From the very beginning, the Lord God has placed signs all around us to inform our lives. “God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years” (Genesis 1:14). Without the changing seasons, without the rising and setting of the sun – the passage of time would be irrelevant to us as time would be non-existent and we would be living in an eternal moment.
Signs are all around us. (note: the following uses visual representations on the overhead screen). Man-made signs serve to guide us in the physical path of earthly life. Directional highway signs point us in the right direction while some signs leave us confused about which way we can go. Many signs tell us what we can and cannot do. Some signs come with legal consequences describing what we shouldn’t do while other signs are just plain simple for us to obey. Then, there are some signs designed for those people who really, really, really need a lot of help obeying a sign while others have simply lost their ability to be a good sign (The ‘g’ of this sign has fallen – leaving ‘sin’). Some signs might also prophetically point us towards a future end of time.
God also uses signs to guide us along the spiritual path of faith life. John’s gospel is filled with signs rather than miracles, as John uses them to point his readers to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31) but that’s another sermon. In fact, the entire Bible can be understood as a sign which through the guidance of the Holy Spirit points towards the real presence of Jesus Christ and reveals to us Christ incarnate within the pages of the Bible which is the Word of God. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) describes the beginning of the fulfilment of God’s covenantal promise to humanity as Jeremiah writes “the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise, I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David” (Jeremiah 33:14-15).
Today, we want to focus on a different sign of divine origin in which Jesus uses a simple fig tree to make his point. Jesus is speaking with the disciples about a future time – a time which will occur after his death, resurrection and ascension into glory. Before ascending, the disciples wanted to know about the future as Jesus again needs to refocus his disciples’ priorities by reminding them that their purpose is in the present age as “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The mission of the apostles was so important that for the first thirty years after the ascension, it was believed that Jesus’ return was imminent – “for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 14:44).
In one of the apostle Paul’s earliest letters, he writes “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13). The first followers of Christ lived in anticipation that Jesus was returning within their lifetime. Imagine, those first believers were living with the belief that Christ is returning at any moment and he will bring an end to time while you know that there are so many people, neighbours, friends, and family who don’t know Jesus and the gift of salvation. Telling the message of good news was more important than worrying about the future.
Although jealousy regarding Jesus’ great following is at the heart of the religious conflict in Israel, one of the reasons Jesus gets in trouble with the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem focussed on his condemnation of the abuses of the temple and the priesthood (it shouldn’t surprise us since it’s been a problem for the last 2000 years of the Christian church). The Temple of Jerusalem was the lifeblood of the Sadducees, who were also the financial elites of Israel and the only Jews who worked in close fellowship with the Roman Officials. First, there was the cleansing of the Temple Marketplace on Palm Sunday, then the testing-question of paying taxes to Rome and the Sanhedrin trial accusations that Jesus would destroy and rebuild the Temple in three days.
“While some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he [Jesus] said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:5-6). Jesus begins his final visit to Jerusalem before his death by announcing the end of the Temple before concluding this teaching by speaking about another end and the coming of the Son of Man. Notice how these are two separate events! “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars … and they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21: 25, 27).
Thirty years after Jesus’s resurrection, Jewish revolts would escalate against Rome throughout Palestine as Rome would retaliate by sending a destructive military force that would end with many Jews being killed and the Temple of God in ruin. Sixty years later, the Jewish revolts would again arise up against Rome, and this time we would see not only the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome, but its elimination as it became a Roman city with the name “Aelia Capitolina.” Worldly structures came to an end as Jesus warned us of the judgement on the nations, while Jesus prophetic return held within it the “other-worldly” salvation of the world.
A few months ago, Joe called me about a half page newspaper advertisement that spoke about a number of presentations being done by the seven-day Adventist church about the end of time. Sometimes we get too focussed on the future and we forget that Jesus calls us to deal with the present moment. According to the Word of God the end of time, the eschaton, is unavoidable, unpredictable, but promised. The Christian Jews who suffered under the Roman retaliations of the first century believed that the end of time had come. Afterwards, many more Christians suffered and were martyred for their profession of faith in the resurrection during the first three centuries. The Black Plague that wiped out most of Europe was believed to be the end, while the World Wars were thought to be signs of the end while today, some imagine that the pandemic is a sign of the end of the age. Just for your information, the last prediction of the end of time was December 21, 2012 while Isaac Newton predicted the apocalypse to begin in the year 2060.
For you see, the signs of the end are present in every age and since they are signs of the “age of mankind” they are signs of sin. But again, when we turn to Jesus’s teaching, we are reminded that as His disciples we are to be concerned more with the ‘present time’ along with the in-between time, while we remain watchful for the end-time. Jesus warns us to be awake, to be alert and to live lives prepared for the end at all times, as we will experience the end of worldly things long before we experience the end of time in our world. He even further warns that in the in-between time there will be false messiahs, persecutions and catastrophes and plagues of all sorts. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning” (Matthew 24:7-8).
Jesus uses some of the same apocalyptic language as the prophets of the Old Testament who spoke about the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming” (Joel 2:1) or “the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:31). Apocalyptic language is future oriented using language that is sudden and violent as God bring about change in the world He created as He brings about a new world order. “I (John) saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1). Those without an eternal vision of hope will react in a predictable way – with disbelief, distress, and fear and panic. Fear and panic are in themselves also signs, but they are signs of unbelief. But change is different for the believer. When God appears the message always begins with fear not. “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27) affirms Jesus.
Jesus warns that “people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:26-27). We might worry about all the worldly signs, natural disasters, wars, violence, lawlessness, disease, cancer, Covid, but we need to remember that these are signs of judgement and sin. What is important comes afterwards. How long afterwards – we don’t know (which is likely a good thing because that way we always live awake, watchful and waiting for it). And when it happens – it will be impossible to deny the presence of God when “the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father” (Matthew 16:27). For now, his promised presence is with those who believe but there will come a day when he will return to judge the living and the dead and those who denied him.
“The days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another” (Luke 21:6) as Jesus describes the end of the things of the world. The heavens will be next as there will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. The heavens will be shaken “and then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:27-28). Jesus tells us to not deny the undeniable facts – but we are to interpret them correctly. I don’t know how many people throughout history have tried to predict the exact day and time of the Lord’s return of which Jesus clearly says that only the Father knows when it will all take place. This is why Jesus is clear in refocusing us to the ever important present, while the future is something to ponder – because it will be a terrifying and awesome conclusion to everything.
Like His disciples, it's hard for us not to ask “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place” (21:7)? Honestly, wouldn’t we want to know so that we can spend all our time preparing for it. But when we are focussed completely on ourselves, we aren’t taking care of our neighbours. And so, Jesus gives us a sign from nature to help us understand so “that you are not led astray” (Luke 21:8). So then, what can we learn today from the parable of the fig tree about ourselves and the world in which we live? Simply speaking, if we can interpret the signs in nature, we should be able to interpret the cosmic signs all around us. “As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near” (Luke 21:30). Unless we are knowledgeable of agriculture, we actually miss the deeper meaning found within the parable. The fig tree, in contrast to most of the other trees of Palestine (the olive, oak, and evergreens) loses its leaves in the winter and in contrast to the almond which blossoms in early spring the Fig shows signs of life later than all of the other trees. So, when the branches get soft when the sap starts flowing through them and the leaves begin to appear, it is a sure sign that the warm season is very near and the fruit will soon appear. The lesson of the fig tree teaches us that there is not a lot of time between the first signs of life, the blossoms and the fruit. The time is very short between one event and what follows.
After leaving the temple and as Jesus was walking along with his disciples, he saw a fig tree which reminded him of the final judgment. His point is clear. The sign of the fig tree lends itself to Jesus’ constant teaching about being watchful and prepared for the imminent End of time. The end will soon be upon us and we ought to keep a watchful eye for all signs of life which ultimately are signs of the presence of God acting in our world. “Watch yourselves lest your hearts [your attitudes] be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life” (Luke 21:34). There is an intoxicating attraction in our sinful world that draws Christians away from what is important into an excessive concern of looking for and waiting for the end.
The Apocalypse, the Eschaton, the End Time, the Second Coming, the Day of the Lord, the Last Judgment – call it what you will – Jesus warns that it will come like a trap and the event will be universal – everyone will be involved. It won’t be like the popular “Left-Behind” series that says some will be taken and others will be left. When the Lord returns – it is time. No one knows when it will happen, no one can plan for that day and no one will be excluded. The only sensible thing for us to do is to be prepared at all times. Remember the parable of the ten maidens? “Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them” (Matthew 25:2). The bridegroom arrived at an unexpected hour. The wise went into the banquet and the doors were closed as the foolish were excluded from entering.
By the end of the first century, the believers began to realize that Jesus’ return was not imminent – but was going to take a longer time than they had thought. In giving us the Holy Spirit, the believers understood that he was a deposit, a sign for us during the in-between time as we continue the work which Jesus had begun until the day of his glorious return. In reality, Jesus’s teaching about the imminence of his return is not calling us to live in a state of emergency, but rather in a state of urgency so that as his followers we don’t lapse into a state of complacency just because nothing seems to be happening. The signs of nature remind us that something is happening, in God's timing and not ours. It’s the signs in the heavens and nature that worry us as the earthly cosmic disturbances, such as earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, forest fires, global warming, pandemics, that scare us. They remind us of our fragility when compared to nature’s power, our helplessness in the face of forces too powerful to be faced, let alone tamed.
Those cosmic disturbances are signs of our sin’s effect on the world in which we live. “There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matthew 24:7-8). These signs reveal to one degree or another humanities' effect on the planet in which we live. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). I suspect we have not done a good job at caring for God’s creation but we can be thankful that those cosmic signs and disturbances have been rare and infrequent. We could only pray that human sins were equally rare and infrequent. Imagine if the signs of nature increased dramatically, our planet would not survive for very long. We could use Jesus’ teaching of the fig tree to make one final observation. If human sinfulness also increased drastically beyond the amount of sin that life can sustain, we might find the time between the appearing of the leaves, blossom and fruit accelerating and then it will happen. “Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36).
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We are a family of followers of Christ, who learn and share the Good News of Salvation, making disciples of Jesus Christ.
We hold weekly Sunday morning services at 10:30 am. We also host a Bible Study each Sunday morning at 09:30 am and on Tuesday afternoon at 1:00 pm. Please join us.
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