But here, Jesus uses the image of birth pangs in this passage differently. He’s not talking about the end of the world (He slides into a discussion of that seamlessly later on in Mark, chapter 13) or about the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom, but about the end of the temple in Jerusalem. That’s an event that happened in 70 AD, about forty years after Jesus spoke these words, when the Romans tore it down.
But Jesus seems unimpressed with the temple. Look at verse 2: “‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’”
Jesus is telling the disciple who remarked on the temple’s beauty to never confuse the eternal power of God with buildings, no matter how imposing or pretty. The worship of God cannot be confined to beautiful buildings made with human hands!
True worship is the offering of our whole lives to God everywhere we go.
Buildings crumble and fall or are brought down from explosions detonated by human sin and hatred. Only God and those who turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ as their only hope, will endure, eternally, even after life on this fragile planet has ended.
Jesus was telling the disciples, including us, “Don’t put your trust in buildings, or traditions, or liturgies, or human beings or political or economic systems. Don’t even trust yourselves." Put your trust in Christ alone!
Notice this: In answering the four apostles' question, Jesus never actually answers their question.
Jesus isn't being evasive in not answering them. Rather, He has a more important point to make!
Verse 5: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.”
Different sins become more popular at different times. Or, as I sometimes put it, different specific sins go in and out of style. But the same old condition of sin, death, disasters, calamities, warring, and yes, even terrorism, have been going on for centuries. That reality isn't new.
As hard as it is for we human beings to accept, there are some things we cannot know and never will know.
Actuarial tables may give us averages, but only God knows the exact moment He has appointed for the ends of our earthly lives. Psalm 31:15 says: "My times are in Your hand..."
But only God knows the time appointed for that to happen.
In fact, only God the Father knows when that moment will come. Jesus, God the Son, says, "...about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32).
His non-answer told them that they were asking the wrong questions.
What Jesus is telling them and us is that, no matter what painful or difficult things may come to us along life’s way, the future is ultimately in God’s hands. Our call is to trust in Him even in the midst of uncertainties and our own limitations.
He's also saying that all the painful things that happen in this world, no matter how calamitous are just the labor pains of God's new creation. That’s why Jesus says in verse 8: “These are the beginning of birth pains.”
Fact is, our entire life on this earth constitutes the labor pains of the new heaven and the new earth all who believe in Christ will live in and enjoy after this entire universe has fallen down, Christ returns, and the dead who have died believing in Him will rise again.
Romans 8:22 says that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” for that moment when, finally and fully, sin, death, and futility are put under Christ’s feet and the pain and tears of this fallen world will be things of the past. This should give us hope! Our job is to keep focused on that hope, no matter what.
We’re not to sit around, letting life wash over us while waiting for Jesus to show up with a bunch of angels playing harps. (I personally hate harps, by the way!)
In fact, throughout Mark 13, where Jesus does go on to talk about the end of the world, Jesus tells us what we’re to do as we await the unfolding of God’s plans for our world and for our lives.
In Mark 13:5; Jesus says, “Watch out that no one deceives you.” Don’t let others tell you they know some truth about God not revealed in the Bible!
In verse 9, Jesus warns Christians to “You must be on your guard,” so that we do not give up on trusting in Him.
Then, in verse 23, Jesus tells us to watch out for people who point us to false Christs or to false versions of the real Jesus Christ and lead us away from eternal life with God.
And in verse 33, Jesus says to “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.”
Assured of our eternal futures, God sets us free to be about the business Christ has given us to do.
We're to reach up, worshiping and praying to God.
We're to reach in, giving and deriving support for our faith journey from other believers in Christ's Church as we study God's Word and pray together.
And we're to reach out, sharing the good news of new and everlasting life for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ with others.
When Jesus offered Himself on the cross, He was the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Then He rose from the dead, opening up eternity to all who trust in Him. We don’t know what may happen to us or to the world in whatever time passes between this moment and the moment when the risen, ascended Jesus returns to bring judgment on this old world and bring the fullness of His kingdom to all who have believed in Him. But we do know that there is no safer place we can be in this world (and the next) than in the hands of the God Who holds the future of this world and of eternity itself in His hands.
A new world is being born in this messy world in which we live.
The labor pains we endure in this world are painful, even, as we saw again this past Friday night in Paris, deadly.
But if we will be patient and hold on tightly to Christ, we’ll have strength for the journey and an eternity of joy with Christ and all who, like us, have trusted in Him.
As Jesus promises at the end of today’s Gospel lesson: “...the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” Stand firm!