Return to Sermon Archive
November 16, 2003
1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!"
2 Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately,
4 "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"
5 Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray.
6 Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray.
7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.
8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
Falling out of a hovering helicopter is the easy part. Once you rope down to the ground, you realize you are 25 miles from civilization, equipped with only a knife, a compass, a sleeping bag and a canteen. You have no tent, despite snow in the forecast, and no food. Your last meal was yesterday, and you will be out here for days. It is pitch-dark, and you have no flashlight or night vision goggles. To top it off, you are part of a small band of just six people, and hostile natives are roaming the countryside looking for you. You definitely do not want to be found. Your mission has just one goal—survival.
But this is no reality show. There are no “tribes,” no immunity challenges, no Jeff Probst and no million dollar prize at the end of this survivors’ game. The only reward is the experience itself — a primer on how to live a worst-case-scenario life, getting by on next to nothing, making do with what you have and understanding that things often get worse before they get better.
This is SERE School: Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. This is the final stage of training for candidates attempting to earn the green beret of the elite U.S. Army Special Forces. For three weeks, students live primarily outdoors at Camp Mackall, near Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, learning SERE techniques and principles, culminating with a nightmarish field exercise designed to test the candidates’ ability to live under intense physical and mental stress.
In this field exercise, students are grouped into teams of six and are pursued by hostile forces made up of SERE instructors, other soldiers and local law enforcement officers with dogs. Sleep is scarce, as is food — particularly in winter when plants and trees are bare and animals are hibernating. Students lose an average of 15 pounds during the course. Captured teams are taken to a mock prisoner of war camp called “the lab,” where their resistance to interrogation and intimidation is tested by instructors with nicknames like “The Hammer.” This is some of the toughest training the military has to offer, but the lessons learned are essential for Special Forces soldiers.
Mark 13 reads like a SERE manual for Survival Saints, with Jesus as the primary instructor. Jesus warns the disciples that the days of comfort and security are numbered — that very soon they will be dropped into a dark world deep in conflict and confusion. They will experience hunger and thirst, war and betrayal. They will be hunted, and if captured, will be beaten and tossed into prison. Like a battle-hardened instructor in the backwoods of North Carolina, Jesus prepares his disciples for survival in the midst of tough times.
Part of the passage before us today from Mark 13 was once a secret teaching. Apparently, in verses 1-2, Jesus is speaking to all his disciples; then in v3, we are told that Jesus speaks privately to Peter, James, John and Andrew.
Perhaps the reason for this secret teaching, given only to the four original disciples, stems from the fact that no teaching was more important for Christians, and yet more difficult of understanding by Christians than teaching about the end times. Here, Jesus teaches that there will be an end time, but that the signs of this end time will be sufficiently open to multiple interpretations as to make anyone’s claims concerning an exact date suspect. Given that many scholars believe that the destruction of the second temple in A.D. 70 was the catastrophic incident that brought about the writing of the gospel of Mark, it is no wonder that this event would be part of this teaching on the end of time. But in this passage, Mark’s gospel makes it clear that the destruction of the temple, while devastating and important, is nothing more than the beginning of devastating events to come. “The end,” it is emphasized, “is still to come.”
Still, it is the disciples’ concern for the fate of the temple that prompts their seeking out further teaching from Jesus on this occasion. They want to know what signs they should be looking for in advance of this event. However, Jesus goes on to tell them that the future holds many momentous events — many wars, many famines, many earthquakes, many a rise and fall of nations. These historical events should not, Jesus says, lead hearers to presume that the messenger who points out their pattern is the returned messiah. Do not be led astray, he counsels, by those who simply repeat what you should already know — namely that many catastrophes will precede the return of the messiah and the inauguration of the end of time. Anyone who claims to know the exact date should be viewed with extreme skepticism.
To make his point, Jesus uses the image of childbirth to describe the end of time. The labor of childbirth is a process that comes in waves. Intervals of intense pain and struggle alternate with relative calm as the time of delivery draws gradually nearer. Each contraction may seem like the end, but many hours of labor may be ahead prior to delivery, and the time varies with every birth. The labor of childbirth is unpredictable in its onset, and it is unpredictable in length once onset begins. This makes childbirth a particularly apt metaphor for the upheavals that will transform this flawed earth into the perfected earth of the age to come.
Essentially, Jesus’ use of the image of birth pangs for the coming of the messianic age is one of both warning and promise. Those who resist the doomsday warnings of false messiahs will endure by faith and witness the joy of the true birth of the world to come.
For those Christian in the generation following Jesus, it must have looked like every word he spoke was coming true. The temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 during a period of fierce war and revolution. The new Christian communities were in constant danger of persecution. The disciples themselves experienced life on the run and were often on the edge of survival as they took the gospel into the world. Many would die for the faith.
But the question we ask is: Do we, as Christians in the United States, need to worry about survival issues like this. Certainly we do. We may not need t o learn physical survival, evasion, resistance, and escape, but spiritually we certainly need those techniques. We live in a culture that is hostile to things of the spirit. Our government has gone out of its way to strip our society of the symbols and practices of Christianity. And it is not only government. Our whole society is at best indifferent to Christianity, and is sometimes hostile to Christianity.
So we need spiritual SERE techniques.
Let me offer you then four rules to help us survive and thrive, because God does not want us merely to survive — God wants us to thrive!
Rule 1: Only the mentally (and spiritually) strong survive.
In a survival situation, attitude is everything. Gordon Smith, a SERE instructor and 26-year veteran of the Special Forces says, “I tell the students, ‘If you have a guy with all the survival training in the world who has a negative attitude and a guy who doesn’t have a clue but has a positive attitude, I guarantee you that the one with the positive attitude is coming out of the woods alive. Simple as that.’”
Overcoming fear of the unknown, overcoming stress over things you cannot control, overcoming anger over the situation, overcoming guilt at what could have been—these are the keys to surviving any difficult situation. Do not stress over what you should have done; deal with what you can do now, and deal with it a bit at a time. Sometimes when we are faced with a huge task, our tendency is to throw up our hands and say that it cannot be done. But if we break down the big task into small tasks, then we can say, this small thing here I can do. And having done that we can move to the next small thing, and so on until finally we have done the big task. Survival means breaking tasks and thoughts down into manageable chunks with the goal of improving the situation by degrees. Green Beret students are taught to celebrate the smallest of victories: “I caught a fish today … I didn’t get sick … I found some water.” Hope is the most valuable commodity a person can carry into crisis.
That is what Jesus offers us—hope. In 13:13, he offers us a promise: “The one who endures to the end will be saved”(v. 13). That endurance means claiming little victories every day. You might say, I have a whole day; I cannot handle it. But if we break the day down into tasks then it becomes manageable. Do not just say, “I made it through the day.” How dreary that sounds. Say, “I helped someone today.” Say, “I didn’t lash out in anger when unjustly confronted.” Say, “I prayed today.” Say, “I claimed the constant presence and promise of Christ today.”
Rule 2: Practice.
You can show your mental and spiritual strength in the way you handle everyday stress. One of the messages that is drilled into us is that we need to avoid stress—which sounds great but is not going to happen. Things happen to us, and stress happens to us. We cannot avoid stress. The question is: How do you deal with stress?
The answer of the Green Berets is you train for it. An old Army saying is: “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle.” There is a Christian survival technique for dealing with stress. Our stress training is to help those who are in stressful situations. Jesus calls us to be in ministry to those who are suffering. This is a way of training us to deal with suffering in our own lives. This may sound a little selfish, but helping others deal with their problems, helps us deal with our problems.
The Special Forces trainees discover that one of the most vital survival skills to master is building a fire. It is one thing to light a crackling campfire on a starry night with newspaper, dry wood and a generous supply of matches. It’s quite another to build one in ten minutes, in the rain, surrounded by enemy troops—with a buddy beside you suffering from hypothermia.
SERE students have to be able to build a fire and have water boiling in less than 15 minutes using only three matches. It sounds easy, but matches have a tendency to blow out and fires quickly fizzle without proper ventilation. “It comes down to who rehearses it and who doesn’t,” says one of the instructors. “All of these techniques bear practicing now instead of waiting until you’re in a situation where you have to build a fire in 10 minutes to stay alive.”
Practice is what prepares disciples for what is to come. Jesus’ admonitions to “keep alert” and “beware” (v. 33) call his followers to be in constant preparation for the days ahead. To live in the midst of a hostile culture requires that we learn to use all our talents and abilities. We may discover that there is more than one way to deal with a crisis, answer a question, meet a need or deal with a problem. In the woods, the more uses you can come up with for a stick or a rock the better equipped you are. The same is true when it comes to dealing with the challenges life throws our way. Military leaders learn early on not to dwell on problems and challenges, but to “improvise, adjust and overcome.” As disciples of Christ, that is what we must learn to do every day.
Rule 3: Keep your priorities straight.
A survival scenario breaks everything down to the basics. Food, water, shelter and medical care are essentials and are prioritized based on the most immediate need. Water is usually the top priority, because a person can live a lot longer without food than without water (3 days max). SERE students learn to find water in cacti or bamboo plants, in rock fissures or in hastily rigged rain-catching devices.
In spiritual survival, Jesus is the top priority. Who is Christ to me? He is the only-begotten Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, He is prophet, priest, and king. He is the heir of all things, the judge of the world. More importantly, to me, Christ brings forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. Christ is my Savior. Thus with all those generations of Christians I can sing,
“At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess him king of glory now”
Rule 4: You can live off the land.
SERE students are taught to function with an attitude of abundance rather than scarcity. While they do not carry prepackaged food and supplies, they learn that the environment can supply them with a veritable feast. Native plants, grub worms and crickets are survival staples, while snakes provide the equivalent of a fast-food restaurant — nearly every country has them, they’re easy to catch and cook (though they don’t taste like chicken). Even road kill (fresh and not so fresh) can provide a quick meal. Just pick it up and shake it … whatever falls to the ground you leave for the buzzards. When you are hungry, say the instructors, “You can eat some pretty nasty stuff.”
As Christians, we live in a culture that is hostile to us. Our culture is this-worldly. The church is in this world. That is where we are right now, but we are not of this world. And let us face it, it can be tough for a spiritual person to survive in a materialistic culture. What does Christ say that we should do? He does not just say have faith. In fact, he says we should be careful about how we exercise our faith. In v6, he says, “Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray.” He says, there will be many false Christs, do not believe them, do not have faith in them. Keep your faith in that one Jesus Christ who is our savior and lord. That is the key to surviving and thriving in a hostile culture.
SERE Survival Kit
In conclusion then, I would like to offer you a spiritual SERE survival kit. Here it is:
SEED: To remind us that nothing is impossible.
CLAY: To remind us that God is the potter and we are the work of his hand.
CANDLE: To remind us that Christ is the light.
HEART: To remind us that God loves us.
BLOCK: Though we stumble over the block of sin, we are forgiven in Christ.
DIME: To remind us to give back to God 1/10 of the blessings he has given us.
TOOTHPICK: To remind us not to try to remove the splinter from someone else’s eye until we remove the plank from our own.
STONE: To remind us to think before we throw one, to remember that we also are fallible.
SCRIPTURE STRIP: To remind us that every day needs to begin with God.
That is our survival kit. With it, we are equipped, not only to survive, but to prosper, giving witness to Christ in a world that often does not see God. With our survival kit, we can show the world God’s power in our life. Amen.
Salter, Chuck. “Fight to survive.” Fast Company, April 2003, 92-100.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 01/28/04