Thanks to Pastor Tari Stage-Harvey for inviting me to preach at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church today. And thank you to the wonderful people of Shepherd of the Valley for welcoming me to your worship and graciously laughing at my "pope joke." It was a blessing to be with you.
"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 said 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 rumors 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.'"
(Mark 13:1-8 )
This is a hard gospel. It’s not comforting. At least not at first glance. When Pastor Tari first asked me to preach, I didn’t know this was the gospel. You see, on most Sundays the lectionary of the Lutherans and the lectionary of the Catholics line, up . . . but not today. Looking for inspiration on what to preach on, I turned to the source every Catholic preacher looks to when asked to preach to Lutherans . . . the Pope. And I found a quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI saying this is one of the hardest gospels to preach on . . . ever. Lucky me.
This moment in the gospel takes place only a few days before Jesus will be arrested and eventually crucified. He’s arrived in Jerusalem with his disciples for the feast of the Passover. He spends the first three days of the week visiting the Temple, cleansing it, and preaching in it. The nights he spends with his disciples on the Mount of Olives. And so today, their third day in Jerusalem, as Jesus and his the disciples are leaving the Temple, one of them says to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Jesus responds with a chilling prophecy, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
This exchange frightens the disciples, and so later on, Peter, James, John and Andrew come to Jesus privately to ask him “when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are to be accomplished?” What follows is a long discourse, the very beginning of which we hear in today’s gospel. In this discourse Jesus speaks of wars, earthquakes, and famines, he speaks of persecution for his followers, and of a great tribulation to terrible to even imagine, and finally he ends with the image of the coming of the Son of Man.
It’s not until 28 verses after the four disciples asked their initial question, “when will this happen?” Jesus finally answers. Near the end of the 13th chapter of Mark, he says, “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” It seems a little anti-climatic after everything Jesus has revealed, to come to the end and have the answer be, “No one knows.”
But perhaps this is because the disciples are asking the wrong question to begin with. They want to be prepared for the moment when “not one stone will be left upon another and all will be thrown down.” They want practical answers: “Tell us, when will this be and what will be the sign that these things are about to be accomplished?” It’s almost like they want Jesus to say—in ten years, on Friday, December 17th at 7am this will occur--clear out of Jerusalem before then. But the disciples [like us, when we strive for literal meanings and definite answers—when we try to box in the Word of God to palatable bite size portions] we miss the point entirely. The point is not when or where, but how and who . . .
And this is the crux of the gospel—of the Good News: as Christians we hold on to the sure hope that history is going somewhere. We are not going round and round in a chaotic, meaningless cycle. We are going towards the time when God will be all in all as St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians. We are going towards the time of the fullness of the Kingdom of God.
No one image, no one word or metaphor is enough to contain this Kingdom, which is for us and among us and yet also ultimately beyond us.
Jesus tells us the kingdom is like a mustard seed—the tiniest seed that grows to be a magnificent shrub that can house all the birds of the air. The Kingdom of God is like a precious pearl which a merchant—with joy and gladness—gives all he owns to possess. The Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast to which all are invited.
When Jesus walked in the Land of Israel he not only spoke the Kingdom, he also acted the kingdom. And wherever he was the Kingdom broke out—the lame walked, the blind were given back their sight, the lepers were healed, the hungry were fed.
We trust and believe in this radical, beautiful, incomprehensible promise of God being all in all; of the fullness of the Kingdom of God. But we don’t know exactly how and we don’t know exactly when this will come about.
I find it interesting and fitting that Jesus uses the imagery of “birth pangs” at the end of this Gospel. I have gone through “birth pangs” personally two times and accompanied women and their partners through birth as a doula several more. There is nothing like laboring to bring a child into the world: the expectancy, the hope, the excitement, the joy, and also the pain, and the grit and determination required. Birth is not easy, but bringing something to birth is powerful, beautiful and hopeful. And this is the image Jesus gives us for the establishment of the Kingdom of God—it is a birthing.
The question the disciples, ask, “When will this occur?” Is the wrong question. There is no when, because the time to birth the kingdom is now. We might ask, “What is it that God is bringing to birth in us, in our communities, in our world? Where is the Kingdom striving to be born and how may we help and encourage that birth?
In the birthing process there is a moment called “transition.” It’s often the most difficult time for a laboring mother—the time when you’re most likely to grab your husband, the nurse, the doctor, or all three at once and say, “I’m done! Make this stop!” This is the moment of truth, when the powers of birth are so strong that the woman must give into them, let go of control and let whatever happens, happen. This moment of truth is one of trust and surrender at the same time.
I think Jesus, on the cross has his own moment of “transition.” When he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” This is the very beginning of Psalm 22. And in reading through Psalm 22 we find the image of God the midwife. The psalmist proclaims: "it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother's breast" (Psalm 22:9). After reciting the beginning of this psalm, Jesus breathes his last and surrenders to death—a death that will bring about the ultimate new life. This is the pattern of life we as Christians mold ourselves to—dying and rising; labor pains and birth. It is not always easy. It is not always comforting. But it is good.
Around us and within us we can see the birth pangs of the Kingdom. Let us pray to God with hope, trust and surrender, “Great Midwife, bring the Kingdom to birth in me. Let your Kingdom come.”