“Let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains….Pray that it may not happen in winter.
One commentator referred to this Gospel lesson as “an exegetical minefield” and so as you can imagine folks are all over the map about what these verses mean and they are greatly varied on how to apply them.
One approach is that in these verses Jesus is warning about the destruction of the Temple that will happen in 70AD. In this view that is all that this passage is about so there is no real application for us today. Others say this is actually an end time’s prophecy. The “he” mentioned in the text is the Antichrist and therefore we need to be on the lookout for him to better know the signs of the times and to discern when we are in the latter days.
I’m going to take a good Anglican via media approach and say, that at least in part, they are both right. Jesus draws imagery from the Book of Daniel to warn about the upcoming desolating sacrilege of the Temple. His allusion to Daniel goes back to 168 BC when the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanies put a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies and sacrificed a pig on the altar. Jesus is using that familiar text to tell His hearers that something similar is coming and it did when the Romans destroyed the Temple. Not only was one stone not left on another, according to one ancient historian, they even dug up the foundation. This was a more traumatic event than we can really grasp because to the first century Jew, this Second Temple was the literal presence of God on the earth. Because they did not understand that Jesus was now God’s presence on earth, their world was shattered and their understanding of God was shaken to the core.
But Jesus must be referring to more than just the destruction of the Temple by the Romans because in the verses that immediately follow He speaks of the Son of Man coming in great power and the angels gathering the elect from the ends of the earth. This is a clear reference to the Day of Judgment. Thus He is also warning about a time before that Last Day that is going to be equally difficult. What He is saying is that while the kingdom is coming in its fullness, its not going to be a walk in the park. The kingdom of God is going to be met with great opposition and great challenges and many will be tempted to fall away from their faith. Sadly many will.
It’s very important to understand whyJesus is pointing them to the destruction of the Temple and pointing us to the events that precede Judgment. It is not, not, not so that we become end times experts. It’s not an invitation to decode the numbers of weeks in Daniel or the symbols in Revelation so that we can either figure out who the Antichrist is or narrow down the time of His coming.
But that hasn’t stopped folks from trying! Jesus speaks of false prophets who point to the end time. The Seventh Day Adventist church was started by a supposed prophetess who predicted the day when Jesus would return. She duped a lot of people into following her. When the date that she predicted rolled around, and Jesus did not return, she declared that He actually did return but that He returned spiritually and now we are waiting for Him to return physically. Surprisingly people are still following her teachings today.
And they are not alone. There seems to be a drive in many of us to want to know all the titillation details about the end times. When I was in college I announced a Bible Study on the Book of the Revelation in my dorm and we packed a room. But when I announced that I had gotten in over my head and instead we were going to study the Book of Mark, they all bailed. We must remember that Jesus said that even He did not know the day or hour of His return and that should have us put all of our speculations to bed.
We need to also understand that Jesus did not give these warnings so that we live in a state of fear. The Scripture addresses this directly. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and love and a sound mind.” (2 Tim 1:7). But as you know too much of Christianity preaches and lives by fear. TV preachers with all their charts and corny Christian movies about end times and endless speculation about the identity of the Antichrist all fan the flames of fear. But in the end this plays right into the hand of the enemy because if you are walking in fear then you will find it difficult, if not impossible, to walk in love as God commands.
So what then is Jesus’ motive for warning us about the desolation of sacrilege, to the Temple in His day and to the Church in our day? He tells us when He says, “But take heed, I told you all things beforehand.” Another translation says, “Stay alert.” In other words He is giving us a heads up so that we won’t be taken aback and especially so that we won’t quit when the going gets tough. One commentator put it this way. Christians need to be forewarned so that they are forearmed. They will face adversity, harrowing persecution, false alarms and the ruin of nations, even their own.” (NIV Application Commentary on Mark p.505). He warns us to that we will prepare and therefore endure. In the parallel passage in Matthew Jesus says, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”Thus in giving us these warnings He is being a merciful and loving Head of the Church.
If it is true that He is giving us a heads up so that we will be prepared and endure, then we need to ask how it is that we get prepared for difficult times. If you listen to the world it is by storing large quantities of gold and silver and canned food. (And you will also need plenty of ammunition to ward off the zombies). But for the Christians suffering in Nigeria and Pakistan, and all around the world, the answer is hardly gold, silver and cans of spam. Their preparation came in more intimately knowing the One for whom they were willing to suffering. I have had the privilege of being around these folks and found their courageous faith to be infectious.
Following their example we prepare for whatever lies ahead as we have a clearer picture of who our Lord is and what our relationship with Him is all about. Let me point you to what seems to be an obscure line in our lesson that I believe opens the door to this clearer picture. “Pray that it may not happen in winter.” This line has always fascinated me. In its immediate context it was good to pray that the desolation did not happen in the winter because Jesus told them to flee to the mountains and the winter flash floods in Israel’s winter would prevent them fleeing.
But in a larger context we can discern a wonderful invitation to become a part of God’s overall plan. Here Jesus tells us of events that seem to be written in stone but then He invites us to engage in a prayer that could alter the circumstances of those events.
I would argue that Jesus would not call on us to pray a prayer that did not have the potential of being answered. To do so would mean He is toying with us, and that can never be. So if we pray that it does not happen in winter then there is at least the possibility that God would answer that prayer and make it not happen in the winter. This reflects the wonderful mystery of the relationship between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.
Jesus tells us what the future holds and because He is Truth it will happen. But because He invites us to be a part of the process, to pray that it will not happen in winter, then we know that we are not puppets or automatons or subjects of fate. We actually have a role to play in the plans of God. We may never fully understand how God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are two sides of the same coin but confessing it and believing it puts us on very solid ground and deepens our trust in the Lord.
You will see God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility interacting if you will look back at your own life with the eyes of faith. On one hand you know that you have made real choices that have significantly impacted your life. Some were good choices and some were bad choices but they brought you to where you are today.
On the other hand you should be able to see the grace of God in your life. He worked with your good choices and sometimes in spite of your bad choices and He has brought you where you are today. So our choices are real and not a product of fate but at the same time unless we are in rebellion against God we are not powerful enough to derail His plans. It is a mystery but it is true. I have said many times that if you told me when I was in my 20’s and pastoring a non-denominational church in Florida, that one day I would be an Anglican priest in Tennessee, I would have laughed you out of the building. God has a plan and you are a part of that plan and He invites you to be an active part. So pray that it may not happen in winter. Take your part…get in the game!
One of my professors in seminary put it this way. You are on a plane going from Atlanta to London. While you are on the plane you can make choices that significantly impact your flight. You can choose to eat or not eat. You can watch the movie or sleep. You may meet a person who will become an important part of your life. You can act out in such a way that gets you arrested when your flight arrives. You can even, for a very short distance, walk in the opposite direction of the plane. But in the end the plane is going to London.
The plane is going to London. His kingdom is going to come and He invites us to be a part of that victorious wonderful plan. As we see in the story of Jonah, we can do it the easy way or God can make a fish, a plant and a worm if we choose the hard way. But in the end His kingdom is going to come.
One other way that we prepare is to be established in convictions that are rooted in Scripture. If you are following Jesus because He makes you feel good, then what happens when you no longer feel good? But if you are following Jesus because He is the Way, the Truth and the Life then how you feel on any given day is completely irrelevant.
Thus the collect for today could not be more appropriate. It calls on us to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Holy Scriptures so that we will embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life. This discipline of being rooted in Scripture creates learned convictions rather than emotion based beliefs.
I read a survey done by Ligonier Ministries about the state of theology among Evangelicals. Evangelicals are Christians who believe in the centrality of the Gospel, the authority of Scripture and salvation by grace through faith. These are Bible believing folk.
The survey was unsettling. 52% said that everyone sins a little but that people are basically good by nature. But that is not what the Bible teaches. If we were good by nature then why have all sinned and more than just a little? If we were basically good why would we need a Savoir and why would we need to be born anew?
51% said that God accepts the worship of all religions. Again, if all roads are acceptable to God then what was the point of Jesus death, burial and resurrection?
The good news is that 91% said that God counts a person righteous only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ. But the bad news is that 78% said that Jesus Christ is the first and greatest being created by God. So Jesus is not “God from God, Light from Light, very God of very God, begotten not made”, as we confess each week in the Creed? Jesus is a created being? This is what Mormons believe but that is not the teaching of the Church catholic.
These results are a great argument of why we not only need to inwardly digest Holy Scripture but also to embrace Scripture informed liturgical worship where the true Christ is proclaimed by the Creeds, where our fallen condition is addressed in the Confession and where we join ourselves through the Sacrament to Christ as our only Mediator and Advocate.
Jesus is not the only one to tell us that the last days will be difficult. St. Paul wrote this to Timothy. “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power.” This sounds like St. Paul has spent too much time on Facebook.
The point is that we should not be surprised by the condition of the world around us. Again, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. We need to be prepared and have as our goal to endure to the end, because what comes at the end is better than we can think or imagine. Jesus’ prophecy for the destruction of the Temple was fulfilled so we don’t need to flee to the mountains. But in the meantime let’s continue to pray that it may not happen in winter. Let’s take an active role in God’s plans. Amen.