Jesus said: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.”Luke 21:25
The Christmas season is officially upon us, and the signs are all around us. And I am thankful. To be honest, I am still a bit old-fashioned about all of this. So I still try to resist the pull of Christmas until at least after Thanksgiving. But now, of course, it is after Thanksgiving. So I’m ready. I’m ready to start getting ready for Christmas. And I hope you are, too. ‘Tis the season, right?
Of course, as Lutherans we get ready for Christmas a little differently. We join with many other Christains in doing something that is also rather old-fashioned, something that goes against the grain in our world. Even now, we are not beginning the season of Christmas here in our worship services. Instead, we are beginning the season of Advent. Advent, which comes from the latin word for “coming,” focuses our attention on the coming of Christ, not just at Christmas, but also in his promised return.
And the scripture readings assigned for the season of Advent help us to do that. They help us to focus on the deeper preparation that we are called to undertake this time of year. They remind us of the spiritual preparation that is needed to get ready for the return of our Savior.
Advent used to be a very strange, churchy concept. But I have noticed a change in recent years, as Advent calendars have become more and more popular. Have you noticed that? For years – decades even – these calendars were our little secret. Advent calendars were first used by Lutherans in the 19th century. They became popular with many other Christians over the centuries. But suddenly, it seems to me, they have crossed over to popular culture. There are now Advent calendars that have nothing at all to do with Advent, other than that they count down the days to Christmas. I guess that people who like to sell things have figured out that they can sell more things if they make use of this devotional tool. So, they are quite eager to offer Advent calendars for almost anything that you can think of, even Advent calendars for our beloved pets. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, or a good thing.
But it did get me to thinking about another issue with Advent calendars that I want to raise this morning. Advent calendars can be a fun way to mark the passing of time, in this season of preparation. But they can also be a little misleading. The countdown to Christmas, which Advent calendars help us to do, can mislead us into thinking that the coming of Christ is very predictable.
Christmas is very predictable, the celebration of the first coming of Christ. But the second coming of Christ? That day will arrive unexpectedly, Jesus says. Even he cannot tell us exactly when he will return. There is no Advent calendar that can help us count down the days to the return of Christ. There can’t be, because we don’t know when it will be. All we can do is try to look for signs, or hints, that the day is nearing.
There Will Be Signs
“There will be signs,” Jesus tells us in today’s gospel reading (Luke 21:25-36), signs that the kingdom of God is near. Not a calendar, perhaps, but hints that the day is drawing closer. So, what are those signs? How do we interpret them? And how do we make sense of it all?
It can be quite confusing. But I think it is helpful to look at the bigger picture, to look at other times in the gospels that signs are mentioned. Today, we begin a new church year, of course, and our focus this year in our gospel readings will be on the Gospel of Luke. So, I thought this morning we could look at all the instances in Luke’s Gospel when signs are mentioned, and see what we can learn from these passages.
The First Sign in Luke’s Gospel
The first and perhaps most famous of the signs mentioned in Luke’s Gospel is one that we will hear about on Christmas Eve. Remember that one? The angels appear in the night sky to proclaim to the shepherds the good news of great joy. And they tell them that there will be a sign for them:
“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” – Luke 2:12
That is the first official sign recorded in Luke’s Gospel. Not a sign in the sun, or the moon, or the stars, like in today’s gospel reading, but a sign found lying in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. And this sign teaches us that God comes to us not only at unexpected times, but also in unexpected ways. God’s Son was born in this humble way, and placed in this manger, to be a sign for us. A sign that teaches us to look for God not only in the stars, but right here among us, in ways that will surprise and delight us.
A Sign in the Temple
But that leads us to the next sign, which takes place at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple is probably where you would expect to find a sign. Simeon did. And he had been waiting there for many years. When Joseph and Mary arrived to present Jesus to the Lord, as instructed by the Old Testament writings, Simeon took Jesus into his arms and gave thanks, knowing that this was the sign he had been seeking.
“Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace,” Simeon famously said (Luke 2:29). But then Simeon warned Mary that her son would be a sign that would be opposed by many. Jesus was not just a baby lying in a manger. No need to oppose that. But Jesus grew up and became a sign of God’s love for all people. He proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom, and invited all to repent, to turn from their sins, and be forgiven. He ate with the wrong crowd, healed on the wrong days, and upset the wrong people. He didn’t act in the way that people expected. He made people uneasy. Jesus himself became a sign, but not a sign that all people wanted to see. When we look for signs, and ask for them, we may be given one, but it may not be the sign that we are hoping for.
The Sign of Jonah
As Jesus began to upset the status quo, and share his radical message of love, the crowds around him demanded proof that he had the authority to share this message. They demanded a sign from Jesus: “Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven” (Luke 11:16). It is the next time that signs are mentioned in Luke’s gospel. Jesus responded to their demand with these words:
“This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation.” – Luke 11:29-30
No sign except the sign of Jonah. Jonah, the prophet who was cast overboard to save the rest of the people in the ship from perishing; who was swallowed up by a large fish, where he remained for three days. The sign of Jonah might very well be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection after three days in the tomb.
But the other possible meaning of the sign of Jonah brings us back to Jonah’s radical message of repentance and hope for all. Even the hated people of Nineveh were given an opportunity to turn to God and be forgiven. Jesus may be offering this sign of Jonah as a way of inviting all who hear his message, then and now, to repent and believe the good news.
This invitation – to repent and believe – is always the way that we start our new church year. This invitation to us all to turn back to God, and receive God’s forgiveness. The sign of Jonah is a sign of hope because it is a sign of possibility. And Jesus wants to give us hope, and possibilities, and new life. And so, he invites us to repent, to return to God. And don’t wait, Jesus tells us. You don’t want the day to catch you unexpectedly. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. So turn back now.
Not Coming with Signs?
There is one more sign that Jesus refers to in Luke’s gospel before today’s gospel reading, and it is also important to lift up today. When the Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus answered them,
“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” – Luke 17:20
Here, Jesus almost seems to be contradicting himself. The kingdom of God is not coming with signs? But really, I think that Jesus is simply saying that we shouldn’t get so caught up in looking for signs that we are no longer able to see that the Kingdom of God is in the midst of us.Jesus promises not just to come again. He also promises never to leave. He promises to always be with us. And he is always with us.
He is with us now, when we gather as a community in his name, to hear his Word and share in the Lord’s Supper. But not just now. He is with us always. Like the air around us, which is always with us; we just don’t always think about it, or are always aware of it. So, too, with our Lord. He is our Emmanuel, our God-with-us, who never leaves us or forsakes us. He is with us always. We just don’t always notice. And sometimes we can get so caught up in looking for signs, that we lose sight of the fact that he is right here with us. This, too, we can learn from the signs mentioned in Luke’s gospel.
“There will be signs,” Jesus tells us in today’s gospel reading, signs that he is coming, signs that his return is drawing near. So be on guard, he reminds us. Be alert. Get ready. But also? Remember that he is with us, that his kingdom is in our midst, right here and right now. We don’t have to wait for it, plan for it, prepare for it, or do anything at all, for his kingdom to be in the midst of us. It is here now. No calendar is needed to count down the days to his being among us. He is here today. And as William Barclay once said,
“The best way to prepare for the coming of Christ is never to forget the presence of Christ.”
Let us do this faithfully. Prepare for his coming by being always mindful of his presence. To the glory of God. Amen.