Need to Know Information
Text: Luke 21:5-28
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I don’t know why the old saying goes, “Curiosity killed the cat,” because I know of no other species in God’s creation that’s more curious than humans. We have a natural curiosity—I’d even say a compulsion—to know. No other species is building telescopes to peer at faraway galaxies that we won’t ever travel to. No other creature has chased down and tried harnessing the power of the atom. Our need to know drives us into every corner of creation. It was Eve’s desire to know good and evil that pushed her over the edge of temptation in the Fall. It was Adam’s curiosity that caused him to follow. And that curiosity about what God had reserved for Himself killed more than just the cat. Human curiosity, not within the safe boundaries God had given it, killed the cosmos.
So when we come across something that we don’t know, it drives us mad. Part of what makes mystery movies and books so tantalizing is that we know the mystery will reach a satisfying resolution when we figure it out. It should come as no surprise then that in matters of the faith, many simply cannot stand unresolved questions. We see this particularly when it comes to the end times, something that the Church on earth turns its consideration to now as we reach the end of the Church year.
We see it with Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel reading today. Jesus begins talking about the tumultuous events that are coming as the end times are ushered in. “Teacher,” they ask, “when will these things be, and what will be the signs when these things are about to take place?” They feel the need to know specifics about the when and the what of the end.
And the questions haven’t stopped. Many people have struggled and tortured themselves over the when of it all. From the first century AD to the 21st, prognosticators and false prophets have offered details about when these things will happen. In our own lifetimes, how many so-called prophesied dates have we seen come and go without the close of the age? Jehovah’s Witnesses originally claimed 1975 as the end of time. Televangelists and celebrity pastors have marked several years that have already passed as the last year of history. Harold Camping, who received flashes of fame, predicted two dates in 1994, then one date in 1995, then then two different dates in 2011. And still the predictions roll in.
But what does our Lord, who knows all things, teach us? “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying ‘I am he!’ and ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them.” Do not go after them. Do not get caught up in the bizarre mathematical equations and idiosyncratic interpretations of Bible verses, always ripped out of context. Do not go after them.
There are two mistakes we can make when it comes to the end times. The first is obsessing over it and fixating on specific times and signs. The second is pretending as if Christ will never return at all, as if it has no bearing on us whatsoever. These are the mistakes that many make when they declare from their own imaginations that the time is at hand, or that the time will never be at hand. From the worried predicters to the smug deniers, all their errors—and our own errors, if we’re being very honest—stem from these two mistakes.
Thankfully Jesus gives us the antidote to both mistakes. He does this by telling us exactly as much as we need to know—no more, no less. And then He tells us to not worry about more than that. This is important. It’s important because—like all important teachings from Jesus—this is a matter of faith. If we’re going to dissect every obscure detail, hoping to decipher something that isn’t clear as day in the words of Jesus, all we’re doing is showing that we distrust Him. It’s showing that we’re worried enough that we want a head start on things so that we can be ready through our own preparations and foreknowledge. It shows that we don’t believe He’ll save us by His grace; rather, we’ll be saved by what we know. It shows that we don’t think He’ll give us daily bread in tribulation; rather, we have to store it up ourselves.
Likewise, if we make the other mistake and live our lives as if He’ll never return at all, it shows that we think He’s a liar. That is to say, we don’t trust Him. We don’t put faith in His words when we get caught up in the rush of the world’s hype and activities, with no thought of the end ever crossing our minds. When we raise up generations of people who think of nothing else but how much they’ll make or what they’ll wear or what they’ll eat, we showing that we really don’t think much of Jesus’ teachings. So whether we deny that the end will come or if we wring our hands in worry over it, it’s always matter of little faith.
But our Lord has given us His Word so that our faith would be strengthened and then expressed in the way we live our lives. He’s given us exactly as much as we need to know—in His clear words, not hidden in codes or any such tricky nonsense—so that our faith would be firmly in Him. So what is it that we know?
We know some signs of the end. Jesus describes them in our reading today: “When you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.” “They will persecute you, you will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death.” “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on earth distress of nations because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
Do any of these signs sound familiar? They should. Wars, tumults, nations rising against each other. Persecution of Christians. Signs in the heavens. These are things that we experience even today. These are signs that have been with us for the last 2000 years. These are all indicators that the end times, the last age of this old creation, has already begun. It began with the crucifixion of Jesus. At that time there were great signs in the heavens, as the sun was darkened and the day became night—not only for a few seconds, like in an eclipse, but for three hours as Jesus hung on the cross. There was a great earthquake that tore the curtain of the temple in Jerusalem in two. Jesus Himself was delivered up to the Sanhedrin and the governor by His own friend and disciple, Judas. When Jesus covered the sins of the world with His blood at the cross, the powers in heaven were shaken as the accuser, Satan himself, was thrown down from his position as prosecutor of God’s people. And great was his fall, shaking the heavens and earth. People were perplexed at creation’s response to the death of this carpenter’s son. A centurion blurted out that this must be the Son of God. Confusion and terror and sorrow were everywhere as rebellions, riots, and dissensions were simmering there, nations rising against each other, Judea against Rome, before Pontius Pilate’s eyes. Yes, those signs described by Jesus were fulfilled at His death, marking the beginning of the end. So now, rather than having to wait for some prophet to announce when it will happen, we simply live knowing that it’s already begun.
Now what I’m not saying is that we need to be frightened or do anything extreme in preparation. We don’t need to store up this world’s goods, as if our Lord suddenly won’t be merciful to us anymore. Nor does it mean that we need to do anything to speed things up to the very end. All I’m saying is that we need to recognize this and then live accordingly: realize that this fallen creation and order will come to an end and that when the unknowable moment arrives, Jesus will return and bring the complete fulfillment of all that He has promised. And knowing this keeps us from an unhealthy obsession with seeking deeper, hidden knowledge that hasn’t be given to us. It also keeps us aware that our Lord is returning.
What this does is keep our faith in the right place. It keeps us trusting in Jesus, rather than ourselves, rather than institutions in this fallen and rapidly ending world. Christ will return, and when He does, it means a new heavens and a new earth. It means that when He comes, the verdict you’ve heard a thousand times—that you are forgiven all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—will be proclaimed one final time by your forgiving Lord as He judges the living and the dead. It means your redemption is drawing near. So no matter what the rest of this final age holds, straighten up and raise your head. Live in this age, but live in it with an eye to the life of the world to come. Look to your Savior. For your salvation is coming with Him, and it’s coming quickly. In the name of Jesus, who will return. Amen.