A talk on Luke 21: 25-36, given at All Saints Crowborough on 2 December 2012
If you have ever made a car journey of any length with small children, you will be familiar with those four little words which squeal from the back seat at regular intervals: “Are we nearly there?” It’s something that you may have felt yourself on a long journey; and you may even have felt the same way about life itself.
When we read about the first Christians we find a curious mixture of two things: one the one hand they are fully contented to be alive and living for Jesus; and on the other hand they have that “are we there yet?” feeling: a yearning to be somewhere else: a yearning for deliverance from the troubles of this world. You may have felt that yourself – a longing for heaven. Or perhaps the prospect of leaving this world leaves you feeling uncertain because you’re not quite sure what you will find on the other side of death.
Well, in that bible reading from Luke 21 (p82), we find Jesus talking with his disciples during the week before he dies, warning and encouraging them about what’s to come. Actually it’s all sparked off by a remark some people make about the Jerusalem temple. We see it back in verse 5. It’s as if you were to say to me, “Look around here – isn’t this a beautiful building? And see there, that stained glass window was given in memory of X, and Lord Y donated the organ, and Lady Z pays for the communion rail to be French-polished every September. And I say to you, “Do you see this place? The days are coming when it will be thrown down into a heap of rubble!” And to that horrifying thought the disciples ask the instinctive question: “When? What will be the sign that these things are on the way?” And in answer Jesus says three things to them, which I think he would equally say to us: Firstly, Terrible things will happen on earth. Secondly, Redemption is coming. Thirdly, Stay on your guard.
Let’s look at those three things in turn.
Firstly, Terrible things will happen on earth.
Let’s pick it up from verse 25, on page 82.
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
If we read back earlier in the chapter we’d see the full catalogue of what is predicted: wars, earthquakes, famine. Life will be hard for everybody. And life will be especially hard for the disciples. They will be betrayed even by family members, and dragged into court to account for their Christian faith. Now these predictions of Jesus are fulfilled in two different ways. Firstly, the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple really did happen at the hands of the Romans in AD70, forty years later, and while some of those disciples were still living. But Jesus is clearly not just talking about that single event. For example, in verse 35 he says it “will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth.” No, the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 serves as a kind of visual aid of an even worse destruction: the run-up to the final judgment when Jesus returns in his glory.
So this passage doesn’t just say that life will be hard if you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who died in Jerusalem in AD70. It says that life will be hard for everyone on earth as the final days get nearer and nearer…and especially hard for Christians.
I once heard an Australian, a man from Sydney, preaching about heaven. He said, “You know what the trouble is for our Christians back home? Sydney is such a nice place to live, what with the weather, the beaches, the city life, the company, that you don’t really need to believe in heaven.”
There are days when I feel like that about life in the UK; but Jesus warns us that terrible things are going to happen. We might see this worked out in terrible natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tropical storms. We might see it worked out in awful terrorist attacks. And even these things will be slight compared with God’s final judgment on sin, which is what they point to.
It’s not always particularly nice to read passages like Luke 21 in the bible. They are difficult and uncomfortable. But it is remarkably good for our souls, because they help us to understand God, to understand ourselves, and to understand the times in which we live. That’s the meaning of Jesus’ parable of the fig tree in v29: we see the blossom on the trees and we know that summer is near. And “so also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
Elsewhere the bible talks about the whole world as being like a woman with terrible labour pains: the pain is truly awful (or so I am reliably informed) but it is a final and sure sign that the baby is on the way. It is the gateway to the future. Which leads us on to the second thing Jesus says:
2. Redemption is coming
Look at verse 27:
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
Time will not just go on for ever. The labour pains will bring forth the baby, so to speak, and the skies will be split by the arrival of ‘the Son of Man’ – that is, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will come to complete the redemption of his people – the redemption he bought at the Cross, as we remember at this Communion service. It is the single most significant fact in future history; it is the thing I’m waiting for and living for.
But life is hard; the Christian life is in many ways even harder; and waiting is harder still. The great danger is that, consciously or subconsciously, we give up on the prospect of Jesus’ return. So he also says:
3. Be on your guard.
Look at verse 32:
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.
Like the child on a long car journey, we need to keep saying to God, “Are we nearly there?” The danger comes, actually, when we stop asking the question; when we give up hope; when we stop actively believing in our Saviour’s return. Then we will simply get caught up in the things of this world – as in verse 34. It might be dissipation and drunkenness; that might mean that we’re just lost in the pursuit of pleasure; or it might mean we’re drinking to cope instead of praying to cope. Or perhaps you today just feel overwhelmed with the ‘worries of this life’.
This is such a serious matter, because did you notice that there are two ways for the return of Jesus to find people? One is in verse 28: it’s the picture of an oppressed people gladly lifting up their heads as the Saviour comes. The other is in verse 34. For those who aren’t ready the return of Jesus will come like a trap. That’s a perilous way to be found by someone who will come not just as Saviour but also as Judge, as we remember on this Advent Sunday. So, as verse 36 says, we need to “Be alert at all times, praying that [we] may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man”.
And that prayer is a prayer we can pray with complete confidence, because “the strength to escape” is found not in ourselves but in Jesus. It’s through total surrender to him, casting ourselves onto him in prayer, that we can be saved.
And, as we pray, we must be alert, ‘raising our heads’ to our Redeemer; always looking for Jesus to come back; always saying, “Are we nearly there?”
One of the best practical ways to do all that is to meet regularly with another Christian to read the bible and pray; there are some great resources available to help with that, and you could speak with me later. This will not just help you be ready for Jesus to return, but it will help someone else be ready as well; and in the days that remain for us on earth that is the best way we can ever use our time.