Well, folks, it’s that time of year again. It’s the time when the lectionary gives us Jesus’ prophecies about the downfall of the Jerusalem temple and signs of the end of time. And to go with that, it’s always fun to look at what this year’s crop of apocalypse-predictors have been saying about the exact date when the world is going to end. This year, the prize goes to end-times preacher John Hagee, who saw that a lunar eclipse was going to happen on September 27th, noted that it was falling on what was called the “blood moon,” noted that it was the fourth blood moon lunar eclipse to fall near a major Jewish holiday in recent years, and declared that this was a sign “something dramatic [will] happen in the Middle East involving Israel that will change the course of history in the Middle East and impact the whole world.” The funny thing about this particular prediction is that Hagee got an astronomer to come on his show, apparently hoping that the astronomer would back up his predictions. However, the astronomer pointed out that first, lunar eclipses are quite common, and second, the fact that four of them have fallen around major Jewish holidays is nothing but a coincidence. Finally, the astronomer noted that the lunar eclipse, while visible here in the United States, was not visible in Israel, and asked the question, “If this eclipse is not visible in Israel, how is it supposed to have such a major impact for events in that country?” Hagee couldn’t answer the question. And nothing major has happened in Israel, aside from the usual fighting that goes on in the region. So much for that particular prediction.
As we approach today’s apocalyptic text from Jesus, my question is why: why do human beings feel the need to know exactly how much time we have until the end of the world, or, until Jesus returns. Is it out of a true desire for Jesus to come again and set all things right? Or, is it the power that comes from making a right prediction, so that people will follow you as a true prophet of God? While there may be some who make these predictions in the true, heartfelt desire for Jesus to come, and to come quickly, I think that, more often than not, our sinful desires lead us to make those predictions in the hope that we are the favored ones and God will reward us for listening to what he is secretly telling his favorites.
But, folks, the point of apocalyptic writing is not to predict the exact date of the end of things, nor is it to literally put the fear of God in to us. Instead, it is to give us hope: hope that, when things are looking particularly bad in the world around us, and when things are especially painful, that the evil in the world does not have the last word. Instead, God has the last word, and that last word is this: there will be new life after all of the pain, struggle, and death during the times that we are currently living in.
This is why, in the portion of Mark 13 that we have before us today, the metaphor used to describe our tumultuous times is that of birth pangs. The phrase “birth pangs” is a little softened for our easily offended ears. I’d like to rephrase Mark 13:8 in this way: This is but the beginning of labor contractions. This should immediately make you think of childbirth. Those of you who have given birth to children know what that intense pain is like, and those of you who are husbands to those who have given birth may have looked on as your child was being born and wished that you could do something, anything, to take that pain away from your wife. This is the image that Jesus gives us for what we are going through now. When we hear of wars and rumors of wars, when there are earthquakes in various places, when there are famines, we are not to be alarmed. This is all just the beginning of labor contractions: even as there is pain and heartache, God will bring forth new life, just as at the end of those labor contractions, there is a brand new, beautiful baby to be held in your arms.
And so, what Jesus is doing in this passage is to tell his disciples not to get caught up in speculating exactly when the end is going to be. If we read on in this chapter of Mark, we will see that the life of a disciple of Jesus is going to be hard. Along with wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines, Jesus’ disciples will be persecuted and will be called upon to testify to their faith before kings and governors. They will have to be on their guard against people who claim to be the Messiah, or who come in Jesus’ name and are not he. What Jesus is calling for in his talk with his disciples is for them to be strong, to persevere and to endure through all of these labor contractions. It’s kind of the same when a woman gives birth, isn’t it? In these times, she will usually have people in the room with her as she is giving birth, urging her to keep going, as well as comforting her, telling her that she will live through the pain of childbirth, and telling her that her baby is coming, her baby is fine and will be a beautiful, healthy child. So it is with us as we are undergoing the birth pangs of the creation: we don’t know when, exactly, that new birth will happen, but we know it is coming, and we know that God is present with us, urging us on.
When I was a child, one of the shows that I really liked to watch was “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Fred Rogers, the host of the show, was a Presbyterian minister and much loved for his gentleness and his kindness towards children. Mister Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” With all due respect to Mister Rogers, I would like to take this thought one step further. When you find the people who are helping during a scary situation, look closely, because this is where you will see God’s presence in our midst.
On Friday, we received the news that there were multiple terrorist attacks carried out in the city of Paris. As I was reading the reports of all of the dead, all of the grief and mourning, and all of the fear, I read this one sentence, “People were inviting people off the streets into their apartments.” Here were the helpers. Even in this horrible and terrifying situation, there were people helping other people. God was present through those helpers. God was present through the many emergency workers who came to the rescue of those who were injured and scared. Even in this terrifying event, even when the labor contractions are so painful, even where we think Satan has full reign, God is there, giving us glimpses of his coming kingdom, and giving us hope that the pain and the suffering will one day end.
When an earthquake struck Nepal earlier this year, Lutheran World Relief was there immediately to help, and they are still there. Currently, they are providing food and shelter, as well as distributing quilts and personal care kits—some of which may have originated here with our congregation!—and they are there for the long term, working to rebuild and help people recover their livelihoods. God is there in their midst, weeping with those who have lost their homes and their loved ones, and being present with workers who encounter heartbreaking situations, urging them to be steadfast and to endure, for something new is being born. And God is there in their midst, reassuring them that their brothers and sisters around the world care for them and are praying for them, as well as sending money, quilts, and supplies to help.
That new world-wide community of sisters and brothers, with Christ as our head, is part of that new birth. These instances are just two of the many glimpses of the new life that is being born through the pain and suffering that is going on in the world. And do you know what the very first sign of that new life to come was? Turns out, there was a sign in the heavens, but it wasn’t the moon turning to blood. When Jesus entered the Jordan River and was baptized, the heavens were torn open and the Spirit descended like a dove on him, and a voice from heaven named him God’s Son. He thus began his ministry by teaching the people, kicking out the unclean spirits, and healing those who were sick. And finally, Jesus died on the cross for us, and the curtain of the temple was torn apart, signifying, among other things, that there is no longer a barrier between us and God. In Jesus, in his death and resurrection, God is present with us, and will be with us, even when things look bleak and we cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel.
So, let’s stop trying to read signs in the heavens and predict the exact date of Jesus’ return. Let us not be afraid when we hear of terrorist attacks, earthquakes, and famines. For when we do that, we fall prey to all of those people who want power among human beings more than they want Jesus to come back. And, as a very irreverent friend of mine once said, every time we try to predict an exact date for Jesus’ return, God gets out a lawn chair, sits down, cracks open a beer, and laughs at all of us running around like idiots. What we should be doing instead is this: first of all, resting in the knowledge that the ultimate sign of God’s presence with us has already come. In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the heavens have been torn open, God is with us, and we have been and are saved. While we wait for Jesus to return and strive to follow him, we are undergoing labor contractions with the world as something new is being born. So, the next thing we should be doing is to not speculate on when Jesus is coming, nor to follow those who are predicting it. Instead, we should be working to form that beloved community across the world: being with those who are suffering, praying for them, helping them as we can, and living in the hope that this will not be forever. For even though the labor seems long, that new birth will come, and that is the hope that we keep our eyes focused upon. Until then, we pray with generations of Christians before us: Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly. Amen.