Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sermon: Mark 13: 1-13 Signs of the End

Where were you when the Twin Towers fell? The events of 9/11 were so devastating, with worldwide coverage, that most people can remember what they were doing when they heard what had happened in New York. The World Trade Centre was so impressive, 110 storeys high, that it was the symbol of America. Think of all the movies set in New York - the Twin Towers always featured in some way - an aerial shot, or standing tall in the background.

But imagine if someone had been in New York the day before and declared that they would be destroyed the next day? It would have been so unthinkable, so shocking - until it happened! It’s something like that in our reading this morning. We’re in the last week of Jesus’ life before he is crucified, and these chapters are set in Jerusalem - teaching in the temple, cleansing the temple, conflict in the temple with the religious authorities.

As Jesus and his disciples leave the temple, one of them remarks on the grandeur of the impressive temple. ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ Just like our 9/11 person, Jesus turns round and says that the temple will be destroyed: ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’ This is shocking stuff! At this point, the temple is still being rebuilt after being destroyed by the Babylonians 500 years before; King Herod had sponsored the building work, but it had already taken 46 years, and wasn’t finished!

It’s such a shock that four of Jesus’ disciples come to him privately as they sit on the Mount of Olives, looking across the valley at the temple, and ask him when all this will happen, and what signs will show it’s about to happen. Jesus replies in what is now our Mark chapter 13, but it quickly emerges that Jesus is speaking about two connected but distinct things. At some points, Jesus is answering their question, and speaking of the destruction of the temple (see v14-23 e.g. those in Judea flee to the mountains); but then Jesus is also speaking of a later event, the return of the Son of Man (himself!) coming in clouds with great power and glory (see v24-27).

The two are connected - the destruction of the temple is the judgement on the people of Israel at this point in history; which then points towards the judgement of all people at the second coming of the Lord Jesus.

If we get our heads round this twin theme of temple destruction and the end of the world; it’s much easier to understand what Jesus is saying. We just need to keep in focus which of the two Jesus is addressing at each point. So in the verses we’re looking at today, the end of the world is in focus - the signs that the end is coming; and there are some terrible things promised - wars, rumours of war, famine, earthquake, arrest, persecution, family break ups. It really doesn’t sound pleasant, and yet as we look around us, it’s the world we’re living in.

The signs of the end of the world and the return of the Lord Jesus are happening all around us. You just have to turn on the TV - famine in various places; earthquakes in Chile trapping miners; and on this Remembrance Sunday we are all too aware of nation rising against nation. We can know that Jesus’ teaching here is reliable, because we can see these things happening around us - and we can look back to AD70 when the temple was destroyed!

So what can we do? What should we do as we realise that the end is near? Jesus tells his disciples (and therefore us, who are still in this end times period) in these verses two main things: 1. Don’t be led astray; 2. Be on your guard.

It’s an uncertain time when wars are being fought, with the world in turmoil, with uncertainty across the world. We look around for answers, for leadership, for someone to explain what it’s all about and sort out all the problems. Jesus says that in this very situation, ‘many will come in my name, saying ‘I am he’ and they will lead many astray.’ These false teachers, false christs even, will try to exploit the situation, claiming to speak for God, but lead people off to follow themselves.

Jesus says clearly: ‘See that no one leads you astray.’ Don’t be swerved from obeying Jesus’ words and following someone else - even if they come looking the part, even in clerical collars or bishop’s robes! [It’s why we preach with Bibles open - so that you can be certain that what we are saying is what God is saying - so that we’re not leading you astray by making things up]

Don’t be led astray, as if these things shouldn’t be happening at all. War, famine, earthquake - all unpleasant things, and yet Jesus says ‘nation will rise... there will be...’ (v8) No matter how much we try to prevent them, or think we can make everything good here and now, we’re always going to see war because of the abundance of sin; we’re always going to have famine and earthquake. Just as Paul says in Romans 8, so Jesus says that these natural signs and wonders are just the beginning of the birth pains. I hope Susanna doesn’t mind we mentioning her, but the birth pains came long before baby Lois was born.

This world will be filled with difficult situations, war, famine, earthquake, tsunami, poverty, disease, storms, but they are birth pains - we can’t solve these things here and now, but when Jesus returns, poverty will cease, hunger will be no more, ‘and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation.’

Don’t be led astray by false promises or false teaching. Are you holding fast to what God has said? Or are you listening to all other sorts of voices? Don’t be led astray. Jesus also says to us: Be on your guard.

As if the situation isn’t bad enough with all these wars going on; Jesus teaches that his followers are going to face all kinds of extra difficulties and pressures. It’s not what we expect to hear, is it? We expect that if you become a Christian, everything is going to be easy, blue skies every day on your way to heaven. Jesus says that being a Christian is hard, with these extra problems coming your way. [By the way, that’s a sign of teaching what Jesus teaches - presenting cross-shaped living, rather than ‘Your Best Life Now’ as one American prosperity teacher claims]

Look at verse 9. Jesus’ disciples will be arrested, brought before councils (courts), beaten in synagogues (religious centres), and stand before governors and kings for the sake of Jesus. Fast forward about 15 years, and that’s exactly what happened with the Apostle Paul. It seems that no matter where he went, he was arrested, or beaten, or on trial. Once again, Jesus’ words are reliable. But we read these things and think, surely that doesn’t happen today.

Across the world, Christians continue to face opposition, trials, and even execution because they are Christians. And even in this country, it seems that the secular agenda is pushing forward, limiting and restricting Christians. It may not be long before some of us could be arrested for preaching the Bible because it is so offensive to our sinful modern agenda.

Verse 12 shows us more pain on the way - the break up of families, precisely because some are Christians and some are not - brother will deliver brother over to death, and even parents and children. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. It’s a fairly bleak picture, isn’t it? This is what being a follower of Jesus is like in these last days - ever since the cross and resurrection.

And yet, even as Jesus warns us to be on our guard, he gives us encouragement and hope to continue, to go on being a Christian no matter how difficult it may be. Look again at verse 9. Arrest, beatings, and appearing before kings. Why will these things happen? ‘to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.’ These difficult situations are the very means God has decided to use to spread the gospel, the good news about the Lord Jesus.

Think again about Paul for a moment. Arrested in Jerusalem, he appears before the Roman tribune, Claudius Lysias; then governor Felix in Caeserea, governor Festus and King Agrippa, before landing in Rome under house arrest where all the soldiers guarding him hear the gospel so that Paul can write to the Philippians: ‘All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.’ (Phil 4:22) Right under the nose of the hostile emperor, some of those in his house are Christians, and all because Paul has been arrested!

It’s the gospel that gives us hope and peace in the midst of these persecutions - the good news that Jesus Christ has died for our sins, that we are reconciled with God, and that one day Jesus will return and we will be with him forever in the new heavens and new earth.

God gives us help to live and speak for him - even when on trial - the Holy Spirit is promised to help us to speak out for Jesus. And look to the very last verse of our passage for even more grace and hope: ‘And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.’ It doesn’t matter (at the end of the day) what other people think about us - even if they hate us. The pressure is there to turn away from the gospel, but Jesus urges us to not be led astray, and to be on your guard, so that you endure right to the end, and are saved.

Where are you today? Are you wavering, or holding firm to what Jesus says? Are you keeping going for Jesus, no matter what pressure you’re facing? In John’s Gospel, some of the crowd have stopped following Jesus, and Jesus asks the disciples - what about you, do you want to go away as well? Peter’s answer is perfect for our passage this morning: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68)

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 14th November 2010.

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