A sermon for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after the Pentecost, Mark 13:1-8
The end must come first. There is no other way. You will be tempted to become alarmed, to follow those who would lead you astray because you cannot believe that more will happen, that it isn’t actually time yet for Christ to come, but if you hold out, if you prepare, you will ride out the beginnings of the birth pangs, you will push through those initial punches to the gut that rack your body and take your breath away, and the hope of what is to come will empower you, will fill you with the strength to push through each contraction as you await the coming of a new life.
I don’t think this is exactly what Peter, James, John, and Andrew were hoping to hear when they asked Jesus what the sign would be. There is excitement among the disciples. Christ is with them, today. Christ is their savior, their messiah, and he is right in front of them. Christ must surely be the one who will tear down the temples, who will overthrow the ruling authorities, who will lead them into that promised new life. But, when asked about the signs of that victory that is promised, Jesus begins with the end. I’d venture that’s not exactly what they had in mind.
Jesus has a habit of doing this of course. From explaining the reality that he must die for all of what has been proclaimed to start into motion, to never giving the disciples the answer they seek, or at least the answer they think they seek, Jesus constantly lays out the actual events that are to come. There is no sugar coating. There is no glossing over. Jesus makes it clear that this work of following him is hard. Jesus makes it clear that the final victory, the victory over death that Jesus has in his sacrificial act on the cross, will not be fully realized until we first experience the end. We cannot have a new beginning, a new life, without first experiencing an ending.
It makes sense really, if you step back for a moment and think about the analogy being used here. In order to bring new life into this world a lot of endings happen. The end of being pregnant, where the previous 9 months of uncomfortableness come crashing together in one (often long and drawn out) night (cause it always starts at night), where the body is quite consistently racked with pressure, where breath is knocked out of you, where pushing through becomes the only option, an ending that signals a new beginning that is to come. But, it’s bigger than this. Even in the months leading up to this moment of birth pangs, life stays largely the same. Sure you prepare, you nest, you paint the nursery, you throw the showers, but honestly life does not change that much (especially if you’re the expectant father, the only thing that might change for you is your waistline from the sympathy weight packed on from late night soft-serve cravings). You are still able to do most of what you want, uninhibited. Even as it comes to child two (or three or four or…), you have an established life routine as your current family unit that is about to radically be changed with the introduction of a new life. A lot ends when those birth pangs begin. And yet, these endings signify a great hope.
I think that’s what Jesus is getting at today, I think that’s what Jesus is trying to tell Peter, James, John, and Andrew today, there is a great hope in the symbols that all these things are about to come to pass. The light parting the skies, the heralding trumpets of the angels, coming down to overthrow the world’s authorities and place Jesus as the king of all, these are not the signs you should be preparing for, because they are not the first ones that will come (if they come at all). Instead, be prepared. Know that the worst that will come is not cause for alarm, is not cause for falling in behind the false prophets who would come proclaiming “I am he,” “Follow ME!” These are simply the beginnings of the birth pangs, but from those birth pangs, new life is guaranteed to emerge. So, settle in, breathe, and prepare.
And, how do we prepare in this day and time? Two thousand years removed. Wondering if we are not in the moment of the beginning of the birth pangs (for certainly if they haven’t come before, now must certainly be the time). Wondering if we can continue to ride out these birth pangs as our neighbors, our siblings in Christ, are being murdered with lightly regulated weapons designed for the sole purpose of being highly efficient at killings. Wondering if we can continue to ride out these birth pangs as our black neighbors, our siblings in Christ, continue to subjugated, made lesser than, enslaved through dynamics of white power and privilege that prevent equal opportunity and access for all. Wondering if we can continue to ride out these birthpangs as our LGBTQ neighbors, our siblings in Christ, are targeted for their very personhood, for who they love, for who they fundamentally are as a person. From our positions of privilege, we can certainly ride these out, but what of our siblings in Christ? How can we expect them to also ride out these birth pangs and not seek another way out, to trust that new life is still to come?
We must stand with them. We must walk with them through these birth pangs. We have to be willing to play the role of the expectant partner in the room who holds the hand, that holds the feet and legs so they have something to push against, that coaches, that offers love, that recognizes the great pain that is being experienced, that supports, uplifts, and absorbs the shouts of a mind altered by a pain we will never know. This is our role to fill with our siblings in Christ who experience these beginnings of birth pangs. This is our role to fill even as the wider birth pangs affect our society as a whole. This is the role we hope others will fill for us as we encounter our own birth pangs. We prepare for this role by being here in this place every week, to be filled with the power and strength of Christ that we receive in the Eucharist, by being part of a community, by giving of ourselves to this community to help others prepare as well.
It takes time and investment to be ready. You go to classes to prepare yourself. You procure necessary resources to meet every need that might pop up, from the necessary car seat to the unnecessary but supposedly useful Baby Nasal Aspirator (also known as “the Snotsucker”). You prepare everything around you. And, then it hits. You aren’t even remotely prepared. These birth pangs rattle your consciousness and you cling to the hope that is this new life to come, knowing full well that you’re about to wing it and hope for the best once this life comes into your arms.
If that doesn’t sounds like church to you, then perhaps I spend too much time here because that sounds exactly like church to me.
Our life as a church, as a community of believers, requires of us an investment of time, money, resources, presence. We will procure and hold those necessary things, a space in which to gather and share in community the offerings of our labors, share in the bread and wine, and those unnecessary but supposedly useful things like thuribles or facebook pages. And then, the beginnings of the birth pangs will hit our community, and we will be shook. We will be challenged. We will be called to step up and live into this community boldly, unwavering, guiding each other through the contractions, guiding each other to see that new life is to come, that these things are necessary, that there is no “other way,” no other messiah to follow, and to do this knowing full well that most of the time we are making it up as we go.
But, we are empowered to make it up as we go, because we have the foundation of Christ beneath us. We have the promise of the resurrection. We have the strength of the shared Eucharist each week. We may be about to wing it, but we do so from a point of preparedness. We wing it, but not really. We have invested our time, our money, our passion and energy, into preparing ourselves, into preparing this place, our community, not only for that new life that is to come, but also for the power and knowledge of how to ride out those birth pangs, of executing the birth plan (and being willing to throw that whole thing out and go with our guts). The contractions may rack our bodies, may rack our community, but through that breath-stealing pain, we stand ready to guide each other through these birth pangs. We stand committed to one another by being present with each other, by preparing with one another, by showing our commitment to one another through the time, money, passion, energy, and joy we put into preparing for these moments.
We prepare for a new life by struggling with the building of a crib, of a do-it-yourself paint job of the former office now nursery, of the 3am wake up and calm but hurried drive to the hospital. We prepare for the new life of this world in much the same way, by preparing this world for the arrival of Christ. By building a safe place to lay the head of a sleeping, vulnerable child of God. By stepping up and doing our best to enhance the spaces we already occupy. By being willing to answer the 3am call when our partners in this work need us most. Together, we come together to face the birth pangs head on, knowing that we can face them, that we will ride them out, that we have done everything in our power to prepare, and that the hope of the new life that is to come will fill us with all the power we will ever need in this life.