Words of Steel
My sermon title this morning is “Happy Birthday!” And to answer your questions, Yes, I know today is not Christmas, despite the prevalence of Christmas shopping adverts and decorations.
Today we consider beginnings: The beginning of new life in [a baby dedication], the beginning of new Christian service with our Nominating Committee presentation and the election next Sunday, and the beginning of the new Christian year with Advent quickly approaching.
But beginnings have a way of being overshadowed by endings, something that I believe Jesus is speaking to in our scripture lesson today. Here Jesus speaks to the end of the Temple, and even the end of the world as his audience knew it.
Sitting on the Mount of Olives, the location of so many of our incredible Bible stories, Jesus gives a word that cuts like steel.
The picture Jesus paints is not a pretty one. And you can’t watch a preacher on TV without these verses being referenced as they tell you how and why the world is coming to an end. They wave newspaper headlines and tell us to repent, because the end is near. The wrath of God about to be unleashed upon our world of sin. If you don’t want to be kindling in the furnaces of hell, to burn for all of eternity, you need to pray this prayer. Oh, and help us out by sending some money to the address at the bottom of your screen…
They sell fear and focus on God hating sin with the hope of making you worry. They want you to live in fear of Jesus’ Second Coming, because fear, psychologists tell us, is a powerful motivator.
But the intent of Jesus’ teaching is not to produce anxiety but to bring comfort. He gives this warning so that his followers throughout the ages will not be surprised by what they encounter. So they will not be alarmed at what they experience. The word of comfort that Jesus brings is that this is not the end at all, but the beginning of something amazing and beautiful. It is merely the birth of the Kingdom of God: “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
Pregnancy & Birth
Now I’m going to say something that will probably get me in trouble today with my wife and other mothers here today, but it is still true: the processes of pregnancy & birth are not beautiful.
Pregnancy is nine months of increasing discomfort as an alien life form takes over your body. Science has proven that a pregnant mother’s body is hard-wired to provide the needs of the baby first, so the baby is guaranteed to get the nutrition it needs. That means (for example) if you don’t consume enough calcium, the baby mines calcium from your bones.
For nine months the mother increasingly loses control of her body—it’s shape, her appetite, her ability to sleep, her emotions, even her mobility…
And birth?……Birth is a raw, gory, dangerous, and traumatizing experience. I have been present at the birth of both my daughters, and I still bear the scars of my fear—fear for my wife, fear for the baby, fear of the process. It is true that there were complications with and after my first daughter’s birth—so I readily admit to extenuating circumstances—but I still think there is some truth to what I am saying that many parents can relate to.
As the weeks of pregnancy tick by, the mother experiences more and more discomfort. The pain, lack of sleep, and hormonal emotions add up exponentially, and by the time the mother is nearing her due date, there comes a breaking point. Only one thing is on her mind: Get it out!
This is how the birth pains begin.
BEGIN. In the process of bringing a human being into the world, pregnancy requires the greatest amount of time, with increasing and unrelenting pain.
But the most intense pain—the actual pains of birth—are yet to come. When my first daughter was being born, my wife wanted to avoid the epidural if at all possible. I remember the moment when the pain simply became too much. After hours of intense contractions and a super-human effort on her part, my wife was simply overwhelmed. When she was ready, the anesthesiologist was in the middle of an emergency c-section; but my wife’s pain was such that she just couldn’t understand why the he wouldn’t take a few minutes to put in her epidural.
She reached a breaking point where the birth pains transformed her cries from “Get it out of me!” into “Just leave it in!” A point where the pain just didn’t seem worth it. Where she couldn’t see the beginning for the ending.
Jesus, and the author of Mark, talk about our world reaching this point. Jesus has been preaching about the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God—it’s birth, if you will. Creation, Jesus teaches, has been pregnant with the Kingdom of God for some time. The world has been expecting this Reign of God to be birthed into existence; messianic expectation is at an all-time high.
But just like human birth, the birth of the Kingdom of God in the world is going to be a dirty, messy, dangerous thing: false teachers, wars & rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, natural disasters, famines, and so on.
Ever since Jesus uttered these words, we human beings have looked around our world and said, “Gee, Jesus is talking about right now.” We thought it when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. We thought it as Christians were being martyred in 200 AD. We thought it as Christians gained political power in the Byzantine period. We thought it during the Crusades. We thought it during the Reformation. We thought it during the World Wars and Vietnam. We’ve thought it at the close of nearly every century and every millennium.
Our world has been pregnant with the Kingdom of God for some time. It is still both “now” and “not yet.”
And so we look at uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. We look at conflict between Israel and its neighbors. We look at natural disasters like the drought we have suffered through and Hurricane Sandy, which has devastated the northeast. We see false teachers spreading hate or the lies of the health-and-wealth gospel on TV.
And we, like previous generations, conclude that the end is near.
Birth is frightening like that. It makes it hard to see beyond the end of pregnancy.
But birth is not an ending. It is a beginning. The beginning of new life. The world forever changed. Transformation. New levels of wholeness.
Sounds a bit like the Kingdom of God.
This Thanksgiving will inevitably be difficult for some. We have lost those that we love. The farmers among our families and friends have had a terribly hard year. We have witnessed horrific natural disasters. Our nation has suffered through what may have been the most divisive presidential election in years. For some of us, our lives will never be the same.
Focusing on the endings this year will make gratitude hard to come by. But I am grateful for the children in our midst, who remind me of what happens after the harshness of the birth pains. Who show me that, somehow, beauty comes into being. That reality of pain is not negated or denied by the life that comes into being, but somehow—mysteriously—our amazing God can in fact transform our tears and sorrow into shouts of joy, as the author of Psalm 126 describes (vv.5-6).
I find no greater joy in the world than the joy I discover in my children. They have taught me more about the love, faithfulness, and compassion of God than have three years of seminary and nearly thirty years of living without children.
I see [the baby we dedicated] this morning and I see the hope of the world. I see the Kingdom of God, breaking into our lives. I see purity and love and power. I see not the end, but the beginning.
For that, I am grateful. For God, I am grateful. For the tomorrow that comes when today is too much, I am grateful. And for Jesus’ reminder that, when it feels like the entire world is crumbling to pieces, it is but the beginning. For with birth comes new life.
Happy Birthday! New life begins with God.