Over the past couple of weeks as we’ve seen Russian tanks and troops role into Ukraine and the awful spectre of nuclear conflict has been threatened against the West, I’ve written a bit about how we handled apocalyptic literature and questions about the end times.
I thought it might be helpful to share an example of a sermon on such a passage. Here’s one I preached as part of a series on Mark’s Gospel a few years back.
The twin towers stood out and defined the New York skyline. So that day when the planes crashed into them and the world as we knew it completely changed is etched in our memories. It was “earth shattering.” The idea that the US, the last remaining Superpower could be attacked on home soil was shocking. The reality that civilians going about their normal business were no longer safe was devastating. It shook their world to its foundations.
Has your world been shaken to its foundations? Is there something or someone that you built your life around? You thought they would always be there, rock solid, dependable. How do you respond when your world is shaken like that?
Here in Mark, Jesus says that Jewish world would be shaken to its foundations (v1-4). He has spent a lot of time teaching and debating in the temple. Now he leaves for the final time. The disciples are looking around amazed and overwhelmed at how impressive the temple is. Jesus says “Don’t be fooled –a day is coming when this temple will be completely destroyed.”
The disciples are shocked. The Temple was the centre of faith and community. It was the place where you went to worship God and through the sacrifices to receive forgiveness. For it to go would be like the end of the World. They ask Jesus when this will happen and if there will be any signs to show that it is about to happen.
Jesus answers. He does tell them what to watch out for. He does not give them a chronological time line. However, he says that they are to watch out. In other words, they are to be alert, ready, on their guard.
So, how do we respond when our lives turned upside, our foundations shattered, our world shattered? I want to suggest that these things are meant to get our attention and cause us to focus on what is important.
Be alert because the Gospel must be preached (v5-23)
Jesus responds by telling the disciples to be alert, ready, to watch or look out because a number of things will happen.
- There will be false teachers and false Messiahs (v5-8)
There’s going to be uncertainty and trouble. There will be “wars and conflicts” and there will be natural disasters. Some people will use these events for their own ends. They will claim to be saviours. They will claim to be God’s chosen leaders. They will try to take the place of Jesus. Where ever there is trouble you will find someone saying “trust in me.” “I will look after you.”
This happened. A number of people turned up in the years after Jesus’s death and resurrection and claimed to be the Messiah. It has continued to happen in history. Various religious and political leaders have claimed to have the solution to The World’s problems.
There are people around today? We mentioned some of them two weeks ago –the people on the God channel –the celebrity Christian leaders promising that they can bring revival to the church and healing and prosperity to you.
Where do you put your trust? In the celebrity Christian leader whose books or music fill an empty spot? In your bank balance? In the drugs that numb the pain? These are all false saviours and they will let you down.
- You will face opposition and persecution (v9-14)
This meant they would be dragged into the courts and the synagogues. They would be imprisoned by the Jewish religious authorities and by the Roman political powers.
Do you notice though that Jesus promises that God will be with them and give them the words to say. This does not mean that they will be let off and found innocent. It means that God will enable them to speak up for the Gospel.
This should encourage us. Sharing the Gospel will lead to opposition. It may mean that people laugh at you, it may mean that they stop being your friends. Jesus says that this happens for his sake. Around the world, Christians experience persecution. Church buildings are burnt down in Nigeria and Sudan. Christians have been put in prison and even killed in many countries. Yet through this, God has continued to build his church.
It may even mean that one day, here, we will find that speaking for Jesus leads to prison. Already, Christians have faced employment tribunals and court cases because of their faith. We must not be ashamed of the Gospel and we must not run scared. I cannot promise you that you will be found innocent, keep your job, win back their friendship but I can promise you that God will not desert you and that a day is coming when all of this will be worthwhile. (More of that in a minute).
- The full awfulness of human rebellion and sin will be clearly seen (v14-23)
Jesus then answers the specific question about the destruction of the temple. He says that there will be a sign “the abomination of desolation.” He warns his hearers to run for the hills when they see this.
What was this sign? Well Jesus was quoting form Daniel 9:27. The prophet had warned about something so terrible, so offensive against God that it would cause great distress. Now this phrase may seem a bit obscure or weird to us but in Jesus’s day, the hearers knew exactly what he meant. In 167AD a man called Antiochus Epiphanes had invaded Jerusalem and set up an altar to te Greek God Zeus in the Temple. It had caused great distress and helped provoke the revolt by Judas Maccabees.
Jesus said that something very similar would happen. Something would be done in the Temple that would be shameful and offensive. It is most likely that he was prophesying an event in AD67-68 when some of the Jewish rebels against Rome appijnted their own High Priest. He offered mock sacrifices. This caused such outrage that the people fought among each other and blood was shed in the Temple sanctuary itself.
Jesus warns that when the sign comes, then there will be terrible, unspeakable suffering. But God will cut it short for the sake of his people. The siege of Jerusalem was terrible but it only lasted fr 5 months.
Now let me share some important things about Jesus’ prophesy.
First, it came true. This is important evidence. It shows that we can trust Jesus and we can trust the Bible. Mark’s Gospel was written about 20 years before these events happened. It predicts them accurately.
Secondly, the events in AD 70 were specifically important. God judged the Jewish leaders who had rejected Jesus. God showed that we do not need a temple anymore because we can come directly to Jesus. The Temple had become a place of rebellion against God, a place of idolatry.
Rebellion against God brings sure and certain judgement. God will punish sin.
- The Gospel will be preached
Did you spot this throughout the section? The wars did not mean it was the end because there was still a job to be done. The courts could imprison people but they could not silence them. Why? The answer is “because the gospel must be preached to all nations.”
When your world is shaken, when tough times come, don’t stop living for Jesus. Don’t stop talking about him.
You live for him. Continuing to prioritise kindness, mercy, generosity in the toughest of situations is a witness that you are trusting in God.
You must also speak for him. A good life unexplained is an enigma. Use the opportunities given to you to tell people about Jesus, to “give a reason for the hope that you have.”
Be alert because Jesus is coming back (v24-37)
- The return of the King (v24-25)
Do we believe this? I worry sometimes that we don’t seem to. We’ve started to live and behave as though the Universe will go on forever. Well Jesus is very clear that He will return.
The disciples saw that the destruction of the Temple pointed to something even bigger, the end of the whole world order as they knew it and the coming of God’s Kingdom.
So Jesus says that the whole world will be turned upside down. The Sun will be darkened, the moon stop shining, the stars will fall. Now this can have two meanings. Metaphorically it describes the fall of all empires, governments and powers including spiritual powers and authorities. World religions will end, dictators will be toppled.
But I believe that a day is coming when we will see the Universe literally shaken and the World as we know it will pass away and there will be a new creation unspoilt by sin.
Then we will see Jesus “coming on the clouds” in other words, he will visibly return with power and authority (cf Daniel 7:13-14) and he will gather his people together, safe with him.
- A Generation that will not pass away (v 28-30)
Jesus uses the imagery of a fig tree. It’s leaves are a sign that summer is coming. Remember, that the fig tree represents God’s people. He says that we too should know the signs that “summer is coming. The King is returning.
He says that “this generation will still be here when all of this happens.” What does he mean?
Options put forward include:
- Jesus and Mark made an error –but then why not quickly amend it so no one notices?
- Jesus’ focus is back on the destruction of the Temple and his “coming with the clouds refers to people seeing his sovereignty as King (but why specifically AD 70).
- Generation does not refer to people at a specific time but to a race of people. Sometimes the Bible talks about “this wicked generation” meaning all of those who oppose God. There is also a faithful generation. Those who trust him.
Although most commentators today see the second option as the most natural fit, I have to admit that I do quite like the last option. You know, one of the great promises is that God will not lose or forsake you. God will not allow his church to die out. God will look after his people. Through all the chaos and turmoil, God’s kingdom will remain.
- Words that will not pass away (v31)
Not only will a generation remain but Jesus’s words wills tand the test of tiem as well. We can trust him to keep his promises to us.
- Be alert means remain active (v32-37)
Jesus closes his explanation with another parable. A boss goes on a journey. He leaves hus servants in charge. What are they to do whilst he is away? They are to remain busy looking after the business.
Oh dear, we seem to fall into two traps. We either think “be alert” means that we should become obsessed with trying to work out exactly when and where he will come back. We get muddled up in all sorts of weird and wonderful conspiracy theories.
We act as though he isn’t returning
We put or own comfort before telling people about Jesus. We become consumers, complaining and quarrelling about our church, looking for bigger and better spiritual experiences. We pursue material gain without thought to spiritual cost.
Friends, we do not know when he is returning but he has given us a task to do. He could return at any moment. Are we ready?
What if we knew that Jesus was coming back today? What would we do differently? Let’s resolve to live as though today was our last day before he comes back?
It will mean that I will put my best into my school work or my job knowing that I am doing these things for his glory.
It will motivate me not to give in to that temptation.
It will make it more urgent that I tell my friends about Jesus.
It means that I will not waste time any longer. I will put my trust in him as Lord and Saviour.