When I was at primary school I had a thing about dinosaurs. I think it drove everyone round the bend. It didn’t just stop at a plastic Tyrannosaurus fighting a toy Triceratops – I had to go the whole hog and convert my bedroom into a museum. Birthday presents were dinosaur themed – usually the latest book on prehistoric monsters.
I remember one book which was properly scientific, written by a leading expert. In one chapter he discussed a great mystery: why did the dinosaurs become extinct? In the early ‘80s this was a complete unknown. Of course, there were some ideas that were completely bonkers: they were all eaten by cavemen or wiped out by asteroids.
But as we now know, it was an asteroid wot done it. Since that book was written, scientists have discovered a whacking great crater in the Yucatan peninsula. There, 65 million years ago, a 6 mile wide space rock slammed into a shallow sea, blanketed the world in a cloud of dust that dropped global temperatures and finished off the dinosaurs.
Now, you haven’t taken a wrong turning today and ended up in a palaeontological lecture! The reason I’m saying this is that in the past few decades modern science has proven that truly catastrophic events do occur. Things that we once considered bonkers, wild fantasies, the result of an overactive imagination, are now respectable scientific fact.
I remind myself of that whenever I come across passages like this one from Mark’s gospel, chapter 13 verses 24-37. Because, if I’m honest, when I read things like v.24 ‘the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven’, it all sounds a bit way out. Weird and scary and hard to understand.
Do you remember that time a couple of months ago when there was a storm and lots of dust got whipped up from the Sahara? The sunlight turned red. The sun itself was the colour of blood. It felt really freaky. Windswept but no birdsong. As if something was about to happen. I could see how events like that might make people think the end is nigh!
So what does this reading mean? Are we meant to take it literally or as a symbol? Does Jesus here foretell a dramatic end of the world event, like a supernova, before he comes again? Or is it religious language for a revolution in society, turning the tables as the Kingdom of God comes?
Whichever way you look at it, clearly it describes a remarkable act of God. The Lord intervenes to transform the status quo and then Christ will reign. So firstly it asks us if we do believe that God can act? Can God transform situations? I believe that he can – I’ve seen it happen.
You may be aware that a couple of years ago my son Jonathan was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. This is a bit of a one way street, to be honest, it can’t be cured. The doctors weren’t even treating it, because of the medicines’ side-effects. Anyway, a few weeks ago Jonathan had his cardiac check-up – and the results were normal. No sign of it. I can’t explain that. It seems miraculous.
Nothing is beyond God’s power. The God of the Resurrection can resurrect a dying world. A dramatic end to existence as we know it, and the beginning of a new creation, is within God’s power. This is the hope of the church. Why we are here. To be a sign of the Kingdom.
So why might it feel hard to believe? Is it perhaps a failure of imagination? Type verse 26 into Google images: ‘son of man coming in clouds’ and you’ll see what I mean. The artwork doesn’t help – it’s straight off the pages of a Jehovah’s Witness magazine. What is described here is beyond the abilities of our limited imagination.
It may help to realise that Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament. V. 26 comes from Daniel 7 verses 13-14 about the Son of Man being given power in God’s presence. Verses 24 and 25 are from Isaiah, in the middle of a passage talking about the historic fall of Babylon. Isaiah describes the total destruction of the enemy city, which will never be built on again. Only this kind of apocalyptic language can do it justice.
Bishop Tom Wright, who’s a respected New Testament scholar, argues that people at the time of Jesus were not really expecting the stars literally to fall from the sky and the moon turn to actual blood. Tom Wright says they used this language to speak of dramatic world changing events, times when God does something completely new. After all St Peter quotes those exact verses to explain the arrival of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. The moon did not literally turn to blood that day, or even just turn red – something more remarkable happened: God through his Holy Spirit came to live in human beings.
Yet Jesus doesn’t just quote, he adds to the words from Isaiah. In v 27 he talks about the angels gathering the elect from every corner of the earth. He really does seem, in v.32, to have a particular event in mind, that he will actually return, whatever signs accompany that day.
And Jesus says all this, not to satisfy idle curiosity, but so that we can be prepared. Take a look at verses 28-29: ‘from the fig tree learn its lesson, as soon as the branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves you know that summer is near. So you also when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near.’ Is summer a good thing? Yes! By February how we long for sunshine! Are figs good? Yes, they’re delicious! Is the coming of Christ therefore good? Yes.
Jesus tells us that he will reign, he will be a loving and just king, that the creation will be the beautiful and joyous place that God intended. When we read these parts of the Bible we can get overwhelmed by the challenge, the warnings, the tribulation. But Jesus tells us that these are the birth pains – what you have to go through to get to the new life. Yes evil will be destroyed. Yes, there will be a judgement.
God tells humanity this so that we can turn from evil, be forgiven, and enjoy the new life that is to come. If we trust in Christ we have nothing to fear at the judgement because we are forgiven. Christ gave himself on the cross, taking the punishment that should be ours, so that our sin can be wiped away. It asks us: have we accepted Christ as our Saviour?
It is good news, but when will it happen? Verses 30-32 seem to pull in different directions. V.31 says that ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place’. As you read the New Testament it seems clear that some people in the Early Church expected Jesus to return very soon – within a few years of his Ascension. The Second letter of Peter tells us that when Jesus did not come back quickly, scoffers began to say ‘where is this coming?’ to which Peter replies ‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day.’ Expectations had to be adjusted.
But in v.32 Jesus had said that ‘no-one knows the day or the hour, neither the angels in heaven, nor even the Son himself, but only the Father.’ So if it is unknown we must be prepared. It is like a boss unexpectedly dropping in on a factory to see what’s really going on. Like OFSTED inspectors who give a school just 24hrs so you can’t make it up!
We do not know when Christ will come. You and I may still be around when he returns. Or we may return to him first. We do not know the day of either of those events! There’s another way of looking at it: Jesus may come in the crucial encounters of life.
Think about it: the times when we have to make decisions, when the rubber of our faith really hits the road, when we react one way or the other to another person. Those also are times when we encounter Christ. In a sense Christ comes at any time when our instant reactions reveal the attitudes and habits we have built up over the years. When we see if we are truly in him. That’s why the church is here – to encourage and support us as we try and be faithful to God.
How then should we live? In 1 Corinthians chapter 1 verses 3-9 Paul gives us a very simple answer. We should live by grace. Let’s just turn to that briefly.
Grace is the gift of God. Freely given, received as a gift, not earned by us. When I was a student there was a poster with a big picture of Jesus on it and the words ‘Jesus is coming. Look busy’. That’s a trap we can easily fall into with all these warnings about being prepared, keeping watch, and so on.
But Jesus does not look for us to be busy. He wants us to live by grace. Paul teaches us, in v.4, that it is the grace of God which calls us into a relationship with God through Christ Jesus. In verses 5-7 it is the grace of God which gives us all the gifts that we need as we serve Christ and one another. And in verse 8 and 9 it is God himself – his grace not our efforts – it is God himself who strengthens us so that we may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s as we live by grace, as we trust God, that we become ready for Christ. It is through depending on him that the life of God’s Kingdom appears within us. However he comes, whenever he comes, may he find us trusting in God and abiding in him.