The Apocalyptic Process of Birth – Br. Jim Woodrum
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Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
I suspect like most good Episcopalians, apocalyptic literature and signs of the end of the world make me a little anxious. To be honest, the other morning when I began exploring the texts for today’s sermon, I just wanted to crawl back into bed. Ever since I was a kid growing up in the Baptist church, I have always been fearful of what “The Rapture” would be like and if I would be one of the unlucky ones to be left behind on the earth as it met its doom.[i] Rather, I prefer a good uplifting message. As a good Anglo-Catholic, I love the passages in Revelation chapter five about the glorious worship in heaven by the elders and angels that number myriads and myriads singing: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing! Amen!’[ii] But all the stuff about wars, beasts, whores, plagues, famine, death, dragons, and creatures that I imagine resemble the Nazgul from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, you can keep that. For me it is what nightmares are made of. So what are we to make of our lections this morning?
In our gospel lesson from Mark, in a section from the thirteenth chapter known as “the little apocalypse,” we observe a disciple of Jesus marveling at the magnificence of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Considering the architectural feats that surround us in our modern age, this disciples’ astonishment might be lost on us. But it is important to note that the second Temple, completed by Herod the Great, was constructed on a scale comparable with the great Pyramids of Egypt. Part of Herod’s legacy was the massive building projects he undertook during his reign: the port at Caesarea Maritima, the fortress at Masada, the Herodium, and the second Temple.[iii] How the large stones that made up the supporting walls of the Temple were placed atop each other without the help of machinery we would use today, is an architectural wonder! “Look teacher,”the disciple says, “what large stones and what large buildings!” When Jesus responds: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down,” his disciples are stupefied. How could that be possible? Certainly, nothing could bring down this monstrosity. Perhaps we can relate to this when we remember that fateful September day in 2001, when we witnessed the twin towers of the World Trade Center topple to the ground. Who could have predicted that, and who would have ever believed that prediction?
It seems that this response of Jesus really made an impression because the gospel writer goes on to say that sitting with Jesus on the Mount of Olives, when Peter, James, John, and Andrew have his ear, they ask him privately to elaborate on this prediction. Mainly they want to know when this will happen. Will they witness this cataclysmic event? Interestingly, Jesus does not answer their question directly. He sidesteps around the question of when and admonishes them against listening to those who would claim to speak in his name and say, “I am he.” This is not surprising in that we know that Jesus, a poor, itinerant rabbi, did not fit the image of a messiah king, who would lead a revolt to overthrow Rome. Certainly there were others who might more aptly fit that description and even sound more convincing.
Yet, Jesus’ mission was not for the restoration of Israel as an empire, but rather for the restoration of the Kingdom of God, which is to say, the relationship between God and his beloved creation, a process that would begin with Jesus’ death and resurrection, and a reality that would be lost on his disciples until after his ascension. Jesus did not want them to be distracted by details of disaster nor by the words of those who would promote the restoration of empire. Jesus continues, “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 birthpangs.”
It is interesting that among so much calamity, Jesus alludes to the process of giving birth rather than that of the process of dying. Most of you here this morning who are mothers can testify to the experience of giving birth. Giving birth does not just happen. It is a process. The water breaks, the contractions begin, the body dilates in order to accommodate the birth, and then a struggle ensues. The process of giving birth is real hard work not to mention risky. There are occasions when the lives of baby and mother are in jeopardy. Sometimes alternative surgical means have to be employed in order to ensure that life is preserved, which sometimes is tragically unsuccessful. I imagine that the seriousness of this process was not lost on those in first century Palestine, who did not have the advantage of 21stcentury medicine. Yet, even as fraught with risk as giving birth was, it was no less joyful bringing a child into the world.
While Jesus would never be a mother, he certainly was aware of the pain and suffering that he would have to undertake in the process of restoring the Kingdom of God on earth; again, the restoration of relationship of God and his beloved creation. Jesus was the doorway into this process. When he says: “this is but the beginning of the birthpangs,” he is telling his disciples, and perhaps himself, not to get caught up with fear about the things that scare us, but rather to focus on the accomplishment of the process: new life! I imagine Jesus was speaking from his own experience about what this process would mean for him, not to mention all of us.
And so, what is this process for us? While we may never face the reality of martyrdom in our faith journeys, most of us will endeavor to engage in what the church fathers called sanctification. Simply put, once Jesus comes into our lives and we profess to be disciples, then we adhere to the task of working out our salvation, that is, practicing the tenets of our faith in order to become more fully who God has created us to be. According to the writer of Hebrews, what does this process of sanctification look like? In her commentary on this passage, theologian Jane Fahey writes:
- “First, it is a life lived in a posture of confidence before God. In short, as baptized and forgiven people, believers need not be crippled by guilt of fear, but can live before God with confidence
- Second, it is life lived in hope. Christian hope is practiced against our outward circumstances. We are able to “hold fast” because the one ”who has promised is faithful.”
- Third, it is a life lived in community. This may go against our context of North American individualism. The community gathers, in part, for the purpose of incitement (or to “provoke one another”). We are to stir up—if necessary, irritate—each other into fulfilling our baptism.
- Fourth, it is a life lived in Christian solidarity and stability. The writer of Hebrews warns against complacency, against allowing the gospel or reconciliation to become a matter of cheap grace. Sanctification is a vocational call as well as a gift.
- And last, it is a life lived with urgency. Invoking scriptural images of the coming Day of the Lord as one of both judgment and redemption, the writer offers both warning and encouragement. Therefore, believers should support each other in ‘love and good deeds.’”[iv]
In summary, we need to not be distracted by the death throes of the secular world or even the destruction of our temples of ego that we have constructed for self-admiration, but rather be engaged in the process of birthing new life set forth by Jesus with: confidence, hope, provocation, sanctification, and a sense of urgency. John Henry Newman wrote: “Not [that works] could purchase Heaven for us, but because they are the means, under God’s grace, of strengthening and showing forth that holy principal which God implants in the heart, and without which we cannot see Him.”[v]
This is the process by which Jesus is bringing about the Kingdom of God, the restoration of relationship between God and you, his creation. This is the ‘new life’ that Jesus is calling us to. Do not be distracted but “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
[i]The rapture is an eschatological term used by certain Christians, particularly within branches of North American evangelicalism, referring to an end time event when all Christian believers – living and dead – will rise into Heaven and join Christ.
[iii]“Herod the Great.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Nov. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_the_Great.
[iv]Bartlett, David Lyon, editor. Feasting on the Word. First ed., vol. 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
[v]Newman, John Henry. Parochial Sermons. Vol. 1, D. Appleton and Co., 1842.
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Thanks for your honest reaction to these apocalyptic passages. I can relate to fearing dire events, the end of the world. In a way, these warnings seem more relevant today that they might have 75 years ago. In the face of such events, it is all too easy for me to hunker down with the comforts of home. But Jesus and the Epistle to the Hebrews won’t let me get away with it. Jesus won’t let me focus on externals, i.e. the grandeur of the temple.You suggest that the temple that really needs to come down is the one we’ve built to our own egos. For me, that would be a good place to start. What false sense of pride has kept me from participating in the new age that is being born? May God grant me the grace to examine my heart; so that I can discern what service the Lord Jesus is calling me to.
So grateful to see the new day approaching. One day at a time.
Echoing Darrell Johnson’s comment back on October 5th, 2019 – what a great homily. Thank you for the reminder of the importance of community life and ‘provoking’ one another to live into our baptism. As opposed to simply provoking one another! Elizabeth Hardy+
Now Br. Jim, honestly, aren’t you glad to didn’t just go back to bed and pull the covers over your head?
Darrell: I too am glad that I listened and read Brother Jim’s message today as you did in 2019. Peace and respect to you!