‘Do not be alarmed… the end is still to come: This is but the beginning of the birth pangs!’

Preached by Carol Kidd on 18 November 2018: 2nd Sunday before Advent
Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:14,19-25; Mark 13:1-8

May I speak in the name of Jesus who delivers us into new life, Amen.

If you have come to church hoping to hear good news – today’s a good day!

Look again at the gospel reading…

Here is Jesus in resolute ‘tell it as it is’ mode – no parable or miracle, no love your neighbour, no gentle words of protection – instead of instant comfort we hear prophesy of destruction, wars, rumours of wars, natural disasters and by the way that’s only just the start! His sermon continues from verse 9 onwards – it is the last, longest and probably most difficult discourse to his disciples.

So how can Jesus’ tough straight to the point speaking help us when there are so many alarming happenings reported day after day in the news?

At a time when many are facing uncertain futures can we like the psalmist truly have the confidence to declare that our fortune lies in the Lord’s hands?                            

The good news? Jesus said many will try to lead us astray but ‘Do not be alarmed’ at wars and rumours of wars, kingdoms against kingdoms, earthquakes and famines.

But it is not that simple is it? When we hear that Jesus says ‘do not be alarmed’ how does that work whilst threats of war are a reality and a fine line exists between nations respecting nations – when this very week, day after day, we have had before us the devastating effects of the Californian wildfires – the total destruction of the town named Paradise?

And yet – and yet – Jesus’ words can resonate as a positive message of God’s faithfulness, fully reflecting Jesus’ love and care for his disciples then – and us today.

Let me try to explain how I understand it:  

His message is clear: ‘don’t be troubled’… of course if we are concerned and told ‘not to worry’ more often than not we let it bother us a great deal – even scare us – and subsequently it can lead to our fear rubbing off on others.

Jesus says:
‘Do not be alarmed… the end is still to come:
This is but the beginning of the birth pangs!’

For over 35 years I had the privilege of walking alongside countless women and families, as a midwife I was a guest sharing their journeys of pregnancy and birth. An essential part of that role involved helping couples prepare for the ‘big day’ – providing information and choice so that rather than fearing what was to come there would be hopeful anticipation – a ‘looking forward to’ the birth process.

Any apprehension resulting from not knowing exactly how long or how painful the labour might be can be counterbalanced by the positive expectation of meeting and celebrating the new life coming into the world.

The name ‘midwife’ is relational and simply translates as ‘with woman’. Today’s readings very much follow the theme of ‘God with us’ sharing, teaching, warning, advising and reassuring. And he gives us choice – chooses us to be in a relationship with him – tells us clearly what to expect if we invite him as a guest into our lives.

Jesus had been teaching and healing in the courtyard of the Gentiles within the Temple compound. Herod’s Temple – immense in size and grandeur, majestic, visible for miles, clad with gold that reflected the sun’s rays. One of the disciples admired and drew attention to the stones of the incredible building – Jesus predicted its destruction and history tells us that within 40 years of Jesus’ death the Temple was trashed and burned by the Roman Army.

For the Jewish people the Temple represented the place where God dwelt separated from the ordinary people by the sanctuary curtain and only accessible to the High Priest. The time was fast approaching when Jesus would make the ultimate sacrifice and the curtain of the Temple would be torn in two. Mark records an eye witness account of Jesus privately meeting with Peter, James, John and Andrew: he gave them a warning – no not to frighten them but to prepare them for their future.

In labour early signs precede the active phase when the contractions are strong and there is hope that the labour will become established and lead to a birth. Applying this analogy can help us understand Jesus’ warning to the disciples then – and to us today: ‘Do not be alarmed’. There have always been and will be even more disasters resulting from forces of nature and tragedies of war caused by human error, greed and sin yet we can be assured that God’s kingdom will be established and the suffering and pain will end.

Jesus’ message for the disciples can strengthen us. When we see all the traumas of the world and cry out to be led safely through life’s difficulties, he will hear our worries and guide us in the way that leads to new birth as children of God. From personal times of trial and darkness, illness and loss, to world events of devastating proportions, it is when we are in a trusting relationship with Jesus that he will guide us, empower us, present us with choices and deliver us from pain and anguish and transform our lives.  God has promised to be faithful and asks us to hold fast to the hope we place in him as an encouragement to others.

‘Do not be alarmed… the end is still to come:
This is but the beginning of the birth pangs!’

The birth pangs should not frighten for they herald the incoming of God’s kingdom. When a labour reaches its fullness the baby is born – the new arrival is announced! With any new birth comes a sense that yes life will be changed with new journeys, new challenges ahead – so we are blessed with the offer of sharing in a loving relationship with Jesus confident in the new and living way he has opened up for us.

Even when warned by Jesus of turbulent times yet to come we can find assurance in his message and the words of today’s post Communion prayer summarize our desire:

‘Gracious Lord…..bring us at the last to that fullness of life for which we long.’ Amen