A Painful and Protracted Birth

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

The world needs some consolation right about now! Babies are being starved to death in Yemen by our nation’s allies. A journalist was murdered and his body dismembered by those same allies. College students are massacred in a California nightclub for no apparent reason. Hurricanes have decimated city after city. The ironically named town of Paradise has burned to the ground. And the air is so polluted that we are being advised not to breath it! And so, we find ourselves asking, “When will it end? And where is God?” Regrettably, the answers are not apparent.

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Now, as bad as things are today, things were no better in Jesus’ day. And his disciples undoubtedly had the very same questions that we have. 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. What Jesus says provides us hope only when understood in a larger context. So, I will do my best to fill in the gaps and provide that context.

The disciples are impressed by the grandeur of the Temple. And by all accounts the Second Jewish Temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Jesus’ response to their childlike wonder is to pop their balloon, prophesying 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.

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Later, when Jesus is away from the crowds, with just four of the disciples present, 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 and destruction 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. 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 a judgment for! Yes, I believe that some people will experience God’s judgment against them. (Out of politeness, I will refrain from naming any names.) 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 long overdue. Day after day, we pray the Lord’s Prayer, begging that God’s Kingdom finally come. And after so long a wait, who can blame us if we stop expecting it. But Jesus asks us to continue to be expectant, to be watchful, to eagerly await 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 gives us a clue. We are 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.”

Even so, in these troubled times, we find ourselves asking from time to time, “Where is God?” 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. Yes, we know that Christ suffered to save the world. But rarely can we discern the purpose of our own suffering. But again I say to you, God iswith us!

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Even as our faith is being tested by the senseless suffering of this world, we must hold on ever more tightly to the blessed assurance that death is not the end, that evil does not get the last word. For God is love, and that love is stronger than death. God is good, and that good is more powerful than any evil. God is just, and in the World to Come, every victim will know justice. But until the Kingdom of God is finally delivered, we endure the pangs of a painful and protracted birth. And like our ancestors in the faith, we make our prayer: Marána tha! Come, O Lord! Come!

© 2018 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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