As we continue our push to the end of the Church year, we encounter an interesting piece of literature in Mark. What makes the piece so challenging, I think, for us modern readers is that we really do not read and write in this genre anymore. The style is called apocalypsis. It comes from the Greek word that means unveiling, rather than final battle or destruction or whatever you might assume apocalypse meant. Apocalyptic literature, in our Judea-Christian heritage, often spoke of how or taught how God was at work in the events of the world. As western people based in science, we tend not to look for God at work in the world around us. Many of us are closer to the deism of Thomas Jefferson than the Christianity of the Apostles and disciples. We like to think that God is out there, but we want Him at a safe distance. If He gets to close, He might figure out who we are.
It is, of course, natural that the Church should focus on unveiling the actions of God in the world around us. Each time we gather, we remind ourselves that Christ lived, suffered, died, and was raised again for us. What was the big sign in Mark’s Gospel that we have access to God again through the Christ? The tear of the Temple Veil, from top to bottom. Talk about an unveiling! To outward appearances, the son of a carpenter dying in the Roman occupation of Israel is less than noteworthy. Heck, except for the resulting claims that Jesus was raised from the dead, the famed historian Tacitus barely gives Jesus of Nazareth a paragraph in his voluminous writings. It remained for the Church to give meaning to what Jesus endured. It remained for the Church to testify to the reality of the Empty Tomb. We enshrine that testimony, if you will pardon the word use on my part, in our Eucharistic liturgy which we celebrate when we gather.
We may take such unveiling for granted since we do it often, but we sure struggle with it in other areas in Scripture. And if we, the Church, struggle with it, how much more will society around us! Imagine two thousand years hence how the world would view our business practices of the late 20th and early 21st centuries if they unearthed books of the comic strip Dilbert. If comic strips have gone away by that time, they might well read the strips as a “how to” manual for how we ran our businesses today, missing out on the sarcasm, irony, and goofy behavior of the characters. On second thought, given the way we run our businesses, Dilbert might not be example of potential veiling over time. . . By the laughter, I’m guessing at least some of you get what I am trying to say or work in a business that has a Dilbert spy employed!
In one of those moments that makes you wonder if the Apostles and disciples ever listened, one of the disciples points out to Jesus the magnificence of the temple. I’m guessing this disciple was at a bathroom break during the teaching on the widow’s mite. Jesus then makes this incredible pronouncement. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” It is a statement that His accusers will try to use to have Him put to death. It is also a statement that turns out to have been prophesy. Those of us who read history know that within about three decades of His giving this statement, Jesus will be proven correct. In an act of wanton destruction and more animalistic fervor than conditioned soldier, the Roman soldiers will pull the temple apart, once they are finished raping and killing. The scene was anything but glorious. As the Romans broke through each of the walls, fierce fighting occurred. Eventually, the defenders were driven into the temple. So crazed were the attackers that they pulled the temple apart after winning. The gruesome scene, however, caused Titus, the son of Emperor Vespasian, to refuse the Senate’s offer of the garland of victory. Titus reportedly tossed the garland to the crowd while stating there was no glory in defeating a people whose god had clearly deserted them.
Think on that for just a second. The son of the Emperor refused the garland of victory because the god of those conquered had clearly deserted them. Can you imagine? I know commentators want to make a big deal about how the thought of God abandoning His people would have been unimaginable to the Jews at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. But would it have been so unimaginable? Would not faithful people have in mind the Exile? Was there not another example, or more, of God’s seeming abandonment of His people because they served idols rather than Him, because they listened to their own hearts rather than His torah, because they turned the rightful worship of Him into a business that weighed heavily on the poor that He loved? Would the idea of God allowing the temple to be destroyed again really be that crazy? Sure, those who paid little attention to His torah, to His prophets, to His heart might have found the idea as preposterous as rebuilding it in three days’ time. But what of the faithful?
As is so often the case in Mark, we are in the midst of another chiasmus, or literary sandwich, that is making and repeating a point or more. In this case, I think, it is the more. On the one hand, deceivers will appear, wars will occur, and our job is to watch, to see, to perceive. And in the very middle of this literary sandwich is this promise that His followers will be persecuted for following and glorifying Him. Still, He promises victory. Still, in the midst of those persecutions, wars, false witnesses, still He wins. His return will be unmistakable. No one will be able to miss it, neither those who claim Him Lord nor those who reject Him! And our instruction in the midst of this chiasmus, this literary sandwich of which Mark is so fond of using is the command, not a suggestion but a command, that we watch ourselves.
Jesus is telling His disciples and us that we will face persecution, we will face hatred and mockery precisely because we cling to Him as Lord, especially in the midst of these cosmic or international or local events. These events are simply the beginning of the birth pangs, He says. What He is unveiling is that these events signal the destruction and His return. But Jesus does not give the disciples nor us specific signs. Jesus does not say that He will return when the temple is destroyed or rebuilt. He does not say that on December 31, 1999 He will return. He does not say that He will return when there is an eclipse, or a flood, or a fire, or an earthquake. Those events, though, as tragic and painful as they are, simply remind us that He is returning.
It is, I think, significant that Jesus uses birth pangs to describe this process. In the one sense, we are being reborn. Unsurprising to you present, I have a bit of experience with the birthing process. But there are a number of you who have been present for your children’s births. There are a number present who have delivered babies. Were any the same? Did they all last x hours and y minutes? Did the cervix widen at a predictable case that suggests a linear motion over a set time? Were the babies all the same size? Were the pregnancies all identical to the day, hour, minute, and second? Of course not! Births are as unique as the individuals they produce! Each one has a story of pain and suffering, or a needle in the back, and then incredible feelings of love. Really, mothers, can you really explain even to your husbands the why you were willing to suffer what you did? Can you ever really put into words the how you could put yourself through those nine months in a way that would make us dads truly understand why you were driven to conceive and to birth?
And just as each our birthing processes are unique, our rebirthing processes are unique, too! The sins that tempt me are different that the sins that tempt you, or your neighbor, or the person beside you in the pew, or even our children. For reasons known only to Him, God uses the refiner’s fire to purify us. Oh, we can say we believe He is Lord, but when does our rubber hit the road? When is our mettle tested? During our suffering. When we are powerless to stop the suffering, He must step into the breach! It is then, then, at our impotence that we see His power at work in the world around us.
This last couple months have produced what I call low hanging fruit sermon illustrations. The suffering in Paris is simply too early and too raw for us to draw much from it. If God is good, why did He let those terrorists get away with so much destruction? Yet, even after only a couple days, we are beginning to hear tales of how Christians and others responded to anarchy and destruction. Some officers, doing their job at the soccer stadium, discovered a bomb-vested man and ended up giving up their lives to save the lives of those in a stadium. Some ran toward the shooting to tend or comfort the wounded and dying. Already the French press is interviewing people and discovering that some of these people were driven by the faith in God. In France. In post-Christian France, there are still Christians willing to lay down their lives for complete strangers. What, do you think, gave them the confidence? What, do you think, convinced them that this world, this body, this life was worth sacrificing for someone else? Our Lord and His promise.
And while Paris will dominate our news cycle until the next event, there have been others. What about the hue and cry over the red moon super eclipse or whatever it was called? How many “Christians” claimed to know that the eclipse was THE sign, even though our Lord refused James, John, and Andrew privately. In seeking that special knowledge of Christ and His plan, they became instruments of the Enemy who would love to lead us all astray from God. Now that the world has continued on, how as our Lord glorified in their bad prediction? How has their false testimony made our testimony about Jesus seem more believable? Have they not made it harder for all of us? Thankfully, and mercifully, we serve a God for whom nothing is harder or impossible. He can overcome any false testimony. He can use what was meant for evil for His redeeming purposes.
What of the church shooting in Charleston? I know that event was tragic for those who lost loved ones. I mourn for them whenever I see them cry in interviews. But in those interviews I have watched, I have also seen that steeled face of our Lord. Just as He steeled Himself to Jerusalem, they seem to be steeling themselves to forgiveness. They struggle with the wantonness of the crime, but they recognize that our Lord promised them that such was the lot of those who follow Him. And so many, after mourning, remind themselves, the interviewer, and those listening that their loved ones are alive even today! As much as they miss them, they are so happy to have known them and to know that now they reside in the shade of our Lord with all the martyrs, and that their voices have joined the cry, “How long?”!
Lastly, pick your favorite natural or manmade disaster over the last year or two. Have there been floods? Tornadoes? Earthquakes? Droughts? Wars? All are happening around us all the time. What are they? Jesus instructs us that they are simply the beginnings of the birth pangs. They are simply reminders to you, to me, to all His faithful followers that His return might be as imminent as a baby’s birth when the mother is in labor. That the birth pangs have lasted 2000 years may not be as surprising when we consider it on that scale. Nor should it surprise us or catch us unawares if the next pang turns out to be the last contraction that precedes His appearing! That possibility ought to inspire each of us with a sense of urgency. Just as each of us during the push phase would expect the doctors and nurses and midwives and doulas to be present, we should be present to the possibility that His return may happen any moment.
Jesus was careful not to give specific dates and specific signs to presage the date of His return. First, Elijah needed to come. He did. Jesus needed to suffer, die, and be raised. He did and was. The temple needed to be destroyed. It was. The disciples needed to suffer because of their loyalty to Him? They did and do. And the Gospel needed to be preached to the ends of the earth. It is. All His requirements have been met. All the pre-conditions for His return have been fulfilled. His return, like that of a birthing mother who is dilated to 10cm, can happen at any time. In the meanwhile, it is our job to reach out to others in His name and to guard ourselves that we do not fall away because we have forgotten His words. Rather, it is our job to remind ourselves and others that the events have occurred just as He said they would, and that they point to the glorious day of His return. Events like Paris or whatever comes next do not testify against God. Thanks to His unveiling, they remind us that we and the world around us are in the midst of those beginning birthing pangs that one day, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe two thousand years from now, will lead to our rebirth in His eternal and glorious presence!