Sermon for Pentecost 23, Year B
Based on Mk. 13:1-8
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Several years ago, the Calgary Herald published the following news item, entitled, Doomsday church apologizes, disbands:
SEOUL (AP) – The largest of the churches that were predicting the imminent end of the world disbanded this week—not with a bang or a whimper, but an apology.
“We are sorry for creating problems to the nation and the established churches by misinterpreting the Bible,” said a statement by the Mission of the Coming Days church released through newspapers this week.
The church had predicted that “the rapture”—the faithful’s ascension to heaven—would occur the previous Wednesday. According to the biblical Book of Revelation, that was to be followed by seven years of tribulation, culminating in Armageddon and the world’s end. Hundreds and possibly thousands of followers sold property, abandoned their families, quit schools and jobs and deserted military posts.
The church said it had 10,000 followers. Another 10,000 doomsday believers belonged to other sects.
The decision to disband was approved by Lee Jang-rim, 46, the church’s founder, who is now in jail on charges of swindling parishioners.1
The End Times….Throughout the Church’s history, scores of people have been preoccupied with the end times. A good number of first-century Christians believed that Christ’s second coming would take place in their lifetime. Around the turn of almost every century since then, people have predicted that the end is near.
Then—to add even more confusion and divisions—we have some Christians who call themselves dispensationalists, others who go by the titles pre-millenialists, millenialists, and post-millenialists. If that doesn’t confuse you, then add to your list a host of crack-pots, fly-by-night fortunetellers, charlatans, prophets and messiahs—not to mention, of course, the televangelists. The number of people who consider it their “stock-in-trade” to predict the end times are enough to leave even the clearest-headed reeling.
Far too many people have the insatiable obsession of wanting to know exactly when the end times are coming. They go to great lengths to try and convince others that they have a monopoly on the truth. They employ all sorts of methods to shock, scare, sensationally entertain, and mesmerize people into believing that they are able to unravel every mystery in the Bible. They spell out, in great detail, the exact world events and personalities which shall usher in the end times. What this all leads to is a terrible abuse and misinterpretation of the Bible. William Barclay spoke of this phenomenon very strongly, when he contended that:
Human speculation about the time of the Second Coming is not only useless, it is blasphemous; for surely no (one) should seek to gain a knowledge which is hidden from Jesus Christ himself and resides only in the mind of God.2
In our gospel today, that is precisely the point Jesus is making when he warns his disciples and all of his future would-be followers—including us!—against being led astray by false messiahs and charlatan end times prophets. Notice that Jesus begins his answer to the question of when the end times shall come by a strong, cautionary warning: “Beware that no one leads you astray.” This warning is as applicable to us as it was to the first disciples. Do not be hoodwinked or bewitched by false prophets and messiahs who predict the end times.
Jesus continues his answer by referring to wars, earthquakes, famines, persecutions, and even family betrayals. When we study history, we discover that there have always been wars, earthquakes and famines. When we study the history of Christianity, we also discover that in every century, Christians have experienced persecutions and family betrayals. So what, then, is Jesus’ point?
Well, as I read and interpret this section of Mark’s gospel, I believe that Jesus is instructing us to live each day as if it could be our last—for no one but God knows the day or hour. Therefore, this is very much an Advent theme-wait, watch, be aware, keep alert to greet the Messiah when he comes. We don’t really know when our personal end will come—it could be right now, then again, it could be many years from now. Nonetheless live life to the very fullest, make the best of life RIGHT NOW!
If we interpret Jesus’ words in this way, then we shall have nothing to fear or worry about or dread. Every day is a gift from God to do with as God pleases, with our trust and hope put into action—that is why we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven.”
When we read, hear and interpret apocalyptic literature, there are at least two dangerous temptations which we can fall into. One is to take an extremely literalist approach along with an overconfident, smug attitude that we know the exact scenario of the end times and hence, we surrender ourselves to a fatalism; wherein we can do nothing to change the evils and injustices in the world, they are just a sign that the end is near. Thus we must not do anything to change things in the world, since the world is “going to hell in a hand basket” very soon anyway. The best we can do is passively sit back and wait for it to end. This temptation, in addition to being extremely literalist and fatalistic, forgets one of the most significant messages of the Bible, namely: that God loves the world and cares deeply what happens to it and in it. Moreover, he has called and equipped us to care for it too.
The other dangerous temptation is, once again to take an overconfident, smug attitude towards this literature, but going to the extreme in the other direction. This approach does not take apocalyptic literature seriously enough, writing it off as too earth shattering, too contradictory of the natural, scientific order of the world. Hence, this approach loves the world as it is right now so much, that it dismisses the possibility of God’s radical, unscientific supernatural intervention on a cosmic scale in the future. This temptation places all of its hope in the goodness and constant natural progress of humankind and the world. We and the world are getting better every day, in every way. We, not God are the masters of our future destiny.
Over against these two dangerous temptations is Christ’s middle way, as he teaches it in our gospel today. We are to live each day to its very fullest, with wise discernment that is well-grounded in the scriptures, not falling prey to every false prophet or messiah. We are to speak, think, and act in faith, hope and love for the sake of the world and as servants of
God. Then, we shall live each day, not with fear, dread, despair and apathy, but with an openness to every day as a gift of grace, filled with many opportunities to encounter Christ and serve him and his realm in our daily round of life.