11/18/18 “A Long Labor”

Mark 13:1-8

Heidi Murkoff was pregnant with her first child, and she was worried.  She had anxieties and questions she couldn’t find answers to in any of the books she read.  So, she decided to write the book she wished she could read—one that would be full of answers to the questions expectant parents ask.  Hours before her daughter Emma was born, Heidi turned in the proposal for her book, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and the first edition was published in 1984.

Now in its 5th edition, it has sold more than 19 million copies.  It was on the “New York Times” bestseller list for more than 675 weeks and is still reportedly read by 93% of women who read a pregnancy-related book.  It has expanded into an online resource as well—one that reaches more than 14 million people on their mobile devices every month.  Clearly, there are a lot of people out there who want to know what to expect about the beginning of a new life.  It just seems like a natural thing to want to know what signs to look for—signs that you’re pregnant, signs of a healthy pregnancy, signs that labor is starting, signs that the baby is about to be born.

This is where the disciples are in our passage today.  They know that the kingdom of God has come near in Jesus and that out of that, a new world will be born—the new world promised by the prophets.  But they want some specifics.  They want to know what the due date is.  They want to know what signs to watch for.

Jesus’ words and actions in the days leading up to our story probably had raised some serious worries in their minds.  They had witnessed and heard some pretty spectacular and disturbing things.  Just a few days before our story takes place, they had entered Jerusalem in a triumphant procession.  Jesus had created havoc in the temple courtyard by overturning the moneychangers’ tables.  His words had enthralled the crowds and enraged the powers-that-be.  Each conversation Jesus had with the chief priests and scribes and Pharisees and elders and Herodians escalated their hostility towards him.  Maybe the disciples had heard their murmurings about wanting to see Jesus dead.

And then we come to these words of Jesus to one of the disciples as they were leaving the temple.  I picture this lone, unnamed disciple, finding himself walking next to Jesus, just trying to make a little small talk.  Maybe he thought Jesus was feeling a little down about what he had seen—how the moral compass of the religious leaders had gone haywire—how they were more interested in their own status and wealth than in their faithfulness and how the temple was no longer the center of holiness God intended it to be.

So, maybe this one disciple just brought up what he thought was a neutral topic—the obviously magnificent sight of the temple buildings, constructed of massive blocks weighing tons of golden Jerusalem stone, gleaming warmly in sunlight.  He invites Jesus to admire them with him:  “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” How crestfallen he must have been when Jesus didn’t join him in admiring their beauty but instead spoke of their destruction.

The Gospel writer doesn’t record which disciple Jesus spoke these words to, or the disciple’s reaction to them.  Maybe he was worried.  Maybe he was afraid.  Maybe he had questions.  But I can’t imagine him keeping such disturbing words to himself.  If it was Peter or Andrew, James or John, maybe he gathered the others together to discuss what he had heard.  Perhaps it was another disciple in the group, and he went to the four to tell them what Jesus had said.  IN any event, James and John, Peter and Andrew—the disciples who have been with Jesus the longest—go to Jesus privately.  They want to know what to expect.  “Tell us, when will the destruction of the temple be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

We’d like to know that, too, wouldn’t we?  Nearly 2000 years later, we are still looking forward to that day when Christ will come again.  Throughout history, Christians have been asking the same questions as the disciples:  When will this be, and what signs should we look for?   Theories have been devised, stories concocted, and predictions made about when and how the end of the world as we know it will happen.

The years around the turn of a millennium are always fertile ground for end-of-the-world predictions.  Pope Sylvester II and others predicted that January 1, 1000 (Jesus’ 1000th birthday) would see the end of the world, and their predictions caused riots to break out in Europe and a stream of pilgrims to head for Jerusalem.  When that date didn’t work out, they revised their theory: the end would come 1000 years after Jesus’ death, not his birth, and revised the date to 1033.

Pope Innocent III looked for it in 1284, 666 years after the rise of Islam. Martin Luther predicted it in 1600.  The Puritan minister Cotton Mather predicted it would come in 1697, and then in 1716, and then in 1736.  Even our own John Wesley bought into a view that predicted the beginning of the end in 1863, followed by 2000 more years, with Jesus returning either at the end of the first thousand or the second, depending on how you read his comments.  And so it has gone, with new dates and theories proposed in nearly every century, including the furor around Y2K in the year 2000, which many of us remember very well.

We look for signs of the coming end in political and religious strife, such as the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and between Islam and the West.  We wonder if the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa is a sign, or maybe the increasing fury of hurricanes and raging fires.  Self-declared prophets interpret the latest world news as signs of the end, and the public, including Christians, eats it up.  “Tell us, Lord, when will this be, and what signs will tell us it’s happening?”

We want to know how to be ready.  Because we like to think that if we know what to look for and when to look for it, we can maintain some control over our lives.  We can ensure our own survival and that of our loved ones.  Like expectant parents laying in supplies of diapers and sleepers and teddy bears, we think about storing water and food, and some go to the extremes of stockpiling weapons and ammunition.  Like the disciples, we are expecting the arrival of the new age, but we want to know what to expect when we’re expecting.

Jesus refuses to help the disciples out.  Instead of giving them the answers they are seeking, he tells them that all the things that they might take to be signs are not.  He tells them that when he is gone, others will appear claiming to be the Messiah, or to be speaking in his name.  That’s a given; in fact, there were already pretenders roaming the streets of Jerusalem.  He tells them, yes—there are wars and there will be rumors of more wars.  Natural disasters will occur, and their consequences will be felt.  But the disciples should not see these imposters or events as signs that the end of the world is imminent.  “Don’t get excited when those things happen,” Jesus says, because the fulfillment of all that has been promised is still in the future.

These things must happen, Jesus says.  It’s easy to get hung up on that word “must.”  Like the disciples, we’re looking for signs, and that word “must” sounds like a clue—a prediction of what to look for.  But what Jesus is saying here is that these things will happen—must happen—because the world is a broken place.  Human beings are separated from each other and from the natural world and from God, and this kind of brokenness can only lead to these consequences.  Until the new heaven and the new earth come in all their fullness, all of creation, nature and humanity alike, will suffer the consequences of their brokenness.  If war and natural disaster are signs of anything, they are signs of our desperate need for the new world we anticipate—the fulfillment of God’s kingdom which came near in Jesus, but whose delivery is still in the future.

Our passage ends with a caution and assurance from Jesus—that these things we witness are but the beginning of the birth pangs, not signs that the present age is in its death throes.  But his words to the disciples in response to their questions don’t stop there.  In the rest of the chapter, Jesus goes on to give the disciples some more specific advice about how to spend this time before the new age is fully accomplished.  His instructions are simple: They are to be strong in their faith and preach the gospel.  Even when they are hauled up before civil and religious courts for preaching the good news which is so at odds with the prevailing social and religious norms, even when they face opposition within their own families (which Mark’s first readers had already experienced) they are to remain strong in their knowledge that the Holy Spirit is with them and continue to tell the story of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Jesus repeatedly warns them against the false prophets and false Messiahs who will try to lead them astray from their mission to preach the Gospel by predictions which encourage them to focus on saving their own skins.  “That is just an attempt to get you to abandon your real mission,” he says.  “It’s an attempt to weaken your commitment and your faith in what I am telling you.  You can lay up stockpiles.  You can make plans.  But when the time comes, it will come so suddenly that all your preparations will be useless. Don’t listen to the false ones, because I have already told you everything you need to know.”

Jesus’ words struck me with particular force when I was on vacation a few years ago.  Marc and I visited the ruins of Pompeii, the city which was destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in the year 79 A.D. (not long after Mark’s gospel was written).  This was not a movie-version of an eruption where red-hot lava flows down the mountain.  Instead, it sent ash and pumice stones and super-heated, poisonous gasses showering over Pompeii, turning the sky black as night.  One ancient writer feared that “the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world.”

The fine, dense ash that buried everyone and everything left the city’s buildings standing and acted as a preservative for all its contents, including the bodies of those who died.  In 1863, an archaeologist named Giuseppe Fiorelli discovered hundreds of cavities in the ash, left behind by the decomposed bodies.  After filling them with plaster and excavating around them, he ended up with hundreds of life-like forms of the Pompeiians who died there, nearly instantaneously.

Many were trying to take shelter.  Others were caught as they tried to flee the city.  Many were carrying the objects they valued most—women loaded down with jewelry, men with bags of coins.  One man was found clutching a box of scalpels, tweezers, and other surgical tools—a doctor who may have expected that his services would be needed when all became quiet again.  Wealthy homeowners and their slaves, parents and their children, shopkeepers and gladiators, humans and animals were, in a sense, frozen in time, caught in the act of living.

That is the kind of event Jesus is describing—an event so sudden that no amount of preparation will be enough.  And so, Jesus says, don’t waste your time preparing for what cannot be prepared for.  Don’t waste your time getting caught up in the predictions of those who would distract you from your true focus: faithful living and sharing the gospel. When events around us tempt us to see in them predictors of the future, and self-described prophets claim to have insider knowledge about the end of the world, we have only to stay true to our faith: to care for our neighbors, to love God with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength, and to share the gospel wherever we can.

We live in uncertain times. The violent attacks that occur in our country nearly every week clearly remind us of that.  There are wars and rumors of wars.  There are earthquakes and hurricanes and fires.  With every catastrophe, we may hear doomsday predictions.  But Jesus doesn’t get much clearer than in his final words on this subject to James and John, Peter and Andrew, and to us, written at the end of the 13th chapter.  “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.”

We are to stay awake and stay involved in the world around us.  We are to keep an undistracted, laser-like focus on our faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, who said, “Repent. Turn around. Believe the good news of the kingdom of God which I have brought near to you.” Instead of trying to attach deep meaning to the events of our time, we are to focus on the Gospel which is for all time.  The time to hear and share the good news is now.  The birth pangs of delivering a new world have already begun, but we don’t know long the labor will last.  Instead of worrying about what to expect while we’re expecting, Jesus tells us to focus on the present, even as we look forward to what the future holds.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young