Signs of the Times? (A Sermon)

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Mark 13:1-8

1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" 2 Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!' and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

              Friday night, in a series of coordinated attacks, terrorists (reportedly a part of the group referred to as ISIS) killed 129 people and injured many others across the city of Paris, France. That same evening, back-to-back earthquakes shook the earth off the coast of Japan: the first was a magnitude 7 quake, followed quickly by a 6.5 magnitude quake. There were tsunami warnings issued for the coastal cities of Japan. The night before, in Beirut, Lebanon, 43 people were killed and 239 were wounded by a suicide bomber. In the Middle East, the Syrian Civil War rages on, a conflict that began with the Arab Spring of 2011 and has given birth to terrorist groups like ISIS (or ISIL); this war is also one of the leading causes of the European Migrant Crisis, forcing thousands of people to seek asylum in countries across Europe.

            There have been countless other wars, battles, and conflicts that have ravaged people groups across the globe in recent years, like the civil war that took place in Sudan for twenty-two years (1983-2005) that left two million people dead as a result of battle, famine, or disease, while at least four million people were displaced during the war at least once. In Gaza, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict continues, a struggle that has been ongoing since 1948. Are these signs of the end times?

There have also been enormous natural disasters in recent years, like the tsunami of 2004 that struck in the Indian Ocean killing hundreds of thousands of people, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010, the tornadoes that ripped through this part of the country in 2011, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and the many other hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, eruptions, and storms that have caused enormous damage and taken so many lives all over the world. This year has seen a record drought out west, in California, causing local governments to limit water usage, and local citizens (especially farmers) to pray for a solution and an end to such a threatening lack of rain. Are these signs of the end?

            Then there are those other, naturally-occurring phenomena that have taken place in recent years, events with names like “super moons,” or “blood moons,” or “super blood moons,” comets that make an appearance once a generation or so, constellations or planets that happen to line up with other constellations or planets in the night sky. Are these signs that the end is near?

            Then there are all of those things that have happened that cause unrest and discomfort for so many, those socio-political happenings that cause some folks to pray that the end would come, things like the issuing of social security numbers, barcodes on candy bars, rock-and-roll music, rap music, boy-band music, Justin Bieber, the Great Recession, the legalization of same-sex marriage, marijuana, gambling, and liquor sales on Sundays. Are all of these things signs of the end of the age too?

            What is it about us that makes us so fixated on all things eschatological? Why is it that so many of us seem to devote all of our religious energy on those things that have yet to take place, those final things, those things that are supposed to point us towards the end times? It seems to me that so many people are so infatuated with talking about and looking for the end times that they honestly think they’re the first ones to ever try to predict the end of the world! Yes, every generation there have been those so-called preachers who stand in their pulpits and claim, “The Lord will return in my lifetime!” and so far, every single one of them has wound up dead! Really though, why are we so enamored by the end? It isn’t something new, something that’s just come along in the last century or so. In fact, it seems from this passage before us this morning, that right from the beginning, when Jesus himself even hints at things concerning the end, the disciples’ ears perk up and they begin to ask questions.

            As the disciples left the temple, they were caught up in its grandeur, in the polished marble, the glittering gold, the overwhelming size and importance of the place, and so they commented to Jesus, “ what large stones and what large buildings!" They sound like children on their first trip to the hospital, having just ridden the elevator to the fifteenth floor. The temple at that time truly was a site to behold, and for the Jews who worshipped there, it was a wonderful testimony to the God they served and the religion to which they belonged. The disciples (good Jews that they were) marveled at the magnificent structure, a building that looked as if it would stand in the center of that holy city forever, but Jesus says to them (as he too is leaving the temple complex), "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

            That’s a pretty big statement to make! This is before the days of easily used explosives, before cranes equipped with wrecking balls, so to say such an enormous structure would be razed to the ground, without a single stone stacked on top of another, is, crazy talk, especially when one considers that this is the house of God! But the disciples aren’t really surprised by Jesus’ predictions, after all, the temple had been destroyed once before, some five or six centuries before by the Babylonians, so the practicality of the temple’s destruction was not beyond their imagination. However, what does interest them, is when all of this is going to take place: "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" When is this going to happen, Jesus? We want to know, so we can be prepared, so we can mark it on our calendars on the refrigerator, set reminders on our smartphones, cancel our Netflix subscriptions, and have our bags packed, our guns loaded, and our swords sharpened. When is it going to happen?! What should we look for? How will we know?

That’s what the disciples ask…that’s what we ask. But then Jesus answers: "Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!' and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” Right off the bat, Jesus gives them a warning: “Don’t let anyone fool you. Many will come saying “I am (he)” and they will fool a lot of folks.” I think another way of hearing what Jesus said may be: “Don’t be fooled, because there will be a lot of people coming around saying they have it all figured out, and they’ll fool others.” I suppose that’s why I’m more than just a little hesitant when I hear some preachers say they know what the end will look like, or when they say they can predict the day it will happen, or what events will take place leading up to the end. I often wonder how much time and energy they spent trying to pinpoint a day in the future when there are things to be done today in the present?

Now, after his warning, Jesus gives them a list of signs, right? “wars and rumors of wars…nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… earthquakes…famines” All of these things sound awful and terrible: wars and the terrible conflict that they bring, the violence, bloodshed, death, and destruction, even if the result of war is compromise, liberation, or justice, the price that is paid is always a high one; when nations and kingdoms rise up against each other, it is rarely for the sake of justice, but too often for the sake of financial gain or the pursuit of imperial conquest; and anyone who has watched the news in recent years ought to know the kind of devastation that can be caused by earthquakes and the heartbreaking images of famine. But these are all given as signs, signs of what to expect, signs of what will lead up to the end, right? So when we see these things, does that mean the end is at hand? Does it mean we should brace ourselves for what’s coming? When we witness these signs, should we stop what we’re doing and prepare ourselves for some terrible, destructive ending? Or is there more to all of it?

It’s that last sentence of our text this morning that ought to give us some guidance: “ This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” These signs, these things you will witness, these are only the beginning, the beginning of that which will give birth to the kingdom of God in its fullness, the kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.” But you see, that’s the problem with only looking for the signs—we fail to be about the work we’ve actually been called to do, the work of bringing God’s kingdom to reality.

Sadly, too many Christians are like those first disciples in this text: they only get excited about the end. They’re only interested in how things will go down once the signs they’ve been looking for take place. Too many Christians seem to have a vested interest in watching the world get worse rather than striving to make it better—as Christ has called us to do! It seems that there are a number of believers who are betting all their chips on the end happening in their lifetimes, so they disregard the health of our planet; they cast off the importance of providing long-term solutions to present problems; they ignore those who are most vulnerable in our world, those who are victims of injustice, violence, and hatred and I’ve even heard them say “Well, the end is coming soon, so they won’t have to suffer too long!”

Jesus has not called us to be sign-seekers! Christ has not died so we may only look forward to an end! The Lord calls us to be people who live everyday knowing that it just might be the end for someone else if we don’t act! Christ calls us to be people who look for signs of destruction, signs of oppression, signs of evil, signs of sin now—not so we can predict what’s coming, but so we may act to rid the world of those things today, so that we may be agents of God’s coming kingdom, so that we may act as midwives, helping to ease the birth pangs until the kingdom is born whole and complete into this world. Amen.