Never, Never, Never Give In…Annemarie Woodward

St Mary’s Church, Hadlow

2 before Advent: Sunday 18th November 2018

Mark 13: 1-8

Never, Never, Never Give In[1]

Before we begin I want to thank you for all your support over this last year. I have to confess that there were times when life was very difficult, but through it all – no matter how dark the days – your love and your prayers were a constant source of compassion and encouragement. Thank you.

May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen

The book of Daniel; the letter to the Hebrews; the gospel according to St Mark: three incredibly complicated passages of scripture, where images of resilience, courage, compassion and community struggle against the powers of destruction, desecration, death and despair.  When Paul asked me, some time ago, if I would preach today, I was delighted, but when I looked closely at today’s readings, I could see that it would be impossible to glean anything unless we anchored them decisively in their historical context, because we need to grapple not only with the written word, but also with the literary style.

(‘Let the reader understand’):[2]   these four words (they appear a few verses further on) hold the key to our appreciation of the whole of St Mark’s Gospel.[3]  Faced with civil and political upheaval in the wake of  Nero’s persecution of the fledgling Christian community,[4] the violent uprising that culminated in the Jewish Revolt against Imperial Rome,[5] and the increasingly heated debates between disciples who followed James and those who favoured Paul, Mark could see that clear, written testimony of the ‘good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’[6] was vital – the centuries-old tradition of oral history was increasingly vulnerable to distortion and corruption.

Chapter 13 of St Mark’s gospel stands alone – well outside the traditional narrative structure.  Often referred to as “the little “apocalypse,”[7] Mark is addressing the doctrine of the Second Coming using apocalyptic imagery and metaphor – a style of language all too familiar to the people of Judea at the end of the first century, where apocalyptic images were deeply woven into the very fabric of Jewish tradition and Rabbinic literature, but virtually impenetrable to us today.  Nowadays the word ‘apocalypse’ is synonymous with extreme violence and ultimate annihilation, but in biblical literature an apocalypse was simply an unveiling, a revelation, a prophetic forth-telling: apocalyptic images were ‘visions of what would happen when the Day of the Lord came and in the terrible time immediately before it … they were attempts to speak the unspeakable … poetry, not prose …. dreams not history.’[8] An apocalypse emphatically did not equate to the End of Days[9], Armageddon[10], the Last Judgment, or the Day of the Lord.[11]  Dreams and visions were never meant to be ‘taken prosaically as maps of the future’.[12] Their overarching purpose was to strengthen courage, resilience, patience and faithfulness in the present.

If we look at our reading from Daniel (a visionary prophet crying out for a warrior messiah to rise up against oppression and subjugation) and compare it with Mark’s account of the Olivet discourse, (Jesus  speaking with absolute Father/Son authority) we can see that the inherent nature of apocalyptic imagery has now changed.  Knowing that time is of the essence (the disciples still have much to learn) the prophecies and warnings made by Jesus that day are firmly grounded in future reality –  albeit a reality in the throes of a paradigm shift.

We need look no further than the first two verses of our gospel reading this morning to appreciate the cataclysmic nature of this sea-change.  Jesus’ excoriating condemnation of the Temple stones says it all: ‘Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’[13]  Not only is He predicting the destruction of the Temple, Jesus is revealing that  He, and He alone, is now the dwelling place of the Divine Presence – the very essence of mystery and meaning.  From this moment on ‘the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’[14] – the new foundation of faith.  The disciples need to take on board that faithful assurance is far greater than any Temple stone, and that the love of God will always transcend man-made buildings because it rests in the heart of His people.  This is a ‘huge ask’: as far as the disciples are concerned, every facet of their daily religious observance, every ritual, all they once held dear will now change radically.  No wonder they were lost for words.

Turning his back on the Temple Jesus silently leads his four closest companions[15] away from the crowd, across the Kidron valley up to the Mount of Olives.[16]   Put to one side any images of Jesus as the loving healer of the sick, lame, deaf and blind; this is no magnetic weaver of parables or learned synagogue preacher; this is a stern taskmaster who is setting out, warts and all, the challenges that will confront his beloved disciples.

For Peter, Andrew, James and John this is a harsh reality check, because the Temple will be destroyed, false Messiahs will rise up, Christians will be persecuted, ‘nation will rise against nation’[17] and earthquake[18] and famine will cripple the ‘land of milk and honey.’  Now – before it is too late – they need to grapple with an uncertain and dangerous future.

Ignoring their cries of (‘when will this be … what will be the signs’[19]) Jesus reminds them that this is emphatically not the end time: ‘this is but the beginning of the birth pangs’.[20]   God the Father, not God the Son, will decide on the ultimate future of mankind.  In an uncertain and dangerous world, the antidote to uncertainty is not certainty, but courage: courage to hold fast, trusting wholeheartedly in the presence of the Holy Spirit for the strength to carry on, because, as disciples of Christ, they must never, never give up.

‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say: “I am He” and they will lead many astray:’[21]  Powerful words: insidious threats to the unity and integrity of the church could well sound the death knell of this fledgling community.  Indeed, the rise of charismatic, persuasive and egotistical zealots who will claim to be the new Messiah proves to be one of the greatest dangers faithful Christians will face.  Now, some two thousand years on, we can measure this warning against stark historical reality.  From the violent military uprising led by Simon Bar Kokhba[22] in 132 AD, right through to the charismatic claims made by the Branch Davidian leader David Koresh[23] in 1989, manipulative and dangerous heretics have claimed to be the Messiah – claims that inevitably resulted in  destitution, chaotic upheaval, death and despair.

What can we, here in St Mary’s, learn from this morning’s gospel reading?  We don’t have time to reflect in detail on every prophecy, but we do, perhaps, need to take another look at the words ‘beware that no one leads you astray,’[24]  only this time replacing ‘no one’ with ‘no-thing’.  Our rapidly changing IT-driven world tends to dominate day-to-day life – practically everything is available at the touch of a button – but are we always aware of the dark, potentially dangerous aspect of virtual platforms where thoughtless cruelty and racial hatred hide behind a cowardly cloak of anonymity, and politically motivated cyber-warfare is used to threaten democracy and free speech? Back in the real world, where do our earthly priorities lie?  Are we led astray by the lure of financial and material wealth and the magnetic pull of an increasingly consumerist economy focused on consumption and greed?  Are we in danger of being caught up in the rat race for promotion, prestige and power?  Do we seek to attain the impossibility of perfection?   Are we, in effect, in danger of worshipping the gifts of God rather than God the giver in our never-ending quest for certainty?

How, then, can we – as disciples of Christ – grasp the nettle of uncertainty and insecurity and move forward with our lives here on earth?  Perhaps the best answer to insecurity rests in confidence: confidence that comes from knowing, here in our hearts, that God values each and every one of us – we are valued, we are worthy, we are loved.  We are all the children of God and, as the writer of the book of Hebrews reminds us, we must ‘hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who has promised is faithful.’[25]  He goes on to say ‘let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together … but encouraging one another.’[26] Surely this is our given task – to bring the kingdom of heaven down to earth by living each day as if it were, indeed, the End of Days: ‘walking the walk’ with courage, compassion and community, resting on the sure foundation of Our Lord Jesus Christ and trusting in the eternal love of God.



[1] Winston Spencer Churchill (In a speech made on 29th October 1941 to the boys at Harrow School).  In context: ‘Never, Never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.  Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.’

[2] Mark 13: 14

[3] The whole of Mark 13 is designated as the Olivet Discourse – with Jesus’ revelations regarding future events interrupting the historical narrative.

[4] The Roman Emperor Nero initiated a series of persecutions against Christians in 64 AD (NRSV Study Bible page 1915)

[5] 67-70 AD (NRSV page 1915)

[6] Mark 1:1

[7] From the Greek apokalupsis – unveiling, revealingthis soubriquet ‘the little apocalypse’ has been seen as a link between St Mark’s gospel and the apocalyptic imagery portrayed in St John the Divine’s book of Revelation.

[8] William Barclay The Gospel of Mark [St Andrew’s Press, Edinburgh] page 356

[9] The Eschaton

[10] The last great battle between good and evil

[11] Throughout their history the Children of Israel were confident that God would directly intervene in history and overcome all evil.  This intervention was known as the Day of the Lord and on that day the world would be shaken to its core and judgement would prevail.  Then, crucially, that Day would be followed by the new age – eternal glory.  References to the Day of the Lord: Amos 5: 16-18; Isaiah 13:6,9-10,13; Joel 2:1-2, 30-31.

[12] William Barclay The Gospel of Mark [St Andrew’s Press, Edinburgh] page 356

[13] Mark 13: 2  These comments are made in response to the disciples’ awe-struck adoration of the Temple: ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ (verse 1)

[14] Mark 12:10 (cf Psalm 118: 22; Ezekiel 10: 18-19, 11: 22-23; Acts 4: 11;  Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:7)

[15] Peter, Andrew, James and John were the first disciples chosen by Jesus.  This is the last recorded ‘private’ conversation with His closest disciples (cf 4:34 and 9:28)  At this point in His ministry it could well be that public utterance might have been misinterpreted as an act of rebellion. Cf Mark 14:58

[16] A hill rising above and facing the  Temple Mont – the view from the top of the Mount of Olives was compelling and dramatic, particularly when the sun shone directly on the gold-plated stones of the Temple.

[17] Mark 13:8

[18] Josephus – The Jewish War, Book 4 (286-7) [with reference to the earthquake in AD67] “there broke out a great storm in the night, with the utmost violence and very strong winds, with the largest shower of rains, with continued lightnings, terrible thundering, and amazing concussions and bellowing of the earth, that was in an earthquake.”  [The New Complete Works of Josephus, translated by William Whiston (Kregel Publications 1999) page 820].

[19] Mark 13: 4

[20] Mark 13: 8

[21] Mark 13: 5

[22] Bar Kochba, the commander of the Jewish revolt against Imperial Rome, took the title “Nasi” (Prince) and was seen by many as the Messiah who would restore national independence.  This military revolt resulted in an all-out defeat of the Judean rebels in 136 AD, large scale destruction of the Judean population by Roman tropps, suppression of Jewish religious and political autonomy and the banning from Jerusalem of all Jews – effectively creating the Diaspora.

[23][23] In 1989 Vernon Howell (who later changed his name to David Koresh) released the ‘New Light’ audiotape claiming that God had told him to start building an “Army for God” to prepare for the end of days and salvation  for his followers.  He orchestrated a defensive fortress at a ranch on Mount Carmel, Texas, establishing a “House of David.”  This fortress was the scene of the Waco siege (28th February to 19th April 1993) which ended with almost 100 dead.

[24] Mark 13:5

[25] Hebrews 10: 23

[26] Hebrews 10: 24-25