Sermon Briefs On Luke 21:25-36
"Just how seriously do we take the petition, `thy kingdom come'?", asks Helmut Thielicke in the first sentence of a sermon entitled The End of the World.1 Thielicke believes that unless we have a text such as Luke 21 as a "steady companion", the Lord's Prayer petition will become for us a meaningless pious catchword.
Thielicke is untroubled by the imminent eschatological expectation typical of the NT and exemplified in our text (v. 32). He considers it an understandable instance of intense waiting eventuating in an abbreviated time perspective.
He uses the example of Carl Goerdeler, a German resistance leader executed after the failed plot to assassinate Hitler on June 20, 1944. Goerdeler had predicted that Nazi Germany would collapse in three months; it didn't, but Thielicke and the others in Goerdeler's cell didn't think he had been wrong. On the contrary, he had been right to discern in Stalingrad the certain beginning of the end.
A "factually correct prognosis" can result in "an erroneous fixing of dates" due to what Thielicke terms "the prophetic shortening of the time perspective." Goerdeler rightly saw that after Stalingrad Germany was "a lost cause." "Precisely because his historical prognosis of the historical situation was correct this abbreviation of perspectives developed. It was an illustration of his correctness."
The resurrection of Christ is "the real…Stalingrad of history." As such, it ineluctably leads to "wrong time-settings for the end of the world."
Probably quite a few sermons on our text criticize and ridicule failed end-time announcements, such as those of William Miller and Harold Camping. Far from despising such predictions and debunking such misdatings as "a history of disgrace," Thielicke values them, as "the reverse side of the coin."
Martin Luther begins his sermon2 by reflecting on v. 28. Who can lift up their heads, he asks, in the face of "such terrible wrath"? True Christians, he replies, people who want nothing so much as they want to be set free finally from sin, true Christians who "with heartfelt desire" pray, "Thy kingdom come."
Luther notes that Jesus does not put forth in vv.29-30 a parable from the dreary and bare autumn or winter but from the blossoming and joyful spring and summer seasons, indicating that we are to "look forward to the last day with as much delight as all creation shows in spring and summer".
Luther's main emphasis lies on the necessity of our examining our hearts to see how they are "disposed toward this day".
John Chrysostom in his homily on our verse3 observes that the end is "a thing disbelieved by many." He seems intent upon helping his listeners to believe it. He interprets "this generation" in v. 32 as that generation of believers who will then be living.
Chrysostom's main emphasis lies on the necessity of our being "anxiously waiting...in virtuous action" for our Lord's return.
Frederick Buechner, in a sermon entitled The Hungering Dark,4 asserts that no part of the NT is more "alien" to our age than the doctrine of the Second Coming, partly because of the apocalyptic images it is clothed in, partly because of its misuse by "the lunatic fringe," but mainly because of its "passionate hopefulness."
Buechner cites a Hebrew word for hope, gawah, whose root means to twist, to twine. It is a word that fits our hoping well, for we tend to take little reasonable strands of hope that some good things will happen and some bad things will not happen and twist them together into a cable that we hope will pull us through this life. For us the apocalyptic hope of the NT is "too hopeful."
Little twisted together hopes are not enough. There is an emptiness within us where the great hope used to be, "and the darkness hungers still for the great light that has gone out."
Buechner invites his hearers to "say at least maybe to the possibility of the impossible." To think that Jesus will come back is "fantastic," but then again it is "fantastic enough just that preachers should stand up in their black gowns…when they could be home reading the papers…It is fantastic that people should listen to them." And it is fantastic that in a world like ours people still say at least maybe to the possibility of God at all.
James P. Kay begins his sermon, The Coming Cloud,5 by observing that different kinds of clouds have come upon people in the past—the cloud of 1 Kings 18:44-45, for instance, or the cloud of August 6, 1945. What kind of cloud (v. 27) will come upon us in the future, a cloud that blesses or a cloud that kills?
Can we forecast the future? Kay has some fun with several wildly optimistic prognostications about the 21st century in a Life magazine article (Visions of Tomorrow, March 1989). He contrasts them with the widespread anxieties attending the depletion of the ozone layer and the destruction of the rain forest. He concludes that present trends are ambiguous, some pointing to paradise, others to hell.
But can the Bible give us the forecast? Yes it can, but only in the sense that the Bible "promises a future based on God's faithfulness to Jesus Christ."
Because "the future belongs to Jesus Christ," we can never give up, no matter what (cf. v. 28). No matter what "cloud comes to meet us, faith will see the face of Jesus Christ."
James S. Stewart in his sermon, Sursum Corda!,6 de-eschatologizes our text. Our text teaches that it is "when things are at their worst... that is the likeliest hour for a new decisive emergence of the Spirit of God upon the scene." Stewart illustrates this with references to the OT, Church history, and individual experience.
Why does God act in this way? Stewart holds that the reason is that it is only in bleak, desperate hours that the main impediment to divine activity in the lives of persons gets broken down, and that main impediment is the human person's self-trust.
So when "these desolating things that leave all self-trust shattered and in ruin" come to pass, "look up, and lift your head, knowing that…your redemption draweth nigh!"
Steven D. MacArthur
1. Faith the Great Adventure (Philadelphia: 1985), pp. 91-98.
2. The Christian Year: Sermons of the Fathers, vol. 1, ed. G. W. Forell (New York: 1964), pp. 27-30.
3. Forell, ibid., pp. 23-27.
4. The Hungering Dark (New York: 1969), pp. 113-125.
5. Seasons of Grace: Reflections from the Christian Year (Grand Rapids:1994), pp. 3-8.
6. The Strong Name (New York: 1941), pp. 3-11.