I know Jesus says not to be, but I’m feeling alarmed.
The President of the University of Missouri system resigned Monday amidst racial turmoil, as accusations are hurled and America’s original sin of race still looms large.
Pick your shooting of the week, from a South African training facility in Jordan to Penn station to neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago or by Woodcroft shopping center last weekend.
In a vibrant city with as much energy and growth as ours, a city that collects fascinating, thoughtful people, 28% of OUR children live in poverty, 18% of adults.1 We have a team right now in Haiti, the poorest country in the northern hemisphere, at a clinic in Port-au-Prince. Fifty percent of urban Haitians are unemployed, 100,000 children suffer from acute malnutrition.2
All of this was pretty alarming already… and then… Friday… families walk up to a soccer stadium and stand in line with tickets… friends are having dinner outside in a trendy Paris neighborhood on a beautiful evening… a bunch of buddies get together and decide to go to a concert… and global terror comes home to us again, a reminder of the deep seated anger roiling throughout the world, a perverted version of Islam that seeks to crush and control…
Yet Jesus says, When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
In today’s text, it is the heart of Holy Week and the tension is high. Chapter 13 is Jesus’ longest and last speech in Mark – the equivalent to the Farewell discourse in John, the Great Commission in Matthew… But unlike our other Gospels, Jesus does not say "love one another" or "engage in mission to the Gentiles" – here, Jesus’ final word is to watch for the coming Son of Man.3 The disciples have witnessed Jesus teaching: give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, love the Lord your God, don’t look for the best seats in the house, give everything you have like the widow with her coins that we heard, across the temple courtyard last week, her powerful clink, clink. Chapter 13 begins abruptly – it feels like a bit of a non sequitur – as they walk out of the temple courtyard, whoa, those stones are enormous! Douglas Hare describes the Temple as one of the wonders of the ancient world. Huge walls were erected to support its vast footprint (one stone alone is 40 feet high). Herod the Great used so much gold decorating the exterior that, according to Josephus, the sight almost blinded spectators when the sun shone on it.4
But Jesus says, no matter how big and beautiful the stones, it’s all coming down. Scholars struggle with whether this text was written BEFORE the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70, or AFTER, but it was certainly in the midst of the great war that led to its destruction. Mark’s readers would know too well the reality of nation warring against nation, of unpredictable and overwhelming religious violence, of terror and brutality and death beyond, Josephus writes that in the siege of Jerusalem from 66-70 one million people died.5
In their shock the disciples waited. Later, up on the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, John, and Andrew pull Jesus aside. When? When are those massive stones coming down? Here on the mountaintop, where God often reveals God’s-self, they want to know. People throughout history have their own list of tragedy and trauma, and we are afraid – for our world, for the future, for what the next generation will inherit. The world feels increasingly unstable from every direction. What shall we do?
"Beware," is what Jesus says first. Blepete, "watch out" – Jesus repeats this throughout the chapter: Keep alert. Pay attention. Jesus’ point is not prediction, but to make sure his disciples know how to live in the meantime. Keep your eyes open. Many will come in my name, he says first, claiming to be the one for whom you have been waiting, but they will be peddling their own agenda or capitalizing on your fear. Those who plan and those who want to take advantage of terrorism want us to be afraid, to put up walls, they want to divide us one from another, they want us suspicious of each other. He turns back to his list: When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come… nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes… famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
This is no naïve, pie in the sky, "everything’s gonna be alright" kind of comfort. Jesus knows, and I think we know, that things may very well get worse before they get better. BUT Jesus is also equally clear that this pain, this suffering, is part of the process in which God births something new. Labor pains had become a traditional term for eschatological expectation – a metaphor for the terrors, the pain, of the days just before the birth of a new time, the trouble the world must go through in bringing forth the messianic age.6 But here Jesus doesn’t seem interested in answering the disciples’ question of when. Jesus is interested in steeling them for living then. Now. This kind of literature throughout scripture – here, Revelation, Daniel – works hard to do two things: 1) to give us courage to live in this time before God brings all things into God’s self, when, as Revelation 21 says, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, and 2) to remind us who is ultimately Lord of all.
We cannot escape the world – that’s one thing we’re learning in all of this, I think. We can’t be far enough way, in a free society no amount of security, no number of extraordinary leaders and intelligence professionals and courageous troops can keep us fully safe. Yet we are called to watch out, to keep awake, not in anxious paranoia, but to work, to LIVE, to serve the poor with all we have, to work together to feed the hungry, to advocate for those without a voice, so often in partnership with so many amazing organizations here for One World Market and our Alternative Gift Fair. We must keep awake. But even more so, in the face of violence and terror, we must live toward those birth pangs. If we are to be a people who live with hope, we don’t lash out in anger. If we are to be a people who live with hope, we know we can name radical fundamentalist Islam and distinguish it from so many other of our Muslim brothers and sisters. If we are to be a people who live with hope in those birth pangs, we can be about, in all of our communities and neighborhoods and workplaces, speaking out against injustice and bigotry and hatred in all its forms, working, with everything we have, to participate in the building of the beloved community, seeking understanding across differences, all those things, those categories that divide us, like race and class and religion and sexual orientation and culture, all throughout the world. We MUST find a way to live together, against those elements in all of our faiths and those of no faith that are doing their best to make us afraid and drive us apart. They know that fear gives them power, and they don’t deserve it.
When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed… For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes… there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
Do not be alarmed, Jesus says, though there sure is a lot to be alarmed about. But might we, even in the terror, reach toward the ultimate purposes of God, who promises us to come again in glory. In the midst of the pain of those birth pangs, might we be a community that watches, that keeps awake, living and loving and serving, knowing that God, we pray soon, is birthing something new, Someone, bringing hope to all.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. End Poverty Durham
2. At a glance: Haiti (Unicef) The numbers are pretty awful. 10 Facts About Hunger In Haiti (World Food Programme)
3. Williamson, Lamar. Mark: Interpretation, John Knox Press, Atlanta, GA 1983, p. 238, from the Rev. Meg Peery McLaughlin’s paper on this text at The Well, 2009, Austin, Texas.
4. Hare Douglas. WBC: Mark (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), p.167-187, also from Meg’s paper.
5. Siege of Jerusalem (70 CE) (Wikipedia). See an entire brutal description in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s, Jerusalem: A Biography.
6. Boring, Eugene. Mark: A Commentary, The New Testament Library John Knox Press, Louisville, 2006. pg. 363