Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pentecost 24

A young woman who was heavily pregnant with her first child once confided in me how well everything was going.  She said ‘I’ve been nauseous for the last six months, my back aches, I’ve got sweating and hot flushes and strange cravings’.  Really strange cravings – nothing as normal as chocolate or Chinese food at 10pm, what she wanted to eat was rubber.  She told me she managed to restrain herself from actually taking a nibble, but used to surreptitiously sniff the rubber thongs in aisle 13 at the local supermarket.  She’d asked her doctor what it all meant, and he said to her, ‘it means everything is just fine.  It means everything is going just as it should.’

When Jesus uses the metaphor of birth pangs for the signs of the times in our Gospel reading this morning, it makes sense.  Wars, rumours of wars, and terror.  Earthquakes, famines, bushfires and mudslides and tsunamis.  Wild political theories, weird religious cults.  Alarm over climate change.  Financial and economic meltdown.  It might look like everything is falling to bits, it might look like the end of the world but believe it or not this is normal.  I rather like the translation of Eugene Peterson in his Bible paraphrase, “The Message” – ‘this is routine history’. 

I remember when I first became a Christian - not as a child or a teenager but as a young adult in the early 80s and I started really reading the Bible and I came across this passage in Mark’s Gospel.  It was just a bit scary – I thought to myself, ‘but this is exactly what’s happening right now’.  And over the years I began to realise that every generation in history has seen their own time mirrored in these verses.  Which just goes to show that what we experience as threatening and ominous really is at some level, ‘routine history’.  And of course I came to realise – as no doubt you have also noticed – how often throughout history manipulative and unscrupulous so-called Christian leaders have exploited the anxiety of the times by proclaiming ‘this is it’ – ‘this time the end really is nigh’.

‘No’, Jesus assures us.  These things are just signs that you are living in routine history, where human goodness and evil struggle against each other, where natural events take a terrible toll, where you need courage and compassion to live your life with optimism and integrity.  Theologian Karl Rahner makes a useful distinction between real Christian eschatology – a word that means thinking about the goal of history and our own personal existence – real eschatology and fake, sensationalist predictions of the so-called end-times.  Lurid predictions of the future, he points out, don’t actually have any real connection with our present.  They just leave us feeling vaguely unsettled.  Real eschatology affirms that our lives have a direction and a purpose – we don’t just go round and round in an endless cycle of days and weeks and years but are drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery of our true identity – real eschatology is concerned with how the final fulfilment of the world and of our own selves can transform us in the here and now.  Rahner points out – as Jesus also does – that the end of all things is necessarily hidden, but assures us that what is hidden from us is precisely what is revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  In other words the end of all things is exactly the fulfilment that is promised in the here and now, in which we are already present to God in Christ.

That doesn’t make routine history any less dramatic or frightening when you are living in the middle of it.  In our wealthy country we sometimes feel insulated from the things we read about in the newspapers or see on the TV news.  Human nature being what it is, it’s easy to look at the signs of economic prosperity, public buildings, freeways, fast electric trains, brightly-lit shopping centres, well-equipped hospitals – and see in all that a guarantee of security, even a sign of God’s blessing.  But we need to notice that Jesus’ unsettling words in today’s Gospel reading are actually a caution against this kind of thinking.  Just before this, at the end of chapter 12, the disciples have been oohing and ah-ing at the Temple.  Remember that these men and women were from Galilee, a rural backwater, and that most people in ancient societies never travelled far from home.  According to Mark’s version of events this is the one and only time Jesus and his disciples ever travelled to Jerusalem, for the great Passover in which the city filled with gawking tourists and country bumpkins alike.  The second temple, begun back in the sixth century before Jesus and splendidly completed by King Herod the Great was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  The disciples are understandably awe-struck by this symbol of religious and cultural magnificence – and Jesus says to them, ‘you think this is something?  It’s all going to come tumbling down’. And of course we know that about 37 years later, following an ill-judged uprising, the Temple was in fact razed to the ground by the Roman armies of the Emperor Vespasian.  I think Jesus is cautioning us against taking ourselves too seriously.  Don’t put your trust in share markets or building funds because they will collapse.  Don’t put your trust in charismatic religious leaders because they like the sound of their own voices a bit too much.  Don’t get seduced by grand churches or cathedrals, because their stained glass windows are useless unless they succeed in pointing you to a reality beyond themselves.

And then Jesus starts talking a bit of reality to the disciples.  Remember, this is the last week of his life.  Even now, they don’t get it.  In a week’s time they are going to be running scared, scattered and shattered by the knowledge of their own failure, wondering whether their faith in Jesus was ever anything more than a mirage.  And Jesus needs to give them some words of comfort ahead of time, some words to strengthen and give them hope when they remember them in the dark days ahead.  And what are his words of comfort?  ‘Oh, and you yourselves – you’re going to be beaten up and arrested and put on trial.  There will be betrayal and cowardice and you will be reviled by just about everybody.  But don’t worry!’

Specifically, in the context of Mark’s Gospel written for a Christian community living through the war years of 64-70 AD, or perhaps just after, these words seem to reflect the reality of the terror of those years.  Like the rest of the Jewish population, it seems Christians faced the choice between fleeing the reprisals of the Roman armies or joining a futile resistance.  According to the ancient historian, Eusebius, most Christians fled but perhaps some joined the revolt against the Romans, sure that this was how they could be most faithful to Jesus’ message of liberation and the incoming reign of God.  Later again, Christians would be specifically targeted in the pogroms of the Emperor Nero and around 90 AD would come the final break between Christianity and Judaism. 

Jesus knew there were dark days up ahead for his followers.  Yet he also knew what we now know – that in the days and weeks after his own death his disciples would experience the life-changing reality of his resurrection life.  We know this for sure, because we ourselves are the evidence that they were transformed from a frightened and bewildered group of individuals caught up in events beyond their control, into a powerful and coherent witness of hope.

The gospels are very clear that this group of men and women were not very special.  We know they had difficulty hearing what Jesus was trying to tell them.  We know they were self-centred and afraid to commit themselves to Jesus’ costly way of love – just like us.  We know that Jesus’ prediction of suffering and strife came true for most of them.  But the promise of our own final transformation is also guaranteed in this little group of frightened country bumpkins who did listen, and who were faithful, who experienced the truth of the resurrection and who changed the world.

Because you and I are also disciples, and we live in our own time of challenge and suffering.  These things, as Jesus assures us, are not the end but they are the beginning.  The beginning of the gospel, the beginning of the salvation of the whole world, the beginning of the inbreaking of the reign of God, the beginning of the church.  And beginnings do involve pain, as any woman who has ever been in labour will be glad to affirm.  But beginnings are also alive with hope and possibility. 

Faithfulness to the gospel does not insulate us from suffering, but draws us deeper into the heart of it.  In every age there is evil to be confronted and goodness to be discerned and encouraged.  In every age there is catastrophe to be faced with courage, and joy to be celebrated.  In our own lives there is both heartache and blessing.

Jesus’ promise is not that we will be kept safe from the tribulations of routine history, or of our own lives, nor that we will be carried through it so it doesn’t really affect us, but that we will be transformed by it.  I remember former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser getting into trouble – and in fact becoming famous for the snobby-sounding utterance “life wasn’t meant to be easy”.  It’s half-true, and that’s the problem.  But as he explained years later, he had been quoting a line from the playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who wrote: "Life wasn't meant to be easy, my child, but take courage: it can be delightful!"  It’s precisely in the struggle to be people of both realism and hope that we experience grace, and that we are transformed into who God intends us to be.  It’s the same promise that we hear in Revelation, chapter 21: ”And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." (21:3-4)

My friend, who eventually had a beautiful baby boy after an epic 24 hour labour, would surely agree.