"BIRTHPANGS" - Psalm 24; Mark 13:1-8
A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
From Sunday, November 18, 2018
Texts: Psalm 24; Mark 13:1-8
‘Speaking Christian,’ by which I mean knowing and understanding Christian language, is in a state of crisis in our culture. That is how Marcus Borg begins his book by that title: Speaking Christian. Here is what he means: for many people, Christianity has become an unfamiliar language. Many people either do not know the words at all or, if they have heard the words, have no idea what they mean or, perhaps more likely, do not care what they mean.
Then there is another crisis across recent decades. The words that Christians have used can take on very different meanings or different emphases. This only creates more confusion and misunderstanding. (see M. Borg’s book, Speaking Christian)
Here is an example of the crisis and confusion. Do you know the word “Apocalypse” – or “apocalyptic?”
The words “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic” have to do with the end of the world. But some people have taken that word and that literature and run so far as to make “the end of the world” a central part of Christian faith. Christian faith, for them at least, means mostly looking for and waiting for the end of the world, and determining what happens to whom.
That was never the intent of apocalyptic literature in the Bible.
No, “apocalyptic literature” is a type of biblical literature that emphasizes the lifting of the veil between heaven and earth and the revelation of God and God’s plan for the world. And there is a helpful and positive point to that literature – and it is NOT to make us fearful and attentive to the end of the world or who is “left behind.”
Our passage for today is considered “apocalyptic literature.” In fact (with the same essential passage in Matthew 24, and Luke 21), Mark 13 is considered by scholars to be the “little apocalypse” – a short version of warnings about the end of the world. The longer version comes in the Book of Revelation. Listen to Mark 13:1-8:
As he (Jesus) came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
3When 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?” 5Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For 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 birthpangs.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Jesus is not just teaching people about love and forgiveness here. He is lifting the veil between heaven and earth and talking about God’s ultimate intentions and the end of the world. That is why this passage is called the “little apocalypse.” Jesus is not just telling stories and saying, “let the children come to me.” He is speaking about the things that really haunt human life – wars and violence, natural disasters and famines – and how God will triumph finally over those worst things. “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
“Birthpangs” mean something is being brought to birth. And it hurts. “This is but the beginning of the Birthpangs,” which means that in the eternal fruitfulness of God’s plans, the bad stuff – wars and rumors of wars, violence and hatred, earthquakes and other natural disasters – are giving way to the goodness of God. This is part of the gospel – the good promises, and good news of God.
I want to say three (3) things about apocalyptic literature – and this passage - and BIRTHPANGS, with the hope of helping all of us with our Christian faith, and our life as God’s people.
First, these words of Jesus about BIRTHPANGS want to remind us that bad things are part of life. The setting of this passage is very commonplace: the disciples are walking casually out of the massive, magnificent temple in Jerusalem. They gaze at the beauty and magnitude of the place: “what large stones and what large buildings.” And Jesus burst their grandiose ideas – “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
That temple, out of which Jesus and his disciples would have been walking, was called the Second Temple. This Temple was the largest of all the temples ever built on that spot, bigger and more elaborate than the one built by Solomon, which was destroyed by the Babylonians five hundred years before Jesus’ time. The second temple was built, after the return from exile. And then that temple was greatly enhanced by King Herod in the decades just before Jesus’ ministry. So it was very magnificent.
But, in the years after Jesus’ life and ministry, in 70 AD, that second, massive, and beautiful temple was destroyed by the Romans – who conquered and assumed power in the entire region of the Mediterranean. So when Mark was writing his gospel, and depicting Jesus walking out of the temple with his disciples, that extravagant Temple had already been destroyed.
So this text wants very much to remind us that bad things are very much a part of life. If the beautiful temple of God can be destroyed, can we keep worshipping and serving God? If the violence keeps happening, if wars keep raging, if famines continue, can we trust God?
We know all too well about these questions. And Jesus helps us with apocalyptic images.
Jesus says indeed bad things will come. And don’t we know it?! Leaders will try to lead you astray. . . . Violence will be part of life - even mass shootings. . . . Fires will rage and people will die. It is scary. It is heart-breaking. Yet Jesus says, “this is but the beginnings of the BIRTHPANGS.” Something is being brought to birth. And it hurts.
As long as there is life, there is heartache. As long as there is the world, there are earthquakes and fires. As long as there are people, and power structures, there will be bad leaders. As long as there are boundaries and borders, there will be wars and famines. As long as we dwell in these bodies, there will be cancer and other problems that threaten us. This is all part of the wonderful, mysterious, magnificent, complicated world that we live in. Bad things are part of life. Be patient, Jesus says. Be aware. Be awake.
Second, this kind of apocalyptic literature about the end of the world, and raising the veil between heaven and earth, and the warnings about the end times, want to confirm for us that God is still in charge.
With so many dying in the fires this week, with so many mass shootings in so many days, with so much fear and heartache among so many people seeking asylum, and so much growing animosity all around, it can feel hopeless. Disillusionment can be overwhelming.
When Mark wrote his gospel, the people knew that the Temple had been crushed by the Romans. As we hear these words, we know all too well about the difficulties that we face in our own lives – illness gaining on us, . . . . anxiety haunting us, . . . failures and regrets that we cannot get away from, . . . and depression and more always lurking. As we hear these words, we can recall the Twin Towers toppling on 9/11 in NYC. We can easily sense the fears about gun violence in our society. We can name injustices in our city, inequities in our schools, racial problems that perplex us. Could God really still be in charge?
Jesus says, “this is but the beginnings of the BIRTHPANGS.”
Here is another way to think about it: Jesus appears on the scene and announces that the reign of God has come. The reign of God comes in his person, his message, his presence – he is God in the flesh in our midst. The reign of God has arrived – he will teach and preach and embody the fullness of God – love, kindness, forgiveness, peace, patience, light, joy, justice, hope.
But there is both an ALREADY and a NOT YET about this reign of God. It is ALREADY present in him – in what Jesus says and does, in love prevailing over hate, service over selfishness, generosity over greed, life over death – all the things of the Kingdom of God – ALREADY present, ALREADY visible, ALREADY distinctive, ALREADY wonderful in him. We see it. We glimpse it for our lives. We taste and know it is good, and what God promises for all.
But there is also a NOT YET – this kingdom, this reign of God is NOT YET fully arrived. There are wars and rumors of wars. There are earthquakes and fires. There are troubles in our hearts, cancers in our bodies, crises in our communities, disappointments about so many things. This reign of God is NOT YET fully arrived. Jesus says, “this is but the beginnings of the BIRTHPANGS.” Salvation is a process. We are getting there by God’s grace, but we are not there yet. The Kingdom of God has come, but it has NOT YET fully come to fruition.
So we do not lose heart. We do not lose focus. We do not give in. We keep looking to God. God will have the last word. God will COMPLETE all things just as God created all things. As the psalmist says, “the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it. . . . Lift up your heads, and be lifted up!”
Third, this apocalyptic piece, these words of Jesus want to motivate us – we have work to do to promote the full reign of God, the full coming of heaven on earth.
As I alluded, one of the real dangers of apocalyptic literature is how easily we get distracted. We get so busy discerning the times, we get so confident about the signs and what they mean, that we fall away from the mission that is ours – to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with our God. We get so focused on the apocalypse that we fall away from discipleship. Jesus says, “follow me.” Jesus says, “beware,” but mostly love God and love neighbor. Jesus exhorts us to keep going – to trust God and to serve God.
This week I purchased Anne Lamott’s most recent book, entitled, Almost Everything – notes on hope. Here is what she says: “Of course, we are reduced at times, late at night, no matter how deep our faith in God, or Goodness, or one another, to quivering aspic. No matter how beautiful our views are of trees and birds and children, there are such scary pronouncements from Washington, or our doctors, that we can’t help bearing the descending tones, of age, global warming, the ticking of the nuclear clock, the heartbeats of 7.6 billion other people around us. This stuff is scary and it’s very real. Yet hope is real, too.” . . . and this is also true . . . .Life is way wilder than I am comfortable with, way further out, as we used to say, more magnificent, more deserving of awe, and I would add, more benevolent – well-meaning, kindly. Waves and particles, redwoods, poetry, this world of wonders and suffering, great crowds of helpers and humanitarians, here we are alive right now, together. I worry myself sick about the melting ice caps, the escalating arms race, and the polluted air as I look forward with hope to the cleansing rains, the coming spring, the warmth of summer, the student marches. John Lennon said, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end,” . . . (John Lennon was a better theologian than he even knew!) . . .We have all we need to come through. Against all odds, no matter what we have lost, no matter what messes we’ve made over time, no matter how dark the night, we offer and are offered kindness, soul, light, and food, which create breath and spaciousness, which create hope, sufficient for the day.” (p182-189)
May we keep offering kindness, soul, light – may we walk with God and seek to serve God, trusting in God’s coming reign. May we keep moving with HOPE toward the new BIRTH that God promises for us, for the world for all people everywhere.
We have so much work to do, with God, for God, for God’s promised reign. May we not ever be distracted, but seek always to be faithful – in loving, in serving, in spreading light and life, following Jesus. AMEN
Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, we believe; help our unbelief. And in these troubling times, keep us moving, loving, serving your grand purposes. AMEN.
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship, November 18, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.