Knowing the Signs Back to Index

December 7, 2008

Wesley United Methodist Church

LUKE 21:20-33

Tom Sine in his book, The Mustard Seed Conspiracy, tells of a true incident that happened in Burlingame. Two emigrants from Scandinavia brought with them from the old country a love of gathering wild mushrooms. One weekend they went mushroom gathering in the foothills and came home carrying baskets overflowing with delectables. Realizing they couldn't possibly consume all their bounty, they decided to have a dinner party and invite a houseful of friends to help them devour the harvest. They fixed mushroom crepes, mushroom soufflés mushroom omelets, and they ate until they couldn't possibly consume another mushroom. They scraped the leftovers into the cat's dish. Near midnight the guests began to get their coats to go home. Suddenly there came a scream from the kitchen. “The cat!” They went running into the kitchen. There on the floor was the cat—thrashing, kicking, crying, her sides heaving. Someone exclaimed, “Oh, no it's the mushrooms!” The doctor was called and told them, “It is nothing to mess around with.” So they all rushed to the Emergency Room, and there the lovely dinner party ended with the guests stretched out having their stomachs pumped. What a way to end a party! They straggled to their cars and drove back to the house to gather their belongings. By now it was 1:30. As they began to leave the second time, someone remembered the cat. What had happened to the poor cat? They went to the kitchen, looked in, and there on the floor was the poor cat, lying silently...with eight new kittens!

They misread the signs! They saw turmoil, discomfort and pain, but they misread. They missed the signs of new life, of hope and joy. They couldn’t tell the difference between mushroom poisoning and a cat in labor!

Were you disturbed by the Scripture lesson this morning? Luke painted a dismal picture. 21.21-23, “Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance... Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people.” Disturbing events that are signs. Knowing the signs, knowing what the signs mean is the challenge. These signs are often misread, as the guests misread the turmoil of the cat.

Let's look at this passage from three perspectives: historical, future, and contemporary. First, the historical. There is much confusion understanding this passage. Many today are writing books, speaking on television, frightening the youth with talk of the end of the world, as if there are not enough things happening to frighten people. What is often misread about these “end of the world” passages is that most of the events have already been fulfilled. The Bible is an ancient book. Jesus spoke these words some 2000 years ago, and he was quoting even more ancient sources when he used this kind of language. Jesus was speaking to folks in that time. How arrogant of us to think Jesus was speaking about events in our time. Look at verse 32. Jesus clearly said, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” The Good News version makes it even clearer, “Remember that all these things will take place before the people now living have all died.” These words were spoken to that generation, not ours.

So, what happened to fulfill these predictions? In 70 AD the Romans, tired of the constant skirmishes and uprisings in Judea, marched on Jerusalem. Under Titus they converged, slaughtered the innocent, the pregnant women, the mothers with little babies, causing people to flee to the hills as Jesus predicted. They destroyed the temple, fulfilling another prophecy of Jesus. The devastation of Jerusalem was so complete that even General Titus was moved. The historian Josephus wrote, “Titus visited Jerusalem, and contrasting the sorry scene of desolation before his eyes with the former splendor of the city, and calling to mind the grandeur of its ruined buildings and their pristine beauty, he commiserated its destruction.”

Historically, many of the so called end-of-the-world events have already taken place. Don’t misread the signs and apply them to today.

The second perspective from which to understand Jesus’ words is the future. There is a future dimension as well as the historical. 21.27, “They will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” This is figurative, poetic language proclaiming hope in the future victory of God over the forces of destruction and evil. Beyond the end of time stands the Lord, who has come among us in the person of Jesus. According to the church calendar, we are currently in the season of Advent—waiting, anticipating the coming of the Son of Man. There are two dimensions: the advent of Jesus, born as a baby in Bethlehem; and the second advent, the second coming of Jesus in victory. How and when we don’t know, but we anticipate, we hope, we pray for the coming of the kingdom of God to this war-torn, destructive, violent age in which people are victimized, brutalized, mistreated and slaughtered.

The third perspective from which to understand Jesus’ words is to consider what it means to us today that the Son of Man will come in power and glory. Yes, look at the signs of devastation, look at the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and Mumbai, look at the horrors of war, but don’t misread. Know the signs. Know the difference between mushroom poisoning and a cat in labor.

Today is December 7, the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing. President Roosevelt addressed the nation and said, “December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy.” Then he proceeded to extend and amplify the infamy with his shameful Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, authorizing the forced evacuation of 120,000 Japanese Americans.

Michi Nishiura Weglyn, in her book, Years of Infamy, wrote (p.21), “As a teen-age participant in this mass exodus I, like others, went along into confinement, trusting that our revered President in his great wisdom and discernment had found that the measure was in the best interest of our country. With profound remorse, I believed, as did numerous Japanese Americans, that somehow the stain of dishonor we collectively felt for the treachery of Pearl Harbor must be eradicated, however great the sacrifice, however little we were responsible for it. In our immaturity and naiveté, many of us who were American citizens...believed that this, under the circumstances, was the only way to prove our loyalty to a country which we loved with the same depth of feeling that children in Japan were then being brought up to love their proud island nation. In an inexplicable spirit of atonement and with great sadness, we went with our parents to concentration camps.” 

A terrible time in our history. Can we look beyond the tragedy and see signs of new life? Michi Weglyn did. P. 22, “I hope this uniquely American story will serve as a reminder to all those who cherish their liberties of the very fragility of their rights against the exploding passions of their more numerous fellow citizens, and as a warning that they who say that it can never happen again are probably wrong.” She finds meaning and purpose in the evacuation. Let us read the signs, understand the signs, and take action against the forces today that undermine and violate the human rights of Muslims, slave laborers, and homosexuals.

On a personal level, what do you do when others (21.26) grow faint “from fear and foreboding, and the powers of heaven are shaken?” What do you see when earthquakes shake, loved ones die, your job and pension are jeopardized, the economy fails, and the future is dark? Don’t see mushroom poisoning. See signs of a future pregnant with hope. Even in the worst of times, the Son of Man is near at hand, coming with power and great glory. 21.27, “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Just when you think it is the worst, when you think you just can't handle any more, then claim God's promise, trust in God's grace and the Son will come in power and glory, filling your life, flooding you with joy and peace.

On the Day of Pentecost, Jesus came in power and glory through the Holy Spirit. Jesus came in power to the church---the early preachers and missionaries. And Jesus comes again and again in power and glory into our lives, into our church, even today. In the midst of turmoil, don't misread the signs. The Son comes in power and glory.

Look around. Don’t see mushroom poisoning, doom and gloom. Don’t misread the signs and panic like the mushroom guests. God is at work in this world, constantly at work as the old ways fall around us. The old economy falters and fails. Old prejudices and discriminations crumble. The new emerges. Some try so strongly to hold back the new, to keep the old, the status quo, the good old days. Well, the good old days are over, and the bad old days are over. We are in a new age, a new era, a new presidency, and our task is to encourage the new, to influence the new to be like the kingdom of God. Let God work in this world through us.

We are called to be faithful. We are not told to try to figure out what is going to happen next, and to misread events of current history to predict when the end is going to be. We are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, preach the word, work for justice, teach the nations, make disciples. Like the mother cat that ignored the turmoil and panic around her, and had her babies, ignore the turmoil around while others misread the signs and run frantically to the emergency room to have their stomachs pumped. Trust Christ for your salvation. Like the cat, let the others be frantic, just do what you are called to do. Be faithful. Do your ministry. Don’t panic, but pray “Fill me with your Spirit, Lord.” Look to the Son of Man for power.

© 2008 Douglas I. Norris