Mark 131-8, Daniel 121-3: End Times
Kingdom 3, 18th November 2018
Would you like to know the future? Could be handy if you could place bets on horse races knowing the result in advance; though perhaps not entirely honest. When you first think about it, it sounds interesting, and you can think of lots of possibilities. If only you had known how that relationship would turn out. But would you really want to know, especially if you cannot change it? There has been discussion about genetic tests for hereditary diseases. Would you want to know you had a terrible disease coming at you later in life? It could give you time to prepare. But what a burden on your life now. Maybe it is not such a good idea.
Science fiction is full of time travel – Dr. Who is on at the moment – but it is by no means clear that it is actually possible. You can theoretically go forwards in time, by relativity. If you travel fast in space, time passes more slowly than if you stay on earth, so when you get back, your friends and family will be a bit older than you are. Astronaut Scott Kelly spent 11 months circling the earth on the International Space Station, and when he got back he was younger than his twin brother. But only by 11ms, 0.011s. As far as we know, we cannot go backwards in time, or see into the future. God seems to have put some fundamental blocks in physics that prevent time getting in too much of a muddle.
Our readings today are both prophecies. Both Daniel and Jesus are looking forward to future times. The common understanding of the word prophecy, and the Oxford English Dictionary definition, is a prediction of what will happen in the future. So perhaps this is a way in which we can know the future. But looking at these passages, and at prophecy in the Bible generally, that is only a part of the story- as we shall see.
Last week, our reading had Jonah prophesying the destruction of Nineveh, but it did not happen, much to Jonah’s annoyance; God changed his mind when the Ninevites repented. It was not the accuracy of the prophecy that mattered, but its effect.
This week’s passage in Mark has the disciples admiring the magnificent buildings of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was reputedly made of blocks of white stone 11m x 5½m x 3½m – two of them would be bigger than our church. Jesus, typically, takes the conversation as a starting point for teaching the disciples: not one stone will be left standing on another. Also typically, he does not explain what he means until Peter, James, John and Andrew come and ask him later.
Jesus’ teaching goes on a lot further than today’s reading, for the whole of the rest of Chapter 13. He starts by warning against interpreting events as signs of end times. There will be wars and famine and persecution. There will be false messiahs. Do not be deceived, but stay faithful.
Then he talks about End Times. Even from our perspective in the future, it is difficult to be sure which parts of the passage refer to what. In those days seems to refer part of the time to siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in AD70. This was a time of great suffering for those living in Jerusalem, with somewhere around a million people killed. It was a calamity for the Jews, and effectively the end of Israel until the 20th century. The stones of the Temple were indeed thrown down, not one was left standing. Jesus’ words in our reading do seem readily to point to this event. But he moves on, without defining that he is talking about something else, to talk about the Second Coming: At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. (1326).
All the way through, Jesus hedges his prophecy about with warnings. Look out for the signs, but do not be deceived by events, no-one knows the day or the hour, only the Father. Be aware of the signs, but just be ready.
There is actually not much teaching about end times in the New Testament, ignoring Revelation. This passage has a parallel in Matthew 24 and Luke 21. There is a similar piece in Luke 17, and bits in 1 and 2 Thessalonians and 2 Peter; and of course, Revelation. In the Old Testament, Daniel is the main place.
These prophecies are difficult. They do tend to attract intense and rather weird extremes of Christianity. Christians have disputes about historical and dispensation premillenialism, post millennialism, amillenialism, all coming from how you view the 1000 years in Revelation. There was a book in the 1970s, The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey, in which he identified lots of the elements of Revelation with actual countries. He had the European Economic Community as Babylon the Great ruled by the Antichrist, equating it with the beast with 7 heads and 10 crowns in Revelation 131, because the EEC at that time was working up to 10 members. Some Brexiteers may sympathise with his analysis, but there now being 28 members in the EU, events seem to have rather overtaken him.
If it is so difficult to interpret prophecy, why is it there? The disciples had asked Jesus specifically, when will these things happen? And what are the signs that they are about to be fulfilled? But without hindsight, it was not at all straightforward to understand what he was talking about.
Tony Vigars did a series of sermons and studies on Revelation here in 2004. Much of his interpretation of Revelation was that the images are symbolic, rather than historical prediction. What applies to Revelation seems to apply to most of the End Times prophecy.
When we look at the Bible we do so through a filter of our modern culture. Our education is analytical, literal, historical. We have had such success with science and technology that we expect to understand things, to be able to see a chain of causation. We expect reports to be factual, logical. But this would not have been the mindset in Old Testament time, or Jesus’ time. We are dealing with images and types and descriptions that were poetic, evocative, absorbed in childhood through stories and synagogue, much as fairy tales are in our time. When I say, to quote Flanders and Swan, Who’s been sleeping in my porridge?, you will probably get the reference.
Prophecy is speaking God’s message into a situation. There are occasions when, yes, it does predict events (and a test of a prophet was, when that such predictions should come true – Deuteronomy 1822). More often, it is interpretation of events to show Gods’s purpose behind it.
So what do we make of the Second Coming? After this sermon, we will say in the creed, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Advent, in just a couple of weeks’ time, both looks back to Jesus’ first coming in Bethlehem, but also to his coming in the future: Lo he comes with clouds descending. Yet many of us, I think, would be hard pushed to say what we really think this means. When will it be? I was at a Readers’ training day last weekend with the title Making Friends with St Paul, and the Jesuit priest who was leading it was asked, Did Paul ever change his mind? The example he gave was about the Second Coming. In the early letters, Thessalonians, Paul expect Christ’s return immanently. Later, Paul realises that it is not necessarily going to be soon. We are now some 80 generations later, and it has not happened yet. If Paul did not know, and if Jesus said only the Father knows, I do not think we are going to do much better.
What is it going to be like? Again, it is almost impossible to say. The imagery Jesus uses in dramatic, but again poetic, imaginative. Just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. (Matthew 2427) With our current understanding of the way the universe is arranged, it is hard to see how it can be literal.
But in terms of meaning, we can see a message. At the beginning, through him all things were made, and all things will end with him. History will not just fizzle out, but in some way Christ will bring it to a close. The same Jesus who listens to our prayers has a cosmic importance. We shall be called to him, which is a daunting thought, but we can meet him in peace, because of the love he has shown for us. Whether the world ends tomorrow, or billions of years hence, he is out Lord, and he say, ‘Watch’.
St. John & St. Stephen
As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
5 Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7 When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
“At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book – will be delivered. 2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.