Mark 13:1-8, 24-37 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
13 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
3 When 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?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For 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 birth pangs.
24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” **************************************************************
“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” This statement really caused a problem. Never mind that Jesus said over and over again, in many different ways, “No one knows when the last day will arrive.” Even in the very next paragraph! But because he also said, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” and they all believed that part - there were problems. They believed that by “this generation” he meant the folks who were standing there in his presence - the people who were alive and walking the earth at the same time Jesus was. After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, Paul and the other apostles and disciples went around preaching the kingdom was coming - now! In their lifetimes!
In case you hadn’t noticed - that didn’t happen. It’s been roughly 50 generations since then (according to the Bible a generation is 40 years, give or take) and although we’ve seen some of those signs more than a few times, the end has not yet come. Jesus has not yet returned.
The problem with prophetic signs is that they are so easy to misinterpret. For example, “Wars and rumors of wars” happen all the time. I went wandering around the internet to see if I could find a period of time when there were not any wars or rumors of wars, and the best I could come up with was an article in the NY Times in July, 2003 that stated, “Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.” We know that in Jesus’ time Rome was constantly fighting “peace keeping actions” against various silly people who objected to being Roman subjects, and subjugating new territories, so war was pretty much a constant then, too. “The sun will be darkened.” Well, you have to know that for many centuries every time there was a solar eclipse the Western world went crazy, thinking the end had come. The Eastern world and Pre-Columbian Americas had better astronomers than Europe, so they weren’t nearly as worried about little things like eclipses. “There will be earthquakes and famines.” I live in California, so I have an earthquake app on my phone. If I didn’t have it set to be quiet it would be going off constantly, because there are earthquakes someplace daily, hourly even. And famine has been pretty much a constant in some parts of Africa for a number of decades now. And yet, the end has not come. Of course, there are those who claim that this prophecy can’t take place until the Temple is rebuilt so it can be knocked down again . . .
Even if we look at some more apparently specific prophecies in the book of Revelation - like the rising of the Anti-Christ - we run into disagreements over who that might be. It seems as though a new AntiChrist pops up every few decades. The internet tells me that the Anti-Christ has been proclaimed a number of times, including such notables as Nero, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Barak Obama, the Ayatollah Khomeini, almost every Pope throughout history, and Bill Gates. When John of Patmos, who was, in fact, of the generation already living when Jesus died, had his revelation, he was talking about the Emperor of Rome, most likely Tiberius. But as we know, none of these has ushered in the final days.
It is pretty well known that signs and portents are best fully understood after the prophesied event has already taken place. We even have a proverb about that - hindsight is 20/20. I think we can safely relegate prophetic signs and portents to the realm of things that we can’t really figure out ahead of time and pay more attention to what Jesus told us to do about all this . . . Wait. and Watch.
About today’s artwork . . . I think Leah and I have been very very good about not using cats more often to illustrate a sermon title. I could have used the RCA dog in that famous, “His master speaks” pose with the Victrola, but you know . . . . cat. I almost selected a meerkat, standing and keeping a lookout for danger, but this kitten waiting at the mail slot . . . I don’t know whether he is waiting for the mail to come in the slot or for his Human to come home, but unlike the meerkat the kitten is waiting and watching for something good to happen. I think the return of the Messiah will be a good thing. And the reason I think that is because the rabbis say the Messiah will come - or return, in our belief - when one of two things happens: when the world becomes so evil that he must come to end the evil, or when the world has become so good that he is inexorably drawn to join us here. I want to believe that the second is what will happen - that we will, by loving and working to end oppression and injustice, bring the kingdom of God to earth, and that the Christ will return to claim the world as his own.
You see, I believe there are more good people than evil. We see mostly evil on the news, but that is because good news doesn’t sell. There is an old journalism saying, “If it bleeds, it leads.” The horrendously brutal murder is on the front page, while the story of a little girl starting lemonade stands to fund cancer research is buried somewhere behind the editorial section. There’s really nothing we can do about that. Well, we can share more good stories that bad ones on Facebook and Twitter and so on. But beside that . . . What we can do is make sure to do the good even we think if no one notices. Legendary UCLA Basketball coach, John Wooden once said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching". It’s nice to get recognition for doing good, but the important thing is to do good, whether or not anyone is watching. The important thing is to stand against evil and oppression, even in what looks like small things.
18th century Irish politician and philosopher Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” He was right. Silence in the face of evil simply allows the evil to continue.
Let’s say you see one person mistreating another. It could be a kid or even a teacher picking on someone at school. It could be a customer mistreating a server in a restaurant. It could be someone in a hurry pushing an older woman out of his way. The thing to do, as difficult as that might be for those of us who dislike confrontation, is exactly that - confront the bully. Let them know that what they are doing is not acceptable. Protect the person being oppressed. This may seem a small thing, but small things grow and build into bigger things. A young person who gets away with pushing an older lady out of his way or bullying a classmate will have no trouble repeating that behavior over again, and escalating that behavior. Stopping their violence is up to anyone and everyone who witnesses it. It is our business.
One of my favorite commercials, which I’ve only ever seen on Facebook because it is apparently from India, shows a young woman walking along a road. Two young men see her and begin to follow her, obviously meaning her harm. They pass her and block her path. Another man comes along and takes a stand between her and the other two. Then a second man joins him, then another, until there is a circle of men, hands joined, protecting that one young woman. That’s how we love - that’s how we bring the kingdom of God on earth to reality. We stop evil in its tracks and protect the oppressed . . . one victim at a time. We must do good with love, changing the world into a place so filled with goodness that the Christ will be drawn to return to us.
Back to the kitten . . . and watching . . . I don’t know about this cute little kitten, but if it was Doofenschmirtz watching for the mail to come it would be so he could chew up all the paper that comes through the slot. I don’t know what it is with me and pets. They have all seemed to love chewing paper. The Reverend Samuel T. Rabbit would eat any piece of paper he could find. And Dinah, the psychotic lovebird, used to turn any paper she could get her beak on into confetti - a real problem if I’d thoughtlessly left cash sitting out on a table. But Doofenschmirtz waiting for me, that’s an entirely different thing. He knows the sound of my footsteps so even if he has been sound asleep when I come home - which is entirely likely as cats nap about 20 hours a day - by the time I have the key in the door he is on the window sill. When I go to the mailbox or the laundry room, he sits and watches until I get back. He has no idea when I will be back, but he waits for the sound of my footsteps, watching for the sight of me putting the key in the door.
Jesus tells us, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Regardless of signs and portents, regardless of how this person or that tries to persuade us that the time is now, or that they are the one we must follow, we must remain steadfast. We have no idea when Jesus will be back, but we must wait and watch carefully so we are ready when he comes. We must prepare our hearts and the world, so that it is ready for him when he comes. We must do good, even in the smallest ways, even when no one else is watching what we do, so that we can make the world the kind of place our Lord will want to come to. We must be faithful, acting as if the Christ is coming back soon although we know not when, not putting off the things we know we should do but doing the good, stopping the evil, protecting the bulled and oppressed.
Keep awake. Be alert. Do good. Live in peace. Watch. So that the day of God might draw near.