(a sermon for November 15, 2015, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 Samuel 2:1-10 and Mark 13:1-8)
It was on a bright and sunny morning a little over a year ago that I went boldly to a place where I had never gone before: I attended a pre-retirement seminar!
Don’t get the wrong idea here: I have no plans on retiring anytime soon; in fact, I’m at least ten years out from that. But our denomination has wisely determined that we clergy-types ought to be thinking about these things; and so, at their strong invitation there I was with a couple hundred of my colleagues, learning all “the ins and outs” of drawing a pension, managing health care and basically, what’s involved in beginning a new phase of your life that doesn’t involve the daily rigors of pastoral ministry!
And to say the least, it was an eye-opener; if only for the fact that this was quite honestly the first time I’d ever really considered what the “next act” of Lisa’s and my life might look like in that not too distant future. I mean, what will we do? Where will we live? Are my wife and I going to have the chance to travel the world, or will we be content to spend our days dangling our feet off the dock “uptacamp?” And what about the years that will follow: how, for instance, are we going to deal with the many challenges, health wise and otherwise, that come with growing older? Will I be giving up on ministry completely or, as the saying goes, will I simply “be put out to pastor?” For that matter, given the economy, will we even be able to afford retirement?
I realize I’m probably not alone in this, but these are the questions that keep running through my head! I mean, up till now when I thought about the future I always kind of pictured it in a rather idyllic fashion, and that’s still pretty much the case; but now as it’s drawing closer, I have to confess that the very idea of that future unfolding before me brings forth exhilaration and great anticipation mingled with apprehension, panic and abject fear… so no retirement for me just yet!
The truth is that no matter where you are in life, the future can be something of a double-edged sword. On the one side, it’s the opportunities and possibilities that await us in the future that give us hope and allow us to dream. On the other side of it, though, for someone who may have lost a job or who is facing an illness, the future can seem rather bleak; anyone, for instance, who has grieved the loss of a loved one will tell you it’s hard enough getting through the day, much less the month or year ahead. And then there are those who doubt that the future could ever possibly change their present reality: people, for instance, who have had to endure in their lives an ever continuing cycle of abuse, addiction, or simply that constant, nagging sense that for whatever reason they’ll never be “good enough.” For some people, you see, the future can seem very hopeless indeed.
That’s why it’s good news that in the midst of life’s most harrowing and overwhelming circumstances, God is there; walking with us toward that unknown future. This is what both of our readings this morning are all about; this incredible truth that even when everything around us seems to be headed in a direction that is uncertain at best and horribly wrong at worst; even when it seems to our eyes and ears that all of life seems headed on an inevitable course of destruction, nonetheless God has a vision; a vision not of anarchy and chaos, but of hope. Things may not go as we envision them; unforeseen challenges and difficulties might well cause us to stumble; the world, at least as we’ve known it, might even come to an end: but even then we have the assurance that our God is the God of new beginnings.
Our gospel reading today is one of those passages of scripture that most of us would just as soon overlook; but one, quite honestly given the events of the past couple of days, ring all too familiar to our ears. After all, the images that Jesus puts forth here: “wars and rumors of wars… nation [rising] against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… [with] earthquakes… [and] famines.” These are frightening and disturbing images of the end of the world; and it is no wonder that this particular part of Mark’s gospel is referred to as a “little apocalypse.” And if Jesus’ words here about the future seem to us to be, well… rather blunt, consider how they must have sounded to the disciples who’d just been marveling at the beauty and grandeur of the temple, only to hear Jesus respond by saying that where those great buildings are concerned, “not one stone will be left here upon another;” there won’t be a thing left here that won’t “end up in heap of rubble.” [The Message] In other words, says Jesus, don’t be thinking that what you’re seeing here in mighty Jerusalem is the end-all-be-all and that this great old temple can’t possibly crumble; because a change is coming and it isn’t going to be pretty! So “beware that no one leads you astray.”
It’s quite a scenario, alright; but did you notice in that reading how Jesus ends up describing what’s going to happen? He refers to it – all of it, the earthquakes, the famines, the wars – as “the beginning of the birthpangs,” or the birth pains, as the NIV translation puts it. Now that’s interesting, isn’t it? Great destruction, utter chaos, the end of all things; and Jesus puts it all in the context of… giving birth!
To be sure, that does seem like a rather strange thing to say, until you stop to realize that in the human experience, a birth pang – call it a birth pain, a contraction, or whatever – is a sign that new life is imminent! I remember that when our first son Jake was born, they put a monitor on Lisa to measure her contractions; you know, that machine where the numbers go way up, and the graphs make these huge arcs as contractions happen? Well, as a guy, understand, I’m fascinated by this (!), and being the “coach,” I’m saying to Lisa, “OK… the numbers are going up… look out, here comes a contraction!” That was the first time in that blessed event that my beautiful wife took a firm hold of my arm and said, “I know when the contractions are coming; you don’t have to tell me!” Needless to say, at the birth of our two other children, I just sort of kept a casual eye on the machine…
But, in fact, no machine was necessary because “birth pangs” clearly show that good things are happening; yes, as they say, they call it “labor” for a reason, but the thing is that labor pains eventually yield to the joyous arrival of a baby! Likewise, the birth pangs of which Jesus speaks are a sign that in time, the difficulties and hardships of the past will be no more and new life will be ours. Jesus is saying here that yes, as the future unfolds those things that we previously thought of as the foundations of our lives will be shaken; and there will be difficult times ahead as our own self-important ideas and our insignificant allegiances crumble before the presence of God. But even as it happens, God, who is not shaken, will be doing a new thing in our midst. In God’s good time, at long last our grieving will come to an end and the consolation we’ve yearned for will finally be ours.
Consider the Old Testament story of Hannah, whose song we read this morning. Now Hannah’s story, which is told just prior to today’s passage, is that she was very much loved by her husband, Elkanah. But Hannah could have no children, and though her husband loved her all the more through her pain, Hannah’s grief was inconsolable. Finally, however, on a visit to the temple in Shiloh, Hannah, who we’re told was “deeply distressed,” presented herself to God and quite literally poured out heart and soul, “weeping bitterly” before the Lord; and God answers this plea with the birth of a son to Hannah and Elkanah, who was named Samuel, who would eventually grow up to become an anointer of kings. So as it turns out, then, this not only represents God’s response to Hannah in her pain, but also God’s answer to his people Israel in their anguished call for a new leader.
And when Hannah sings her prayer to thanksgiving to God it refers directly to how God has worked in the midst of that pain: “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God… the LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” (And by the way, did you notice when we read that portion of scripture how similar it is in form to Mary’s song in Luke, what we know as the Magnificat? That’s no coincidence, but a reflection of God’s ongoing plan of renewal and redemption for the world, continuing from generation to generation, age to age, culminating in the Christ child!) What we have in this story is Hannah’s transformation from a life of grief to a life of blessing; all from this God who promises new beginnings just when those beginnings seem the least possible!
Now, I recognize that this can be hard text for anyone who has ever had to stand face to face with one life’s impossible tragedies; and we need to be careful not to take this story to mean that if only we pray long enough and hard enough, and do all the right things at the right time, then God will erase all hardships and tragedies from us… because we know all-too well that sometimes for reasons we may never understand in this life tragedies happen, people die and prayers and our pleas are not always answered in just the way we that we hope they will. God does not promise that all difficulties and struggle will be taken from us; but what we do have is this assurance that in whatever does come to us in this life – good and bad, life giving and life taking, fair and utterly unfair – that God will be there in the midst of it with us; that God will give us the measure of strength and hope and peace we need to endure; and that God will be at work in amazing and miraculous ways in and through it all.
It is said that Thomas de Witt Talmage, a renowned preacher of the 19th century, used to keep a simply printed motto in a prominent place in his study, which read, “BUT GOD…” People would ask him what that rather cryptic statement meant, and he would explain that there were many passages of scripture in which the gloom of life is transformed into joy, simply by those two words, “BUT GOD…” These are words that make all the difference in our lives; the difference between defeat and triumph, the difference between despair and hope. “BUT GOD…” you see, changes things!
Hannah was so weighed down in grief and hopelessness she could not truly live, “BUT GOD” remembered her in her emptiness.
Jesus speaks of an end time full wars and conflicts, earthquakes and famine; “BUT GOD” is doing a new thing that is centered on His infinite love for humanity.
You and I feel the pain of grief and loss in our lives; we experience the weight of injustice and the terror of violence quite literally on a global scale, “BUT GOD” defeats death and brings each one of us to life, making love victorious over all, giving us true and whole peace such as the world can never give, nor take away.
It is true that on this journey of life we’re on, we sometimes fear the future; we wonder what kind of uncertainties and outright dangers we’ll be facing. “BUT GOD” sets forth a pathway for us into that future; God’s future with the destination his very kingdom, and then promises not only to walk with us every step of the way, but also to show us things within us and around as we go: new understandings, new capacities for growth, new perspectives and a new depth of communion with Him on the journey.
None of us truly knows what exists beyond the next horizon, but thanks to our God of new beginnings we do know that we can rejoice in the journey and its destination; for, after all, what are birth-pangs for if not as proclaiming the promise of new life?
In whatever comes our way, beloved, this week and always, may our hearts truly exult in the Lord… and may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry