It is the end of the church year. Two Sunday’s hence, the start of Advent, is the church new year. And in the last two Sundays the texts turn to last things. In the year of Matthew you get the parables. In the year of Mark you get Jesus’ sermon itself from Mark 13. Which means it is the perfect time to preach the doctrine of the 2nd coming. There probably isn’t a more misunderstood doctrine with worse effects on Christian life than the 2nd coming. And the text itself isn’t easy to comprehend as there are at least 5 threads running through it, some of them very Jewish, others off in the future. What this sermon does is point out the two ditches that we often get stuck in when contemplating the 2nd Coming and why they are ditches. We shouldn’t necessarily feel back about these, because they are perennial. They are what the disciples wanted to turn towards. The second part of the sermon listens to Jesus’ answer to those disciples as they tried to steer him into the ditch. Jesus this week explains what it means for a Christian to watch or “be on your guard”. Once you are “on guard”, then next week he turns to some actual answers that we can hear about those last things.
This sermon is a meditation on how and what we assign meaning to. Luther in assigning meaning to the first commandment said whatever we fear, love and trust the most is our God. We all have “wonderful stones”, things we have assigned meaning, things we expect to last, that have or are often in danger of becoming our idols. We trust those stones more than anything else. Jesus’ words to all such stones – even ones that once contained the glory of the living God – is that they must come down.
For me the strongest competition to the cornerstone of Jesus Christ might be labeled an anti-stone. We’ve learned the lesson that all such temples made with hands come down. But what we then trust most is absurdity. It is a fool’s game fearing, loving or trusting anything. So we trust nothing. That likewise is a false path. Jesus says “watch lest someone lead you astray.”
But living based on trust – based on faith in Christ – in the middle of a world that is hostile to such a life is not an easy walk. As our opening hymn, the hymn I left in the recording at the end puts it, “I Walk in Danger all the Way“. The Apocalyptic accounts remind us who has it all in his hands. Yes, we walk in danger all the way, but our walk is also heavenward all the way. And along that walk we have help – like the Angel Michael from the OT lesson. We also have the examples of our Lord and the great cloud of witnesses. The Christian life is not the easy one. It is an examined life for wonderful stones that have become idols. It is assailed by temptations of shelter that are not. But it is a true life. The one who perseveres will be saved.
This is part one of what is variously called the Olivet discourse, the Mark Apocalypse or the end times discourse. The Olivet Discourse is so named because of its location on top of the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple. That is actually the name I prefer because I think the other two get things wrong from the start.
There is a way that Mark 13 is about the last days, but it not an easy direct application. Most of Mark 13 I think is talking about the run up to AD 70 and the destruction of the Temple. Jesus condemns the temple, what eventually serves as part of his conviction by the Sanhedrin, and the disciples ask when and what are the signs. Jesus tells them. Within this generation and a fairly detailed amount of signs. But after that, Jesus seems to know that we couldn’t resist attempting to find out the last day, so he says “about that day, no one knows, only the Father.” So Mark 13, for us, is not a step by step countdown. No one knows.
But there is a way it is not a dead letter. The temple was about the end of the old order. The temple specifically was about the sacrificial system. After the crucifixion there is no need of sacrifice. The cross of Christ is the only necessary sacrifice. The old order was over and its symbol the temple came down. But not all of the old order was brought to completion. This fallen world chugs along. Jesus doesn’t answer the when question to that, but much of what he says about the signs of the end of the temple also apply to the world. What are the signs? False prophets, political turmoil and persecution. These are the signs of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.
And what Jesus counsels is a watchful hope. We know we have won, because he won. Jesus lives. All who endure to the end will be saved. That is our sure hope. Watchful because we know this world hates us. It is dying and we have life. We are on our guard lest it manage to steal that hope from us. We live in that tension as witnesses to the hope.
Musical Note: I have left in our Hymn of the Day, Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers Lutheran Service Book 515. It is a pretty tune absent the often minor and melancholy of other End Times type hymns. The last couple of stanzas carry the watchful hope that I desired to preach about. The of the start of the fourth stanza: Out Hope and Expectations, O Jesus now appear.
Eschatology or Last Things circles back around to first things, the alpha meets the omega. And right at the base if first things is identity – who or what do you see yourself as? Do you emerge from a random universe, a brief flowering of dust that will go back to dust having done nothing other than move some dust around? Are you unknowing about such things, better to eat, drink and be merry. Or are you the special creation of a personal God who knew you before you were formed? Who you think you are will have a big influence on where you think you are going.
But being sinful creatures, even if we mentally have our first things in line with truth, we are often drawn to temporal replacements for that identity – the temples of this world. They are big and impressive and often cohesive and can be good, but not even the temples are a first thing. If they obscure our identity as a Child of God, its got to go. We so easily latch on to created things to build our identity. Jesus’ warnings, and the roiling turmoil of the birth pains, are reminders to watch. To remember whose we are. And to remember whose promises we can trust.
The struggles of the last things are a sharing in the sufferings of Christ – The First Thing. God did not choose works or any other means to save us, but he chose faith. A faith that the cross is actually the victory. That a death is actually the life. That God can be found in the depths just as surely as the heights. That God has shared everything that is common to man. Last Things are not so much a peering into the future, but an appeal to faith that the glory of God is concealed, is held, in the present tribulations. That God has not abandoned us, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. For we hold this eternal treasure in jars of clay.