Wars and rumours of wars
There will be wars, and rumours of wars, and troubles that will shake the foundation of the world and your faith in humanity. There will be death. There will be disaster. There will be all manner of things that make you doubt God’s judgement - his presence even. There will be anxiety, hatred, injustice, suffering, depression.
There will be wars and rumours of wars. But it is not the end of the world. Keep your eyes on me, there is a bigger picture, stick with it.
So says Jesus in our gospel today.
A bit of background to this passage. In AD 66 the Judeans, sick to death of Roman occupation rise up against their oppressors. They kick the Romans out of their great city, Jerusalem, and declare freedom. But the Romans hadn’t become rulers of the world by laying down without a fight, and there was no way they were going to let the Judeans - who had always been an uppity thorn in their side - get the better of them. So Rome appoints a new general and reinforcements are sent to sort things out. It takes longer than expected to destroy these rebellious fools, but in the year 70, they finish the job. One eye witness account says more than 1 million people died in that version of Pax Romana. And one historian of the time says that so many Jews were crucified that the Romans ran out of wood for making crosses. And the Temple, the greatest building at the heart of the greatest city is completely destroyed - its great stones cast down, it’s famous gold leaf decorations stripped away as loot.
In the midst of all this horror and destruction, the early Christians, still very much a Jewish group, have to figure out what is going on. We can imagine their questions - How can this be happening? Has God abandoned us? Is this punishment? Are there other gods who are more powerful than Him?
And one of them, a man we know as Mark, is writing a book about Jesus. And as he and his friends go back over everything that Jesus had said and done, we can imagine them remembering a time when Jesus had stood right in the middle of the Temple area - right in the middle of the place torn down and destroyed by the Romans - and told them exactly what was going to happen.
‘There will be wars and rumours of wars’ he had begun then. And now, here they were, right in the middle of something that looked just like the time Jesus was talking about. ‘Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
And imagine the comfort that Mark and his friends must have taken from that knowledge. Jesus understood; Jesus knew this kind of thing would happen. He knew that there would be wars and rumours of wars - but he also knew it would not be the end of the world. And so Mark writes down the rest of what Jesus said that day, as he talked to his disciples about how to live in the midst of troubles and dangers, and suffering and violence.
We are deeply blessed to live in a peaceful country, with everything we need. We do not face the threat of war, persecution or death at the hand of an invading army. But millions of others around the world do. For them, this story is their reality.
And we have our own experiences of suffering; they might be on a smaller scale than ‘wars and rumours of wars’ but bereavement, anxiety, depression, redundancy, bank balance worries - these all shake our lives too. And that’s before we open the papers and read of Brexit, and record numbers of young people suffering from mental illness, a crisis in social care and shifts in the global balance of power.
So when Jesus talks to his disciples about living well in the midst of troubled times, he’s talking to everyone - including to us:
And he says three things:
First, he tells us to keep our eyes fixed on him.
Secondly, he invites us to see the big picture.
Third, he encourages us to trust and endure.
First, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. Jesus put it like this - "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say ‘I am he!’” There are a thousand voices that claim to be able to save us - buy this, believe that, follow me, this book will change your life, this holiday will cure your ills, this shirt will make you cool.
Jesus says, come and follow me. Keep your eyes fixed on me. He says, if you want to know ‘who’ you are, you need to know ‘whose’ you are. You belong to me. You do not belong to a brand, you do not belong to your work, you do not belong to that story you tell yourself about how useless you are. You belong to me. You are not defined by your past, by your relationship with your mother or by your bank balance. You are defined by my love - by my relentless, unshakeable, enduring love for you.
So, Jesus says, keep your eyes fixed on me.
Secondly, see the bigger picture.
It’s easy for us to be in a situation - whatever it might be, and to scan what’s going on, to see one small element - usually the worst, and then to decide that is the truth. And then everything in that situation, complex, subtle and nuanced as it undoubtedly is, is defined by that one thing we have focussed on. We’ve all done it - we organise an event, it goes really well and people have a great time - and then one message from one person who didn’t enjoy it. And suddenly, that’s the whole truth. All the good stuff that happened is forgotten. Now, the truth is, it was a disaster and everyone hated it. Anyone recognise that?
And Jesus says, don’t do that. ‘When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.’ See the bigger picture - there will be terrible things in this world. There will be appalling events in your own life. They are not the whole picture. The whole picture is much more rounded - and I have my hand on it. I, Jesus, am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end. I can see the whole picture. I see where things have come from, I see every nuance and subtlety in where things are. I see where everything will end up.
Jesus came to alter the direction of history once and for all, and that is where everything now points. To justice, to peace, to forgiveness. To a time when the lion will lie down with the lamb, when tears are wiped from every eye, when depression is no more, when violence is over, when we are home.
And us? We’re in the midst of that time, tossed and battered by life sometimes, but safe, fundamentally safe. The world is not ruled by chaos. God hasn’t given up and he hasn’t left. See the bigger picture and know that he is working in all things for the good.
And thirdly, trust and endure.
Jesus puts it like this - ‘the one who endures to the end will be saved.’
Endurance isn’t a popular virtue these days is it? We can have anything we want, whenever we want it. We find it irritating if our internet is slow and we have to wait more than a few seconds for a website to load. The goal of our age is speed, and impatience is to be celebrated.
It was different for the generation who grew up in the Second World War. Rationing and a shortage of the most basic things meant endurance mattered. People had to be able to wait, and they had to be able to do without.
And endurance isn’t just about having to wait for ‘stuff’ - it’s also about living in the midst of trouble and suffering. It’s about being able to to live through really tough times, because of a greater truth or hope. That hope may lie out of sight right now, but we’re able to endure when we know it’s still there.
And our call is to endure - to live at the crossroads of life, where the eternal purposes of God and the pain of the current world intersect. Not to see suffering as a sign of God’s absence, but as the place where he most longs to establish his presence. Jesus never offered an end to suffering, uncertainty or anxiety - not yet anyway. What he offers is the promise of his presence alongside us as we endure our own suffering, and in us as we bring hope to others whose endurance seems spent.
There will be wars and rumours of wars.
Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.
See the big picture.
Trust and endure.