Do Not be Alarmed!

Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on November 15, 2009, the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost.  The gospel text is Mark 13:1-8.


Dear Friends in Christ,

End of the world thinking has been around for a long time.  Folks in every generation want to know: When will the end take place?  Will there be a great war or will an asteroid collide with the earth or will there be a great plague?

Hollywood is getting on the bandwagon this week.  I see that a TV. program is debuting this Tuesday, named 2012.  Have you heard of it?  You will.  The premise is that Nostradamus, back in the 16th century in France, predicted the end of the world.  He based his prediction on the ancient Mayan calendar that ends on December 21, 2012.  If we didn’t have our Congregation Council Meeting this Tuesday evening, I probably would be sitting there watching.

Our Bible contains writings that deal with the end times.  We call this “apocalyptic literature.”  The Old Testament Book of Daniel and the New Testament Book of the Revelation are the foremost apocalyptic books.  They contain fantastic images of beasts and battles and all consuming fire and earthquakes and plagues and darkness.  Through the ages some religious leaders have done their best to convince their flocks that you can read such literature and discern what it is saying about when and how the end of the world will come.

I’m reminded that in 1874, Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the sect that became Jehovah’s witnesses, concluded that the Second Coming had already taken place.  He declared that people had just 40 years to enter his faith or be destroyed.  That was to happen in the year 1914.  Perhaps this helps explain why Jehovah’s Witnesses no longer predict a year in which they expect the end of the world to take place…

In today’s gospel reading, we hear Jesus and the disciples speaking about the end times.  We have just 8 verses, but the whole 13th chapter of Mark has been called “The Little Apocalypse” by Bible scholars.  Before the day ends, you may want to read this whole chapter. 

Jesus and his disciples are walking away from the temple area.  This is Holy Week.  He has finished watching the widow put her two coins into the treasury (last week’s sermon).  Jesus points to the magnificent temple structures with their huge stones (some weighed 50 tons and the highest walls were 400 feet high).  He simply said: “Do you see all these stones?  Not one here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

A little while later, sitting on the Mount of Olives with just 4 of his disciples, he is asked by these disciples, “When will it happen?  What are the signs? “

You and I already know what they are really asking.  Apocalyptic thinking is all around.  One seminary professor termed apocalyptic literature as the science fiction movies of that day.  It was spectacular, it was imaginative, and everyone had an opinion on it. 

It seems that Jesus knew that within 40 years, the Romans would destroy the temple.  First by fire and then by removing the great stones, so that all is left today is the western wall, the “wailing wall.”  But you and I know that the end of the world did not occur in 70 A.D.  And this is precisely what Jesus  goes on to explain.

Lots of things are going to occur in your life.  You will experience wars and natural disasters.  These are not the end of the world.  Life will continue.  There will be folks who will pretend they know when the end is coming.  They don’t know.  All these occurrences are like the beginning of birth pangs. 

The rest of chapter 13 is Jesus’ “half-time pep-talk.”  He says his followers will have lots of challenges, but don’t give up.  The Lord is always in charge.  When will the end finally take place?   For this, we go to the end of chapter 13 and read Jesus’ words:  “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Jesus is doing something so naturally that we pastors have had to learn to do in our counseling.  “Don’t panic!” is the pastoral advice we often given to folks in the midst of crisis.  Some of you have been there.  You’re anxious.  We aren’t discounting the pain or minimizing the crisis.  We are just helping you see that perhaps your perceptions have exaggerated the crisis.  This is not the end.  You have options and often that is role of pastors, to point out those options.  In the case of the disciples, Jesus knows they are fearful and anxious for their future.  He reminds them that the Lord is in charge and that they need to trust in the God who loves them.

Mark Allen Powell has been giving us some fine lectures in his series “How Lutherans Understand the Bible.”  I really like the illustration he gives about apocalyptic literature and the Book of the Revelation.  He tells of getting on a bus and sitting near a hippy.  This young man had a Bible.  Mark decided to lean forward and ask, “Have you read that Book?”  The young man responded, “Well, not all of it.  But I did turn to the end, and I know how it ends.  We win!”

Yes, that simple answer is what I believe.  Push aside all the layers of apocalyptic literature and the bottom line is this: The Lord loves us eternally.  As St. Paul writes, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  Because we believe God and Jesus are one, we can dare to live in faith and hope and love now, trusting God for whatever the future holds, because we believe that God holds the future.