THE FUTURE WON’T BE EASY

“Everyone will hate you because of me”.

Mk 13:13 GNB

Many years ago, the great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a very influential book entitled, “The Cost of Discipleship”. There he said, “When Jesus calls a person, he bids him come and die”. This book achieved a huge impact after World War II because Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazi regime during the war at the age of 39.

Being a disciple is never a bed of roses. In some situations it is dangerous. Most of the disciples of Jesus, sent out to proclaim his gospel, found themselves in mortal danger. There was bitter opposition from those of the Jewish faith. And preaching about the “Kingdom of God” aroused fear and opposition from the secular authorities in most places to which they went. Other faiths perceived them to be rivals for the affections (and money!) of their followers. It meant the disciples had a hard time of it wherever they went. And from time to time the Roman Emperors ordered persecutions against them. The opposition was official. And it was severe. “Conrad tells that, when he was a young sailor learning to steer a sailing-ship, a gale blew up. The older man who was teaching him gave him but one piece of advice. ‘Keep her facing it’, he said. ‘Always keep her facing it’”. (W. Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles p64).

In some countries where Christianity is a minority faith, much pressure is often brought to bear on believing Christian disciples on account of their loyalty to their faith. Sometimes non-Christian families “expel” a family member who converts to Christianity and this can be very painful for the member concerned. Remember always what Christ endured – and he never promised an easy ride.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, strengthen all your disciples who face opposition.

CHAOS AND CONFUSION

“Men will hand over their own brothers to be put to death, and fathers will do the same to their children. Children will turn against their parents and have them put to death”.

Mk 13:12 GNB

It is sometimes difficult to believe the enormity of the things that happen in this world. A man gets hold of a gun and shoots his whole family and then turns the gun on himself. Children in school attack their teacher. A mother takes her children and flies off to another part of the world whilst a legal wrangle with the father plays out in court. In Nigeria three hundred teenage girls are kidnapped and whisked away. Thousands trek through deserts to climb into overloaded boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea – fleeing to find a new life. Families are torn in two by different members following divergent political ideologies. Prisons are bulging at the seams with hardened criminals. Chaos and confusion seem to be the order of the day. The apocalyptic thinking of Christ’s day said chaos and confusion will precede the arrival of God on earth to sort out the shambles. In a warped sort of way, the apocalyptic teaching spoke of hope – God is about to call “Time” on the human madness.

Many people today like to speculate about the future using the apocalyptic ideas in the Bible. It can be quite a game – guessing what’s about to happen then fitting a Bible text onto it. The truth is that evil is afoot – with or without any apocalyptic proof texts. Chaos and confusion break out in many different ways. But faith keeps its two feet on the ground, knowing that God is on the throne and in his own time will bring calm and order.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, bring peace, truth and hope in your good time.

THE HOLY SPIRIT IN YOU

“The words you speak will not be yours: they will come from the Holy Spirit”.

Mk 13:11 GNB

A member of his congregation once got into conversation with Rev Dr Leslie Weatherhead, minister in the nineteen-fifties of the City Temple Church in London. His congregation numbered fifteen hundred at each service and he preached morning and evening, which required him to give two different sermons each Sunday. The member asked, “Tell me, Doctor Weatherhead, how long does it take you in preparing each sermon?” Weatherhead thought for a moment and then replied, “I would say about forty hours”.

All ministers ask for God the Holy Spirit to guide them in what to say. In many churches the attending steward prays for the Holy Spirit to empower the minister before going into the service. As a worshipper pray for your minister or preacher every time to be uplifted and guided by the Spirit. He, or she, may take forty hours – they still need “the plus of the Spirit”. Jesus was not referring here to preaching, but his words apply to preaching every bit as they do to court appearances.

There is a strange inter-connection between the Holy Spirit and the Bible. They have a habit of working “in tandem”. In preparing the preacher begins with the Bible, compares different or similar places where the subject is mentioned and calls on the Spirit to direct him to the thinking that is going to impact the message. The preacher probably has cross-references in other books to the subject in hand, and even indexes to sermon illustrations that are relevant. All this is placed at the disposal of the Holy Spirit who provides the “cement” to hold it all together – whether it takes one hour or forty!

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, empower your preachers with your Spirit.

WORDS FOR THE MOMENT

“When you are arrested and taken to court, do not worry beforehand about what you are going to say; when the time comes, say whatever is then given to you. For the words you speak will not be yours; they will come from the Holy Spirit”.

Mk 13:11 GNB

Most people who are not accustomed to speaking in public are scared stiff that if they are ever pounced on to say something they will be utterly tongue-tied and will say nothing. The disciples of Jesus were “ordinary people”. They were not accustomed to speaking, especially in front of a court. To be told by Jesus that they would be dragged before magistrates and other rulers would have filled them with horror. Jesus knew that and he also knew that being forced into court would be their lot – and maybe their lives would depend on what they said and how they said it. So this promise – that the Holy Spirit would come to their aid in those moments – would have been very reassuring. And was not the Holy Spirit called “the Advocate” anyway?

They were hauled before courts. And they did have to give account of themselves. They had to speak there of Jesus, his death and his resurrection. And they were given words to say. And they acquitted themselves with courage, clarity and conviction. They were possessed by the Holy Spirit. They didn’t, as some modern-day disciples claim, have the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had them. There is a real difference. And the Holy Spirit spoke through them not only in the courts – but out in the streets, market-places, and fields where people gathered to hear them. And, as they did with Jesus, the common people heard them gladly.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, give words to your messengers today.

THE PRIORITY OF THE GOSPEL

“Before the end comes, the gospel must be preached to all peoples”.

Mk 13:10 GNB

What is the most important task of the Christian church? It isn’t erecting magnificent buildings. It isn’t getting the Bible to the remotest corners of the earth. It isn’t explaining the creeds to all who do not know them. It is preaching the gospel. One of the emphases of apocalyptic thinking is the stress on the impending arrival of “the end”. It emphasises that time is short. We don’t have for ever – we cannot dither around or explore side roads. There is an urgency about the task God places on us. We don’t know just when the end will come. And the world is a big place with many cultures, languages, faiths, and thought systems.

The disciples did not know when Jesus spoke, that in a few short weeks the Holy Spirit would come upon them, at Pentecost, and send them out on this great mission. Within a generation the gospel would be heard in Asia Minor and Europe and even in Rome, the capital of the Empire. The memorial is still there to the suffering of the early martyrs in Rome’s ruined Colosseum. Millions visit it every year. It was there that Christian people were thrown to the lions for entertainment!

The mission is still incomplete these twenty centuries later, but it has begun, and most countries of the world have some form of Christian witness by means of which God speaks to his people. The gospel is for all peoples. It proclaims Jesus as Lord and Saviour, his disciples as his servants and the Holy Spirit as the great comforter and advocate. We dare not neglect the task. Indeed, we cannot.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, recall your church to her primary task and calling.

MAKING A WITNESS

“You yourselves must be on guard. You will be arrested and taken to court. You will be beaten in the synagogues; you will stand before rulers and kings for my sake to tell them the Good News”.

Mk 13:9 GNB

For Jesus, the most important consequence of the dangers and difficulties that lay ahead for the disciples was not the possibility and likelihood of physical suffering, but the opportunity it would give them to spread the gospel. Their presence would bring forth opposition and they would constantly get themselves into trouble .

Later, in Jerusalem itself, the apostle Paul saw the fulfilment of what Jesus was saying here. Hauled before the Roman governor and then King Agrippa, Paul told the court about the vision he had experienced on the road to Damascus. Eventually the king said of Paul’s witness to Jesus Christ, “Keep this up much longer and you’ll make a Christian out of me” (Acts 26:28 EHP). The discipleship that awaited the Christian witnesses was not “tea-cup Christianity”. It was tough, hazardous, dangerous and difficult. It involved taking up a cross and following where Jesus had led. And one of the worst aspects of it was the bitter opposition which the Jews mounted against the apostles.

Plenty of Christian witnesses have faced official opposition in our day and generation. In some countries where Christianity is not the predominant faith Christians are persecuted. And sometimes they suffer martyrdom for their faith. It can be equally difficult in work places in apparently Christian countries where ridicule and opposition greet Christians who stand up to be counted. Some Christians are ostracized and even refused employment because of their faith. Consider your own situation and examine whether you are making a faithful witness to Christ.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, raise up more courageous witnesses to the gospel.

PLENTY OF TROUBLE

“Countries will fight each other; kingdoms will attack one another. There will be earthquakes everywhere, and there will be famines. These things are like the first pains of childbirth”.

Mk 13:8 GNB

The disciples of Jesus lived in a country that knew plenty about war and fighting. It sat between the powerful nation of Egypt on its south and the other powerful nations of Assyria, Babylon and Persia to the north. Greece had also conquered it and now it was subject to Roman control. Jesus knew that this sort of turmoil would go on. When it started there was no need to panic. The earth was still on its axis and the sun would still shine.

“Whatever the outward circumstances or your inward faith, trouble would still come. It always has done. Trouble is normal” – this was the message of Jesus. “It will all be a test of your faith.Faith becomes stronger when it is put to the test. You learn and you grow when you are under pressure. So be on your guard and don’t let circumstances catch you unawares or throw you off your purpose in life”. This was the meaning behind the warnings Jesus was giving them. They were going into a cauldron of war, trouble, confusion, opposition, bloodshed and danger. They needed to be strong. They would have a cross to carry – like his.

And we disciples of the twenty-first century must not expect to find the surrounding circumstances to be a bed of roses. Turmoil, confusion, economic hardship, climate change, over-population and pressure from super-powers – this is our context and we must expect things to get worse. In the midst of it all is Jesus – the Christ of the resurrection. Our mission is to bring hope in the chaos.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, make us messengers of hope in your world today.

THE WORLD GOES ON

“Don’t be troubled when you hear the noise of battles close by and news of battles far away. Such things must happen, but they do not mean that the end has come”.

Mk 13:7 GNB

Some people are obsessed with the game of working out when the end of the world will come. One large religious movement has often told its followers when the end will come. When it doesn’t, they just go back to the drawing boards and put the date back a decade or two. At least they are honest enough to admit their mistakes! Most of the people who indulge in this game are cranks. You can ignore their predictions.

Anything that happens is taken by these people to be “a sign of the times”. But then the things that do happen are always – well at least often – happening. Wars and rumours of wars are normal. So are eclipses of the moon and sun. And whilst a few nut-brains go crazy over this or that, the world goes on its way, eating, sleeping, begetting children, fighting, inventing, with this crisis and that, solving problems and surviving. There used to be a line of a poem that went, “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world”. He is – and it is!

Nevertheless, the Bible does prepare us for an uncertain future. It does not say that “Nothing ever changes”. It says God can and does intervene to change things, to bring new out of the old, to make things better, more complete, and whole. He is a God of surprises who keeps us guessing, waiting, wondering, praying – and thinking. He wants us to have faith in him and in his ordering of the world.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, give me a calm unruffled faith in you and your working.

WOLVES IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING

“Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he’, and will deceive many”.

Mk 13:5, 6 NIV

In the uncertain and insecure times in which Jesus and his disciples lived the apocalyptic thinking that was prevalent encouraged strange movements and ideas. One of the common ideas was that the long-promised Messiah was about to come. This put ideas into people’s heads and several people with inflated ideas of their own importance thought they would give “this Messiah thing” a try. Two of them who drew a following are mentioned by name in Acts 5:36 and 37. And the desire to liberate Israel from Roman rule was strong.

Jesus knew about some of these “Messianic movements”. And he could see that there was trouble ahead for those gullible enough to swallow the false claims of these leaders. Hence he warned his disciples to be aware of what might happen. He was saying, “Avoid them like the plague”.

That is still a warning we need to heed. And some of the false Messiahs of the modern era are masquerading in apparently normal churches. Reports of “resurrections”, teachers telling their worshipers to eat snakes, “miracles on order” (for financial payments of course) are all indications of showmanship. So are the pastors who demand sexual favors of female followers. These religious leaders are wolves in sheep’s clothing. How do faithful disciples discern these bogus “prophets” and distinguish them from the genuine Christian leaders? You ask the Holy Spirit for his guidance if you have any doubt or suspicion about any specific leader. One of the spiritual gifts listed by St Paul is “the ability to tell the difference between gifts that come from the Spirit and those that do not” (1 Cor 12:10 GNB).

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, give me the gift of discernment.

WATCH OUT!

“Jesus said to them: ‘Watch out that no one deceives you’”.

Mk 13:5 NIV

At the time when Jesus lived in Israel there was a set of ideas floating around called Apocalyptic. One of the apocalyptic ideas was that a coming disaster was about to happen. The air, as we would say, was “thick with the thought of impending doom”, just as today the big bogey is “climate change”. It is understandable since Israel had suffered a number of invasions by foreign people. And usually there was another one in the distance making the sort of noise that suggested they were planning trouble. This all tended to create panic in the minds of the people. So the Israelites thought, “Who is there on the horizon who could sort the Romans out?” “Would they be worse for us than the Romans”. “God must have a part to play in this messy conflict between good and evil”. With this kind of panicky attitude there were plenty of people stirring up cranky ideas about this, that and the other. And Jesus knew it was all going on. So he warned the disciples to be on their guard, not to be duped by every Tom, Dick and Harry.

In addition, Jesus knew that storm clouds were gathering over his own head. Mischief was afoot. And his impending death spelt trouble – and possibly enmity – for the disciples.

Christian disciples need to watch out today. For one thing plenty of false teachings abound. Satan himself is busy waiting to entrap unwary Christian believers. Even unbelieving “friends” can be a problem without being aware of it. So can unbelieving family members. Disciples need to be on their watch against weaknesses of the flesh. And Jesus is available to help and strengthen you.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to be ever on guard against the designs of evil.