When I was a child, I always looked forward to visits from Grandma. While visits might coincide with a birthday or a holiday, Grandma could make any day a holiday just by being there. She would greet me and my siblings with hugs and kisses. Then she would ask us how we were doing in school. Eventually she would step back and open her purse and bring out a surprise for each of us. Our favorite was a box of Cracker Jacks. We loved the surprise of discovering the little toy inside. When I was young, the toys were much more complicated than the ones in the boxes, today. It might have been a tiny airplane or an articulated doll that we had to put together. Those prizes were amazing little wonders. However, the most wonderful thing of all was that Grandma had a way of making us each feel special and loved.
When Mom and Dad announced that Grandma would be paying us a visit, we were so excited, you would have thought it was Christmas Eve and Santa was on his way. Our first question was always, “When will she be here?” Once we found out, we would carefully note the date and time. Each morning would begin with, “Is today the day?” Our parents eventually learned not to let us know too far in advance to minimize the repeated inquiries. Once the day arrived, we lost interest in all play activities and simply waited by the front porch, watching for her car. Every car that turned down our street on that day was cause for excitement. Since she lived several hours away, her time of arrival could never be determined with precision. It was only an estimate. But if that estimate were exceeded by very many minutes, the questions would begin. “Is she still coming?” “Why isn’t she here yet?” “Are you sure it was today?” Eventually, Grandma always arrived and the questions and the wait were forgotten in the joy of the reunion.
We also would sometimes spend a portion of our summer school vacation with our grandparents. Going to “stay with Grandma” was something we really looked forward to. Our parents could not wait until the last minute to tell us about this, because we had to pack suitcases for the stay and the suitcases would give it away. With each day the excitement would build as we approached the day when we would be going to visit Grandma. When she came she would not simply be coming to visit us. She would be coming to take us home with her. We could think or talk about nothing else until she arrived.
Jesus said “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3, NIV Maybe he was referring to this innocent expectation of a joyous event. When we were waiting for Grandma, we were on our best behavior. We would not allow anything to mar the opportunity to see her. How sad it would be if Grandma arrived and we were on “time out” in our room. Not only would we miss her arrival, it would make her sad as well. Grandma was so full of joy when she arrived, none of us could have seen her sad without feeling some pain ourselves. We knew that even if we were on “time out” Grandma would still take us home with her, because she had come a long way and done a lot of preparation. But we did not want to disappoint her. We wanted the time with Grandma to be perfect.
We have been told that Jesus is coming to see us and take us home with Him for a visit. He said, “…I go and prepare a place for you. I will come back and take you to be with me…” John 14:3, NIV According to the Bible, that will be a visit lasting a thousand years. (See Revelation 20:4) That seems like a long time, but since we will be immortal by that time and eternity will be our timeline, it may appear to pass as quickly as two weeks at Grandma’s house. (See 1 Corinthians 15:50-54) But when we return, our time with Jesus will not be over. Instead, He will come to live with us. Revelation, chapter 21, tells us that we will live in a wonderful city called “New Jerusalem.” In this chapter, John also tells us “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.” Revelation 21:22-23, NIV Jesus is the Lamb John is writing about. John the Baptist, told us this and John the Apostle recorded it. He wrote “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29, NIV
All of this was said and written two thousand years ago. Maybe like children we want to know: “Is He still coming?” “Why isn’t He here yet?” “Are we sure His coming is near?” The Bible gives us many signs to let us know when He is coming. But because those signs have always been with us, some have become discouraged about His coming and begin to question if He is even coming. Paradoxically, their attitude is one of the signs that His coming is near. Peter wrote this about their lack of faith, “Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’” 2 Peter 3:3-4, NIV Perhaps like children trying to understand how to read the face of a clock or the pages of a calendar, they do not understand the signs that surround them. Maybe we should examine some of these signs.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God…” 2 Timothy 3:1-4, NIV This sounds alarming to us as Christians, but we must admit that there have always been people like this. Roman Emperor Nero, who threw Christians to the lions, was acting like this even during the days of the apostles, but Jesus did not return then. So what’s up with that?
In Matthew 24 we read of several other signs: wars (verse 6), famines (verse 7), earthquakes (verse 7), persecution (verse 9), false prophets (verse 11), and the Gospel preached in the whole world (verse 14). All of these things have been going on ever since the time of Jesus and before. Even the births of both ancient and modern Israel were attended with war, let alone the wars that have touched virtually every country on Earth. Famines have placed millions in their graves for centuries without respect for age, gender or race. Earthquakes have also been with us for a very long time. Persecution also predates Jesus incarnation. This is why being an Old Testament prophet was a hazardous occupation. Isaiah was sawn in two. Jeremiah was thrown in a pit to die, but was saved a faithful servant of God. Daniel was thrown into a den of lions and was only saved by direct angelic intervention. So why would famine, earthquakes or persecution mean that Jesus will return soon?
False prophets gathering followers to themselves have also been around for a long time. Gamaliel even mentions some in the book of Acts. (See Acts 5:34-37) Even the gospel going to the whole world as a sign may be questioned. Does that mean one person in each country has to hear it? Does every single person need to hear it? At what age? We sometimes equate the preaching of the Gospel with baptisms. Does it only count if there are baptisms in the country or people group where it is preached? It must have seemed like the Gospel was going everywhere to the early Christians. The number of people professing Christ grew rapidly during the first few centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection. By the 4th century A.D., Christianity had displaced the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, and by the end of that century, almost anywhere you traveled in the Empire, you could expect to find a body of believers. So why didn’t Jesus return then? What good are these “signs” if they have not led us home yet?
Perhaps the answer is right in front of us, but we are not seeing it. When we think of signs we think of specific waymarks, like mileage markers, that tell us how far we are from our destination. That might be helpful if we are traveling a linear route to a fixed destination. However, even then we look for a broader understanding of where we are. When I travel home to the Spokane area from Seattle, I must travel across the arid Columbia River Basin. Even if there were no mileage markers, I would know that I was getting close to home once I began to leave the desert behind for the Ponderosa Pine forests common to Spokane. The closer I get to Spokane the more of these trees I see. One Ponderosa Pine does not tell me much. It is the abundance of the pines that tell me where I am in relation to my destination.
Maybe what Jesus was telling us in Matthew 24 was the same thing. In verse 8, He called the signs “birth pangs.” Labor pains are the signs of an impending birth. But it is not pain itself that is the sign. If it were then everyone who had heartburn would think they were going to give birth. No, it is the location, intensity, and frequency of the pain that tells us that a child is on its way into the world. Perhaps these are the indicators of Jesus’ return as well – not so much the signs themselves, but how widespread they are, how intense they are, and how frequent. When we look at the world by those measures, it may become clear that things are building to Jesus’ return as surely as labor pains build to childbirth. In the words of Jesus: “…When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” Matthew 16:2-3, NIV Maybe it is time to pay attention to what is going on around us.
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