November 17, 2013 - Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost
This past Valentine’s
Day, the Canadian Parliament spent several minutes discussing Canada’s preparations for a zombie apocalypse. You can watch that discussion on a YouTube video. As
many viewers commented, sometimes you just gotta love Canada.
There was a real issue
behind the joking. Canadian emergency management officials had actually planned
to simulate a zombie apocalypse to create an impossible situation so emergency
responders would have to come up with solutions to problems they hadn’t foreseen.
But critics thought training for an attack of the living dead was silly and
wasteful. So they cancelled the zombie apocalypse and created a simulated flood
How do you simulate
the Apocalypse with a capital “A?” Jesus’ disciples had a question something
like that in mind near the beginning of our text for this Sunday. Jesus
prompted their question with His announcement at the temple, that “all will be
are often part of a natural disaster, whether it’s a flood, an earthquake, or a
typhoon like the one which swept over the Philippines. We expect small, poorly
built structures to fall under stresses they were never designed for. As we in America know all too well, it’s much more devastating to see a large magnificent public
building come tumbling down. That’s what Jesus said would happen in Jerusalem.
The temple in Jesus’
time was the product of a massive reconstruction project begun by Herod the
Great in 20 B.C. After the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians 550
years earlier, the returning exiles had rebuilt it. But it was smaller and
inferior to Solomon’s temple. Herod set out to correct that. He began work that
continued for over 80 years. The disciples were admiring a project that was
happening before their eyes, in their lifetimes. They saw massive stones at
least forty feet long and 12 feet high and sixteen feet deep. You can still see
some of those blocks at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. When the disciples viewed
them, they were freshly cut and a beautiful white color.
There were also all
sorts of tapestries, gold and bronze doors, and gold ornaments decorating
Herod’s temple. Overall the massive white stonework and the ornamentation made
a gleaming, magnificent spectacle. No wonder the disciples admired it. But
Jesus accurately predicted what no one imagined then. In just forty years it
would all be torn down. The Romans would come in 70 A.D. to crush a Jewish
rebellion, just seven years after the project was complete, and they would
level that gorgeous building to the ground.
So they asked the
natural question in verse 7, “When?” and “what will be the sign that this is
about to take place?” Behind those questions is the thought that if they knew
when it was coming, they could get ready for it, could be prepared. But Jesus’
reply in verse 8 takes them well beyond the Roman invasion. He wanted to warn
them that trying to be prepared for that disaster was as silly as preparing for
a zombie apocalypse. The real disaster, the real crisis was something bigger,
more challenging, and even less predictable. “When is this world going to end?”
is the larger question they might have asked.
However, it’s not
perfectly clear here just what time Jesus is talking about. You can find
interpreters who will tell you that everything Jesus has to say in our text and
on through verse 24 is about the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century.
It’s about events that are over and done with. That is pretty clearly true
about what comes right after our text, where Jesus is obviously talking about
the Roman devastation in verses 20 to 24.
It’s less clear in the
verses we read that it’s only about Jerusalem and the Romans. Those signs in
verse 10 of nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes,
famines, plagues, portents and great signs in heaven, seem like an overkill
description of what happened to the little region of Palestine in 70 A.D. and
just before. Jesus is blending a warning about a disaster that is near with
something bigger, a warning about being ready for disaster and persecution that
will extend beyond that local situation.
It’s plain when you
skip down to verse 27 in this chapter that Jesus is also trying to prepare His
disciples for the time of His return, both to ready them for the trials which
will precede it and to help them hold to the hope and redemption He will bring.
Some interpreters just want to split this chapter up. Verses 5 to 24 are about
the destruction of Jerusalem, while verses 25 to 36 are about the Second
Coming. But it’s more complicated than that.
Our text mixes the two
apocalypses, the little one caused by the Romans and the big one that will
happen when Jesus returns. It mixes them to help us see that spiritual work and
preparation for those times is for all the times in between as well. It’s not
just in the first century and the end times that there are natural disasters
calling for courage and compassion. It’s not just the Romans back then and the
anti-Christ someday who will persecute followers of Jesus. It’s happened for
all the centuries in between and it is still happening.
Look at the first
actual bit of preparedness advice that Jesus gives us in verse 8. “Beware you
are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and ‘The
time is near!’ Do not go after them.” Beware the imposters. Maybe more
importantly for us in our time and place, beware those claiming to know the
time is near.
I’ll venture the
opinion that Christians have actually done pretty well lately with that last
bit. For the past fifty years we’ve suffered any number of well-meaning but
misguided folks and would-be Bible scholars who’ve told us the end was just a
few years away. If you’re as old as I, then you remember Hal Lindsey. If you’re
younger you may remember or still come across all the “Left Behind” books and
movies and hoopla. But overall, most Christians have done pretty well in
disregarding all that, not going after those false predictions of Jesus coming
soon. Not too many of us have given away all our possessions and gone out to
stand on a hill looking up into the sky. I think Jesus is pleased about that.
The imposters still
crop up now and then. There’s an Australian and a Russian and a Korean and a
Brazilian all making some sort of claim or letting their followers claim that
they are the second coming of Christ. But most Christians are listening to the
real Jesus and ignoring those fakes. I say, well done!
Verse 9 has more
difficult counsel, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be
terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not
follow immediately.” That’s a good word for every century, every decade. It’s
more important for those times and places where war and conflict is completely
present, for places like Syria and Afghanistan and the Central African Republic. But we all need to remember it when violence rises up around us.
“Do not be terrified.”
It’s easy to mistake
our little local apocalypses for the big one, to focus in on the wars and
strife which touch our own lives. Jesus invites us into the bigger picture of
what God is doing in the world, into how His kingdom will ultimately come and
triumph over all the little bickering and warring governments of this planet.
In that picture, Christians have no need to be terrified. Our leader, our King
will not lose. Christians will not lose.
The same thing is true
for not only military conflicts but for all the natural disasters which come to
us. None of it, not an earthquake, not a hurricane, not a typhoon nor a flood
is the real end of the world. God is still with His people, watching over them,
protecting them, guiding our history toward its real goal, toward His kingdom.
We also don’t need to
be terrified of other collapses. If a war or an earthquake is not the end of
the world, neither is the failure of an economy or a health care system. Such
things are real disasters, but they are not the end of the world for
Christians. They ought not to terrify us.
Let’s also remember
and apply that “do not be terrified,” to all Christians around the world, not
just to our own relatively safe and comfortable existence here in the United States. Kay shared with you how we encourage poor and hungry Indian Christians with
our prayers and aid. There are thousands of Christians in Philippines waiting to see their brothers and sisters in Jesus pouring out His care and
Jesus confronts us with the deepest challenge that comes to us as believers in
any time. It’s not war. It’s not natural disaster. It’s not lack of medical
care. It’s plain old human sin and resistance to the truth and goodness of God.
It’s the persecution of Christians that we prayed together about last week.
Times are blended
again in verse 12. Arrest and persecution, betrayal and prison, and trials
before government officials was the experience of the disciples, of the
Christians of the first century. But it has been a Christian experience ever
since. It will be until Jesus comes back.
Verse 13 tells us the
purpose of the persecution, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.” God
uses the trials and struggles of His people to show the world the truth of
Jesus. That’s how Christianity began and that is how it continues today in Iran and in China and in Africa and everywhere else that faith is challenged. Over and over
Christian martyrs have suffered and in the process witnessed for Christ. That’s
what “martyr” means, a witness.
The strange thing is
that in verse 14 Jesus tells us to go into those times of trial and testimony
without preparing a defense. You would think the whole point of being warned
about these things is to prepare for them. Now He says not to prepare.
Beth and Trudy could
tell you about some Christian students who seem to have taken this verse to
heart when it comes to exams. They think the Holy Spirit will inspire them with
the right answers on the spot. No need to study. But Jesus was talking about
something completely different.
Remember our reading
from II Thessalonians 3. Paul has no patience with Christians who think they
don’t need to work because Jesus is coming back soon. Jesus didn’t teach us not
to prepare for disasters or not to study for exams or not to save for a rainy
day. Paul pictures a Christian community where everyone is working together,
working hard to prepare and help one another and contribute to those in need in
No, Jesus told us here
not to prepare a defense. When faced with opposition to our faith in
Jesus, we’re not to worry about how to escape punishment. Don’t work out some
careful legal strategy. Instead, trust God to speak the words He wants spoken.
Verse 15 promises that without any preparation those who testify for Jesus in
persecution will receive “words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will
be able to withstand or contradict.”
An official Roman
transcript tells of the trial of twelve African Christians in 180 A.D. The
governor tried to get them to convert back to Roman religion. Their spokesman
Speratus gave him simple and powerful answers. When asked to swear by the deity
of the emperor, Speratus said, “The empire of this world I know not; but rather
I serve that God, whom no man has seen… I have committed no theft; but if I
have bought anything I pay the tax; because I know my Lord, the King of kings
and Emperor of all nations.”
The governor asked
them to quit being Christians. One after the other they each refused, finally
agreeing with Speratus who simply said, “I am a Christian.” Then the governor
wanted to give them time to think it over, to consider. Speratus said, “In a
matter so straightforward, there is no considering.” The governor opened a
satchel where he found writings of Paul. Then he asked them again to take
thirty days and think over their beliefs. And Speratus just said again “I am a
Christian” and they all agreed with him.
So the governor
ordered their executions and the six martyrs all just said, “Thanks be to God.”
No defense, no escape plan, no brilliant argument for why they should be set
free. Just quiet, simple statement of their faith and acceptance of the
consequences. And their testimony has remained to be read for 1,800 years.
Jesus said it would be
like that. Christians would testify, would be given powerful words to state
their faith. But then verse 16, 17 say here that they would still be betrayed
and put to death, that they would be hated by everyone. There is no way to
prepare a defense for that kind of opposition. All one can do, all that our
Christian friends in North Korea and Egypt and Nigeria can do is rely on God
and what God gives them to say when the time comes.
This is all too easy
to talk about for you and me. I am not really prepared to say anything wise or
good about these things. My life is too comfortable, my faith is too untested
to really offer much here. But I can read and hear and see how God has been
faithful to Christians who went unprepared into persecution, how He is still
being faithful to Muslims who begin to believe in Jesus in spite of their families,
and to Chinese young people who follow Christ regardless of the consequences
for their careers.
That’s why I can say,
though I know nothing about it firsthand, that verses 18 and 19 are also true.
At first they seem like a total contradiction. Jesus just said, “and they will
put some of you to death.” How can He turn around and add, “But not a hair of
your head will perish?” He can only mean what we were talking about last week,
that there will be a resurrection. When all these evil times are past, when all
the wars and disasters and persecutions are over, He will come and raise us up
and we will live and walk again, with hair on our heads and the new earth we
heard Isaiah talk about underneath us.
There is no defense to
prepare so that resurrection will happen. Despite science fiction and
techno-babble, you cannot freeze your brain or your body and plan on being
raised up again someday by some super technology. No, the only plan is verse
19, “By your endurance you will gain your soul.” We might say, “hold onto your
Lots of our disaster
preparedness and general forethought is about holding onto things. We don’t
want to lose our homes or our jobs or our health. We plan and prepare and put
so much energy into holding on to all those things. Jesus invites to the simple
endurance of faith so that we hold onto our souls. So when the time comes those
souls will be reunited with bodies and we will stand up together again in His
As we come in just a
couple weeks to Advent, a time of preparation, consider what you are getting
ready for. Is it defense of all the stuff of this world, which could be taken
away in some unforeseen disaster? Is it guarding your own physical life, which
likewise could go in an unexpected moment? Or are you preparing for that new
day in our Lord’s kingdom by patiently living out your faith? How are you
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj