Sermon for November 18, 2018, Twenth-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 13:1-13 (Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 28—Series B)

“Time to Be On Guard”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

November 18, 2018


In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The text is the Gospel reading recorded in Mark 13:

1And while he was going out from the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, look what tremendous stones and buildings!” 2And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There shall surely not be left here stone on stone which shall surely not be torn down.” 3And when he had sat down on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will these things be and what is the sign when all these things are about to be completed?” 5And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name saying, ‘I am he,’ and they will lead many astray. 7Now when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. It is necessary for these things to be, but the end is not yet. 8For nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places. There will be famines. These are the beginning of the birth pains. 9But watch out for yourselves. They will hand you over to the Sanhedrin and you will be beaten in the synagogues and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake to bear witness to them. 10And first it is necessary that the Gospel be proclaimed to all the nations. 11And when they arrest you and hand you over, do not be anxious beforehand what to say, but speak whatever is given to you in that hour, for it is not you who are speaking but the Holy Spirit. 12And brother will hand over brother to death and father his child, and children will rise up against parents have will have them put to death. 13And you will be hated by all on account of me. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

          It is the middle A.D. 60s. Nero is the Roman Emperor. It is a time of severe persecution for those called “Christians” in Rome. The persecution threatens to divide and decimate the young church. The Christians in Rome were regarded as revolting despisers of people whose superstitious allegiance to Jesus was worthy of exemplary punishment. Nero’s persecution made this a horrible reality as he blamed his arson on the Christians. The Roman historian Tacitus, writing about A.D. 69 didn’t think that the Christians were justly accused of arson, but he saw no harm in “the execution of a contemptible, anti-social group ‘hated for their vices’—for by his time, if not by Nero’s, the Christians were vulgarly thought to practice incest and cannibalism at their nocturnal meetings. (These charges probably arose from language about universal love and the [Lord’s Supper].) . . . It was a precedent that magistrates had condemned Christians to death because they were Christians and on no other charge.”[1]

          The first readers of Mark’s Gospel were likely Roman Christians living in this horrible setting. How poignant were Jesus’ words to them in their life’s situation? They were harassed by the State and disturbed by the confused reports of turmoil in Galilee and Judea from various uprisings against Roman occupation. Into their alarm and concern came the Gospel of Mark, the words of Jesus as He spoke them to His disciples just 30 years prior, “See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name saying, ‘I am he,’ and they will lead many astray. Now when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. It is necessary for these things to be, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places. There will be famines. These are the beginning of the birth pains.”

          Here Jesus focuses on the events and situations rocking the Roman world of the first century. Jesus warns that the people of God may be led astray by false leaders who appear in a situation of crisis. In the Old Testament, it was the false prophets and leaders who led Israel astray, who led them to trust in other gods. Jesus cautions that the same would happen in these New Testament times. People will falsely claim to be Him, the Messiah. They will lead the people of God to believe that the time of vigilance is over. But Jesus shows that is not the case. He urges vigilance in the faith and in the mission: “See that no one leads you astray. Pay attention and be on your guard. Now is not the time to be lowering your spiritual defenses.”

          Jesus also alerts the reader to the possibility of misinterpreting the significance of contemporary events like wars and natural disasters. When disciples of the Lord Jesus hear of armed conflict and the threat of war, when they receive the reports of disasters like earthquakes, they are not to be alarmed or diverted from their task. They are to continue to remain vigilant in faith and in mission. After all, the fact of the matter is that the one true God is in control of all things, including the historical destinies of the nations. “It is necessary for these things to be, but the end is not yet.” These things point forward to the end and provide the promise that it will certainly come, but these things are the preliminaries. Jesus’ words are designed to prepare God’s people for facing a turbulent world with a firm confidence and an unwavering faith. Vigilance in faith and mission is what Jesus empowers.

          For Mark’s readers in Rome, Jesus’ words provided assurance that all the events that they heard about from wars to disasters were all under God’s control and were working for His purposes. Their task, strengthened by the Word and Spirit, was to be vigilant so that they were not led astray. They were to stand firm, refusing to be disturbed by contemporary events, for they were all under God’s control for the ultimate blessing of His people of faith.

          The second half of the text focuses Mark’s readers on what they will experience, indeed, what they WERE experiencing because of their association with Jesus Christ. Jesus’ disciples would face rejection and abuse because of their trust in Him as God and Lord. It happened to Peter, to Paul, to James our Lord’s brother. It happened to the believers in the church at Rome. Again the pastoral encouragement, “Watch out for yourselves,” Jesus said. The disciple would be like his Teacher and Lord. As Jesus was abused and persecuted, beaten and killed, so would His followers be. Even those closest to them, family members, would treat them with contempt. Followers of Jesus will be hated on account of Him! His disciples are persecuted because they are identified with Him.

          Nevertheless, these Christians were called to vigilance in faith and in mission. “And first it is necessary that the Gospel be proclaimed to all the nations.” The believers in Jesus were called to be steadfast under persecution and unbelief. They were encouraged by the Word of the Lord that those who endure these trials with faithfulness will be vindicated by God. They were called to a complete reliance on their Lord and Savior in the fulfillment of their mission in a hostile world. Despite all the opposition, the Gospel must be proclaimed throughout the world.

          The Roman Christians as they first read Mark’s Gospel and the precious words of Jesus would have understood that no suffering had come to them that had not been known beforehand by the Lord and even experienced by Him. He endured the mockery and the beatings. Jesus wore the crown of thorns and the purple robe as He was taunted and spit on and struck. He patiently bore the cross to Golgotha where He was crucified so that He would also bear in Himself the sins of the world and the full punishment of those sins. Three days later, Jesus rose again from death, forever laying death in the grave and defeating the power of sin and Satan. Through Jesus’ patient suffering, death, and resurrection, the forgiveness of sins was purchased for the world. Through the gift of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, the Holy Spirit bestows that forgiveness and salvation to the people of the world through the Gospel.

          For you who read and hear Mark’s Gospel today, the words of Jesus enable you to be vigilant in your Christian faith and in mission until the end. By the power of the Gospel, you are able to bear suffering for the name of Jesus with patience in order to fulfill the missionary task of telling people about the Savior, Jesus. The Gospel that bestows on you the forgiveness of sins and eternal life also empowers you to stand firm, relying on God to fulfill His mission through you in a hostile world.

It is not uncommon for our world today to be compared to the world of the first century. There is a marked hostility toward Christians which ranges from very subtle to very overt persecutions because of our association with Jesus Christ by faith. In various places and in various ways, even here at home, Christians are harassed by the State. We are confused by reports from around the nation and globe—wars and rumors of wars, murders, mass killings, earthquakes, wildfires, storms, and floods. And just as Jesus did for the Twelve and for His disciples in Rome, He gives us the Gospel promises in Word and Sacrament through the power of the Holy Spirit. This Gospel empowers us to be vigilant in faith and in mission so as not to be led astray by false teachers and leaders. We are empowered by the Gospel Word and the Sacraments so that we are able to refuse to be moved to crippling fear at contemporary events, for we are able to trust that these are all in God’s control for the blessing of His Church.

Through the gift and blessing of your Baptismal faith, by the hearing of the Gospel, and in the eating and drinking of Jesus’ own true Body and Blood with the bread and wine, the Savior Himself strengthens your faith even as He delivers forgiveness of all sins and eternal life to you through these Holy Means. The Word and Sacraments strengthen and empower your firm vigilance in the one, true faith and in the mission Christ has given to each believer to announce the Good News of the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, whose name you bear as His Christians.

Eusebius, the historian of the early church, records the story of aged Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. A persecution of Christians had begun and believers in Christ were being rounded up. Christians were threatened with wild beasts or death at the stake unless they denied Christ and swore allegiance to Caesar. Polycarp was arrested and brought before the proconsul, who urged him, “Swear by Caesar’s fortune; change your attitude. . . . Swear, and I will set you free: curse Christ.” Polycarp answered, “For 86 years I have been His servant, and He has never done me wrong: how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”[2] How vigilant and firm in faith and in mission Polycarp must have appeared to the watching crowds as the torch was set to the stake! Let the same be said of you and me as we remain more firmly vigilant in the faith and the mission of Jesus today.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (London: Pelican Books, 1967), 25-26.

[2] Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, tr. G. A. Williamson (Minneapolis: Augsburg) 171.

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