Living with Birthpangs – a sermon

You can listen to today’s sermon here, or read on

I’ll begin this morning by doing something I rarely do, and take advantage of this pulpit to share news that I’m sure some of you are waiting to hear.  As many of you have probably heard by now, my dad had what his doctor called “a big ol” heart attack on Friday morning.  Thanks to quick thinking by my mom and Teri Wittenborn, the great Emergency Room staff at South Baldwin, Dr. Trotter and the Cath Lab at Thomas Hospital, and most especially, thanks be to God, my dad is alive to celebrate his 70th birthday today, and he gets to do it by being sent home this morning with an 80% chance of no permanent muscle damage.  My family and I thank you for your prayers and support over the past few days.  It is a blessing to be part of such a caring community of faith.

I’ve worked for the last 48 hours trying to figure out a segue from that news to my sermon for this morning, and I’m pretty sure that a smooth transition is impossible.  So instead, I’m telling you how a smooth segue is impossible as a segue into the sermon itself.
Karl Barth, arguably the most important theologian of the 20th century, is famous for having said that preachers and theologians should work with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  This week, that advice is awfully tempting.  We read first the words of Jesus to his disciples about “wars and rumors of wars,” “nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom,” “earthquakes,” and “famines,” and we can’t help but start looking around our own time and place.  A quick glance of recent news articles tells the story of the Holy Land at war again as Israel and Hamas lob missiles at each other.  Superstorm Sandy’s path of late season hurricane destruction has brought climate change back into the headlines.  The Nuba people continue to be threatened with starvation as their own government attempts to systematically eliminate their race.  The Mayan calendar is soon to come to an end.  Hostess, the maker of Twinkies, announced it is closing shop less than two weeks after two states made recreational use of marijuana legal.  A small earthquake shook Dauphin Island last week. Auburn fans are looking at 3-8 and 0-7 in the SEC, last week, Alabama got picked apart by a freshman quarterback from Texas A&M, of all places, and yesterday was a day unlike any other in college football.  Many days, we look at the newspaper and quickly realize that the world just doesn’t make any sense.  And when the world doesn’t make sense, we turn back to scripture in search of something to give us strength and help us cope.
Where, oh where, do we find hope in this lesson from Mark’s thirteenth chapter?  How do we find solace in the opening verses of Mark’s Little Apocalypse and Jesus promise that even the Temple of God, the center of life, culture and worship for 1st century Judaism, will soon be destroyed?  For me, the hope comes not in the tales of woe: the promises of war, earthquake and famine; but instead in the promise that these things are just the beginning of the birthpangs.  Having not experienced them, myself, I can’t speak with certainty, but I’ve seen enough to know that birthpangs can be downright torturous. My two amazing daughters, however, attest to the fact that, when all is said and done, the pluses way outweigh the minuses.

Jesus tries to encourage his disciples to persevere even in the midst of great hardship, by engaging in his longest discourse in Mark’s gospel. The portion of the story about the Temple that we heard this morning is, like all apocalyptic literature, a story where reality and metaphor mix seamlessly. It is about the Temple, except that it isn’t about the Temple, except that it is.  After a long day of teaching in the Temple and arguing with the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus and his disciples prepare to retire for the evening in Bethany, up the Mount of Olives.  On the way out of town, after what must have been an exhilarating and exhausting day, the disciples look back at where they’ve been and say to Jesus, “Wow!  Look at that magnificent structure.  How’d they move those huge stone?  How’d they build such an awe-inspiring building?  How amazing!”

Despite all of the excitement, Jesus seems to be less than enthused, as he curtly responds, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  Mark seems to indicate that the rest of the walk to the Mount of Olives was in silence, but knowing people, I’m guessing that there was some murmuring amongst the disciples, “Ummmm… OK, Jesus… well… yeah…  Geez…”

Like I said, this conversation isn’t really about the Temple, except that it is.  As Mark put ink to parchment, somewhere between 60 and 80 AD, tensions between Rome and Israel were bubbling over. Whether or not the Temple had been destroyed yet, we can’t be sure, but certainly a full out war with Rome was not a foreign idea to Mark. The way Rome would prove its power over a puny kingdom like Israel, would be to destroy the Temple, Israel’s largest building and the center of religious and political life for the Jews.  It finally came to pass, in the year 70, that the Temple was utterly destroyed by Rome.  Whether or not the Temple has already been demolished when Mark writes his gospel, we can be sure that this story from Jesus’ life is a little bit about literal stones.  Yet, for Jesus, it is also about so much more.  After a day spent arguing the minute with the religious authorities, Jesus is certain that the system will also have to fall. The close tie between the Temple and Rome, the way politics and religion had become so tied together, the fact that rules had trumped God’s love, these things had to fall down.  The system had to fall in order to make way for something new.  The pain of today has to happen so that the promises of tomorrow can be born.

Here is where the rubber meets the road in this lesson.  What systems in our lives need to be torn down?  Where have rules trumped God’s love?  Where has our devotion to God been co-opted by religious authorities and political wrangling?  Which systems does God continue to tear apart in order to rebuild his kingdom in and with and through us?  To put it more bluntly, what has to die in order for God to bring forth new life?  Is it our religious system? Our government structure? Our economy? Our fundamental understanding about the way the world works?

We can be sure that God will tear down the temples in our lives at some point. The challenge becomes, how do we live while God is bringing forth something new with, in and through us? I believe that God is constantly tearing down our Temples.  God’s activity of apocalypse, literally uncovering, God’s activity of re-birthing his kingdom means that he is constantly tearing down the systems we put in place, constantly inviting us to dream and vision about that new creation with him.  That’s why I found Monday night so exciting.  Our “I dream of a church…” exercise at the annual meeting was a chance for us to imagine what God is asking us to tear down, all the while knowing that God hopes that we will walk alongside him to bring forth the new life of his kingdom with us, in us, and through us. The preliminary list of dreams is in the bulletin this morning.  I hope you’ll take it home: read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, add your dream to the list, and then begin to ask yourself, what one thing can I do to help God bring forth his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

It is tempting, in these apocalyptic times, to read Mark 13 one minute, the newspaper the next, and think that it is all coming to a final ending, but my friends, please don’t forget that God doesn’t promise an end, but instead dreams of bringing forth new life, in us, with us, and through us.  If indeed, these are the beginning of the birthpangs, the end result, I promise, will be so very much worth it.  Amen.

3 thoughts on “Living with Birthpangs – a sermon

  1. Steve, I am so glad to hear your Dad is doing well! I’d also like to thank you for sharing your thoughts for today’s passage… I had been struggling with it and thru it and your thoughts helped me to focus.

    I look forward to reading your blog each week and thank you for your spirit!

    Grace and Peace!

    Michael Moore

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Pingback: SR: Hannah and the courage of asking for what we want « Comprehension for the Sake of Truth

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