The Beginning of the Birthpangs

Sermon Given Nov. 14, 2021
Readings used:
Daniel 12:1-3
Mark 13:1-8

Remember mid-March 2020? I know for me it seems like both yesterday and a lifetime ago. As I felt the emotions of our gospel reading today, I found myself transported back to those days, feeling scared, alone, and trapped. I didn’t feel safe and I couldn’t go to the places that gave me comfort and stability. It wasn’t just worshiping together that I missed, I missed wandering the aisles of Target, which had become a place I went to for a feeling of normalcy, a kind of grounding place where I was surrounded by people but didn’t have to talk to anyone, my favorite kind of space to regroup and re-energize. I didn’t realize they would be gone from my life for so long. I had to learn how to get by even though my grounding places had lost their safety, becoming places of risk I wasn’t willing to enter. We all have these tales from the past year and a half, the fear, the struggle, the overwhelming recognition of how little we actually control. Our readings today invite us into those places where all our power, all our agency, seems to have vanished. 

Daniel isn’t discussed too often in church. You may have learned about him being thrown into the lion’s den for refusing to bow down to a false god or Shadrach, Meschach and Abendigo being thrown into a furnace for the same refusal. Daniel is all about how to maintain a sense not only of self, but of ethnic and religious identity in exile. The book contains a series of visions, visions which declare that in the end, those who control and exert power over Israel will fall and those who remain true to Israel and God will triumph. It is an apocalypse, a vision of the end goal, the end of this time, when the good will triumph and the bad will be judged. It pulls the reader out of their current reality, as a seemingly agent-less Israelite who who lost all sense of control over their own life as they were carried into captivity in Babylon, and gives them a place to feel agency, to feel a sense of power, to imagine the overturn of the wrongs done them. Daniel uses images of angels, like Michael, to transport the people into a vision of the end time. They, the good people who remained true to their identity even in the face of death and persecution will have eternal life. Those who captured them and tried to force them to worship false gods, will be in eternal contempt and disgrace. Daniel’s message is: Hold on, because it’s not the end yet. 

This thirteenth chapter of Mark that we have a small portion of today, is called Mark’s little apocalypse. Once again, the audience is those who have no sense of power, no sense of agency. It’s not those who have everything going for them, but those who continually butt against walls and feel hopeless in their endeavors. 

The chapter begins with Jesus leaving the temple for the last time. He will never enter that space again. He is just about to eat his final passover meal, be betrayed, and arrested. 

If you remember, Jesus isn’t a big fan of the temple authorities. He doesn’t like how they run the place or what the temple has turned into. He’s deeply critical of them. His disciple, knowing all this, looks up as they leave the temple, calling out, “Look what large stones and buildings!” In other words, look how big and prevalent this place is. How could they ever imagine the temple as powerless, its glory gone?  How could they imagine a world without this great establishment? But Jesus tells them, “It’s all going to come down.” Their temple, the center of their ethnic and religious identity, will vanish, it will all be torn down. Things will erupt into chaos and it will be hard to know what to do or who to follow. They won’t even have Jesus physically with them to help them through. 

Jesus sits with them on the Mount of Olives, staring across the valley at the temple, and he tells them about the times of anxiety, of fear, of loss of control and loss of life that they will experience. It’s going to be horrific, and at least 3 if not all 4 of the people he is talking to will end up being murdered for their beliefs. But even in the midst of the loss of all control, all agency, all power, there is a reason to hold on. This is not the end, these are the birth pangs. 

There is so much they couldn’t control and we can’t control. Things like wars, earthquakes, famines, and pandemics sweep over most of us and if they don’t actively kill us, they take over our lives and consume us in powerful ways. They feel like the end of the world. For some, they are the end of their worlds. What could possibly be birthed out of these horrific things? 

I don’t want to belittle suffering or pain, I don’t want to justify another’s’ death as part of God’s greater plan, whitewashing the pain and horror away. God doesn’t need extra angels in heaven. Much of this suffering is not God’s will.  But I do hold onto the hope, the vision, that there is something better ahead. Because I don’t know about you, but I need that. In the midst of the despair, in the midst of the suffering, I hold the vision in my mind’s eye of the New Jerusalem, that heavenly city, where sorrow and suffering and pain are no more, neither sighing nor weeping. I need to believe that is actually possible, that this place can exist on earth as it does in heaven. I need that with all my heart. 

Believing that, I can pick myself up and begin working towards that reality. Even if I don’t get there, I want the children to envision it, to believe it, to help bring us slowly closer to it. Even if someone stops believing in God, I don’t want them to stop believing that a better world is possible. I don’t want us to give in when wars and rumors of wars cause our worlds to come crashing down around us, when pandemics show how little control we actually have over our own lives. Because there is something greater than this. There is something more. 

My friend, Lizzie, reminded me that we are called to help care for each other, just as the doula cares for a person in labor. There is really nothing medically the doula can do, they have very little ability to help the physical process of birth. What they do is companion. They are there with the other in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the questioning and uncertainty. They come alongside and help the other live into a new reality. They are not just there for live births either, but come alongside at stillbirth, at miscarriage, and at death. They companion through the deepest pains of the heart as well as the deepest joys.

Their role is somewhat similar to the role of the hospital chaplain. The chaplain has no medical training. They cannot help what is physically going on with the patient. What they can do is listen and support. They become a companion if the person wants one. I remember the discomfort of being a chaplain, feeling that I wasn’t really doing anything because I had no training that could help physically fix a situation. I wasn’t medically necessary. Sometimes I wasn’t even particularly great at pastoral care, I felt at a complete loss. But I was there. Sometimes just being there is the only thing we can do. We can just be there and support, even when the situation we’re in is so much bigger than ourselves and beyond what we think we can handle. Even when we have no control, we have presence. We have the ability to come alongside.

Even in the midst of it all, in the moments of deepest pain, of confusion, of loss, of anxiety, we can set the image before us, the New Jerusalem. We can work towards that vision, slowly but surely, step by step, working towards it. It is never assured, we have no idea when it will become a reality, or even if it will become one at all. But we can trust. That New Jerusalsm is what my heart longs for, it is what I see the hearts around me longing for, a place of true peace and justice. A place of no pain or suffering. I see it when I grab some extra cake mix at the store, when I take the time to really talk with someone, when I pay an electric bill for a stranger. It’s not here yet, but every once in a while, I pray that it breaks through and another can see it, even just for a second. If we can create tiny pockets of that reality here, if we can help others see that heavenly vision, if we can share companionship and help others not feel alone in the now, then maybe we can work through the pain and the suffering together. Maybe there is a future. Maybe what is born of it all will not be stillborn, but will bring the joys of life. 

Jesus reminds us today that what is so powerful today will eventually crumble. Nothing on earth lasts forever. But even in the midst of the loss and confusion, there is a vision we can hold ahead of us, something we can work towards. We are not lost in the sea of confusion. We can work towards something better, the realization of God’s reign on earth. We may not see it in our lifetimes, but we can work towards it with all our hearts. Amen.