When I saw that the gospel reading for this morning when I would be preaching for you was the beginning of this chapter of Mark, I had one of those moments when God made me stop in my tracks. It was one of those moments when things seem to fit into place and a little part of me knew my placement with you would be something special. Not so much because of the content of this passage but because I journeyed with this passage during Lent this year.
Just before I was filling in a form to help chose where my placement church would be I was part of a parish challenge which our vicar organised. She challenged members of the congregation to learn, by heart, a chapter of Mark’s Gospel for “performance” on two Sunday evening in the run up to Easter. So 16 members of the church, me included set about trying to learn a chapter and I was given chapter 13. This meant that I focussed far more on this particular passage than I might ever have done otherwise as it’s not really one of my favourite passages.
It wouldn’t have been my first choice to be thinking about the end of the world. I might have preferred some stories of healing or a familiar parable. Not many of us would be naturally inclined to pick this passage or any of the others which talk about the end of the world but I know some of the church have been looking at this kind of passage in the series of evenings looking at Heaven. The evenings have been focussed on things we rarely talk or think about, angels, heaven and hell, funerals and death.
Of course our outlook on this kind of thing is not so different from the disciples. I don’t suspect that the awestruck disciple who points out to Jesus the grandeur of the temple was thinking it would prompt Jesus to begin a speech about the end of days. How shocking it must have been to this disciple who stared in wonder at the great stones that made up the temple which was so central to their life and faith then to hear Jesus say that it would all be torn down. All that was familiar would be destroyed and then he goes on to talk about the challenges that they would all face:
"When you hear of wars and rumours 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. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”Indeed the disciples were clearly so disturbed and shocked by Jesus’ comment on the temple that later when they are sat on the Mount of Olives looking down at the temple they privately ask Jesus for more information and of course the reality of the destruction would have been all to clear for those reading the gospel at the time of its composition. After four years of the Judean revolution the Roman generals Vespasian and Titus finally put down the rebels in AD 70 and destroyed the Jewish temple mentioned in the story.
We might be inclined to focus on the positive stories of the kingdom not the ones about the end or the difficult times but Jesus isn’t shy about talking about it so I don’t think we should be. Our first reading shows us that the sorts of things Jesus is talking about were not new but deeply rooted in Jewish tradition:
“There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.”And I think a word which Jesus uses towards the end of the passage gives us some insight into how we can approach passages such as this one. Jesus describes all these things as just “the beginning of the birthpangs.”
These things are like the great pains (so I’m told) that women go through before the birth of a child. Jesus is telling us that there will be terrible trials but that, coming through these trials, as a result something will be born which is worth all the trials. The coming of the Kingdom – that season which we celebrate as a church at the moment. I’m sure many of us have been through things which were (or may be still are) terribly painful yet which we know have also brought us things which we could never have experienced otherwise. I know for myself that ten years ago when my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer our family went through a really tough time. Yet for me it made me realise how much life should be valued and that time should not be wasted and in many ways it was that tough time which triggered me in to working for the church and exploring my vocation.
Over the time I’ve been on placement with you I’ve spoken with some of you about some of the trials and joys which life has brought you and I’ve also been joyed to see how strong the faith of many of you is well we might say in spite of trials but I think it’s better to say because of these trials. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes:
"Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." Romans 15:4-13And I think the passage we had in our Gospel today is such a passage. A reminder that endurance and encouragement of the scriptures such as this in our own lives we can still have – and perhaps because of have even more - hope. And hope in Jesus who is somehow more approachable as we know Jesus experienced much that we experience and many things beyond the trials we ourselves endure. As Paul says earlier in the same letter:
“ we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5.1-11And it’s not just in our own individual lives. Our world sometimes focuses too much on the individual and not on the communal. For Jesus was speaking not on a personal scale but on a global one. He doesn’t talk about individual hunger but about famine, he doesn’t speak about family conflict but about war of nations not of individual against individual but of kingdom against kingdom. The kingdom of the world against the kingdom of God perhaps?
What do we mean by that idea of kingdom? A different way of living? A different way of viewing others? People often wonder what this Kingdom of God would be like. A wise man suggested to me last week that we can imagine what the kingdom would be like. What if when you went to sleep tonight the Kingdom of God became real on earth – when you wake up tomorrow how would you know? What would be different?
Christians objecting to how things are done in this world can cause conflict. Objecting to the way big business abuses those who work for them by paying them below a living wage. Objecting to the way governments around the world oppress minority groups because of their faith, ethnicity or gender causes conflict between Christians and non Christians these are but the beginning of the birth pangs. To see the kingdom on earth will take a radical overturning of the way the world is run as dramatic as the overturning of the temple Jesus talked about. Yet it may not all happen in one big dramatic way. We pray all the time in the Lord ’s Prayer "your kingdom come" and of course it is God who brings in the kingdom but God also asks us to do our part in overturning the world to make it more like the kingdom. As the great Desmond Tutu once said
Do your little bit of good where you are; its those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”What are your little bits of good to do this week?
Where will you be challenging the worldly view and bringing in the kingdom?
“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.” Then I, Daniel, looked, and two others appeared, one standing on this bank of the stream and one on the other. One of them said to the man clothed in linen, who was upstream, “How long shall it be until the end of these wonders?” The man clothed in linen, who was upstream, raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven. And I heard him swear by the one who lives forever that it would be for a time, two times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end, all these things would be accomplished. I heard but could not understand; so I said, “My lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be purified, cleansed, and refined, but the wicked shall continue to act wickedly. None of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand. From the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that desolates is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred ninety days. Happy are those who persevere and attain the thousand three hundred thirty-five days. But you, go your way, and rest; you shall rise for your reward at the end of the days.”
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours 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. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
Sermon Summary Notes
A) Initial reaction to reading – Mark 13 Lent challenge
B) Not my usual choice – or anyone’s: end of time, death, funerals link to “Heaven”
C) Shock of disciples at the time – temple – ask him for more details; Temple AD70
D) Jesus not shy about it; part of Hebrew Scriptures tradition
E) Birthpangs; of the kingdom (season); trials leading to good things; personal experiences; F) Paul on endurance
G) Not simply personal but global; what is the kingdom? Christians vs world birthpangs;
H) Personal challenge to little pieces of good