The Beginning of the Birth Pangs

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Lectionary Reading (Track 1)

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The world needs some consolation right now. We need some consolation! The stories coming out of Beirut and Paris are both heartbreaking and horrifying. We find ourselves asking, “When will it end? Where is God in all this?” The answers are not apparent.

Things were no better in Jesus’ day, and his disciples undoubtedly had the same questions that we have about the violence that surrounded them. They looked around them and saw the oppression and cruelty of the Roman Empire, and every so often they must have despaired. Believe it or not, Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the end of the age was meant to provide encouragement. For reasons beyond my understanding, the editors of the lectionary have included only the start of Mark, chapter 13, only the bits about doom and gloom. But I’ll do my best to fit the verses we heard read today into a larger context.

The disciples are impressed by the grandeur of the Temple. And by all accounts the Second Temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Jesus’ response is to foretell the total destruction of the Temple. I doubt that we can even imagine what the disciples’ reaction must have been. For the Jewish people, the Temple in Jerusalem was quite literally the center of the Universe. It was the seat of God on earth, the place where the sacrifice of atonement was made each year for the sins of the people. I don’t know that there is any physical structure that has a similar meaning for us. Just perhaps we might experience the same effect if we were told that in a short while the United States of America would cease to exist.

Later, when Jesus is alone with just four of the disciples, they ask him when the destruction will take place and how they will recognize when the time is drawing near. He doesn’t really answer the first question. And later he admits that he doesn’t know the answer. But he does answer the second question. They will know the time is drawing near by the degree of violence at large in the world. He tells them there will be wars, and earthquakes, and famines. Later, in verses that were not read today, Jesus predicts the persecution of the faithful and an event mysteriously referred to as “the desolating sacrilege.”

Well, look around at what’s happening in the world today. Consider what happened in Beirut on Thursday or in Paris on Friday. Is it any wonder that some people think that we are living in the very times that Jesus predicted? Surely, the end must be near. Of course, people have been thinking that for 2000 years. St. Paul stated quite definitively that he anticipated the Day of Judgment in his lifetime. And yet, here we are still waiting for it.

Jesus compares the violence that must take place before the End Time to birth pangs. And in that metaphor, there is some degree of hope. For what happens after birth pangs? Birth! A new creation! And that is what makes the pain all worthwhile. After the end of this age, there will be a Day of Judgment, followed by the advent of the Kingdom of God. Medieval artists tended to portray the Day of Judgment as a frightening prospect. They portrayed it primarily as a judgment against, rather than as a judgment for! Yes, I believe that some people, like the perpetrators of the recent massacres, will experience God’s judgment against them. But the faithful who have suffered, the faithful who have died, will know God’s judgment for them.

I think it safe to say that the birth of God’s Kingdom seems overdue. The labor has been long and protracted. Day after day, we pray the Lord’s Prayer, asking that God’s Kingdom finally come. And after so long a wait, who can blame us if we stop really expecting it. But Jesus asks us to continue to be expectant, to be watchful, to continue to wait for the birth of the Kingdom. We are to live each and every day as if we were going to receive our final judgment on that same day. How do we do that? Well, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering” and “to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together.” Quite literally, the scriptures ask us to keep the faith, even in the face of evil—especially in the face of evil! And we are to live out that faith by doing good works and by regularly coming together as a community to worship our Maker.

In times of tragedy, we do find ourselves asking, “Where is God in all this?” Well, I’ll tell you where God is. God is with us. God is with us in our greatest joys. God is with us in our deepest suffering. God is with us even now. And God loves us always! But we know that God does not always protect us from harm, despite our prayers to the contrary. We don’t really know why that is. And that not knowing can be a difficult test of our faith. We know that Christ suffered to save the world. But rarely can we discern the purpose of our own suffering. But again I say, God is with us! And God was with each of the victims of the massacres in Beirut and Paris. Even as your faith is being tested by the suffering of this world, hold onto the blessed assurance that for them, and for us, death is not the end.

If we trust the teachings of Jesus Christ, then we will trust that God is love, that love is stronger than death, that good is more powerful than evil, that there is something more to come, that the victims of this world will know justice. And we will live each day in faith and hope and love, as we await the coming of the Son of Man in power and great glory.

So, in concert with our ancestors in the faith, let us continue to make our prayer: Marana tha! Come, Lord Jesus!

 

© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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