They stared west, the setting sun a glowing ember orange and hot in their eyes. There is not too often snow on Mt. Zion, never enough to make a mountain, but from where they watched across the Kidron, Herod’s Temple was almost like a blocky mountain of snow, a proud, white glow in the fading light – and in their Jewish hearts. The disciples for joy had pointed it all out to Jesus as they left the city earlier. “Teacher! Look at these tremendous stone buildings!” Blocks as long as this sanctuary. Gold more than you’ll ever see. Gates taller than the trees we recently cut. Something in which Israel could be proud. Certainly, therefore, they hadn’t expected his response, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down!”
“Not the temple!” You could almost hear the protests in their heads, roaring as they silently stared with tears in their eye across the valley at the temple, glowing white and gold. That God’s house on earth would be torn apart? That couldn’t be! And so, as they longed and looked, they asked their Savior the question that precedes our sermon this day, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
Jesus doesn’t really answer the question the disciples asked, but he does share some signs. They are the kinds of bad things the world has seen ever since Jesus ascended away. Natural disasters of all kinds – super storms, tsunamis, earthquakes, famines, floods. Wars and worrisome rumors about wars that haven’t yet begun. And not just state on state violence but, as Jesus says literally at the start of v.8, race against race – black/white, Hutu/Tutsi, German/Jew. Troubling things…
When people see these bad signs what do they say? In the world, don’t they say that things could be better – these are signs that things are bad. They say, “If we can arrange human experience just so, then people won’t war, the earth will heal instead of storm.” And when people are looking for solutions to all that’s wrong, isn’t it just as Jesus promised in v.5? Some people say, “Hey, I’ll be your savior!” Throughout history there have been those who claimed to be the Christ and some have always been deceived and followed down a deadly path. But even when they aren’t false Christ crazies, in Christ’s name some always offer up false solutions: that the bad signs tell us we’ve believed the wrong things all along; that good religion will make humanity good. So some claim to know the things you must to do to make God happy, or the work you must do to save God’s creation, or what you must or must not say to be loving. And some even persecute those who speak God’s truth instead. Jesus shared these all – bad things in nature and bad things from humans – so that we would see the bad signs.
Isn’t it tempting to look out at all the bad signs and be troubled – as though things ought to be better, with the implication that if we could just do right things would be right? It’s easy to be deceived – sometimes when we’re vulnerable – to listen to the false Christ voices of the world that say we need to change what we believe – find something we can do to assure that we’ll be okay. It’s easy to look toward the end and be deceived into thinking that what’s necessary is what feels good to us and that what’s difficult is a bad sign that things are bad, that we need to fix them.
These are a bit like our weather reports lately. We live in Wisconsin, yet every time a winter storm comes, we’re on “Winter Storm Watch”. We’re informed of every supercell and every snowfall receives “breaking news” minute by minute coverage. “Yes, Don, since we spoke last, more snow has fallen…” And every time the implication that we have to be afraid, that we ought to stay home, or we need to do…who-knows-what. And all the while, there’s this voice shouting in the back of our brains, “Dude…it’s winter. Can’t you just be ready?”
Do you see that’s why Jesus doesn’t answer the question the disciples asked. They wanted to know when and exactly how the end would come. But Jesus answered the unspoken question in their hearts, the question every human being asks when the reality we expect seems to come apart, “What will we do?” Jesus answer, “Watch for the End.” He said, “Don’t be deceived…” and, in v.7, “Such things must happen…” These bad signs are what God has planned in anticipation of the hour of God’s judgment against sin. That the world and people are broken with sins. These are, as we heard from Jeremiah, a warning to not believe the lie but instead, to repent! “Turn from your evil ways…” And with believing hearts to, “Fear God and give him glory…”
Which is how we watch for the end and discern what’s really going on. By faith we see the bad signs as signs of better things to come. You know that all these signs point to something better coming because of the other sign that must happen – v.10: “the gospel must first be preached to all nations.” Did you know that this text was spoken in the middle of the gospel? I mean in the middle of it’s happening: Jesus said these things on Monday of Holy Week, after he rode into Jerusalem the victor, after he cleared the temple and battled the false teachers’ traps. Just before he marched on under all the signs that the worst was coming for him at the cross. He marched on still and died so that the best sign could be ours – his cross that says, “It is finished.” That by forgiveness for all of our sins, every person who watches the signs could know by faith that “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
That’s why Jesus compares the signs to birth pains. When a husband and wife encounter birth pains, they don’t generally try to stop them because they know they’re signs of something better to come. God is bringing about his good salvation – so disciples of Jesus watch for the End and stand with the Spirit to proclaim this good news.
It may be that often our weak hearts ask, “What will we do?” as in, “What if I mess up in these moments when everything seems to fall apart and I’m called to witness for Christ?” When we’re persecuted at work for our stance on life-issues because we know how Christ values life… When we’re depressed because the world seems to take another turn down the path to entire immorality instead of in step with Christ… When we’re afraid because we are Christians and around the world Christians are dying with Jesus’ name on their lips… Jesus calms our fears and our hearts and says, “Do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” He’s not saying, “Don’t worry, just wing it.” He’s not saying, “Whatever you say will be a-okay.” He’s saying, “Don’t worry about what you can do – my plans have never been about what you can do, but about what I have done and will do – and so, God’s Holy Spirit is right there with you. In fact, it’s like you aren’t even doing the talking – he’s in control.”
Interestingly, in Luke’s account of the same words, Jesus said, “I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” Do you remember that promise fulfilled? When Peter preached at Pentecost and thousands were converted? When Paul stood among the Areopagites and many mocked but some believed? Or when city councils finally had to throw the disciples in prison or flog them and send them away? When a little monk opened God’s Word, or nailed 95 thoughts to the city newsboard, or when he and others held fast to the gospel and finally said, “Here we stand…”?
On this Reformation Sunday, we don’t venerate a man. We aren’t here to shout, “Hooray Lutheranism!” We celebrate God’s gospel. We celebrate the work God’s Holy Spirit can do as he preaches the good news of Jesus Christ – his salvation by grace alone, which we receive by faith alone, found and shared through Scripture alone. When the church had lost its way because it lost this gospel, a believing man did not worry, “What can I do?” but saw the bad signs of better things to come. And he and others stood with the Spirit to proclaim the good news boldly and loudly for all to hear because he knew “the gospel must…be preached.” In part because he loved the gospel he had learned. May God continually reform our hearts so that we rejoice in our Savior’s love and Watch for the End – making ready to be God’s people forever by proclaiming his forever gospel without fear, no matter what we see! Amen.