Christian preaching always has an eschatological ring to it. It takes place during the “in-between” times—the days between Jesus’ first and second comings. But this eschatological perspective tends to fade into the background as Christians (and preachers) go about their business week-in and week-out. The end of the church year provides an opportunity to reorient the Christian life around Jesus’ promise to return. Mark 13 does just that (The last verse in the epistle reading from Hebrews 9 points in this direction too).
Mark 13 redirects the reader to the end, and thereby helps Christians recover their eschatological horizons. It does this in several different ways, corresponding to this and next week’s appointed readings. Because of this, the preacher might consider spending the next two Sundays preaching a two-part series of sermons directed toward forming a community that lives in expectation of the end.
Both sermons in the series would remind the hearers that time does not go on and on interminably. In this respect, life is more like an hour-glass than a wall clock with its perpetually rotating hands. The sands are falling and, at some point, they will run out. This is good news for Christians since the return of Jesus means the end of this fallen creation and the beginning of the new creation. But how does the approaching end shape the Christian community here and now? This week’s sermon (on Mark 13:1-13) might focus on what Christians SHOULD expect, namely trials and tribulation. Next week’s sermon (on Mark 13:24-37) might focus on what Christians SHOULD NOT expect, namely a precise timetable. The two sermons could go by these titles: “Stand Firm” and “Stay Awake.”
Mark 13 begins with the temple. Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple, and the disciples are struck by its magnificence. Pοταπός literally means, “Of what kind,” but the exclamation implies, “How magnificent!” A rabbi once said, “He who has not seen the temple in its full splendor has never seen a beautiful building” (France, The Gospel of Mark, 496). The disciples’ awe before the temple set Jesus on this eschatological path. This temple will not always stand, he told them. The days are coming.
This understandably raised questions for the disciples. Specifically, the disciples want to know when this will take place (verse 4). Jesus responds not with an answer to their question, but with a warning... or is it an encouragement? Then he speaks of wars and rumors of wars. He speaks of earthquakes and famines. He speaks of trials and persecutions and opportunities for witness (μαρτύριον), for the Gospel must be proclaimed (κηρυχθῆναι) to all nations. Do not be anxious about this, Jesus says, for the Spirit will be with you to speak through you. Even as you experience family division and hate, do not lose heart. Stand firm! The one who endures to the end will be saved.
“Stand firm.” That is Jesus’ message to the disciples in this week’s reading. It is also his message to us today, but we cannot simply apply everything Jesus said to the disciples directly to ourselves. Jesus is speaking here about the destruction of the temple and that has already taken place (Recall their question in 13:2). In this sense, nothing Jesus says in Mark 13:3-13 applies directly to the Christian congregation today.
But His words do have significance for us and for Christians of all times and places. Remember this is not the first time Jesus has warned (promised) that those who follow Him will suffer difficulties (Mark 6:11; 8:15, 34-38; 10:30; see also 4:17). A common theme in Mark’s gospel is that followers of Jesus will follow him, not only in his resurrection, but also (and first) in his crucifixion (10:32-34). Thus, this text functions both as a command and as a word of encouragement. Stand firm! Jesus commands them. Enduring, you will be saved! Jesus promises them.
A sermon on this text could proclaim a similar twofold message.
Christians in the western hemisphere are facing new difficulties as we move more fully into a post-church culture. Outright persecution of Christians in this context is rare, but reasons to be anxious are not. It should not be difficult for the preacher to identify local reasons for fear in the congregation. The sermon should not minimize the difficulties that lie before the people. Jesus certainly does not do this with the disciples. Rather, the sermon could meet these difficulties head-on. “Stand firm” is another way of calling your hearers to resist the impulse of fear that easily arises in hard times (See also Ephesians 6:10-13). The sermon might acknowledge the temptation to respond to fear with either faithlessness or paralysis.
Endurance, then, would be the sermon’s goal. And the means? The promise. The promise of Jesus—which is both about Jesus and from Jesus. In Him the enduring ones will be saved by Him. Those who live by His promise of salvation have everything they need, not only for survival, but also for faithful and fruitful proclamation of the Gospel. The opportunities for witness do not go away during difficult times. Indeed, difficulties open even more possibilities. The sermon, therefore, could be both an instance of and an encouragement toward Gospel proclamation to all nations—beginning with those in your pews.
Concordia Theology: Multiple resources for preaching Mark 13:1-3 from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.
Lectionary Podcast: Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN, walks through Mark 13:1-13.