Rocherty UMC September 19th, 2021
Really Good News: “Stay Awake”
Mark 13:1-37 

 
One of the things that you and I have to learn to live with in life is the disappointments that happen when things don’t work out the way we would like them to.  We learn this as a child when we want to do something and then our parents tell us that it won’t be good for us or that what we want to do isn’t safe or it costs too much money.  And, as we grow, we learn to make those sorts of distinctions for ourselves. But as we can all probably attest, life is still filled with situations that don’t work out and leave us with a sense of disappointment.
In the mid 1800’s, there was a disappointment that was so great that it has forever been called “The Great Disappointment.”  The Great Disappointment was caused by a sense of religious excitement that grew up around a supposed promised and sure coming of our Lord Jesus Christ on October 22, 1844.  But the day came and Jesus didn’t.  Let me tell you a little more about it.
In the 1830’s, a Baptist preacher named William Miller began to dive deep into the Bible.  He especially liked looking at Bible prophecy—books like Daniel and the Book of Revelation.  And one day he had the germ of idea.  What if he could use these prophetic books to map out exactly when Jesus would come back?  We could be prepared, we’d know what to do, and we could invite many other people to be ready.  In short, knowing when Jesus would come back would be the seeds of the greatest revival in the history of Christianity!
And so William Miller locked himself in his study with the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation.  And he began calculating and figuring.  It took him the entire time from 1831 to 1844 to figure out his very detailed timeline of when he thought Jesus would come back to earth.
But why was William Miller so obsessed with figuring out when Jesus would return? Well, because the world seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket.  Just fifty years or so ago, revolution had swept across the world. First in France was the great upheaval of the French Revolution. Heads rolled in the streets under the reign of terror and it seemed nobody was safe.  Then in the United States there had been wars and rumors of wars for years.  And now, after the US Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, it increasingly looked like the United States itself was heading for war again, this time within itself over the issue of slavery.  In short, Miller thought that the world was going so badly it was surely a sign that Jesus was coming.
And over the course of the 1840’s, Miller gathered a number of followers into his movement.  And now, according to Miller time, the world was ready for the Second Coming. It was going to take place sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.  He was absolutely sure of it. And so were a few thousand followers.
The problem was, apparently Jesus didn’t get the memo.  Jesus did not come back during that time frame.  You would think this was the great disappointment, but no. Miller wasn’t done yet. With the help of some friends, he figured out that maybe he was using the wrong calendar. Maybe, just maybe, if he followed a different Jewish calendar he could still be proven correct. And so, he recalculated and came up with the date of October 22, 1844 as the sure and certain date that Jesus would come.  Isnt it lucky that the re-calculation was yet still in the future, just six months away? What if he had recalculated, and it had been twenty years in the past!? Anyway, that’s just poking fun at him. But that’s easy to do now, with hindsight.
But at that time, in 1844, the group of what came to be called Millerites came to swell to the tens of thousands of people.  Huge swaths of the population had signed on to his teaching. And when their ministers told them that no one could predict when Jesus came back, well, many of them just left their “unbelieving” churches behind.  They followed Miller like they would a prophet and many sold their possessions, they had no need of provision for families or neighbors if anything should happen and Jesus once again failed to return – because that wouldn’t happen!
But, as we know, fail to return Jesus did. October 22, 1844 passed without a sign in the sky, without even a full moon or darkening of a cloud.  One Millerite was so devastated that he could barely function physically. He wrote: “I waited all Tuesday October 22nd and dear Jesus did not come; I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was , but after 12 o’clock I began to feel fain, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for two days without any pain—sick with disappointment.”
“Sick with disappointment.”  That characterized tens of thousands of people who were part of the Millerite movement. They wanted so desperately for Jesus to come back, but he never did. We’ll find out what happened to the Millerites later, but now I want us to talk about the Second Coming of Jesus, because at least in part, that’s what Mark is describing in our Scripture passage this week.
But immediately we run into a misunderstanding.  Yes, it is true that Mark is talking about the Second Coming of Jesus in this passage.  But he’s only talking about that event in a small part of the Scripture. Namely, verses 24-27 and 32-37.  The vast majority of this passage is talking about something else. Something Jesus promised and prophesied would happen a bit earlier: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
So let’s take a brief look at this passage today and we’ll see that much of what Jesus is prophesying in Mark 13 has already been fulfilled in a very certain, historically verifiable event of which we have numerous records, not just in the Bible, but in the secular literature of the era. And that will help us to sort out what Jesus is saying, and help us understand this passage, and help us preach it’s hopeful message today.
The whole conversation about the “last things” was prompted by Jesus’ disciples acting just like they have all along: in other words, clueless as to what Jesus’ life and ministry mean.  He has clearly told them just a few chapters ago that the Temple has served its purpose. Remember? It has become corrupt and the leaders are in for a world of hurt at the judgment.  But, in typical human fashion, the disciples can’t help but be impressed by the wealth and technology of what they see.  They say to Jesus, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
As I mentioned to you when we first encountered the Temple, it was truly a sight to behold. Herod had used ill-gotten gains to beautify it. It was a palace of marble and gold, and it shone like the sun on the hill of Zion.  But Jesus knows that its appearance was only skin deep.  It had become corrupt. It’s days as the meeting place of God and humans was done. The new meeting place would be in his body, the ekklesia or church. And so, Jesus tells them quite bluntly, “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
And now he’s piqued their curiosity.  The disciples ask what sign they can look for that these events are nigh.  And so, Jesus tells them all the signs to look for.  First there will be false messiahs claiming either to be the Messiah or even claiming to be Jesus. And we know from historical records that in the years between 40 and 70 AD, there were several people claiming to be the Messiah of Israel.  There will be wars and rumors of wars.  Indeed, that happened too. In AD 66, there was a huge war that had many threats of violence that led up to it.  There will be earthquakes and famines. Check and Check. All of that happened and is widely documented in the years leading up to 70AD.
And now Jesus gets specific about what will happen to the disciples themselves.  They’ll be handed over, just like Jesus was to the ruling Jewish councils at various places.  They will be beaten with the 40 lashed minus one. On Jesus’ account they will stand before governors and even kings.  All of this is narrated to us in our own Bibles in the Book of Acts and the letters of Paul. We have all read those passages, I’m sure. In other words, this stuff has already happened.
But Jesus’ message here is that his disciples aren’t to lose heart.  When they face persecution for his sake, the Holy Spirit will give them words to say.  Look at Acts chapter 7 and you’ll see that St. Stephen, an early martyr, delivered eloquent testimony to God’s might acts of salvation leading to Christ—all why one Saul of Tarsus stood by and watched.  And then that same Saul was converted and brought testimony to Christ all the way to Caesar in Rome before dying by being beheaded under mad Emperor Nero.
Brother would betray brother and a father his child. Children would turn on their parents and even put them to death. And Jesus’ disciples would be hated by many.  Just look at the Book of Acts and you’ll see that this prophecy has been fulfilled already. Life was indeed very tough for the early church. And Jesus’ words here gave them great hope. That meant that they were faithful, that the gospel continued to be shared and preached and believed – Thank God! Because that means that the church continued even to today, and so you and I have heard that gospel and can also join together with the saints and with God in love and truth.
And now we get to the heart of the prophecy. In verse 14 we read “when you see the abomination that causes desolation standing where he does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”  Pardon the pun, but this is the crux of the matter, the nail in the coffin that proves that the events Jesus is here speaking about happened with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.
You see, as the war between Rome and the Jewish people who rebelled against their rule in AD 66 began to intensify, the city of Jerusalem came under siege. This happened under the control of a group called the Zealots.  And when that happened, these Zealots, who were not religious Jews at all, decided that they would take over the Temple itself.  They physically kicked out the priests. They desecrated the Temple.  They killed their own people who got in their way. And to top it all off, they installed their own “high priest:” the picked a man called Phanni whose previous occupation was as a clown. All to mock God and the Temple.  That was the abomination.  A clown and a band of murderers had taken over the Temple. They entered the Holy of Holies and desecrated what was left of the holiest place in the world to Jewish believers.
This war, which we can read about in sources of the time, ended in the year 70.  The future Roman Emperor Titus came in and destroyed not just the Jewish Temple, but the entire city of Jerusalem.  The fires burned for weeks. The stones of Herod’s great monument to himself (I mean, to God) were cast one off another.  Some stones were carted away to be used in other buildings. The gold was stripped off of everything and carted away as trophies for the conqueror. And Titus built a memorial describing his horrible sacrilege in Rome. In this picture you can see the great Menorah or candlestand of the Temple being brought in triumphal procession to Rome. It was a big score for Emperor Titus.
And why does Mark include this story in the Gospel?  Well, let’s think about a few things. Mark was writing to a congregation that was not living in the Holy Land.  We often assume that because much of what we read in the Gospels happened in what we know as Israel, that they were written there.  In fact, it’s likely that most of them, with the exception of Matthew, were not written anywhere near Israel.
Scholars are pretty certain that Mark was written in Rome to a church that lived in Rome.  Why does this matter? Well, because we need to keep in mind a general principle. The Scriptures, our Holy Bibles are FOR us. That’s absolutely true. But they weren’t written TO us.  The authors didn’t have twenty-first century concerns in mind. I mean, when we write letters and history books, do we have in mind the readers of 4021? No. We write for our contemporaries. And, in the same way, the gospels and the letters that we no read in our Bibles were written to encourage a particular audience at that particular time. So why do we keep reading these old dusty things? Well, it’s because the original readers found them to hold great truths and encouragements that they passed on to the next generation, who also found the great truths and encouragements and passes them on to THEIR next generation, and so on until today. These ancient words are ever true, and even more so when we understand what they meant to the original people who read them and found them to be so full of life and hope and love and power.
And in Mark’s case, this gospel has included the events of chapter thirteen for three purposes.  The first purpose was to prepare the Christians in Rome for the soon-coming news that the Temple was destroyed.  If Mark was written in the 60’s as many scholars believe, then the destruction of the Temple was indeed going to happen very shortly.  Secondly, it was written to help those still left in Judea to prepare for it.  Remember, Jesus tells them just when to head for the hills, when they see false messiahs and the abomination we described happening. And indeed, from Eusebius, and early church historian, we have it that the Christians in Jerusalem indeed had fled to the hills to a town called Pella and those who fled and made it were safe from the Roman carnage. Woe to those that were unable or unwilling to escape, for sadly, there was no mercy shown by those who violently imposed their own will on the entire city.
And finally, and here is what will immediately apply to us today, this section of Mark was written to relate and connect the events of 70AD to the actual Second Coming of Christ. You see, the events of 70AD and the destruction of Jerusalem were NOT the second coming of Christ.  But they did start a timeline of events that will inevitably lead up to it.
So, on one hand, it is wholly proper for us to eagerly anticipate the Second Coming of Jesus.  In fact, this has proven true for countless Christians over the years.  At least once a century since the Resurrection a group of Christians has been absolutely convinced that Jesus is coming back in their day.  A big war happens; Jesus is coming back!  A famine happens; Jesus is coming back!  A natural disaster; Jesus is coming back.
But like the Millerites, each of these movements have been greatly disappointed.  Jesus did not come back when they expected.  But why?  Why does Jesus tarry?
Well, the answer is two-fold.  First, our Triune God desires that all humanity should come to a knowledge of the truth. And all whose name is written in the Book of Life come to salvation.  As Peter writes, the Lord does not look at time like we do. A Day is like a Thousand Years to the most high; so don’t count the Lord as slow. Does all the world know the love of God? Not yet, friends – not yet. That’s my word of hope to you today.
But secondly, we have a clear statement from the Lord that often goes ignored. And here it is: “But about that day or hour (in other words the Second Coming) no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, NOR THE SON, but only the Father.”
Jesus, in his humanity, gave up many of his Divine Prerogatives in the Incarnation.  So, as many scholars contend, Jesus the man did not know when the Father would send him back to earth.  This has caused a great deal of confusion I’d like to dispel if I can.
Yes, Jesus in his incarnate self was limited. He grew, he learned, and grew in wisdom and knowledge. He was not omnipresent, not omnipotent, and didn’t know everything.  But that was a limitation of the incarnation he freely chose. Now, however, as the exalted Lord the Son of Man who will come with the clouds and even now sits at the right hand of the Father, I believe he does indeed know when he’s coming again.
But WE don’t. All we can say (and we can say it with firm assurance) is that he is coming again. But we don’t know when.  What we do know is that it will happen.  It will happen suddenly.  It will be unmistakable. And it will be glorious for those who call on the name of the Lord. It will be the day when God sets all things right. Wickedness will cease. Justice will reign. And Christ will wipe every tear from the eye and we shall mourn no more.
So what must we do in the meantime?  Let the Millerites be a cautionary tale for us.  After the Great Disappointment of 1844, thousands of people who followed Miller left Christianity entirely.  They had so tied their entire faith up with this one failed prophecy that their entire religious structure fell like a house of cards when Jesus didn’t come as Miller promised.
And for those that didn’t leave the church, in the face of overwhelming evidence that they could not predict the future and against the sure promise that no one knows the day and the hour, some persisted in just trying to figure out the date.  Those remaining Millerites split into several movements, two of which might be familiar to you: The Jehovah’s Witnesses, what most Christian theologians deem a cult, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (like the one two blocks from my house) that most theologians consider to be brothers and sisters in Christ. They just worship and believe quite differently.
But back to us. What must we do in anticipation for Jesus to come back?  You see, over the centuries, the church has gotten a bit slack.  Again, there are two basic categories. Owing to the excessive zeal and false prophecies that have arisen over the Second Coming, many Christians have gone to the extreme of basically believing there won’t even be a Second Coming.  In short, many believe that Jesus was wrong. Yikes. That’s a slippery slope. The second is those who believe Jesus is coming any minute – like, probably tomorrow or next week. And the sight of these Christians becomes so short that they don’t get involved in helping the poor, serving the hungry, or adopting the orphans. There is no long-term goal to their worship services or to their church mission. And so, while believing in Jesus, they kind of just tool along at their faith, but not showing much fruit. This is also a dangerous path with many other pitfalls.
Against these tendencies, Jesus clearly gives us two marching orders. First, don’t try to get yourself caught up in schemes trying to predict the end times.  So many Christian books and TV preachers are obsessed with trying to predict when the end will come.  It’s like they haven’t learned from history; Let us be different! Learn from the mistakes of history, from those disappointed Millerites; don’t lose your whole faith when something turns out different than you expected.
And secondly, no fewer than four times in this passage, Jesus tells us to keep awake.  He tells us a parable. He says “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house (that is Jesus) will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.”
Then Jesus tells us to Watch! Keep Awake!  Don’t be lulled into inaction because the Lord tarries. But rather be active. Be in mission. This gospel was good news for you, right? Then surely it’s good news for everyone else in your neighborhood! Use the time that Jesus has given us not to selfishly wait for him to come, but to get out in the world and invite others to live in the Kingdom of God. To share the good news. To reach all nations for Christ and to bring justice, peace, and wholeness to the world in Jesus’ name.
Like our Lord says, I say to you brothers and Sisters. Keep Awake! Amen
Let us work until Jesus comes.