The temple in Jerusalem was so beautiful that it was beyond description. It is impossible for us to even begin to imagine how beautiful it was. There are written descriptions of its beauty, but even these fail to adequately convey the awesome and stunning vision that the temple presented to all who had the privilege of witnessing it first hand. Even the rabbis who made it their spiritual home were at a loss to define its breath-taking beauty, and so they described it in negative terms. They said, “The ones who have not seen the temple have never seen a beautiful building in their lives.”
And so it was with Jesus’ disciples. One day, only a few days before the end of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus and his disciples were leaving the temple, and one of Jesus’ disciples, absolutely overwhelmed by what he saw, said, “Look Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” That’s a pathetic description, but I understand it. It comes straight from the disciple’s heart, but its a blurt; its a babble. There’s more in this disciple’s heart than he can possibly convey with words. Now probably none of us has ever blurted or babbled when we were stunned or amazed, or when emotions were too powerful for words, but this disciple did.
But Jesus’ response was so unexpected and so shocking that it plunged all of the disciples into a state of stunned silence. And it was not until about an hour later, when Jesus and his disciples were resting at the top of the Mount of Olives, that four of his disciples even dared to approach him on the subject. All of them had been thinking. All of them had been pondering the possible implications of Jesus’ wild and incomprehensible announcement, but it was only Peter, James, John and Andrew who gathered up the courage to question Jesus about it.
The destruction of the temple! What could this possibly mean? What great judgment, what great upheaval, what great reversal of fortune could possibly lead to the destruction of the sacred and holy home of God’s chosen people? Surely Jesus is wrong, he must be mistaken! It is the Romans who are due for judgment, not the Jews! We are living in the messianic age; Jesus has finally revealed to us that he is the Messiah, surely it is the Romans who will be overthrown, and God’s people will be restored to their rightful place as God’s favored and blessed nation. This is all backwards! We are anticipating victory and triumph, not destruction and loss. But what if Jesus is telling the truth? Surely this portends the end of all things! We need to know about this. We need to be prepared for this! To say the least, Jesus’ shocking announcement has certainly stirred up the disciple’s minds. And so stirring up their courage too, Peter, James, John and Andrew, come to Jesus, and they ask him what seems to us to be a very reasonable question. It is a question that we would ask. “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
And, much to the disciples’ disappointment and ours, Jesus does not answer the question. He doesn’t tell them when the temple will be destroyed, and he doesn’t tell them when the end of all things, that they are already imagining and supposing, will come about. In fact, Jesus has never answered this question. It is a question to which he will not reply, no matter how often or how fervently we may ask.
Instead, Jesus warns his disciples about others who will be only too happy to provide the answer. I firmly believe that Jesus refused to answer this question because he knew in his heart that we’d never really stop asking it. And he was right. We’ve been asking it for twenty centuries now. We haven’t learned the lesson that Jesus so earnestly desired that we would learn. And for all of those twenty centuries, there have been untold numbers of false prophets who have willingly, but falsely, given us the answer to our stirred up and anxious minds. I haven’t a clue how many second comings of Jesus have been falsely prophesied that have come and gone without a whimper, but they are legion…hundreds maybe, perhaps even thousands. We actually missed one early this fall. It wasn’t well advertised, but it came and went, as will all of the others yet to come. Well then, what about the real one? The one when Jesus really does come back? Won’t someone be able to predict that one? Nope. Jesus said that he will return at a time that we do not expect. Let me explain what he meant by that. Jesus will return at a time that we do not expect. Got that? Okey-dokey. There’s not a soul on this planet who will be able to predict the real second coming of Jesus. All will be taken by surprise. All of the false prophets will have to admit, “Boy, we didn’t see that one coming! None of our careful calculations even hinted at it!”
And so Jesus tells his disciples and us, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” And boy, was he right! In twenty centuries there has been no shortage of false prophets who have stirred up the minds of God’s people, leading them astray and filling them with false hopes that fail to come to fruition. And the result of all of this can be deep-seated disappointment and discouragement, not to mention unsettled hearts. Jesus even warns his disciples that some false prophets will appear on the scene brazenly claiming that they themselves are the Messiah. That may be brave, but it is also exceedingly foolish. Our English translations make a bit of a concession here to the modern readers of Mark’s Gospel. What Jesus really warned his disciples about was that some false prophets will appear saying not, “I am he” as our English translations indicate, but rather, “I am!” These false prophets will boldly appropriate the divine name of God for themselves. This is the epitome of blasphemy. It is disdain for the Holy name of God. It is a violation of the first commandment. I don’t know if this has ever happened, but Jesus warns us to expect it. It is important for us to know that all false prophets are neither sincere nor well-meaning. They’re not even misguided, nor even ultimately mistaken. They are demonically deceived, and their purpose is to stir up the minds of God’s people and to unsettle their hearts.
But there are other things in addition to false prophets that can stir up minds and unsettle hearts. And in the second part of our passage this morning Jesus provides a list of those things for us and for his disciples. But he prefaces that list with this instruction: “Do not be alarmed.” Let not your minds be stirred up, nor allow your hearts to be unsettled. And every one of us here this morning will admit that the stuff in this list has the power and the potential to create deep anxiety. All of the stuff in this list is frightening. All of the stuff in this list is the evidence of a broken and dying world. But it is also nothing that is new or surprising. These things were evident in the disciples’ world and they are evident in our world.
So what is Jesus saying? Are these disasters and calamities signs that the end is near? Many interpreters of Jesus’ words have said just that. They have said that as the world becomes more unsettled, that we can look to the skies for Jesus’ return. But that’s not what Jesus said at all. Jesus said that all this must take place, but the end is still to come. Jesus said that these things are but the beginning of the birth pangs. They are but the beginnings of the labor that will bring about the end. And the truth is that the world has been in labor for a very long time.
So what’s a Christian to do? The same thing that Jesus told his disciples to do. Jesus is preparing his disciples to do ministry in a turbulent world that will present them with many distractions and diversions. He is counseling them to abandon stirred up minds and to develop settled hearts. Jesus is challenging his disciples to carry on his ministry until he returns, even if they must do it in a world of people who are living with stirred up minds and unsettled hearts. And that task has not changed one iota. Our world today is filled with people who live daily with stirred up minds and unsettled hearts. We need to proclaim that all is within the sovereign reign of God. But before we can do that, we need to make sure that our own hearts are settled. We need to be filled with faith and with confidence. We will not be led astray by false prophets, we will not be alarmed by contemporary events, we will be vigilant and faithful, and we will proclaim the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. And this is because we have quieted our stirred up minds and we have obeyed Jesus by settling our hearts.