Look Up!

Reading: Mark 13.1-13

San Francisco is built on part of the San Andreas Fault. Back in April 1906, the city suffered a major earthquake during which about 700 people died. The resulting three-day fire destroyed the heart of the city.

In the years since then experts have been taking careful measurements of the stresses in the earth's tectonic plates. Movement along the fault averages a few centimetres a year, but the movement isn't constant and enormous pressures build up. The experts could foresee tremors and earthquakes coming, but predicted that in one giant catastrophe huge forces would be released with devastating results for the city and its surroundings.

When a major earthquake hit the city in October 1989, there was great devastation. Seismologists were asking, "Is this the big one?" Buildings fell down, a bridge and a freeway collapsed, people were killed… yet the 1906 earthquake was thirty times more powerful than the 'quake of 1989. So it wasn't "the big one" - just a warning of something even more terrifying still to come.

Suffering and Faith

Have you noticed that we seem to expect that grim signs point forward to "something worse" - something more appalling than ever? Yet in God's way of doing things, it is not always so. And for people of faith, it is never so.

The painful labour of childbirth leads to the birth of a new human being. And that is a pattern of all human life. All the time, someone has to accept the pain, the hard work, the inconvenience, the disappointments, the setbacks, the danger… so that life can go on.

In Hebrews 12.2 we read, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."

So this same principle operates directly in God's saving acts. Jesus didn't enjoy the cross one bit. It was both painful and shameful. The "joy set before him" wasn't the joy of resurrection. That would be as if I said to you, "Come over here and let me poke a pin in your arm for five minutes so that, when I take it out, you will experience the joy of being unpinned!" No, it was the joy of opening the way of salvation for all who would believe - part of that joy was for you and for me! Jesus accepted the pain of the cross for the joy of opening the way of salvation for us!

Listen to what James wrote, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (1.2-4). It seems that trouble of some sort is normal for our human lives. But for those who believe, there is direction to it - it is going places!

Reflect on the positive affirmation of Paul in Romans 8.28, "… we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." Paul doesn't say that everything that happens to us is going to look good, feel good or even, in the immediate, be good. What he is saying is that, in every circumstance of our life, no matter what it may be, God is at work for our good. And that's quite a different matter!

Of course, any of us can feel that this is perfectly true for other Christians, but that for us there is a sizeable (and legitimate) block to such faith. But think it through in the circumstances of Paul's life. He could write, "Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers…" (2 Cor. 11.24-26). How many of us, after being flogged and thrown in jail with our feet held firm in great blocks of wood, would have been praying and singing praises to God (Acts 16.23-25)? What must it have felt for Paul unjustly held in jail at Caesarea for two years while the local judge hoped for a bribe (Acts 24.26-27)?

This is the same Paul who wrote to the Thessalonian Christians, "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5.16-18). Notice that nothing is excluded - "always," "continually," "in all circumstances".

Destruction of the Temple

Jesus was leaving the Temple area with his group of disciples when one of them said, "Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!" (Mk 13.1). Here was something that represented fine human achievement - worthwhile and lasting, beautifully magnificent and created for the worship of the Lord!

The Jerusalem temple (not fully completed until about 64AD) was built by the Herodian dynasty to win Jewish favor and to create a lasting Herodian monument. It was considered an architectural wonder of the ancient world. It was built with large white stones, polished and generously decorated with gold. Here is part of the description given by Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, "The temple had doors also at the entrance, and lintels over them, of the same height with the temple itself. They were adorned with embroidered veils, with their flowers of purple, and pillars interwoven; and over these, but under the crown-work, was spread out a golden vine, with its branches hanging down from a great height, the largeness and fine workmanship of which was a surprising sight to the spectators, to see what vast materials there were, and with what great skill the workmanship was done. He also encompassed the entire temple with very large cloisters, contriving them to be in a due proportion thereto; and he laid out larger sums of money upon them than had been done before him, till it seemed that no one else had so greatly adorned the temple as he had done" (Antiquities of the Jews 15. 11. 3). It covered about a sixth of the land area of old Jerusalem. To the Jews nothing was as magnificent as their Temple.

Wow! What a sight! But Jesus answered, "Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down" (v. 2). As a recent writer has said, "The largest and grandest of the Jerusalem temples was also the shortest lived. The Roman siege of Jerusalem had the Temple as its focus, and Titus and his legions set fire to the edifice in 70AD. Today, the Moslem shrine called the 'Dome of the Rock' or the Mosque of Omar stands on the Temple site."

Their interest is definitely stirred. In Matthew's account, they ask, "Tell us, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" (Mt. 24.3). It was a question about the destruction of the Temple and about the second coming and the end of the age. A single question for them, but in fact double-header, one event being immiment and the other in the more distant future. That's why we have some difficulties unravelling the two aspects in Jesus' answer! Of course, close to their thinking was the conviction that they had specially reserved places in the Kingdom - a smooth transition to glory!

There would be deceivers claiming to be the Christ. There would be wars and rumours of wars. There would be earthquakes and famines. "Such things must happen, but the end is still to come… These are the beginning of birth pains" (Mk 13.7,8).

But don't let yourself be distracted by these things from the tasks I am giving you - "You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them" (v. 9). I take this to mean, not that they were to be careful or they might suffer for their faith, but that they were to be on their guard against deception and distraction. Their suffering would be part of the grand task of telling the Good News!

"And the gospel must first be preached to all nations" (v. 10). Jesus doesn't promise them a warm reception, or that everyone will respond positively to the message. Yet the opportunity for all to hear and respond is a necessary pre-condition for the coming of the end.

Jesus tells them that when they are arrested and taken to court, they won't have to worry because the Holy Spirit will give them the words to speak (v. 11). Preachers note! This is not about the regular preaching of the Word. Those who regularly spend time reflecting deeply on the Word and the issues of their faith will be more receptive to what the Holy Spirit wants them to say in the emergency situation!

"All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved" (v. 13b). It is, of course, God who saves us. Sometimes we think we don't have a strong enough faith to hold on to God, but in reality faith is allowing him to hold us - no matter what seems to be happening! He will hold us when we don't feel strong enough to hold on to him.

For Today…

We look around us at a society which has made brilliant advances in some areas, but in others seems headed for destruction. Look up with expectation! Trust God and keep doing what he has given you to do! The end hasn't come yet! The Good News has to get out to all peoples so that as many as possible will be saved.

He hasn't promised that our society or civilisation will be saved - or that our greatest personal achievements will be rescued. The promise is that, whatever may happen now, he is still in control.

We can know his presence and help now and will share in the glory of his Kingdom forever! Hallelujah!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill and Ayr Uniting Churches, 19 November 2000
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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