Saturday, November 10, 2012

Lots of Signs But No Definite Time... Until the end of the world: the Olivet discourse part 1 (matthew 24:1-44)

I don’t know about you but Matthew 24 for me brings up images of the lunatic fringe standing on the street corner proclaiming imminent doom.


Maybe when you’ve seen the poster’s for the sermon series on Matthew 24-25 that I’ve put up round the church and on our website and my facebook page , you heard a splashing noise and thought ‘Is Howard about to jump off the deep end and join that lunatic fringe?’ I’ll leave that call up to you, after today’s sermon OK.

Part of the reason I wanted to look at Jesus teaching in what is called the Olivet discourse, Jesus teaching on the end times, at this time, is because we have been living through a time when there is a heightened expectation amongst some people that the end is near. There is the whole Mayan calendar supposedly running out on December 21st 2012, popularised by the 2009 apocalyptic movie  ‘2012’, we have just enough time to fit this in before then. Radio preacher Harold Camping made worldwide headlines  last year when he said that the rapture, that is one understanding of scriptures view that believers would be taken up to heaven before a time of significant turmoil that would signal Christ’s return, would happen on May 21st 2011. When it didn’t happen he told people it had been delayed till September to give people a final chance to turn back to God. 


We actually live in a time of significant social change and upheaval that have got some people pondering is this the end. That has got some people talkn bout the end of the world. In our nuclear age we’ve lived with the doomsday clock set at 5 minutes to midnight.

and we find ourselves faced with the possibility that the end just may be a slow sinking under the effects of our own rampant consumerism.  We see in our headlines each day new discoveries and new ideas that will change the world as we know it.


I thought In the middle of all the muddle it would be good to get our head around what Jesus actually had to say. We’ve just been looking at the Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of Jesus ministry as it recorded in Matthew 5-7  and now it is good to look at what Jesus has to say to his disciples at the end of his ministry, in the midst of Holy Week, right before his death and resurrection, in the shadow of the cross you could say. How are they and we going to live out this radical new way that Jesus has invited us to live in the midst of what Jesus tells us is going to be times of change and turmoil. How are we going To follow Jesus until the end of the world. 

Matthew 24 and 25 contain this teaching of Jesus. It starts with Jesus leaving the temple for the last time and his disciple’s admiration of the beauty and seeming permanence of the Temple which had just finished being rebuilt. Jesus tells his disciples that the temple will be destroyed, that not one stone will be left on top of the other (v1-2) and later as Jesus is sitting on the mount of olives, between Jerusalem and where it tells us in the other gospels the Jesus  was staying, the disciples ask him two questions about what he had Just said. For them as Jews the temple was the centre of their faith and the political aspirations of the Jews as a people. It was the sign of God’s abiding presence with his people.

 Jesus answers their questions by giving them a list of signs and warnings , that we are going to look at today and then Jesus goes on in a series of four parables to tell his disciples how to live out their faith in him until the end of the world, which we will be looking at over the next four weeks.  That’s a long introduction lets turn to look at the passage we had read out to us today.

The disciples had accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem, on what we celebrate as palm Sunday. Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem to the accolade of the crowd. If the crowd didn’t fully get the significance of what was going on Jesus disciples did, there was the expectation that Jesus was going to pronounced king and that Israel would be freed from roman occupation. They had been in the temple and Jesus had spoken out strongly against the corrupt religious order, now they were heading out of the temple to head back to where they were staying. They try and draw Jesus attention to the temple which would have just been rebuilt and Jesus drops a bomb shell on them. He tells them that this building will be destroyed , that not one stone will be left on top of the other. You can imagine that this had the disciples rather confused. It would be like going to Christchurch before the earthquake and being told as you stood staring up at the cathedral that it would very soon be just a pile of rubble.


So they ask Jesus two questions, when is that going to happen? And as they realise it means Jesus isn’t going to be crowned as king right then and there, what will be the sign of your coming, literally your royal appearance, and the end of the age. What we have in the rest of Matthew 24 is Jesus response. Jesus tells them there will be many signs but he’s not definite about times.


He warns them that he does not want them to be deceived, that there will be many false messiahs and begins to tell them that there will be signs like earthquakes and famine and wars and rumours of war that these will be like labour pains of the coming age. He says that the disciples will be persecuted, but despite all this the gospel would be preached to all nations or tribes. That there would be a sign that was foretold in the book of Daniel, of a pagan statue or symbol that would be raised in the temple grounds, like had happened in the time of the Maccabean rebellion. That after that would appear signs in the sky, that may just be poetic language like in the Old Testament to talk of the rise and fall of empires and civilizations and that the whole earth would be aware of the coming of the son of man. He goes on to say that the disciples needed to stay awake and be on watch. No one would now the hour or the day.

Historically there have been many ways of understanding this passage. There are two extremes time wise. The fist could be likened to a camera lens seeing the action of the day. The reality is that in 70AD the roman’s sacked Jerusalem and burned the city and dismantled the temple stone by stone. What Jesus said came to pass, and some scholars have said that everything Jesus said had to do with that historic event, those who see Matthew’s gospel as written after 70 AD would go so far as to say it was added into the gospel narrative with hindsight. But you can point to definite earthquakes and famine and wars and rumours of war.  Caligula had planned to build a statue of himself in Jerusalem in 40 ad and the roman imperial standard were bought into the city and temple area in 70AD. The Christian Historian Josephus even records the Christians in Jerusalem fleeing and not becoming part of following false messiahs who were looking for a military response to ending roman rule. They point to verse 34 where Jesus says that that generation with him now will not pass away without seeing these entire thing coming to pass. Likewise they see Jesus royal coming in his crucifixion, portrayed in Mark and john’s gospel as a coronation and his resurrection.

The other temporal extreme could be likened to looking through a telescope  seeing these things as far off and yet to come. That while they can point to certain things that happened in Jesus day they await their fulfilment a some future date. In fact there is the tendency of people to look for these signs in the events of their own day. I remember my New Testament lecturer saying that when he was a student he had seen a bible in an incinerator and being a good Christian lad he didn’t think that was right so reached in to save it. The bible had been printed in the 1940’s and had notes all through it interpreting the prophecies in the Old and New Testament  in light of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.


I think we need to look at this passage and its signs and warnings through both lenses. Historically and prophetically, they have happened and they will keep happening. In every age the church has experienced world shattering events, faith shaking tribulation, the symbols of faith and certainty have been destroyed or replaced; there is also the constant existence of false teachers, false messiahs and false prophets.

We can get caught up in the signs, and actually miss what Jesus is telling us. We can focus o  the signs and miss the person.

We can speculate about dates and interpret world events. I had a friend frantically come looking for me as the whole of the world watched pictures of the 9/11 terror attack, wanting to know if anything like this was foretold in the bible.  But says Jesus that’s not what it means to follow Jesus. Jesus is telling us these things so we will not be caught out, but we need to always be ready because the kingdom of God will break into human history at a time when it is least expected. In fact says Jesus despite all those signs life will continue as normal.  There will be big events but from the look of it life will continue as it always has. We need to live out our faith in our everyday life. He gives the example of a burglary saying that if the burglar advertised a head of time when he came the owner of the house would be ready. But we don’t know the time so be ready now. Live like Christ was coming today.


Let me finishing by teasing out what that means, and remember we will look at it more fully in the next few weeks. So these are like scribbled notes.

The first thing is not to be deceived, all the way through this passage Jesus warns about false messiahs and false saviours, false teaching that will draw people away from him. It is easy as we move through times of change and upheaval  or even comfortable and settled times to look to other false messiahs. In the last period of the church declining in the west church leaders have been guilty of chasing this new programme or this new teaching, or this leadership style, this new technology, or worship style like it is the answer, instead of a fixed focus on following Jesus, on living out the sermon on the mount in obedience to Christ. We are constantly invited to see answers and messiahs to life issues and problems in consumer goods and services, or in technology and modern medicine, or we can put our hope and trust in the rituals and traditions that we have known in our life, and they can become our hope Rather than the person they point to, not that those things are not good and helpful. But if we see them as the answer and the purpose of life we are deceiving ourselves, it is only found in following Jesus.

Secondly, amidst all that can go on in the world we can lose sight of the sovereignty of God. Underlying Jesus knowledge of what will happen is the reality that God is at work and control in the world. Despite the seeming swirls and whirls of history the rise and the fall of empires and nations, political systems and ideologies, God is working his purposes out in human history. Despite the persecution of the early church the gospel is preached and continues to be preached to all peoples. In fact when you read the book of Acts persecution is one of the ways God gets his people to move out of their comfort zones. There is the assurance that while heaven and earth might pass away that God’s word will not. It allows us as Christians to have hope, to trust God and to persevere.

Finally and I’ve already allured to it. In the swirl and whirl of all these thing you and I are called to continue simply following Jesus… loving each other… keeping the fire of love and devotion for Jesus alive… investing in the Kingdom of Heaven… caring for the lost and the least as in doing that we will encounter Jesus.

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