Sermon: Birth Pangs

“Birth Pangs”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
November 18, 2018

Psalm 46
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
God’s voice utters, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations God has brought on the earth.
God makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
God burns the shields with fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Mark 13:1-8
As Jesus 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.’

 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 rumours 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.’

Well, this morning’s scripture is downright apocalyptic, what with all the earthquakes and famines and wars and rumors of war. Just a few verses after this passage, we get even more doomsday predictions: that the sun will go dark and the stars will fall from the sky, the temple will be desecrated and there will be false messiahs and persecutions everywhere: “Someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be.”

For those of us in Christian traditions that don’t focus on end-times predictions, these verses and their cousins in Revelation and Daniel can sound more like the Left Behind series than relevant scripture for our day and age. Our tradition doesn’t tend to highlight Jesus’ second coming, and we don’t spend our time trying to figure out when we’ll be raptured and taken up to glory; on the contrary, verses like this may even make us feel uncomfortable, like the Jesus we know and love has suddenly become either a fear-mongering cynic or a crackpot doomsday prophet we no longer recognize.

But as we delved into this scripture during Bible study this past week, there emerged a lot more relevance than you might think.

First of all, I can only imagine how very much like the end times it must feel for people in the path of recent natural disasters like Hurricanes Florence, Michael, and Maria, and the wildfires in California. In the town of Paradise, California, which suffered utter devastation from the Camp Fire that raged through on November 8, 23 people lost their lives, and so many of those who survived fled, indeed, without time to turn back for a coat or a photo album or anything but their lives. Picture after picture of Paradise shows “great buildings” where not one stone – or brick or beam – is left upon another, their twisted metal skeletons the only sign that there was ever anything there.

And I can only imagine how much it must feel like the end times for Central American asylum-seekers traveling thousands of miles, babies on their backs and children in tow, or to Syrians who starved in tunnels awaiting the end of hostilities, or to the Rohingya forced to leave their homes or face genocide.

The thing is, throughout human history there have been countless upheavals of both natural and human-made origin that have made Jesus’ apocalyptic words ring all too true for millions of humans. If our faith were all rainbows and sunshine, where would the victims of such upheaval find their experiences reflected in scripture? Where would they draw strength in truly turbulent times? Jesus’ dramatic words must be a comfort to them – and they can be to us, too, if we let them.   

Imagine you are a Judean follower of Jesus in the late 60s to early 70s, AD, right when Mark is writing his Gospel. Sitting in the synagogue each week, all you need to do is look out the window to witness your people rising up against unjust taxation and foreign occupation, only to be crushed a few years later by the Roman Empire, who desecrate your holiest building, the very Temple Jesus’ disciples are so impressed with, before completely destroying it. You would understandably feel unmoored, devastated, without hope; not only is a movement for freedom you deeply believed in now in tatters, but the religious heart of your people has been torn out of their chest. Yet instead of being left to flounder in the darkness and meaninglessness of it all, you hear Mark’s words, the words of your Messiah, Jesus, telling you that these are not just terrible events but birth pangs. And like everyone who has ever watched a woman in labor, you know that birth pangs, however painful and however interminable they may seem, exist for a purpose: to lead to new life. And so even in the midst of devastation, you find a reason to hope – that God will yet bring forth something good from the wreckage, maybe even something better than what’s gone before.

Most of us haven’t been evacuated from our homes, or fled with our very lives to escape violence and destruction, or watched a revolution crumble before our eyes. But maybe we’ve watched all we’ve worked so hard to build come crashing down on our heads. Maybe we’ve gone through an illness or a loss or a betrayal so harrowing that we weren’t certain we would emerge on the other side.

And maybe we’ve come to see that something new does emerge; that despite appearances we haven’t been abandoned, but in fact have had Jesus by our side the entire time.

In 2008 Stephanie Nielson was flying in a small plane with her husband Christian and his flying instructor Doug when something went wrong and the plane crashed. Sadly, Doug died; Christian and Stephanie both survived, but suffered severe burns when the plane burst into flames on impact. Burned over 80% of her body, Stephanie was put into a medical coma for three months and came close to losing her life several times as her body fought off infections and struggled to accept skin grafts. When she finally came out of the coma, she faced a new struggle: not only did she need to find the will to tackle the long road to recovery and to face a new life peppered with pain and corrective procedures, she needed to reconnect with her four young children who no longer recognized her. It certainly felt like the end-times to her, and the only way forward was to pray, to struggle to pray, and then to pray again.

Ten years later, Stephanie is thriving alongside her husband and their now-five children. Her body will never look like it used to, and there are still certain tasks she struggles to accomplish, but she is able to hike and cook and do yoga and hug her kids, and life is good – steeped with an extra dose of meaning and gratitude at what she has because of the trials and tribulations she’s navigated.

I was struck by what she shared on her blog this past week as she reflected on her great-uncle and her grandpa, both of whom died in plane crashes:

I feel such a connection with these two men whom I have never met, and I think it has everything to do with our airplane crashes. I thought a lot about uncle Harold and grandpa Clark. Particularly what the last minutes of their life were like. And more specifically, the seconds before their planes went down. That might sound morbid, but that was the scariest part of my crash, and those memories still sometimes haunt me–I was so very scared. I believe that loved ones who have gone before were there to comfort them in those horrifying moments, just as they were there for me when my plane crashed.

Not only has Stephanie found new life after her harrowing experience – including the literal new life of her youngest daughter, Lottie – but she believes that in recalling her relatives’ terrible experiences God gave her a way not to feel alone in the deepest, darkest moments of her life.

That is what I think this scripture passage invites us to do – not only to hope for new life after devastation wreaks its havoc, but to know, unequivocally, that because God is with us we are not alone in the depths of despair and wreckage – even when the worst has happened.

After all, not two days after the disciples listen to Jesus tell them that the great buildings they’re in awe of will be desolated and havoc and terror will rip through the land, their beloved leader is arrested, tried, and crucified, and the disciples go into hiding, fearing for their lives. I imagine it is only then, in the devastatingly silent aftermath of their horror and fear and grief, that they remember Jesus’ words – that these are but birth pangs, the beginning of something new. And though they can’t yet imagine what that something new might be, they dare to hope that it means that good will come out on the other side.

And indeed, on the third day, the unimaginable happens, and new life is born – a new light is lit in the darkness, into the world’s darkness – into our darkness. In a week of things to be thankful for, surely that is one of the best.

Thanks be to God. Amen.