Pentecost 25/Lectionary 33B, Mark 13:1-8
Jesus’ disciples were understandably impressed with the temple in Jerusalem and the surrounding temple complex. “Look, Teacher,” one of them said to Jesus, “what large stones and what large buildings.” Truly, the temple in Jerusalem was quite a wonder. If you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, the Western Wall of the temple remains and is a place of prayer. And yes, the stones are very large.
Such fascination with the human capacity to build grand places is not lost on us in our day. We love our skylines. My office in New York City looked out onto commanding views of Midtown Manhattan and its increasingly taller skyscrapers. Here, we marvel at our secular temples related to the federal government and museums of the Smithsonian.
Listen again to Jesus’ reply to his disciples’ wonderment: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Marks’ gospel was compiled and written after the fall of Jerusalem which occurred in the year 70, so the hearers of Mark would have understood the remembrance of what Jesus said in light of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by Roman authorities in their attempt to quash a rebellion led by zealot fighters among the Jewish people.
And then we, twenty years ago, suffered the terrorist attacks that saw the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the extensive damage to the Pentagon right here in Arlington. Indeed, our great buildings have their endings.
In Mark’s narrative, the disciples were curious about when all the destruction would take place. Jesus used that query as the occasion to talk about the end times. Thus, we have a moment of apocalyptic predictions in Mark. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and country against country; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.”
We hear similar kinds of language in the apocalyptic literature that characterizes the book of Daniel, a passage from which is today’s first reading. “There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.” (Daniel 12:1b)
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That’s because, in human history, there have always been wars, and anguished conflict between nations and earthquakes and famines.
One way or another, we’re always living in end times and last days. End of the world themes come up at this point in our liturgical seasonal calendar as we approach the end of another church year. Next Sunday is the last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, and after that we begin a new year, a new cycle with Advent.
It’s crucial thusly to acknowledge the realities of end times. In our personal lives as individuals. Among our families. Among our human institutions. And among nations. People come and go, as do organizations, as do nations and even whole civilizations. People and human institutions have their endings in death and dissolution. That’s just the way things are. So, today in the church year allows for some of this reality therapy.
But here’s the thing. Our own age arguably presents special challenges. Given the ongoing specter of all-out nuclear war (that’s still very much a reality even though we don’t hear about it much these days in the news cycles) and given the realities of climate change, we may well be nearing more ultimate end times for our species and for the viability of habitable ecosystems on our fragile planet.
Early Christians expected the immanent return of Christ. From our perspective, we see delay. After all, it’s been two thousand years, a long period of history from a human perspective. What is God in Christ waiting for?
But two thousand years is but the blink of an eye in the larger scope of the history of human evolution and geologic time, not to mention cosmic time. In the grander scheme of things, two thousand years is a punctuation point.
One way or another, the point is, sooner or later, we cannot escape the reality of endings, individually in death and now maybe even more macroscopically with the possibility of ecosystemic collapse.
These are scary times. I have to wonder at the burden that our young people carry as they ponder what kind of life and world are before them as they emerge into adulthood. There is so much bad news.
But there is also good news embedded in today’s apocalyptic reading from Mark. The gospel writer’s recounting of Jesus’ bad news predictions about wars and conflict and earthquakes and famines ends with this saying from Jesus: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Birth pangs. They are the acute pains that are associated with being in labor for child birth. Intense agony perhaps, but the necessary forerunner of and herald for something great, that is, bringing new life into the world. Most mothers I know of say the birth pangs are worth it. Such pains never stopped human beings from having babies.
Jesus knew his own birth pangs on the tree of the cross, the labor he endured such that God would bring about resurrected new life from the tomb. This was a new kind of birthing – not just life from life, but life from death, the tomb being the womb from which resurrected life would emerge. This is the good news of promise for us that takes the edge off the burden of the pains of our various last days. Death and ending do not have the last word. Rather life and new beginnings have the final say.
And there’s more: we who are baptized have known our own birth pangs microcosmically in our personal lives when we are drowned in the waters with the sacred word only to emerge in the power of the Spirit as new creations in Christ.
Likewise, when we eat the bread and drink the cup, we have a foretaste of the feast to come when God in Christ promises to birth in consummation and completion what was begun on the cross and in the empty tomb in ushering in the fullness of the divine reign.
Still more, when we receive the forgiveness of sin, remembering that we are baptized as we do regularly at our liturgy’s beginning at the font, we are reborn again and again, daily. There may be pangs of pain when we confess our sins, but certainly the release and freedom of forgiven life in the words of absolution.
In faith, nourished by our weekly assemblies in this very room, we cling to the realities of new birthing even amidst the pain of labor in a world in many ways seeming to come to an end.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews says it well in describing our lives of faith lived in the season of birth pangs and endings toward new beginnings. The author writes of our Christian life: “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that Christ opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for the one who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:19-25)
Confidence to enter the sanctuary. Approaching God with a true heart in full assurance of faith. Hearts sprinkled clean. Bodies washed with pure water. Holding fast to the confession of hope without wavering. Provoking one another to love and good deeds. Meeting together. Encouraging one another.
All of these wonderful qualities of the Christian life are made possible by Christ, by his birth pangs on the cross and in the tomb, giving us the gift of new life in Christ, that we may live the life of faith all the more as we see the Day of the Lord approaching.
May our life together be marked by the qualities enumerated by what we hear today in the letter to the Hebrews. Let it all be so as we are sent together in mission for the sake of the world enduring its pangs of labor, that all creation may know the new life that God has promised. Amen.