THE SIGNS OF THE TIMES
A Sermon by Rev. Erik Sandstrom, Sr. Preached in Bryn Athyn May 7, 1989
“Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and tempting Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven. He answered and said to them, ‘When it is evening you say, “It will be fair weather, for the heaven is red”: and in the morning, “It will be foul weather today for the heaven is red and gloomy.” Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of heaven, but you cannot discern the signs of the times'” (Matt. 16:1-3).
There are full parallels between the Lord’s first and second advents. The reason is that the Lord always operates according to His Divine order, and that order, though accommodating itself to varying states of reception, never changes as to its own interior essence. The principles, therefore, are identical. But in viewing the applications to the two advents we need to make adjustments to the different times that prevailed in each case.
The following are some of the principles by which the Lord acted in both advents. Each time He came as the Divine truth, in which was His infinite love of salvation; each time He revealed His Human, in “glory” at His first advent and in “great glory” at His second (see John 1:14 and Matt. 24:3); each time He restored spiritual freedom (“The truth shall make you free” – John 8:32); each time a spiritual judgment followed: over the Jewish Church at the first advent, and over all the preceding church dispensations, but especially the Christian Church, at the second (see TCR 76063); each time a new heaven was set in order: the middle heaven at the first advent, and the ultimate heaven at the second (see LJ 46; cf. TCR 115, 116); and each time a new church was raised up: the Christian Church at the first advent, and the New Church, signified by the New Jerusalem in the Apocalypse, at the second.
And in a most comprehensive view the parallel is seen in the opening up of the Word interiorly in each advent, for it is in the Word that everything is revealed for the man of the church. About this we read in the Apocalypse Explained: “At the end of the Jewish Church, which was when the Lord came into the world, the Word was opened interiorly; for when the Lord was in the world He revealed interior Divine truths that were to be for the use of a new church about to be established by Him and that did serve that church. For like reasons the Word has been opened interiorly at this day, and still more interior Divine truths have been revealed therefrom for the use of a new church that will be called the New Jerusalem” (AE 948:2; see also AE 641:2, 3).
The words of our text, therefore, have an application to our day just as they did when the Lord spoke them while in the world: “You know how to discern the face of heaven, but cannot discern the signs of the times.” And again, at another time, when He put the matter in the form of an explicit rebuke: “How is it that you do not discern this time?” (Luke 12:56). This too is spoken to us as well.
The Writings tell us that the Lord meant His own coming – His own presence among them in the world – when He spoke of “the signs of the times” (AE 706:7). What the people witnessed was the most important event that had taken place in the history of the human race. And how was it that many, and first the leaders of the church, reasoned or looked the other way?
They had seen many miracles, but that was not enough for them. (Interestingly, the Writings note that “miracles are signs only to the good” – AE 706:6). So now they were still asking for a sign – that is, a sign that would indisputably convince them that the Lord was indeed the promised Messiah, the Son of God who was to come into the world. But such a sign would have silenced them only for a time, for it would not have affected or changed them interiorly; and affirming exteriorly while negating interiorly is to profane. The Lord therefore refused what they asked, and referred instead to all “the signs of the times,” adding, however, what was to be the greatest of all such signs, namely, “the sign of Jonah,” that is, His resurrection in glory on the third day.
John the Baptist had done his work, and the multitude had come to be baptized of him (see Luke 3:7), and had heard his warning: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Even then, therefore – even before they had witnessed the Lord’s own works and teaching – the people were “in expectation,” for, as we read: “All reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not” (Luke 3:15). John had taught and baptized; and the Lord Himself had given His whole sermon from the mount, and had taught many other things in groups and privately, all of His sayings having been supported by miracles such as had not been done since Moses and the legendary prophets. So there was a stirring from Jerusalem to Galilee. “How is it that you do not discern this time?”
And so, what of our day? Have we heard the voice of a John the Baptist? Yes, for the Writings show us that the Baptist represented the letter of the Word; and the letter of the Word has been preparing, and is preparing, for the Lord’s return among men – as the Spirit of Truth this time. It has described our times. It has said: “Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and the rumors of wars … For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places … Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. … ‘And you will see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place … See, I have told you beforehand. … Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory”‘ (Matt. 24:5-30). The letter has also asked: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).
True, many particulars of what the Lord foretold concerning His coming could not have been understood in depth before their meaning was revealed. Yet what could be understood is that the Lord was speaking about a time of general turmoil in the world, when Christian love and charity would be scarce, and when the Son of Man would look sorrowfully for a living faith in Him. There are still temples in the Christian world, and people who go there, sometimes in great numbers, but the life of Christianity is such as is reflected in newspapers, magazines, and on television. Is there something wrong with the faith that cannot do better?
Moreover, there are those who do see. They wonder if things can really get any worse. Are they perhaps “in expectation?” They see how truly happy and harmonious marriages are scarce; how countless children grow up without the security of a home (including the many who have a bed inside four walls to come to); how sexual disorders are so commonplace that they have become socially accepted, and worse, how perversions which are perhaps meant in the Writings by “secret evils which are not to be named” (CL, 450, 459:5) are not only tolerated but are getting legal protection. And there are many other things – indolence rewarded, cheating and petty thefts becoming boasts, and what inside church walls can be recognized as “faith alone,” turning up in other places as declarations, and promises that are not even expected to be fulfilled.
Are there not “signs of the times” to be read by men and women of our day?
And happily there are those who read them. They are those who are troubled, and who perhaps in their hearts say something like: “How long, 0 Lord?” (Rev. 6:10).
We sometimes hear reference to a “silent majority” in the world. Possibly it would be more correct to speak of a “silent minority” – a minority, that is, of such as have retained in their heart a respect for the Divine, and from conscience say no to evil and seek to do what is good. At any rate, the Writings seem to indicate here and there that minority it is, as for instance in the case of a group of 300 learned who were gathered in the spiritual world and who were given the choice between “the way of wisdom” and “the way of folly.” It happened that only forty out of the 300 turned into “the way of wisdom” (Wisdom I:5). And Isaiah seems to say the same: “Unless the Lord of hosts had left us a very small remnant, we would have become like Sodom; we would have been like Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:9).
But small or not so small by proportion, out of five billion people this remnant would still constitute a sizeable number of men and women. Mostly silent (but not always) this remnant nevertheless serves as a feeble, yet not dead, conscience in the world. The Lord is present with it, flowing in with whatever light it can receive and with whatever strength it can hold. “A bruised reed He will not break,” says Isaiah, “and a smoking flax He will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3). If it were not for this remnant, and if the mighty of the world were not afraid of what there is of conscience with people, it would be all over; there would be no restraint whatever of evil; and there would be no time for the truth of the Lord’s new revelation to find its way among those who secretly wait for it.
But the truth is not standing still. Though longsuffering, the Lord is also zealous; and He longs with the longing of Divine love to seek out and save those who would receive Him. The Heavenly Doctrines are spreading, not only through direct hearing and reading of them, but also through concepts taken from them and given out to others, with or without recognition of their origin, by means of literature or other forms of the arts, and by means of conversation. Such concepts hold within them some truths from heaven; and all truths, even if not strongly presented, bring the Lord’s presence with them wherever they go. Preparation is going on in our times.
But the Lord is asking thoughtful people, knowledgeable people, to discern even more than the many aspects of the “abomination of desolation” that abound around us. There is more to the parallel than we have observed already.
Bear in mind that when the Lord was answering the Pharisees and Sadducees He was challenging His hearers to recognize Him as the promised Messiah, Christ the Lord. He had been asked to show a sign from heaven to prove that He was indeed the Messiah, but He rebuked them for not seeing what good people were beginning to see. “Hypocrites! You look to the sky to predict the weather, but you do not sense the winds of change that cause people to be in expectation! How is it that “you cannot discern the signs of the times?” The Lord was among them, and He had preached and done many miracles.
Now the Writings are among us, and the hearsay from them is among many. Is there more that we can see than dissolved homes, unrest, and lawlessness?
The Writings tell us what the “evening” prediction of the weather means, and what the “morning” prediction. ‘Evening” was “the church laid waste with the Jews,” now the church laid waste with Christians. Saying in the evening, “It will be fair weather,” means a dusky state of no knowledge when they lulled themselves into the “fair weather” of “security in falsities from evil.” But the morning prediction of “foul weather” reflects the state when they did have daylight knowledge, but brought “foul weather” upon themselves by “denying and assaulting” the Messiah who was among them, and this from the same falsities of evil that formerly had given them such a sense of “security.”
“Falsities of evil” are confirmations in the church environment or political environment through pronouncements or legislation – confirmations of the evil of godlessness, spiritual lawlessness and various forms of adulteries, and also the acceptance of such confirmations by many of “the multitude.” We see these things happening in our day.
We see also how leaders and followers alike look the other way when the Writings speak to them, or how the doctrines are openly assaulted and derided. Our brief New Church history shows many instances of this.
It is significant that the same chapter that records the Lord’s reply to the Pharisees and Sadducees also tells of His question addressed to His own disciples: “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” And when they answered, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets,” He then persisted: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter then confessed Him as “the Christ – that is, the Messiah, the Son of the living God”; and it was this confession that brought upon Peter the happy words: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar- Jonah” (Matt. 16:13-17).
Are the Writings the Lord’s own revelation in His second coming? “What do men say? “What do you say?” Peter’s reply was crucial to the establishment of the Christian Church. A like reply is now crucial to the raising up and spread of the New Christian Church, which is the New Jerusalem.
Through these Writings the Lord is saying, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
We ought to believe this – and go out and tell people. Amen.
Lessons: Isaiah 1:2-20, Matt. 16:1-17, AE 706:7, 8
Apocalypse Explained. 706:7, 8
In Matthew: “The Pharisees and the Sadducees, tempting, asked Jesus to show them a sign from heaven. He, answering, said to them, When it is evening ye say, It will be fair weather, for the heaven is red. And in the morning, There will be storm today for the heaven is red and gloomy. Ye hypocrites, ye know how to discern the face of heaven, but not the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous nation requireth a sign, but no sign shall be given unto it but the sign of the prophet Jonah” (16:1-4). Here too the “sign” asked from heaven means attestation that they might be persuaded and might believe that the Lord was the Son of God, although miracles were wrought that they did not call signs. The Lord then spoke of evening and of morning because “evening and morning” signifies the Lord’s coming; here it means when the church with the Jews was laid waste, who then had “fair weather” because they had no knowledge of the Lord and lived securely in falsities from evil; this is the “evening,” but when they knew Him, and because of falsities from evils in which they were, denied and assaulted Him, this is signified by “the morning when there is a storm.” This is why the Lord said, “Ye hypocrites, ye know how to discern the face of heaven but not the signs of the times,” that is, the Lord’s coming; and because they were “a wicked and adulterous nation,” that is, one that adulterated the Word, He said that “no sign should be given unto them.”
So again in Mark: “The Pharisees began to dispute with Jesus, seeking of Him a sign from heaven; and He, sighing in His spirit, said, Why doth this generation seek a sign. Verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation” (8:11, 12). That a “sign” here signifies attestation by which they might plainly know, acknowledge, and believe, that the Lord was the Messiah and Son of God whom they expected from the predictions in the prophets is evident from this, that “sighing in spirit, He said, Why doth this generation seek a sign? Verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation”; and this was because if this had been plainly revealed or told them from heaven, and if thus persuaded they had acknowledged and believed it, they would nevertheless have rejected it afterwards, and to reject after acknowledgment and faith is to profane, and the lot of profaners in hell is the worst of all.