Am I alone or do you find all this intimidating too? In our first lesson we heard the account of that common Sunday School lesson we often refer to as the 3 men in the fiery furnace. Put yourself in their shoes! Can you imagine? Talk about intimidating. Their lives were on the line. This was literally “do or die.” King Nebuchadnezzar demands Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego bow down to the image of gold he had made, if they don’t they will die. And not some quick and painless death, but burned alive in a blazing furnace. Where did they get the confidence to stand firm? Where can we find confidence like that?
In our second lesson from Revelation 14 we heard about this angel—this messenger—who has a very specific message to proclaim. “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.” Many have claimed this prophecy points to Martin Luther. We can understand why. This is goal of Luther’s ministry summed up into 2 simple sentences. Instead of glorifying the Catholic Church—the pope—glorify the God who saved us and him alone! Why? Because the hour of his judgment is near and popes can’t save us. Worship the God who created all things and him alone! Ultimately this messenger cannot only refer to Martin Luther because this message is the ETERNAL Gospel. So this messenger is anyone who preaches this message to glorify only our Creator and Savior God.
That’s intimidating too, isn’t it? If you were to take this message to the streets, what would the reaction be? Think about it, you’re standing on the corner of 15th and Ivinson in the middle of the school day as hoards of UW students cross in both directions shouting “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.” How’s that gonna go over? The world we live in trains people to glorify everyone and everything OTHER than God. No one wants to acknowledge that they will have to stand before God to be judged. In fact, that’s why evolution is so popular! If evolution is true and God didn’t make the heavens, earth, sea and springs of water then there is no hour of judgment coming! How convenient! It’s not easy to stand up and preach the message found in Revelation 14. Where did Luther get the confidence to preach this message? Where can we find confidence like that?
And we haven’t even gotten to the gospel lesson for today! It’s toward the end of the day—Tuesday of holy week. Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem. Jesus has already ridden into Jerusalem on the donkey as the crowds cheered his arrival. The day before, he flipped the tables of the merchants who were doing business in his Father’s temple. Now’s he’s back in that same temple and has been teaching and debating the Jewish leaders all day. Now, as they are leaving the temple, one of Jesus’ disciples looks up and says, “Look teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Jesus responds, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” As the disciples marvel at the grandeur of God’s magnificent house, Jesus predicts its destruction.
That’s some pretty intimidating news. The temple—this massive and magnificent structure—is going to be completely destroyed? Later on that Tuesday evening, while they were at the Mount of Olives, Jesus’ first four disciples—the brothers Peter and Andrew, James and John—came to Jesus and say, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to be fulfilled.” When is this gonna happen!? What exactly is going to happen!? Would your questions have been any different? If the President of the United States all of a sudden took over television and radio broadcasts and announced that an attack on our nation was imminent, what questions would you want answered? Wouldn’t they very much resemble these? Tell us! Exactly when will this happen!? What will be the signs? What exactly can we expect!? Where can we find some confidence!?
Jesus answers these questions by telling Peter, Andrew, James and John to “watch out.” And he gives them two things to watch. First, they are to watch out for anyone or anything that would try to deceive them and rip them away from the truths he had taught them (Mark 13:5). Secondly, they are to watch themselves (Mark 13:9). Verse 9 as you heard it a few minutes ago says, “You must be on your guard.” But literally, that command from Jesus is very similar to the one in verse 5. He literally says, “YOU must watch yourselves.”
These four disciples wanted answers. They wanted details about the destruction of the temple specifically, and boy did they get those details. Maybe more than they wanted to hear. The days leading up to Judgment Day will be intimidating. They were for Jesus’ disciples. They still are for us. It may be nice to think the world is getting better, but it’s not. It’s getting worse. And it will continue to get worse. There will be people who will try to deceive us. There will be wars and natural disasters. If we’re not watching out for these deceivers and disasters we can easily become consumed by them. We can easily become so consumed with questions like “WHEN!?” and “WHAT!?” and “HOW!?” that we lose focus on the blessings that await us.
That’s why Jesus says these are the beginnings of birth pains. If you’ve ever been around a woman giving birth one thing that might catch you off guard is this intense desire to get to the finish line. Yes there is intense pain, but let’s face it. It’s not like the average pregnant woman is all that comfortable during the 9 month pregnancy to begin with. When those final birth pains start to kick in, as agonizing as it must be, there is this understanding that the end is in sight. And that’s motivating! Soon that mother will be holding a newborn child, and the 9 month pregnancy will be in the rear view mirror. You see, when Jesus says these deceivers and disasters are the beginning of birth pains, he’s acknowledging they will be painful, but he also wants us to zero in on incredible joy that will follow those pains.
Remember as Jesus is explaining these things to Peter, Andrew, James and John he’s less than 3 days away from hanging on a cross. Jesus knew what he was about to suffer. He also knew why he was about to suffer. The whole point of his suffering, was to win joy—joy that only he could truly understand—for others. Jesus was willing to suffer unthinkable torture because he wants you and me to experience the unending joy of heaven that follows the birth pains!
This is why Jesus then turns to his disciples with another “watch out.” “Watch yourselves.” Like it or not, the reality is this—Christians will have to deal with some intimidating circumstances on this earth. Some have been tortured and imprisoned—more will experience the same. Others have been called to witness (this Greek word actually gives us the English word Martyr) before powerful government officials—more will experience the same. It’s not difficult to imagine how these kinds of intimidating circumstances could lead a Christian to say, “It’s not worth it!” That could not be farther from the truth. The joy of heaven is worth it. That’s why Jesus was willing to suffer and die so we could be there with him. That’s why Jesus takes the time to for some open and authentic communication in these verses. He tells us exactly what to expect as we experience the birth pains we’ll experience in these last days. He even promises that the Holy Spirit who already dwells in each and every Christian will not abandon us in our most difficult days but will instead remind us of the simple truths found in his Word—that though we don’t keep a perfect watch, Jesus has won forgiveness for all our failures, including those times when we don’t handle the birth pains perfectly.
So where can we find confidence in these last days? In the same place Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego found their confidence. In the same place Martin Luther found his confidence. In the same place Jesus’ disciples found their confidence. We find our confidence in the promises of our Creator and Savior God.
These aren’t promises easily made. It’s not as though Jesus promises us heaven and then follows it up by promising to make the rest of our lives here on this earth plush and easy. That would be an easy way to drum up lots of support, but that’s not what Jesus does! No, he tells the truth. No matter how hard that truth is to hear. Much like a veteran mother may do her best to coach up a woman about to go into labor for the first time with the reality of what is actually about to happen. Jesus coaches us up to! Why? Because he’s experienced the joy that follows the birth pains and wants us to experience it too!