Birth Pangs – Sermon on Mark 13:1-8, 32-33

November 18, 2018

Last week, I mentioned that Jesus and his disciples have been walking near the Temple, and that Jesus has predicted its destruction. The thirteenth chapter of Mark’s gospel begins like this: “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:1-2)

This is the final chapter in the year of Mark – all that’s left is the passion story, which we heard at Lent. This is the final ‘regular’ Sunday in the church year – next week is Christ the King, and then Advent begins. It’s no coincidence that we are getting ready to look forward to Jesus’ birth, just as Jesus is telling us to get ready for his coming again. Advent is always a two-fold expectation of Christ’s arrival.

But right now, the disciples have joined Jesus across the valley from the Temple. They can see the Beautiful Gate, the gate through which the King would enter the temple. According to tradition, Messiah will come down from the Mount of Olives on the Day of Judgment and the dead will be resurrected. This is why those who are buried on the Mount of Olives have their feet pointing east, toward the Temple, so they will already be facing in the right direction when the resurrection happens.[1]

Yet Jesus has just told his disciples that the Temple will be destroyed, and they are having a hard time absorbing this information. If the temple is going to be destroyed, that must be a sign of the end of the world.

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 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 kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. (Mark 13:3-8, 32-33)

Jesus has just told his closest friends that the temple they can see across the Kidron Valley will come tumbling down. And sure enough, less than forty years later, it happened. The Roman armies completely destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D

J. D. Walt thinks “there’s a word in here for the contemporary church. It’s fascinating how much we make of church buildings here in North America. To be sure, they serve marvelous purposes and much good comes from them, but they are not the church. Despite that, just about anytime anyone speaks of going to the church they are referring to a building. All too often, our buildings have come to define our churches.
“When people speak of a church in many parts of the world the last thing they are talking about is a building. They are referring to a small group of men and women who have staked their lives on the Word of God and pledged their faith to follow Jesus.
“When it becomes all about the building instead of what the building was built for we may be headed for trouble.”[2]

You may have been following the news about the fires raging through California recently. The death toll continues to climb, and hundreds who have survived have lost the houses they called home. But listening to those survivors reminds us that a house is not a home – it’s just a building. What matters is the people who live there.

Those fires out west, the flooding caused by hurricanes, the growing number of hate-related crimes, escalating conflicts in war-torn countries – all these things must surely be signs that the end is near, right? It feels like all our systems and structures are coming apart at the seams. But it’s right there, where everything seems to be coming apart, that the Kingdom of God is coming together.[3]

What Jesus is talking about here is apocalypse. We sometimes think of apocalyptic writings as scary predictions about “the end of the world as we know it.” But the word “apocalypse” comes from a Greek word that means to uncover, or reveal. That’s why the last book of the Bible is called “Revelation” in English, and “Apokalypsis” in Greek.

Yes, scary things are going to happen. Things will get worse before they get better. There will be earthquakes, famines, hurricanes, wildfires, and war. And yet, Jesus says, the end is not yet. These are but birth pangs. Something new is being born.

“All of chapter 13 is rooted in Jewish apocalyptic though, and central to such thinking is the belief that God controls history, that the world has become so evil that only God can save it, and that God will rescue the world from evil at the time of God’s own choosing, establishing a new creation in which righteousness characterizes everyone in it.”[4]

Right here in chapter 13, we find the longest speech of Jesus in Mark’s gospel, and New Testament scholars call this speech “the ‘little apocalypse’ … because its form and content sound so much like those larger apocalyptic writings from Daniel 7-12 and Revelation.[5]

Jesus is being about as straightforward as he can be, as he reveals what will happen soon. But even though the disciples ask Jesus for a sign they can trust, he doesn’t give them one. Instead, Jesus tells them what won’t be an indication that the end is near. False prophets, wars, earthquakes, famines – these are all just potential distractions along the way. They are the birth pangs of what will come. In other words, what we see as the end is really just the beginning.

It’s easy to look at events today and think, ‘surely this must be it.’ We can be fooled by catastrophe and war and rising violence. How can things possibly get worse? It’s easy to get caught up in the signs that are only the beginning of birth pangs, and forget to look where those signs are trying to point us: toward the hope that Christ offers. Not fear, hope. Hope urges us to be ready. Hope calls us to action.

So what do we need to do to be ready? How can we prepare for an event that may be tomorrow or a hundred million years from now? Well, it doesn’t mean storing up water and food.

J.D. Walt writes, “Being prepared means staying vigilant, alert and expectant. It means cultivating a lifestyle of attentiveness to the presence of God in all things. It does not mean an anxiety-ridden fretting away of the present while looking ahead to the future. To be attentive is to live completely, wholeheartedly and joyfully alive to the Father, abiding in the Life of Jesus through the gift of the Holy Spirit.”[6]

In other words, Christ calls us to, first of all, prepare our own hearts by paying attention to the presence of God and living in that presence every day. This is why we practice those spiritual disciplines of prayer and worship and fasting and feasting daily on the Word of God. This is where we meet Jesus. This is how our hearts stay prepared for his coming.

Then, Christ calls us to encourage each other to be prepared by meeting together as the Body of Christ, gathering around his Table as we remember Christ’s death and resurrection until he comes. This is where we meet Jesus. This is how we help each other stay prepared for his coming.

And Christ calls us to walk with a few other believers in the kind of close fellowship that provides encouragement and accountability. As we band together with a few trusted friends in Christ, we meet Jesus and keep each other faithful to stay prepared for his coming.

Finally, Christ calls us to share the gospel in meaningful and authentic ways. This is why we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and care for the sick and welcome the stranger and visit those in prison. Because this is where we meet Jesus, and how we stay prepared for his coming.

These are not just spiritual practices and good deeds we ought to be doing out of some sense of religious duty. This is our LIFE as followers of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to live and move and have our being in the presence of the God who made us and redeems us because He loves us.

“Do you see how far this way of life is from apocalyptic anxiety. This is the way of … hope. Far from fear and sadness, this is all about hope and gladness. In the face of the worst day of our life, this is the faith that makes our soul well.”[7]

The point isn’t to spend time and energy trying to figure out when and how Jesus will come again. The point is to be ready, whenever it may happen. And to be ready, we need to be doing the work of the Father, just as Jesus did.

Making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them. Binding up the broken hearted, caring for widows and orphans and strangers. Preparing our own hearts for a time when righteousness and peace rise up and kiss each other, as the Psalmist writes.

We are called to share the good news that, no matter how bad it gets before it gets better, there is hope in Christ Jesus, who suffered as we suffer, who died for our sakes, and who now lives and reigns with the Father, just as we who put our trust in him will do.

The word “apocalypse” has its roots in revealing, or uncovering God’s plan for the future, but that word ‘apocalypse’ has come to mean devastation, destruction, and torment. It breeds fear and anxiety.

But let me throw another fancy theological term your way this morning. One of my seminary professors told me that, in order to graduate, I had to have at least 20 “-ology” words in my vocabulary. I was really glad to add “eschatology” to my list.

Eschatology is the study of end times. Its focus is on the ultimate goal of creation, the framework of last things. Good eschatology is based in hope. Now, eschatology tells the truth about the future. The end times will not be easy. There will be pain and hardship. But a greater reality is being born in the midst of it all. Instead of focusing on signs of impending doom, eschatology focuses our vision on God, and the ways we participate in God’s kingdom that is coming into its fullness.

“Apocalyptic anxiety sells books and blockbuster movie tickets. Eschatological hope steels faith and emboldens holy love. … Jesus … commands us to fix our eyes on the future in such a way that it impacts every decision we make in the present. He is leading us toward a future that inspires nobility, faith, courage, and love in the face of despairing conditions.”[8]

The great creeds of the Church are filled with eschatological hope. Yes we confess a final judgment but we also proclaim the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of Sins, the Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting!

Friends, we are people of hope in a world that desperately needs it. We are people of resurrection in a world that is hell-bent on death and destruction. We are the people Christ sends out to announce the good news that these are just birth pangs. Something amazing is about to be born.

Jill Duffield writes,
“I do not know what time it is. What I do know is this: Many are perishing. Wars rage on for generations. God’s good people and God’s good creation are in peril. I am alarmed. But Jesus assures me of his presence, his power, his will to reconcile, redeem, save and make whole. Jesus has given us himself and he has given us one another. Whatever time it is, we are not at the end. That means we hope. That means we need to meet together. That means we pray. That means we provoke one another to love and good deeds. That means we stay with the pain, breathe and hold fast to the One who gives us a Son who never turns away from the hurt of the world. That means we relentlessly work for peace no matter how persistent the violence, we help those in the middle of disasters, natural or otherwise, we feed the hungry and care for the sick, knowing that’s how we want to be found whenever Jesus returns and whenever our end, or the End, comes.”[9]

[1] http://allaboutjerusalem.com/article/mount-olives-judaism-christianity-islam
[2] J.D. Walt, https://www.seedbed.com/time-build-something-buildings/
[3] https://www.seedbed.com/day-hits-fan-day/
[4] Rodger V. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4, 309.
[5] Townes, 310.
[6] https://www.seedbed.com/ready-end-means-joyfully-alive-present/
[7] https://www.seedbed.com/ready-end-means-joyfully-alive-present/
[8] https://www.seedbed.com/must-leave-behind-left-behind/
[9] https://pres-outlook.org/2018/11/26th-sunday-after-pentecost-november-18-2018/

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