Signs of the end before the end

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Oh my, we had to pass the wounded. And some of them were on stretchers going back to the dressing stations, and some of them were lying around, moaning and twitching. And the dead were all along the road.

So wrote one soldier as he remembered a terrible scene from his experience of World War 1. The 1914-1918 World War ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. And it gave rise to Remembrance Sunday – the Sunday nearest the 11th of November. And it was the War to End All Wars.

Sadly, that was far from the case, as Jesus explains in our passage from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 21.5-11) and where the context is as follows. Jesus was in the Jerusalem Temple one day when (Luke 21.5):

some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings.

For it was an amazing sight. The temple was built of much marble and gold; and had a huge perimeter. It had walls of massive white stones, some of which were sixteen feet long and three or four feet high. And the offerings referred to, were gifts from various heads of state. Tacitus, the Roman historian, described the Jerusalem temple as a 'shrine of immense wealth'. Well, imagine the shock Jesus caused his hearers when he said, this lot is all going to be destroyed! But before we go into details of what he said, may we pray?

Heavenly Father on this day when we remember with sadness two World Wars and other conflicts, we pray that your Holy Spirit will help us learn from your word how we should think about the future so as to live more according to your will; for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

I have three headings this morning: first, the destruction of the temple; secondly, two errors to avoid; and, thirdly, the normal life.

1. The destruction of the temple

Look at Luke 21.5-6:

And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

Jesus, as the Old Testament prophets did, telescopes the centuries. The result is a bit like looking at a distant range of Mountains. You cannot tell how near or far the mountains are from you or from each other. However, it seems that Jesus first has in focus the supreme folly of the Jewish rejection of Christ, and the judgment which followed that rejection. That judgment began when the Jews took on the might of the utterly ruthless Roman Empire. Judea, of course, was a Roman Province. So following an AD66 Jerusalem rebellion and the forming of a Judean provisional government in Jerusalem, the Romans decided to act. The future Emperor, Titus, with a Roman army, besieged and captured the city of Jerusalem in AD70. And he destroyed both the city and this amazing temple in AD70, thus bringing its worship to an end after centuries. So Jesus prediction was absolutely spot on.

The historian Josephus said 1.1 million non-combatants died in the sack of Jerusalem, mainly as a result of violence and famine. Josephus seems to be exaggerating. However, we are talking of hundreds of thousands of casualties, and, more importantly, a real end for the Jews spiritually and politically. But it was very significant for the Christians then and now. For Jesus in our Luke 21 taught not only about the sack of Jerusalem and the end of the Jewish nation, but also about the end of world history, as we know it, when Jesus comes again. And the sack of Jerusalem in AD70 seems to prefigure some of the events before that final end of history and the second coming of Christ.

And we must all underline the importance for the Christian believer of that final end and of Jesus return a second time, Paul once defined a Christian as someone to whom he could say (1 Thessalonians 1.9-10):

you turned to God from idols [or from today’s 21st century idols] to serve the living and true God, and [listen] to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

So the Christian is someone who consciously should be waiting for the return from heaven of Jesus, God’s Son, who delivers us from an adverse eternal judgment and hell - the wrath to come. But as you wait you need to expect that what happened in that first century somehow is to be replicated sometime or several times before Jesus returns and that final end. And that brings us to our second heading:

2. Two errors to avoid

Look at Luke 21.7-9:

And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.

Jesus’ teaching about the destruction of the Temple was certainly fulfilled in one sense, in AD70, as we’ve seen. But the destruction of the Temple, when literally there will not be left…one stone upon another that will not be thrown down will only be completed when Christ returns. For the Wailing or Western Wall is still left there with some of the stones still upon another! So was Jesus referring only to that first major destruction or the final destruction of every stone? He doesn’t tell us. For he seems not concerned with details about the end but more concerned that we know how to live now in the light of his return, literally, at any moment. And for that two things are vital. One is in Luke 21.8:

And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them.

How vital that is! Jesus warns us when thinking of the last things and the future of the world, not to be deceived. For there will be, he says, many false Christs, or anti-Christs. He is referring to people who claim the divine name – I am!

In my time there was the Korean Sun Myung Moon who claimed to be a second Messiah, making good Jesus’ work. We had members come to church to invite (privately) students to their so-called “bible” studies. A mature student went along and told me what went on. We were able to take action. However, as serious now in our secular world are secular Messiahs. Again in my time, there have been Hitler, Stalin, and Mao – as world figures - promising so much but delivering disaster. And there are deceiving Messiahs in other areas of life, not just politics. So, Jesus says (Luke 21.8):

…See that you are not led astray…[And what does Jesus say is one fundamental way of obeying that command?Answer:] Do not go after them

Steer clear of them. Do not follow them. Don’t go to their meetings. For they are very powerful. They claim that their secular version of salvation 'is at hand'. It will soon usher in a new world. Oswald Mosley was an English lesser version of such a one. His name is forgotten now. But he was the British Fascist leader before the Second World War, and imprisoned during the Second World War. While I was still a student, before he died, he came to talk to our students’ Union. He was electric – I’ve never heard such a person before or since. He was so persuasive. Such people are truly dangerous and they are still around. So Jesus says, be warned. And secondly, he said, Luke 21.9:

And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.

Note that little word must. They, wars and tumults (or disorders) must take place. That means somehow, mysteriously, almighty God, in spite of the evil done by others, is not responsible but in absolute control. That’s why the command is given, do not be terrified. Trust in God if you get into the middle of such a war or tumult. But that all brings us to our third, heading:

3. The normal life.

Look at Luke 21.10-11:

Then he [Jesus] said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.

Jesus is predicting that all this will be happening sometimes in this period during his first and second comings. We’re not in heaven yet. So there will be moral disasters:

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom

And there will be natural disasters:

There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences [or plagues including viral plagues like covid-19]. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.

How true all that is. There was no War to End All Wars. Currently, there are eight major wars – defined as “conflict that involves the use of armed force between two or more organized groups, governmental or non-governmental” – taking place in:- Afghanistan with 42,000 dead (these are figures for 2019), Mexico with 36,000 dead, Yemen with 16,000, Syria with 11,000, Saudi Arabia with 5,000, Somalia with 3,000, Libya with 2,000 and Iraq with 2000. And Mali, Egypt, South Sudan, India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Columbia, Cameroon, Pakistan and Thailand are in the list but with under 1000 deaths.
So there are 17 war zones in the world. And terrorist attacks, a modern form of guerrilla warfare, are also taking place in many countries.

All this is exactly as Jesus predicted. And also, tragically, as Jesus predicted would happen, there has just been a great earthquake in Turkey. And, as Jesus predicted, in various places there are famines, especially in East Africa through locusts devouring crops and now floods in South Sudan. And, also, I don’t need to tell you, there are pestilences, with Covid-19 being the number one such pestilence at present. But how do you respond now to all of this – these predictions? May I suggest two things. And with this I conclude:

First, as war will be a constant between now and Jesus return, why not familiarize yourselves with the Christian “Just War” theory. For you may be asked for an opinion on war someday. Just War theory evolved when Christians, in the early days, got into government and had to make decisions. And the doctrine is limiting. It focuses on how little force is needed; not on how much can you get away with. And it is to bring war under the restraint of moral standards that apply to other acts of government. In brief, there are five basic principles – three deal with going to war, and two with actual fighting. The first three are:

i. a legitimate civil authority must initiate a war, not anyone;
ii. the reason has to be just;
iii. the motive has to be right.

And the two principles dealing with right conduct are these;

i. discrimination – force must only be used to deprive combatants of their ability to wage war, so no attacks on non-combatants;
ii. the principle of proportion – no more force is to be used than is necessary.

There is more to say, but they are some basics. We owe this thinking to Augustine, for whom we thank God, and from whom we need, surely, to learn. And, secondly, may I suggest in response to these predictions, you need to jump to the end of our chapter, where Jesus says this (Luke 21.34-36):

But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day [when our Lord returns] come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.

You say, is that for me? Yes, for everyone! For Jesus is coming back. It may be tomorrow! It may be in the far, far away future. But stay awake spiritually, be aware of false teachers, don’t be afraid (God is in control) and don’t drift with the secular tide and worldliness and away from Christ. So pray for the Holy Spirit to help you stay close to Christ who said, (John 16.13) and with this I close:

In me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

Let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, help us all, by your Holy Spirit, to stay spiritually awake and ready for Christ’s return, for his name’s sake. Amen.

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