about you, but if tomorrow I were to see crazy stuff happening in the sun, and moon, and stars, and then see the Son of Man surfing a stratus cloud up at the sky, I won’t need a prophet or an expert in the parousia to let me know that maybe something’s going on. So Jesus makes the point that the signs of the Second Coming, the unveiling, the final victory, whatever it will look like, will be obvious when it arrives. We don’t have to read the tea leaves or get out the oujia board or read books on prophecy or to look for signs of when it is near. In a sense, it is always near. Because we know this story ends. A friend of mine, Bible professor Dr. Efird, likes to say that when he meets people who are confused about the meaning of the book of Revelation in the Bible, he says he can sum it up in two words: God wins. And when God wins that final victory, when it comes in its fullness, Jesus says, trust me, you’ll know. So we don’t have to be like the little kid on the long car trip who keeps asking every ten minutes, “Are we there yet?” “Are we almost there yet?” When we get there, we’ll know.
In the meantime, we can know in the truest sense that we are always almost there. Because the signs that Jesus performed are signs that the kingdom of God has already broken in among us. God’s future has entered our present. It is at hand, Jesus says, as close as the hand at the end of our arm. At hand. The kingdom is coming. That train has left the station, and we can hear its far-off whistle. It’s coming, and its coming, Scripture tells us, “soon.” Soon could mean tomorrow, it could mean a thousand years from now, but soon means its coming. Soon means we are one day closer to it today than we were yesterday.
What a beautiful word, “soon.” What a beautiful word to a child who asks “When is Christmas going to be here?” “Soon.” What a beautiful word to someone who wonders “Am I ever going to feel whole again after what I’ve been through?” “Soon.” What a beautiful word of Advent hope. “When is my heart going to stop hurting so?” “Soon.” “Am I ever going to get through this?” “Soon.” “When am I going to see my loved one again?” “Soon.” “Lord, when shall I rejoice in your presence again as I have in days gone by?” “Soon.”
The kingdom of heaven is near, it is “at hand,” and it is coming with all its fullness, Jesus says, soon. And until then, until we see the unmistakable signs of the final victory, I can’t help but think that Jesus is more interested in the signs to be seen here on earth, than the signs to be seen in the heavens: not signs in the sun and moon and stars, but signs in me and you and us. We’re not so much looking for signs, the way so many people are in the Bible. We are signs. Signs of God’s kingdom. We are the sign before the final signs. We live the heavenly life here on earth, and by doing that our lives become signs pointing to God’s good future and final victory.
It’s said that the pastor and theologian Karl Barth had a medieval painting of the crucifixion of Jesus on the wall of his study. In the painting there is an image of John the Baptist, his extra long finger raised this way, directing and pointing the onlooker to the cross of Jesus in the center of the painting. Its said that when Barth would talk with a visitor about his work, he would direct them to John the Baptist in the painting, and he would say, “I want to be that finger.” I want to be a sign pointing to the victory of Christ.
We’re that finger. We are the people who have read the end of the book: we know how the story ends. We know God wins! And so we as God’s people, in our life of love together, its not that we stand on a corner holding a sign that says, “The End is Near,” but we live in a such a way that our life is a sign reading “The New Beginning is Near.” We show people God’s future right now, we live the heavenly life on earth. We’re like the preview or trailer of the movie that makes people look forward to seeing the full show. We’re like the warm-up act that gets people pumped up for the concert that is about to begin. We’re the taste or appetizer that makes people hunger for the full feast: like the lady at the ice cream shop who lets me get sample some of the chunky monkey brownie chocolate at the end of a stick before she hands me the full cone. People don’t have to travel through time on a mysterious island or gave into a crystal ball to look into the future: they can simply look at the life of the faithful, loving Christian: that, too, is a sign given by Jesus.
The sign Jesus gives can be trusted.
On a crisp day early last fall, stepping out of my car, and walking up towards the porch of my home in the evening, I noticed a bright red sycamore leaf that had fallen and lay by itself in my yard. It was so bright red it looked like it was on fire, and it was so beautiful and different from the green and brown grass that it was laying on that you couldn’t help but notice it. It was different. That bright red leaf was the first leaf of fall. And in that way, it was a kind of sign: laying there, it told me, “More are coming after me (so get the rake ready.) But it says “Fall is coming. A change is coming. Beauty is coming. Believe it.”
“Look at the fig tree and all the trees,” Jesus says. “As soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taken place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
We are that leaf. We are ahead of time. We are signs of the change that is coming, of the beauty that is about to follow. We can shine that brightly and be that beautiful. We don’t wait for the world to change, or for everything else to change its color. We can go ahead and be changed. We can point others what is coming, and live the heavenly life now: we can be a sign of God’s coming kingdom.
This world will set up all kinds of signs for people: telling them us which way to go. Some tell people to push when the door really only opens with a pull. Most of them are stop signs. Most of them say that the road we are travelling on is a dead end. There is no way you can go.
But here, right at the beginning of Advent, the church sets up another sign in the world:
We are a sign.
A soon sign.
And the sign Jesus gives can be trusted.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.