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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Birth Pangs

1 Samuel 1.4-20; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10.11-25; Mark 13.1-8

This morning as we gather to worship, Israel and Palestine are again firing missiles at each other.  So far 40 Palestinians have been killed, including children and a pregnant woman. Three Israelis have lost their lives also.  Overnight several of the buildings that house the Palestinian government have been destroyed and Israel appears to be readying itself for a ground invasion.  The Arab League has called for an end to hostilities, as has the West.  But neither government is so far showing any intention to do so.

The gospel text for today, tragically enough, also speaks about the destruction of a seat of government by a foreign invader.  Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem where they have been visiting the temple built by Herod.  It is a massive building, dominating the city’s skyline as well as its social, religious and political life. Being a ‘temple’, it is the centre of Israel’s religious cult, the place where the sacrifices are carried out day after day, year after year, to atone for the sins of the people.  It is the centre of Judea’s religious teaching also, the theological school where scholars read the Law and the Prophets and interpreted its meaning for the community at large.  Importantly for us, this morning, the temple is also the seat of government, the headquarters for the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council which no king of governor could afford to ignore.  From here the temple bureaucracy, the civil service if you will, sought to apply the political, social and administrative policies of the Council in such a way that stability was maintained in the midst of a potentially explosive international situation.  For Judea, like Galilee, is at this time an occupied land, a colony of the Roman Empire.  It is a powder keg waiting to go off.

The prophecy we read here from Jesus’ lips, that the temple would be destroyed, not one stone remaining upon another, should therefore be read as nothing other than the most dangerous talk imaginable.  In the religious and political context that was early first-century Jerusalem, such talk could be easily taken as evidence of both blasphemy and sedition.  Blasphemy, because in a society in which the will of the ruling Council and the will of God were understood as pretty much the same thing, prophecies against the temple could be interpreted as prophecies against God.  Sedition, because the Sanhedrin ultimately served its Roman overlords even as it sought to preserve some measure of national and cultural independence in doing so.  Words against the temple could therefore be interpreted by the Romans as words against themselves, an act of treason from a would-be usurper of political power. 

Subsequent events in Mark’s story bear this out. Within a few days, Jesus is brought for trial before both the Sanhedrin and the Romans, and his prophecy about the destruction of temple plays a prominent part in both hearings. He is condemned as a blasphemer by the Council and a traitor by the Romans.  He is tortured and crucified and, well you know the rest of the story.  Given the largely bad outcomes for both Jesus and his disciples, one is prompted to ask why Jesus chose to say what he said, and in the hearing of the public? Why did he not, at least, keep his views to himself and save himself and his friends a lot of grief?

Mark’s answer is this: that Jesus was indeed a prophet from God, and as a prophet from God he was called and constrained to speak the truth about the ruling powers no matter the consequences.  As a prophet, he had no choice.  This is what prophets do.  From Mark’s point of view, Jesus ‘blasphemy’ is not speech against God, but speech for God.  For the Sanhedrin and gone too far in its appeasement of the Romans.  Sure, it has managed to preserve the sacrificial cult of the temple, but in doing so it had rendered the more weighty matters of Jewish faith null and void, matters of ethics, of justice, and the love of one’s neighbour.  This gap between the Torah studied in the temple precincts and what was actually happening on the ground for the vast majority of the Jewish people was, for Mark, the presenting reason for Jesus’ condemnation of the Jewish authorities.   Similarly, from Mark’s point of view, Jesus ‘sedition’ is entirely justified.  For Mark and his community, there could only be one ‘Lord,’ one Emperor, and that was God.  Jesus, as God’s son and mouthpiece, therefore has a legitimate authority to condemn what the Romans did to the Jews, and to do so in the name of a ‘justice’ that the Romans knew nothing about, a justice based in vulnerable, covenant love rather than in naked power.

That Mark is the pastor of a community that has in fact lived through the destruction of the temple, and the whole of Jerusalem with it, is not insignificant.  He knows that the prophecy of Jesus has come true, that the temple is no more and that his own community is now a refugee community, running as fast as it can from the vengeance of the Romans.  In this place, the place of a refugee community that has lost both its temple and its prophet, Mark writes what he writes.  And in his writing we can find some wisdom even for ourselves, as we endure a time filled with wars and earthquakes and rumours of wars.

What Mark has Jesus say of times like this is that they are ‘birth-pangs’.  Birth pangs.  Some might read what is happening in the middle-east as the end of world, full-stop.  And I am very sure that for many who are sitting in the middle of it all, that is how it must seem.  Think of the Palestinians huddled in their houses in Gaza, the most densely populated strip of earth in the world, being bombarded from above.  It can’t be very pleasant to have members of your family killed as they venture out to find food or to visit a neighbour.  In such circumstances, when the power to the north – a new Roman empire to all intents and purposes – seems to want to destroy your entire country, the end of the world must surely feel as though it is indeed at hand!

What Mark says, however, out of the experience of Jesus and of his own refugee community, is that the end of the world is not the end of the world.  The pains associated with wars and earthquakes – surely a metaphor for the shaking of our many certainties – are temporary pains that, like the pangs of childbirth, while severe and almost unendurable as they come upon us – do eventually pass and give way to something like peace and even joy.  I remember well the birth of my own children.  In the process of labour I watched on helplessly as my wife’s body was shaken by the most extraordinary waves of pain I had ever witnessed and, for the birth of our first child, these paroxysms went on for 16 hours or so.  I found it hard to comprehend how any human being could possibly endure more.  But when my daughter was finally born, all those hours of painful upheaval seemed to disappear into forgetfulness.  As the child was placed in my wife’s arms, all I could see was joy. 

The story of Hannah and Samuel is instructive in this sense.  Here we have a woman for whom life holds little joy because she is barren and cannot give birth to a son.  Even though her husband loves her regardless – which would have been quite a rare thing in patriarchal world of the ancient ear-East – she must endure the mocking of her fertile sister-wife and the disapproval of her family and friends.  For in that world, a barren woman was seen as a complete failure, a failure at her basic function in life, to provide heirs for the family and for the tribe, to guarantee its survival and its prosperity by doing so.  Because she cannot, Hannah is deeply depressed and, for her, it seems that the world is indeed at an end.

What she does about this, we are told, is not to rush off to IVF as we moderns do, but to visit the Lord’s shrine in Shiloh and pray for God’s mercy. She prays for a son and when she is indeed granted her wish, promises to give him into the Lord’s service for the rest of his life.  When Samuel is born, Hannah is filled with joy and sings a song about the love of God for all who are lowly and downtrodden, which becomes the basis, in time, for the revolutionary literature we know as the Magnificat, the Song of Mary at the birth of Jesus.  The point of this story, and the literature of revolution it spawns, is simply this: that in the economy and plan of God, even the end of the world is not the end of the world.  The end of the world, in which we lose homes and children and livelihoods, in which we may lose even our sanity and our very lives, is the onset of birth-pangs.  Such birth-pangs herald a new birth, the birth of a new world, a world no longer ruled by greed and oppression and poverty, where the strong destroy the weak for fun, but by the love who is God.

This is the faith of Christians and the source of our hope even when things look very bad indeed.  Our hope is in the one who was raised even from death by the power of this love who is God.  Our faith is built upon this firm foundation so that even when we grieve, we do not grieve as others grieve who have no hope. We grieve as people who feel the pain of our many losses, but who believe in a new birth, a new world, where what has been lost will be returned to us a hundredfold. Such is the grace of the one who has been raised.  I have a friend who lives in Bethlehem, Daoud.  He is a Palestinian Christian and a pastor to his persecuted community. The small Christian community in that part of the world is persecuted by the Israeli’s because it is Palestinian, and persecuted by many of its fellow Palestinians because it is not Muslim.  Daoud and Jihan Nassar do not have to imagine their way into Mark’s gospel and the horrors of a city destroyed like most Westerners do.  It is not a great feat of imagination to place themselves in the shoes of a persecuted community seeking refuge from violence.  Daoud and Johan live this experience every day of their lives. And yet when that community gathers each Sunday to listen to the world of God and share the eucharist, Daoud encourages the people to see their sufferings not as the end of the world, but as the birth-pangs of a new world that is yet to be born.

In this light, the writer to the Hebrews encourages Christians everywhere to never give up the habit of meeting together for encouragement and mutual support.  For each of us live in the time of the not-yet. The events of last night in Palestine and Israel make this very clear.  We are not yet at peace, we do not yet love one another, and we do not yet welcome each other as God has welcomed us.  In the time of the not-yet, we are encouraged to meet together as we meet together today, and to encourage one another with these stories of faith, the stories which are able to reframe the meaning of our most painful experiences as birth-pangs, the birth-pangs of the coming kingdom.

This homily was preached at St Columba's, Balwyn, on the morning of Nov 18, 2012.

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