And What of the End?
A Homily for Trinity 25
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott AZ
November 18, 2018
Text: Matthew 24:23-31
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen,
The delineation of our text this morning is peculiar. We pick up in the middle of Christ’s teaching about the end of this time. It seems odd that those who developed to lectionary would start where they do, but none-the-less what we learn as we read and hear these words are important in our eschatological understanding, that is our understanding of how this time will come to an end.
A professor once told me that the text from Matthew 24 and 25 is the most sarcastic portion of the Bible. It made me laugh at the time – and of course there is an element of hyperbole here. To an extent, Christ is reacting to that element of human nature that wants to know when the end will come, that is obsessed with the apocalypse.
There is no shortage of fictional apocalyptic literature, and imaginative dooms day movies that envision life as we know it being significantly altered or the world coming to some sort of cataclysmic end, whether at the hands of natural forces or super natural providence. The church is not free from these speculations, and every few years we hear of someone predicting the end, whether it be because of some special revelation they claim to have received or because the teachers of such things think they have stumbled across a truth no one else has. Some scholars and commentators speculate that there has never been an age when some in the church didn’t think that the end was upon them.
World War One and World War Two did much to fuel these speculation as the world faced horrors it had never know. The fragments of these errant theologies that developed during that time are still present with us. Even the re-establishing of Israel as a state caused more speculation that Christ’s return was imminent. Of course, we know that Christ’s return has not come. So, instead of wild speculation – our calling is to humbly approach the text, and allow it to form our theology in a way that is consistent with the whole witness of scripture.
The professor that pronounced that this passage was hyperbole was participating in the fear that these passages could be read too literally. Someone might use it for example to calculate exactly how many stars have fallen in the last 100 years and then speculate that we have seen more shooting stars this year and so Christ must certainly be coming back soon (I do not know that this has occurred, though it wouldn’t surprise me, I only know that someone might do this as they look for answers). This, of course, is lunacy, as Christians we are called to trust and believe that Christ will return when the time is right, and we can rest easy in that fact, in fact we are told to avoid such speculation.
As we go into this text, we are not looking for an answer to this question of when he will return, only to rest in the promise that he will and then come to understand the tension of “already, but not yet.” We spent a good deal of time talking about this balance in one of our Wednesday evening classes last spring, additionally, we have talked about it on Sunday mornings as well.
For, the Kingdom of Heaven has begun, and the church is called to be an embassy of the kingdom of heaven , if you will, we are both in the midst of establishing the kingdom, and anxiously waiting that it will one day be established.
Most scholars, and myself included agree that the passage from 24 and 25 is in part about the fall of Jerusalem. Ancient historians who witnessed these events in Jerusalem claimed that they had never seen anything so horrifying. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus wrote of this fall saying: No other city ever suffered such things. All the calamities which have ever happened to any from the beginning, seem not comparable to those which befel the Jews. The end goal of the Roman’s razing of Jerusalem was to completely break the will of people, and as such the fall of Jerusalem was intended to be an annihilation.
It, therefore seems likely that it is this annihilation that Christ is referring to when he talks of the great tribulation. However, it is more than a historical prophecy of something that was fulfilled in the past and this is where the idea of already and not yet comes in. For already has the way the world was been put away – the curtain in the temple torn, then the temple is destroyed. What a hopeless thing this must have been for those faithful people of the time! But the already comes in and we now have Christ, who is the great high priest who is not in an earthly temple but in the heavenly temple, seated at the right hand of the Father the perfect intercessor for us.
And not only do we have Christ, who is in perfect communion with the Father, but the Holy Spirit who carries our prayers to heaven and who comforts us in our pain, who guides us, who directs us. So, all hope in this time of already – but not yet, is not lost, but in the church the hope is great!
However, I did say – already, but not yet, already we have passed through the tribulation of the fall of Jerusalem, but I do think that there will be another greater tribulation. For that day will come, and we must pass through this tribulation as well. Christ refers to it earlier in this section as this day being like birth pains. For, just as a woman must experience the travail of child birth before experiencing the joy of her new born child, so the world must pass through the pain of such travel before the experience of the new birth of the heavens and the earth. Too, we must pass through the travail of this life, which will certain contain joy, but also heartache, before we experience the joy of eternal new life.
Even as we are called to be a blessing in the here and now, called to have the deepest compassion for the poorest among us, to clothe those who have nothing, to feed those who hunger, to put a roof over the heads of those who have no roof, even as we are called to be a blessing to the world around us, and even to our enemies, in the end time the elect, that is the Church, those whom God has called together, will be a blessing to the world around us for the tribulation will cease not for the sake of the world, but for the sake of the church.
It was for the sake of the elect that Jerusalem wasn’t completely wiped off the map, and for the sake of the church that the tribulation won’t end in complete desolation, but in a re-creation, a making new. May we take heart in this and seek to be a blessing to the world around us.
We must be on guard. There have always been false prophets, those who would take people away from following Christ and to following themselves, or worse, some false god. They always come with some “new truth,” or claiming to have “had a special revelation from God.” Be careful, when they are not steeped in the rich history of the church, take care in hearing their words, when they abandon orthodoxy for something flashy and new.
These novel teachings are nothing new, for people have always been truth seekers. Looking for something to bring a deeper meaning to life and the world has always tried to lure people away from Christ.
In our day we can see this yearning especially vividly, it has lead people to desire something to give their life meaning, and why it is so important that we equip ourselves to “always be ready to give an account for what we believe.” Why it is important that we know what our hope in Christ is, and how we can graciously show that hope to all who would desire it.
Christ having warned his hearers to take care in who they follow, he then tells us that his return will be like “the lightning (which) comes from the east and shines as far as the west.” Let us attend to these words, let us understand them as they should be understood.
We need not be afraid, constantly looking for signs, but rather be given to the task of godly living. Pursuing Christ, fleeing sin, reading his word, given to prayer, fellowshipping with our brothers and sisters in Christ, partaking in the sacrament and faithfully sharing this good news with the world around us. We need not be afraid of this last day – for the last day will come when it comes, and there will be no mistake.
If one says “it’ll be this day, and this hour,” be skeptical. If one says “I am the Christ,” be sure that they are not. You will know without a doubt when Christ returns for if we are given to the task of godly living our eyes will already be set upon Christ and we will see him clearly in His coming. Just as you know when there is a lightening strike that cracks and fills the valleys with light – there will be no mistake that it is Christ who has returned. So take heart, and persevere dear saints.
Christ uses a vivid, if not slightly grotesque image of vultures at the corpse to drive home this point. Just as no one tells the vultures where the corpse is, they simply find it, no one needs to tell the believer where Christ is. It will be imminently clear.
The last three verses contain descriptions of what those days will be like. There are two things to keep in mind here, it is probably best not to read these as explicitly literal but rather metaphorically or poetically. Every time there is an eclipse there is no need to wonder if Christ will be returning – Christ will return when he returns. Likewise, we needn’t be counting the number of shooting stars we see.
How then are we to understand these three verses? For indeed, many have gotten lost here. What we are seeing is the visitation of God to His creation. For the Christian, the sun and the moon are great and glorious creations. The more we learn about them through science, the more amazing they become. However, in Christ’s time, the times of pantheists, they were gods. These glorious creations, these gods to the Romans and Greeks, will bend a knee to God the creator of heaven and earth in that last day. That is what Christ is saying, and what makes these words so amazing.
It is not signifying calamity of destruction, but calamity of the coming of God to be amongst his creation and with his people. No, this darkening is good but horrifying. Better than we could imagine and more fear-filled than words could describe.
What of the stars? Perhaps this is the same – that just as the gods of the Romans, the gods of the world, will be seen as impotent and fall before our Lord, these stars remind us that even those ancient, mighty orbs are submissive to the Lord. On the other hand, we see something very similar the Revelation to St. John. In Revelation, we see a third of the stars fall. Many believe that this is the falling of those angels who chose to follow the devil instead of God, who gave up their loyalty to the Lord of Lords, in order to be their own lords, for a little while. It is entirely possible that this passage refers to that as well or even simply the fact that the stars represent the bended knees of the heavenly hosts, the angels which are mighty indeed.
Either way – we know that it will be a day of great visitation. Terrible and beautiful, wonderful and fearful. On that day all kings, presidents, and mighty men will fall before God, they will be no more mighty than the meekest amongst us at the foot of the king of kings and we shall trembly before the mighty creator.
Then, he will send out the angels to gather the elect, to gather together his people. That last day will be the beginning of the new heaven and the new earth. The world having been recreated, it will begin a new time of walking with the Lord in the garden, in peaceful coexistence with God and our fellow men.
Perhaps at this description your heart is trembling, because often passage like these are used to stoke the fears of people – believers and unbelievers alike. I don’t think this is a wise way to approach it. For certainly, this will be a fearful day – yet for the believer our sense of fear should be trained by how we approach the holy table and our time of devotion. We train in veneration when we come with bended knees, our hearts reverently humbled before the great and sovereign Lord.
For the unbelievers, I think a better way to approach it is the warmth of an invitation to know God, an invitation to bask richly with us in His love and the assurance that comforts us in the second coming. Inviting them to enjoy a love which exceeds understanding, which helps us to come into fellowship with Him, which helps us to know him intimately. Yes, we are to approach with reverence and humility, but not as fear mongers, but as ones who love deeply, and have given our hearts to the utmost devotion.
The studies of the last days can certainly be interesting, but let us not get lost in it. Rather – be given to the task of faithfully serving the Lord, seeking godliness in all things, and preaching his word always and trusting when that day comes, we will know, and our hearts will rejoice in the return of our King, in the restoration of good and proper fellowship with him. Take heart dear Christians, no matter how dark the days get. The Lord is good and faithful.
Christ promises the church that she will face travail and perhaps in our life times he will return and perhaps he will not. We have one sure thing that there will be days of joy and days of sorrow. Instead of worrying about his return, or keeping ourselves safely locked away – we are called to one thing, to be so intently focused on him that we faithfully pursue a godly life, with his gospel constantly on his lips, that we would be making disciples and to be baptizing. Let us be confidently given to these tasks, and not be swayed by those who would distract us from this.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.