This is sort of the great apocalyptic passage of the New Testament. When I was young, we used to love reading this passage and speculating about the end times. I'm not really sure why we found it so thrilling, but we definitely thought we were in the times of "birth pangs" and that Jesus was likely coming back in our lifetimes. Now I'm not so sure. I think I may very well die before Jesus returns, and I think of a phrase I've heard, "For all we know, we are still living in the days of the early church." Christ's return may be millennia away.
This passage is confusing and complex--NT Wright says that it takes hours and hours to explain properly, and I suspect he means it takes years and years. As I read it, I think that there are two parallel messages--or at least two that pop out to me this morning. The first is that when Jesus comes back it will be obvious. Jesus will not be some old man in New York City who reveals Himself to be the Messiah close to his death, or some cult leader in Texas. We don't have to worry about knowing if it's really Jesus--there will be trumpets and there will be upheaval--a great shattering.
The other is that the people of God have always lived in times of tribulation. When we were having those conversations about the end times as young people, we were aware enough to remind ourselves that there were probably people in countries around the world who might believe they were living in the "Great Tribulation" we believed in. I no longer believe in the Tribulation as an event, I think Jesus will very simply come back one day a put everything right. I do believe that the world as we find it is a tribulation all its own and most people find it so, especially the people of God who find themselves caught between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.
These days feel like the beginning of tribulation--we have a plague going on, Western society is deeply polarized, and justice seems to be passing away. This morning I find comfort in the fact that the experience of tribulation is not unique--the people of God have always lived in such times and they have prevailed because they served King Jesus.