Two stories of new birth this morning, and what different stories they are!
Our Old Testament story is that of Hannah, who longed for a child, and was the subject of mocking by many people, even the prophet Eli, in her barrenness. No one seemed to understand her sadness and longing. No one, of course, except God, who eventually responded to her vow dedicating a son to God’s service, and, as the passage says, “opened her womb.”
We can imagine her great joy, finally being pregnant, and finally going through labor and delivering her son Samuel, who would be the prophet who anointed Saul and David.
Going through labor, even in a situation like this where the child is so longed for, is still hard and painful work. Hannah might certainly be forgiven if, at some point in the process of delivering Samuel, she said, “I wanted a child, but I never expected it would hurt so much. If I only had known, maybe I wouldn’t have asked.”
Once the child was born, of course, the pain was put behind her, and all was joy, a dream realized. And, as she promised, Hannah raised her son to serve God as a Nazarite. God had answered her prayers. Those prayers, in conjunction with her own hard work, brought her the son she had sought.
What a different kind of birth the strange passage from the Gospel of Mark offers us today!
It is a passage called “the Little Apocalypse” by biblical scholars. The word “apocalypse” is one we currently use to talk about the end of the world, or some catastrophic event that feels like the end of the world as we know it. That’s part of the meaning of the word, but there’s a bit more than that when we use it in talking about the Bible. It is a particular literary and theological style. It usually includes predictions of the end of the world, weird stuff happening that signal the end of time, use of symbols, particularly animal symbolism, numerology as a tool to determine when this will happen. If you read the Book of Revelation, it’s pretty much all apocalyptic. The Book of Daniel is largely apocalyptic. There is usually an allegory about the battle between good and evil – think angels and demons – and there is at some point an end to the battle. In the apocalyptic view, God will intervene within a predictably short interval to end the present evil age and to vindicate the faithful; thus it is pessimistic about the possibilities of what God can achieve within history, and is preoccupied with the end of history as God’s solution. God judges at the end of history and sorts out the good from the evil.
So what is this little apocalyptic passage doing stuck in the middle of Jesus’ teachings to the disciples and what are we supposed to do with the “birthpangs” of a new age to come?
First, this is just a small piece of the whole passage about the signs of coming changes, and the details are quite ugly. Don’t read it before bedtime. And know that many popularists have used this in addition to a related passage in 1 Thessalonians as the basis of all sorts of theories about the end of the age. The rapture, so described in a series of novels by Tim LaHaye, is a construct that first was proposed by Cotton Mather, and later became more widely discussed by John Nelson Darby in the early 1800s and expanded upon and popularized in the mid 1800s. In the 1970’s, a writer names Hal Lindsey wrote a book called “The Late Great Planet Earth” that reintroduced the theory. Lindsey thought that there were many signs indicating the rapture was about to come (the Cold War, the European economic Community was the seven-headed beast mentioned in Revelation, …all signs of impending Armegeddon, before which the good guys – the church, presumably – would get “raptured” before all the tribulations came. If you think this is a radical view that is not commonly held today, I’d remind you of some of the craziness that happened around the Y2K timeperiod, and the fact that there is a new movie, 2012, that supports an apocalyptic view based upon one of those odd justifications that the world will end on a particular date for particular reasons (think numerology and conspiracy theory all wrapped up into one). Fundamentalist evangelical Christians are the primary proponents of this theological position these days – we Episcopalians do believe in an end time, when God will judge us, but we don’t believe that there is a preliminary step where the good guys get a pass on the bad stuff that may happen right before then.
So this passage talks about some bad stuff happening. Is it a marker of the end of history, or of something else? Yes, Jesus talks about birthpangs…that would be a metaphor of something major and new happening. But if we understand when this was written, we may have a clue to what’s going on. Much of what is described in the passage parallel what is happening to the Jewish community about the time of the Fall of the Temple in Jerusalem, in the year 70. Scholars disagree as to whether it was written before the destruction of the Temple or afterwards, but we can feel confident that it was during a time of great tumult between the Jews and the Roman Empire. And this passage may follow another of the conventions of apocalyptic: some authors write about stuff that has already happened as if they are writing far in advance of it happening, thus making their statements seem like prescient predictions rather than reporting the news of the day. So the words of this story in Mark may be talking about a radical change in the lives of the Jewish Christians, particularly those in Jerusalem. It is less an allegory than a statement of what is going on around them, and it seems to point toward a more immediate return of the risen Christ than history shows us.
And that’s both the bane and the blessing of apocalyptic: Nostradamus, Tim LaHaye and the movie 2012 aside, we have a hard time identifying when any of these things that market he beginning of the end of time will happen. But in another way, they are always happening. Open the newspaper, and you’ll read about nations taking up arms against other nations. A magnitude 7.2 earthquake in Fiji on November 9th. Famines in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Sudan. Brother battling against brother – wasn’t this what happened at Fort Hood? Does this mean that the world is about to end?
I don’t believe so. I believe that Jesus will come someday and the world will end as we know it. But for now, we might be better served by looking at the great shifts in our world, the reinventing of society, and see the birth pangs that mark those events. We see a shift in awareness of the needs of others for food through organizations such as Oxfam and Share Our Strength. We see a shift in the delivery of the things that help people stay healthy from groups promoting the use of mosquito nets in places where malaria is rampant, to Doctors without Borders. We see a shift in understanding how communities can live in peace with each other in some of the positive signs in Somalia and in the many activities of the Mennonite Church. None of these things is without controversy, which is certainly a sign that we are laboring to make them happen. If they were easy, it wouldn’t be work. But labor, and the pains that accompany it, is necessary for change.
And we can see this writ small here at St. Middle School, where we are in the midst of our own birthpangs of a sort. We are moving into a new stage of our existence as we publish our Parish Profile and begin to receive names of candidates to be our permanent vicar.
It’s a little bit frightening. Those of us who have given birth can affirm that when you go into labor with your first child, it doesn’t matter how much you have read about labor, how much you’ve heard other women’s stories, it’s a whole different thing when the first birth pang hits. So it is with us. This is something different and new and not without dangers or pain. So we revisit the words of the Gospel today to prepare ourselves for the next birth pang: we will not be distracted by well-meaning but unhelpful advice from false prophets nor will we be drawn into petty disagreements. We will take a deep breath and welcome the work ahead, because that labor is what will take is into a new stage of our life as a parish in the months to come.
Birth pangs. Not easy, but necessary, to move closer to the kingdom, to what God wants us to