When These Things Take Place, Look Up
When Jesus spoke these words recorded in Luke 21, he was looking ahead to the coming crisis at the end of time. He described the signs that would point to his final advent--astronomical abnormalities, strange movements and configurations of the sun, moon and stars, raging seas and tidal waves pounding upon the beaches of the world, people fainting in bewilderment and fear. "When these things begin to take place," he said to his disciples, "look up, because your redemption is drawing near."
Today I want to give that passage a present or contemporary interpretation. That's nothing new. Christians have been doing it ever since the words were first spoken. In every generation there have been Christians who thought they saw in eclipses or comets or raging storms or severe international problems the signs of which Jesus spoke. As it turns out, they have all been in error (up to now) in interpreting such things as signs of the Lord's final coming. But, it is not an error to wonder about the meaning of events and to see in them signs of the Lord's present advent because between His first coming in Bethlehem and His final coming in glory He is continually invading our lives in ways both large and small. Let the passage today refer to those strange unpredictable signs of His coming in the middle of history and in the course of our individual lives.
Think about it. Are there not recurring moments in your life when time seems to have stopped, when the noise of the world is momentarily stilled, when self-deception is stripped away and there is a sudden clear awareness of your self?
A simple word or phrase can cause this to happen.
One day, when David was at the height of his power and glory as King of Israel, the prophet Nathan came to see him and said, "Your majesty, in a certain city there was a rich man who had many herds and flocks, and there was a poor man who had this one lamb that he and his children loved very much. The rich man had a house guest for whom he wanted to prepare a feast, and instead of using one of the lambs out of his own flock, you know what he did? He took the one lamb that the poor man had." David was shocked and angry at the idea of such a thing and said the man ought to be punished. Nathan raised his finger and said, "You are the man. Bathsheba was the lamb." Time stood still, and the words echoed in David's head like pounding waves. From his window he had seen Bathsheba bathing, and he was filled with desire. "You are the man." He had her soldier husband, Uriah, set up to be killed in battle. "You are the man." He took Bathsheba to be his mistress. "You are the man" The words burned like the unrelenting heat of the sun.
A student received a term paper back with a very low grade on it. Shocked and hurt he went and asked his teacher why, and his teacher said quietly, "Because you didn't put much into it, did you?" I was the student, and I remember that moment of clear awareness as the words cut through to the truth.
A parent asks a child, "Why can't you talk to me?" and the child responds, "Because you never understand."
A phrase, a word, from an anthem, a hymn, a prayer, a sermon touches your mind and heart in accusation or consolation and all other awareness is momentarily pushed aside.
Can't you recall incidents similar to these when words have momentarily eclipsed everything else?
The same kind of experience is sometimes produced, not by words, but by the absence of words. There are times when the deafening sound of silence seems to stop the sun, moon and stars in their course.
The silence of God, the terrible feeling of the absence of God at a time of personal need, can prompt the heart to cry out as Jesus did in his loneliness and pain, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!"
Or time stands still as one's house reverberates with the silence caused by the absence of one with whom that house was shared.
Or we find ourselves awake in the night when the members of our family are asleep. We think of them lying there and are suddenly aware of how much they need our gentleness and encouragement and understanding and love. And time stands still as we see and hear in the silence of memory our harsh words and rough actions that have bruised and wounded them or our own stony silence that has shut them out.
Or perhaps you have experienced that moment of silence when you realized that there is a core and heart of you which no mother or father or wife or husband or son or daughter or friend or anyone else can ever completely touch and understand, a silent awareness of ultimate aloneness that causes tears to well up.
The "roaring of the sea and the waves" is often very real in the silence.
The mere presence and personality and character of some other person can also cause time to stand still and give rise to a kind of unexpected self-awareness.
You came to church that particular Sunday and sat down during the Organ Prelude to prepare for the service. You looked over and saw him sitting where he always does, and you thought again of what a fine person he is--warm, cheerful, magnanimous, with carefully nurtured faith and character, and it made you painfully aware of a shallowness in yourself.
You find yourself staring across the street or across the classroom or across the room at a party at someone whose interest in others makes you more aware of your own self-centeredness, or someone whose courage in meeting life's difficulties makes you ashamed of your own complaining, or someone whose forgiving spirit makes you conscious of your own tendency to carry grudges.
If you do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, you will be able to remember experiences in which you were brought up short by seeing in someone else's character and attitudes a challenge to your own.
Those moments when sun, moon and stars seem out of control and when the foundations of life are shaken come for nations and communities and institutions as well as for individuals.
The Israelites thought that no serious national tragedy could happen to them since they were God's chosen people. Their total defeat and capture by the Assyrians was a moment of truth which stripped away their false illusions of security and left them face to face with themselves.
We Americans have experienced a succession of these moments over the past thirty years--military frustration in Southeast Asia and the Middle East and Central America in spite of our massive military power, the sudden discovery that the stamp "made in Japan" carried as much or more weight than the stamp "made in the United States," the dawning of the realization that the bays and waterways, whose marine life we took for granted, are in mortal danger from pollution.
At the local level we are being confronted with the hard fact that in America today those cities which have a future are the ones which develop a plan around which business, professional and political leaders gather with a broad base of citizen support, not the ones which keep making plans that are never implemented.
What are all of these moments and times when sun and moon and stars seem to swing into erratic patterns and the waters seem to roar? Well, they are whatever you decide they are. You have several alternatives.
You may decide that they are just poignant or disturbing incidents that don't have any significance beyond the momentary feelings of uneasiness or sadness or guilt to which they give rise. You can just let the moment pass and fade away and forget it--like the man who said that whenever he feels an urge to get more exercise he lies down, until the urge goes away.
Or you can decide that such incidents are indeed an occasion of challenge and that you are going to muster the will power and human resources needed to meet that challenge. In response to that word or that silence or that person which brings you face to face with yourself, you can make a resolution that from now on you are going to be more moral, more considerate, more courageous, more conscientious in your personal life. As Americans we can respond to crises in our national life simply by resolving that we are going to be more cautious and clever in our foreign policy in the future or that we are going to elect better people to public office, people who will solve the problems that the old bunch haven't solved. In other words, we can respond to the unexpected moments of truth by falling back on our own resources.
But there is a third alternative. You can interpret these moments as occasions when God has broken through into your life and given you a chance to see clearly, not only the contrast between what you are and what he wants you to be, but also the limitations of your human powers and resources. You can react, if you choose to do so, not by simply rolling up your sleeves and applying your hands more vigorously to the building of life in your own image, but by putting your hands in God's hands. You can ask yourself how He wants you to respond, and you can rely on Him for the inspiration and strength needed for such a response.
The history of Christian experience shows us that this is the way people really change and grow.
When Jesus was arrested, Simon Peter mingled with the hostile crowd outside the high priest's house. Three times he was asked if he was a disciple of Jesus, and three times he denied that he was. Then, when dawn approached, a rooster suddenly crowed, and time stood still as Peter remembered Jesus' prediction of his cowardice. Peter interpreted that humiliating experience as a sign of God's coming, and he responded to it with a kind of repentance and commitment that made a new man of him.
Or take the case of St. Augustine, one of the great figures in the history of the church. Until the year 386 A.D. he was a restless, directionless playboy. In that year, when he was 32 years old, a crisis occurred. Suffering from emptiness and self-disgust because of his inability to control his sexual desires, he fled one day into a quiet nook in a garden. Over the garden wall he heard a child's voice saying, "tolle lege", "take and read." Augustine found a copy of the New Testament, opened it, and his eyes fell on the words in the 13th chapter of Romans: "not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness...but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof." Augustine interpreted this experience as a sign of Christ's coming to him, and it precipitated his conversion and the radical change of his life.
John Wesley was a failure as a preacher--until one night he attended a service at Aldersgate and there "felt his heart strangely warmed" in one of those moments when time suddenly stands still. He interpreted the experience as a sign of the Lord's coming and responded with a new commitment of faith and trust that gave him a power he had never had before.
What will you make of those unexpected moments in your life when the foundations are shaken, when the sun, moon and stars stand still, when the waves rush in? Will you dismiss them with a shrug? Will you try to respond in terms of your own limited capacity? Or will you see in them signs of the Lord's coming to you in the midst of life and respond with repentance, trust and hope? "When these things begin to take place," said Jesus, "look up and raise your head, because your redemption is drawing near."
J. Harold Mckeithen, Jr.,