A sermon by the Rev’d Peter Jin

Matthew 24:1-14 


What strange readings we have just heard from Matthew chapter 24! Jesus tells his disciples the signs of the end time. It is a strange but fascinating theme: the end time.  

The Gospel of Mark Chapter 13 and the Gospel of Luke chapter 21 both record the following themes: the destruction of the temple, signs of the end of the age, and persecutions, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the coming of the Son of Man. 

The setting for the reading is very interesting. Jesus comes with his disciples to the holy city. Now, for a group of people from Nazareth, coming to the capital city of Jerusalem and seeing the temple would have been an overwhelming experience. The temple would have been the most beautiful and impressive holy place that any of Jesus’ disciples had ever seen. So there they are. They are standing around the temple looking up at its magnificence. Can you imagine the reaction when Jesus says ‘when the day comes, not one stone will be left here upon another, and all will be thrown down?’ 

Then it gets even worse. Not only will the temples be destroyed, but Jesus says later in verse 29 which is not included in today’s reading. “The world as you know it is going to be destroyed. During that time, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the skies, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. Can you imagine the effect this language has on his disciples? He is announcing that the whole world is ending, falling apart.

Last night, I consulted Mr. Google. I put Apocalypse and the end times in the search engine. 140 millions references on Apocalypse appear on the web, 5.2 billions on the end times. It is obvious that people are fascinated, as the disciples probably were when Jesus first uttered these words. The question is of course, what do we make of it? How do we understand it? Let me make a suggestion. If we take this language as a literal description of cosmological events, it takes us in a very dangerous direction. Let me tell you why.

In 1994, when I was 21, in Shanghai, my hometown, I was invited to a bible study run by a group of Christians where it was explained to me why I should worship on Saturday rather than on Sunday. I was given plenty of so-called evidence from the book of Daniel, and the book of Revelation why the Pope and Chairman Mao were the Antichrist. I was fascinated to learn code language and diligently took notes on the date of Jesus’ second coming, which was 1999. I was very sad because Jesus was going to return that soon! I was too young and didn’t want to die and I didn’t even have a girl friend.

We mustn’t take apocalyptic language literally. But what does it mean? 

First of all, this kind of talk belongs to a literary genre. We call it the genre of the apocalyptic. The books of Daniel and Revelation are the best example of apocalyptic literature. Yesterday I was playing tennis at the Woodville against a man in his late 60s. It was very very windy. I beat him in two sets: 6:3 and 7:5. He didn’t hold any grudge and we had a very pleasant conversation. I told him I lived in windy Wellington in New Zealand for 2 years, so I got used to playing tennis in gusty winds. He told me that he was Greek Orthodox. I could not resist asking him whether he knew the Greek meaning of Apocalyptic. To my great surprise, he said Apocalyptic in Greek αποκαλυπτική means unveiling. 

That is what I found out exactly when I prepared this sermon. Apocalyptic in Greek means unveiling. What’s been unveiled here? Something which is hidden, and is now revealed, and unveiled. That is the key I think to this reading. 

We have lost sight of code language because of our modern culture and technology. But for ancient peoples, the stars, the sun and the moon, were the means of navigation to find their way, to tell what time of the day it was. We look at our phones and they looked at the sun and shadows and so on. They could not live without relying on these cosmic phenomena. Moreover, they believed those were cosmic powers, cosmic principles that guided and governed the world. 

What Jesus is talking about here is this, the way they customarily govern, and guide, and order their lives, it is all going to change. The temple which was the centre of their religious life, the moon, the stars and the sun, the cosmic powers which govern their lives, all of these are going to change. Something new is going to be unveiled. Apocalyptic.

Jesus says later in verse 34:‘Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened’. This generation that Jesus is talking to, these people around him, early first century Palestine. These things will happen before this generation passes away? Space and time will end? The sun will be darken and the moon will fall from sky? If you mean it literally, Jesus was about as wrong as he could be. As his prophetic credentials are really in trouble. 

What is Jesus talking about? Don’t take apocalyptic language literally. What he is talking about is not the end of space and time, what he is talking about is his death and his resurrection from the dead.

Jesus’ death. What does that mean? He was put to death by the religious and political establishment of his time. Jesus was put to death under Jewish and Roman authorities. That is judgement on those powers. The Author of life came, as Peter said, ‘you killed him’. What does Jesus’ death say about the sun and moon and stars and cosmic powers by which their political, cultural and social life were being governed. It means there is something wrong with all who believe in their power because they killed the Author of life. 

Then even more dramatically Jesus whom they killed rises from the dead on the third day. Benjamin Franklin said there were only two things certain in life: death and taxes. I don’t know your culture well but I do know the Chinese culture, death is a very depressing topic. In China, no one wants to talk about it. 

So what does the resurrection mean? When Jesus rises from the dead, it means that way of governing our lives, ordering our lives, no longer makes sense. Now we know that death doesn’t have the final word, now we know that death has been disempowered. We can live with a great hope. Jesus rose from the dead, which means God’s love is more powerful than death. That means the ways of sin are broken in principle. We don’t have to live in pride, envy and fear. We don’t have to live that way. We can now live in the freedom of God’s children. We can live as God wants us to live. 

The Apocalypse and the unveiling is that this new way of seeing and thinking and imagining has been revealed to us. Apocalyptic language is not a depressing language. It is not meant to frighten us, just the contrary, it is meant to show us a way out. The old order is passing away. Good news, and a new order has been unveiled. You know Paul says, ‘it is no longer I who live, but it is the Christ who lives in me.’ He means that the old self based upon the fear of death, guided by the sun, the moon, and stars of the old world has been transformed. Now I can govern my life by the power and light of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. That is why this apocalyptic language is finally the language of life, the language of hope, finally good news, so the good news that Christ has risen from the dead has been unveiled. Amen.