Proper 28 (November 13-19)
Texts: Mark 13:1-8;
Heb. 10:11-25; Dan 12:1-3
THE BAPTISMAL BIRTHING ROOM
Here’s a surprising historical insight: There’s a good chance that the Gospel of Mark was finally written down and circulated among the early churches because of the verses we read this morning. For, you see, Mark’s Gospel was written down as these words were coming true. It was the end of the Jewish-Roman War in 70 AD, and the Romans finished off their crushing defeat of the Jews by leaving their Temple in a heap of rubble.
It’s hard for us to imagine what that terrible event meant to the surviving Jews. If the terrorists of 911 had had their way and destroyed the White House or Capital Building with the third kidnapped jetplane, we might have some inkling. But even that doesn’t quite measure up, because we don’t have one single building with so much meaning attached to it like the Jewish Temple. It had been the very center of their identity as a people. It had been destroyed once before and then rebuilt. But in nearly two thousand years after that terrible day in 70 AD, there still is no replacement. Today, orthodox Jews won’t even go up to the top of the Temple Mount, because all that’s there are two Muslim mosques.
Part of the reason for not rebuilding after all these years is that two strands of Jewish tradition went on successfully without the Temple. One strand was some Pharisaic rabbis whose center of faith was reading Torah in synagogues more than the Temple. The other surviving Jewish tradition was a strand of Messianic Jews who gathered around the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, had been crucified by the Romans some thirty-five years earlier, and then was proclaimed by his followers to have risen from the dead three days later. Jesus Christ had prophesied, in fact, that the Temple would be destroyed and that in three days it would be rebuilt. In other words, he was saying that his own body was to replace the Temple as the place of God’s presence in the world, and later his followers would be the body of Christ in the world. He had prophesied for the sake of his people that they might repent from their ways of relying on military violence to defeat their enemies. The real enemy, says Jesus, is the violence used against brothers and sisters of our one heavenly Father. The enemy is the satanic violence used both by the Romans in oppressing them, but also the violence used to try to overthrow them. This Jesus the Messiah came with a different way, the way of love, which is the power of the God who gives us life itself. In love Jesus submitted to the enemy of satanic violence and showed its defeat on Easter morning.
And yet two thousand years later we still have our doubts about this power of love and wonder about what’s ahead in facing our enemies. “What about all this?” the four closest disciples ask Jesus in a private in this morning’s Gospel. They ask on behalf of disciples in every age. They want to know the secrets of the end time, and what all this means. They seek an apocalypse — a revelation. And we eavesdrop. We want to know, too.
Jesus says, “Be careful what and whom you listen to. Plenty of folks will come along claiming to know the truth of these things. It’s easy to be led astray in such times. And besides, this is only the beginning of the birth pangs! Awful as these things are, these are only the rumblings before the really serious stuff. So be careful what you listen to.”
Recall what birth pangs meant back then. According to historians and anthropologists, 70% of females, who survived childhood and died during their childbearing years, died either while giving birth or from related complications. Birth pangs in those times signaled a dangerous passage for mother and child alike.
Just beyond today’s lesson Jesus describes what that birthing would look like for the disciples, though he was thinking of his own impending birth as well:
“As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me. . . When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus seems to warn that in a time of wars and rumors of wars we need most to anticipate how we, as individuals and as the community of disciples, will handle the crisis when it’s our turn to endure questioning, trial, and abuse for Jesus’ sake. How will we handle it when people think they’re doing the world and even God a favor by getting rid of us? What sort of words should we have ready for such times? Strangely, Jesus says, “None.” That’s right. Don’t prepare speeches. When the time comes, the words will be there. The Spirit will see to that.
Here the birthing imagery becomes helpful. Consider what we’re living through now as a birthing experience. Think that way of today’s troubles. All days could fit into this scenario, whether they’re days of cataclysm or just one more day of the slow, steady grinding down of the soul that steadily returns us to dust.
I’ve been lucky enough to live in a generation when fathers are allowed in birthing rooms, unlike previous generations when our fathers paced outside somewhere and smoked cigarettes. But being inside requires learning some lessons. Some of these I understand. Some I’m sure I never will. But the two most important:
- Don’t take personally anything a birthing mother says.
- Don’t ask stupid questions or make unnecessary small talk.
What’s important in a birthing room is breathing and a few focused words of encouragement.
Some of you know about these things, for you have given birth. You know the difference between the first twinges of labor and the final pushes before that new life pops into the world. And more of you, including us men, know this in the metaphorical sense that Jesus introduces with his words. Many of you have been through the labor pains of genuine trial. Probably you’ve not been hauled before synagogues and councils and kings, but before other courts and scenarios where you have been put to the test and forced finally to answer to others or to yourselves, “Who are you? Who are you really?”
And what do we say in a crisis moment? Does the mess our lives can slip into sometimes mean we’re fools and failures? Have our sins brought judgment down on us? How shall we explain it when the stones of our temples fall down on our heads and everything lies in ruins — or could very quickly, if things don’t change? Are these signs of the end times?
Yes. And judgment for our sins of not trusting the power of love has come down heavily upon us. That’s true. But then remember, too: Jesus says such things are only the beginning of the birth pangs. You mean it will get worse? Yes. But again, remember these are birth pangs. As dangerous and painful as the birthing ordeal may be, new life is on the way. One way or another, on the other side of this collapsing temple there’s a new person, a new life, coming into being.
Recall that Jesus followed his own advice only a short time later when hauled before the temple authorities, the king, and the governor. The stones of his life rumbled and the earth cracked open to swallow him up. And in Mark’s gospel he didn’t make speeches. He remained silent though all this. The Spirit didn’t give him much to say. In fact, he said only one thing. When someone finally asked if indeed he was the Son of God, he said, simply, “I am.”
These were, of course, the Spirit’s words from beginning to end. For the Spirit had named him Son of God at his baptism, and had followed him all the way to this day. And now the Spirit attended this birthing ordeal. The Spirit was there like the O.B. nurse of Golgatha, to push and breathe and coax that new life through the narrow birth canal and into the light. And as that Son of God passed through the narrows between life and death, each of us, and all of us together, have come along as well.
The very same Spirit has been there for us, too, all through our life and death. The Spirit keeps on reminding us that sometimes the fewer words the better in times of trial and death and going through the narrowest straits. What’s better is a loving presence even in the face of evil. But one word the Spirit will never let you forget: As sure as the Spirit breathes, this is the truth, that you are God’s child, and God waits for you like an expectant Father as you come popping through life’s most difficult and harrowing journeys, straight into God’s loving arms.
Like any newborn, you’ll cry. If you listen closely, in that cry you’ll hear: “Abba!” That’s the secret of the baptismal birthing room of dying and rising with Christ. Which makes this gathering a kind of end-time Lamaze class, I guess. This is breathing practice, opening ourselves to the breath of the Spirit, the courage to be a loving presence in a troubled world.
And remember, don’t waste words. That’s good advice for preachers, too. (1)
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, November 19, 2006
1. Much of this sermon is an edited form of sermon reflection by Fred Niedner at a Valparaiso University Institute of Liturgical Studies (April 2000?).