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.”… 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.” (Read the Whole Passage here)
Some weeks as a preacher, you plan one thing, and the breaking news comes. The hourly news on the radio, twitter and Facebook alerts, news articles
19 in Bagdad
43 in Beirut
127 in Paris
Explosions and bullets.
Chaos. Fear. Death.
The world prays for Paris and beyond.
The veneer of business as usual is once again shattered.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and families today as the long slow process of rebuilding life begins.
But as we sit here, tucked away from the danger, yet still with heavy hearts, we know that there are explosions and shootings everyday. Paris feels closer to home, than Beirut or Baghdad, but the violence happens everyday.
Father Angelo has led a number of tours of holy sites in his ministry at St. David’s. Every few years, he offers a chance for a group from the congregation to travel for a couple weeks and to see historical parts of the world. He has taken groups to the Holy Land a number of times, to Rome, and to England. This year, the group was touring the Cathedrals of central Europe. They were headed to the largest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, the Cologne Cathedral.
As the tour bus approached, the group could see the cathedral towering above the city. With the twin towering spires looking like they were reaching for heaven above, Father Angelo led the group into the church. The Cathedral was bustling with life. There were hundreds of people mingling about. There were a dozen tour guides were lecturing groups in different languages.
And then all of a sudden a loud crash could be heard outside, followed by the whole cathedral shaking, dust scattering everywhere.
And then another explosion… all the people inside the church froze for a moment. And then as if on cue, people began running, screaming and shouting. Father Angelo called for his group to stay calm and stay put.
Next Sunday will be Christ the King, the New Year’s Eve of the church year. And then we will reset the story of Jesus, and begin again with pregnancy as we wait for the birth of Messiah.
But we are not quite there yet… Instead first we must hear the last portion of Mark’s gospel for this year. And in true Markan fashion, it is yet another conversation between Jesus and the disciples, where they miss the point and Jesus gets annoyed.
Paris is exactly what Jesus is talking about with the disciples. As they marvel at grandness of the temple, Jesus points out how they cling to the illusion of security, safety, comfort, and enduringness. They see the temple as a sign of God’s power. Jesus’ words about the temple are not judgement or condemnation. He isn’t hoping for the temple to fall. He is simply warning of the inevitable. He is telling the disciples that if the stones of the temple are where they place their faith… They will not just be disappointed, but one day they will be fleeing the falling stones as they threaten to come down.
On Friday, we bore witness as Paris was another destruction of the temple. A temple built to our own power, our own security, to faith in our own god-likeness. Because unlike Beirut or Bagdad, Paris is the same stadiums and restaurants and concert halls that we believe are safe for us. We are shaken because Paris could be here. We could be the ones out for dinner, watching the game, at a concert when the bullets start flying, or the suicide bombers decide to press the button.
If our faith is in the large stones and tall buildings and in the idea that violence couldn’t happen here, we will be disappointed.
And at the same time, if our fear is that every refugee is a terrorist and that we can close our doors and boarders to be safe while not also closing off some part of our hearts, we have again put our faith in the wrong thing.
Jesus warns us not to be surprised when the stones begin to fall and when the wars begin. But as we try to understand even more senseless violence and death, it is hard to understand what God is up to.
Jesus does give us a clue. The birth pangs.
As we are about to begin Advent, the church’s season of pregnancy, we know that the birth pangs mean that something new is about to happen. We know that the pain and suffering, the aches and stiffness, the loss of control and uncertainty about what is coming might be signs of impending death and destruction. But with God, we know that these are also the signs of something new, something being born into our world.
In just few minutes, the cathedral was nearly emptied out. Father Angelo and his group found an alcove to take shelter in with a few other tourists. There were sirens and the sound of gun fire coming outside. The world seemed to have flipped from wonderful European holiday to surreal chaos in the blink of an eye.
As the group huddled together, the doors to the cathedral burst open. 3 young, dark skinned men with beards and backpacks came pouring in. The St. David’s tour group looked at each other in abject fear. A few started sobbing, one person cried, “This is the end.”
Father Angelo stood up and left the alcove. He waved the three men over to alcove. They came running, and as he ushered them into the alcove, breathing heavily, they sat down next to the others against the wall.
One looked up to Father Anglo and said, “Thank you, Father.”
Father Angelo nodded.
As the St. David’s group slowly began to relax, the three men checked their phones and caught their breath.
As the noises of chaos and sirens continued outside the church, the group settled in. One of the men, looking as scared and worried as anyone in the St. David’s group, looked again towards Father Angelo and said, “Father, will you lead us in prayer.”
“Yes… we should pray, shouldn’t we.” said Father Angelo.
And together, the 3 young dark skinned men, cathedral stragglers and the group of St. David’s began to pray, “Kyrie Eleison. Lord have mercy.”
In the midst to crashing stones, Jesus could have said that these things mean the end. Instead he says they are the birth pangs. That these things mean something beginning, not something ending. We so often see the struggle and pain, the chaos and uncertainty as symptoms of dying. Yet, these are also symptoms of pregnancy.
And with God, the birth pangs points us to a pregnant teen and her carpenter husband travelling the harsh country side in the midst of foreign occupation and population control. The birth pangs herald a baby born in the most inconspicuous of stables in the back corner of the world far away from large temple and large stones.
God’s work happens in the quiet corners. God’s work happens with normal people, like us.
It is like Mr Rogers who reminds us to “look for the helpers”.
It is the Porte Ouverte, Open Door message that Parisians used to let those who were stuck outside know that there was safety to be found.
It is a musician who drags his grand piano on his bike, to play John Lennon’s imagine outside of the bombed out concert hall.
It is hearts that refuse to be closed off even though every instinct tells us it is not safe to be open to the “other”.
But most of all the birth pangs are signs of God’s promise that death does not have the final say. That tall buildings and large stones, nor explosions and the bullets, are the powers that define us.
Instead in the places where we least expect,
God stands where tall buildings and stones have fallen.
God is thwarting the bullets and explosions.
God is birthing new life.
God has already begun the work of reconciliation and resurrection.
Because reconciliation and resurrection always begin in the broken and tragic places.
Because new life must first begin in death.
Because God works with mangers and crosses, with open doors and prayers prayed by helpless and far away neighbours and friends.
God’s life giving work happens in the small places, because that is all God needs. Because that is where death and darkness are defeated. In mangers, on crosses, in empty tombs, on open doors/ Portes Ouvertes, with prayer vigils reminding us to forgive and to hope. The birth pangs are are not the destruction… The birth pangs are the realization that neither our large stones nor our bullets have real power.
The birth pangs are the sign that God is about transform the world with virgins and shepherds, with fishermen, tax collectors and sinners, with words of faith, water, bread and wine. With a praying Body, a praying community spread all over the world, God is making us the Portes Ouvertes / Open Doors of the Kingdom. God is transforming the world in the Body of the One who was laid in the manger but walked out of the tomb. In the One who is there wherever two or three gather to pray, even when the bombs and bullets are falling.
And so today, as the stones fall, as the news breaks, as the fear of the other threatens… we prepare for the birth pangs. God is about to birth something… someone new into the world. Messiah, the One who will truly save us, the One who is greater than any temple, any bomb, any fear. Messiah is on the way.