24 “At that time, after the anguish of those days, the sun will be darkened, the moon will give no light,
25 the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26 Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory.
27 And he will send out his angels to gather his chosen ones from all over the world—from the farthest ends of the earth and heaven.
28 “Now learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branches bud and its leaves begin to sprout, you know that summer is near.
29 In the same way, when you see all these things taking place, you can know that his return is very near, right at the door.
30 I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene before all these things take place.
31 Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear.
N “However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows.
33 And since you don’t know when that time will come, be on guard! Stay alert[f]!
34 “The coming of the Son of Man can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. When he left home, he gave each of his slaves instructions about the work they were to do, and he told the gatekeeper to watch for his return.
35 You, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know when the master of the household will return—in the evening, at midnight, before dawn, or at daybreak.
36 Don’t let him find you sleeping when he arrives without warning. 37 I say to you what I say to everyone: Watch for him!”
Our theme today is My Lord, what a Morning and is based on today’s set Gospel reading, which comes from Mark chapter 13. But the title I’ve chosen comes from an old negro spiritual that describes the events Jesus spoke of in that passage.
On this, the first Sunday of Advent, the prescribed Gospel reading is always taken from one of three almost identical passages in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark or Luke. This year, the reading comes from Mark; and like the others it includes some startling words about the end of the age and the return of Jesus to establish his eternal kingdom in its fullness.
For 2000 years Christians have pondered exactly what it was that Jesus meant when he spoke of his coming again to this world. It’s clear from the New Testament epistles and from church history that those early Christians expected Jesus to return in their lifetime. But it didn’t happen, and so the Church was compelled to rethink what Jesus really did mean when he spoke of his imminent return.
Throughout history there have been times when catastrophic events - like the Black Death that killed half the World’s population - caused people to think that the end of the world had come. But when it didn’t, as in the early Church, this doctrine got put aside until the next time something happened to create widespread alarm.
One such was the start of the new millennium, 20 years ago, when there was much speculation about the fact that it was now 2000 years since Christ’s first coming. Many Christian fundamentalists, who believed the world was only 6000 years old, thought each millennium represented one day of creation, and we were now about to enter the 7th day – God’s Sabbath. But once again, the end didn’t come. And now, faced with the effects of climate change and possible new pandemics even greater than Covid-19, many are wondering again if these are the signs.
Now, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke record what the Apostles remembered of the teachings of Jesus. Some things only appear in one of them, and others in two. But when something appears in all three, we can be sure it was a teaching that had impressed itself strongly on their minds.
And of these, one of the most arresting was what Jesus said about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the events that would mark the end of this age and the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. The thing that gave rise to this was the disciples’ sense of awe and wonder as they looked upon the temple in Jerusalem - one of the great wonders of the ancient world. You can imagine their amazement when Jesus told them the day was coming when it would all be utterly destroyed. That prediction came true forty years later when the people of Israel rebelled against the Romans and the Romans laid siege to the city in what turned out to be one of the most horrific sieges in history.
But it doesn’t end there. Jesus goes on to say: “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” These words are almost identical with words from the prophecy of Isaiah, written several centuries before, and concerned God’s judgement on the nations.
And then Jesus says: “At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens”.
These words refer to more than the destruction of Jerusalem. They echo the words of the Old Testament prophets who warned of the coming Day of the Lord. They also speak of the return of Christ.
In Mark chapter 13, and the equivalent passages in Matthew and Luke, Jesus was echoing one of the great themes of the Old Testament. It was what they called The Day of the Lord. The Jews regarded time as being in two ages: this present age which is full of evil and called out for judgement, and the golden age to come when God’s reign would be supreme over all the earth. But in between would be “the Day of the Lord,” a terrible time of cosmic upheaval and destruction, the birth pangs of the new age.
These passages caused the early Christians to believe Christ’s return was imminent. But he didn’t return, and that raises the question whether the Gospels got it wrong, or do we misinterpret them? The difficulty is that when we include the whole chapter – not just the last bit we read today - Jesus seems to be talking about two different events which in the Gospels merge into each other.
The first part of the chapter clearly refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, which took place 40 years later, within the lifetime of those people. Then it moves on to warnings about persecution to come and finally to these verses we just read that speak of Jesus’ return to establish his eternal kingdom in all its fullness.
So why does it all seem so confusing? It’s probably because the gospel writers collected whatever they remembered Jesus saying about certain subjects and then put them all together. Here there are several different strands of Jesus teaching about the future, all lumped together, making it seem like one continuous event, when in reality he was talking about a process over many centuries. Unfortunately, it has led to endless speculation about his return that has often caused confusion and shaken people’s faith when Jesus didn’t return when some charismatic preacher predicted he would.
But there’s one thing that continuously seems to get overlooked. Jesus specifically told his disciples not to waste their time trying to work out when it would all happen. ‘Noone knows about that day or hour,’ he said, ‘not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Even he, himself would not speculate on when it would happen.
When you read these words, it makes you wonder why so many preachers over the centuries have made such wild predictions; and why crowds of people have believed them. Like the Millerites – the precursors of the Seventh Day Adventist Church – whose leader, William Miller, predicted that Christ would return on October 22nd 1844. Thousands of devout Americans sold their possessions and sat up in their best clothes until past midnight waiting for the Lord’s return. But it didn’t happen. They called it The Great Disappointment. And there have been many more like them, including a group who built a pavilion at Balmoral Beach to see Christ return through the Heads of Sydney Harbour.
I think it’s true to say that throughout history there have been two extremes in relation to this subject that have constantly eaten away at people’s faith. The first is to pay no attention to the truth of our Lord’s return; and the other is to become obsessed with it.
Despite what I previously said about not speculating on when Christ will return, I can almost hear some of you saying: ‘But didn’t Jesus talk about the “signs of the times” Well it’s true, the New Testament does refer to things that must happen before Jesus returns. However, there is a difference between recognising this and speculating on actual dates.
Professor Louis Berkhof, one of the 20th Century’s most eminent systematic theologians, lists 5 great events that the New Testament says will precede Christ’s return. The first is that Jesus said the end would not come until the Gospel had been preached to all nations. Matthew’s Gospel puts it this way:
‘This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.’ Now that’s one that we could well say has only been fulfilled in our time. There is today no nation on earth where the Church is not present.
The second event is the conversion of the people of Israel. The Apostle Paul speaks of this in his epistle to the Romans, chapter 11: ‘All Israel will be saved’ he says. This may mean the whole Jewish nation will turn to Christ, but it is more likely that it simply means that in the end days large numbers of Jewish people will recognise Jesus as their Messiah.
The third event is what Biblical scholars usually call the Great Apostasy. The Bible teaches repeatedly that toward the end of the age there will be a great falling away from faith in God. ‘But mark this,’ it says. ‘There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God… Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.’
The fourth event is something that 1st John, 2nd Thessalonians and the Book of Revelation all predict; namely the coming of the Antichrist. The Bible teaches that at the end of the age there will emerge a world ruler who will stand out as the incarnation of wickedness. We’ve seen prototypes already in characters like Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. 2 ndThessalonians says: Don’t let anyone deceive you…for that day will not come until …the man of lawlessness is revealed…he will exalt himself and oppose everything that is called God…’
And the fifth event relates to striking signs – fearful portents in the heavens that will mark the beginning of the end. Today’s reading spoke of them: ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
After these signs, it says, the Son of Man will appear with great power and glory. And here, in these five significant events, I think we probably have the ‘signs of the times’ Jesus talked about.
However, the final word must always go to Jesus himself. And the Book of Acts tells us that his very last words to his disciples were these: ‘You don’t get to know the time of my coming. Timing is the Father’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you’ll be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.’
In other words, he was saying to them, and to us; Yes, history is moving inexorably to its God-appointed conclusion. And there are things that have to happen before I come again. But you don’t have to worry about the wars and rumours of wars; about the famines and earthquakes; about the fearful things in the world around and the heavens above.
What you have to do is get on with the job of being my witnesses to the very ends of this world and to the end of the age. And as you do it, be always ready, because you don’t know when I’m going to come, or when I might just come for you.
And that is why, on this first Sunday of Advent, the candle we light is the candle of hope.