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November 25, 2012 - Mark 13.1-8

“Behold the Birth Pangs”

Mark 13:1-8

November 25, 2012

 

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately,4“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”5Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray.6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

 

Well, here Jesus predicts the end of the temple and talks about the “end times.”  I have been hearing a lot about the “end times” lately.  We hear about the rockets being shot into and out of Israel.  There is a new Pharaoh in Egypt, apparently. Economic doomsday is approaching and is going to eat our children.  If you believe reality TV, then people are hoarding bullets and Spam.

 

We want to know if and when.  This is normal.  The disciples asked Jesus the same thing.  But please hear me out on this.  Jesus says to calm down and stop asking when.  But we don’t listen.  There is a lot of money to made in writing books about the end of everything.  And they all have one thing in common: they are all wrong. I have several of these books in my office.  They have wonderful titles.  Books like The Late Great Planet Earth, which was written about the impending doom of the 1970’s, and The 80’s - Countdown to Armageddon, and then my personal favorite, 88 Reasons the Rapture will be in 1988.  Pre, Post, or Pan-Tribulation?  I believe that it will all pan out in the end and since Jesus not to worry about it, just to be ready, I don’t worry about it and I just try to be ready.  Matthew 24 has a much longer version of this discussion, and Jesus tells his disciples this – “no one knows.  Not even I know, only the Father knows.  Now if Jesus didn’t know, then I am pretty sure the guys wrote these books and others like them don’t know either.

 

This is apocalyptic literature – end time stuff.  That’s the kind of literature in the bible that gets people all worked up, because it is dramatic, it is filled with symbolic images and numbers, with fantastic events.  It is painted on a cosmic canvas, heaven and earth, past, present and future.  What God is doing in this kind of literature is so fantastic and so critical and so important that to merely speak of it is to burst the bounds of ordinary speech.  The intention of every apocalyptic text is to encourage us in the face of our worst enemies – in the face of persecutions.  It is to remind us that God will triumph over all, and that we are not toiling in vain in an evil world.

 

Every major world crisis brings with it its share of books describing the events as evidence that the signs of the book of Revelation are being fulfilled.  The desire to use these apocalyptic prophecies concerning the end to make sense of traumatic upheavals in the world remains a significant temptation for most Christians.  Jesus provides the fundamental response, even to those who ”come in his name”:  The end time is not signaled by such events.  Christians should remember that they have only one concern: giving testimony to the gospel.  The end times do not constitute the message that Jesus came to preach.

 

“Wars and rumors of wars...that’s when the end will come” people say.  But people get it wrong and forget that these are the words of Jesus and they are cutting him off.  He says “Wars and rumors of wars – do not be alarmed.  Don’t panic.  Don’t get all worked up.”  This is just the beginning of the birth pangs. This stuff must take place – the end will come later.”  Jesus said that is not our concern.

 

Everyone that has ever predicted a date has been wrong - All of them.  Jesus said he didn’t know, so how can one of us?  The modern church has certainly known its share of voices that talk a good game, use the right formulas, but it seems they always end up worshiping at a different altar.  There are those that offer a cross-less religion, a Christianity without tears, who wed their faith to their political agenda, or who preach the dogma of the dollar.  Jesus says to his church “Don’t be fooled.  These folks are not me or mine – be alert and not gullible.”

 

But that still doesn’t explain why this text – as out of place as it seems – is here in this part of Mark.  Why?  Why disrupt the story to talk about earthquakes and famine and the moon going out and all that stuff?

 

There is something else here.  We have got to read closely and slowly or we will miss it.

 

He is seated on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple.  Notice the language: Jesus is seated “opposite” the temple, (opposite, in the sight of, before in some cases) the location itself being described in such a way as to alert the reader that what follows will be the end of the Temple system and the vindication of Jesus’ life and work.

 

In Jesus' day, the temple in Jerusalem was one of the most impressive sights in the world. Torn down twice since King Solomon first built it, the second rebuilding was undertaken by Herod before Jesus' birth. It was not finished until after his crucifixion. That is to say, when Jesus and the four disciples discussed the temple, they were speaking of the beauty and destruction of a brand new building.

It was a staggeringly large and opulent edifice, one unlikely to come down again. The temple had a perimeter circumference of two-thirds of a mile. Its marble walls stood 150 feet high and were constructed of blocks weighing many tons. The outside of the building was decorated with 40-foot-high columns of white marble. There were ten gates by which to enter the temple's outer courts, each covered in silver or gold plate. Two of the doors stood 45 feet in height, and one gate in particular, known as the Beautiful Gate, was cast of Corinthian bronze. The eastern front of the temple and part of the side walls were plated with gold. The gleaming white marble and stunning metal work made the temple flash in the Middle Eastern sun and dominate the cityscape. The temple was both religiously and architecturally the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem. It was a place to which Jesus and his followers were often drawn (Mk 14:49).

 

The temple is the symbol of that priestly system – it is the symbol of their reality as they know it.  For all things spiritual, cosmic, heavenly, earthly, etc., the Temple stands as the symbol of everything that has come about in the struggle of mankind to overcome sin and be reconnected to God, re-establishing that connection lost at the Garden of Eden, and Jesus says that “I am about to knock over every stone!”  “None will be left standing.”  Our entire reality was shattered when Jesus died and rose again.

 

But, while the disciples and other Jews stood in awe of the structure, Jesus knew that its splendor was not to last. It is no small wonder that the Jewish authorities felt threatened to hear of Jesus' predictions of the temple's destruction. It was this claim that became the basis of their case against him (Mk 14:58). To the Jewish leaders and the followers of Jesus, the temple appeared to be indestructible. Its demolition was physically and symbolically unthinkable. But, as always, Jesus looks with deeper sight and sees the unsound foundation upon which the temple was built. The ground was solid, but the grounds of faith were not. That the Romans would be able to throw down the walls until there would "not be one stone left upon another" was an indication that judgment would come upon Israel. When you follow the full line of Jesus' apocalyptic message, you see that it will not be the ordinary person who will be saved from the pending cataclysm, but those who know the good news of Christ.

 

Jesus is talking about tearing down the old system of dealing with sin.  Hebrews 10:17 The Lord is quoted as saying “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”  There is a bright contrasting picture painted of the priests and Jesus.  The priest are caught in a never ending cycle of trying to atone for sins with blood that won’t do the job, but Jesus ended that cycle with his sacrifice on the cross.

 

Today, large houses of worship are still being built and churches are still being destroyed by fire bombings in the night. As in Jesus' day, the structural evidence of our faith is not as permanent as the simple devotion of people whose faith is built upon the foundation of God's Word.

 

Jesus' message to the disciples indicated that they needed to rely boldly on the power of God to save them. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between bold trust and foolishness: Revered preacher James Forbes once gave a sermon in an auditorium of a famous divinity school. He spoke not from a pulpit, but walked freely upon the open stage. As an illustration of a believer's need to rely completely upon God, he looked out to see where the homiletics professor was seated in the front row. Then, he closed his eyes and began walking slowly toward the edge of the stage in the professor's direction. As he drew near the edge, people began to get nervous and hoped that he would open his eyes before it was too late. But, he seemed intent on walking blindly. Getting quite close to the edge, he began to say softly, "Help me, Dick. Help me." The professor, at the very last moment, realized that Forbes was calling out to him. He jumped up, ran to the edge of the stage and put up his hands to stop Forbes just as he was about to step off into the air. Whether he was relying on God or merely acting unwisely was lively part of the conversation afterward. But, it was not all of the conversation. The homiletics professor said, "That was about the best sermon I ever heard."

 

This story is here to set the stage properly for Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It is not just a story about a death and an empty tomb – it is a story set on the grandest stage of all, cosmic in scope, with fantastic ramifications that have shaken all reality to its foundations.  When Jesus rose, he didn’t rise alone.  He pulled all of us out of the grave with him in his wake.

 

With all my heart I believe that Christ wants his church to be an unshockable, democratic, permissive a fellowship where people can come in and say, "I'm sunk!" "I'm beat!" "I've had it!" Alcoholics Anonymous has this quality. Our churches too often miss it.[1]

 

The picture of the priests offering never-ending sacrifices is the picture of futility.  Jesus overturning the Temple is the picture of finality.  No more does sin bind us – now we can know God and be forgiven of our sins.

 

And the result? The world has begun to shake and shudder, and these are the aftershocks – the birth pangs.  When Jesus said that these are but the birth pangs, he was really saying that God is giving birth to something so fantastic that the whole world is being shaken by it.

 

Will God shake your foundations?  Will you risk turning your reality upside down?

 

 



[1] (Keith Miller and Bruce Larson, Edge of Adventure, as quoted in Swindoll's Ultimate Book of Illustrations and Quotes, Charles R. Swindoll, ed., Thomas Nelson Publishers, p. 92.)