A priest and pastor from two local churches were standing by the side of the road each holding up a sign that read, “The End is Near! Turn yourself around now before it’s too late!” They were not well received. As a driver sped by he yelled out of his window, “Leave us alone you religious nuts!” From around the curve they heard screeching tires and a big splash.
“Do you think,” said one clergy to the other, “we should just put up a sign that says ‘Bridge Out’ instead?”
I don’t know anyone who isn’t afraid of an end times scenario, and our society has cooked up enough of them. Nowadays there are less people walking around carrying placards and more people spreading their message on the Internet, but it’s still there. Some are religious and involve judgment and the fires of hell. Others are more on the sci-fi side of things and involve asteroids, global warming, thermonuclear disaster, aliens and the general destruction of everything we hold dear. Who wants this?! You have to be crazy to want this! But in the past century there has been so much apocalyptic floating around someone said we’re all becoming apocaholics.
When it comes to the words of Jesus we read this morning, we have to be careful not to read in ideas that are not there, ideas that we have acquired from all these other sources, and to understand what he says in context. Is he speaking about a cosmic end—or something more immediate—or both?
So—first the context: Jesus left the Temple after confronting once more the hypocrisy of those in leadership. As he was leaving the disciples commented in awed tones about the impressive nature of the Temple. And make no mistake about it, the Temple was impressive. Herod began construction around 20 B.C.E., and workers were still refining it 50 years later. It was finally finished in 63, and destroyed seven years after that. Only one wall, the Wailing Wall, properly walled the Western Wall, remains. It was not even part of the Temple, but rather just a small portion of an outer retaining wall. It’s is very useful having a section of the Western Wall left, however, because when we look at the size of the wall and of the stones in the wall and realize what a tiny part of the overall complex it was we begin to get some idea of the true enormity of the Temple. The whole area was huge, and the Temple itself was the height of a modern fifteen-story building. Archaeologists have uncovered stones weighing as much as 500 tons, and according to Josephus there were even larger stones at the base. It was constructed of white marble, which was then decorated with gold. It shone. The inside was adorned with gold, silver, crimson, purple, and finely polished cedar. Enormous columns supported the fifteen-story high ceiling. Humanly speaking, this was a truly awesome sight. Anyone would be impressed. But Jesus saw through the gold and the glory, to the corruption underneath, and he knew what was going to happen. He said, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
After leaving the Temple Jesus and four of his disciples went up to the Mount of Olives where they had a glorious overview of the Temple and the city. There the disciples asked him the when and what questions. “Tell us, when will these things happen?” they asked, “And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.” This is where our reading stops for today, but when you’re home if you read the rest of chapter 13, it gets worse!
Jesus names things that we usually interpret as signs of the end times—war, famine, and earthquakes, and then says, “but that’s not the end.” Just because we see cataclysmic events happening does NOT mean that the end is nigh. It means that we have a ways to go. Throughout history there have been devastating events, events so costly in terms of human life that those surviving thought that it must be the end of the world, and it was not. And certainly ridiculous things like Howard Camping’s projections based on numbers won’t make the world come to a screeching halt either. And remember all the fuss about the Mayan calendar and the panic about the year 2000? A date is a human creation. It has no eternal significance. All calendars are made by us. There are plenty of people out there ready to interpret political and world events as the fulfillment of Revelation, but not one of them has been right. The condition of the world, as turbulent as it is, is the normal state of affairs in a world that is essentially “in labor.”
Jesus doesn’t give the disciples a timeline. Instead he says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. (Mark 13: 32-33) A timeline is what every prophet of doom wants and creates. We must never make the mistake of believing a timeline. Wars, rumors of wars, international conflict, earthquake and famine will happen. They are the birth pangs of creation. But this is a very long labor, and no one can predict when the rebirth will take place, although many have tried.
Some of what Jesus said came true quickly. The Temple was destroyed. In the year 70, in response to a Jewish rebellion Vespasian was sent to quell the rebellion and restore order. He did so with brutal efficiency. The Romans surrounded the city and laid siege to it. The people starved. When the city finally fell, the survivors were then slaughtered. The Romans then destroyed the Temple by building large fires at the base of the Temple walls. The intense heat caused the foundation stones to crumble because the calcium carbonate in marble separates into carbon dioxide and lime when heated. The walls collapsed under their own weight into huge piles of stone. The stones were then leveled and carried away to be used in other building projects. All the gold and riches were taken to Rome. But interestingly, most of the Christians had seen what was coming before this catastrophe took place, and had left the city long before the siege began.
During Jesus’ time any prophecy regarding the destruction of Jerusalem or the temple would have been strongly opposed and promptly quenched by those in power. When he was accused and brought up before the Sanhedrin one of the charges laid against him was a deliberate misquote. The formal accusation against him was, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’ ” (14:58) Since we have just survived months of political advertising, we all know how potent misquoting a person or taking things out of context can be.
Jesus knew what was ahead of him. He was just days away from enduring the cross. He knew the type of persecution the disciples would face after that. But he did not tell them or us, “Have a nervous breakdown worrying about what might happen.” Instead he says, “Watch out that no one deceives you.” The world is in turmoil and the world has always been in turmoil. It will continue that way until the end. Our job is to stay faithful and alert, and watch that we are not deceived. And who is there to deceive us? False leaders. Messiahs come in all shapes and sizes.
There were many alleged Messiahs who came after Jesus. One, Bar Kokhba, led to the total destruction of Jerusalem and the driving out of all surviving Jews from the city. The ramifications of this catastrophe are still felt to this day. But a Messiah is simply a way of saying “God’s anointed” or “chosen” one. The concept of the divine right of kings gave them “Messiah” like powers because no one could question them or their decisions. This powerful idea kept corrupt royal houses in power for centuries. Kim Jung-Un and his late father Kim Il-Sung have been venerated in the same way as gods, and North Korea has been described as the world’s largest cult. But America is not immune. We too idealize our leaders, although up to very recently we have managed to keep the secular and the religious separate. JFK was popular and his moral issues were ignored. Despite the lure of “Camelot,” however, no one actually worshipped him. Bill Clinton had charm, but no one claimed he had a God given right to abuse his power with Monica Lewinsky. The Obama’s are highly respected, and there may be some who put them on a pedestal, but everyone knows they are mere mortals. But there is actually a movie produced by Liberty University called “The Trump Prophecy,” that proclaims the current administration is divinely ordained and condemns its critics as servants of Satan. Now we’re in dangerous territory. This is crazy land. We have slipped from respect, to some insane form of worship, and the fact that this man whose moral standards are not remotely Christian should be the recipient of this false worship, is even more staggering. According to the theology put forward in this film to resist Trump is to resist God.
God says, pay attention–by their fruits you shall know them! Does this person lie? Cheat? Bully others? Are they sexually promiscuous? I hate to say it, but there are a lot of American presidents for whom the answer to these questions is yes. God says don’t be deceived. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (Lord Acton) Every single human being is a sinner. Only Jesus is the Messiah.
How else can we be led astray? Sometimes our “Messiahs” are ideas or corporations. We worship the idea of getting rich. We believe in owning stuff. Advertising tells us what to believe and what to desire. Facebook, Google and Amazon now hold enormous power in this nation and around the world. We can be led astray when we idealize sports figures, actors, singers and celebrities. For the life of me I cannot figure out why Graceland has been turned into a shrine. God calls us to be discerning and to see what is really there. Christians are often portrayed as gullible, but Christians should NOT be gullible. And when we are not led astray we stay on course. We stay faithful to God, and we are able to help others on the journey through life.
Many people around the world, including a large number of Americans, do live in fear. We suffer from “collapse anxiety”—the fear that civilization is about to implode and there is nothing we can do about it. But there are things we can do to improve our world and help one another, even if we’re not in a position to immediately solve global problems. We are encouraged to not be afraid of things that by rights any sane person would be afraid of. War, famine and earthquake are terrifying things, but they do not necessarily mean that the world is going to end tomorrow. They mean that we are to work for peace, feed the starving and rescue those trapped under the rubble. And while we are living in this world with all its turmoil Jesus urges us above all else not to be deceived by charismatic or powerful leaders. God wants us to stay on track, to do the next right thing, and to keep our eyes and ears open. The world may not always be a safe place, but God is. Amen.
12 “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. 2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.
13 As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
5 Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.