Signs of the Times
Much of the political energy in our nation today is directed toward taking over the United States. Many want to create what they call “a Christian Nation.” These citizens take much of their inspiration from these two chapters in the Gospel of Matthew, 24 and 25. These chapters are known as the Prophetic Sermon of Jesus. It occurs at the end of the Gospel of Matthew; and thus mirrors the one at the beginning of the book, which we call the Sermon on the Mount.
It is easy to see these two sermons of Jesus as addressing, first, how shall we live, and last, what will happen.
The first one, known as the Sermon on the Mount, calls us to pray, fast, and live lives of mercy and righteousness. It tells us not to worry and not to judge others. It includes the Lord’s Prayer. It ends with the wonderful story of a wise person building a house on the rock and a foolish person building on the sand. That is the Sermon on the Mount, and you find it in Matthew 5-7.
This Prophetic Sermon comes at the end of Matthew, chapters 24-25. It speaks, first, about the signs of the times and, second, the signs of the end.
People then, just as now, were eager to know about the future: the future of the nation and the future of the world. In this Prophetic Sermon, Jesus distinguishes between the signs of the times—that is, things that happen everywhere, all the time—and signs of the end—that is, the return of Christ, the end of the age, and the coming of the new Jerusalem. For both, the gift of perseverance is key.
I want to speak today on what Jesus described as the signs of the times.
What he meant by this are the conditions in which he lived, in which we live, in which all people everywhere live. We might call it the signs of every time, the signs of all the time.
Jesus ended this part of the sermon with a focus on the spiritual gift we all need: perseverance. “The one who stands firm until the end will be saved,” Jesus said.
In this sermon, Jesus drew attention to three things, three signs of the times, three features of life on planet earth, then and now. First, notice the attention given to religious buildings and their endurance. Second, notice the chaos and confusion in the both the natural world (famines and earthquakes). Notice the conflict in the political world (wars and rumors of wars). Third, notice the pressure on communities of faith. “Many will turn away,” Jesus said, some deceived, some persecuted, some weary of worship and well-doing.
As I read this text, I am struck by how closely it describes our own times.
“Look at these beautiful buildings,” the disciples said to Jesus. They were proud of their religious culture, their religious establishment, their religious enterprise. They had a right to be. They were looking at the temple complex built by Herod the Great. It was magnificent. Even today, when you walk over its remains, you realize how impressive they were.
Temple Mount today in Jerusalem stretches over 37 acres of prime land in the heart of the city. It is holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The limestone blocks used to build the retaining walls are massive: 44 feet long, 11 feet high, and 8 feet thick. They weight hundreds of tons. These are the stones noticed by the disciples; and these are the stone Jesus said would all be torn down.
It is tempting to get comfortable with the size and strength of our religion. Christianity and Islam both claim about two billion adherents. They are wealthy religions, owning millions of acres of property and thousands of impressive buildings. We like our religious status in the world. We like our cathedrals, our temples, and our sanctuaries. We like the importance such things give us.
Earlier this year, another church offered to buy our sanctuary. We appointed a Task Team to examine this offer and consider our options. But the very thought of losing our place, our space, our sanctuary has stirred up deep emotions among our people. Why is this so? What do we fear? Is our religion tied to these stones, these windows, this ceiling that could come crashing down on me at any moment?
“You see all these things?” Jesus said to his disciples. “I tell you, not one stone here will be left upon another. Everyone will be thrown down.” He was warning his own people against their attachment to things, to buildings, to sanctuaries. He was warning his own people against putting too much importance to these outward expressions of religion.
Jesus knew biblical religion of his day was twisted and distorted. Jesus knew biblical religion of his day was sick unto death. Jesus knew biblical religion of his day was incapable of creating the human community envisions by the prophets and apostles, one marked by justice and righteousness, hospitality and community, one where people sing for joy and live in hope.
Did the destruction of that magnificent temple undermine the purposes of God? Did the destruction of that gold-covered edifice hinder the coming of the Kingdom? Did the destruction of that sacred space prevent God from fulfilling the promise for a new movement of faith, hope, and love?
I don’t think so.
The rise and fall of religious buildings is but a sign of our times, a sign that religions get sick and deformed, a sign that true Christianity is not a matter of sticks and stones, glass and brick, vinyl and asbestos.
True Christianity, true religion, true humane living is a matter of truth and justice, love and mercy, community and commitment. It is a matter of Jesus, messiah of Israel, savior of the world, risen from the dead, alive and well on planet earth. Jesus calls us to persevere in this life of faith, the practice of love, and this spirit of joy. Organizations collapse and edifices fall, Jesus stills calls us, saying, “Follow me. Live in my spirit. Walk in my way. Sing for joy and live with hope.”
The deterioration of buildings and the destruction of sanctuaries is one sign of the times, one thing that occurs everywhere, all the time. But there is another sign of the times: Jesus said to his disciples, “Watch out that no one deceive you…. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Do not be alarmed. Such things must happen. But it is not the end. Nation will rise against nation. There will be famines and earthquakes. This is not the end.”
Sometimes, we hear that these natural and social catastrophes are signs of the end of the age. Let me read again the words of Jesus: “Do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.”
These are the signs of the times, their times, our times, all times. Conflict and death, rise and fall of nations and kingdoms, natural disasters such as fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and famines: this is the way of the world.
Mother nature can be a mean and terrible force. People die; cities are destroyed; the earth opens up and spews fire everywhere. Think Hawaii. It is the way of the earth, the way of life. It is not a sign of the end, but a sign of the way things are.
It always has been and always will be. Our task is not to find hidden meaning in these catastrophes but to find a way to help the wounded in war, to assist those fleeing the fires, to come to the aid of those in need of food and shelter.
We are all citizens of this planet. We are all in this together. We are one human community. Paul the apostle said to the Athenians, “God gives life and breath to everyone. From one person God made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth. God did this so that they would seek God and find God. God is not far from any one of us. For in God we, all of us, live and move have our being.”
When the war broke out in Ukraine, we joined with the world to send relief. When people pour out of the poverty and violence of central and south America, we meet them with food, and jobs, and the kindness of Jesus. When tornadoes strike, we gather as a community and give aid to those in need.
This is gospel work; it also is a sign of the times.
Things happen, but it is not the end. It is a time to be steady, be faithful, be true. Tragedies occur, in your life, in our community, in the world; but it is not the end. It is a time to be strong, to be courageous, to persevere. Jesus said, “Those who endure to the end will be saved.”
Finally, Jesus addresses the matter of people quitting church. “Many will turn away from the faith,” Jesus predicted. “False preachers will deceive many people…. The love of most will grow cold.”
Does that sound familiar?
It is a description of our times. It is a sign of the times in which we live.
For the first time in American history, affiliation with a religious assembly has fallen below 50%. It has alarmed many.
It is one of the powerful social and demographic trends in American history. It is similar to the westward movement of the American people in the 19th century, or the northward flight of black people in the 20th century, or the northern flight of Hispanic people in the 21st century.
People are giving up on God, and church, and Jesus.
A few years ago, I interviewed Tim Sledge of Houston, Texas. For 30 years, he had been a Baptist pastor. Well educated and well compensated, he reached a point where he had had enough: enough of church, of religion, or the whole thing. He wrote a book titled Good-bye Jesus. I read it and reviewed it at themeetinghouse.net.
This phenomenon of giving up, walking away, shaking the dust off the feet is not new. Jesus describes it here as a sign of the times: his time, our time, every time.
There are two responses to this trend in the United States.
Some have reacted with fear. “We are losing our country,” they cry. “We are losing our religion,” others sing. They see this as a tragedy. They have launched a political movement to take back America. They have adopted a slogan to Make America Great Again. They have taken over the Republican Party and vow to return America to its former glory.
Their agenda is to stamp out dissent, ban books, and suppress civil rights. They seek to eliminate many federal programs and departments, fearing what they see as the secular orientation of our government. They want to make Christianity the official religion of the United States.
One way to respond to the demise of what is called Christianity is to take over the government and force their religion, their version of the faith, into every square, public and private. We call this Christian Nationalism.
But there is another way. It is a less dramatic, but more radical reading of the signs of the times.
My friend Marshall Davis, writing from his home in central New Hampshire, described it this week in his column. He titled his column, “If the Church Dies.”
He writes, “Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The political and religious leaders killed Jesus for it. I think God may be doing the same sort of thing in our time…. Religious abuse and moral corruption in the churches have driven people away…. People are pretty sure the church does not know God. God is removing the church from the world in order to save the world from the church. This is not the rapture of the church some Christians are expecting.
“This is the judgement of the church that they—we—didn’t see coming. The Church does not have a problem; the church is the problem. The church thinks the problem is in the culture outside the church, but the real problem is in the church culture…. The Church needs to die so it can be resurrected… I am not dismayed. I see God’s hand in it…. From the ruins of the dying church, a living church will grow. From the micro churches that survive the coming exile, a new body of Christ will arise….
“We are witnessing a great work of God in our time. It is a work of biblical proportions. It s greater than we can imagine with our sociological models and predictions. It is greater than religious revival. This is resurrection.”
I can hardly catch my breath. I can hardly contain my enthusiasm for this good gospel word. It makes me sing for joy and live with hope!
Here we are, a micro church, thrilled with 40 souls on a beautiful Sunday morning. Can we be a sign of the times? Can we be a sign of what God is doing? Can we, Providence, be the work of God in the world? Can we be evidence of the Risen Lord, the fullness of the holy spirit, the anointing of God, the redemption of the whole human race?
Yes, I know we get discouraged. Yes, I know we fuss at each other. Yes, I know we are old, and unable to staff even a Sunday School or a choir. Yes, I know we are not among the influencers of our religious culture. Yes, I know all this, and so do you.
I love what Reggie posted on Facebook on Friday. Here is the way he described our church and invited his friends to join us today: “You know that sweet little church in Hendersonville? The church where I sing, that loves gays, that promotes social justice, that includes all genders? We have an attendance goal this Sunday. If you were ever thinking about coming, this is the Sunday.”
Yes, Reggie, this is the Sunday.
This is the Sunday we receive all who come. This is the Sunday we reach our modest goals of 40 in the sanctuary and $10,000 in the plate. This is the Sunday we celebrate our mission, our ministry. This is the Sunday we persevere in our calling: to be strong, to be steady, to be sure that God is at work in us and among us, calling us to be like Jesus and to walk in his ways. This is the Sunday we sing for joy and live with hope.