Saturday, November 17, 2018

End of the World, or Birth Pangs? Year B, Pentecost 25, Mark 13.1-8

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
When I was in fourth grade we lived in Irene, a sleepy little farming community in the southeast corner of South Dakota.  We had just moved there from Wyoming.
One of the first people to befriend me was Claire Fagerhaug, one of the local farm boys.
I frequently went out to the Fagerhaug’s and had the opportunity to experience farm life, first hand.
One Sunday afternoon, Claire’s parents, Connie and Helmer, took the two of us with them for a visit with their relatives in Sioux Falls, a big outing.
While we were there, we went with the relatives to a church meeting that Sunday afternoon, an old fashioned “revival” in a small white church.  I remember sitting there, on a hot Sunday afternoon while the preacher went on and on.
He was preaching at great length about the end times, and how the signs were all around us about the end of the world, and we needed to be prepared.
That was in 1966, our nation had just been through World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and were heavily engaged in the Vietnam War.
At home the cultural revolution of the Sixties was well underway, with anti-war protests, drugs, and a sexual revolution stimulated in part by the invention of “the Pill” a few years before.
The civil rights movement was tearing our country apart.
John Kennedy had just recently been assassinated.
I find it interesting now, that often we look back on the fifties and sixties as being the Golden Age of the American experience, and forget what an incredibly difficult time that it was.
One thing was obvious—Change was in the air.
Well, on that sultry Sunday afternoon, in that little white church in Sioux Falls, the ‘evangelist’ went on and on about how all these things were signs that the world was coming to an end, and sooner rather than later.
When we got back to the farm that evening, I was troubled.
I asked Connie, my Sunday school teacher, about the end of the world and what that preacher had to say.  Her response is one of the most important things I have ever heard, before or since, regarding my own faith convictions.
“I don’t worry much about the end of the world”, she said.  “As far as I’m concerned, when I die the world will come to an end for me, and nothing else really matters.”
History is dotted, throughout the ages, with times of epic transformation which inevitably brought great suffering on the part of many people.
For the people of Israel there was the captivity and slavery in the land of Egypt, followed by the Exodus and journey to the promised land.
Then, things began to unravel.
First, the Kingdom was divided following the death of Solomon.
Then in 722 BC the Northern Kingdom was destroyed and the people dispersed.
In 687 the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonian Empire and the people went into exile and slavery once again.
A generation later they were able to return to Palestine and begin the long process of rebuilding.
But the subsequent centuries brought major wars and conquests, with Israel being ruled by one foreign power after another.
At the time of Jesus, of course, it was the Roman Empire that ruled Israel.
Looming on the horizon was the most disastrous event to affect the Jewish people since the birth of their nation.
One leader after another would arise in Israel, claiming to be the Messiah, and leading a rebellion against the rule of the Roman Empire.  They all failed to restore Israel’s independence.
What they did, was provoke the Roman Empire to anger.
What happened next was the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and finally, the obliteration of the nation of Israel and dispersal of its people all over the face of the earth.
This period of time when the Jewish people lived outside of Israel, around the world, was called the Diaspora, and continued until 1947, and even up to our own day.
World War II brought the Holocaust; by far the most tragic of all Israel’s suffering.
For the Christians, the experience was different.
Following the time of Christ and after Christians and Jews separated and parted ways, the Christian began to be persecuted by the Roman Empire.
They were crucified.
They were fed to the lions in the coliseum.
They were brutally killed by the gladiators.
Their demise became mere ‘sport’ for the Roman Empire.
They were blamed by Nero for the burning of Rome.
Epic times.
Times of great suffering.
Times of violent change.
Such is how the history of human kind has been written throughout the ages.
One of the facts of history, is that when faced with these cataclysmic events, each generation feared that the world was coming to an end.
The prophets warned of it, such as Daniel in our Old Testament.
So did the apostle Paul, and especially, John, in the book of Revelation.
Martin Luther saw the events of his time, where among other things, the plague was devastating Europe, as signs of the end of times.
And in modern times, people such as John Darby and his disciples, such people as Hal Lindsey who wrote the “Late, Great, Planet Earth”, and even more recently, Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins in their “Left Behind” series have speculated about the end of times.
One of the things Connie Fagerhaug also told me that night back in Irene, SD was this:
That at the end of chapter 13 in the Gospel of Mark from which today’s lesson is taken, Jesus says:
"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”
Anyone who tells you that they know what is happening, and that they have some great insight into the “end of the world” needs to listen to these words of Jesus.
Jesus himself, speaking about the calamity that is looming for the Christians and Jewish people, says “no one knows”, he doesn’t even know, when it will come—“ONLY THE FATHER.”
“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.”
When we hear these words of Jesus what can we know?
What do we make of it all?
And when there are a whole lot of Christians predicting the end of the world, what do we have to say?
OK.  So first of all, let’s do a reality check.
We do not live at a time of epic conflict and great human suffering. 
We live at a time of relative peace and prosperity. 
Sure, we’ve been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, but those ‘wars’ have been minor skirmishes compared with other conflicts.
And if the Dow Industrial Average drops a few points, that does not signal the end of the world.
Yes there are natural disasters like the fires in California, but that’s a bit different than the ‘end of the world’. 
There have been tragic events such as the murder of those people at the Jewish synagogue in Pittsburg, but that’s a far cry from the Holocaust.
We live in good times, in large part, peaceful times.  We plan for our retirement.  We enjoy our families. 
Rome is not burning!  Christians are not being crucified.
There’s one other thing I want to say today, and that is an insight into the nature of history.
Conflict, in and of itself, does not signal the end, nor does a personal crisis such as many of us face from time to time.
Rather this type of strife is actually the motor that drives change and history and opens up the door to the future.
Jesus recognizes this when he says that “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Birth pangs.
Suffering that precedes new life.
That’s a different picture than predicting the end of the world.
Throughout the history of the world there have been times of upheaval and human suffering.
And each of us, experience conflict and challenges in our life.
This does not mean that the world is coming to an end.
What the Bible tells us—
What history tells us—
                Is simply that ‘the times, they are a changing’.
But as difficult as change can be to accept, we can face the reality of change in our lives, and the transformation of the world around us, confident that the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.
Jesus foretold the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Change.  But not the end of the world, just the dawn of a new age.
As horrible as World War II was, we’re still here.  The world changed.  It didn’t end.
Likewise, we face difficulties in our own lives.  And change is hard.  But even death is not the end.
Through conflict, turmoil, and change the future unfolds before us. 
And through it all, God is and always shall be the author and giver of life.
So do not be afraid.
God’s still in charge.
And God’s love endures forever.

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