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Imagine waking up one morning and realising that you are in great pain. Waves of agony are pulsating through your abdomen and your bedsheets are drenched with water. Would you panic? You wouldn’t panic if you happened to be a woman 39 weeks into her pregnancy. You wouldn’t panic because this is what you have been expecting – broken waters and labour pains are unfortunately necessary before the joy of new life can be experienced. In Mark 13, Jesus, is within days of his coming death on the cross. What would you want to say to your kids or loved ones if you knew you were about to leave them? With this last opportunity to speak in depth with his loved disciples, Jesus wants them to understand what they are to expect in the years to come.
There is particular suffering coming their way, in their lifetime, and also there is consistent suffering coming for all subsequent followers of Jesus, including us now, right up until when he returns. Before the joy of resurrection life with God forever, there is pain to endure. They and we are not to be surprised or panicked by this pain and suffering that will come to Jesus’ followers before the joy of eternal life with God can be realised. Instead they (and we) are to watch out, to be on guard, to continue to stand firm on the rock that is Jesus Christ, the rock that will remain steady when everything else crumbles away.
V1 “As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”” Someone said that if a man was tired of London, he was tired of life. The Jews would have felt this about the Temple – early rabbis said this “he who has not seen Jerusalem in her splendour has never seen a desirable city in his life. He who has not seen the Temple in its full construction has never seen a glorious building in his life.” The Temple complex was the very centre of life for the Jewish people – we saw that in previous sermon series in 1 Kings where King Solomon built the first Temple, and then in Nehemiah where the rebuilding of Jerusalem with the Temple at its centre was so important. The Temple mattered so much.
And although the Romans were occupying the land, religious life continued with the hope that soon the Messiah would come, get rid of the Romans and re-establish the glory of Israel. The magnificent Temple would have been a tangible sign of great hope in the promises of God. Even though it was a mistake that the Israelites had made before, many couldn’t help but look at that Temple and think – it is obvious God is with us and on our side, we have the Temple, we will be ok. But Jesus, all the way throughout Mark, has demonstrated time and time again that real authority, certain hope, genuine salvation is to be found in him rather than in religion or any religious system. He forgives sins, he is Lord of the Sabbath, he casts out demons, he heals the sick, he raises the dead, he is the King and so he is the key to being part of God’s Kingdom.
And so his answer to the disciples although disturbing, shouldn’t have totally shocked them; “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” These stones aren’t going to last, magnificent though the Temple building was, it is only temporary and fragile. Hope is not to be placed there. The disciples need a different rock to stand upon if they are not to be thrown down as well. Disturbing and unsettling stuff. As Jesus and the disciples walk to the Mount of Olives the Temple would have been in full view the entire time and so I presume the disciples were pondering and perhaps talking through the enormity of what Jesus had just told them. In their theology, their way of understanding God and His purposes, the destruction of the Temple would only happen when the world would end, and so the very natural question comes from Peter, James, John and Andrew in verse 4; “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to be fulfilled?”
Humans really do like to know when. Being a Maths teacher and then the Head of Department, I was always very involved in the discussions about Ofsted. And there was a lot of time wasted speculating about when they would come. Time that was wasted because the lead inspector wouldn’t ring until the day before or even in some cases on the very morning of an inspection itself and by that time it really was too late to send 10b7 out on a trip or to ask crazy Davie in year 8 to stay home that day. The ‘when’ wasn’t a very helpful question, what was far more productive was to ask “what should we be doing now knowing that it is going to happen?”
Jesus doesn’t give the disciples an answer to their when question, in fact later in v32 he explains that that knowledge belongs only to the Father. Instead, Jesus is urgent and absolutely clear with the disciples about what they should be doing now since they know that there is a day coming when God will bring the current age to an end. And, though it is easy to get fascinated and intrigued about the specifics of the end times, this passage is really all about what followers of Jesus should be getting on with in the present. It isn’t complicated, just scan through Jesus’ words and look for the command sentences; V5: “Watch out”, V7 “Do not be alarmed”, V9 “Be on your guard”, V11 “Do not worry”, V23 “Be on your guard”, V33 “Be on guard, be alert”, V35 “Keep watch”, V36 “do not let him find you sleeping”, V37 “Watch.” The message is pretty clear; stick with Jesus, don’t let anything shake your trust in Jesus.
From this moment in Mark, it will be around 3 days before Jesus will be nailed to a cross, 3 days before the waters break and the birth pains start. I can remember that very point before our eldest daughter was born. We were playing board games with friends, everything was fine and light-hearted and enjoyable and then suddenly that was it, this thing was happening and nothing was going to stop it. All of human history and the whole of scripture has been leading up to the cross of Jesus Christ. God’s people had been waiting, waiting, waiting for the Messiah, the Son of Man – but that waiting is over and after the cross, the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus, a new period of waiting begins.
What does a family do when they are waiting for something? They put it on the calendar on the kitchen wall (“My birthday” kids!). Jesus actually gives the disciples 2 events to put on their kitchen walls. The big one, happening at some unknown point in the future is the return of the Son of Man; when Jesus will gather his people, when righteous judgement will be fully carried out, when King Jesus will reign uncontested for eternity (that’s the only one left in our calendar). But before then and in the disciples own lifetime, in their generation (v30), the Temple is going to be destroyed amidst some terrible and catastrophic circumstances for the people of Israel. So with both of these events in mind (a bit like looking up at a high Mountain which has a small peak part of the way up and then the main mountaintop just visible amongst the clouds) Jesus says WATCH OUT, BE ON GUARD, STAND FIRM.
For the disciples in the short-term, that is the 40 years or so between the cross and a series of rebellions and wars that would lead to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, and then for all followers of Jesus in the long-term, from that time until Jesus comes back and the world ends, the message is the same; Put your faith in Jesus alone and keep your faith in Jesus alone, STAND ON JESUS ALONE. V5-8: there are going to be many false teachers and deceivers – don’t be fooled, stick with Jesus, stand on Jesus. There are going to be wars, constant threats of war, natural disasters, famines – don’t be alarmed, stick with Jesus, stand on Jesus.
V9-11: Christians will be opposed, will be arrested and badly treated, will have to defend themselves in courts and palaces, don’t worry, the Holy Spirit will give you what you need so that the gospel is proclaimed to the world. SWJSOJ. V12+13 Christians will even be hated by their own family members, and hated by the world in general. SWJSOJ. All of this can seem so unfair and yet it is the treatment that Jesus himself received, and the path Jesus told his followers to walk down when he said “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” None of this stuff is to catch us by surprise, all of it is to be expected; it is birth pains, necessary suffering that disciples of Jesus will have to endure before Jesus returns and ushers in eternal life in His presence. Verse 13 is absolutely key to this farewell speech of Jesus; “Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
So far then, in verses 1-13 here is the choice Jesus gives us. What will we put our trust in? Magnificent looking things like the Temple, that appear so impressive and strong and dependable but will leave you eternally crushed when they are crushed (money, family, success, career, popularity, religion etc)? Or will you stand upon Jesus bringing you pain and suffering and opposition, but also bringing you eternal security, eternal certainty? From an eternal point of view it is a no brainer, of course it must be Jesus. But Jesus’ warnings of “Watch out”, “Do not be alarmed”, “Be on your guard”, “Do not worry”, “Be on your guard”, “be alert”, “Keep watch” they are all necessary because when trials come they so easily shake and disturb us, and when we look at the world around we are so easily seduced. Stick with Jesus, stand on Jesus.
It has been a pretty clear message so far I hope. SWJSOJ. But are we really going to listen to Jesus? On 2 occasions in my son Isaac’s 6 years on this earth so far, I have found him trying to stick a screwdriver into a plug socket. Do you think I just gently smiled and whispered “oh no Isaac, it really is better if we don’t play that game”? Not a chance. Instead a huge shout, designed to shock him (so that the 240 volts don’t in the future). “DO NOT DO THAT EVER. IT IS DANGEROUS, YOU COULD DIE.” These warnings that Jesus is giving in Mark 13 are matters of eternal life and death. We must heed them.
This was a matter of life and death for the disciples. In verses 14-23 and in the lesson of the fig-tree (v28-31) Jesus is dealing specifically with the upcoming destruction of the Temple and he is quite detailed here because he wants the early Christians to not be in Jerusalem when the Roman armies turn up to sack the Temple and ravage the local population. He uses language from the book of Daniel to emphasise the enormity of the coming events; “When you see the abomination that causes desolation standing where it does not belong, then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” The disciples and early Christians are not to be mistaken – the Temple is a goner and its destruction will fulfil Daniel’s prophesy hundreds of years before. So when something blasphemous or idolatrous takes place in the Temple they are to believe Jesus and they are to run for the hills, magnificent stones or not. When the Romans did destroy the Temple in AD 70, some horrible atrocities were carried out on the people.
The disciples and early Christians needed to believe Jesus’ words and live, or ignore them and die – don’t trust in having the Temple, trust instead in Jesus and His words.; V23 “Be on your guard, I have told you everything in advance.”
And Jesus’ words are a matter of life and death for us as well. We see that in v 24-27 and the end story of the owner returning to his house. After AD 70, there is only one more significant date in the calendar for humanity. We don’t know when it is going to happen, but it is going to happen. Jesus is going to return and when he does this world and this age will be finished – the cosmic scale of this is seen in verse 24 “In those days, following that distress, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” No one will miss this event as the Son of Man comes with power and glory, when he gathers his elect from all over this world, when judgement is carried out, when all things are put right forever.
When is it going to happen? We don’t know. But we must be on guard, we must be carrying out the master of the house’s instructions. You cannot read Jesus’ words here and then go away and say things like “all religions lead to heaven” or “good people will be ok.” Instead we must be ready and we must get on with telling others to be ready. The gospel must be preached to all nations because it is the gospel of Jesus Christ and it alone that saves. This is heaven or hell for every human being. Jesus died and rose again so we could be forgiven, so we could be made righteous, so we could be part of this elect that he will gather upon his return.
Christians are the most blessed people in the world. Yes, suffering and persecution is part of Christianity, it is to be expected and endured, yes we are experiencing the pains of labour right now, yes we will be hated by some, ignored by many, hurt by a few. But our master is on his way back home. It is Friday but Sunday’s coming. Jesus endured the cross because of the joy that was set before him – we must stand firm on the rock that is Jesus, persevering in faith through the most difficult of trials, knowing that by His Spirit He is with us, in us, and knowing that an incredible future is being prepared for us. We are to long for Jesus to return, we are to expect Jesus to return, but we are not to worry about that return and we are not to be distracted from the simple determined living out of our faith and proclamation of the gospel by the spiralling of sin and its consequences while we wait for that return. So what would you want to say to your loved ones before you died? Stick with Jesus, Stand on Jesus. Amen.
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