The following message is based on Matthew 24:1-14, preached on February 14, 2010 at the Central Schwenkfelder Church in Worcester, PA.
The devastation surrounding the earthquake in Haiti has left many of us speechless. We find it hard to fathom the depth of despair which left almost a quarter of a million dead, 60,000 of them estimated to be children. The homeless effect, numbering over 1 million, is hard to understand, as well. None of us can imagine living in a tent because what used to be your home is now a pile of debris. Nevertheless, there have been some stories of hope in the midst of such tragedy.
Take for instance the following, which comes to us from foxnews.com. A 69-year-old ardent Roman Catholic who said she prayed constantly during her week under the rubble was among the unlikely survivors of the epic Haitian earthquake. One full week after the magnitude-7 quake killed an estimated 230,000, left 250,000 injured and made 1.5 million homeless, search-and-rescue teams were emerging from the ruins with improbable success stories. Experts have said that without water, buried quake victims were unlikely to survive beyond three days.
Ena Zizi had been at a church meeting at the residence of Haiti’s Roman Catholic archbishop when the quake struck, trapping her in debris. She was rescued by a Mexican disaster team that was created in the wake of Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake. Zizi said that after the quake, she spoke back and forth with a vicar who also was trapped. But after a few days, he fell silent, and she spent the rest of the time praying and waiting. “I talked only to my boss, God,” she said. “And I didn’t need any more humans.” Doctors who examined Zizi said she was dehydrated and had a dislocated hip and a broken leg. “I’m all right, sort of,” she said, lying on a foil thermal blanket outside the Cuban hospital, her gray hair covered in white dust.
What is it with earthquakes? Or all natural disasters, for that matter? Just a few days ago, Chicago, of all places, experienced an earthquake. Is there something going on that maybe we are not aware of? Or are such events to be expected in our world? I think both are reasonable answers and that provides an opening for our passage today.
The following message is the first in a two part treatment of Jesus’ last discourse, otherwise known as the Olivet Discourse. This passage is given in a parallel fashion in Mark 13 and Luke 21, each of which are slightly different snapshots of the same monologue. Jesus is addressing a future catastrophe and the end of time; what life is going to be like before His return. Why does this study matter? Why should we be concerned with the second coming of Christ? We first discover…
I. MANY ALARMING SIGNS ACCOMPANY THE END TIMES. THEREFORE, THEY SHOULD BE OF GREAT CONCERN TO JESUS’ FOLLOWERS.
Matthew 24:1 And Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. 2 And He answered and said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down.” 3 And as He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” Jesus is leaving the temple. In doing so, the disciples came to Him and started bragging on the immensity and beauty of the temple buildings. At first glance, this would not be an easy a sedge-way into commentary on the climax of history, but Jesus thought it was, and that’s what matters. So, we bless ourselves by taking notice. The disciples asked, as we would have: “When will these things be?”
Jesus said: “See to it that no one misleads you. 5 “For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many. 6 “And you will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. 7 “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. 8 “But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.
“Birth pangs,” is a figure of speech, describing the initial phase of “the Day of the Lord,” or judgment day. A couple of key points to understand are the following: First, Matthew 24 is a difficult passage to interpret. What makes this type of literature so difficult to interpret is that its style is not literal, but figurative, being rich in symbolic imagery.
Second, there are three basic interpretive approaches to this chapter. The first is known as a preterist position, which holds that all or most of Matthew 24 concerns the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. A second position is known as the futurist position, which states that this entire sermon concerns Jesus second coming in judgment. A third position, and one that I tend to hold, is a combination of both. This angle states that it is difficult to separate when Jesus is describing the events surrounding the desolation of Jerusalem and His second coming at the end of time. Why should we believe Jesus? Because what He predicted became true in 70 A.D..
Shortly after Jesus’ ascension, there was a flurry of Messianic claims in the Jewish community. Alfred Edersheim remarks: “Though in the multitude of impostors, who, in the troubled time between the rule of Pilate and the destruction of Jerusalem, promised Messianic deliverance to Israel, few names and claims of this kind have be en specially recorded, yet the hints in the New Testament, and the references, however guarded, in the Jewish historian, imply the appearance of many such seducers.” The most popular of these was The most celebrated case of a false Christ is that of Simon Bar-Cochba, the leader of the great insurrection under Hadrian in 132 AD. His following and subsequent rebellion demanded the attention of the entire Roman armies to stamp out.
Are there examples in our world today? Certainly. The world has seen many earthquakes. Take for instance, the most devastating earthquakes of recent history: December 26, 2004, off of the coast of northern Sumatra. This killed 227,898 people and was a 9.1 magnitude. Or China’s quake of a few years ago killed an estimated 70,000 and left five million homeless. Haiti’s earthquake of a few weeks ago killed an estimated 230,000. These are just a few. There have been others like in Bihar, India in 1934 or the Philippines in August of 1976. Or Mexico City in September of 1985. These three quakes killed an average of 9,000 people, but many of us don’t remember them. The 20th century gave birth to a new kind of earthquake, called the megathrust, which categorizes anything above a 9. In that century alone, there were four megathrust earthquakes, five with the one that birthed the Christmas 2004 Tsunami.
And then there’s famine, which is an extreme scarcity of food. Note author David Jeremiah: ‘As we look out at the world of the early twenty-first century, food shortages are producing widespread hunger in places that have previously known plenty. In Thailand, the world’s leading rice exporter, prices doubled in the first quarter of this year. Food prices have fueled riots in Haiti, Cameroon, Egypt, Mexico, Philippines, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, and several other African nations. …A UN observer warned, “A hungry man is an angry man, as food gets more and more difficult to access…we can expect to see more incidents of civil unrest.”’
All of these are clues into the desperate times we face. And, they are merely the beginning stages, indicating a world that is growing towards its historical climax. We shouldn’t be surprised. Rather, we should expect such occurrences. We should also seize them as opportunities to act and serve. The end times should be, and always have been, a concern for Jesus’ followers. Secondly…
II. THE END TIMES DO NOT SIGNAL EASE AND COMFORT FOR FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST.
Note Jesus’ words in verse 9: “Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations on account of My name. 10 “And at that time many will fall away and will deliver up one another and hate one another. 11 “And many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many. 12 “And because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold.” As time goes on, I believe it will become increasingly less comfortable to be an authentic Christian. We are living in a day in which some consider Christianity as becoming less and less accepted; less and less popular, to such the extent that believers are clearly the minority in our present secular, postmodern age.
Take for instance the amount of people that are suffering for their faith in today’s world. The Rev. Dr. Anthony Harvey, sub-dean of Westminster Abbey, told his congregation: “There has never been a time in Christian history when someone, somewhere, has not died rather than compromise with the powers of oppression, tyranny and unbelief,” “But our century, which has been the most violent in recorded history, has created a roll of Christian martyrs far exceeding that of any previous period.”
But there is an encouragement for all of us in verse 13. Jesus said: “But the one who endures to the end, he shall be saved.” Believers are to live their lives with an attitude of endurance. This world will never be like we want it to be. Until Jesus returns, there will be widespread deception as well as a lack of peace and stability. God’s meant it as such! Nothing should surprise us. We must endure. The Greek verb denotes a characteristic attitude that has ongoing implications. As we anticipate death or Christ’s return, let us live as if we’re holding out, standing firm, bearing up under, even putting up with. In the meantime, He’s given something for us to do- that is to bring forth the message of the gospel. Verse 14: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come.” The gospel goes out as a sign of God’s mercy and grace. The good news of Christ is the avenue of hope in a world that is on its way out.
Today, there are two things we can come away from this passage with. One is that the end times should be and always have been, a concern for Jesus’ followers. Secondly, the end times do not signal ease and comfort for followers of Christ. Our response should not be one of fear, but of preparedness and determination.
In closing, let the words of Anglican J.C. Ryle who wrote in the 19th century encourage you. He wrote: “Let us lay these things to heart, and remember them well. They are eminently truths for the present times. Let us learn to be moderate in our expectations from any existing operations in the church of Christ, and we shall be spared much disappointment: let us make haste to spread the Gospel in the world, for the time is short, not long. Troubled times are ahead. Our eyes may yet see the sun of Christianity go down, in clouds and storm. But above all, let us long for our Lord’s return. May we all have a heart to pray daily, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
 Story found at http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,583412,00.html.
 Walter Kaiser, Back Towards the Future (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 43.
 Article entitled, “False Christs,” found at http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/C/christs-false.html.
 David Jeremiah, What in the World is Going On? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), xii.
 Take for instance the wealth of material being written from the prospective of the Missional Church, especially Walter Brueggeman’s, Cadences of Home. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997.
 Story found at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/129587.stm.
 J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1986), 315-16.