A Sermon by Stuart Grant
Putting some of the more difficult New Testament passaages in context
Try to think about these four things:
- An ancient, iconic building which is utterly destroyed;
- People expressing real anxiety about the future, about the possibility not only of their own destruction, but of the destruction of their world as well;
- Religious leaders who claim to have the last word on the mind of Jesus Christ and of God’s purposes;
- Wars and rumours of wars; natural and man made disasters; earthquakes and famines.
It all sounds very 21st or 20th century, doesn’t it. We’re probably aware of news broadcasts, on TV or radio that cover nearly all of these scenarios.
But of course such things are not exclusive to our times. The four points I’ve been trying to make amount to a summary of today’s Gospel reading, from Mark Chapter 13; 1 – 8:
As he was leaving the Temple one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look at the size of these stone, Master! Look at the size of those buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone will be left on another: everything will be destroyed.’
And while he was sitting facing the Temple, on the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, John and Andrew questioned him privately, ‘Tell us, when is this going to happen, and what sign will there be that all this is about to be fulfilled?’
Then Jesus began to tell them, ‘Take care that no one deceives you. Many will come using my name and saying, “I am he”, and they will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed, this is something that must happen, but the end will not be ye. For nation will fight against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes here and there; there will be famines. This is the beginning of the birthpangs.
Jesus and his disciples lived in very troubled times. That little stretch of land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea was then, as it certainly is now, a troubled and often dangerous place.
The Jews were a proud and independent minded people, but for hundreds of years they had known only brief periods of independence. Usually they were under the heel of some occupying power. In Jesus’ time, there were rebellions, which were brutally put down by their Roman overlords. For centuries the mood had been growing that the world was heading towards a day of reckoning.
In our reading from Mark’s Gospel we find Jesus with his disciples leaving the Temple in Jerusalem. One of them comments on the magnificence of the building. But Jesus speaks of its utter destruction.
That destruction happened in AD 70, at the end of a four year rebellion against the Romans. The Emperor’s armies destroyed the city and razed the Temple to the ground, leaving it a smoking ruin. Of that great building, once the centre of Jewish religion and life, today only the “wailing wall” remains, where devout Jews go to pray.
We don’t know whether Mark’s Gospel was written before or during or after this event. His words would have been powerful enough if Mark framed them as a prediction of the Temple’s destruction. That would have filled people with a sense of foreboding.
Mark’s words would have sounded much more powerful if they were written as the temple was falling, or as it lay in ruins.
As Mark records him, Jesus was trying to prepare his friends and followers for a time when not only the Temple in Jerusalem would be no more.
After AD 70, the Jews who had survived the rebellion against Rome began to be dispersed around the world, a process that has gone on until modern times.
This was also the time when the first little Christian communities began to be formed. How were these communities, of which Mark’s was one, going to survive in this time of collapse and turmoil?
In our Gospel reading we find Jesus trying to prepare his followers for such fearful and uncertain times.
So much for the history lesson.
We too live in uncertain times, and sometimes we’re tempted to ask questions similar to those asked by the disciples.
Maybe we would sometimes like to ask, “Tell us, Lord, when will the end come? What are we to do?”
Well, you don’t have to look very hard to find people who are more than ready to tell you.
There are preachers, certainly very common in the USA, but no doubt here and in other countries as well, who will readily tell you that we are living in the last days, and that we need to be ready for the “Rapture”. Taking other New Testament passages very literally they look forward to a time when they will ascend heavenwards to be with the elect, while the rest of humanity is condemned to eternal flames.
Or they may talk of Armageddon. Now I have some personal knowledge of Armageddon. The word is derived from Megiddo, which is a ruined fortress city in the north of Israel. My wife and I spent some days of our honeymoon staying with friends in the nearby village of Hayogev, and we spent an interesting morning wandering around the ruins. In ancient times, Megiddo lay right on the warpath, between Assyria in the north and Egypt in the south. It was fought over so many often that that in the book of Revelation its name came to symbolise sorrow and destruction. I somewhat bemused to hear, a few years ago, that busloads of tourists go there these days to see the place where, they think, everything is going to come to an end.
Now, someone might want to come back at me and say, “Well, you may think there are plenty of warning signs. Perhaps the end of all things isn’t far away.
We hear so much of global warming, of the threatened and actual extinction of precious species; the threat of a global pandemic; the spread of nuclear weapons; mistrust among nations; the clash of Fundamentalisms, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish.
These are some of the issues that the church, needs to continue to address. And we can do no better than address them from the standpoint of Jesus
Let me make a few points.
1. We do live in times of trouble. The trouble is more intense for people in other parts of the world than for us in our fortunate land. But the world is certainly in trouble.
How are we to live, how are we to react as people who try to be followers of Jesus Christ?
My answer is: by holding fast to our faith and our hope, by trying to follow the man of Nazareth more closely; by becoming better informed about our faith and deeper in our spirituality.
This brings me to my next point.
One of the reasons we need to be firm in our faith is that there are some people, whether naïve or charlatans or both, who are all too ready to tell us that they know what God’s plans are. There are always those who are ready to preach absolutes, who claim to know quite definitely what’s happening. And they will often be popular among crowds of people who seem to need to be told in absolute terms just what is going to happen and how God is going to act.
But popularity doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with wisdom and insight.
What our Gospel reading tells us is to listen carefully to what Jesus has to say, and not let ourselves be led astray,
Third: Trust in God. Remember that God is with us, even in difficult and troubled times, whether we’re talking about this on the level of world events, - or at a personal level, when we’re buffeted by personal or family troubles, or life threatening illness.
Trust in God.
It’s true that the earliest Christians believed it would not be very long at all until Christ would come again, and the world would come to an end. In time, of course, they had to revise their views.
Now, as then, speculation about the future is pointless, and unbiblical, and the opposite of being faithful. 5.
The important thing is for us to continue with the church’s mission to the world, the mission of service and compassion. I think this point is strongly made if we switch from Mark’s to Matthew’s Gospel, to Matthew’s very last parable, - the last judgment, the sheep and the goats . . .did you feed the hungry, did you give the thirsty to drink, did you welcome the stranger, and so on. It’s not for nothing that Matthew placed this parable at the end of his Gospel. For him it is the most important one. It portrays the way of faithfulness, the ways in which we may bear witness to the love of God in our lives. There is an urgency and a challenge about this parable.
Matthew’s questions are the ones that should concern us;
Did you feed the hungry, did you give the thirsty to drink, did you welcome the stranger . . .? Not vain speculations about the end of all things.
I leave you with one last thought: it may be that in centuries to come, we who are alive now may be looked back on as being among the early Christians.
So, let’s just get on the job of being as faithfully and as intelligently Christian as we can.