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We do not need a calendar to know that the Christmas season is beginning. Starbucks uses a holiday paper cup – they actually started right before Halloween. City workers have been putting up lights long before they are lit. People lined up outside stores early in the morning for big savings. It reminds me of Johnny Mathis’ song ...

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Ev'rywhere you go;
Take a look in the five and ten, glistening once again
With candy canes and silver lanes aglow.
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas;
Toys in ev'ry store.
But the prettiest sight to see is the holly that will be
On your own front door.

Of course we don’t have our decorations up yet. And there’s the sense in my family that it is time, past time, to string our lights and trim our tree. Why the sense of urgency? Because we can read the signs of the season and we know it is time!

Now, the weather may fool you right now, but right before the cold front comes some of us will know it – and you won’t need a weather report – you simply have the experience to look for the signs of the changing seasons.

As we read from the teaching of Jesus Christ this morning, I hope you will recognize that our Lord wants us to be skilled at reading the signs of the times. And I hope you will recognize the proper reason he wants us to be so aware ... [Read Luke 21:25-38.]

There seems to be a entire cottage industry of biblical prophecy. It isn’t hard to find someone using the Scriptures to foretell the future and predict calamity. And that probably isn’t very appealing unless you are fan of disaster films. The sort of films in which a huge earthquake destroys the western half of the United States, or a meteor is about to strike the earth, or there is sudden climate shift, or nuclear war wipes out two-thirds of earth’s population. Whether you look toward the cinematic thriller version of disaster scenarios, or the prophecy preacher scenarios there’s one common element – they don’t inspire a lot of hope, do they?

Talk about reading the signs of the end often makes us fretful and anxious. We get reactionary waiting for the next crisis. There tends to be more gloom and doom than hope and faith. But notice that although Christ is all for us paying attention to the signs, he isn’t interested in gloom and doom. He isn’t trying to frighten us. No, much the opposite, he is trying to embolden us!

See, Jesus encourages us to stand up and keep our heads up. Why? Because our redemption is near. The promise of the Son of Man is about to be fulfilled. He wants us to read the signs so that we can interact faithfully with the events of history. And when we keep our heads up we see that history fitting into the larger context of what God is doing. And that gives us hope because we know that God’s purposes are larger than the brief interludes that we call current events.

Paying attention with faithfulness matters because we are accustomed to react to life rather than interact with it. For instance, we may be well versed in the teachings of the church and Scripture, but what do we do with that insight and knowledge? Are we storing it up for Sunday or some final exam on the day of judgment? If we are actively involved in hearing and doing the word, then we are going to take the teachings of Scripture and use them as a compass to navigate the signs of the times. The word of God builds maturity in us, and when we possess a mature faith we can read the signs of the times and keep our heads up and stand tall – rather than wring our hands fretfully worrying about the next great terror.

To read the signs as mature believers means that we recognize that there is a lot of anxiety and worry in the world. Jesus said that the signs would throw entire nations into turmoil – and they would be anxious about what is happening to the sea. And after a Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, there is quite a lot of fear that our own planet may destroy us. There’s a lot of talk of war. A generation has grown up not knowing the fear of Cold War nuclear conflict. But now we worry about random terror strikes and the rise of new nuclear powers such as North Korea and Iran – nations that aren’t on the best terms with us.

Let’s not be so arrogant to assume that these disasters and conflicts are the greatest that have ever been or ever will be. But we ought to recognize, as Jesus as indicated, that people are distressed. And just when we all might feel that vengeance and destruction are about to arrive, we can look up with hope because we know something! We know that our redemption is drawing near. We know that the Son of Man approaches!

Too often, end-time scenarios suggest that all of us have to change the world. These are a bit arrogant in that they claim that we fallen human beings someone hold all the answers and all the power to either destroy the earth or save it. But we have a mature faith and we know that it is our redemption at stake. It isn’t the world we need to change – we need to change ourselves.

As a people who know that the surest prediction is that the Son of Man will return to redeem us, there are some things we can change in our own worldview as we read the signs of the times:

  1. There will be an end time. Human life has limitations set upon it. Our hearts can be content and at peace when we learn to live as creatures rather than creator. How much better would it all be if all of us would live by hope rather than fear?
  2. God is in charge of the end. The end of time is not the end of life with God. God is in charge of the end time, not us. (In the movies, the hero is always trying to stop the end of the world. But the end of the world is a good thing for the one who is not ashamed of the Son of Man. The end of the world is good when it happens God’s way.
  3. God is worthy of our trust. God is not going to end the world because he is mad and throwing a fit. The end is the end of God’s work. And the beginning and end of time are the grace of God. Just as God has set a limit on how much power evil and sin can have over us, he sets a limit on injustice and sin. It cannot continue. Its days are numbered. That’s grace.
  4. The judgment of God and the Son of Man are passed on all of us. Jesus came the first time so that we could stand tall when he comes the second time. What makes us right for meeting the Son of Man when he comes again at the end is our relationship with him in the present. And that relationship has been defined by the life of Christ, the cross, and the resurrection. He went up to heaven and this same Jesus will return.

As we read the signs of the times we will find see more than enough to make us angry, afraid, worried, fretful, and despairing. But Christ wants us to lift up our heads and stand tall. He wants us to be hopeful and see beyond the initial sings and look at the bigger picture of God’s work in human history. [It isn’t unlike the concern that some have that the real meaning of Christmas gets lost in the glitz and symbolism of the Holiday Season.] Listen to Jesus and keep in mind that in every season and in our times the message of the Son of Man can be lost in the anxiety and confusion of the age.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas;
Soon the bells will start,
And the thing that will make them ring is the carol that you sing
Right within your heart.

What song do we sing right within our hearts? Do we join in with the large chorus of gloom, despair, and agony on me? Or can we sing a song that pays attention to the pain and suffering in the world but ends with a crescendo of hope? It is a song that includes this line from our Lord: "Stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 26 November 2006

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