The biblical lectionary for many Orthodox Christians took us through Luke 21 this past week. It’s about the destruction of the Jewish temple, the downfall of Jerusalem, the persecution of Christians, and the end of the world.
Our Lord speaks of the “distress of the nations” and “men’s hearts failing them from fear” (vv. 25-26). At the End, there will be much uncertainty and anxiety. Whether we are now approaching the prophesied End, I don’t know. But there are, no doubt, many people feeling great anxiety as governments become more totalitarian, political divides become more rigid, and kindness becomes less common.
But our Lord says, “Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near… when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near.” (21:28,31).
Our Lord’s conclusion is twofold: “lift up your heads,” (v. 28) and a few verses later, be watchful (vv. 34-36). That is, be hopeful yet sober minded. Let’s look at each of these.
To lift up our heads means we are to await the Lord’s coming with eager expectation. For Christians, the end of the world is good news, for it ushers in the Kingdom of God. We cannot have the heavenly Kingdom without losing the earthly kingdoms. All must pass away to make way for the Eternal. These are words of hope and consolation from our Lord.
Secondly, our Lord tells us to be watchful. But He does not instruct us to watch out for the antichrist or the mark of the beast. Much the opposite. We should not be watching outwardly but inwardly. We are to watch over our hearts (vv. 34-36).
The heart is where God is enthroned in every rational creature – whether angelic or human. Instead of worrying about the antichrist and the mark of the beast, we should focus on repenting of our sins and fulfilling the Gospel commandments. The “distress of the nations” and “men’s hearts failing from fear” mentioned above is what happens to unbelievers – not those who have the Kingdom of God within them. When we watch over our hearts, we keep the world and the antichrist out so that God’s throne is established there.
But if we do not watch over our hearts, then the throne is filled with everything except God.
If we are living in fear and anxiety about current events and the direction the world is heading, then we are not abiding in the Kingdom of God. Instead, we are clinging to this world, unable to let it go. Unfortunately, there are many self-appointed teachers, preachers, and even some Orthodox clergy who are filling people with fear and anxiety about everything happening in the world right now. I do not disagree with these teachers and preachers that there are numerous changes taking place in governments and societies that are crooked or evil. Perhaps we are even approaching the End. I don’t know.
What I do know is that whether a Christian lives in the first century or the last one, the Gospel doesn’t change. We are called to repent of our sins, to love God and neighbor, and to lift up our heads in eager anticipation of the eternal Kingdom. A focus on anything less than heaven is not the Christian Gospel. Anything that fills people with fear or anxiety is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. St. Paul sometimes said “according to my Gospel” because there were, and still are, other gospels being preached.
I challenge all of us to examine our hearts when listening to various teachers. Do they bring us the peace of Christ or anxiety? Are our hearts filled with fear or do we lift up our heads, excited that our Lord’s Kingdom is drawing closer? Fear has a way of grabbing our attention and keeping us coming back for more. Many corporations and individuals have found it profitable to keep us in states of fear or outrage.
Let’s not allow our emotions to be manipulated anymore. Instead, let’s lift up our heads and our hearts as our redemption in Christ Jesus draws nearer with every passing day!