By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 29, 2020
Mark 13:24–37 (ESV)
24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. 35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”
But in those days, after that tribulation. How many times do we read these passages? How often do we think about the words as we read them? Last week we discussed the apocalyptic message of Jesus. I mentioned that the use of apocalyptic language is to prompt us to think. We use this sort of language all the time. We use it to explain what might happen if things do not change.
People often use passages like this to encourage repentance out of fear. This has some benefit, but it is limited. We all know the dangers of smoking yet millions of people continue to participate in that activity. Apocalyptic language is not only doom, gloom, and fear, it is also filled with hope.
Today’s passage begins, “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.”
At first glance this sounds horrifying. A few years ago, we experience a solar eclipse here in Missouri. Albert was not in school yet so our family went to the zoo to watch the eclipse. I remember the time vividly. We were standing near the tram station in the African exhibit, and as the eclipse began you could see the various animals get nervous. When the sun became fully eclipsed the various herd animals began to stampede in their exhibit. I understand the feeling because even though my mind knew the science behind the event, even though my mind knew that the event would only last a short amount of time, my heart began to race. I stood there thinking about the ancient cultures that first learned to predict these astronomical events and the fear of the people they lived among. How should you feel when the things you are accustomed to, the things you depend on and devote your lifestyle too fail to do what is expected?
We look at this passage and passages like this and we see them as depicting the end. But what if we look at them from a different perspective?
The verses just prior to today’s passage speaks of the Abomination of Desolation. This is a terrible event that was spoken of in a prophecy of Daniel and an event that came to pass in 167 BC. This is the event that first started the Jewish war for independence, and the reason for the feast of dedication which is the celebration of Hanukah. The abomination was when a pig was sacrificed in the Temple of God rendering the facility unclean, and left Israel without redemption. The act was to demoralize the Jewish people, to cause hopelessness. But the people of God rose, because they knew their true hope was found not only in the stones of the Temple but among the people called by the name of God. Just when it appeared that all was lost, they saw hope. Dedicated servants of God preserved some sanctified oil to use in the lamps within the temple, the only problem was they only had enough oil for one day and it would take eight days to purify the temple after the abomination. The light burned not only for one day but for the entire time required, and that light gave Israel hope and it inspired them to overcome their oppressors and established an independent nation again.
These events happened nearly two hundred years before today’s passage. Israel is free to worship in the temple, even though they are under the rule of Rome. Their temple is the pride of their people and is envied throughout the empire. Why would Jesus bring up this dark day of history?
At times we lose focus of what is most important. One day when Jesus and his disciples were leaving the temple they turned back and gazed upon its glory. The disciples marveled at the work of human hands in reverence to God. Jesus saw the pride in their eyes and told them that a day would come when not one of the stones would be stacked on another. These were massive stones, some weighing 160,000 pounds, each cut to perfection. The disciples looked at Jesus with concern because the temple could be a mighty fortress and what force of man could topple something like it?
Jesus spoke with apocalyptic words to highlight the course the people were traveling and the end that would come about. Jesus told them that they would see the abomination of desolation and that it would usher in a great tribulation for the people of Israel. He said that it would be the worst event since the dawn of time because it would separate the people of God from the land promised to them. He said these things, and the people rejected the words. He taught in parables saying that the kingdom is like ten virgins or like the investment of wise stewards, the kingdom is not a nation but it is a lifestyle of service and being ready to actively participate in ministry when needs present themselves. The kingdom is not land but people encouraging people. But the people that claimed to represent God’s voice failed to listen to the words spoken by the prophets of old, nor of Christ. They saw the kingdom as a land of their own, ruled and governed by people devoted to God, and I respect their view, but their view has a problem. Governments use force to keep people in line, and when those that command those that use force feel threatened the force is used on the people governed. God’s kingdom is about people living in cooperation and consent and the kingdoms of men are based on force. Israel was walking toward their destruction, and it would happen within a generation.
Just as it happened two hundred years prior to that day, there was hope just beyond the desolation. There was light in the darkness. The end may have come but the beginning is near. Jesus used language like the sun going dark, stars falling from the heavens, and the moon not giving light. These words all point to the things that we are putting faith in, we accept that they will be there no matter what. We can put faith in things that are not within our control.
If we are an employee, we trust that the people that employ us are making good business decisions that will keep our job secure, but at times corporations have economic downturns and will begin to cut hours or worse lay off employees. If we are not aware of the business cycles of the industry, we are working in this might cause fear. I work in retail and currently we are in the busiest time of the year, but in about a month we will be entering the slowest time of the business cycle. From the end of January through Easter sales in retail businesses drop significantly, schedules are cut to a minimum. Newer employees who were hired during the busy season were used to working long hours and even getting overtime, and suddenly they are asked to work less. If they were not properly prepared this causes stress. The same can happen in other industries. I have worked in agriculture and lawn care; both industries are based on a growing cycle of plants. In the spring as things start growing there is a great deal of work to do. Planting, weed management, and managing the soil fertility to ensure proper growth. As the temperature increases the focus shifts from planting and fertility to water management. And then when the temperature begins to fall the focus again shifts to planting and root development to prepare for the winter. During the winter there is little work to do in those industries so most of these workers are temporarily unemployed. I remember the first years I worked in the lawn and landscape industries I was extremely nervous during the winter months. I had a new wife and a young child and I was unemployed for three months.
The things I depended on were not as dependable as I once though. It caused fear and discomfort. I was forced to reconsider life as I knew it. Several aspects of life can cause distress like this. A new child changes the dynamic of the family, new jobs, retirement, changes in our health, governmental decrees, and war. Each of these aspects of life can cause ripples in the fabrics of our lives. Some cause great distress while others only cause minor inconveniences.
Jesus is warning the people of Israel that life will change. The things that they were depending on, the things they were putting their faith in were not constant and could fail. Jesus was telling the leaders of the people that they were poking a sleeping bear and eventually there would be retaliation. When that day comes their faith will be shaken because many were placing their faith in things that they though were under their control but were not.
How will we react in those times of uncertainty? Jesus tells us to look for signs and lessons in the world around us. Look at the fig tree, when the branches become tender and put out leaves you know summer is near. When we see things are changing around us, we should not fear but look deeper. What is changing? Why is it changing? Where are we in this change? And where is God? What remains when everything else falls apart?
This is where our focus should be. Nations rise and fall, empires rise and fall, politicians rise to power and they are voted out of office. What remains? Companies open, grow, and if they cannot adjust to changing tends close. What remains? Church Meetings open and close, what remains? Pastors come in and they leave, what remains? Friends come and friends move away what remains? Our health is here one day and is gone another, what remains? In each of those cases the people you interact with every day remain. The relationships you nurture remain. Your family, your friends, the people that you do not even really like are still around you. At times even those faces change but the interaction with others remain, the necessity of building relationships to survive remain. The sun may darken and the moon may refuse to give its light, but you remain and how you respond in that situation can change the world.
In places like the United States and Europe the church seems to be in decline, yet in places where the church is persecuted there appears to be rapid growth. Have we ever stopped to consider why that might be? Because the church is a source of hope. The church is in decline in America because we are comfortable, we are not struggling and we look to ourselves instead of to God for answers. When we face trials we often neglect to testify to the amount of prayer we invested during our struggle so when people speak to us they do not hear how God carried us through because we took the credit ourselves. The outside world listens to us describe our struggles but they do not hear of God’s provision because we say things like, “I applied for a different job, or I went back to school.” We leave out the part about the three months we laid awake at night crying out to God when we could not find our way. We leave out the part where we poured the last bit of rice in the water and praying that it would be enough to satisfy the hunger of our children because we would not get paid for another couple of day, and then receiving a phone call that evening with an invitation for supper the next day.
We speak of ourselves, and we neglect to mention God. We speak and we believe our words, and we begin to place our faith in our own abilities. But what is really happening? God is still at work. I could list off the ways that I have seen God working in my life or the lives of those around me. Some might say it is a coincidence but I do not see it that way. Timing of checks received just in time to make payments that were beyond my means. Calls received just when I needed to hear an encouraging voice. And yes, offers to join others for a meal when there was nothing edible in my house. I could say that it was because of my own actions and I am not fully wrong to say this, but it is not the whole story. God is still at work and he uses us as instruments of blessing.
When we see the world seem to be crashing in on itself around us, what do we do? “And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” We read those words and we immediately think that God will take us out of the situation, yet we still face struggle. These words were once seen as words of hope in a time of despair. The word gather is important. It means to cause to come together or assembling. The key is together or bringing many parts to make a whole. When trials come the ones that face the trials often faulter and they need others to help them carry on. When trials come the gathering is what carries us through because we are the ones that assist one another. That is the mission of the church. The sun darkens and moon fails to give its light, those are words of despair and depression, but in the darkness, there is a light. Jesus came to live for us. The end of an age may come but that end is just a beginning. The winters of life will come, but spring follow. Jesus came not just to die for our sin, but to live for our glory. He provides the way and the means; he gave us an example and a lifestyle. And he calls us to participate in that life.
The abomination that causes desolation did come within that generation. Jerusalem did fall within the first century, yet the end was just the beginning. The end of the temple became the beginning of the church. The persecutions of the church placed people throughout the entire Roman Empire to speak of the hope of Christ. The church grew. Jerusalem fell but the church remained. Rome fell but the church remained, because the church is more than structures and institutions it is people gathered, encouraging one another through the storms of life by pointing to the hope of Christ. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overtake it. Let us not live in fear, but instead let us respond with what we have available to us and become a blessing to those around us.