Scripture: Mark 13:1-11
For as long as there has been human history, there have been conspiracy theories. These are ideas that the world is not as we perceive it, that what seems observably true is a myth, and this hoax is all being manipulated by power players hidden in the shadows. In our internet age where information can be shared at high speed and anyone can put suggestive text over a picture, conspiracy theories have flourished. A good example of this is the belief that the world is flat has made a resurgence. In fact this past spring over 200 people gathered in England for a flat earth conference. Another example is 4% of the US population is sympathetic to the conspiracy theory that the world is secretly ran by a race of lizard people. Four percent does not sound like a lot, but that equates to over twelve million people who believe that. There are dozens and dozens of conspiracy theories that are just as crazy. Nearly always these conspiracy theories have zero real evidence to back it up, mountains of real physical and eye witness evidence to deny it, but the believers are persistent in their conspiracy theory beliefs. The mindset that leads to the belief in conspiracy theories can also infect and impact our faith.
I have experienced this first hand, and I remember attending a church once that essentially peddled a religious version of a conspiracy theory. I mostly attended this church my sophomore year of college because it is where my roommate went and he had a car. There was one particular Sunday where the pastor announced he was not going to do his prepared message and instead bring an important end times update. You see, this church had a very specific understanding of the book of Revelation and how the imagery in that book would play out. This was in 2002, and there was violence between Israelis-and Palestinians. Egypt had done some sort of posturing, and this had convinced this particular pastor that his understanding of the end times was beginning to play out before him. He explained this in detail for forty five minutes and he seemed fairly convicted that the end times were kicking off in the next few months. Now I am not an expert on his timeline or viewpoints, but sixteen years later I think it safe to say that he was wrong about his understandings of current events. He heard of wars and rumors of war and got alarmed, which is exactly what Jesus said not to do. It is easy to look at the state of the world, and feel like we are in uncertain times. It is easy to look at the state of the world and resign ourselves to doom and gloom. This morning’s scripture comes from uncertain times, Jesus warned his disciples and those warnings still apply today.
Jesus begins in this morning’s scripture by publicly declaring the destruction of the temple. This clearly did not sit well with the disciples because as soon as they get a chance privately they ask for more details. I have to wonder if part of their unease is because Jesus’ proclamation lined up with some of the conspiracy theories of the time. Their nervousness was understandable, because these were uncertain times indeed for the Jews. Their homeland was occupied territory by the far more powerful Roman Empire. The Romans believed they had achieved the greatest culture the world had ever known, and they were not shy about pushing their culture values on everyone. The pluralistic, pagan culture clashed sharply with the monotheistic Jewish faith and the traditional Jewish culture that was dedicated to protecting their religious beliefs. In the past this has led to conflict, and there were plenty of Jewish zealots ready to fight again. Ancient Israel during this time must have felt a bit like a powder keg, everyone knew just one spark and the whole thing would blow. The greatest symbol of the Jewish culture and religious belief was the temple. There was likely a lot of anxiety and concern that in an effort to bring the Jewish people in line, the Romans might just be done with it and destroy the whole thing. The fact that the Roman Empire build the garrison, the Antonia Fortress, right next to the temple probably did not help matters. Jesus disciples were anxious about an uncertain future which is why they asked Jesus for more details.
This morning’s scripture is just a section of chapter 13 from Mark, Jesus continues for the entirety of the chapter describing a future time that can best be described as “the end times.” The language and imagery Jesus describes here does draw similarities to Revelation and it draws similarities to ancient apocalyptic literature. However, the words of Jesus are markedly different. If we look at the description of tribulation and judgement in Revelation for instance it is grim dark stuff. However, in this morning’s scripture even though Jesus is talking about times that will be uncertain and bumpy, he does so with hope. When the world will seem lost to chaos, Jesus urges do not be alarmed. When Jesus talks about the possibility of persecution, his message is “do not worry, the Holy Spirit will guide you.”
In this morning’s scripture Jesus described wars and rumors of war. That is largely true of our times as well. Just this week violence flared up again on the Gaza strip. Jesus also mentioned natural disasters that are the beginning of birthing pains. Last year the most devastating hurricanes in modern history devastated the Caribbean, and California is being engulfed by one of its worst wildfires right now. Jesus talked about persecution, and while we are fortunate enough to live in a place where we are not threatened in that way, persecution is a very real occurrence in the world today. We may not be living in the exact times that Jesus described in this scripture, but the reality is the calamities, the potential fear, and the uncertainty that is implied in these scriptures is something we are all familiar with.
At the end of the 13th chapter of Mark, Jesus stresses that only the Father knows the time and the place when this all goes down. However, it is clear that in describing these future event he was working with some divine, inside information. Jesus shared with his disciples some glimpses of some grim times. Yet he did not do it in a way that can be fully characterized as doom and gloom. Jesus described this time in a way that was calm, and non-anxious. He did it in a way that sought to reinforce inner peace and in a way that ultimately was full of hope. This is an example of Jesus that I think we can learn from.
In fact, I think there are three lessons we can learn here and apply into our lives. One of the reasons why Jesus is able to talk about some potentially depressing stuff in a way that remains peaceful and hopeful is because Jesus has an eternal perspective. Often in the midst of crisis we tend to get caught up in the now. We become myopic in our thought process and we cannot rationally think beyond the immediate pressure. We worry, which is a conversation with ourselves about things we cannot change. Instead, let us learn to follow the example of Jesus. Instead of worry, let us pray-which is conversation with God about things that God can change. Let us be heaven focused in our thought process and hopefully look to God’s future provision. No matter how grim, no matter how dark, no matter how much doom and gloom we feel in our lives, the end of the story does not change. Friends, I read the end last chapter already. Spoiler alert: God wins, evil is defeated, and love prevails. No amount of war, disaster, persecution, or loss can ever change the unrelenting love God has for us. This perspective does not change the potential pain of going through low times, but this perspective ensures that our hope for a future and our assurance that God is with us never diminishes.
The second lesson we should consider taking to heart in this morning’s scripture is the warning Jesus gives in verse 5 when “Jesus said to them: Watch out that no on deceives you.” Again, this warning is just as relevant today. In fact I wonder if it is even more relevant today. Advertisers are masters are manipulation and deception. We live in an era of 24 hour spin, alternative facts, and fake news. There are so many voices that have an agenda in this world today that seek to deceive us. Many of these voices are harbingers of doom and gloom. I know that my entire life, there has been an ongoing cultural message that things are getting worse, that the world is not like it used to be. If that was truly, true then after three decades of things getting that much worse we should be living in some sort of Mad Max post-apocalyptic wasteland by this point. We have to be cautious no one deceives us, because if we are not careful then we can become focused on the doom and gloom. Our attention can be consumed by one crisis, only to be followed by the next. Our hope gets misplaced in science, in policy, in party, or in political figures. If we do not watch out then we can be deceived into taking our eyes of God and stare in anxiousness at the fallen world around us. If we do not watch out then we can be deceived so that we stop following Jesus and instead follow whoever is getting the most media exposure at the time. If we do not watch out then we can lose our footing and plant ourselves in a chaotic world and an ever changing culture. Instead, may we not be deceived. May we keep our eyes fastened upon our savior, and may we claim as the old hymn says, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is shrinking sand.”
The final lesson we can take from this scripture is that we should model the example of Jesus in the world. Remember, the disciples had a lot of anxiety. While Jesus did not sugar coat what was to come, he also did not whip the disciples into a full nervous panic. He spoke hard truth but did it in a way that was full of hope and free of anxiety. That is the example we can model. We can be a non-anxious presence in the world, and right now that is something the world needs. When we turn on the TV, look in the paper, or browse the Internet we tend to see bad news followed by more bad news. Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have the good news! The world may obsess over the bad news of the day, but we should be proclaiming with our words and our actions the good news of unending love and eternal salvation. As the people around us get wound up tighter and tighter about who said what, about who did what we can be calm people who proclaim peace and hope through all of the noise. As the world is consumed by wars and rumors of war, fear of disaster, and anxiety of the unknown we can be a holy people who declare through our words and actions “best of all, God is with us.”
In this scripture Jesus talked about a future time of troubles and tribulations. This future end times may be soon or it may not, only God the Father knows the time and place. The reality is that there will always be troubles, tribulations, and potential signs. It can be easy to get caught up in the details and lose track of the main directive: “Watch out that no on deceives you.” May we not get caught up in the doom and gloom. May we not be deceived, but instead may we keep our eyes fixed on God, may follow Jesus, and may we be filled with a hope that cannot be diminished. In a world of bad news may we share the good news of God the Father and Jesus Christ his son.