Be Alert, Not Alarmed!
It’s so good to see you all and online. Welcome. We’re going to be in Mark 13 today. Have you ever heard of Harry Markopolos? Harry Markopolos? Most people are not familiar with him, but he is legendary in the financial world. He is the forensic accountant who tried repeatedly to expose our country’s greatest Ponzi scheme.
A Ponzi scheme is a form of fraud that pays investors with money from other investors. And Bernie Madoff orchestrated a Ponzi scheme of over $65 billion for almost two decades, defrauding investors of billions and billions of dollars.
Markopolos claimed to have figured out his scheme in about five minutes. He says it took him about four hours to do the math just to prove to himself it had to be a fraud. But that launched him on a series of warnings. He warned the SEC in 2000, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008. Yet no one did anything until many had lost everything — their entire retirement gone, their life savings gone, billions and billions of dollars.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Talking to Strangers,” examines how Markopolos was able to discern this fraud while many experts missed it. He raises the question: “What made him so undeceivable? And he suggests a couple of things. One, he is obsessive about details. Second, he is a numbers guy, as he says, “For me, math is truth.” He analyzes investment opportunities not at all personally, but purely mathematically. For example, he doesn’t even want to meet with the principles until he has seen the financials because he doesn’t want to be swayed by big personalities, men like Madoff. And third, he believes institutions are corrupt. As he says of accounting firms,
“On a best day, they are incompetent, on a bad day, they are crooked.”
Does that sound like someone who’s cynical to you? He believes they repeatedly ignore fraud. To Markopolos fraud is ubiquitous; it’s everywhere.
So, in one sense, Markopolos is a hero. Wouldn’t our world be a better place to live if everyone was as fanatically committed to truth as he is? Well, yes and no. There’s a dark side to Harry Markopolos. For example, when he was uncovering the Madoff scheme, he lived in constant fear. He would look over his shoulder continually. He started carrying a gun. He installed a very sophisticated alarm system in his home. He changed the locks. He took a different route home from work every night. He even dug out his gas mask from his army days just in case they tried to tear gas him. He was alert; he was unwilling to be deceived. But he was also alarmed; he was cynical, anxious, fearful.
As Gladwell says, “If you don’t begin in a state of trust, you can’t have meaningful social encounters.”
So, how does someone have meaningful social encounters without being gullible? The question we’re wrestling with is, how do you keep from being gullible, naive, easily deceived, but at the same time live a life of love and joy, trust, peace? The real question is, how can we be alert without being alarmed?
In the end of Mark 12, Jesus just warned his disciples of the fake, the scribes. And he called his disciples to emulate the true, the widow, not the fake. Beware of the fake, emulate the true. And that warning in 12:38, you see there in Mark 12:38, “Beware of the scribes.” That verb “beware” is the same verb he uses several times in chapter 13. So, 12:38, “beware of the scribes.” 13:5, “see that no one leads you astray.” That “see” is “beware,” same verb in the Greek. 13:9, “but be on your guard.” Same verb, “beware.” 13:23, “but be on guard.” 13:33, “be on guard.” Be alert. All of you need to be Harry Markopolos.
But then sprinkled in this call to caution to be alert is a call to calm. For example, in verse 7, “Do not be alarmed.” Verse 11, “Do not be anxious.” Be alert, but not alarmed. Jesus is training his disciples. Jesus is on his way to the cross, and he’s training his disciples how to be alert without being alarmed. Let’s look at the setting, the context in which this happens.
Mark 13:1-2, “And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and wonderful buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’”
Now, this had to be a jarring conversation for the disciples. They are admiring the size, the brightness of the stones and the structure of Herod’s temple. Right in the middle of their admiration — Don’t you hate when this happens? You’re admiring something and somebody says, “Yeah, it’s all going to burn.” That’s what Jesus does to them. He issues the judgment. It’s all coming down, every stone. Don’t get too attached.
Now, some of these stones, if you look at the base of the temple, some of those foundation stones were over 40 feet long, 11 feet high. We’re talking a shipping container size, bigger than that, and over a million pounds. They had to be drawn by oxen on logs that created a rolling system. It would have been just amazing. There was no temple in ancient history built with bigger stones. It was no doubt spectacular, especially when you think of the fact that many of these men grew up in little villages in little huts. And then to come to Jerusalem and just be blown away with the size, but then also the brightness. When the sun rose on these bright rocks, it would have been blinding. And Jesus, in the midst of their being amazed, issues the judgment. Like the fig tree, to the root it’s going to be destroyed. And within a lifetime, the entire temple complex was leveled.
Now, the disciples can imagine this happening to Rome. Why aren’t you going to Rome and saying, “It’s all coming down. The Pantheon’s coming down.” That makes sense. Those are evil people. Why are you saying this about us, God’s people, the Israelites? Why are you issuing a judgment against Jerusalem? This raised huge questions in their minds. Verses 3-4,
“And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?’”
From the Mount of Olives, the disciples can look across the Kidron Valley and see the eastern side of the temple mount. Peter, James, John and Andrew ask him privately. Really both questions are really “when” questions. When are these things are going to be? What are the signs so we’ll know when these things are going to be? And Jesus responds with some of the most difficult material to interpret in all of the Bible.
James Edwards says, “This is one of the most perplexing chapters in the Bible to understand.”
Ben Witherington, “Mark 13 contains some of the most interesting and problematic material in the whole of Mark’s gospel.”
So, next week we’re going to look at some interpretive keys to understanding this chapter. But for today, I want us just to focus in on what Jesus seems most concerned about. You notice they ask a “when” question. Jesus doesn’t respond with a “when” answer. He responds with a way of life. Before we get to the “when” — and Jesus is going to vaguely answer that question — but before he gets to that, he calls them to a different way of living. He issues this warning in verses 5-13, which could be summarized: be alert but not alarmed, be alert but not alarmed. Why alert? Verse 5, “See [beware] that no one leads you astray.” Be alert because there are Messianic pretenders. Verse 6, “Many will come in my name.” Many will claim to represent me or be me, Jesus says. And many will be led astray. Just let that settle on you. Way before the Internet, way before evangelists could utilize television or online mediums to sweep people away, Jesus said this would happen. So, be alert. Be a spiritual version of Harry Markopolos.
Well, that sounds terrifying. I don’t know who to believe. Am I going to be living in complete cynicism and fear? Look what Jesus says next right after issuing this, “Be alert. See that no one leads you astray.” He answers the question, why not alarmed? Verse 7,
“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. [why?] This must take place, but the end is not yet.”
This must take place implies a what? A plan. This must take place. Must in the Greek is the little word “dei,” that implies divine necessity. It has to happen. This must take place. What must take place? Wars and rumors of wars, other things he’s about to describe. Now, God is not directly causing chaos, but in this fallen world, all of this falls under his providential purposes and power and plan. But these things that must take place should not be interpreted as the end. Look at verse 8,
“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.”
In the decades following Jesus’ words, rumors of wars took place under Emperor Caligula, famines under Claudius, earthquakes devastated cities like Pompeii in AD 63, which were just early warning signs of the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii. Jesus says in verse 8, “these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” Now, the “beginning” implies if there is a beginning, there is also a what? An end.
Once again Jesus is using words that communicate a plan. And he uses an analogy that’s always scary for us men to use, birth pains. When a woman — and I verified this with my wife — when you first experience contractions, first baby, she is tempted to wonder if something is dreadfully wrong. This much pain going on in my body cannot be a good thing. My appendix must be about to explode. My insides are coming onto my outside. Something is going on here that is not right. But if she understands the birthing process. It doesn’t — please don’t misunderstand me — it doesn’t eliminate any of the pain, but it makes sense. It gives you an interpretive grid through which you interpret the pain that the beginning has and end. We’re moving toward a baby. And that’s the analogy Jesus is making. The beginning is heading toward an end. And that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be horrific. That doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be pain. But there is a good end in mind. So, be alert, but don’t be alarmed.
Then he comes back and issues another warning. Look at verse 9. Why alert? Be on guard because you will experience religious opposition. Verse 9,
“Be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues.”
And you will experience political opposition. Second half of verse 9,
“You will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them.”
And notice if you skip down to verse 11,
“They bring you to trial.”
And you will experience, thirdly, family opposition. Verse 12,
“And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and the children will rise against parents and have them put to death.”
Jesus is lamenting the fact that this opposition to Jesus will not merely be religious or political, it will be familial. It will divide the most intimate of relationships. And we experience that here in America, but we can learn, I think more intensely, how to respond to this from our brothers and sisters around the world.
For example, Ibrahim was converted from Islam to follow Jesus. And when he did, he incurred intense opposition. He lived in northern Kenya, but he was ethnic Somalian, and Somalians view conversion to Christianity as a rejection of their ethnicity. So, he was arrested and stoned and shot. But none of these kinds of opposition were nearly as painful as family opposition. He says this:
“The biggest persecution I felt was when they took my wife. The clan members took my wife … from me forcefully because I became a Christian.”
Ibrahim’s wife could have tried to return, but she didn’t because she, too, was ashamed that he would renounce Islam and follow Jesus. He would never live again with his wife and family. And he says this:
“When I was in that state, it was so painful. Sometimes it became unbearable. The church members would come and encourage me, pray with me. Whenever I was in pain … I constantly read the Word, which reminded me that patience will pay.”
And despite intense opposition, over the past few decades Ibrahim has had the joy of planting 23 little churches throughout northern Kenya, specifically among ethnic Somalians. Family opposition.
Fourth, finally, universal opposition. In verse 13, Jesus says,
“You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”
Pretty direct. When we experience hatred by someone for simply following Jesus, it shocks us. And Jesus is saying the opposite. When you live in a culture, as American Christians have had the privilege of for most of our history… When you live in a culture that generally looks positively toward Christians, that should shock you, not the opposite. That should surprise you, cause you to ask questions. As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 4:12,
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”
So, be alert. Opposition can surprise us, but it shouldn’t. Well, just when our anxieties rise once again, Jesus says, “But don’t be anxious.” Now, in verse 11, when he says, “do not be anxious,” I know he is specifically referring to the times when you are dragged in front of powerful people, and you’re not sure what to say. You’re fearful that you won’t have words that are appropriate for that moment. And he said specifically, don’t be afraid in that, don’t be anxious in that moment. But this command earlier not to be alarmed and now don’t be anxious, really finds its foundation in the message of this entire section. And I want to show you how that is.
Three reasons for this. Number 1, we are not anxious because the Father’s gospel must be proclaimed to all nations. Verse 10,
“And the gospel [that is the good news of God through Christ] must first be proclaimed to all nations.”
That “must” is another divine necessity word. Followers of Jesus are captivated by a mission that is bigger than anything we can be alarmed or anxious about.
Whether we are in a season of prosperity or adversity, it is always for the advancement of the gospel. Do you believe that? Not getting much buy in on that. So, let me back up and try another run at it. Paul said, he knew how to abound, and he knew how to be abased. He knew how to have seasons of prosperity and seasons of difficulty. But what Jesus is clarifying, and Paul says the same thing throughout his writings, is that whether we are experiencing a season of prosperity or a season of adversity, it’s always for the advancement of the gospel for the glory of God. That’s the purpose of what we’re going through.
I was soaking in this this past week in Psalm 67:1-2.
“May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.”
Why? Why would we want that kind of divine blessing? Look at verse 2.
“That your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.”
So, your provision (verse 1) is for your purpose (verse 2). That’s why we crave his blessing or why we interpret difficulty as an opportunity.
Number 2, the Spirit’s voice speaks through us. We are not anxious because the Spirit’s voice speaks through us. Verse 11,
“And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.”
Wow. So, the reason — follow his argument please very closely here — the reason you can be alert but not anxious is because, you know, worst case scenario, you get dragged before powerful people, they point their finger at you, they demand an explanation, you have no clue how you’re going to respond. And Jesus says, I’m giving you the Spirit — like having the most powerful attorney in town with you, most powerful attorney in the universe with you — who’s promising to speak on your behalf. Feel the anxiety going down a little if we believe his promise?
And then third, we can be alert but not anxious because the Son’s name is witnessed and hated. So, in verse 9 when believers are delivered over, beaten, stand before governors and kings, it is (second half of verse 9) “For my sake [Jesus says] for my sake to bear witness before them.” Skip down to verse 13, first half, “And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” I believe this is one of the reasons Jesus was so passionate about warning us back up in 12:38, “Beware of the scribes.” Why? Because scribes are all concerned about their name, their image, their appearance. We want people to think well of us. We don’t want to be on the wrong side, we want to fit in. And Jesus is saying, if your primary goal is to fit in and to be well thought of, you’re just a modern version of the scribes. And when you identify with me, which will inevitably lead to your rejection or some kind of opposition — in every culture it ultimately will — you will be crushed at that moment. You’ll not just be alert, you’ll be anxious and alarmed.
But what if it’s not about you? What if it’s about him? For my name’s sake. What if the most loving thing God can do for us is to seek his own glory, because that’s the greatest good in the universe. As the most beautiful one in the universe, when he seeks his own glory, and when we are swept into that, his glory, his love is being is flooding over us in a way that we will never find if we seek it on our own, a kind of security we could never manufacture on our own. Verse 13, second half, this is what he means, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” When we get swept into God’s greatest passion — his glory through his Son — the alarms of the world will no longer be destabilizing, and we will endure to the end.
So, the stakes are high, but God’s purposes are higher. The stakes are high — be alert! God’s purposes are higher — do not be alarmed! There’s much in this world you cannot control. Jesus promises you will be delivered over. He promises you will experience wars, and you will experience natural disasters. You will at times be hated. And he’s not saying that flippantly or fatalistically as if it’s fine to be a jerk and blame it on Jesus. No. But be on guard. Be alert, but not alarmed.
This is why he calls us every morning to wake up and to pray the Lord’s Prayer. What happens first in the Lord’s Prayer? “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be my name.” Is that how it goes? “My kingdom come today, my will be done.” No. Before we ask for daily bread, what we need for this day, before we ask for forgiveness which we desperately need, before we ask for protection from the kind of temptations and trials that we’re about to face, Jesus directs us in prayer to realize it’s not about us. It’s about him. Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Funnel all my thoughts that direction. And then, yes, ask for your daily bread. We need to eat something. We need to drive something. We need to live somewhere. Yes, ask for forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ. Yes, ask for protection with the temptations and trials that are going to pummel us in that day. But you will interpret all of those differently if you begin realizing it’s not about you. It’s about him. “For my sake,” Jesus says.
Now, we don’t even know what to do with that in our culture because we’re so immersed in “self-olatry.” But Jesus is training his followers, and he’s training us how to be alert without being alarmed. How to live a life of discernment without becoming skeptical. How not to be gullible and believe everything that comes our way, but not to be cynical, angry, bitter, hard to live with.
Many of us live as though there are only two options. We’re either alarmed, or we’re sleep. We’re either angry or fearful or we don’t care. We’re passive, apathetic. Now, we haven’t talked about the “asleep” part because Jesus gets to this at the end of the chapter. If you look at verses 33, 34, 35, 37, four times Jesus says, “Stay awake, stay awake.”
He is going to round this off by calling us to be alert, not alarmed — those of us who tend toward anxiety and panic and become frantic — but not apathetic either. Those of us who tend to check out and become passive and lethargic. These people freak us out, and these people make these people wonder, do you not care? And Jesus is saying, I’m calling you to a life of alertness that doesn’t tend to be alarmed or asleep.
So, just to whet our appetite a little bit, how do I know if I’m becoming spiritually asleep? Here might be a few indicators from this passage and the context. When I value image over substance, when I’m like the scribes, and I’m more worried about what people think, wanting you to think well of me, and not really addressing what’s going on in my heart, I’m snoozing. When I value my comfort over the gospel going to the nations, I might be spiritually asleep. When I think that I could follow Jesus and never encounter opposition, I might be in a spiritual coma or at least lethargic. Or when I, as part of that, when I react bitterly to opposition, as if it’s about me.
On the other side, how do I know when I’m moving toward living alarmed? When my sense of confidence and calm rise and fall with the news cycle, I might be living alarmed. You know how that is. You’re having a great day, and you make the mistake of checking in on the news, and you just notice a change in your spirit. Now I’m not saying we don’t need to check, our head’s not in the sand. But why does it affect me the way it affects me?
When I get caught up in secondary controversies, I might be alarmed. When Christians are way more prone to argue over lesser things and way less prone to be passionate about primary things, we might be heading toward alarmed rather than alert.
And finally, another example of when I’m heading toward alarmed is, when I get swept into personality cults. That’s what Jesus was talking about when he warns us not to be led astray. When I become enamored with people or movements rather than Jesus and his Word. Be alert but not alarmed.
Let’s pray. Oh, Father, you know how easily we are alarmed when we feel out of control, when our circumstances don’t make sense to us, when what you are doing doesn’t fit what we thought you would be doing. We can feel the panic. Alarms go off. And then it’s very easy for us, because we can’t live in that state of alarm, for many of us to check out and fly right across to the spiritually asleep side where we don’t care, we give up, we throw ourselves into a thousand distractions. And you are calling us away from both of those to a place to be alert, but not alarmed or asleep.
Father, the only way that’s going to happen is if our eyes are on you. If we try to untangle our feet out of the net, we will just get ourselves more caught up. Our eyes are upon you. This is for your sake. This is not about us. Open our eyes to the beauty and glory of who you are and what you’re doing. You are spreading your joy among the nations, and we beg you to protect us from allowing even difficult political things or even very important pandemic things to consume us in a way that causes us either to be spiritually asleep or spiritually alarmed. Give us an alertness that flows from your Spirit.
We pray that also for our brothers and sisters around the world. Specifically, right now, we cry out on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan, that you would please protect your church there. They are extremely vulnerable. Everything, Jesus, you just described here, they are facing. And we pray that their eyes could see your glory in this, and that you against all odds would spread your church, grow your church in the most unlikely places like Afghanistan, like Yemen, like North Korea, like Nigeria. Please, Lord, deepen your church there. For Ethiopia, we pray that you would bring peace and stop the violence. Lord, this is much bigger than us, give us a global vision of your glory among the nations. And if you have flooded us with good things, resources, let us find creative ways to be a part of what you are doing around the world for the sake of your name.
Please have mercy on your church in America. This weekend as we remember 9/11, we are reminded how quickly we forget — forget as a nation and forget as your people. So, we pray, Lord, not for panic but specifically for your people, that you would grow us. Grow our understanding and experience of what it means to live alert, to be on guard in a healthy way — not panic, not anxiety, not alarmed, but alert.
Thank you for teaching us. Help us to hear your Word, Lord. You seem, at least at the beginning of this chapter, way more concerned for the way we live our lives than for satisfying our curiosity about future events. May we hear you.
And I pray specifically for those who don’t know you right now, that your Spirit would draw them to know the One who for the glory of the Father gave himself for them. Open eyes, we pray. Lord, bring about repentance and faith for the glory of your name.
And I pray specifically for those who are carrying heavy burdens, that this stern warning would in an indescribable way actually lead to a deep calm, a peace that passes human understanding, because you can do that for us, Lord, right in the middle of the trial. And we give you glory. In Jesus’ name, amen.