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 birth-pangs.”
It is coming close to the end of the church year. Next week it will be Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the church year. And then we will flip the calendar over to Advent, and begin again. Today, we hear from Mark for the final time this year. Mark who has been aggressively pushing the disciples and calling us to let go of all the things that hold us back, our selfish desires, our want of comfort and security, our habit of putting ourselves ahead of others. And Mark has been showing us a Jesus who wants us to see the Kingdom of God, to see the transforming world around us and to witness the work of God in the world.
Of course, it has not been easy and nor have we been all that successful. And Mark seems to get this. From beginning to end, Mark’s gospel recognizes that the disciples never figure it out and neither do we. And yet Jesus sticks with them and sticks with us despite that.
Today, we pick up from last week, from the story of the widow’s mite. After watching the widow give everything she had to the temple, in an act of resignation, Jesus and his disciples leave together. On their way out, the disciples begin remarking on this grandness of the Jerusalem temple. And indeed the temple was a sight to behold. For the people of Israel in that day, the temple was the centre of their world. It was the dwelling place of God, the place from where their history and identity flowed, as well as power and privilege.
Yet, Jesus will have none of it. He grumpily declares that all of it will be thrown down. Which is akin to saying that all of Israel will be thrown down, the power and history and religion of the Israelites will be crushed. Of course, it was only about 40 years later that the Romans did indeed raze the temple to the ground. But for the disciples and the rest of Israel at that moment, it probably seems unimaginable.
Finally, on the Mount of Olives looking down on the temple, after the disciples look around to see that no one is listening and eagerly ask Jesus just when the temple will be destroyed. Presumably the are imagining something even greater coming in its place. If their teacher and master really is the Messiah, he will certainly usher in a new age of prosperity for the people, which includes a new temple. The disciples can only imagine more of what the temple attempts to portray — they can only imagine a greater symbol, a more influential centre of society and culture, an even grander source of meaning and a more potent history for the people of Israel.
The disciples, despite all that they have been through with Jesus are still marvelled at the prospect of power that the temple represents.
As we prepare to turn our calendars over the Advent and begin telling the story of Jesus again new, we do so knowing that we carry the same struggle as those disciples. We don’t really want imagine all the birthpangs or really any part of the pregnancy. We want the Christmas moment, the angels and shepherds, animals and drummer boys. Whether it is in our personal lives or at work, we dream so often of the time when everything comes around for us. Whether it is in our communities or around the world, dreams of peace and harmony abound (as long everyone buys into our vision of peace). Or whether it is the church, the longing we carry for different circumstances, for the easy abundance of our fond memories.
And just how do we know that we feel just as the disciples did? Just listen to regular church goers on Christmas Eve… when the church is often full, full of friends and family we so often hear or say ourselves, “Wouldn’t it be nice if it could always be like this?”
We like the idea of the birth moment, the time when all the work comes together, when all the waiting is over, when the uncomfortable, achy, growing pregnant body is finally done with being pregnant and the new miracle is birthed (of course we know that pregnant bodies don’t just go back to normal but are forever changed by childbirth).
We love the magic of Christmas, the powerful symbol it represents in our minds and hearts – much like the Jerusalem temple for that disciples.
But we do not like what it takes to get there, we do not like the hard work and messiness that is required for something to be refashioned, to be reclaimed, to be renewed, to be reborn.
Or as Jesus calls it, the wars and conflict and earthquakes and famines.
The disciples want to know when things will be accomplished, but Jesus is concerned with what it takes to make the journey.
For you see, at this point in the story, Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem hailed by the crowds as conquering king… and will in hours, be arrested, tried, and executed. All by the great powers of the temple of Jerusalem and by the great powers of Rome.
Jesus knows that despite our desire to skip the messy stuff and go straight to magical moment, the Christmas moment, that we tend to spend a lot of our lives in the mess. We spend much of our lives waiting, wishing for things to be different, wading through imperfect and flawed places of the world, through the chaos of just making it from one day to another.
But Jesus also knows that it is in the birthpangs, in the human mess that God is at work. That even as Jesus is about to enter into the darkest valley of human sinfulness, that God is doing that hard work of refashioning, reclaiming, renewing, rebirthing.
Refashioning sin on a cross.
Reclaiming death as New Life.
Renewing the bond between creator and created.
Rebirthing all of us into Kingdom as beloved and forgiven children of God.
These are the birthpangs.
This is work that God is doing in the messy places, that bottom, common, ungrand, powerless, unremarkable places. In and through people like those nobody disciples out in the far and forgotten corners of the world. And also in and through people like us, in the far and forgotten corners of Manitoba and the Interlake.
While we are waiting for Christmas. Hoping that the end of the struggle comes soon, that everyone is resolved and wrapped neatly in bow. And that the Christmas magic will become our new everyday…
God comes to us in the real places, comes to real human life. Real life that happens in the messiness of families and communities and places of work. Real Life that happens in the never ending, monotonous day to day. Real life happens in all those other Sundays when it seems like there are too few voices for the singing and too few hands to greet and share the peace with.
These are our birthpangs, the places where the Kingdom of God is breaking into our world to refashion, reclaim, renew and rebirth us.
It is not about temples being crushed or conquering Messiahs or making church feel like Christmas every Sunday… Jesus is telling us today that he has come for the real thing… the real and messy parts of life. Because that is where we are and we know it.
Jesus comes in the birthpangs because we are constantly being stretched and pushed by life for what comes next. And in the midst of all that, of real life, Jesus comes to us.
Jesus comes to give us a glimpse of the Kingdom being born right here, right now.