Jesus’ speaking of the “signs of the times” is a wake-up call to pay attention to what’s happening in the world, and then respond in ways that are faithful and courageous, showing that our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus and his Kingdom. In today’s world, some ways we can do this is by committing to seek the truth (and call out lies and conspiracy theories), live with integrity and Christlike character, and have the humility to be accountable for our words and our actions.
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Luke 12:49-56
The era in which I grew up in the 1960’s and early 1970’s was in many ways a turbulent time in our country’s history.
There was the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, Women’s liberation, Watergate, and the assassination of leaders such as Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and Bobby Kennedy.
Many of the folk-rock musicians of those days wrote songs that were social commentary on those signs of the times. There was Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are a Changing”, Peter Paul & Mary’s “Where Have all The Flowers Gone”, John Lennon’s “Imagine”, and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence”.
And then there were was the hard-hitting song by Barry McGuire called “Eve of Destruction”, which talks about everything going on in the world with pessimism and cynicism, saying
You may leave here for four days in space, but when you return it’s the same old place, the poundin’ of the drums, the pride and disgrace, you can bury your dead, but don’t leave a trace, hate your next-door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace.
And you tell me over and over again my friend, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.
Of course these songs and the moods they conveyed had an impact on the Church in those days. One of the ways the Church responded was a focus on the “end times”, that the world was in the “last days”, and that Jesus was going to return soon.
A guy named Hal Lindsay wrote a book called “The Late Great Planet Earth” which attempted to interpret the signs of the times, through imagery found in the book of Revelation as well as through what Jesus said in our scripture passage today and in other places.
When I was a student at UCLA in the mid-70’s, Hal Lindsay was based in Los Angeles and I remember more than once he came to campus to talk about what was in his book. He talked about things like who the AntiChrist might be, and the numbers 666 as the “mark of the beast”, and he was convinced that the “rapture” was coming soon, that time when Jesus would snatch up all the Christians out of the world before it would literally “go to hell” and be destroyed.
Any of you old enough to remember that classic rapture song by Larry Norman? Norman was a pioneer of Christian rock music and he wrote a song called “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”, that every Christian college student knew the words to:
Life was filled with guns and war, and everyone got trampled on the floor, I wish we’d all be ready. A man and wife asleep in bed she hears a noise and turns her head, he’s gone, I wish we’d all been ready. There’s no time to change your mind, the Son has come and you’ve been left behind.
And then there were the bumper stickers on cars that said “Warning: In case of rapture, this car will be left driverless”.
I remember the urgency of this time, and the message by so many Christian pastors and leaders to turn to Jesus and give your life to him, before it was too late.
The main idea of this was to accept Jesus as your personal savior so you would go to heaven and escape spending eternity in hell. It was sort of a “fire insurance” theology.
There was very little talk about what impact being a Christian would have on your life on this earth, right here, right now. It was all pie in the sky.
It seems like these times we live in now, the 2010’s/early 2020’s are also turbulent times, similar in many ways to 1960’s and 70s.
There’s Russia’s war on Ukraine, corruption by politicians and distrust in them, a pandemic we’re still dealing with, and all kinds of culture wars.
If you’re like me, sometimes you lie in bed at night after a day of interacting with people and taking in some news, and you sometimes think what Barry McGuire did, that we’re on the Eve of Destruction.
And then there’s this political polarization that’s more extreme than anything I can remember in my lifetime, that’s so deep that it’s breaking apart friendships and families.
Jesus talks about this kind of family division in our scripture passage today. He says that parents will be turned against their children, and in-laws will become outlaws. (Can anyone relate to this?)
And it’s striking to those of us who see Jesus as the Prince of Peace that here he seems out of that character, saying that he is causing division instead of bringing peace.
Throughout the words in our scripture today, you can feel the urgency in Jesus’ voice: He came to bring fire, and he wishes that it would already be burning;
He is longing for his baptism to take place, which is referring to us upcoming crucifixion.
Then Jesus calls his listeners “hypocrites”, because they aren’t taking the time to interpret the signs of the times and how they should respond to them.
And then he tells people that if they have some unfinished business with someone, a score that needs to be settled, to take care of it now rather than put it off.
Jesus is giving a sort of wake-up call here—something serious that needs to be dealt with soon. Can you think of a time in your life when you had a wake-up call?
Maybe it was in the doctor’s office or ER after a health scare and the doctor tells you point blank that you need to adopt a healthier lifestyle in order to stay alive.
Or maybe it was an evaluation at work that pointed out some things that you needed to work on in order to do a better job, maybe even keep your job.
Or maybe it was a conflict with your spouse that convicted you to listen better or treat him or her better in order to save your marriage.
Jesus’ wake-up call here is a call for people to understand what is happening in the world around them, and then to respond in ways that show that their ultimate allegiance is to Jesus and his Kingdom, not to earthly governments and the ways of this world.
It’s a call to align ourselves with Jesus, not just to get that pie in the sky, but to be a faithful witness to the way of Jesus right here, right now, during our days on this earth.
And casting our lot with Jesus is no easy task, especially given the signs of the times in the world in which we live.
Our friend Shane Claiborne talks about how before he became a Christian, his life was pretty calm and things were going smoothly. But then he said (show quote on screen):
When I met Jesus, my whole world turned upside down. It challenged everything I even believed in. I had everything together before I met Jesus. He wrecked my life. And I love it!
Shane is a great example of someone who has aligned himself with the values of Jesus’ Kingdom and who seeks to live out those values in response to the signs of the times, signs like violence and the culture of death, the individualism, the materialism and greed that permeate our culture.
Jesus wrecked his life but in the process is leading him toward the abundant life, and the experience of true purpose and joy in life.
When Jesus uses the image of fire, we can take that as a symbol of judgment and also a symbol of purification, or purging. He’s judging the values and ways of the world that are out of whack with the ways of his kingdom,
And he’s calling for us to be purified and refined by God’s Holy Spirit, transformed and renewed so that we can truly lead a life that reflects the character of Jesus in a way that brings transformation and renewal in the world around us.
There’s a website called Third Way Café that is geared toward people who want to know more about who Mennonites are and what we believe. I encourage you to check it out if you haven’t already; it can be a great resource if you know people who want to know more about Mennonites and Anabaptists.
There’s a section in Third Way Café about the End Times. It expresses the predominant Anabaptist/Mennonite view that the Kingdom of God is already here but will not be manifested in its fullness until Jesus comes again.
It’s an already but not yet Kingdom. Garry Janzen, who wrote the section on the End Times, is the pastor of a Mennonite church in Vancouver, Canada.
I resonate what Janzen says about living as a faithful follower of Jesus with the End Times in mind. He says,
The call for all Christians is to always be ready because Jesus may return at any moment, yet to actively live in faithful service to Jesus as though he may not return for 1000 years…
The second coming of Christ will usher in the new heaven and the new earth… while in this life, our mission is to align ourselves with God’s mission of restoring the world to the way he intended it to be; at the final resurrection, this will be completed.
One of the signs of the times today that I believe desperately needs restoration has to do with the decline of ethical and moral character, particularly in the areas of truthfulness and accountability.
Truth is being turned into lies, alibis and conspiracy theories. What we once took for granted as common understanding is being twisted and distorted, on the internet and in certain sectors of TV “news” if you can call it that.
And people are running away from being accountable for their words and their actions; instead, they deny or minimize what they said or did, and they blame other people instead of taking responsibility themselves.
We see this at the highest levels of politics, businesses, and families, and then it filters down and spreads like a cancer throughout society.
The novel Catch-22, written in 1961 by Joseph Heller, contains themes such as the distortion of justice, the influence of greed, and personal integrity.
There’s a section where Heller describes a situation that I find so eerily relatable to the signs of the times in today’s world a half century later. He says:
It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.
If you’re like me, it’s easy to let our character become corrupted by some influences in our culture than it is to have it conformed to the character of Jesus.
We need to live with a sense of urgency of the apostle Paul’s appeal to the Church in Rome when he said, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern God’s will.” (12:2)
Jesus has given us this incredible gift, the Holy Spirit. And we need the fire of the Holy Spirit to purge from us being cynical that leads to resignation and losing hope, which causes us to want to retreat rather than engage, to want to be raptured into heaven instead of rooted in the realities here on God’s good earth.
We need God’s Holy Spirit to save us from getting down on ourselves or on others with a critical spirit whose motive is to demoralize or destroy rather than build up and restore.
We need to be purged from the temptation to take the path of least resistance, to go with the flow to keep the peace, and end up settling for a status quo that falls short of God’s desires for us and our world.
We desperately need the refining fire of the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into us and empower us to be people who are committed to living lives that are truthful, and committed to be accountable for our words and our actions, and willing to face the consequences of them, no matter how hard that can be.
We also need to fire of the Holy Spirit to give us the wisdom and the courage to call out the lies and the lack of accountability that we see in our society, and in the people close to us as well.
And we need to have the humility to be open to be called out by those around us when we fall short of being truthful and accountable.
In other words, we need to be able to both give and receive “wake up calls”.
We have to practice what we preach, lest Jesus and those around us call us “hypocrites”.
Now more than ever, the world needs to see evidence of the presence of the already-not yet Kingdom of God through people who take seriously the way of Jesus and engage, and speak truth into the signs of our times.
Sometimes being faithful to Jesus will disrupt the peace, and may cause conflict and division. It may feel like Jesus is wrecking us.
But it’s a wrecking that will bring us true joy, and give us the purpose and passion to bring forth the good news of God’s Kingdom of justice, mercy, and truth in a world that desperately needs it.
Where might God be calling you to engage the signs of the times? How might you respond as a follower of Jesus?
I want to close with a few more words of Shane Claiborne, talking about being devoted to God’s Kingdom here on earth:
What the world needs is people who believe so much in another world that they cannot help but begin enacting it now. –Shane Claiborne
May it be so. Amen.