End Times Birth Pangs

Mark 13:1-13 / Proper 27B / 18 November 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

Natural disasters. Wars and rumors of wars. False religions. False messiahs. Persecutions. Oh, you thought I was talking about the newspaper this morning. And for all intents and purposes I could have been. But I was actually reviewing this morning Gospel text, the first part of Jesus’ “little apocalypse” from Mark chapter 13. And yet it sounds eerily like the headlines, doesn’t it? Hurricanes, earthquakes, war in the middle east. Hmmmm.

As they were leaving the temple, one of Jesus’ disciples has an accidental tourist moment. “Look, Teacher. All these wonderful stones and wonderful buildings.” Herod’s temple renovation project was in full swing. The sight must have been impressive with all the stone cutters working away on the massive stones. You’ve probably experienced that same sense of awe and wonder if you’ve ever visited one of the manmade wonders of the world or a great cathedral. It almost takes your breath away.

Yet Jesus seems unimpressed by the whole business. Blasé, really. “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

I don’t think we can fully appreciate what Jesus was saying and how utterly outrageous this was. This would be like someone predicting Pearl Harbor or 9/11 forty years before it happened. Anyone hearing it would think, “You’re nuts. That can’t possibly happen.” I imagine the disciples were dumbstruck. So much so they were afraid even to ask Jesus about it, and when they do, they send the four fishermen, the inner core – Peter and James and John and Andrew – to ask Jesus privately and in hushed tones. This kind of talk could get you hauled before the Sanhedrin. How dare someone speak against the temple this way! This is God’s temple and He’d never let it be destroyed, would He?

“Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Inquiring minds want to know. They need to know. When? What are the signs? Stuff like this just fascinates us. The end times. The last days. There’s a whole cottage industry built around the signs and the times of the end. Left Behind. The Late Great Planet Earth. Millennialism. Apocalyptic literature and movies. Last year it was Harold Camping. This year the Mayans. Next year, who knows?

Even better if we can be in on the secret. If we can be the ones who know the times and the signs. If we can be the ones to warn others. Wouldn’t that be something if we could know the times and signs of the end? But Jesus won’t give that, at least, not in the way that Peter and James and John and Andrew want it. Instead, Jesus paints a pattern, some things to watch and take note of.

There will be religious signs. False Christs, false Messiahs, false religions. People coming in the name of Jesus claiming “I AM.” Claiming to be God, or at least His spokesman. And people will believe it, because people who believe nothing tend to believe anything. Especially if it can cook up some signs and wonders, because oh we love the miracle, the power, the glory.

There will be political signs. Wars and rumors of war. Nation rising up against nation. Kingdom against kingdom. As we speak today, Israel is on the brink of war. Again. We’ve been involved in over ten years of war. We pray for deployed soldiers every week. The 20th century that recently closed was the bloodiest when it comes to war. Two world wars and then a couple more. It seems wherever you look in the world, there is some nation at war or on the brink of war. And the middle east, the cradle of Christianity, the place where the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, is never at peace.

There will be natural signs, the creation groaning. Earthquakes, famines, not to mention storms, floods, hurricanes, wildfire, pestilence, drought. We’ve seen it in the last few years.

And all of this might cause one to despair, but Jesus gives a word of encouragement here: These are but the beginning of the birth pains.

The birth pains. The labor contractions of the new creation. Not the death throes of the old creation, though that’s true too. But Jesus chooses, as the apostle Paul also says in Romans, that the pains and sufferings and groanings of this present time are the birth pangs of something new breaking in. The new creation. Life. Resurrection from the dead.

Keep that firmly in mind. The devil, the world, your own flesh would despair, clutch at false hopes and false beliefs, would doubt the goodness and mercy of God in the face of suffering and death. Don’t buy into it! Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ has conquered by His dying and rising. The old is already gone. The new has already come in Christ. You are already new in Christ, baptized into Him, believing in Him. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”

Jesus has some specific instructions for His disciples – Peter and James and John and Andrew. They will be handed over to religious councils, beaten in the synagogues, hauled before the civil authorities. And they would bear witness to them, and in so doing, the Gospel would go out to all the nations.

Just as Jesus bore the brunt of religious and state persecution, convicted by the Sanhedrin, convicted and sentenced by Pilate, so the church in the world always feels the heat of Religion and Government. The book of Acts bears the record. Read it for yourself. The apostles are hauled before the religious court, they’re told to stop preaching the name of Jesus, they’re beaten for it. The Roman government turns against the Christians and tries to wipe them out. And what happens through all this persecution? “The Word of the Lord grows.”

When Christianity is popular and trendy and the “it” thing, be very suspicious. When the government is friendly to the Church, watch out. When religious types of all sorts and beliefs say nice things about Jesus and His followers, be on guard. The cross is an offense to the religious. The kingdom of Christ is a threat to the kingdoms of this world precisely because it is not of this world. The world would love to tame Christianity, domesticate it, use it. But Christ won’t have it. He won’t permit it. His Church, which is His Body, always appears weak and beaten and crucified in this world. And especially more so as the end draws near.

Today as we are gathered here, there are countless Christians all over the world suffering persecution. A web site devoted to publicizing the persecution of Christians in the world lists 52 countries today where Christians face persecution in one form or another. There are Christians imprisoned for their faith in Jesus in China, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, Tanzania, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

On Sunday, Nov 4th of this year, suspected Muslim extremists hurled a grenade on the roof of the Utalwala Interdenominational Church in Kenya, killing a police chaplain and injuring 11 others.

Christians in Tanzania have lost churches, homes, cars and livestock in a series of recent attacks, and some have received physical injuries. In the most recent attack, Muslims returning from worship at a mosque on Friday, Oct. 12, burned a car belonging to Bishop Muhiche of the Tanzania Assemblies of God church. After burning his car, the extremists moved on to destroy the pastor’s church.

On Friday afternoon, Sept. 21, a mob of several thousand radical Muslims attacked St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Mardan City, Pakistan. The attackers, armed with rifles and kerosene, overwhelmed security guards and broke into the church. They destroyed Bibles and prayer books, desecrated the altar and set fire to the church building and several surrounding homes and buildings.

In Iran, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was released from prison on Saturday, Sept. 8, after remaining in custody for nearly three years while fighting apostasy charges and a death sentence.

In Pakistan, a young, physically-handicapped Christian girl accused of blasphemy waits to hear her fate in a high security prison. Rimsha Bibi, a poor girl from a low caste family of Christian sweepers, was accused of burning pages containing Quranic verses. When rumors of the incident spread, hundreds of Muslim protestors surrounded a police station on Aug. 16 and demanded Rimsha face prosecution under Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws.

Jesus warned His disciples that the times of the end would be times of great distress. And yet the Word would endure. The Gospel would go out to all nations, as it has, many times over, often powered by persecution. Jesus even told His disciples not to worry what they would say. The Holy Spirit would speak through them and give them the words.

The cross would divide families – brother against brother, father against child, children against their parents. You may have experienced it in your own families, being marginalized because you belong to Christ.

“And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” Anyone who thinks that Christianity is going to be popular religion, needs to hear this word from Jesus and take it to heart. You will be hated by all because you bear the name of Christ.

But take heart. The one who endures to the end will be saved. There is salvation at the end of this road. The sufferings of this present time, whatever they may be, do not compare with the glory that will be revealed on the day of Jesus’ coming. When the Roman armies marched through Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, leaving no stone on top of another, people thought the world had come to an end. In a sense, they were right. As goes the temple, so goes the world. But in another sense, they were not right. The world went on without the temple.

And the world had already come to a much greater end. On a good Friday, outside Jerusalem. In darkness at Noon. On a cross. When Jesus said, “It is finished.” That was the end of the world as we know it. Jesus embracing the world in His own body brings the world to its end in His death. He is the persecuted One. The Martyr of all martyrs. The Lord of lords. The King of kings. He endured to the end. And in the end, He saved the world, and you. Baptized into Him, you have died to this dead world, and now live to God in Christ. For you, the end came in the water of Baptism with the Name. You died. And your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

For that reason, the world will hate you. Don’t take it personally. It’s not you. It’s Jesus the world hates. But you can’t kill Jesus. Not forever. Three days later, He’s back. Alive and well. And the world can’t kill you either. Not forever. At the end, you’ll be back, alive and well in Jesus, as you are already alive and well in Jesus.

Birth pains give way to joy and a birth. The end times pains give way to salvation and life. Present darkness gives way to future light. Your sorrow becomes joy. Your death becomes life. The one who endures to the end will be saved. He who believes and is baptized will be saved. That’s you.

In the name of Jesus,