And Jesus said to them, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Sometimes the assigned Gospel reading does not give a preacher much comfortable material to work with. Today’s lesson is one of those readings.
Jesus is exiting the Temple mount with his disciples who are clearly awed by the spectacular buildings of their sacred complex. Jesus responds to their oohs and ahs with a dire prediction: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another, all will be thrown down.” He then launches into a litany of apocalyptic woes coming to Israel ending with this enigmatic assertion: “And this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
What might that mean? The birth of what? Who would have the power to destroy this gleaming stone Temple complex the disciples so admired and why would anyone do that? No doubt the disciples are confused at this point. And this morning we find ourselves asking how we can make sense of these words all these years later.
Did Jesus Really Say That?
In many ways, it’s a lot easier to believe that the writers of today’s passage are speaking to us from the other side of the actual destruction of the Temple by the Romans that occurred in 70 CE than to see these words as something Jesus actually said. While Jesus stood in a long line of prophetic voices in Jewish history, there is nothing to suggest that he was a psychic who predicted the future.
Biblical scholars are divided over the historicity of this passage. But the point on which most agree is that Jesus was more than willing to critique the practices of the Temple cult of his day. The chances are that the roots of Mark’s prediction of this catastrophe that will actually occur 40 years later when the Romans destroy the Temple lie in Jesus’ blistering comments about its sacrificial system and ritual practices.
Pennies from the Precariat
To get a sense of that critique we need to briefly return to last week’s gospel, the story of the Widow’s mite. There Jesus is highly critical of the practices of some very self-satisfied Scribes of the Temple cult. He mocks the finery they insist upon wearing, their loud public proclamations and their love of banquets that included only the finest of Jerusalem’s elite. He decries the self-indulgence of a Temple cult which earns its living by collecting the moneys given for Temple sacrifices, often from those who could little afford to give them. This was a system tilted in favor of the wealthy who were able to give more and accordingly to receive more acclamation for their generosity.
But that is only half of the picture. It is no accident that Jesus’ criticism of the predatory practices of the scribes who were repossessing the homes of widows thus rendering them homeless immediately precedes the story of the widow’s mite. While the wealthy were able to give from their excess, the widow gave all she had. The social approbation expected by those who make a loud showing of their large gifts will not be coming to this woman. Unlike the coins of the wealthy donors which rattle noisily down the treasury repositories, the widow’s two small coins will make only a slight tinkle as they fall down the brass receptacles into the collection of coins below.
It is in the Temple courtyards that the glaring inequities of Judean society were exposed, inequalities that Jesus found abhorrent. As is often the case with Jesus, what he observed there broke his heart making it impossible for him to remain silent about what he saw. So it is not hard to understand how Jesus’ critical remarks about the exploitative behaviors in the Temple courts could ultimately provide the basis for gospel accounts in which Jesus is depicted predicting the demise of the Temple.
Divided Kingdoms Collapse
Another famous line
from the gospels might give us some insight as to why this happened. In
Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will utter the words that Abraham Lincoln would make
famous during the Civil War that “Every kingdom divided against itself is
laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.” In Judea,
the tensions within that society would finally reach a breaking point in 70 CE
when the occupying Roman Empire would lose its patience with the ongoing
uprisings of zealots. They would destroy the Temple, toppling building stones
weighing several tons off the edge of the Temple Mount. Jerusalem would be
burned and its residents permanently exiled from the city. In the end, not a
stone would be left standing at the Temple Mount, just as Mark has Jesus saying.
And before the Romans are through dealing with the persistent insurrections some
50 years later, the entire Judean population will be sent into exile.
It happened in a
country with astronomical levels of social inequality, a country in which the
elite enjoyed wretched excess while the working poor were ground into the dust.
It happened in a country where the culture’s chief religious institution proved
more than willing to collaborate with an occupying imperial army and legitimate
its domination by brute strength. First Century Judea was a country where the
weakest members of that society were daily wrung dry of their very life blood
to support a predatory elite. And it was in that context that Jesus predicted the
destruction of the Temple.
I must confess to you that I cannot read this passage without feeling a good deal of anxiety. There are no few similarities between Jesus’ Judea and the America in which we live today. Like Judea, we have armed bands of zealots all across our country ready to rise up to impose their vision upon the rest of the country and more than willing to use violence to accomplish that. Like Judea, we have the highest level of social inequality in our modern history, a factor that always generates instability. Like Judea, many of our working poor have despaired of holding meaningful jobs and lives, numbing their pain with addictive behaviors of all kinds with a record number of overdoses to show for it. Even our own Temple to democracy has come under attack by those willing to bring down their own government in the name of a populist messiah.
Amidst these deeply concerning realities, Jesus words are indeed troubling: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” And today we hear him add, “[B]ut the end is still to come…This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Good Things Can Come From Apocalypse
The birth pangs of Jesus’ first century Judea would prove to be apocalyptic. They would mark the end of the Judean kingdom. Before it was over the Jewish people themselves would be exiled from Judea.
Apocalypses always mean an unveiling of the reality that has always been present with all of its failings as well as a new reality just beginning to come into being. Apocalypses reveal the death of old ways of being human that can no longer be maintained. And they often mark the birth of something new.
With the loss of the Temple, a new form of Judaism would be born, led by rabbis and centered in synagogues and schuls. Rabbinical Judaism would replace the Temple worship in Jerusalem and the Jewish diaspora would spread out across the world, becoming shining lights in their endeavors from the arts to the sciences. Western culture owes a great deal of its richness to the gifts of the Jewish diaspora.
Simultaneously, another new form of Judaism would arise from these birth pangs, a sect of Judaism centered on the life and teachings of Jesus, eventually evolving into a religion of its own called Christianity. That would also prove to be a religious movement which would change the world. Our worship this morning owes its origins to those birth pangs, those transformative shifts that began in First Century Judea.
As we look around us today, it is easy to be focused on what is dying. Death always involves grief and a sense of disorientation. As we lose aspects of the world in which we have grown up and in which we feel comfortable, it is easy to experience no small amount of fear, anger and, yes, sorrow. But what is being born in these profound shifts we are currently experiencing? What new way of being human might be yet on the distant horizon? How do we come to trust a future we cannot yet even imagine?
My guess is that a caterpillar ensconced in a chrysalis probably feels no small amount of anxiety as its body begins to dissolve. Everything it has known up to this point is slipping away and the future is not yet clear. But soon something new and very different begins to happen. And within days, the cocoon will open and a butterfly will emerge. The birth pangs of the chrysalis signaled the beginning of a transformation to a new and higher state of being.
Trusting G-d With Our Lives, Bodies and Souls
In this time of upheaval when the old is slipping away and the new is not yet revealed, I believe G-d is calling us to trust the wisdom so beautifully articulated by Julian of Norwich that all is well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well. And I believe that the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr that the 12 Steps groups have long embraced could also inform us here:
Lord, help us to accept the things that we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference.
There is a reason that is called the Serenity Prayer.
Our lesson today provides us plenty to consider. It tells us we are not the first to face the challenges that confront us but it also offers hope that even though we cannot yet see the new creation that is coming into being, we can trust G-d with our lives, our bodies and our souls to be present with us in those changes. And so I close with a prayer that has long spoken to me about life in a time of upheaval and anxiety. It is an adapted version of Collect 60 from our Book of Common Prayer. Let us pray:
Assist us mercifully, O Lord, in these our supplications and prayers, and dispose the way of your servants; that, among all the changes and chances of this mortal life, we may ever be defended by your gracious and ready help; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Sermon offered at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL, November 14, 2021.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2021