How many times over the years have I come before you on a Sunday after some horrific news story has left us raw emotionally and in despair about our nation, the world, or the very core of our common humanity: Tony Robinson, Ferguson, Newtown, the Boston Marathon bombing, or now Paris. We watch these events unfold on our television screens or our social media feeds and are rendered speechless, wondering what we can do in response to the evil we see, wonder what all this means for our lives and our world.
Even as we wonder how to respond, we know how powerful the temptation to lash out in fear, hatred, and retributive violence. No sooner had the reports begun on Friday than the hate and filth began to spew forth on my twitter feed. But at the same time, I was shocked by how hollow the platitudes of universal human rights, desire for peace, and proclamations that Islam is a religion of peace seemed in the face of senseless carnage. And even the memes and images of Pray for Paris seemed empty and meaningless. Perhaps its only because we witnessed less than a year ago the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the widespread calls for solidarity in the face of terrorist attacks on civil society. Somehow, at least to me, the whole ritual of anger, protestation of universal human rights, and the concomitant shrill debates over freedom and security, clash of civilizations, and the conflict over defining Islam, all of it seems less meaningful, an empty charade in the face of horrific violence, unimaginable suffering, and apparently insoluble problems. In addition, as several commentators have pointed out, our eyes have been fixed on Paris for the last day, horrified by the death of 129 people while a day before in Beirut, similar attacks killed many people with hardly a notice here in America. Our outrage and horror is selective.
We may want to turn off our TVs, ignore it all and go about our daily business. We may also lash out in anger and hate; we may be overwhelmed with grief and pain. We may also want to do something. Sometimes, what we need to do, all we can do is pray—to pray for the victims and those who minister to them, to pray for peace and reconciliation, to pray for the world. But we should also take time to give voice to our pain and fear, to cry out to God in anguish, to use biblical language, to lament. Doing that directs our attention to God, reminds us that many of the world’s events are outside of our control, and helps us avoid making mistakes that contribute to the pain and suffering of others. Lament also allows us to share our pain honestly with God and with others and to begin to recognize and confess the ways in which we may be complicit in the causes of that pain and suffering, and ultimately begin to work together to address those underlying causes.
We’re entering a new era in human history, perhaps we’ve been in it for some time, as terrorism has become a fearful reality world-wide, and the violent wars in the Middle East continue with no end in sight, devastating whole societies and the lives of individuals and families. With global warming continuing unabated, and thinkers increasingly linking wars in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to climate change, the future looks bleak indeed.
Today’s gospel, though written about two millennia ago, comes from a time and a community that were experiencing some of the same fear and uncertainty that we face as a world. As I’ve said before, it’s likely that Mark was written during the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation, and either shortly before, or after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. We date the gospel to this particular historical moment in part because of the very verses we heard today—the disciples marveling at the size and grandeur of the temple, and Jesus’ prediction of its destruction.
The Jewish Rebellion and the destruction of the temple constituted a cataclysmic change for Judaism. It was also of enormous significance for the tiny community of Jesus’ followers, who were caught in the midst of the conflict. As they looked around at what was happening around them, as they probably fled the violence, they were also reflecting back on Jesus himself, the hopes and faith he had instilled in them. As we have seen throughout this year, Jesus proclaimed the coming of God’s reign. It’s quite likely that many of those in this tiny community forty years later saw in the Jewish revolt and the Roman response, signs of Jesus’ imminent return.
You can almost hear the conversations of that community in Jesus’ words. He warns against false prophets—those who claim to be Jesus, those who claim to know when Jesus will return. All of the catastrophes, the wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and the like. There were people wondering whether these things were signs of Jesus’ return, signs of the end times. Of course, as we imagine first-century Christians wondering about these things, we know all too well that many contemporary Christians, and many in secular society, too, are fascinated with predictions of the end times.
To some degree, such fascination with the end times is natural. We would love to know how things turn out. We want that kind of certainty. But Jesus’ words remind us that certainty about the future is impossible, that the signs and portents we might seek do not point in a certain direction. They are signs of something else. The image Jesus uses is “birthpangs”—in fact, “the beginning of birthpangs. In other words, he is saying that all of these things he describes, wars and rumors of wars, are like the beginning of a mother’s labor pains, a long and painful process, at the end of which may come joy.
For most of us, such language and imagery may seem strange and unappealing. For all the talk in the New Testament about Jesus’ return, most of us likely are uncomfortable with the idea. There are many ways to interpret such imagery and language that attempt to make the idea of Jesus’ Second Coming more palatable to twenty-first century Christians, some of them more useful and consistent with scripture and the Christian tradition than others. We may have opportunity to explore some of them in the coming weeks as our texts for the first several Sundays of Advent are full of talk of end times.
But for now, I want us to reflect on one central theme in this language and imagery, the idea that God is in control of history. For at the heart of all of the biblical discussion of the end times is that certainty, that God will make all things new, restore all things. That may be difficult enough to get our heads around, when the world in which we live seems to be devolving into chaos, with wars, rumors of wars, even earthquakes occurring just in the past few days.
But in the midst of the chaos, in the midst of all of the pain and suffering, the fear and mourning, are also signs of hope, signs that God is at work in the midst of it all, that God is present in the chaos. Our own emotions and experiences may sometimes lead us to overlook signs of God’s presence, but God is there, in the small gestures of help, comfort, and reconciliation that are offered by strangers in the same neighborhood or city, or from places thousands of miles away. In these gestures, we should see signs of the birthpangs of which Jesus speak; and when we participate in such gestures ourselves, we are making God present, we are embodying the love of Jesus to the world around us.