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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - November 19, 2006

Almost a year ago, the church year started with a reading from Mark 13.  Today, on this next to last Sunday of the church year we return to this chapter and its somewhat frightening talk of wars and rumors of wars, persecutions, earthquakes, and famine, all of which finally leads, later in the chapter, to days when the moon will be darkened, the sun will not give off it’s light, the stars will fall from the heavens until the people see “the Son of Man coming in clouds, with great power and glory.”

The first time I encountered this chapter was as a confirmation student many years ago.  We were required to read each of the gospels in their entirety and being conscientious I did it.  I don’t think I was a real student of current events at the time, but I knew enough to know that wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famine were happening somewhere in the world so I was pretty sure the end was near…and I was a little scared because I was also pretty sure that I wasn’t ready for it.

This chapter of Mark has traditionally been viewed as talk of the end of the world, the end of the space-time universe including the second coming of Jesus descending in the clouds, much as he was thought to have ascended into the clouds in the Ascension story.  That’s one interpretation of what Jesus is talking about here but it’s not the only one.  Another interpretation says that first century Jews would have had no such concept of the known universe coming to an end so they would have heard this as having to do with more worldly events that would impact their lives in the here and now. 

This interpretation sees Mark 13 not being about the end of the world, but about the end of the world as they knew it, most specifically the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in the year 70.  That’s another way to think about this chapter, that it’s not about the end times, but about events that can radically change our present lives and our perceptions of things.  In our time, 9/11 would be such an end of the world kind of event.  Can we know for sure what Jesus was talking about here?  No.  Might both interpretations be valid?  Yes.  Does how we look at it matter?  Maybe, maybe not.

This has always been a challenging text, there’s a lot written about it, but it seems clear to me anyway that Jesus, in his immediate context, must have been talking at least in part about world changing events closely related to first century Jerusalem.  There must be a here and now component to this otherwise it just doesn’t fit well with the rest of  Mark.  After all, if Jesus was just talking about the end of the space and time world he might have been viewed by the religious and political authorities as a nut case, but he wouldn’t have been much of a threat to them.  Talk of the end of the existing Jerusalem power structures, the end of the world as they knew it, that was a threat and that’s what got him in trouble. 

Having said all that though, it still doesn’t preclude the long standing interpretations of this chapter that look to the end times, the second coming, judgment, whatever all that that might look like.  All of that is part of our tradition and as mysterious as it may be or as distant as it may seem, we don’t want to disregard it. So both interpretations, end of the world and end of the world as we know it, deserve consideration.    

Probably what’s most important for us is that whichever way we look at it, verse 5 is a key.  It reads, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.”  Similar warnings to beware are found in three other places in this chapter so it seems logical to think that being alert, being aware is important however this text is understood.  It’s important in how we live out our faith, important in how we understand the events of our time and also important in how we understand events that may announce the end times.

Jesus’ view was that the Jerusalem temple establishment, the religious big shots had led the people astray and because of that much deserved wrath was going to come down on them.  The disciples wanted to know when all this was going to happen.  We always want to know when.  But Jesus lets us know that that’s the wrong question.  He just says be alert; we don’t need to know when, but we do have to know when we’re being led down the wrong path. 

So he calls us to be alert to those who might misuse the gospel, those who claim to speak for him but whose words actually betray him and his message. The gospels themselves are haunted by such betrayals, often by his closest associates, the disciples as they jockey for positions of greatness quite contrary to Jesus’ teachings of humility, the first shall be last; at one point they want to wipe out a Samaritan village which wasn’t exactly Jesus’ style; they wanted to keep little children away from Jesus; they wind up trying to defend him with swords in the garden of Gethsemane using the violence that he preached against.

Christian history is not much better, in fact probably worse.  “They shall either be converted or wiped out,” said St. Bernard of Clairvaux concerning Slavic pagans.  That’s a saint who said that, they shall be converted or wiped out.  Statements like that justified the crusades which involved genocide, forced conversions, butchery and baptism, all of which were seen as the work of God, all officially sanctioned by the church.    

Lutherans would look at the sale of indulgences by the church in Luther’s time as another example of Jesus’ message being betrayed, as the church in essence put salvation up for sale, but we also have to acknowledge that Luther himself can be accused of betraying the message of Jesus.  He more or less sanctioned the slaughter of German peasants when some of the events of the Reformation got out of control, and he said some nasty, vicious things about the Jews which Hitler, many years later, picked up on and ran with.

It doesn’t get much better as history moves along.  Christians of many stripes looked the other way at slavery, looked the other way at the holocaust, the Ku Klux Klan claimed, I suppose still does claim, to be a Christian group, today both liberal and conservative groups try to co-opt Jesus to further their political, economic and nationalistic agendas and ideologies, there are groups calling themselves Christians who make persecution and hatred of gays their primary mission.    “Many will come in my name and they will lead many astray.”  “Be alert!”

We know that our society is filled with ungodly voices and influences.  That’s just the way it is.  What Jesus is talking about here though is particularly insidious because these are voices which claim to be godly but which actually become more dangerous, more evil than the ones that are blatantly ungodly.  Wrapping themselves in the name of Jesus, the people behind these voices can lead people to think first of all that they must be “good” because Christians are good, and that they must be right, because they seem to speak with such knowledge and authority, often they can quote the Bible, chapter and verse far better than any of us can.

How can one be alert?  How can one beware that they are not being led astray?  The best answer I can give to that is know the Bible, and know Jesus.  The Bible says a lot of things and speaks in a wide variety of voices to the extent that you can pull an isolated verse and make a case for just about anything you want to.  It’s easy to use the Bible to lead people astray. For us though, the primary biblical voice we listen to is the voice of Jesus.  It’s Jesus and his voice that you want to know in order to be alert. 

Now Jesus says a lot of things too.  His message is not without difficulty either.  But, (perhaps it’s because I’m doing a Bible study on it right now), I would suggest the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew as a good place to start.  I would encourage you to go home and read these chapters and to reread them frequently.  Here you find Jesus’ core ethical teachings, teachings which none of us can keep perfectly, in fact we can’t even come close, but they give us a pretty good idea of what his vision of life and the world is. 

As you try to filter what different voices are saying, especially those claiming to speak in the name of Jesus, ask yourself if what they say fits with the Sermon on the Mount.  If it doesn’t, reject it.  As you consider what your response should be to the events that impact your life, including those end of the world as we know it kind of events, think about what Jesus taught.  As you consider how to live in order to be prepared for the end times, whether it’s the end of the world or the end of your life, think about what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s a pretty good filter…a pretty good guide.

Know the Bible.  Know Jesus.  It’s the way to be alert, the way not to be led astray.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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