Our text today has two parts: first a prediction of how it will be just before final end: signs in the heavens and the sea, fearful reactions of the people, and the final entrance of the Son of Man at the end of time (verses 25-28). The point is clear: the end will be obvious on a world-wide scale; you will not be unaware of it when it comes, and neither should we fear it; with the end comes our redemption.
The second part (verses 29-35) of the text is the parable of the fig tree (and all trees), which is a warning about how to live in the mean time before the great obvious end.
We are going to see that this text is powerfully important to us today: we need its message now more than ever. We will look at both parts of this text together.
The Temple Setting
First let us notice the setting: As he says these words, Jesus is standing in the temple in Jerusalem. There can be no more significant place on the planet for Jesus to be standing than the temple, the central focus of worship of the God of Israel, the One, Single God of all creation.
This temple, originally built by king Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah, and now is once again under a massive reconstruction by King Herod. He began the process in 20 BC; it is still under construction when Jesus is standing there. It will finally be completed in 63 AD. It will stand finished for only 7 short years. Three years after its completion the Jews will attempt a revolt against Rome. In response, the Roman General Titus will desecrate and smash the temple in 70 AD, leaving it a pile of rubble. An arch was built for Titus in Rome, celebrating this great victory; carved reliefs on it show the great menorah, the 7 branched candelabra, symbol of Judaism being carried out as plunder.
In the verses of Luke’s gospel just before the ones we read today, Jesus, standing in that temple, predicted its soon demise. For Jews, predicting the destruction of the temple was high treason; as if someone stood on the steps of the White House predicting the destruction of our government and nation – only an enemy would do such a thing. This prediction, remember, came up as evidence in Jesus’ trail, and as grounds for capital punishment.
This text is not only powerful because Jesus predicted something that came true; this part of it had already come true by the time Luke wrote his gospel. Luke wrote after Rome had already smashed the Jewish revolt and the temple. People reading this text would have powerful reasons to pay attention to what Jesus was saying about what would happen later, because the evidence of his genuine credentials as a true prophet were before their very eyes.
Why did Luke bother to report these predictive words about the temple after they came true and were no long useful as predictions? For the same reason that he reports Jesus’ words about the distant future which we read. The point is this: God is in control. There is a large purpose behind the seemingly random events of history. There is a great purpose that history is moving towards.
Do you think the destruction of the temple was profound? Wait until the heavens start shaking and the ancient sea starts to rumble into life. These images – which by then had become stereotypical for prophets – were large and bold and meant to get our attention. As writer Flannery O’Connor put it, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for he almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” (cited in Christian Century, Nov. 17, 2009, p. 21). When the world is at its most chaotic moment, God is still in control.
Today’s Apocalyptic Events
We desperately need this message today. The heavens and the earth are shaking; we are living in times of massive change. Think back to how life was when you were young; for most of you it was before the civil rights movement, before the women’s movement, before globalization, before the digital revolution, computers, cell phones, the internet. Where is this going? Where will it end? Where will the church be? Where is God in all of this?
Listen: God is not surprised by any of this. God is still Lord of heaven and earth, and he is guiding history to the great end he has created it for. Eventually everything in heaven and on earth will be gathered together; evil will be defeated; death will be no more; peace and justice will reign from the rising of the sun to its setting. As is says in Rev. 11:15
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (see also 1 Cor. 15:20ff)
What does this mean for us who are in the middle of it, living through all these changes? It means that our lives are part of something much bigger than ourselves. In the end, it is not about us. We are part of a much bigger story; it is the story of what God is doing in the world
Tragically, the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day could not conceive that God’s purpose in the world was bigger than their temple, for their people, in their country. We will not make that same mistake. It is God’s purpose to redeem creation; to unite Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free in one new humanity; to unite all things in Christ, the new Adam.
Instead of living in anxiety and fear, we are people who know which direction God is moving history towards. That means that everything we do in our lives, in our age, is not trivial, but it is profoundly significant. We commit ourselves to living the kind of lives that are in congruity with God’s purposes for creation. We will work for justice; we will champion the cause of the weak; we will work to alleviate suffering, to diminish hunger and poverty, disease and homelessness, and for peace because we know that this is God’s goal for creation, and he is working to bring it to pass. We find our purpose for being here as we participate in God’s great purpose of reconciliation and redemption.
The Fig Tree
So how, specifically are we to live? This is where the second part of this text comes in: the parable of the fig tree. It’s simple: new leaves show that a new season is near. You make the same point by saying, “when the curtain rises, you know the show has begun.” Well, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, and the show has begun. What is the show? It is that the kingdom of God has come near (v. 31).
34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life,
36Be 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.”
How are we to live? Not in despair at all the changes around us, not depressed by how things are not as they used to be, not weighed down by the worries of this life as if God was not in control, as if we were part of a small inwardly-focused little story that was getting off track. But rather, knowing that God is in control, knowing that we are participants in His great story of redemption, we will stay connected to him, the source of our courage and strength, praying as those who are alert to what is really going on.
Expectations: not Easy, not the Same
Do not expect things to be easy, we already know they are not easy. This is a real world in which evil has not yet been defeated. Do not expect the future to look like the past; it never has before and it surely never will. Do not expect God to do the same things in the same ways today as he has in the past; God is always doing new things in new generations, meeting the changing needs of his people in each new generation.
The needs of this new digital, internet, web 2.0 generation are not the same as ours were when we were their age; expect God to do new things, in new ways to extend his love and redemption to the new generation in a new way. Change, for this reason, is not bad at all; it is crucially good that God meets each new generation in ways that are meaningful to them.
So as we are living through times of change, we will be people of prayer; people who are consciously, intentionally, regularly focusing ourselves on the Lord, the source of our strength. We will pray together when we gather for public worship, as we have now. We will pray as we meet in smaller groups, in Sunday School classes and in ministry teams. And we will pray individually, regularly, daily, in our homes, that God might keep us strong enough to face the changes all around us with grace.
We, in the Presbyterian Church are changing – in powerfully positive ways. We had a reputation of being God’s frozen chosen, of being stiff and formal, of being people who never prayed out loud – this is now changing. There is a time and place for formal liturgy in which we approach God as King of the Universe who is big enough to be in control. And there are also times in which we gather in smaller groups and share our joys and needs with one another, and we pray for one another. We are learning that we grow spiritually as we pray together – connecting in personal, powerful ways with the God who is able to be our constant, steady, dependable Rock of refuge, in a tumultuous, changing world.