November 15, 2015 “ 25 Pentecost B, Proper 28
Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
I met with someone recently who is trying to sort out things in her life. All of us go through harder times when it’s more difficult to do that sorting out. This person has the advantage of a mature and faithful prayer life so she has a lot to draw on. But things are very hard just now, maybe harder than they ever have been for her. She’s feeling a wide variety of emotions, some of which she understands and some of which are confusing for her. After we spoke for about 45 minutes, she offered this sort of summary of her perspective: Well, that’s where I am. I have no idea where I’ll be in six weeks. But that’s where I am today. Where we are today is not necessarily where we will be tomorrow.
Today we read some of the apocalyptic literature in scripture. We have a reading from the Book of Daniel, written in the setting of the Babylonian Exile where the people of Israel had been taken captive – away from their homeland, away from their temple, away from the structures of their religious practices. And we read from that portion of Mark’s Gospel called the Little Apocalypse where Jesus’s sayings about the end times are collected together. That setting is the Roman persecution which has destroyed the temple in Jerusalem yet again, a climate in which the slightest suspicion of being a follower of Christ may well cost one’s life.
Apocalyptic literature in scripture has to do with the end times. While we tend to approach the end times with a sense of doom and gloom, when scripture addresses the end times, it is always upbeat and encouraging. To those who are faithful, apocalyptic writings in scripture bring hope and encouragement. Basically they say that all the suffering you are going through right now is not permanent. It has an end. As you are faithful, God is even more faithful and God is working to heal all that is amiss in this broken world. The end is near is not meant to be heard as God bringing down his wrath upon me in increased suffering. It is meant to remind me that my suffering will not last. It has a half-life. It is temporary and God’s grace is permanent. Our suffering immediately reveals the hardship of life. But our suffering eventually reveals the eternal healing that God has sent into the world since the beginning of time. That healing has no half-life. It does not decay or wilt. It endures to the very end. Today we are reminded that pain and suffering, no matter how tough it is, does not win the victory.
I’m always a little surprised when I walk into a critical situation as a priest. When we call in a priest, like when someone is dying or there is an unmanageable situation, one reason we do so is that we know priests are more familiar with that kind of setting than most people. I think all priests will acknowledge an odd sort of feeling walking into such a situation and being deemed an expert of sorts. In various ways, the room kind of quietens, eyes turn to us as a priest, and someone says, in effect, Ok, you’ve done this hundreds of times. How is it going to play out?
I think all priests know the feeling of being unnerved at being perceived as an expert and we all struggle with not knowing exactly what to do. But we do have that valuable experience of being in this setting before. We know that, while we personally bring very little to bear, through our frail faithfulness somehow healing and resolution will come about. We also know that it’s going to take a while. So when that question comes, How is this going to play out?, I find myself saying, Well, as hard as it is to believe, it’s going to get worse. And then it’s going to get a whole lot worse. And then somehow, we’re all going to find some sort of healing. But that healing isn’t going to happen right now. It will come. But that’s later on. Today we just hurt.
And then usually someone asks something like, What do we do?, or How do we do it? And I say, I’m not sure. It’s different every time. But it’s the same. And if we keep showing up every day, we’ll get through. In my mind I think that later on we’ll even be able to see how all this was made into something good but that’s not helpful for people to hear too soon so I keep my mouth shut about that part. Hearing that too soon makes it harder to be in the middle of pain and when we’re there that’s where we’re called to be. We don’t need to be trying to get somewhere else.
Only half the population knows what birth pangs literally entail. But all of us know that as a metaphor. It may be the only metaphor that hurts almost as much as the literal. We all have things that are working themselves out in us and through us. It’s like we’re carrying them inside us and they have their own growth and development, their own gestation period, and then their birth. We all have things which are given to us that we must bear. Some of those things are light and easy but many are heavy and very hard. To some extent we choose how we bear those things but in other ways they are completely beyond our control. We don’t work them out or give birth to them so much as they work themselves out and birth themselves. We are left bewildered and pain-ridden. But it becomes clear that what is given birth is not all up to us. We go through the difficult event and then, in time, a new sense of life plops into our laps and we begin to relate to the world more out of the new birth than the old birth pangs which were so necessary and so hard.
The Christ event is our abiding, eternal image which resonates in every one of our struggles. Christ is given to the world. The world is hurt and confused by the Christ. There is striving and pain. There is the crucifixion. In time that which comes from all that pain somehow makes it all good. The end becomes the new beginning.
We get stuck in the question of How do I do this? but eventually come to see that it is not we who must work out all these hardships. It is we who simply must be faithful while God’s grace makes all things well. Be faithful to what is being birthed in you. Christ comes to redeem our suffering. As we are faithful to our today, God brings about his tomorrow.