The suffering creation is being brought to new birth in God’s grace in Christ: hold fast to this hope even while participating in that new birth.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 33 B
Texts: Mark 13:1-8; Hebrews 10:11-25; 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (psalm for the day)
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The disciples were a lot more optimistic than we are these days.
They’re rubes in the big city, gawking at the massive Temple and the beautiful buildings in Jerusalem. They’d be taking selfies with these buildings if they lived today.
Jesus throws cold water on their awe, saying that all these buildings will be thrown down, and hard as it is to believe, not one stone will be left on another. Forty years later, that’s exactly what Rome did to Jerusalem. All that seemed so permanent was wiped off the face of the earth.
But Jesus doesn’t need to throw cold water on us. We’re not looking in awe at our world, thinking it will last forever. In the daily chaos of our reality we wonder if our massive institutions of democracy, checks and balances, decency, and care for the common good, can survive the next two years, or more. We worry whether there is irrevocable damage to our democracy, to voter rights, to structures that keep people from starving, or that provide good medical care, to countless things we’ve valued as a nation. Abraham Lincoln’s hopeful words at Gettysburg, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth,” seem more and more a tenuous hope.
But instead of cold water, Jesus says something beautifully mysterious to us about this falling apart of the world we face: “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
This is a birth process, Jesus says!
There might be wars, earthquakes, famines, persecutions, cruelty, oppression. Times, Jesus says here and elsewhere, when people despair at this world’s falling apart. But something is being born in that chaos. God is creating a new reality.
Paul says the same in Romans 8: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now,” he writes, and God is working through this painfulness to bring forth new life.
Birth pangs are a wondrous image for the pain of this world. Contractions and labor, indescribable pains to those of us who haven’t experienced them, have a purpose: they move the baby through the birth canal, bringing new life into existence. So, too, God is working within the suffering creation to bring about new life. It’s no less painful. But there is hope for what comes at the end of it.
And Hannah sings that hope, what that birth, will be.
She joins her sister Mary, Jesus’ mother, whose Magnificat echoes Hannah’s song, and declares that in this world of injustice and cruel hate, where those in power crush those beneath them, where those who have nothing to eat starve, her heart exults in The One Who Is, the God of Israel.
This God, Hannah sings, will break the weapons of the mighty, and the feeble will find new strength. Those who were full will sell themselves as slaves to buy bread, while those who were hungry grow fat. Those who are poor are lifted from the dust, the pile of ashes, and sit in places of honor.
Hannah, like Mary after her, envisions a Magnificat world of grace and mercy for all people, where no one is in need, all live in love, and all are safe and whole. It is an overturning, because those on top aren’t going to give up their seats easily. But even for them, even for us, this new reality of God could be a blessing and a hope, once all are equally cared for and blessed in God’s abundance.
Hannah sings after she gives birth to Samuel; she knows the joy of the outcome of painful labor. Mary sings while still pregnant with Jesus; she, like us, lives in hope of what will come through the pain and suffering ahead.
This is what God is doing. This world will be made new, even in this life. But right now, we’re in the midst of the birth pains.
So our writer to the Hebrews encourages what we can do while God’s birthing continues.
For ten chapters, some of which we’ve heard these past Sundays, this writer has encouraged a group of Jewish Christians in their journey of faith, their pilgrimage, by naming Jesus, the Son of God, as their pioneer and guide for that journey. Jesus has suffered all they have, so he’s a faithful and knowledgeable guide. Jesus is also their new high priest, and as God’s Son, offered the ultimate sacrifice to end all sacrifices: God’s own self, offered for the world. This is God’s new covenant, we heard, written on our hearts forever, a covenant of forgiveness, even of forgetting of sins, and of new life as God’s people.
Then our author writes a glorious word: “Therefore.” “Therefore,” since Jesus has opened the Holy of Holies with his body and blood, since Jesus is our great high priest giving us full access to God’s inner life and grace, “therefore,” let us live in these following ways.
Let us approach God with a bold, true heart, we heard.
We have nothing to fear because Jesus, God’s Son, has opened the way to God. In the midst of the birth pangs, the struggles of this world, a door is opened into the heart of God. Let’s go boldly into the Holy of Holies, Hebrews says, fully assured in faith, with baptismally washed hearts and bodies, to be held by God.
And let us also “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” Let’s cling to this hope of God’s undying love as to a lifeline in a hurricane. God’s love will be with you now, giving you courage and strength to live in the birth pangs of the changing creation. And God’s love in Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection promises hope of a life to come in the world beyond death. Hold tightly to this, Hebrews says.
And last, let us “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”
Because, my dear friends, this is exactly how God is creating a new creation. Through the love and good deeds of God’s children. That’s why it’s taking so long. That’s why the forces of evil seem to run unchecked, why chaos seems to be in charge, why the labor pains are lasting for centuries. Because God’s not magically making a creation that appears and fixes everything. God’s painstakingly – literally taking pain to do this – painstakingly making a new creation such as Hannah and Mary proclaim, through the love and good deeds of all God’s children. Through yours. Through mine.
So let’s consider how to provoke each other to this, Hebrews says. Isn’t that lovely? “Provoke” means exactly what you think: irritate, annoy, even anger. Let’s be pests to each other, gnats who sting each other to love and good deeds. To do that, Hebrews says, we can’t neglect to meet together. But when we do meet together, let’s prod, poke, even annoy each other to be a part of the new creation with love and good deeds.
This is our good news: the world’s suffering is birth pangs, leading to a new creation birthed by God.
Since they’re birth pangs, that means God’s reign is certain. It will arrive. There will be a restored creation. And Christ Jesus, God’s Son, who made this birth process possible by all that he did, will be our midwife, the world’s midwife, guiding us through this process.
Therefore. Therefore, always remember what is coming, what God is birthing. That will give you hope in the darkest times.
Therefore, remember that you are safe in God’s arms now, and always, and that you can come right into God’s heart and find that love. That will give you strength in the most frightening times.
And therefore, remember because of what Jesus has done, in that confidence and hope, you know what to do: love and good deeds, the work of the birthing process that belongs to you and me. That will bring about God’s new birth more and more even in the times when it is most impossible to see.
Let us do all this, unwavering in trust and hope, until the birth happens and the universe rejoices.
In the name of Jesus. Amen