What I know about birth pangs or labor pains is, as it can only be for any man, second-hand knowledge. Mine comes from having seen my wife, Ann, go through labor with our two kids.
Ann was a champ! But after seeing what she had experienced first with Philip, who was 10-pounds, 9-3/4-ounces when he was born, and then with Sarah, who was 12-pounds, 2-ounces at birth, I could well understand what she told me shortly after Sarah was born. “Mark," she said, "if you want any more kids, you’ll have to have them with your second wife.”
I bring this up because, as New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out, the key to understanding today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 13:1-8, is its final verse, where Jesus says, “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These are the beginnings of sorrows.”
Now, the rendering of that last phrase in the New King James Version, the translation of our pew Bibles and in our bulletin, is frankly, not very accurate. A literal rendering of Jesus’ words there from the original Greek in which Mark and all the books of the New Testament are written, arche odinon tauta, would be, the beginning of birthpangs these things are. That’s why the translation of this passage in the New Revised Standard Version, which we use in adult Sunday School class, puts Jesus’ words this way: “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
I spent so much time talking about this phrase and its translation because these few words by Jesus are important!
In the Old Testament, especially in the writings of the prophets, the imagery of labor pains coming before the birth of God’s kingdom in people’s lives was often used. But 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, an event that would happen in 70 AD, about forty years after Jesus spoke these words, when the Romans tore the temple down.
But there’s still a lot for us to learn as followers of Jesus from today’s Gospel lesson. Please turn to it, Mark 13:1-8.
It begins: “Then as He went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!’”
“Wow!” the disciple is saying, “isn’t this a great place?” But Jesus seems unimpressed with the temple. Look at verse 2: “And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down.”
What a downer! The disciple who pointed to the beauty of the temple probably at least thought that he was making pleasant conversation. Or more probably, he thought that he was displaying pious faith in God by being impressed with the temple.
But Jesus gives the disciple no affirmation, in effect telling him (and us) to never confuse the eternal power of God with buildings, no matter how imposing or pretty.
I have to say that when the call committee here at Saint Matthew showed me the sanctuary at the conclusion of our first interview, I probably didn’t register much delight.
It’s nice, don’t get me wrong. But Ann and I learned a long time ago that God can be worshiped in all sorts of places. The mission congregation with which I worked during my seminary internship met in a Lions' hall. When we arrived on Sunday mornings for worship, we were often met with the smell of stale cigarette smoke and spilled beer. And for twelve-and-a-half years, at the mission church I served before coming to Saint Matthew, we worshiped in a broken-down old school gym.
Corrie ten-Boom found the holiest place of worship in the concentration camp in which she and her sister were incarcerated during World War II was the garbage dump crawling with rats and smelling of human waste and rotting food. It was the only place where she and her sister could go to remember God’s Word, sing hymns, and praise the God they knew through Jesus Christ.
Buildings crumble and fall.
Stained glass cracks.
Only God and those who turn from sin and trust in Christ as their only hope live for eternity.
Jesus was telling the disciples, including us, “Don’t put your trust in buildings, or traditions, or liturgies, or human beings or their works. Don’t even trust yourselves. Put your trust in Christ alone!”
Go back to the lesson, to verse 3. Jesus is now sitting opposite the temple on the Mount of Olives and four of the apostles--Peter, James, John, and Andrew--have a question. Verse 4: “‘Tell us when all these things will be? And what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?’”
Now, you need to notice something here: In answering the four apostles' questions, Jesus never actually answers their questions. As we'll see, Jesus isn't being evasive in not answering them. In fact, Jesus has a more important point to make!
Look at what Jesus says, starting in verse 5: “‘Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My Name, saying, ‘I am He,‘ and will deceive many. But when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles.”
Every single thing Jesus describes as signs of the impending destruction of the temple are events that have been going on from the moment Adam and Eve rebelled against God and consigned all of us to our inborn bondage to sin.
Can anyone name a time in human history, ancient or modern, when there weren’t wars and rumors of wars? Neither can I!
Can you think of a time in history when there weren’t disasters, earthquakes, and troubles? Neither can I! And I was a Social Studies major who is a life-long of history.
Ecclesiastes 1:9 says: “..there is nothing new under the sun.” That verse doesn't say that history repeats itself; because, quite simply, history doesn't repeat itself. But that verse reminds us that the world is no more and no less sinful or foreboding today than it was the moment God banished Adam and Eve from the garden.
Different sins become more popular at different times. But the same old sin, death, disasters, calamities, and warring have been going on for centuries.
In light of this fact, Peter, James, John, and Andrew might have said to Jesus, “But, Lord, all these things You describe as signs and events that will happen before the destruction of the temple are things that happen every day, year in and year out, and have always happened!”
And had they actually said that, Jesus could have answered, “Exactly!”
The temple came down at the precise moment when Jesus foresaw that it would fall.
But the disciples and no one else had any need to know when that would happen.
As hard as it is for we human beings to accept, there are some things we cannot know and never will know.
Geneticists, epidemiologists, and actuaries may be able to tell us our likely life expectancies, for example. But only God knows the exact moment He has appointed for the ends of our earthly lives. King David prays to God in Psalm 31:15: "My times are in Your hand..." And Job, in the midst of His pain, tells God: "A person’s days are determined; You have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed" (Job 14:5).
Scientists and climatologists may be able to make accurate projections of the moments most likely to bring the destruction of this planet. But only God knows the time appointed for that to happen. In fact, it seems that only God the Father knows when that moment will come. Jesus, God the Son, said, "...about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32).
So, Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples when the temple will fall or what the signs of its impending destruction will be.
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 [things] are [just] the beginnings...” Or, “These are just the labor pains for what’s to follow!”
In fact, the Bible says that 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 in labor pains” 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!
The athlete who keeps her focus firmly on her goal of winning the prize endures all sorts of difficulties--arduous training, endless practice, injuries and physical rehabilitation--in order to attain her goal.
When we live each day in the certainty that God saves from sin and death all who retain their faith in Jesus Christ and have eternity with God as the prize for which they race, they can say with the apostle Paul, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to revealed to us” when, in the resurrection, we see Christ face to face!
We have to be careful though. Faith isn’t fatalism.
Jesus isn’t telling Christians to sit around, letting life wash over them while waiting for Him 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. We’re not supposed to sit, trying our best to look holy.
In Mark 13:5; Jesus says, “Take heed that no one deceives you.” Watch out that you don’t for those who tell you to hope in the things of the world--like money, power, a positive attitude, whatever--taking them as gods instead of Jesus.
In verse 9, Jesus warns Christians to “Watch out” that they not give up on trusting in Him. This applies to we Lutherans today, when our own the synodical officials in some parts of the country (not here in southern Ohio, it should be said) harasses or intimidates pastors and congregations into accepting false beliefs. We need to watch out when our own denomination ascribes the same level of authority to bishops, denominational assemblies, various church traditions, human experience, and science that the Lutheran Confessions claim belongs only to the Word of God found in the Bible.
Then, in verse 23, Jesus tells us to take heed, 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 “Take heed, watch, and pray.” We have no idea when the end of the world may come; so we need to pray, as Jesus has taught us, that God will “deliver us from evil,” so that we don’t fall prey to sin and end up an enemy of God when we face judgment in eternity.
Jesus took back our fallen world once and for all when He offered Himself on the cross, the perfect sacrifice for our sins, then rose from the dead, opening up eternity to 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 and 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 labors of this world can be painful, even 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. Amen
[This was prepared to be shared during worship with the people and friends of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, yesterday.]