Timing is everything, of course, and that’s the question Jesus’ closest disciples have near the end. When will it be that the Temple will be “thrown down?” They were awe-struck with the temple’s magnificence, which was said to glimmer with its gold inlay, and its stones blinded, because of their rare snow-white color, as the sun struck it from above, the highest structure, on the highest hill, in Zion.
The disciples in Mark’s church were being recruited, as were all the Jews in the late 60’s, by the patriots who had beat back the mighty Roman army, all the way to the Mediterranean coast, to save the mighty and magnificent kingdom, at least the one they had romanticized in their minds, which its temple stood for. Was God raising up the Davidic kingdom once again? Was the Messianic age about to come? Was Jesus, this long awaited Messiah?
“This is the beginning of the birthpangs,” Jesus said about the wars and rumors of wars that filled the days’ headlines. The victory in 69 would be relatively short lived before Rome’s best warriors returned and the large stones were all thrown down in 70 AD.
Jesus had been clear about the temple. It was a place he returned to, not to adore, but to gather with others seeking the presence of God in their lives, to worship, and to teach and debate the meaning of scripture. It was also coming to its end, he knew, the end of an era – and the patriotism that sought to defend it to the death, was not what Jesus was offering in the ministry and message of his life, a life he gave for the world, to turn around, and move it into a new realm and reality – which we, today, know and rejoice in, in this life we have in the Spirit, a life that is empowered to distribute, and eagerly shares, justice and mercy, without violence and the demonizing of others.
Jesus was clear about the temple. He had been called to be a new temple, and like the beautiful stones, destroyed and thrown down, he would be raised up just three days later, to fulfill God’s mission. Jesus would be the Messianic leader reigning in the hearts and minds and strength, of every believer who believed in the Way of nonviolence and beauty and grace. Just as the synagogue would become the new home of the presence of God for Jews in those days, so the church, and its people of God, would become the receptacle of the Holy Spirit which Jesus would send to them, which lives in us now.
Just this weekend, as we see images of war erupting in Gaza and Israel, children crying and reports of children dying, we are reminded of the uselessness of war, the death of innocents, as leaders dig in to their pompous positions of power and privilege. When will we learn? Labor pains are hard enough, but their purpose is to end in new life, instead of the numbness of war’s wounds, harboring tomorrow’s new violence.
Today, compared to my mother’s time, women more often brave the pangs of birth, drug-free. Women partners, female friends and doulas, understand it intuitively, or first hand, and are historically the more traditional and natural supports in the birthing room. Men cannot quite understand pregnancy and birthing, but they can seek to take a part in the wonder, and pledge a measure of support, defining what their role can be, in the face of its death defying danger and beautiful miracle.
No one knows if the “birth-pains” Jesus talked about were the early pangs of warning, as in a kind of false-labor, or the final throes of delivery, just before the coming. And probably he meant to keep it ambiguous, for the one rock-solid constant in this Little Apocalypse monologue in chapter 13, is that the timing of the coming of Christ, cannot be known down to the day and the hour. There will be signs, and, signs and warnings are meant to be helpful reminders of ‘being ready.’ So, keep awake, Jesus says – which is just another way of saying, believe, and live as if God is already here among you, every day, for the rest of your life.
Better than the "end of the world" apocalyptic language of escapism and destruction, which we usually hear of today, says N.T. Wright, is to use the more helpful ancient-contemporary phrase "earth shattering." The stars falling to earth sort of imagery was also used by the great prophets to prophecy about "earth shattering" events -- real, historical events, like the sacking of Jerusalem in 70AD -- that would befall the people of Israel if they didn't turn around from their ways of injustice. This is precisely the meaning of Jesus’ "earth shattering" prophecy in Mark 13, as he spoke privately to his closest disciples about the folly of joining the military rebellion as the way to freedom from enemies. (ideas and quotes in this paragraph from: http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/proper28b.htm)
What Jesus was advocating was taking up their cross and following him, not into battle, but being born into a whole new realm of life.
Curiously, this term, the beginnings of birthpangs has a double meaning! It can mean either, the pain of childbirth, or the pain of death, as in Jesus’ death, for the life of the world.
I hesitate to say this, for it is more than just metaphorical, but we could say, couldn’t we, that Jesus’ death was birthing-in the new realm of God – I hesitate, because it is gender backwards, a queering of a straight sensibility of our sexuality! But more than that it was a birthing, not outside history, but precisely by entering into the history of his people, the world that Jesus was called to save. By the birthpangs of his death, he ushers in new life. The Innocent-Victim offered up, now lives, and the world has been redeemed and made new – Jew and Gentile alike, male and female, oppressed and oppressor set free!
The life of Jesus, and our lives, are wrapped up together, as in bands of new born clothes. And the birth of new life, of course, is sometimes messy, sometimes painful, but through that birth canal is the only way forward, a baptism of new life that God calls us to.
Here at Unity for example, the gestation period of preparing for our Space Sharing initiative is revealing. The waiting for it, was sometimes messy, sometimes painful! But new life, has emerged! And amidst all the hard work of nurturing this new life, there is also a smile of joy for the blessing we receive. Some people liked to tell me during that pregnant period of waiting, that, in the words of, Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come.” But that is a statement to be taken on faith, and, well… you never know, being a parent for the first time is unpredictable! But now that the child has arrived, many children in fact, every room we have is getting more and more use from members of the community we serve, and, our family is growing fast! What seemed like a long wait, suddenly has come quickly upon us, and has been placed in our arms to hold!
There is still much more to do, more years of parenting are required of us, both for the partners we are developing, and for the faith-gathering we are building here. And the last thing we want to do, of course, is to medicate the pain of this birthing process. No, we want to be ready, to stay awake, and so we learn to pick partners who fit the Assets of our congregation, for the mutual support we can give one another, and the building up of the body of Christ, in the world.
For, the pains of death, we know as Christians, can be the same as the pains of childbirth, only because they bring new life, to a faithful people, who trust in their God: the giver of life, and Prince of Peace.