Beginning of the Birth Pangs - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 25B
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Mark13:1-8 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
13 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
3 When 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?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’[a]and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 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.
It is the scholarly consensus that Mark is the first gospel to be written gospel. It is also assumed that it was written sometime after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. A major clue is found in this passage, where Jesus takes note of the Temple and its impending destruction. The destruction of this holy site serves as the starting point for an apocalyptic discourse, in which Jesus gives answer to the question of when the times of trouble will take place.
I have had my moments of interest in things apocalyptic. I was taken in by the message of Hal Lindsey and others like him during my high school days. We took some pleasure in our attempts at figuring out where we stood in the divine time scheme. Were we truly living in the last days? Would we be raptured before the suffering got too bad? Would we get to come back as part of Jesus’ vanguard force to reclaim the earth from Satan? If the teachers of things prophetic were correct, the signs were surely present. As for the Temple, well we assumed that the Jewish people, having returned to create a new nation-state called Israel would get around to rebuilding the Temple so that the rest of the prophetic word could be fulfilled. This apocalyptic fervor seems to ebb and flow, but it will also be re-stoked by the publication of best-selling books that seek to interpret the biblical message for today. One of the passages that apocalyptic types like to turn to is Mark 13, which is often referred to as the “Little Apocalypse” because of its similarity in message to the book of Revelation.
The creators of the lectionary do not have us read the entirety of the passage, but what is revealed here in verses 1-8 are developed in greater detail in the verses that follow. The question for us to wrestle with is its current meaning. If its initial reference is to the destruction of the Temple (after it is desecrated by the setting up of the “desolating sacrilege” in the Temple, which according to Mark the reader would know about). Apocalyptic writings tend to emerge from times of distress. They reflect both the despair over the current situation and the hope that something new would emerge. It is clear that Mark’s community has been experiencing deep travail. Reference is made in verses 9-13 to persecution by both the religious authorities and governing bodies, but the readers are told not to worry. Instead, they should take advantage of their opportunity to share their faith with their opponents.
As Mark writes the world as the early Christians had known it was crumbling. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Early leaders like Paul and Peter were surely gone. The church with in the middle of its break from Judaism. It would also appear that false teachers were seeking to draw away the believers from Mark’s church. Who these teachers were and what they were offering, we’re not told. As all of this is occurring, Roman legions are on the march. The future looks bleak. All seems lost. People are wondering if there is to be a word of hope for them.
Into this mix of emotions, we hear Jesus say to the disciples: Ah, but this is but the “beginning of the birth pangs.” These wars and rumors of wars, along with the persecution you’re facing—they are but signs that something is about to happen. But the time is not yet. No, these are just labor pains that precede birth. The time will come when the Son of Man will return in the clouds (Mk. 13:24-27).
As a male I’ve not experienced birth from a woman’s point of view—and neither did Jesus (or Mark). I may have been there when my wife gave birth to our son, which allowed me to share the joy of the birth experience, but I did not experience any of the pain that went with it. So, while I’ve not experienced labor pains, I know that these birth pangs are not the same as the birth itself. They are merely the prelude. Nevertheless, when the labor pains begin, you know you need to be prepared. It’s time to go to the hospital (or wherever you plan to give birth). When the water breaks and labor begins, the mother-to-be gets a sense of urgency about the future. When we begin to experience the birth pangs, we should be ready, even if the birth itself is not yet occurring. When the birth occurs there is joy to be experienced.
As we read this passage we hear a sense of urgency, but also a word of caution. Sometimes labor goes quickly, but other times it doesn’t. You have to be ready for every eventuality. Could it be that we are hearing Jesus say to us – be prepared. Be awake to the realities around you. Living as we do some two millennia after these words were written, it is easy to become complacent. The apocalyptic message of the gospels gets put on the back-burner. But is there something in this apocalyptic message that speaks to our own time? Should we be more aware of what is going on around us?
Perhaps what we have here is what Otis Moss III calls “Blue Note Preaching.” This is preaching that reflects a “Blues sensibility.” It is the ability to give witness to the work of God “in darkness and even in the abyss” [Blue Note Preaching in a PostSoul World, p. 9]. Perhaps Jesus’ word for us today is a word of encouragement to stand in the midst of times of trouble and continue offering a word of hope in the midst of despair. We might not know the timing of the birth, but when birth pangs begin we must be ready.
Each community faces different issues and concerns. I can appreciate the word offered to us by Otis Moss III, who brings into the conversation the experiences of people of color who have been marginalized by the majority culture. Their voice emerged out of death and tribulation. He writes:
The Blue Note and Blues sensibility was born in this place of death that became the place of life. Just as Jesus hung up on the cross and transformed an execution into a celebration, the Blue Note sensibility conjured life from death’s domain. [Blue NotePreaching in a Post-Soul World, pp. 14-15].
For many of us the Blue Note or Apocalyptic message could be a word of hope to a church that is experiencing a post-Christendom moment. The Temple has been destroyed. That link to past glory is gone. A new world is emerging. Judaism survived the demise of the Temple, but it took on new forms. Might not the same be true for us as church? What will emerge from the current realities? The world may not be coming to an end any time soon (who knows for sure), but the birth pangs will likely remain with us. As we experience them we can experience an awakened sense of God’s presence in our midst. It’s not that God hasn’t been there all along, we’re just not always awake to it!