Presented on The Lutheran Hour on November 25, 2018
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
(Q&A Topic:Birth Pains)
Copyright 2019 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Mark 13:1-37
In the Name of Jesus. Amen. Have you ever witnessed a birth? I have. Four of them. I was my wife's birth coach, which as Jim Gaffigan says is a generous title for "standing there, terrified." Even if you haven't witnessed a birth, you've experienced one: your own. What was that experience like for you?
A few years back, I ran across a poem by Vicki Elson, and she has graciously granted me permission to share some excerpts of it with you. The poem is called "Birth."
"Edgeless space. Sleep, awake, drifting. Silence, darkness, warm simplicity. Now, something new is happening. Now the hugs are a bit much. Now the hugs are more frequent, and they're annoying. Now they take all your attention. You try to stretch. It's squeezing too much. This goes on for so long that you can't remember what came before. Oh! Squeeze, fight, punch, wiggle, worry. It stops. You sleep. Oh! Pressed into a little ball, you feel so cramped. It stops. You search for a new position. You find one. Oh! There is nothing but this alarming wish to escape. It stops. Exhausted, you conk out. Oh! Now, a headache. A pause, you try to sleep. The headache stays. Oh! There is no escaping this! The pressure, everywhere. Your head hurts. The noise, your mom is roaring. Oh! Here's something new. The headache is subsiding, and you feel what you will later learn to call cold air on the top of your head. You hear sounds so much louder than before. Whoa! -as in stop! Stop! Stop! Your senses are overwhelmed, and yet, you are curious and so you open your eyes, and you see something neither red nor black. Whoa! -as in wow! This is amazing. Birth pains."
Jesus uses this phrase "birth pains" towards the end of the Gospel of Mark. In Mark 13, He says that these are the beginning of the birth pains, not the pains of labor, of passing from the womb into this present mortal life, but cosmic labor pains that you and I are experiencing, that you and I are enduring right now, the labor pains that are bringing this mortal life into real life, into true life with Jesus in God's kingdom that will have no end. These are the beginning, the birth pains, Jesus said, to His followers.
He said it in a long talk that He had with them just about a week before He was crucified. He's overlooking the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the place where the God of Israel promised to dwell with His people, His elect, His chosen one. And Jesus had just gone in there the other day, and He made a scene. He got in people's faces; He confronted the people who were taking financial advantage of the sacrificial system; He overturned their tables; He shewed out the people who were selling pigeons, and He spoke things that would lead you to conclude that He thinks He speaks for God.
He thinks He speaks with God's own authority. He said, "It is written, isn't it? My house will be called the house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it into a den of bandits." So now the temple officials are after Him, and they want to arrest Him. He leaves and comes back the next day. Again, they confront Him. They want to know what authority He has to do these things, and He tells him the story. I love how Jesus, when He is confronted with questions, He asks questions back. He tells stories, and this is one of the stories He tells in Mark chapter 12.
He says, "A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a vat, and built a tower. And he leased it out to some farmers and went away on a journey. When the opportune time came, he sent a servant to those farmers to collect from them some of the fruit of that vineyard, but taking him, they beat him and sent him away empty handed. So, he sent another and this one they struck on the head and treated shamefully. And another he sent and this one they killed. With many more, some they beat and some they killed. He had one, yet, a beloved son. And he sent him to them saying, 'They will respect my son.' But those farmers said to one another, 'Look. It's the heir. Come on, let's kill him and the inheritance will be ours.'
So they took him and they killed him and they threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of that vineyard do? He will come and destroy those farmers and give the vineyard to others. Have you never read this Scripture? The stone? The one the builders rejected has become the cornerstone? From the Lord, this has come to pass, and it is marvelous in our eyes." They were seeking to arrest him because they know that He told this story against them. In Mark 13 now, Jesus explains to His followers how this parable is going to play out. He is the beloved Son. They will reject Him. They will crucify Him. They will throw Him out of the vineyard, but He's the Cornerstone, and upon this Rock, God will build a new dwelling place, a house of prayer for all the nations built on Jesus. To clear the way for this work, God will destroy the temple in Jerusalem.
Jesus says that the events surrounding the destruction of the temple will be like birth pains, like labor pains. It all happened just as Jesus said it would, in the year 69 A.D. That year was filled with unprecedented bloodshed, betrayal, and warfare. In that year alone, there were four Roman emperors, one right after the other. Can you imagine what that would do to your country, having four presidents or four prime ministers in one year, with each successor violently ousting the incumbent? What it did for them is it sent tremors of violence and civil war rippling through the empire like seismic waves, and Jerusalem got caught in the aftershock.
When the fourth emperor came to power in 70 A.D., he sent his army into Jerusalem and they desecrated the temple. They destroyed it. This signaled the end of the Jewish sacrificial system upon which Israel's culture and way of life had been built for more than 1,000 years. And Jesus, knowing that all these things are going to take place in less than 40 years, He sits with His disciples, and He explains to them the things that are going to happen. Listen now, pretend like you're one of those disciples, and Jesus has gathered you in to explain these things.
So Mark 13 starts like this. "As Jesus was leaving the temple in Jerusalem, in the courtyards of the temple, one of his disciples says to him, 'Teacher, look. What wonderful stones, what wonderful buildings.' Jesus said to him, 'You see all these buildings? There will not be left here one stone standing upon another. They will all be thrown down.' And as He was seated on the Mount of Olives, opposite the temple, Peter, along with James and John and Andrew, come to Jesus and ask Him privately, 'When will all these things take place, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?'
"Jesus began to say to them, 'Watch out. So that no one deceives you, for many will come in My name and say, "It is I," and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, don't be alarmed. These things must take place, but the end goal is not yet. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be earthquakes all over the place. And there will be famines. These are the beginning of the birth pains. Look out for yourselves, for they will hand you over to counsels and you will be beaten in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and before kings and bear witness to them for My sake.
And this good news must be proclaimed among all the nations first. ... And if someone says to you, "Look, there's the Messiah," or "Look, here He is," don't believe it. For many false Messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform signs to deceive, if possible, even the elect, but be on guard. Keep watch. I have told you all these things ahead of time.
'And in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the heavens, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with great power and glory, and He is going to send out His messengers to gather His elect from the four winds, from the ends of heaven to the ends of earth. ... I tell you the truth. This generation will not pass away until all these things are accomplished. Heaven and earth will pass away. My words will never pass away. But concerning that day and that hour, no one knows. Not even the angels in heaven, nor the sun, but only the Father. Only the Father. And so, be on guard, keep watch, because you do not know when this time will come. It's like a man going on a journey, and before he leaves home, he puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and he commands the doorkeeper to watch. Therefore, watch. Because you do not know when the master of the house will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at daybreak. Otherwise, he may come suddenly and find you asleep. What I say to you, I say to everyone. Watch.'"
These are the words of Jesus from Mark 13. Suppose you discovered a diamond, a 100-karat rough diamond in the crust of the earth. Now, a geologist will tell you that the diamond slowly worked its way up from the depths of the earth over time and surfaced. The diamond itself crystallized in the mantle of the earth and was formed through volcanic activity underground and worked its way to the surface. Now the diamond is old news, been around a long, long time, but it became good news for you when it surfaced in your life. Old news of a present reality can become good news when it surfaces in your life.
Most everything Jesus says in Mark 13 is old news. He said it, that that generation who first heard Him, that they would not pass away until all these things were accomplished, and they were all accomplished just as He said they would be. It's old news, but His words show that Jesus is a present reality. He is risen from the dead; He rules over all things. He is coming again to judge the living and the dead. He is the Lord of the history, the Lord of future, and He is a present reality.
The news about Jesus is old news. Twenty centuries ago, He—through His death and His resurrection—He put the world right with God. He put you right with God. He put me right with God. And this old news is a treasure that surfaces in your life when you hear the Good News of Jesus and put your confidence in Him. So, this week, let the words of Jesus surface in your life. When you hear "wars, rumors of wars," say, "These are just the beginning of the birth pains." When false prophets arise and pronounce doomsday scenarios, and would-be Messiahs promise solutions to the world's woes, say, "No. No. These things must take place, but the end goal is not yet."
When your home is vandalized, when your job is downsized, when you are demonized because of your allegiance to Jesus, say, "Through many tribulations, we must enter the kingdom of God." Hear Jesus say to you, "Don't be afraid. I've told you all these things ahead of time." Maybe this week none of these things will happen to you. Maybe this week will be counted as among the best of this mortal life. Maybe, maybe not. You don't know. I don't know. So, be on guard, keep watch. You don't know when any of these things will take place, but you do know that Jesus has invited you into His household, through faith, through Baptism. You do know that He has given each of you a share of His work, care for His creation to share His good news, so do your work.
Finally, you know that labor pains will come, and they will go. Some days you'll say, "Whoa!" as in "Stop! Stop! Stop! But the day is due when you will say with all creation, "Whoa!" as in Wow! That's amazing!" If you're willing, I invite you to pray with me a prayer penned by Charles Wesley. "Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free. From our fears and sins, release us. Let us find our rest in Thee. Israel's strength and consolation, hope of all the earth, Thou art. Dear desireth every nation joy of every longing heart." Amen.
Reflections for November 25,2018
Title: Birth Pains
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. And we just heard a message from Dr. Michael Zeigler titled Birth Pains. I'm Mark Eischer here in the studio with Dr. Zeigler, and we're joined by Dr. Tony Cook. That sermon really covered a lot of ground. We had a poem, we had a history lesson, and an extended reading from Mark 13.
Mike Zeigler: It's a big chapter, chapter 13. And I wanted to just try to put it all out there and let people have the experience of hearing it as though they were the first disciples, kind of pulled into the inner circle, and listening to what Jesus was talking about. And it takes a little bit of background to understand what He's talking about.
Tony Cook: Yeah, I think it's a great time of the church year. It's always kind of a weird time when you're talking about the end times, and you're talking about the fulfillment of those final prophecies. And it's also the time—I like to watch a lot of stuff on YouTube; I probably shouldn't admit that, but I do—it's also the time of year that you really see like a rise in like end times of videos and conspiracy stuff, and it's interesting. Every 20 days, there's a new kind of prophecy. So in the next 20 days, everything's going to end. And then 20 days comes, and you'll see the people comment on YouTube. They'll say, "Well, it's the 21st day. So now what?" And then there's another person, they look at the wars and illness and all these things, and they think they can get a sense of how that's all going to work out. So for people that are exposed to that kind of thing, how does this sermon help you think about that topic?
Mike Zeigler: It's that last section in Mark 13 where after Jesus explains all these things that are going to happen, and His disciples are actually going to live through them. These things are going to happen in the next four decades, for the most part. And then at the end He says, "But concerning that day," and it seems like He's kind of gesturing towards the last day when He comes, He tells them, "Nobody knows. Be on guard, keep watch, you don't know when this time will come." And so for me it's a comforting section because it allows me ... it frees me from worrying about calculating the times. And if you hear, He focuses on their work: "You guys are like servants in My household. I've gone away on a journey, make no mistake, I'm coming back. In the meantime, do your work, and watch. Be ready."
Tony Cook: All right. One of the other aspects that you take, metaphors you take, is an understanding of kind of the process of birth and how that's connected to what we're currently going through and as we're expecting Jesus' return. So how does that work?
Mike Zeigler: This seems to be a favorite image that Jesus uses, and the New Testament elsewhere. Paul in Romans 8, he talks about the whole creation is enduring the pains of childbirth as God is bringing forth the new creation. John 16, Jesus talks about the woman in labor. She cries out in pain and labor, but her joy that she has to look forward to, she, in some ways, forgets the pain. And then also here in Mark 13, Jesus calls all these things, the birth pains. And so there's life that we experienced in the womb. We don't remember what it was like, but assume it was comforting and quiet and calm and sure. And then we go through this tribulation to be born into this present mortal life. Well, in a similar way, this mortal life is going through tribulations to be brought into the true life, the life of God's kingdom.
Tony Cook: I can remember when my son Ben was being born and my wife's pregnancy, it took a long time, a long time for him to actually be born. And you go through all those stages and the doctors and the nurses come in and you can tell that she's pretty much ready to be done with the whole thing. And then, finally, after all of that pain and suffering and waiting, Ben is there, and you look and the joy—this is what I was thinking when you're talking about joy—all of that, that you've been going through. And then that moment for the first time, when you hear your child cry out, take its first breath. And you see that, that expectation of life has finally flourished before you. It's just an overwhelming joy. And I think about, you can focus a lot on the process, you can think a lot about the pain and the terror and all of those things that go along, especially when we think about the end times. But how much more so will that joy be when we see the Lord again? Could I even think of a greater joy than seeing my firstborn son being born? But what would it be like when God's firstborn Son reveals Himself again?
Mike Zeigler: Yeah, it's a comforting image for me when I experienced tribulation in this life, whether it's big or small, and I'm sure everyone out there listening experiences these troubles, to frame them in that way.
Tony Cook: Sure. So if there's somebody listening who says, "That's fine. I understand all of these trials and tribulations. But I'm pretty cool. Things are fine. My life's pretty easy. I don't experience those." How does this message in this text speak to that kind of person?
Mike Zeigler: We experience these kinds of tribulations on a personal level. But the world is experiencing these tribulations on a global scale. And even if your life's going well, right now, you turn the dial on the radio, and you're going to hear all about it: immigrants crossing into other lands and overtaking, and earthquakes, and wars. You can't escape this news. And so it helps to keep the global perspective in mind that it's not just about me and my life. It's about this whole creation that God loves and cares for, and He is bringing all of us through this tribulation into His kingdom.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)