As [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 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 birthpangs.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The end is still to come. The end is still to come, says Jesus. Ooooooo. Scary words but it has been 2000 years and we are still here. What do we think of when we hear of the end times? Many Christians think of the graphic images in Thessalonians, Daniel, or Revelation filled with its antichrists, horses of many colors, dragons from the deep, and lots of burning. And so often we read those thinking they must have been written specifically for us here in America in the 21st century.
Liz and I just finished a TV show called Midnight Mass. This is not our normal television viewing because it comes from the horror genre which we often stay away from. But after several recommendations we gave in. This show follows a group of people, mostly church goers, whose world is collapsing and the choices they make as they face this end. It was haunting to see the different choices, often based on those apocalyptic scriptures, the Christians made in either rejecting the world or embracing it, in seeking personal salvation or care for the community.
The author of Mark is writing to a congregation facing very similar things. Their world has collapsed. They think the end of all things is here. This description Jesus gives of wars and rumors of wars, of earthquakes and famines as the beginning of birthpangs is not a futuristic prophecy but rather a word of care and encouragement in the literal moment. Because you see the congregation that the author of Mark is writing to has just had the central place of their worship destroyed by the Roman Empire. The Temple, God’s Temple, God’s home on earth, has been destroyed. The people of God are devastated and wondering if this is the end. Is this the end… again? Their world has ended many times as we see in the First Testament but they are also still here. Not all endings are the end.
And so what is ending for us here in the 21st century? How can we live in a time when it seems like everything we had put our trust in is ending? The global pandemic that we are living through still rages on. The global reckoning on racial justice forces us to look at our lives and our institutions. The political divisions have eroded trust in media and education and voting and one another! And so many more. I know through our many ways of meeting and talking that we are all facing endings in our lives and in our worlds. And we are confronted with the question of how to engage with this ending?
A story that I learned was originally shared by Pablo J. Luis Molinero this week, talks about a set of twins in the womb discussing their existence. One of the babies reveals their belief in life after birth to which the other laughs, claiming that that is ridiculous and doesn’t make any sense. The believing twin keeps going though, talking about their dreams of light and freedom of movement and eating real food and a Parent that will care for them! Upon hearing about this parent, the skeptical twin claims that if the Parent was real they would have seen them by now. Clearly the Parent and life after birth are fantasies. (Casey Overton, Liturgy that Matters – November 14th, 2021 – Mark 13:1-8, “Enfleshed: Spiritual Nourishment for Collective Liberation.”)
We, of course, are alive on the other side of birth and do not see birth as the end. We know that the birth is simply the beginning of life in all of its ups and downs but a baby in the womb would have no way of proving this life. In fact, if you’ve ever met a newborn, you might think that they are not too pleased with the whole birthing process. For them, everything has gone wrong, everything good has ended, their safety has been destroyed. For these babies, birth seems like the end.
But not all endings are the end. Like our call to worship brought to our attention, The sun continues to rise whether we are filled with hope or doubt. The leaves change color in the Fall no matter if we believe in republicans or democrats or something else. The pangs of birth occur whether we are ready for new life or not. God is constant in bringing about new life. And this is good news.
And while it may be cliche, it is cliche for a reason, every ending brings about a new beginning. The people of God in the face of the Temple’s destruction had to find new ways of being together, worshipping together, and caring for one another. In the show Midnight Mass, the people have a chance to, as theologian Diana Butler Bass puts it, “ turn away from the end of the world, [and] in the process, turn ourselves into monsters – or turn toward it and see a loving, healing, forgiving, and hospitable God even there.” (Diana Butler Bass. “Embrace or Escape? Midnight Mass, Benedictine Options, and Living Fully in Apocalyptic Times.” The Cottage. November 9, 2021.) When we are forced from the wombs of safety and security, we are given new chances to grow and learn and experience the world.
So as you look all around and see a world that seems to be crumbling, as fear and despair at change and uncertainty rise, and as you start to wonder if this is the end, remember that not all endings are the end. Remember that our loving Mother God is bringing us constantly into renewal and new life. There are no promises that it will be easy or comfortable, but we can rest assured knowing that She is loving us into new life. God is birthing us into a new world. So let us go in hope, even into the unknown, ushering in a world of compassion with our loving Parent.