How to Prepare When Storm Clouds Gather
Oh, oh! That’s not good.
My in-laws live on the island of Puerto Rico, a place not unfamiliar with severe weather. In fact, in September 2017, they received word that a storm had formed over the Atlantic and was gaining intensity as it moved toward them.
At first this wasn’t panic-worthy news as these storms would often dissipate before coming too close. However, two days later, on September 18th, they were informed the storm had grown into a level-5 hurricane—the highest possible level. It ripped through the island of Dominica, about 600km southeast of their home and, after moving back out over the Caribbean, the storm actually picked up intensity with winds reaching 280km/h. It soon became obvious that their home was in its warpath.
Powerless to stop the hurricane, all that was left for my wife’s family to do was to “button-down-the-hatches,” so to speak—tie down what could be tied down, board-up windows, gather candles, stock food, and wait for the inevitable and inescapable devastation that was crossing the sea.
In Mark 13, we find the twelve disciples in a similar situation. Jesus, looking to the future, reports that storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. And what’s coming, he says, will be as devastating as it is unpreventable. And, knowing what’s on its way, Jesus instructs his disciples to button down the hatches—to prepare so as to endure the inevitable and inescapable.
The passage begins with Jesus making a shocking declaration: “This beautiful temple, the pride of the Jews, is going to be totally destroyed.”
The twelve are forced to chew on that statement in silence as they cross the valley to the Mount of Olives. Once sitting down, a handful of the disciples ask Jesus to explain his previous comments. They don’t question the validity of his prophecy, rather, they ask “When will these things happen? And what will be the signs preceding the events?” (v. 4). They want to be prepared for what’s ahead.
The promised calamities
Jesus responds by describing the calamities that lay ahead—disasters that accompany the end of the age. There’s a crescendo of intensity beginning with “birth pains,” growing to personal discomfort and persecution, and, finally, exploding into full-blown tribulation.
Verses 5 through 8 describe the beginning stages. Jesus says there will be spiritual disasters (v. 6) as masses of people are deceived and wooed away from truth. There will be socio-political disasters (vv. 7–8a) as wars and rumours of wars become commonplace. And, finally, there will be natural disasters (v. 8b) as the earth itself rebels and groans with earthquakes and famines.
Jesus concludes: “These are the beginning of birth pains” illustrating that, while it’ll be hard, the worst is yet to come as birth pains eventually and necessarily gives way to the struggle of labour.
The calamity intensifies in verse 9. “You must be on your guard,” Jesus warns them. Why? Because the persecution is about to get personal. You’re going to be arrested, handed over, and beaten publicly because of your commitment to the spreading of the gospel throughout the world (vv. 9–10). While the birth pains were “out there,” now, the calamity is seeping into the home and fracturing what should be the strongest relationships on earth.
Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death (v. 13).
Finally, beginning in verse 14, the personal persecution intensifies to unprecedented tribulation. At this point, the hurricane has hit the island.
When you see “the abomination that causes desolation” standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains (v. 14).
This “abomination that causes desolation” is reference back to the prophet Daniel who uses the same phrase on three occasions (9:27; 11:31; 12:11) to describe an extremely perilous event for Israel and its temple. It’s an act of massive idolatry and irreverence that arises from within the house of Israel.
It’s so terrible that Jesus, calls “retreat!” There’s nothing left to do for the people of Israel at this point but flee
because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again (v. 19).
In the history of the cosmos, stretching from creation into eternity, there has been and never will be a calamity like this one. Verse 22 adds that there will be false Messiahs adding deception and verse 24 puts an exclamation point on this tribulation:
But in those days, following that distress, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken” (vv. 24–25).
Nobody is going to be wondering “do you think this is the devastation Jesus predicted?” It will be a time of unfettered persecution, unthinkable savagery, unrelenting confusion, and aggressive idolatry. It’s a level-5 apocalyptic hurricane, and it’s on its way.
If you’re like me your mind can’t help but drift toward current troubles. They’re not as severe as what’s ahead, but they’re still concerning.
We have personal troubles: Health issues that won’t go away or that doctors can’t solve, relational tensions that seem hopelessly irreparable, and ongoing struggles with habitual sin and the guilt that accompanies that.
We have national troubles: The unrelenting march of our culture toward anti-Christian ideals and values and a sexual revolution that will not tolerate dissenters or objectors.
We have global troubles: Crushing poverty, pervasive sex slavery, and international tensions.
We may not yet be at what Jesus is describing in Mark 13, but there’s no escaping the fact that this world is a mess and, despite what some optimists believe, it’s getting worse. And when we ponder the current state of the world and add to it the calamity ahead, it can be like sitting with my in-laws helplessly watching the clouds move in.
The provided securities
So, how do we button down the hatches? How do we prepare? Well, let’s notice in our text three divine provisions, or securities, God provides for his people to help them endure.
The power of God the Spirit
First, is the power of the Holy Spirit.
Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit (v. 11).
During the time of personal persecution, God the Spirit will be working in and through his people. The struggle won’t be removed, but it will be used to proclaim the gospel.
Have you ever given godly council to a friend only later to think to yourself: where did that come from? That’s the Holy Spirit working in and through us to accomplish his good purposes and, during this future time of strife on earth, that power on display is going to be commonplace. Even the worst storm imaginable will not silence or stifle the power of the Spirit.
The providence of God the Father
The second security we are shown in this text is the providence of God the Father.
If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them (v. 20).
Tribulation is coming. It must as a consequence of humanity’s sin and to make way for something better. But because of God’s graciousness and providential care he is shortening it for the sake of his elect people and, in the context of our passage, that’s Israel. God is not absent in the storm.
Have you ever been stopped for speeding and, when the police officer hands you your ticket, says, “I’ve knocked it down to x-amount of dollars so you won’t get any points”? The reality is, you should have got the full fine and the points. You deserved the full force of the law because of your transgression. But, graciously, the officer muted the consequences.
To a much greater extent, it’s the same in the tribulation. The presence and the providence of God the Father will be on display. He will be with his people through the storm, protecting them, and loving them.
The promise of God the Son
Finally, the third security God provides for his people is the promise of the Son. At the height of the calamity:
At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens (vv. 26–27).
This time of intense tribulation will not last forever. At a time only known to the Father in heaven, the Son will return and put an end to the storm. While the birth pains become labour, eventually, this gives way to relief, rest, and the celebration of new life. That’s the promise of the Son.
And so, while Jesus warns of coming calamities, he also tells of God’s provided securities: the power of the Spirit, the providence of the Father, and the promise of the Son.
And these are securities that we also have access to today. You and I can experience the power of the Holy Spirit. When we’re weak, beat down, and tired, the Spirit of God helps us endure.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God (Rom. 8:26–27).
Not only do we have the power of the Spirit, but we have the presence of the Father. No matter the storm you’re facing in life right now, your Heavenly Father is with you and he’s in control.
The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry; but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to blot out their name from the earth. The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psa. 34:15–18).
And what about the promises of the Son? Our text declares their certainty:
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (v. 31).
What has he promised? That could be a sermon all by itself. But, sticking with Mark 13 we see that, in the end he wins. Thus, by associating ourselves with Christ by trusting him for our salvation, we win.
The promised calamities are severe, but the provided securities enable us to endure.
Our present responsibilities
And, with that in mind, I want to suggest some implications for us today. What are our present responsibilities as disciples of Jesus Christ based on what we’ve seen in this text?
First, we’re to stay calm. Jesus warned his disciples that “in this life you will have trouble” (John 16:33), and so trials shouldn’t surprise us. But a disciple of Jesus should strive to stay calm in the midst of those trials.
We see commands to this end in Mark 13: “do not be alarmed” (v. 7) and “do not worry” (v. 11). We’re to stay calm, resting in those securities God has provided for us.
Secondly, we’re to stay sharp. Multiple times through our passage Jesus offers the command to stay alert and discerning: “Watch out that no one deceives you” (v. 5), “You must be on your guard” (v. 9), and “do not believe it [a claim to be the Christ]” (v. 21).
The Enemy would love to trip us up, and storms are a great way to get that done. We lock our eyes on biblical truth like a lighthouse through a fog. Stay sharp.
And, finally, we’re to stay ready.
But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (vv. 32–37).
Each one of us would do well to ask God to help us examine our own hearts and answer the question, Am I ready? Am I ready to see the clouds rolled back as a scroll, to hear the trumpet sound, to watch the Lord descend, and to stand before my God and Judge? If not, we need to get ready. That may mean trusting Christ for the first time. Whatever is needed, Jesus pleads with us to get ready and stay ready.
A storm is coming. We’re not told when, only that it is imminent. It’s time to prepare ourselves, and we do that by clinging to the securities God’s given us—a reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit, a confidence in the providence of the Father, and a rest in the promise of the Son. As we learn to root ourselves in those divine provisions God can help us, even in the midst of the storm, stay calm, stay sharp, and stay ready.
May God help us be a faithful people during storm-time. May we prepare ourselves, our families, and our churches well. May we with calm, discerning eyes, look at the gathering storm clouds with anticipation and not fear.
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