Sunday, November 18, 2012

Birth Pangs

In these last weeks of November as the days are getting shorter and darker in the northern hemisphere, our attention in the appointed readings this week and next and then into the first week of Advent are all about the signs of endings that are all around us. Today's gospel reading from Mark's "little apocalypse" (Mark 13) falls into this category. I have never lived in the southern hemisphere but I often wonder how these readings "play" in Australia or Argentina, where the days are getting longer and warmer. Here in New England it seems almost like a cruel joke, as we move toward the shortest day of the year, to be talking about signs in the heavens of endings. Yet for an Easter people, signs of endings awaken hope, because even at the grave we make our song—alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. It is from endings that we discover new beginnings.

So in today’s gospel reading we see the Jesus and his disciples - small-town fishermen - arriving in the big city of Jerusalem. ”My goodness,” they say to Jesus, “look at these great big buildings!” Jesus remembers his history, though. I don’t think he’s so much making a prediction about the future so much as he knows that nothing lasts forever. The definition of any created thing is that it has a beginning and an end; no exceptions, save for God alone.

Six centuries before Jesus’ birth, the people of Jerusalem had felt invincible. And then the Babylonian army marched into town and reduced their big buildings to rubble. That event, of course, marked the beginning of the Babylonian exile. Human resiliency is a very good thing. But the downside of “moving on” is that people forget and start to suffer from amnesia, and six hundred years is a long time. For perspective on that, you have to go back way past the founding of this country and back even further, past the time when the Pilgrims arrived on these shores—even past the time when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, which was only about 520 years ago.

So as Jesus and his friends are walking around the streets of Jerusalem and looking at this amazing Temple, it has been six hundred years since it had been rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah. It feels like has been there forever, and that it will be there forever.  And that is reassuring when it comes to faith: we like to think that in the midst of a changing world it will remain rock solid.

Yet within just four decades after this conversation took place, the Romans will march into Jerusalem and destroy that second Temple just as the Babylonians had destroyed the first one. In fact that second Temple will never be rebuilt, and all that remains to this day, two thousand years later, is the west wall—more commonly called the Wailing Wall. In fact, by the time Mark’s Gospel is written down that event is only a year or two away.

Even so, as I said I think the point is not so much that Jesus is making a future prediction about the exact date when the Temple will be destroyed and definitely not about the end of the world as we know it. Rather, I think that he is inviting his followers in every generation to consider the fact that nothing lasts forever. How then, do we navigate seasons of transition? Big buildings make us think we are secure and maybe even invincible. But we know better, don’t we? The biggest of buildings, whether in first-century Jerusalem or twenty-first century lower Manhattan, can come down before our very eyes. And when that happens, when things we thought were “permanent” are exposed as transient, they can leave fear and terror in their wake. What do we do with such emotions? What do we do when the very foundations of our faith are shaken?

What Jesus does in today’s gospel reading, as I hear him, is to re-frame that question. Endings, he insists, always hold within them the possibilities for new beginnings. That is not an act of denial; it’s a leap of faith. The loss that Israel will experience with the destruction of the temple is real. Yet Jesus says within that loss one can find the “birth pangs” of a new creation. Instead of a Temple made with human hands, he points toward a community that will be his resurrected Body. But to get there will mean going through Good Friday.

Most of us prefer security to faith. Big buildings make us feel secure in the same way that big 401-K’s do. We think if we can make them bigger and stronger they will protect us. But that is an illusion. In the absence of absolute security there is a clear but difficult choice: we can live in fear or we can live in hope.  Jesus is inviting us to embrace our vulnerabilities, and yet to live by faith, trusting that endings are also signs of something new. That they are birth pangs: signs of God's new creation.

Cataclysmic events like hurricanes and earthquakes expose our precariousness. And yet ultimately—and I don’t say this without compassion but simply as the truth—such events also expose our trust as misplaced in the first place. Because our trust is not in buildings or institutions or in any created thing, but in the one true God who was and is and will be: the Lord our God whom we are called to love with our whole heart, and to have no other gods before us.

In the past few decades the institutional church has experienced quite a few hits. It sometimes feels as if the foundations are shaking and the buildings may yet come crashing down. The response in many quarters tends to be one of high anxiety. You can see it in the faces of clergy and bishops especially. But notice what Jesus says—because it’s as true today as it was 2000 years ago. In the face of anxiety people crave easy answers. In the face of anxiety, people are led astray because everyone wants to speak in the name of Christ: “I am he.”  There will always those who peddle false religion by tapping into that anxiety. So do not believe those who offer easy answers about what God is up to in the midst of signs of endings. Rather, stand tall and keep alert and be strong.That is the consistent advice Jesus gives; not to try to "crack some code" and find a date...but to be faithful in the midst of adversity. Even when it feels like the world is coming unglued! Such moments are the beginning of the birth pangs.
What is true on a macrocosmic scale is just as true in our life stories. Someone we love dies and our faith is shaken. Or we go through a painful divorce that we think will never end. It is hard in the midst of such life experiences to see them as birth pangs that are leading to something new when we feel weary and disillusioned and in pain. Yet we are an Easter people, and to be an Easter people means that we are a people who believe in the resurrection not just of Jesus 2000 years ago, but in the ways that old things are being made new even today—even now, before our very eyes.

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