As I was working on this sermon, the skirmish between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza was escalating and Israeli troops were gathering at the border of Gaza. It’s quite possible that those troops are invading Gaza as we speak. It seems imminent. It’s very tempting to blame the people of Gaza for the events and think they have it coming for the constant rocket fire into Israel. Truth is there are 2 sides to every story.
In January 2008, I went to Israel. I had the opportunity to hear both sides of the story, the Israeli and the Palestinian story. I went as part of a group coordinated with Global Ministries. We heard more of the Palestinian story because their voice is heard less often. We spent the majority of our time in Palestinian-areas occupied by Israel.
One village we visited, I think I have told you about them, don’t have access to water and electricity. This unrecognized village, about 20 minutes from Bethlehem, was adjacent to a field where Israeli defense forces test weapons, tanks, guns, and mortars. This is a Palestinian-area inhabited by Palestinians terrorized by Israelis.
I told you about the farm I visited with the chickens, rabbits, and men living in caves. I told you about the surrounding settlements that want to take the land to build more settlements. The settlers in those areas want to eventually push the Palestinians completely out of the area and claim all of it for Israel.
Before going to Israel, I wondered why Israel was so important to the US and why we should care about what was going on in that part of the world. Part of it is religion. There are still some Jews, and some Christians, who believe the Savior will come to restore Jerusalem when the land God promised to the Jews is completely reclaimed. Jews and Christians who hold this belief are called Zionists. They hold to be literal and still true the promises of the Old Testament that the Jews would inhabit the land that is currently called Israel. Christians believe that Jerusalem, also called Zion in the Bible, will be restored when Christ returns. So, the closer Jerusalem comes to peace, the closer we are to Christ’s return.
The majority of the relationship between the US and Israel is political. Following World War 2, the US joined the UN in drawing borders. In 1948, the UN established the state of Israel dividing land between Palestinians currently living in the land and giving nearly half to the new Israel. President Truman rushed in to recognize Israel and drew a line between the US and the Arab world.
Since the establishment of Israel, the Palestinians have been fleeing and the Israelis have been pushing so that what was once meant to be a nearly 50/50 split is now about 90% Israel and the remainder is Palestinian territory occupied by Israel. Part of which is little tiny Gaza whose borders are under control of Israel.
And, many are hoping this current fight between the Israelis and the Palestinians will be the beginning of the end. This is yet another sign of nation rising against nation, wars and rumors of wars, the end will soon be here, just like the Bible says…Only, that’s not what the Bible says.
In the late 1st Century AD, when the Gospel of Mark was being compiled from various records of Jesus’ teachings, this text, actually the whole chapter was important to the writer because of what was going on in the world. There was the Jewish-Roman war which was being fought by Jews to restore the Davidic kingdom and ritual purity of the Jewish cultic religion. Jews, including the Disciples, were being recruited to fight in the war, which would be the end of the domination by the Romans, end of the age of oppression, the salvation and restoration of God’s people. Unfortunately, the Temple in all its splendor and glory was destroyed in that war, never to be rebuilt again. What Jesus said was true, the Temple was ruined.
On my last night in Israel, we stayed at a hotel on the top of the Mount of Olives from where Jesus was speaking to his Disciples in this text. The Mount of Olives looks over the city of Jerusalem and you can see what is left of the western wall of the Temple. The Disciples thought the destruction of the Temple would be a sign of the end of days, but that was nearly 2000 years ago. Since then, there has been earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, superstorms, wars, and famines, still, the end has not come.
This text, and others like it in Daniel and Revelation, show a human longing for the end of this world. This conversation between Jesus and His Disciples in Mark, the whole chapter, are called a “little apocalypse.” This text and other apocalyptic books of the Bible should not be read as a step-by-step unfolding of the end. These texts are a longing for knowing when the ultimate end to violence and suffering will be replaced with the reign of God’s justice and peace.
We, like the Disciples, want to know every detail about when and how the future glory of Christ will unfold. The Disciples ask Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” It’s a question we still want answered.
Many years ago, I went to a so-called Biblical seminar. The leader had the book of Revelation, a map of the world, and a marker. He began to explain exactly how the world would end and how everything going on in the world could be understood and expected from the book of Revelation. He all but dated the end of the world. This is exactly the type of false prophet that Jesus warned against. Jesus said, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name…and they will lead many astray.”
Would-be prophets have claimed to predict the world’s end at the World Wars, the Cold War, the Gulf War, the War on Terror, and now as Israel decides to war with Gaza. Many have published literature or led seminars interpreting events alleged signs of the eschaton with symbolism rooted in Revelation.
Christ’s answer to the Disciples and to us trying to make sense of the world is found in verse 32 of Mark’s chapter 13. Jesus says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”. We should be skeptical of anyone claiming to know, because it is contradictory to the testimony of Jesus.
We should be leery of anyone claiming to know when and where the end will begin, but we can be sure of how and why. It will come. The end of this world and the beginning of the reign of Christ will come. How and when we don’t know. The second coming of Christ will be here soon, just as it was soon when the Disciples asked Jesus when. In the great sands of time, the time is but a minute away. God knows how it will come to be. But, we know how and why. How? By God’s power of death. Why? Because God’s justice will prevail.
Jesus has instructions for us as we wait. He says, “Do not be alarmed” when all these things are happening. It is part of the days to come. The remainder of Jesus’ answer comes in the latter half of the chapter. “First, the good news must be proclaimed to all the nations” (v. 10). “Watch out (for false prophets), for I’ve told you everything ahead of time” (v. 23). In due time, He “will come in the clouds with great power and splendor…and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth” (v. 27). Above all, “Stay alert!” (v. 33 – 37).
We need to break the cycle of trying to decipher the signs and wonders of world history, political power struggles and cataclysmic weather. Instead, we need to heed his instruction to spread the Gospel and be alert. I think we understand Jesus’ commission to spread the good news. The Gospel of Matthew closes the gospel with the mandate to “Go and make disciples” (28:19).
The “be alert” command could be troubling. What exactly does Jesus mean when he says “be alert”? Obviously, he doesn’t mean to be standing around, staring up to the Heavens, waiting for the sky to fall.
First, we must be alert or be ready for disaster. Disaster will come. For instance, superstorm Sandy is the most recent disaster. A Christian on alert is ready to respond to disaster offering love, healing, and a helping hand to our brothers and sisters affected. Being alert is not looking to the disaster as a sign of the end but pointing to it as a place where Christ speeds in to care for those without shelter and food and sit with those in desperate times.
Second, we must be alert that the end is coming by hoping for the day when Christ will return. We live a life expecting Christ to break through our world at any moment. Such a life is one that trusts that despite how good or bad the world may be, despite war or rumors of war, despite earthquakes and storms, God is in control.