Sermon, Advent 2, Gospel, Luke 21:25-36
One of the blessings of living in the Great Plains of the United States is our big sky. Driving on the Kansas Turnpike between Wichita and Emporia one sees a 360 degree bowl of sky on the horizon. On a clear day with a few clouds, you can almost imagine peering into heaven itself. And the varied cloud patterns are a visible drama that one misses in the caverns of the big cities. Here we can see the rays of dawn shooting in the eastern sky in the morning, and the sky setting the west ablaze at sunset. In between, we have the ever changing shapes in the clouds in which children love to see figures and shapes. “Do you see a dog?” “Where?” “Over there. See the nose and the ears?” “O, yes, I think I see it now!” Sometimes you can see people’s faces, even Jesus, maybe.
Today’s text tells us that someday we will all look up and see Jesus in a cloud, coming with great power and glory. He will come after a time of great trouble. There will be many signs of His coming beforehand, like thunderheads gathering on the horizon. The signs will be seen in the sun and moon and distress in the nations on earth because of the seas’ roaring. People will be so afraid that they will faint with fear for the future of their world. The powers of the heavens will be shaken. Jesus explained these troubled times to His disciples who had been asking Him when the temple would be destroyed, for when they told Jesus how much they admired the beauty of the temple of Jerusalem, one of the architectural marvels of the time, He told them that not one stone would be left on another. Naturally they were shocked. The temple was where God was worshipped. If the temple were destroyed, then where would they offer sacrifices? How would God be able to bless them? It would mean the end of God’s covenant with them, to bless the nations through the seed of Abraham, through the king of David’s line. Jesus wanted to prepare them for what was to come. And what He predicted did come to pass. The temple of Jerusalem was burned and demolished in 70 ad by the Romans.
But Jesus’ prediction wasn’t just about the destruction of the temple, it also pointed to the destruction of the temple of His body, the place where God meets man, a few days later on the cross. At his death, the sky grew dark as night at noontime, a great earthquake shook Jerusalem, water rushed from His spear-pierced side as His disciples and onlookers fled in fear and foreboding of what was coming,.
All the signs that Jesus pointed to happened at His crucifixion, and have been happening ever since. There have been eclipses of the sun and moon, tsunamis, volcanic explosions, earthquakes, wars, epidemics–frightening signs. You think Ebola is bad. Try the black plague, which wiped out a third of the population of Europe. Persecution of the Jews is nothing new, either. It has been going on since since they were expelled by the Romans from Palestine in the second century, expelled from England and Spain later, and almost exterminated seventy years ago.
It is certainly true that Western culture and society is turning upside down. What was unspeakable sixty years ago is celebrated today. What was honored sixty years ago is mocked and attacked today. People openly revel in their hatred of Christianity. Churches were once full. Now they are struggling. Marriage and family were once considered sacred. Now people are marrying their pets and themselves. It is enough to make one faint with fear and foreboding of what is coming next to the world.
But Jesus says to His disciples and to us, I am returning. These things will end. “Take heart. Straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” For the disciples, their redemption came to them as they huddled behind locked doors. Jesus walked into the room where they were gathered on the evening of Easter and said, “Peace to you!” (Luke 24:36) He didn’t come to judge them for their cowardice or little faith, but to build up their faith, to strengthen and confirm it with His words, and by His bodily presence. He came to remind them that all He had predicted about His death and resurrection had come true, therefore they could confidently trust in His promise to return in a cloud with great power and glory on the last day and redeem all who were His by faith. Later the disciples saw Him taken into heaven in a cloud. As He had promised them, they received the Holy Spirit in power at Pentecost. Jesus’ word of promise and fulfillment filled them with great joy and unstoppable courage.
He has come to us, too, bringing us joy and peace, and expectation of the fulfillment of His promises, especially in this time of preparation for Christmas, the season of peace on earth. We may be swamped by the many obligations and cares of this life, but He comes to us in His Word and says, “Don’t let the your hearts be weighed down with these cares. Don’t let yourself be distracted by worry or fear for the future. Trust me. I have overcome the world.” Yes, the clouds look ominous. Storms and struggles lie ahead, as they did for Jesus when He spoke those words to His disciples in Passion week. Terrible storm clouds lay ahead for Him, and for the disciples, almost all of whom died martyr’s deaths. Threatening stormclouds filled the skies over the early church, persecuted by the Roman state, and then by the barbarian tribes in Europe to whom the Gospel was brought. Jesus came through His storm, the terrible storm of God’s righteous anger at the sin which he bore for us, in His resurrection and ascension. The apostles came through the storm of persecution with their faith intact, but paying the price of death. And through the example of their lives and deaths they gave courage to generations of persecuted Christians. The early church grew the more it was persecuted. Like the first martyr Stephen, the martyrs of the early church stood straight and raised their heads to look for the Son of Man returning on a cloud with great power and glory. And like Jesus, they will be resurrected to eternal life when He returns.
When Christ comes again, there will be no question of, “What does that cloud look like? Everyone will know. As it says in Revelation, Every knee will bow, willingly or not. For the enemies of God, the image of Christ coming on the cloud will be dismaying and terrifying, for they will see their judgment is drawing near.
But for us, the image of Christ on the cloud will not be frightening. His image will be an image of great joy, for we will know that our redemption is drawing near, our redemption from sin, death, and the devil. For Christ has come to us already, once as a baby, and again in our Baptisms. And He comes again whenever we are gathered together to hear His Word and to receive His body and blood. As He came to earth the first time not as a judge, but as a Lamb, as a servant who took our burdens on Himself, so that we could be with Him, so He will come that way again to those who believe in him, only this time not as a baby, but as King, in visible glory and power.
What is this staying awake that Jesus talks about so much?. It isn’t becoming an insomniac, drinking cup after cup of coffee, but that we keep our lamp of faith burning by replenishing it with the oil of His Word. We stay awake by coming to our Lord in prayer, thanking Him for all that we have received,, and asking Him for what we need to sustain us in this life, our daily bread, We stay awake when we remind ourselves of all that we have received and return our tithes and offerings. Looking at what we give wake us up to how much we really trust the Lord’s promises to provide for all our needs of body and soul. We keep awake by gathering together as a family of faith, supporting our brothers and sisters when they are weak, and receiving support from them when we are weak ourselves, sharing their joys and letting them share our joys. As Saint Paul says in our Epistle today, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7).
But we don’t need to stay awake looking at the clouds for signs of the return of Christ, for all the signs He has listed have already occurred, first two thousand years ago and throughout this time of waiting. When we see the church struggling, the world going to hell, we are seeing the signs that Jesus talked about continuing today, the way they have ocurred since He came to us the first time. Ever since Jesus ascended to heaven it has been the time to straighten up and lift our heads. And if we should die before He comes again, when He returns He will reunite our souls with our glorified bodies, stand us up straight and raise our heads to look upon His gentle face welcoming us to His new heavens and earth.
We don’t have to look to the clouds to figure out what God’s will is for our lives. He has shown us His will, in the words of the Ten Commandments, that we trust in Him for everything good, and that we love our neighbor. We don’t have to guess whether we are being disciplined by Him or rewarded. As long as we are in the sinful flesh we suffer the consequences of sin in our flesh, so that we may keep awake to our need for God’s mercy, which He has promised us.
We don’t need to wonder if God loves us. He has shown us His love in His Son, who came to us as a baby, lived a perfect life for us, died for our sins, rose again so that we might have eternal life, comes to us today in Word and Sacrament, and is coming again on a cloud to bring us to be with Him forever. He has promised this in His Word. That’s where we look. Now, we and Christ’s Church are bowed down under the weight of the many crosses of this life, but the day is coming when those crosses will be lifted from us and we will straighten up and lift our heads to the sky to see our redemption drawing near. That is a cloud picture that we who have been claimed by God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will see and recognize and rejoice in. May we see it soon. Amen.
Preached at Calvary Lutheran Church, Wellington, Kansas