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Return of the King
November 30, 2003
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Luke, chapter 21, and follow along as I read verses 25-36. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
25 "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.
28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees;
30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.
31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.
33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly,
35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.
36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Return of the King
About twenty-five years ago that I discovered a book by J.R.R. Tolkien. It was The Hobbit. It might have been called the adventures of Bilbo Baggins. I loved it. Then of course, I had to read the three other books in the series which are called the Trilogy of the Ring. The Ring Trilogy centers on the adventures of Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo Baggins. As far as I was concerned, it was great stuff, and so a couple of years ago when the Ring Trilogy began to come out in movie form I could not wait. The first two parts of the trilogy have already appeared, the Fellowship of the Ring, and the Two Towers. The third part of the Trilogy is going to be released in a couple of weeks. The first two movies have been great. They have been great because they follow the books, which is something Hollywood often fails to do when it brings books to the screen. I look forward with great anticipation to the third movie. The third movie, like the third book of the Trilogy, is entitled: Return of the King.
The title is actually a misnomer. The main story line of the third book is Frodo Baggin’s journey to return the ring of dark power to a place where it can be destroyed. A minor theme in the book is the return of the king to a throne that was always his.
In the movie, he does not look like a king. He looks like a mess. Imagine long, greasy hair and an unshaved face. Skin covered with dirt and grime, streaked with sweat from the exertion of a long journey. He belongs in a homeless shelter, not on a royal throne. And yet, the man is a king. This man is the son of Arathorn, chieftain of the Dunedain of Arnor, Captain of the Host of the West, bearer of the Star of the North, and wielder of the Sword Reforged.
In the fantasy of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn rules, and millions of fans will be seeking him in just a few days, when they line up to buy tickets to the third and final Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King. Aragorn is the greasy-haired, stubble-chinned ranger who rides his mighty steed into battle, leading his army against the forces of evil.
War is waged with the evil wizard Saruman, a fierce battle is fought with a giant spider called Shelob, Frodo the hobbit is captured by the Orcs, and waves of righteous warriors throw themselves into combat against the armies of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn emerges from the Paths of the Dead to take his rightful place as king — looking like a mess. But he is the king. Now as I have said, in the book, and the movie, Aragorn, though an attractive figure, is not the real hero. The Trilogy of the Ring is really about Frodo, who through pain and suffering and danger must return the ring.
In our text from Luke, however, the return of the messiah, the return of the king, is the central theme, is what it is all about. Jesus is teaching in Jerusalem during the last week of his life. He speaks the words of our text when he has only days to live. He speaks words of warning and encouragement about the end of the world.
Son of Man
In v25, Jesus says "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.” We wonder what signs, but he does not explain. Perhaps we should compare this verse with RV6:12-13, “When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.” That certainly sounds like a terrible catastrophe. Then, in our text from luke, Jesus speaks of “distress among nations.” There will be confusion and turmoil and war. He adds in v26, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
But this is just a preliminary. Now we get to the important stuff in v27, “Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.”
The phrase “Son of Man,” was Jesus favorite of speaking of himself. The phrase occurs some seventy-two times in the synoptics. In the New Testament, Jesus uses this term to describe himself in two contexts: his earthly life, mission, and fate (e.g., Mark 2:10 and parallels), and his role as risen, exalted and returning savior and judge (e.g., today’s lesson). The two roles are always and intimately related, and neither role can be fully understood without reference to the other: The accepting, rejected and crucified savior is the risen, exalted and judging savior, and it is in his latter capacity as judge that Jesus intends his words in verse 28 to bring comfort and encouragement to his followers: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” In contrast to the fearful response of people in “the world” in general, Jesus’ disciples can face the dawning judgment with confidence and hope.
We have confidence, we have hope because we have been assured of our place in Christ, because we know that through Christ, we are justified by God and adopted into his family. “Justification” is one of those nice words that we all need to have in our minds when it comes to dealing with the things of God. Martin Luther said that Justification is “the article by which the church stands or falls. “ He said that in justification nothing less than the gospel itself is at stake. Justification in the New Testament sense of that term does not mean that God accepts us because we are good people. We are not justified in the sense that we were tried before the tribunal of God and found innocent. Rather we were found guilty and God forgives us our sin and guilt. Righteousness then is not an ability that we possess as part of our nature, nor is it something we have earned.. Righteousness is given to us as a gift of grace. God justifies sinners by pardoning their sins and by accounting and accepting them as righteous. They are not righteous because of works they have done or will do. Rather, they are justified freely through the blood of Jesus Christ.
So a Christian really is a paradox. We are sinners, and we know that. This is something that people outside the church never seem to understand. Outside the church, most people seem to think that Christians are a group of people who think that they are perfect do-gooders who are better than everybody else. We do not think that at all. We know we are not perfect. No one needs to tell us that. And we know that we are not better than others. We know that we are sinners just like them. But that is not all. We also know that we are the righteous. In that sense, we are better than everyone else. Through Christ, God accepts us as righteous, even though we are sinners. The Westminster Confession of Faith says: [XI, III} “Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father's justice in their behalf.”
I like the totality and the completeness of that statement. Christ made “a proper, real, and full satisfaction” for his people. That is the basis for Christian confidence. It is not about me. It is not about what I can or cannot do. It is about Jesus. Thus as v28 says, “Lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh.” Christ is our redemption. The second coming of Christ the redeemer is a happy day for those whom Christ has redeemed.
Now when we first hear the gospel, it seems almost too good to be true. A lot of folks feel that we can never be secure in our relationship to God unless we have earned it. And so we flail around and struggle to find some way to make ourselves acceptable to God, and we always fail. That is a dead-end street. It is only when we give up on ourselves and cast ourselves down at the foot of the cross and put our faith in Christ that we find that God has justified us, forgiven us, redeemed us. And what a wonderful discovery that is, we are God’s people because God has chosen us. And knowing that, the return of Christ is not something to be worried about. It is something to look forward to.
Jesus gives us some signs of his coming when he talks about the parable of the fig tree. He says that when you start to see leaves on a fig tree, you know that summer is coming. He is talking to a farming society in farming terms. He then adds in v31, that when you see the signs that I have mentioned, you will know that the time for the kingdom of God is approaching.
Let us look at V32 for a moment. V32 has caused some folks problems. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Now if we interpret Jesus words to mean the generation to whom he is speaking, then obviously Jesus is wrong. That generation of first century Jews did pass away without those things taking place. And so we ask, to whom does this refer? Jesus refers to the generation of the end times. He says that the generation that sees the signs of the end, will see the coming of the Son of man. In other words, the end times will not be spread out over many generations, the signs and the final end will come within one generation.
He then gives us a warning in v34 not to be weighed down by worldly ways of thinking. All that is going to pass away. Focus then upon what is important, upon what will remain forever, upon God and his Christ.
In v36, he concludes by saying that we should be alert. He says we should pray that we will have the strength to escape from “all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." Now I have read some commentators that say that when we stand before the Son of Man at the end of time, it will be our day of judgment. That the records of our life will be opened and we will be judged by our works. If that be true, then why did Christ die? But it is not true. It is true that Christ will judge the world, and the world will be judged by their works, but God’s people will not be judged in that way. That is not what Luke says. Luke says that we are praying for strength to stand before the Son of Man. We want to stand before the Son of man. This is what we want. Now if Christ were our judge, we probably would not want that, but Christ is not our judge. He is our redemption; therefore, we want to be where he is.
When Jesus describes the return of the king, his coming in glory, it is not shocking but soothing, it is not frightening but reassuring. Jesus says look up in faith not in fear.
So next question: When is this going to happen? Who knows? Jesus explicitly tells us that we will not know and can not know the chronology of the second coming. Yet for some reason many Christians are fixated on when this cosmic blockbuster is going to open so they can be first in line with ticket in hand. Thus, we have in the church all these schools that have their competing versions of what the end times will be like. We have pre-tribulationists, mid-tribulationists and post-tribulationists; We have pre-millenarians, post-millenarians and amillenarians.
The problem with all these theories is that they look at the wrong things. Instead of focusing on the hope of his coming, which is the main event, they focus on minor events of turmoil and confusion that precede his coming. What is Jesus saying to us in these verses today? He is saying that God is in charge. Human history is not an endless cycle of chaos and absurdity. Human history is a God-guided story, with a coherent beginning, middle, and end. With this as a starting point, we should agree to put our energy and passion into being ready for the Return of the King, whenever it occurs—which means that we should be about spiritual things not earthly things.
We live in an uncertain time. We live in a time of war. In the past ten years, there has been war in Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola vs. rebels (cease-fire December 1994), Bolivia vs. Drug Cartels, Bosnia, Mynamar, Colombia vs. Drug Cartels, East Timor and Indonesia, Haiti, India and Pakistan, Israel and Lebanon, Israel and Palestinians, Northern Ireland, Philippines vs. Moslem Rebels, Chekyna, Rwanda, Somalia, Sri Lanka vs. Tamil rebels (cease-fire January 1995), Sudan, USA vs. Iraq.
And we can’t say that because it is in Iraq, Iran, the West Bank or Israel that it does not affect us. We live in a global economy, in a global civilization. Everyone is effected by what happens everywhere. If you do not believe that, ask the workers up at Pillowtex in NC what effect Chinese textiles have had on them. Having said that though, Jesus would not have us throw up our hands in despair and say, it is an uncertain world in chaos and confusion and there is no hope. There is every hope. There is every hope in Jesus. That is the whole point.
Jesus says “Lift up your heads.” We must cultivate the garden of faith, hope and expectation. Jesus refers to the fig tree. When it begins to sprout leaves, you know that summer cannot be far away. In the same way, when we see these signs of crisis, we know, or should know, that Christ is not far away.
Christ causes the sun to shine. Christ created the moon and stars. His voice is stronger than the clamor of nations, or even the roaring of seas. During this holy Advent season, we look once again for signs of his coming, for the coming of light, even in the midst of darkness, for the onset of hope, even when we see despair.
How often we miss Jesus because we are distracted by schedules and obligations, commitments, because we are worried for our world. Mundane details preoccupy us. Our attention grows fuzzy, our minds numb.
Let us pray that during this Advent, God will wake us up and shake us up and show us that we should live every day in preparation for the coming of Christ. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 01/28/04