Monday, November 30, 2020

Advent Sunday

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, Advent Sunday.

Advent Sunday

Reading: Mark 13:24-37

In Mark’s Gospel, chapter 13, St Mark brings his account of Jesus’ public ministry to a conclusion. It is also Jesus’ own conclusion to his ministry to his people, Israel. And what a conclusion! Jesus has been teaching in the Temple, and now he leaves the Temple for the final time with his disciples. As they go, the disciples comment on how large the stones and the buildings are. They were not exaggerating. The stones that were used to build the Temple were so large that even today we are not quite sure how they managed to get them into place. Some of them measured over forty feet in length and weighed over 500 tons. (By way of comparison, the largest stone of the Egyptian pyramids, for example, weighs 11 tons.)

The Temple was in every way a magnificent and beautiful building. But greater than any architectural importance it may have had was its spiritual significance. This was the place where heaven and earth came together and where God met with his people. Here the sacrifices were offered and here the festivals were celebrated. It is very hard for us to understand and feel how much it meant for the people of God. This wasn’t simply a holy place; this was the holy place; this was the house of God.

So, when Jesus says that not one stone will be left on another, he is not talking about some trivial event. What he is predicting is both cataclysmic and catastrophic. It is no wonder that in the disciples’ minds it must be linked to coming of the Day of the Lord and the appearance of the Son of Man at the end of this age. The four disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John, ask the obvious questions: when will it happen and how will we know it is about to happen?

Jesus, in answering, talks about all the things that are not signs that it is about to happen. All the normal events that happen in the world will continue to happen before it: wars and rumours of wars; famines and earthquakes; political upheaval; all will continue as usual. In the midst of all this confusing normality, false teachers and prophets will appear who will themselves seem and sound very believable and normal.

For Jesus’ disciples, however, life will be anything but normal. They can expect to be hated, betrayed, arrested, put on trial, beaten, and killed. It is only those who endure all these things to their bitter end who will be saved. The Gospel must be preached to ‘all nations’, and they must do it, whatever the cost to them personally. They may be beaten and killed, but according to St Luke, Jesus promises that not a hair of their head will perish (Luke 21:18).

Then it will happen. But what will happen? We think that what will happen is that Jesus will come again. It is at this point, then, that we need to remind ourselves of the question. We forget that the question Jesus is answering is when the Temple will be destroyed. It is this that Jesus is focused on in chapter 13. This is why he says that those in Judea must flea to the mountains (Mark 13:14); they need to get away from Jerusalem, the scene of the disaster.

Jesus is not in the first place in chapter 13 (and the accounts in the other Gospels) describing the end of the world, but the end of a city. It is, however, also the end of a world. Naturally enough, we want to know about the end of our world, but Jesus is talking about the end of his world and the world of his disciples. We don’t appreciate the importance and significance of this. It is only after he has described it that Jesus moves on briefly to the coming of the Son of Man and the end of our world and of the present age.

First, his world comes to an end, then secondly, the world itself as we know it comes to an end. For us living now, the first, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, has happened, but not the second. The first happened in AD70, 1,950 years ago. So, given that there is so much distance between them, why does Jesus talk about them here in the same breath. Because after the destruction of the Temple, there is nothing else significant, historically, to talk about until the end of the world. Our Lord says this of the destruction of Jerusalem:

‘For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be.’ (Mark 13:19)

All other events pale into insignificance in comparison to this terrible event. Yes, there will continue to be wars and rumours of wars. Nation shall continue to rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, there will be famines, and all sorts of other disasters both natural and man-made. And for those caught up in them and affected by them, they will be important, but, historically, they are of little significance after what happened in AD70. It’s like looking at a school boy fight in the playground when talking about the great battles in history.

After the fall of Jerusalem, everything else is ‘birth pangs’. They, of course, have significance for those affected by them. They are significant in what they point forward to, but not of much significance in and of themselves. They do not change anything. The fall of Jerusalem, however, changed everything.

In the Gospel accounts of his life, our Lord wept twice. One occasion is well-known. He wept at the grave of Lazarus his friend (John 11:35). He wept there with those who wept and wept at what death does and the pain it causes. The other occasion is less well-known; our Lord also wept over Jerusalem and the destruction that was coming on her.

The occasion was what we know as Palm Sunday. Jesus is entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. There is great joy and celebration, but for Jesus himself, however, there is not only the foreboding of knowing that his own death is approaching, there is the knowledge that the city he is now entering in triumph will, within a generation, be utterly destroyed because of its failure to recognize him for who he is. St Luke writes:

‘As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”’ (Luke 19:41-44)

We have all wept over the death of a loved one. We weep no matter how much faith we may have or how strongly we believe we will see them again. Regardless of our hope for the future, we still weep. Death is never our friend. The destruction of Jerusalem is on the same level. But in the same way that there will be a resurrection for those who die in the faith of Christ, so too there will be a resurrection for the Jewish people and a new Jerusalem to look forward to. Jerusalem shall live again!

In case you think I am letting my imagination run away with me, remember what St Paul writes in his letter to the Church in Rome about the Jewish people:

‘For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?’ (Romans 11:15)

For now, Jerusalem has fallen. A hardness has come on the people of Israel. We live in the ‘times of the Gentiles’, as St Luke describes the time we are living in (Luke 21:24). But this time won’t go on forever. It will come to end, and one day, as St Paul tells us, ‘all Israel will be saved’ (Romans 11:26). For us Gentiles in the present, then, there is no room for arrogance and no place for complacency, only for gratitude and humility. ‘Note then the kindness and severity of God’, St Paul warns us Gentiles. We need only to look at Jerusalem to see God’s severity; let us pray that we may continue in his kindness.

Jesus tells his disciples all this, and tells us through them, not in order to satisfy our curiosity or to encourage us to speculate about the ‘times and seasons’, but to warn us. We are to ‘be alert’, Jesus says, in verses 23 and 33. We are to ‘keep awake’, he says in verses 35 and 37. We do not know when our Lord will come. But we do know that he will come, and he expects us to be prepared for his coming.

St Paul writes in Romans:

‘Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand.’ (Romans 13:11-12)

Not unreasonably, like the disciples, we want to know when the Day will come, and we want to know what signs we should be looking out for that show it is coming. Many believers become fascinated by the subject of our Lords’ return, and it has led to endless speculative systems and timetables that claim to show in what order it will all take place.

When I first became a believer, I had a study Bible that interpreted everything in the Bible according to how the authors believed the second coming would take place. You may have heard of the ‘Left Behind’ series, which takes a similar approach.

These approaches, more often than not, owe more to the imagination than they do to revelation. Sincere believers disagree over the details of our Lord’s return. This is because we are given so few details. The reason we are given so few details is because the details are not to be our concern. St Paul, echoing our Lord’s words, tells us what is to be our concern. We are to be awake; we are to be ready.

Being ready doesn’t mean having carefully worked out systems and timetables of events leading up to our Lord’s coming; it means living the way God wants us to live until our Lord comes. It refers to our priorities, values, and attitudes, and how we are living them out in our daily lives.

St Paul continues in the passage I have just read to explain what being ‘awake’ means.  He writes:

‘So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’ (Romans 13:13-14)

‘Walking properly’ means not indulging ourselves in such things as ‘orgies and drunkenness’; it means not engaging in sexual immorality. Most of us can go along with this, but ‘walking properly’, St Paul tells us, also means not quarrelling and not being jealous. It means making no provision for the self. More than that, it means putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.

‘Putting on the Lord Jesus Christ’ itself involves more than seeking to keep our Lord’s teaching, although that would be a start. It is rather a command to be like our Lord in his character. We are to be compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient. We are to put up with one another; forgive one another; love one another. And in the midst of the chaos and darkness of this world, we are to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts and be thankful. (see Colossians 3:12-15).

To be dressed and ready for our Lord’s return means being clothed with him by making him the centre of our lives and the role model for them.

You have probably heard the phrase, ‘What would Jesus do?’ It is a question that believers are sometimes encouraged to ask themselves when confronted with a difficult situation. This Advent Sunday, we are encouraged to ask another question. What would we do if we knew Jesus was about to return at any moment? What difference would it make to how we think and live?

This is why Jesus closes his answer to his disciples questions with words specifically directed to all who will follow him:

‘And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ (Mark 13:37)

The Advent Collect: 

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


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