The Sky is Falling – May 10, 2020
May 10, 2020
The other day, I was talking with an old friend of mine. And of course, we got to talking about the strange days of quarantine we’re living in. And my friend mentioned another old mutual friend of ours, saying he would be having a “field day” with the events in our world. And when I asked him why, he said, “Oh, you know him! He’s always saying, ‘The sky is falling!”’
We know people like that, don’t we? Everything is all gloom and doom, and every bad event in the world must be a sign that the end is coming. And you know that expression, “The Sky is Falling!” It’s from the old children’s story! An acorn fell on Chicken Little’s head, and he thought that the sky was falling. So he ran around the neighborhood telling everyone! Actually, I’m not sure how that story ends, but everybody knows the beginning. Everybody remembers Chicken Little running around shouting, “The Sky is Falling! The Sky is Falling!”
It’s funny that we had that conversation this very week, when the next part of the Holy Week story I was going to talk about was Matthew 24. That thought worked out perfectly, when I thought about how best to describe this chapter where Jesus is prophesying these dark events. And what better title for this sermon than to use those same iconic words of Chicken Little. “The Sky is Falling!”
Over the years, this 24th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel has been called “The Little Apocalypse.” Now, what does that mean? What is an “apocalypse?” Well, if we were in worship together today, I would ask you a question. I like to do that. I like to ask you question, to get you all engaged with what I’m saying. We can’t do that here, except maybe in the little comments. So here would be the question. “If this is ‘The Little Apocalypse,” what is ‘The Big Apocalypse.’” If you’d like to answer, type a comment. And I would ask that question, because I think that would go a long way in helping us know what that word means.
So, to answer that question, the “Big Apocalypse” is what we have come to know as the book of “Revelation.” Right there, that should give you a hint about what the word means. If you look at the book of Revelation in the original Greek language, you would find the title of the book is “Apocalpysus.” Literally, the original title the book of the book of “Revelation” is “The Apocalypse.” And what do we know about that book? It’s a vision that John had on the island of Patmos. And it’s an ominous book, full of dark symbolism, and frightening prophetic visions. It is a book about the end times, and at the same time, it’s a book about the time of Roman persecution in which it was written. And sometimes it’s hard to know which times which parts of the book are referring to. And sometimes it’s both!
The best description I’ve heard about these kinds of what we call “Apocalyptic writings,” is that they are a sort of “underground newspaper.” They were written to a people in difficult times, telling them of hope for the future. And often the apocalyptic writers would use symbolism and descriptions that only the people to whom they were written would understand. That’s the whole idea of an “underground newspaper,” isn’t it? The problem with our understanding of a book like Revelation is that we don’t know the symbolism. We don’t have the “code book” to “decipher” what it all originally meant.
So, here in Matthew, we have a small version, of which Revelation is a much larger example. Here Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem again, and he’s teaching the people. As I’ve said, he had been doing that all week. And as he was leaving the Temple that day, one of his disciples made a comment about the beauty of the Temple and all of its other buildings. And Jesus then makes this prophetic statement. “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” He was predicting the destruction of the Temple – just as he did on Palm Sunday. Do you remember that? As he was coming down the Mount of Olives toward the Jerusalem, he stopped and wept over the city, saying, “Not one stone shall be left upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
I have to assume that Jesus’ disciples heard both of those statements, now several days apart. And this time they say something about it. They ask him, “Jesus, what the heck are you talking about?” Actually, Matthew says it this way. “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” As I’ve said, we often read stuff like that in our “Bible voice,” and it sounds all spiritual and dignified. But I think there was more emotion in that question! “Why all the gloom and doom, Jesus?” “What’s up with that?” And he answers them. And he launches into this, the “Little Apocalypse.” And like the last chapter, this is hard to read just in part. It goes on for 50 verses! Take time this week and read chapter 24 straight through. Try to get the whole flow of this.
Sometimes I read passages like this and it sounds to me like it’s coming right out of the evening news! “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars… For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.” That sounds ominous, doesn’t it?! Is there any hope? Maybe the sky is falling!
Well, you may have noticed that just now I read only portions of that. I want you to listen to what I left out. And I did this on purpose because I want you to hear them now. And I’m not sure I noticed these words before. “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. But see that you are not alarmed! For this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…”
Doesn’t that sound different? Those are words that are too often left out. Or at least not thought about! Jesus is telling us that when there are “wars and rumors of wars” do not be alarmed. For that isn’t the end! Over the years, there have been many who have been focused on the end times. And often they’ve taken ominous world events – wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines – and said that those things prove that the time is near. But that isn’t what Jesus said. He said, “This isn’t the end.” Yet, there have been many world crises that have been interpreted that way. And this current crisis is just perfect for that kind of thing. To some, Covid 19 is further evidence that the sky is falling.
In the past, I’ve known people who were very much into this. And I knew some who were very good at speaking about the end times! You’d hear them talk and you’d want to go out and look up into the sky to see if Jesus had returned! But I was thinking this week, that the fact that someone is very convincing, does not necessarily mean that what they say is going to happen! Remember that, no matter how convincing something sounds, the biggest test is whether or not it actually happens! And the track record on this is not very good! In every age, there have been bad events that convinced people they were living in the end times. And too often, people have even made predictions. “But the end is not yet,” as Jesus put it.
In fact, what does Jesus himself say about this? In verse 36 he says, “But of that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, not even the Son, but the Father only.” Jesus says we cannot know the when. But the other thing Jesus does say, and I want you to hear this, is that it’s important to be watchful. Because, whereas an over-preoccupation with end times is problematic, it’s just as much a problem to not be thinking about it at all! Let me say that again. Whereas an over-preoccupation with end times is problematic, it’s just as much a problem to not be thinking about it at all!
One reason for that is that if you’re not thinking about it, you lose your watchfulness! That just makes sense, doesn’t it? “Out of sight, out of mind.” And Jesus concludes this whole chapter by warning against not being watchful. He even references the story of Noah, saying basically that “nobody was paying any attention.” “They were just going about their everyday lives, when the floodwaters arose.” And he ends this by saying, “Therefore, you must be ready!” “You must be watchful. For the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
So, ask yourself, are you being watchful? Are you ready? Simply put, do you look to God’s kingdom every day? A couple of weeks ago, we heard Jesus say, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We said how much the things of the world demand our attention, and we said how easy it is to forget about the things that are God’s. We need to be mindful, intentional, about the things that are God’s. That’s part of the whole business of being watchful.
I started this by saying that apocalyptic writings were written to give people hope in difficult times. I believe there is great hope in the times in which we’re living, too. You hear people talking about it all the time. This time is showing us the importance of caring for people. It’s giving us pause to think about what’s really important. And many people are getting that message. And it’s a good message! But there are those who are not. And that’s sad to me.
As for us, let us know the hope we have in God’s kingdom. That’s what I want to leave with you today! We have the greatest hope! But hope doesn’t mean we have no struggles. It’s hope in Jesus himself, who said, “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world!”
Eternal God, we thank you for the hope we have in you. Help us to see your light in the darkness. Help us to see your kingdom in the midst of our struggles. Help us to know that we are in your hands. For we pray in our Savior’s name, Amen.