Promises at the End
Text: Mark 13:1-13
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When it comes to bad things—disasters, pain, tragedy—it’s bad enough when they strike suddenly, without warning. But there’s always an added weight to these events when they don’t just hit out of the blue. They’re even worse when we anticipate them, building them up, knowing they’re coming. The child who’s misbehaving in public knows a double fear when his mother says, “Wait ‘til we get home,” or “Wait until your father gets home.” A sense of dread makes the situation twice as bad.
This often happens around this time of the Church year. As we enter the last couple weeks of the Church year, our mind moves toward the end things. Our readings focus on the events that take place before the return of Christ. We hear Jesus’ prediction of the signs of the end of the age. We hear about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, when no stone will be left upon another. We hear about false messiahs coming in Jesus’ name, saying, “I am he!” and leading many astray. We hear of wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, earthquakes, famines. We hear of Christians being dragged before religious and political leaders, standing trial for their faith, even families being splintered by betrayals of brother by brother and parents by children.
This is all intimidating. We’re not really wired for standing up under things like these in our own soft era of world history. Only the tiniest fraction of our population can even remember going on rations or just going without something. Most of our wars are fought on the other side of the planet, out of sight, not covered by the news, so that it really isn’t on our radar. We live in a time and place here in our nation where any persecution is what’s often called “soft persecution”; not the deadly arrest, imprisonment, and death sentence that Christianity has carried with it in other times and places, and in point of fact, in other parts of the world today.
So for many of us, thinking of these things—wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, societal struggle, pain, death—there’s a steep added dose of fear and anxiety. We fear chaos, disruption of our everyday life we’ve grown accustomed to. We fear destruction, whether it’s destruction of things or plans. We fear pain, unaccustomed to it in our technologically advanced era of ease. We fear persecution, whether it’s physically suffering for the sake of our faith, or the form it takes in soft persecution, simply being on the outside looking in. And we’re most certainly afraid of death, obsessing over it as we do. If you don’t think that we’re culturally obsessed with death, I’d invite you to see how Halloween has become a month-long celebration of death with its morbid decorations held out for everyone to see. Look at how our discourse changed and was shaped completely by death for almost two years now. We’re obsessed with these things—pain, fear, death—while we also quietly sweep it into hospitals, out of view, so that we don’t have to even look at it or acknowledge the reality of what we fear so deeply.
It’s understandable. These are all powerful forces that we know we can’t defeat. We also know that they’re coming, which, as we’ve noticed, adds to the fear. Experience tells us that everything eventually falls into entropy and chaos, everything breaks down, everything and everyone eventually dies. And as if our experience with these things wasn’t enough, we have those predictions from Jesus in our reading from Mark today. “Do you see these great building? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down…nation will rise against nation…there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines…they will deliver you over before governors and kings for my sake…and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”
Knowing that those things are coming can give even the bravest heart an overwhelming sense of anxiety. And that’s what we would expect. But when we look at the life of the Church on earth in the two thousand years since Jesus spoke those prophecies, we see a different picture. We had All Saints Day last week. And yes, we do see the saints mourn and plead and pray. We see the suffering of the Church and individuals in this world when the fight is fierce and the warfare long. Yet the example of the saints and martyrs has never been one of trembling fear. Last Lent, only a few months ago, on Wednesday evenings we heard about the examples of the saints and martyrs who did God’s work, even in the face of challenges and hostility, but who moved forward with courage and dedication. A couple years before during our Wednesday evening Advent services (which you should already be making plans to start attending in a couple weeks here), we talked about the saints who, even though they faced difficulties, moved forward with the confidence that the Lord would work out all things for their good, even if they couldn’t see the end of the road.
How did they do this? Remember as we discussed last Sunday for All Saints Day that the saints were people like us. They had emotions, they were broken and poor in spirit and unsatisfied with their own righteousness. So how did they move through the valley of the shadow of death with such confidence, with courage and resolve? How did they hear the words of Jesus in our reading about the breaking of the world and still follow Him in the path He walked to the cross?
It’s not just an attitude they adopted. It’s not a superpower they possess. Rather, it’s something they were given. And we’ve been given it too, if we only have ears to hear. Very often, when we hear about the end times, our mind is so swept away by the predictions of bad things that we don’t even catch the promises that are offered right alongside them. There is the fear of chaos, but even when we know that everything we see will be swept away, what does Jesus say? “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” What did the prophet Daniel tell us? That the even when nation rises against and nation, that these things, kingdoms and nations, are not the end-all-be-all. There’s something more: “There will be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time, your people will be delivered.” And yes, there might be persecution, but hear the words of Jesus when we face that persecution: “Do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” And even if we face pain and death in the end times, we have the greatest promise of all, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake…to everlasting life.” This is sealed by Jesus’ own resurrection after His persecution, pain, and death—His resurrection joyfully shared with us through faith in all that He did to defeat these things for us.
So yes, it’s intimidating to see what’s lying in the end times. But for those who have ears to hear, the promises Jesus gives are even greater than the dangers. There’s nothing we fear, there’s nothing that the world or hell can throw at us that He can’t overcome. He already overcame it all.
And that brings us to the last question that always comes up this time of the Church year. When will these things be? It’s the question the disciples asked. And to you it has been given to see with full clarity when they’ll happen. The answer is that they’re already happening. You’re already in the thick of it. You’re already in the end times. Go back and search the prophecies Jesus gives for what will mark the end times. The sun being blotted out, darkness, nations and kingdoms fighting and bickering, earthquakes. All of those things happened at His cross. It was dark for three hours as He hung on the cross. Israel and Rome fought and squabbled over what to do with this Messiah and King. When Jesus died, an earthquake shook the foundations of the world and the curtain in the old temple—soon to be destroyed—was torn in two, because the new temple and curtain of Jesus’ flesh had taken its place forever, as our reading in Hebrews tells us today. The end times began with His cross and we’ve been living in them ever since.
And hopefully that takes some of the fear out of it for you. You don’t have to anxiously wait for these things to spring on you. You’ve already been living and surviving through it all along. And that means that all those promises that Christ gave are also already happening. He’s already preparing you for the greater, eternal things just over the horizon. He’s already serving as your High Priest, praying for you, bringing you God’s gifts. He’s already giving you the words to say when you’re asked questions, words from Scripture, from the liturgy in our services here, from the Creed. He’s already defeating your pain and death, marking you for eternal life in Baptism, refreshing that life as you remember that you’re His baptized child; nourishing that eternal life in His Holy Supper.
The end times—and the fulfillment of Jesus’ great promises—are not something that’s coming down the road. His fulfillment is already here. And so we endure, certain of His victory, comforted in His promises, rejoicing in the gifts He’s already distributing. In the name of Jesus, who will return. Amen.