LEARNING THE LESSONS

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree”.

Mk 13:28 NIV

If we are watching, and go on watching, and look deeply, we will in all probability start to see below the surface appearance of things. Eventually we may start to “tie up” different things, work out connections, and perceive the meaning of things. In referring to “the lesson of the fig tree” Jesus was challenging the disciples to “work things out”. The climate of apocalyptic thinking posed the conundrum of the future. It spoke of cataclysmic events, disasters, threats and dangers. But it pointed forward to the future and people are always fascinated by what might happen in the future which is so uncertain. And Jesus challenges us to live the present in the light of the future. “Written into the challengeto watch is the exhortation to perceive the meaning of things. Ordinary (and extraordinary) everyday events have an eternal significance, if only we can see it. The relationship of the destruction of Jerusalem to the final coming of Christ is a case in point. Jesus is hinting that everything that happens to us is projected onto the screen of eternity. We are becoming what we eternally shall be. Everything has a double point of reference – now and then. We are called to live the now in the light of the then. To live by this perspective is to be truly ‘broad-minded’” (D. English, The Message of Mark, p210).

If you believe in heaven as an eventual abiding place you will make decisions now that will tie in with that. Your ideas of heaven will partially influence what you do now. It is not only the past that influences the present. The future does too.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to shape my life by believing in your coming kingdom.

STICKING AND STAYING WITH CHRIST

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”.

Gal 2:20 NIV

The secret of living the Christian life is to know that Christ lives in you, no matter what your circumstances might be. It is more than “being good”. It is not escapism. It is living in all the hardships, problems, stresses, strains, inhospitable outward conditions and demands – with Christ as your companion, guide, friend and Lord. It is true that you may experience moments of “glory”, but those are fleeting. Reality is hard, but Jesus wants you to live in the real world. He lived there himself, facing opposition, misunderstanding, sometimes disloyalty and death. He calls you to take up your cross and follow him.

“The clue to surviving the difficult days, which will in Mark’s gospel be seen to be the secret of all the life of the disciple, is to follow in the steps of Jesus himself. The way he took for our salvation was death and resurrection. He went the way of the cross. God raised him from the dead. So we are called to take up our cross and follow him day by day, in faith that day by day God will raise us to new life in Christ (Romans 8:9-11). As we die to all to which he died, we shall live to all to which he rose (D. English, The Message of Mark, p210).

Prayer and meditation is undoubtedly the secret of remaining “in Christ”. Communicating with Christ means you think about him – and grow more into him all the while.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to be “crucified with Christ”.

FUTURE UNCERTAIN

“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn”.

Mk 13:35 NIV

The parable of the master who might return at some unknown time underlines the fact that we live with uncertainty. God planned it so. “This uncertainty of life is not a cause either for fear or inaction because of the insecurity of the future. It is a reason for accepting and realizing our complete dependence on God … The true Christian way is not to be terrorized into fear and not to be paralysed into inaction, by the uncertainty of the future, but to commit the future and all our plans into the hands of God, and always to remember that our plans may not be within the purpose of God” (W. Barclay, The Letter of James, p134).

We keep watch by being faithful, conscientious and true. “Owen Evans tells how, in 1780 in the State of New England, there was a widespread belief that the end of the wold was imminent. One day at about noon a great darkness descended. The House of Deputies was in session and many members, convinced that the fateful hour had come, left their seats in panic and made for the doors. Then the Speaker of the House rose and calmly said, ‘Gentlemen, either the Day of Judgment has arrived, or it has not. If it has not there is no cause for alarm. If it has arrived, then I for one desire to be found by the Lord faithfully doing my duty. Gentlemen let candles be lit and let us proceed with the business of the House’” (The Soldier’s Armoury, 1973, p24)

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, let me be ready for you – in love, devotion and loyalty.

THE ABSENT MASTER

“It’s like a man going away. He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch”.

Mk 13:34 NIV

We often quote the saying, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play”. Obviously Jesus had not heard this saying as he several times used parables in which a master goes away and entrusts stewardship to his servants. Many employers have found serious problems arising when they have gone away and left another person in charge.

The picture Jesus painted here was of the master going away and giving each servant his own assigned task before leaving. None of them knows just when he would return – only that he would. That was certain. So one of the servants is appointed as the doorkeeper-cum-watchdog. All the time the master is away there is the possibility that he might suddenly appear.

“Jesus draws one practical conclusion. We are like men who know that their master will come, but who do not know when. We live in the shadow of eternity. That is no reason for fearful and hysterical expectation. But it does mean that day by day our work must be completed and done. It does mean that we must so live that it does not matter when he comes. It gives us the great task in life of making every day fit for him to see and being at any moment ready to meet him face to face. All life becomes a preparation to meet the King” (W. Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, p337).

Whether you are worthy to be left, as Jesus implies, is a question you might ask yourself. But be aware that you are answerable to him and will have to give account.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, keep me ever faithful to you.

UNCERTAINTY ABOUNDS

“Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come”.

Mk 13:33 NIV

Many diaries in this modern era have a double page section called “Year Planner”. The owner of the diary, supposedly at any rate, sits down early in the new year and fills in various deadlines, events, holidays and proposed projects. It’s a useful exercise. It enables you to avoid clashes and to anticipate deadlines that are coming up. In a way it enables you to pre-programme your year. Some people have a vague idea that God works a similar system – only he has a Century Planner, or a Millennium Planner. This assumes God has got human affairs all mapped out and he presses the appropriate button at the right time and “Hey-Presto” it all just happens. It isn’t anything like that at all. God has made human beings free to act according to their wishes and they all go about doing what they want to. The future isn’t closed. It is open.

This means that there’s a lot of uncertainty. Here Jesus says so. “You do not know when that time will come”. It hasn’t been fixed in advance. The world is unfolding – and human life with it. Nothing is pre-determined. This is why we are cautioned to be on our guard and to remain alert at all times. Not only can we not predict future events with any degree of certainty. We can’t predict how things or people will react to those events that do happen. And because God is sovereign Lord we are called to obey him. And sometimes we do – but sometimes we don’t. So there is further uncertainty.

It takes a lot of faith to see God’s hand – but it is there.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to watch and wait with you.

BE ON GUARD! BE ALERT!

“Be on guard! Be alert”.

Mk 13:33 NIV

For several years after the end of WWII the British army maintained a huge military complement. Hundreds of thousands of young men had to be recruited and trained in case of an invasion. One particularly irksome chore for these young men was having to do guard duty, standing outside the guard room throughout the night, armed with a rifle. Sometime in the dead of night an orderly officer had to visit the guard room to see that it was all happening. When the orderly officer approached the guard room, the young picket was supposed to challenge him, shouting out, “Halt, who goes there?” The officer was supposed to say “Friend”. It never happened. The young recruits all thought it was all “a silly game of playing soldiers”. Always the orderly officer just went straight past and into the guard room. After a long time going through this charade, one young recruit decided one night that he was going to play the game properly – just to see what happened. The approaching footsteps sounded at about ten past twelve and the private made a big noise of coming to attention. As the officer approached the guard room door the lad called out “Halt! Who goes there?” After a moment’s hesitation the reply came, “Friend”. “Pass, friend” the youth replied, and the officer went in. When he came out, he said to the private, “Private, that was the first time I’ve ever been stopped properly. Well done”. “Thank you sir” the recruit replied and swung his arm in an exaggerated salute. The officer walked off.

Jesus was serious in demanding that his recruits should be wide awake. There was spiritual danger and only vigilance could prevent collapse and surrender to the enemy.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, keep my guard up and my eyes open.

FORGET THE GAMES

“About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”.

Mk 13:32 NIV

It is amazing how frequently would-be disciples go off the right track. Some people spend hours, days and weeks comparing verses in Daniel, Revelation, and the gospels in pursuit of one useless piece of information – the day of Christ’s return or the end of the world. This search “grabs” them. They abandon all other teachings of the Bible, and this search completely absorbs them, even consumes them. They just have to know the date and the hour. And they are convinced that it is hidden somewhere in the vast reservoir of the sacred pages. They not only scour the Bible itself. They consult secular histories and carefully examine the predictions that others have come up with – to find out where they have gone wrong.

It is a fruitless game that yields no result. If they do manage to concoct a date their answer is invariably wrong. Then they have to start again. If they publish the speculative result of their “research” and try to convince other people of the “truth”, in fact all they succeed in doing is to lead those others astray. Such games are a waste of time.

Here Jesus says clearly that no one knows the time – not even the Son, only the Father. There are much more important things to be doing – such as building people up in the faith, doing works of the kingdom, shepherding the flock, preaching the gospel, and promoting the work and witness of the church.

To mess around with the “date game” is a waste of time. Don’t do it and don’t fall for the nonsense of others’ games.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to concentrate on things that are important.

THE ETERNAL MESSAGE

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away”.

Mk 13:31 NIV

Many things are temporary. Fountain pens were! In the nineteenth century people got about either with a penny-farthing bicycle or a horse. Steam trains were invented in the early half of the nineteenth century. They are now museum pieces. And we do not know how long many of today’s handy gadgets or systems will last. We rely on them today, but they could be rendered obsolete in twenty years’ time, especially the petrol-driven motor car!

Things changed much more slowly in the days of the Bible. Yet Jesus could keep things in perspective. He had a great sense of the eternity of God. He knew his own mission on earth would have eternal significance. He knew too that his teaching was not time-bound. In centuries to come people would still be poring over his every word, his every sentence and even debating what he had been referring to way back in first-century Palestine. Unlike the wooden goods he made in the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth, his teaching would go on inspiring, teaching and guiding people for thousands of years down the line. And people would cherish them.

Some of his sayings have a timeless quality about them. We not only repeat them – we learn them. He said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (Jn 6:35 NIV). He also said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5 NIV). Many who cannot read or write, learn these and other sayings off by heart – and then live by them.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help us always to treasure your words.

JUST ROUND THE CORNER

“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened”.

Mk 13:30 NIV

Many amazing things have happened in the lifetimes of many people alive today.  The most bloody war ever, (World War II) claimed sixty million lives.  The atom bomb was unleashed. The British Empire was dismantled. Antibiotics were discovered. Television spread throughout the world. Human beings landed on the moon. Computers were invented. So was the internet. We learnt how to bounce electronic signals off space satellites. And we transplanted hearts from one human being to another. So much has happened that not much startles us anymore. There has grown up a feeling that “we can do anything we want”.

The time in which Jesus lived was similarly a “busy” time. Roman rule stretched over much of the then known world. Greek culture had spread its influence far and wide. A new world faith had started (Christianity). Miracles of healing happened. So did a man being resurrected. There was a feeling that “just about anything could happen”. God had become incarnate. The apocalyptic ideas of the age led many people to expect many things – disasters, earthquakes, wars. It all suggested that the end of the world could be just around the corner. Certainly, God was very active – and very unpredictable. So Jesus built on this “spirit of the age” to warn his disciples that they had better be on their toes and be ready for anything.

We still need to be on our toes – to guard against the “false messiah” of science and any other usurper of God’s role as sovereign Lord God of the universe. Christian believers will still put their faith in Jesus Christ, knowing that nothing can ever replace him.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, assert your sovereignty throughout your world.

IT’S RIGHT AT THE DOOR

“Even so, when you see these things happening,you know that it is near, right at the door”.

Mk 13:29 NIV

There are some nervous people who are always looking for, and finding, problems. One family convinced themselves that their house was haunted. The slightest sound at night and the whole family was soon wide awake, looking for ghosts. As soon as it was possible, they moved to another house. Others seem to have an ear for bad news. Whenever you see them, they start “Have you heard about…?” they hear about accidents and disasters more than anyone else, but seldom good news.

Jesus was not a scaremonger. If anything, he was the opposite. One of his commonest sayings was, “Fear not”. But he knew that the widely used apocalyptic thinking of his day was a source of plenty of speculation about dates and times for God to act. Just as some people do today, some in those days made a hobby out of working out the date of the end of the world.

Still he wanted people to be awake to the unpredictability of God’s workings. He knew that the coming – or coming again – of the Messiah could happen at any time. So he told them to be wide awake. If they were awake to God, they would be attuned to him when he wanted them to do some ministry. It would mean also that they would be looking and listening for God in any and every situation, not to sound alarm bells and get everyone into a panic, but to be alert to God’s every command, and to be ready to serve him or other people at a moment’s notice.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to be ready to obey your instant command.