December 8, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church—Chicago, IL
In the name of + Jesus.
Did you see the fireball in the sky the other night? Some folks got it recorded on their doorbell cams, but when I checked my log, I only found the regular foot traffic going up and down Montrose.
Years ago I got to see something like that. Coincidentally, it was on the Fourth of July as I and some friends were getting ready to watch fireworks. It was still fairly light out, and there was a greenish flash across the sky. We thought it was the fireworks started early, except it was way too fast and above the clouds. For a long while I thought I had seen a UFO. I guess it was, technically speaking.
There are some other heavenly phenomena that are a little more predictable. Every year brings the Leonid and Perseid meteor showers. Lunar and solar eclipses happen regularly, and the news will let you know exactly when to look up into the sky to see these strange sights.
There are natural explanations for every one of these events. The standard textbooks will explain the mechanisms of meteors burning in the atmosphere, of the movement of the sun, earth, and moon casting shadows on each other. But knowing the mechanisms shouldn’t detract from the wonder of the event (I’m looking at you, Neil Degrasse Tyson). A few months back I told about how surreal it was to experience a total eclipse of the sun (my previous parish was in the path of totality in 2017). Knowing the natural mechanism can never fully disenchant the experience, though.
Jesus points to these heavenly phenomena as signs of the end of the age. “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 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. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near: (vv 25–28).
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. There are two kinds of signs, according to St. Augustine. The first kind of sign is a natural sign. A natural sign is something like smoke indicating fire or an eclipse indicating the moon passing through the shadow of the earth. Augustine calls the other signs “given signs,” which are intentional, such as a wink of an eye.
What Jesus wants us to realize is that the distressing phenomena in the heavens and the earth indicate not only natural causes, but they are also signs of God’s intention to return to recreate this fallen and corrupt world. But what do the signs signify for us?
The signs in nature do not signify Christ’s immanent return. When I saw the meteor flashing across the sky or the total solar eclipse, neither was followed by Christ descending on the clouds to judge the living and the dead. We’re still here today.
What these signs signify is to be ready. Be prepared. Straighten up!, to use the words of the evangelist. The day is surely drawing near. But it’s not here yet.
Like a fig tree sprouting its buds signals the beginning of spring, God signals His coming. If you need convincing, consider His first coming.
“And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). As a natural sign, swaddling cloths can indicate any newborn baby. But this one is lying in a manger. That’s a little different.
The incarnation of Christ is signaled in the commonest of things, and the most unique thing. This is both a fully human baby, but also unlike any other. If you were to imagine the birth of a god-baby, you probably wouldn’t think of putting him in a feeding trough. The manger, then, is a sign of God’s intention for coming in the flesh—He does not come in dominance and power and glory, but in humility.
As the infant Jesus is placed in a wooden manger, it also becomes a sign that He will be placed onto the wood of the cross. The humility of Jesus extends from His birth to His death, from wood to wood. This Savior is born to die.
Heavenly signs, roaring seas, people fainting, powers shaken, swaddling cloths, baby in a manger. The signs are strange and wonderful and difficult to interpret. What should we look for to prepare for Christ’s return?
The signs of swaddling cloths and the manger aren’t for us. And this will be a sign to you, the angels say to the shepherds. It’s not a sign for us, except that the shepherd interpreted it rightly. And the signs of Christ’s return don’t signify a day or an hour, but to be prepared because we don’t know the day or the hour.
But we also have another sign, which signifies a definite day and an hour. The day is today, and the hour is now. Take, eat, this is my body. Drink of it all of you, this cup is the new testament in my blood. The bread and the wine signify Christ’s sacramental coming in the Divine Service.
In the Sacrament, we have both the humility of His advent in the flesh and the glory of His second coming. The bread and the cup proclaim the death of Jesus for our forgiveness and reconciliation with our creator. And at the same time, the Sacrament prepares us for His return for judgment.
When God Gives a Sign, Be Prepared!
Jacob W Ehrhard
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