There are very few cultural similarities between America in 2009 and the streets of first century Palestine. I mean, of course there are some universals that still exist; the desire to be accepted, the need to be safe, Maslow's hierarchy stuff, but in reality there are very few things that we think of on a day to day basis that concerned the minds of Jesus' disciples. This is what makes the job of the preacher so difficult; turning ancient references and idioms into something that makes sense for our lives today. I think that's why the prayer for today was originally written. Unless we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the holy scriptures, they aren't going to do much teaching. We must spend time with them, listening to their still living voice to speak truth into our lives.
This Sunday, however, is different. This Sunday we deal with something that has been at best a fascination and at worst an obsession for humanity since probably the first dinner Adam and Eve had outside of the Garden of Eden. What about the end? What happens when this long strange trip is over. Where will I go when I die? What will become of the world at the end of its useful life? Be it the 2012 doomsday clock or the Left Behind series of books and movies or some of those crazy apocalypse cults that spring up from time to time, it seems as though we are constantly reminded that there will be an end, and most of us have given at least some thought to what it might look like.
And knowing that everyone ponders the end at one time or another, there have been frauds, hoaxes, liars, and money makers waiting in the wings to take advantage of susceptible minds worried about the end. They read the newspapers and listen to the news and read the prophets and seers of old and will tell you down to the minute when it'll all come to naught, and suggest that you buy their book or their prayer cloth or their DVD series to better understand how, why, and, most importantly, when it'll all happen.
We find ourselves this morning in the waning hours of the Tuesday in Holy Week. Jesus has had a series of run ins with the religious authorities that ended with the sad story of the widow giving her whole life to the treasury. As they left the Temple that evening, the Disciples have to be feeling the weight of it all. They have been pretty hard headed up until now, but surely after the day they just had they know that Jesus is in a heap of trouble. Almost as if to change the subject one of them looks up and says, “Hey Jesus, look at how big these rocks are that make up these huge buildings. That's some amazing engineering work. Can you imagine the effort that went into making this Temple?”
Jesus, however, is not up for idle chit-chat. He too feels the pressure building. There isn't much time, and so he has to teach his followers everything he can before it is too late. “Yep, they are certainly big,” Jesus responds, “but someday there won't be stone left on top of another. It'll all come down some day.”
You can hear the air go out of the collective group. “Geez Jesus, what's with the buzz kill. This is hard enough as it is, we don't need you spouting doomsday nonsense.” But after some time, as they sit on the Mount of Olives and look over the city of Jerusalem, four of his disciples are ready to hear more. They had thought about the end. They thought were going to war with the Romans, surely they had given thought to the destruction and death that would come with it. But the Temple being thrown down, that sounded more serious than even they had imagined. And so, they, like us, are curious to know more. “When will it happen? How will we know its starting?”
Jesus' answer is simple, yet so often misunderstood. “Watch Out!” he says. The call to beware, to watch out, isn't to be on the lookout for signs of the end, but rather to protect ourselves from those who claim the end is near. Those who claim to speak for God, the great I AM, and say, it is finished. They'll see wars and hear rumors of wars; they'll read about earthquakes and famines, and they'll say that they are signs of things to come. But wars and earthquakes and famine are as old as our wondering about the end. These things happen. They happen a lot. Watch out for those who, for a price, will tell you the end is coming soon, and instead focus on what happens next. Life is full of ends. It is the beginnings that matter.
“These things,” Jesus says, “are just the birth pangs. They are the necessary pain that happens when something new is being born. They are not to be feared, but they must be endured in order for new life to be born. In referencing birth pangs, Jesus is calling on a fairly worn image of the end of time. Most ancient religions used it because it was a well known image. “Jesus' disciples would have known more about birthpangs than even many modern women. In the ordinary world of the ancient Middle East, and many other places even today where epidurals and C-Sections aren't commonplace, birthpangs were known and understood because they happened in their full glory in the one room your house had. Mom or Aunt or Cousin or Sister had given birth without the glories of modern medicine.” (NT Wright, 177) So when Jesus says, “birthpangs” everyone gets the reference.
But birthpangs end. And with their end comes new life.
Our passage from Mark ends in the labor and delivery room, but we all know the story continues. With new life comes all sorts of new lessons. As Cassie and I have heard many a time, “your life will never be the same after a baby.”
The same is true of life after the end. It won't be the same. But I think we get a glimpse of what that life looks like in the Letter to the Hebrews. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus paved a new way of living. He is our example of new life. Life that is lived “with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” A life that finds “our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” A life of baptism in which we die to ourselves and live only for Christ. A life where our sin is continuously washed clean so that we may enter over and over again into new life in Christ Jesus.
Practically speaking that life is one in which we are constantly provoking one another to love and good deeds. It is a life in which we gather together continuously for fellowship, prayer, and most importantly encouragement. It is a life where the faithful gather, over and over again, not in disappointment or worry over the Second Coming, but in joyful expectation and hope for a totally new life; one where these things are possible all the time, one where the power of sin and death have been overcome for ever.
It is so easy to get bogged down by doomsday prophecies and countdown clocks. Maybe you'd rather just sit and wait and worry about how and when the end will come. But Jesus is clear that this is not how we are called to live our lives. We are called not to a life of fear and worry but to lives of faithful service and encouragement. As followers of the new way paved by Jesus we should be on the lookout for false prophets and protective of those susceptible to their money grubbing ways. But most importantly, we are called to listen to the living Word of God and to do his will each and every day.
The bumper sticker in the Parish Hall that says, “Jesus is coming. Look Busy” used to make me angry, but now I get it. Don't sit pining away about the end, but rather keep up the work of the Gospel. Keep up the practice of encouragement because the end of the birthpangs and the beginning of new life is coming, one way or another, sooner or later.
There aren't many worries that stretch all of human history, but The End is certainly one of them. Jesus calls us not to worry but to good works. May the Scriptures be alive to you today as they call us all to follow the new path paved by Jesus that leads to eternally new life. Amen.