The Good News of the End of the World
Mark 13:1-8, 24-37
What does the future hold for us? This question has been on all our minds.
How long will the pandemic last? How many people will be infected and die from the virus? Will our own Jackson-metro area become a host-spot like New York or New Orleans?
And on a more personal and existential level, will I contract COVID-19? If I do, will it be a mild case, or will I need to be hospitalized? If I am hospitalized and need a ventilator, will one be available? Fundamentally, the question is, will I survive?
We are also wondering how long it will be before life can return to some semblance of normalcy. How long will we have to practice social distancing? When will be able to return to work? When will we be able to gather again for worship, Bible study, Presbyterian Women Circle meetings, Wednesday gatherings, Session and committee meeting?
And finally, what will be the long-term economic impact of the pandemic? Will we go into recession? Will the world economy and our own rebound quickly? How many people will lose their jobs? Will the two trillion stimulus package get households and businesses through the next couple of months?
These and a hundred other questions are swirling around in heads. It is a time of great uncertainty, anxiety, and fear.
Jesus’ disciples were also facing a time of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, albeit for different reasons.
Jesus had foretold his ow death on three separate occasions. Jesus told them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit on him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again (Mark 10:33ff).”
Moreover, Jesus and the religious leaders of Jerusalem had clashed numerous times. Tensions were rising.
And Jesus himself was not helping. When the disciples spoke admiringly of the temple and its buildings, Jesus responded by saying, “Do you see these great building? Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
This ominous statement prompted Peter, James, John, and Andrew to demand more information. “tell us, when will this bee, and what will be the sign that these things are about to be accomplished?”
What follows in the remainder of Chapter 13 is Jesus’ answer to their question. The primary purpose of Jesus’ discourse is to prepare the disciples for the uncertain future they were facing, and we can gain insight and reassurance from Jesus’ words for the facing of our time of uncertainty.
First, Jesus describes the future in general. He warns the apostles against being led astray. “Beware that no one leads you astray,” he said (vs. 5). We need to be careful who we are listening to as well. There are all kinds of predictions, scenarios, and rumors floating around. They have led some people to hoard food, toiled paper, and medical supplies.
We need to listen to our health care experts and elected officials and follow their guidance. They are God’s servants for our good.
Jesus continues to describe the general course of human history. There will be wars and rumors of wars. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes, famines, and pestilences, but the end is not yet.
This situation has been true since the beginning of history. Wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilences are the norm of human history. The Bible itself describes several plagues in the Old Testament. Medieval Europe was decimated by the Bubonic Plague. The Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 is estimated to have killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. In more recent years we have seen the advent of AIDS, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Swine Flu, and now COVID-19. Each of these diseases has inflicted terrible suffering on humans, but eventually they passed. COVID-19 will pass too.
Jesus describes the calamities of human history as “the beginning of the birth pangs.” This is an interesting and hopeful image. We all know that childbirth is painful, but in the end, it yields a wonderful newborn baby.
I liked what once commentator wrote, “The image of birth pangs is a common biblical metaphor for speaking of the suffering that will be experienced before the end of time. I tis ultimately a hopeful image, as it expresses a finality and purpose to the pain. The anguish will ultimately give way to new life, to a new creation.”
God has the power to make all things work together for good, even pestilences. Some things are terrible, but God can take even the worst and fold it into his ultimate plan.
We are living through a terrible time, but God can bring good things out of bad things. That may not be that reassuring now. When a woman is delivering a baby, it is hard to comfort her. She is focused on the pain and the irresistible impulse to push the child out, but in the end the child arrives and then she is filled with joy. We are living through the birth pangs of human history, but God will ultimately deliver a new creation that is free from wars, earthquakes, famines, and pandemics. “Joy cometh in the morning.” We long for the dawning of that new day.
In the verses we omitted, Jesus prepares the disciples for the persecution they will face. Beginning in verse 24, Jesus begins to teach the disciples about the distant future, “the Good News of the End of the World.”
There will be unambiguous cosmic signs that will precede the end of the present evil age. Jesus tells them, ““But in those days, after that suffering, 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 (vs. 24-25).” After these things happen Jesus will come with angel legions to gather up his chosen people. “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 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 (vs. 26).”
These are fantastic predictions have led to wild speculation or to indifference. Speaking of Mark 13, on commentator wrote, “It figures prominently in books by doomsayers and in sermons by evangelists more interested in the next world than in this one. On the other hand, the chapter is largely ignored by pragmatists, activists, and believers in progress, and all who dismiss preoccupation with the end of the world as a juvenile state of human development or an aberration of unbalanced minds.”
Neither of these extremes is what Jesus intended for the apostles or for us to glean from his words. Jesus wanted to and want to reassure us. He wants us to know that he is near, at the very gates.
No one knows the day or the hour when Jesu will return, not the angels in heaven or even the Son himself; only the Father knows. But what is certain is that Jesus will come again, and when he does, he will vanquish all that has the power to hurt or destroy. until that day comes, God’s sovereignty will be constantly challenged by evil and by the hubris of human beings.
Still, the return of the Son of Man is the great hope of the world. One commentator wrote, “From now one, for Christians, the coming of the Son of Man in glory replaces the Temple (and we might add any religious building or institution) as the focus of hope for the full realization of the Kingdom of God.”
Jesus truly is the hope of the world. The coming of the Son of Man in glory, that is the even that we must pin our hopes on. If there ever was a time to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus” it is the present moment.
But we must not think that we can wait idly for the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. The parable of the man who goes on a journey and leaves his slaves in charge of his affairs clearly tells us that we are to occupy until Jesus comes.
The slaves must have been acutely aware of the master’s absence, even as we are keenly aware of Jesus’ physical absence. they must have felt uneasy and a bit unsure of themselves, but the master left them in charge, each with his work to do.
The master would return, but unannounced. Therefore, each slave had to be a good steward of the tasks entrusted to him or her. They had to stay alert, keep awake, keep watch, be ready.
I liked what Dr. Lamar Williamsen wrote in his commentary on these verses. “Mark addresses disciples as those who are bereft of their master, fully in charge here, and responsible to be ready at any moment to give account of their stewardship when the master returns.” This must be our stance in the present moment of crisis and all the days of our lives.
It is not easy to do. It is easy to become so preoccupied with the present that we forget to expect our ultimate hope in the return of the Son of Man. It is easy to be so preoccupied with the worries of the moment that we forget to be good stewards of what God has given us to do. It is hard to stay awake.
Once commentator summarizes Mark 13 and the challenge to remain alert this way: “The chapter speaks to those who expect too much and those who expect too little. It is especially pertinent for those who have forgotten to expect anything at all.”
Brothers and sister, friends, we are living in very uncertain, anxious, and fearful times. We are wondering what the future holds. but know this: God holds the future.
What we are living through is not the end of the world. It is more like labor pains that promise to give birth to something new and wonderful. Only god has the power to do this, but God is more than able to do so.
In the present, we can be reassured that the Lord is near, even at the gates. We trust in our elected officials and medical experts. God has put them in charge and each one has his or her own work to do. but our ultimate hope for the future is built on the coming of the Son of Man with his holy angels, with the glory of his father, to gather us up into a new creation.
In the present, our master has left us in charge, if you will. Each one has his or her own work to do. So, let us be alert. Let us keep awake! Let us not be led astray. Let us be careful who we listen to.
This pandemic will pass. The weeks ahead may be very, very difficult. Many will become sick. Some will die. Our economy will suffer. but we will get through this together with God’s help.
God is still a God of mercy, a God who saves. Thanks be to god through our Lord Jesus Christ who will give us the victory. Amen.