Good News About the Uncertainty of the Future
Throughout the past century here in the U.S., a strange phenomenon has taken place. And that is, when times are tough, people head to the movies. When the economy is down, movie attendance goes up.
You would think it would be just the opposite, that when the economy is down, movie theaters would feel it too. But no. Whether it be the Great Recession of the late 2000’s, or the 1970’s oil crises and inflation or even the Great Depression nearly a hundred years ago, when the economy is down, movie attendance goes up.
That itself is a bit of a head scratcher. The best theory seems to be that when times are tough, people are in need of an escape, and movies give us that to some extent.
And yet, there’s another layer to this that’s even more fascinating. And that is, when times are tough, people specifically seek out apocalyptic type movies about the end of the world. This was especially true during the Great Recession some 12-15 years ago with movies like the Transformers, Terminator Salvation, District 9 and more. Movies about war and terrorism, earthquakes and teen idol vampires, robots and wandering zombies. Now, what’s that all about?
In his article “It’s The End of the World and We Love It,” movie critic Mark Moring tries to make sense of this one. Quoting the President of Fuller Seminary, Richard Mouw, he writes, "In difficult times, our restlessness for more comes to the surface … and it should not surprise us that yearnings for eternity—for a final resolution of all the struggle with good and evil—will come to pass."
Whether you consider yourself a zombie loving movie goer or not, there is something deep within us that wants to know what the future holds, what the future entails, what the end of the world will be like. In fact the writer of Ecclesiastes says that “God has put eternity in our hearts.”
And so, for today, we’ll head back to the past, looking at a scripture from long, long ago, so that we might both make sense of the present and get a glimpse into our future, as we consider eternal matters and the end of the world itself.
That’s a lot now, isn’t it? Let’s go ahead and get right to it.
We’ve been slowly making our way through this crucial part of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’s final week leading up to his death and resurrection. And over this past month or so, we’ve been immersed in everything that takes place on the Tuesday of Holy Week. It’s been a day filled with teaching and controversy and tension in the temple. By the time we meet next Sunday, we’ll skip ahead to Thursday in Holy Week, where Jesus introduces the Lord’s Supper, after which we’ll share the Lord’s Supper ourselves.
And yet, before we make that turn, there’s this perplexing passage, it’s the final thing that Luke records on this Tuesday long ago. And here the conversation shifts a bit, no longer is the conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders as they try and stump him, trap him, and embarrass him. Here the focus shifts to Jesus and his disciples, as he prepares them for life after his crucifixion, his resurrection and ultimately his ascension, describing to them what they should expect and therefore how they must respond.
The scene begins with the disciples oohing and aweing over the glitz and glamor of the temple. After all, the temple in Jerusalem was the largest temple in the ancient world, decorated with white stones, gold trim, and a gold covered roof. It was magnificent. And Jesus tells them that this seemingly indestructible temple will one day be destroyed, or as he says in v.6, “the time will come when not one stone will be left on another.”
Which, to the disciples, must have seemed unfathomable. And so they ask in v.7, “Teacher, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
And in his own unique way, Jesus goes on to answer their questions. And yet in doing so, he also gives far more than they’ve asked for, helping us make sense of our present and giving us a glimpse of our future as we consider eternal matters and the end of the world itself.
And so, two simple questions that we’ll consider for today capture so much of what Jesus says. And those questions are:
What does the future hold?
How must we respond?
First, what does the future hold? Because Jesus’s words are from 2,000 years ago, these future predictions from long ago both serve for you and I as ways of making sense of our present and giving us a glimpse into our future.
So let’s survey the landscape here. And I should warn you now, Jesus’s words and prophesy here are a little eerie in just how accurate they’ve proven to be. It’s as if he is holding up a road sign that says, “Bumpy road ahead.”
He says in verses 9, 10 and 11 that there will be wars and uprisings, that nation will rise against nation, while over this past year the nation of Russia has invaded Ukraine.
That there will be earthquakes, famines, and pestilences. All while a devastating earthquake wreaks havoc over Turkey and Syria, a crippling famine currently paralyzes Northern Africa, and a pestilence? Well, the dictionary definition of a pestilence is “a fatal epidemic disease.” I’ll just leave that right there.
And to top it all off, Jesus describes the destruction of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, which will take place at the hand of the Romans in 70 AD. All of this is a glimpse of the disciples' future that helps us make sense of our present.
And then here’s where Jesus gives them far more than they asked for. He points them to final judgment and Jesus’s second coming, describing a day when the Son of Man (that is, Jesus) will come in a cloud with power and great glory. And he says that people will faint in terror, apprehensive of what is coming, while others, specifically those disciples, followers of Jesus throughout the centuries, can lift up their heads, because their redemption is drawing near.
And so, what does the future hold? Well, we might sum it up this way. Both current judgment and future judgment. Both challenge and difficulty in the present and future, all culminating in a final judgment when Jesus returns, or as the Apostles Creed says, “He will come to judge the living and the dead.”
And by describing and predicting both events, I think there’s an important connection that Jesus wants us to make here. In the words of bible scholar Tom Schreiner, he says, “All temporal judgments are meant to direct our attention to final judgment.” In other words, every catastrophe in history, earthquakes, famines, pestilences and more, are meant to point us to a final judgment to come when Jesus returns.
Now, to be clear, it’s not that we’re saying that God brings catastrophes on his people in order to judge them for their sins, as if our God brings hurricanes on the people of Florida to punish them for their specific sins. I wouldn’t dare say that and neither would you. However, all temporal judgments are meant to direct our attention to final judgment. Where every time we hear of disasters in our world where a person’s life can be lost in the blink of an eye, it’s an opportunity for each of us to ask ourselves, “Are we ready to meet God at any moment?”
Whether it be 9/11, Covid-19, or even the Damar Hamlin collapse on a football field a month or two ago, each of these events has a way of getting people to consider their own mortality, how fragile and temporary life truly is, and to begin to wonder, what happens when I die, asking ourselves, “Are we ready to meet God at any moment?” We’ll touch more on this later, with a story that calls our attention to this very question.
All this to say, what does the future hold? Well Jesus is holding up a road sign that says, “bumpy road ahead” until he one day returns with power and glory.
Alright, let’s now turn the corner to our second question this morning, and in fact, this next part will serve as a bridge between the two questions. Let's begin to consider the question, “How must we respond?”
In light of what the future holds, how must we respond? Well, here Jesus focuses in on one of the more difficult realities for followers of Jesus. Jesus says that his disciples will also experience persecution.
He tells them that because of their faith they will face persecution from all sides, on one hand from the government, synagogue rulers, kings and governors, that’s verses 12-15, but also from their own families, parents, siblings, relatives, friends, that’s verses 16-17.
Jesus wants his disciples to be prepared for and ready to respond to persecution from every side. And when you zoom out here, it’s not all that surprising that Jesus would warn them of this. After all, Jesus’s command over and over and over again has been “Follow me.” And Jesus in just a couple short days will face rejection, persecution, crucifixion. And though the disciples path and our path today doesn’t completely mirror Jesus, we too will face opposition, just as Jesus himself did so long ago.
And so, how must we respond? Jesus says in v.13, “you will bear testimony to me.” He says in v.14, “Do not worry, for I will give you the words to say when persecution comes.”
Then later, towards the end of the passage in v.34 he says, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life.” Be on watch and pray, Jesus says, that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
To put it all together, the future promises a bumpy road ahead, and we as followers of Jesus must remain calm, wise, faithful, prepared through prayer, resting in the promise that Jesus will rescue us in the end.
All of this is heavy and weighty stuff, I know. And it all may feel a bit too abstract and conceptual. And so, let’s get on the ground here, let’s get as real as real can get here, by once again reflecting on the faithful witness of Christians in Ukraine, with a story and update that I hope will lift our spirits, tie up some loose ends here in our passage, and most importantly inspire and strengthen us to persevere until Jesus returns.
Three months or so ago I shared a story about how as refugees, Ukrainian Christians, pastors and church members were a blessing to their neighboring nation of Poland, sharing the love of Christ in both word and deed to their unbelieving Polish neighbors next door. That was the story of those who left the country for safety and security. This morning, in an article from Christianity Today that just so happened to show up on my front door yesterday morning, we’ll hear an update about those who stayed behind and never left.
The cover story is titled, “We are ready to meet God at any moment.” Ministry in Ukraine, when every day might be the last.
The article tells the story of a number of pastors and church members who stayed behind. One is a church in Kherson and their pastor James. Though there were good reasons for both going and staying, James and his family felt compelled to stay in Ukraine. They knew that many of their church members and people in their town couldn’t leave even if they wanted to – those who were elderly and disabled. And so he and his wife, and their four children, stayed.
And it’s been brutally hard. They remember Russian shelling shaking their fifth floor apartment like a Jenga block, their second daughter screaming hysterically, then gathering their kids and heading to the church. For three weeks, they slept underneath the church stairs. Hundreds were sheltered in the church basement. Others even slept in the men’s restroom.
Over this past year, James has witnessed some of the worst things imaginable. Russian tanks shooting at schools, children starving while Russian soldiers partied at cafes, Russians plundering crops and equipment from Kherson’s farmers. “This is not war,” James says, “this is genocide.”
And yet, in the midst of profound lament, James’s church and other churches knew they needed to act. The immediate needs were severe and urgent – medicine, food, supplies. All the stores were closed. People needed shelter and help evacuating, and they knocked on church doors because churches were the swiftest, most efficient, and most flexible institution offering aid.
In the midst of it all, Ukrainian church leaders say they are seeing more unbelievers entering their doors than ever before. One church added a 10 minute sermon to its regular Sunday services to explain the gospel to the unchurched. Their pastor estimates that 20 to 40 newcomers have responded to altar calls every Sunday. Wartime, they saw, heightened the urgency to preach the gospel. One pastor said, “Life can end at any moment. I had to look into the eyes of my God. What am I doing?”
The reporter from Christianity Today asked James, “Do you miss the old services?” In other words, do you miss the church and people you used to have?
Without hesitation James said no. Saying, “Before, the people here were all believers. Now we see new people who have never heard the gospel.”
Even still, it’s been brutally, brutally tough. Throughout this past year, prayer has been James’s lifeline. He prays aloud when Russian missiles shake the walls of his church. He prays aloud before driving to nearby villages to deliver bread. And he prays aloud when he’s scared to death, which is often.
The article concludes with James being asked, “Do you ever regret staying in Kherson?”
James' answer is stirring. Regret? No! No! Never! We are on God’s frontlines. We are ready to meet God at any moment.
We are ready to meet God at any moment.
Friends, could you imagine saying those very same words? We are ready to meet God at any moment.
And if not, what might keep you from saying them? Maybe we love this world more than we should. Maybe we love what God has created more than the Creator himself.
Or maybe we fear standing before God himself. Wondering if we’ve done enough, loved enough, been faithful enough, been good enough. Thankfully, doing or being enough has and never will decide our faith. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
You all, could you imagine saying what James himself said? We are ready to meet God at any moment.
May our God give us the courage and conviction, the hope and faith, to say those very words and believe them. We are ready to meet God at any moment.
Together linking arms with those faithful disciples throughout the centuries and around the world, who when the Son of Man appears can stand up and lift up their heads, because their redemption is drawing near.”