Signs of the Times

This was my sermon on Matthew 24:23-31 upon the 25th Sunday after Trinity.

If you’ve been following the daily Scripture readings on the back of the bulletin, you’ll have noticed a very interesting passage on the evening of election day.  In 1 Thessalonians 4:16, hear the Word of the Lord: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the Trump of God.”  There, you see?  A prophetic word for our time!  The election of Donald Trump as God’s anointed was foretold in the Holy Bible, and it is a sure sign that he will usher in Christ’s Kingdom on Earth right here, right now!  Except, of course, you know that isn’t how the Bible works.  The word “trump” means “trumpet,” and the silly pun only works in English… it’s just a silly joke – nobody would take that argument seriously.

Or would they?  Eight years ago, Barak Obama was elected President for his first term, and there were quite a number of strange end-times “prophecies” cropping up around him.  I can’t find the source anymore, but one intrepid and determined individual set out to prove, from the Bible, that Obama was going to turn out to be the Antichrist.  He did this by finding out what “barach obama” means in the Hebrew language.  Barach means “blessed” or “blessing”, but occasionally it means the opposite – a “curse” – an ironic sort of way.  Bamah, apparently, means “beast,” and if stick the Hebrew letter waw in front of it (which means “the” in Hebrew), you’ve got Barak Obama translated to “Curse of the Beast.”  Never mind that the letter waw is never pronounced as the letter O at the beginning of a word, or that barach primarily means “blessing” rather than “curse.”  Again, it’s a ridiculous scam – someone was working very hard to twist the Scriptures and the Hebrew language to attribute some religious significance to his political views and fears.  But hey, we’ve got a month and a half left, maybe Obama will finally take away his guns?

Anyway, the strange mix of politics and Bible interpretation in the midst of end-times fervor is nothing new.  There have been constant predictions of the return of Christ since the mid-19th century, several of which have spawned whole groups of new denominations, further dividing the Body of Christ.  Many of the Reformers and early Protestants were convinced that the Pope was the Antichrist and the Roman Catholic Church the Whore of Babylon.  When the year 1,000 approached, and the Byzantine Empire was slowly collapsing as various Muslim caliphates grew in the East, and various barbarian hordes were overrunning many of Europe’s Christian cities, many feared the end was nigh.  After the city of Rome was sacked by King Alaric of the Visigoths in the year 410, Saint Augustine had to write a whole giant book to assure people that the world wasn’t over.  It’s pretty safe to say, both from historical experience and biblical teaching, that pretty much every attempt to prognosticate about the end of the world and the return of Christ is junk.  Rather than listening to the alarmist cries of angry and fearful men, let us hearken to the words of our Lord himself.

Matthew 24:23-31

Our Gospel lesson today is in the middle of a chapter that’s full of teachings about times of suffering and trial, the return of Christ, and the resurrection of the dead.  Let’s look at these verses carefully and try to unravel any confusion that might have crept in concerning what they mean.

Then if someone says to you “behold, the Christ” or “here!” don’t believe; for false christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders so as to lead astray even the elect, if it were in their power.  Behold I tell you beforehand.  If, therefore, they say to you “behold, he is in the desert,” don’t go out; or “behold, he is in the upper room,” don’t believe.

These first verses start us off with a very important lesson: Christ will not return in secret.  If anyone claims to have any “secret knowledge” about his return, the command is simple: don’t believe them.  Don’t even go check, “just in case.”  They are wrong, plain and simple.  They are deceived, and they seek to deceive others.  And, encouragingly, our Lord is skeptical that they’ll even have any meaningful success in their deceits; for when he notes that they’ll try to lead astray “even the elect,” he adds the words “if possible” or “if it is in their power,” hinting that the elect – the true people of God – will not be drawn away by false christs or false prophets.  As I said last week as well, “the gates of Hell will not prevail against” the Church.  So, having established what will be wrong about his return, Jesus next explains what his return will be like.

For as the lightning comes from the East and shines to the West, so is the Parousia (the return) of the Son of Man.  Where be the corpse, there will gather together the eagles (or vultures).

In contrast to the liars and deceivers who claim secret knowledge and private revelation, Christ’s return will be publicly visible.  He compares it to two things: lightning in the sky and a carcass in the desert.  Lightning is plainly obvious and visible, when lightning strikes you don’t need anyone to run outside and tell you to get back in the house; it’s bright and it’s loud.  So will be the return of Christ.

And, by way of a useful side note, his description of lightning coming from East to West has had an impact on the tradition of Christian worship – this is reason that so many churches have been built “facing East,” such that the worshipers are watching for the return of Christ!  And even if the building itself isn’t oriented East, the location of the Altar becomes what we call “liturgical East,” and worship ad orientem (to the East) means that we all are facing East together when we pray.  It’s a helpful reminder that I’m not turning my back on you during the Communion prayers, but that I’m joining you and leading you in our common prayer to God.

The second image Jesus uses to describe his return may seem a bit strange at first – a carcass in the desert with eagles or vultures circling it is hardly a majestic image.  But think about desert living, especially in the region of Palestine and Israel.  It’s very rocky and barren throughout much of that region.  A carcass, with all the birds flocking around it, would be a spectacle visible for miles!  And, to take this a step further, the carcass is life-giving to all sorts of creatures around.  Similarly, Jesus, in his death, became the life-giver to all who come to feed on his Body and Blood!  Just like the Cross, an image of gruesome death is transformed into an image of wondrous new life.

But immediately after the tribulation of those days, “the sun will be darkened and the moon not give its light, and the stars fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens” will be shaken.  And then will show forth the sign of the Son of Man in the heavens, and then will mourn all the tribes of the earth, and they’ll see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory.

These verses begin with a different word than the other paragraphs in this Gospel text: the word “immediately.”  Where the length of time leading up to the false prophets and the return of Christ like lightning is indeterminate in verse 23, verse 29 here makes clear that the return of Christ will be “immediately after” the tribulations of the deceits of those false christs and false prophets.  As many theologians have observed on this point, the time of confusion and trial is kept short so as to minimize the damage done against God’s people.  And so, in a sense, everything will happen at once: deceivers will arise, these cosmic events will take place, and Christ will return.  Let’s look at the cosmic events described here; they get batted around in debate quite a bit sometimes.  Many interpreters in modern times have approaches these words in a rather simplistic manner, taking them at face value, but throughout the history of biblical interpretation, rather deeper and more biblically-astute observations have been made.

The great 4th-century preacher, St. John Chrysostom, wrote a sermon on this passage that is pretty representative of the sorts of observations that Christians have made here over the centuries.  When it says the sun and moon will be darkened, he points out that Jesus does not indicate the sun’s destruction; rather, the sun and moon are outshone by Christ, who is himself the light of the world.  As it says in Revelation 21:23, heaven “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”  Similarly the loss of the moon and the stars’ light are because there will be no more night, again matched in Revelation 21:25 and 22:5.  The shaking of the powers of heaven can be taken in two ways.  Chrysostom takes “shaking” in a sense similar to “trembling,” as in the context of worship, which yet again has its echo in Revelation 4:10.  But you could also see the “shaking” of heaven’s powers as the language of judgment, like we heard in the book of Haggai this summer.  In any case, these cosmic events point to greater heavenly realities that highlight the glory and majesty of Christ as the returning King of all Creation.

Then things get a little more complicated.  First the “sign of the Son of Man” appears, and shortly thereafter the Son of Man himself descends on the clouds of heaven.  St. John Chrysostom, like many theologians after him, took the Sign of Christ to refer to the Cross.  Lift High the Cross!  That is the standard of judgment: that is where the redeemed will look and find the glory of eternal life, and that is where the unbelievers will look and mourn for their unrepented sins.  As the prophet Zechariah wrote about the mourning of the nations, “they will look on him whom they pierced” (12:10-12).  And with that proclamation as his herald, Christ himself will follow, no longer on the Cross, but on the clouds of heaven – no longer suffering and dead, but alive and conquering.  And then the final verse adds one more important dimension that great day.

And he’ll send out his angels with a great trumpet call, and they’ll gather in together his elect from the four winds – from one end of the heavens to the other end.

There’s that trumpet call I joked about at the beginning, St. Paul described the same thing in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17.  The trumpet call is part of that lightning flash of Christ’s return: it’s loud and unmistakable.  It’s “loud” enough to gather us to Christ in his arrival.  In 1 Thessalonians we’re described to be “caught up with him in the clouds.”  This trumpet is even “loud” enough to awake the dead, and gather them up to join Christ at the same time!  So we will all get to join the great victory procession of Christ’s return to his creation!  Again, it is no accident that many worship services begin and end with processions.  It’s not (only!) that clergy like to play dress-up, but the procession is a picture of the Ascension and Descent of Christ.

Angels also play a prominent role here.  Chrysostom observed that this was a special honor for God’s people; Jesus sends each of us our own personal escort from our graves to bring us up to join the festal throng on that great day!  And let’s think about that resurrection for a moment, too.  Jesus was resurrected where he was buried, and is promised to descend as he ascended; it is commonly understood therefore that we will be resurrected where we buried.  That’s one of the reasons that we have graveyards – so that families and neighbors will be together even at the very moment of resurrection.

Think about it, though, how shocking must the experience of resurrection be!  After that time of waiting, in death, only to wake up again on that last day, it might be a terrifying experience!  For God’s people, an angel will arrive with the much-needed message they so often have to say to people, “be not afraid,” and lead us to Jesus.  But for those who have not called upon his Name, the resurrection will likely be a time of fear and mourning.

On another sidenote, there’s something that I haven’t mentioned here which some of you may have heard about before.  One of the teachings about the end times that has become very popular in this country is the concept of the Rapture.  It’s the idea that Christ will take his people away from earth into heaven before he comes to judge the earth.  This is a false teaching, and wreaks havoc on the biblical teachings of the last day in a number of ways.  The union of the return of Christ and the gathering of his people and the resurrection described here in Matthew 24 (and other places) is broken up by Rapture Theology, which insists that Jesus comes “near” the earth to take his people up, and then comes back later to finish his day of judgment.  It also smacks of Neo-Platonism, a Greek philosophy that upholds spiritual existence as “good” and physical matter as “evil.”  We are not saved to become spirits freed from bodily existence; no, our hope is in the bodily resurrection and eternal life with Christ in the heavens and the new earth.  Our Old Testament reading this morning is one of many examples that disprove Rapture Theology, when it says, “he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life” (Isaiah 4:3).  Proponents of the Rapture talk about how important it is to be “taken” by Jesus at the end, because those who are “left behind” will face judgment and destruction, but the teaching of Scripture, such as here, is that it is the righteous who will “remain” in the earth, and the wicked who will be “swept away” in the judgment.

Historic Preview

Now, one of the reasons these end times teachings are confusing is because the disciples asked two questions at the beginning of Jesus’ discourse: Jesus started out by saying ““You see this Temple, do you not?  Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”  Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:2-3).  So Jesus was stuck answering two questions at the same time: when will the Temple be destroyed, and when will Jesus return?  Unravelling Jesus’ answers to those two questions can be tricky to work out.  For the most part, the first part of Jesus’ speech in chapter 24 is his answer to the first question – the destruction of the Temple – and the second of the chapter is his answer about his return.  The entire text that we read this morning falls in the second half, dealing with Christ’s return, and in a couple weeks we’ll actually get a chance to read a little further into this chapter to see more of what Jesus has to say about it.

But it’s worth mentioning the first half of chapter 24 and its teachings about the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the Temple because in many ways that historic event, which took place in 70AD, serves as a prototype for what the day of Christ’s return will be like.  As predicted for the Last Day, so also leading up the year 70 were there many deceivers working false miracles, desert cults, backroom cults, all claiming secret knowledge about the Jewish Messiah.  A war of rebellion cropped up – the Jews tried to overthrow the Roman authorities, believing that their Savior would appear and finally deliver them from the tyranny of the Gentiles, not realizing that their Savior had already come to deliver them from the tyranny of sin.  And so their rebellion failed, the Romans squashed them and slaughtered them.  The Temple was desecrated by what the prophets foretold as a “abomination of desolation,” and then utterly destroyed.  It was like an act of judgment – the sign of the Son of Man – coming down upon those who would be God’s people, and making it clear once and for all that the Covenant of Moses was over.  And as a result, God’s “angels” were sent to the four corners of the earth, as Christians spread the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire and beyond!

The description of Jesus’ return fits so well to the story of the Roman-Jewish War and the destruction of the Temple that some scholars have understood the entirety of Matthew 24 to refer to that historic sequence of events.  While I think it would be incorrect to go that far, I do think the close resemblance to past events should make us extra-skeptical of anyone who tries to use these words of Christ to describe supposedly-unique events in our own day.

Exhortations

So, with these teachings of the Lord’s return in place, you might ask, what do we do about them?  First, I’d start you off with Jesus’ own words here: when people claim that they know when Christ will return, or that Christ has already returned in secret, “don’t believe them” and “don’t go out to look.”  Know that when Jesus comes back, it will be so obvious you won’t need a special self-proclaimed prophet to tell you so.  Don’t even humor them and buy their books, or go to their special events, much less join their cults.  Instead, stay where you know Christ is: in the Church, in the gathering of his people, in the proclamation of his Word, in the celebration of his holy Sacraments.  For in Christ alone our hope is found; we already know where to find him, and when he comes back to us, we’ll know.

A second exhortation we ought to receive in view of the eventual return of Christ is that we must prepare for his arrival.  The season of Advent begins in two weeks (on November 27th), and one of the major themes of that season is preparation.  Even now, though, the liturgy is pointing us in the direction of preparation for Christ’s arrival.  Both the Collect of the Day and the Epistle reading (1 John 3:3) call us to “purify ourselves as He is pure.”  Granted, this is not something we can do by ourselves, but it is something we must participate in.  For every image used in the Bible for the day of Christ’s return, there is a useful metaphor for our preparation: if the Last Day is a wedding banquet, our preparation is getting our wedding clothes ready and building up an appetite; if the Last Day is like a thief in the night, our preparation is keeping our lamps light and our eyes open.  We’re going to be spending eternity with God and His people; we would do well to start getting comfortable with Him, His people, and His ways sooner rather than later.

And finally, as you look ahead towards that day of Christ’s return, consider telling people about it.  A couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses once came to my door and handed me a pamphlet, simply saying that there’s an event that’s going to happen soon all over the world, and maybe I’d like to know about it.  That is probably not the best example of how to go about telling people about the return of Christ.  First of all, Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t even Christian, and they believe a number of strange things about God, their version of Jesus, and the end times.  But that aside, making vague and awkward references to the Day of Judgment doesn’t really have much appeal, nor does it normally make for much of a conversation starter.  Instead, talk about what you do know, what you believe, what you’re looking forward to.  If death doesn’t scare you, say so!  If there are people you are looking forward to seeing again, don’t be embarrassed to admit it!  I’m only in my 30’s and I already have a shortlist of people I look forward to catching up with after the resurrection.

Too often the end times and the return of Christ and the final judgment are topics that get shrouded in unnecessary rhetoric, mystery, and fear.  Certainly “doom and gloom” are involved on some level, but so too is glory and joy!  In general, people are more interested in what gives you glory and joy than what fills you with doom and gloom.  So think on these things, those last days, when Jesus returns and the dead are raised, and God’s people are reunited with Him and with one another.  Let the glory and the joy fill your heart and capture your mind and reorient your life.  Let it protect you from deceivers, and spur you on to greater holiness, and fill you to overflowing with the good news of Christ that this world so desperately needs to hear.  Lift high the Cross; the love of Christ proclaim ‘till all the world adore his sacred Name!

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about spiritual formation, theology, biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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