Hope or Despair? Birth Pangs of the Kingdom

As I started exploring and reading our texts for this week, I was instantly transported back to my best friend’s kitchen – 1997. I was a sophomore in high school and my family had recently started going to church. I knew the basics of the Christian faith, but was becoming aware of how muc more there was to the bible.

The late 1990’s was a time of religious fervor – at least as far as I remember them. Mega churches were just starting to be noticed, the Left Behind Series of books were on everyone’s reading lists, and in my high school bible studies and prayer meetings were popping up all over the place. Oh – and the year 2000 was on the horizon and no one quite knew what to expect.

For the most part, I was a typical high schooler and oblivious to what was going on in the rest of the world. Living in rural Iowa, that scope of vision was even smaller. So as a new Christian, sitting in my best friend’s kitchen, my entire world was rocked when my friends and One of their moms started talking about end times prophecy.

I can’t remember why we started talking about it, but before I knew it they had pulled out these time lines and charts and bibles and were explaining to me what order things were going to happen for Christ to come back again. They talked with such certainty, such confidence, and I remember feeling nothing but lost.

In fact, my stomach turned as visions of the world being destroyed passed before my eyes. I remember feeling clammy when I thought about billions of people dying in the tribulation. I was terrified by descriptions of the seven seals being opened.

Perhaps most of all, as I sat on that kitchen stool, I remember how unprepared I felt. My friends knew all of this information – but more importantly, they believed and were confident in the face of impending doom! I, on the other hand, was uncomfortable, had questions I was afraid to ask, and if they were right, I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to be among the faithful. That assurance they felt that told them they would escape the troubles… yeah, I didn’t have that.

I mostly avoided talking about it with my friends, but I nearly gave up on Christianity after a series of those conversations. I started reading the Left Behind books and I was so upset by them I stopped a few books in. The picture of God that was presented by them and by all of this prophecy just didn’t match up with the God I had met in my United Methodist youth group. There we talked about love and grace and forgiveness and becoming a new creation… and all I could see in what my friends were so sure of was judgment and destruction.

In some ways – we get that same kind of feeling from our gospel text this morning. We are told to be alert at all times so that we have the strength to escape from all of these things that are about to take place. We are told that people will faint from fear of what is to come because the heavens will be shaken. I hear a lot of doom and gloom in these few passages that come to us from the gospel of Luke.

But I hear these words very differently today than I did ten years ago. After we got past the Y2K scare and I started reading the Bible more, I realized that the sure and certain scenarios presented on those time lines in my friend’s kitchen weren’t the only possibility presented to us in the Bible.

As we have talked about in Sunday School recently – I started to see that Revelation isn’t a schedule for the apocalypse but a book of hope in secret code for a community being persecuted. I have now read just as many verses in Paul’s letters that talk about not knowing what is going to happen in the future, as I have the ones that seem to have the inside scoop. And – perhaps more importantly – I have started seeing the scriptures as a whole, and not in isolated verses.

When we look at the entire scope of the scriptures – we see the story of a God who created us out of love and has been continually yearning for relationship with us. We see the story of a God whose response to our endless denial was to come and be born in our midst. We see the story of a God who lived among us to show us the path of the righteous, and who died so that we could follow him. We see the story of a God who is not interested in scrapping this world and starting over, but who re-creates and redeems and transforms even the heavens and the earth.

Read in light of that story – these verses in Luke sound very different. People will faint and tremble not because terrible things are looming – but because they THINK terrible things are looming… they don’t understand what is happening… they don’t understand the signs.

About a year ago – my husband and I had some of our own signs to decipher. We go over to his sister’s house every Friday night to have dinner with their family. It is a wonderful time to eat good food and play games and hang out with our niece and nephew. A couple of weeks went by and I started to notice that my sister-in-law had stopped having her usual glass of wine with dinner. Then I noticed that she was eating less and less at our meals and was tired and seemed to be losing weight. And I started to get slightly worried, because I didn’t understand what was happening. Was she sick? Was there something that we should be concerned about?

And then the announcement came – Bevin was pregnant! She had stopped eating and was losing weight because she had such terrible morning sickness. She was tired because there was new life growing inside of her!

I had completely misread the signs.

If we go back a little bit further in Luke, chapter 21 this morning, Jesus is trying to tell his disciples not to be afraid by what might come next – by what appears to be happening around them.

They ask him for a simple answer – when are these things going to happen? How will we know? And in response he tells them not to listen to those people who say that the time is near. He tells them not to be afraid by the signs of the times. Or as the Message translation puts these verses: “When you hear of wars and uprisings, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history and no sign of the end … nation will fight against nation… over and over. Huge earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines. You’ll think at times that the very sky is falling.”

But those are just the outside symptoms. They are similar to the things I was seeing in my sister-in-law: weight loss and not eating and I thought something was wrong because I misinterpreted the signs.

Jesus goes on to talk about a particular time when it will seem as if all is lost, or as the Message bible puts it – “everything will come to a head.” And at that moment – when things appear to be their worst, when all appears hopeless – that is when the Son of Man – that is when Jesus will be seen.

I think all of this would be a whole lot easier to understand if Luke didn’t leave out and important detail. I think he left it out because Mark and Luke have almost identical passages. If you look at Luke chapter 21 and Mark chapter 13 – there are many similarities except for one… after Jesus reminds them that there will continue to be wars and natural disasters he says: This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

I was with a group of pastors a few weeks ago in Indianapolis and we were reading this exact same passage in Mark. One woman spoke up and said – I’ve had five children… I know exactly what Jesus is talking about!!! It always seems to be the worst, it always seems like you just won’t survive, right before your child is born. That’s when the pain is the worst and that’s because you are growing and stretching and waiting for this new life to emerge. That’s a really different way to understand this passage.

Paul talks about the groaning of creation, he talks about the birth pangs and waiting for redemption and if we think about God’s Kingdom being born in our midst, its going to take a little bit of change and transformation. Things will be shaken up a bit just like when birth happens in our lives.

We could look around us at the melting of the icecaps and tsunamis and tornadoes and the strange weather we have had this past year and we could be worried about the end. We could look at the violence in our own community – much less in the world – in this past year and think that we are on a downhill slide into immorality and destruction. We could look at the wars we are engaged in – especially in the middle east – as signs that all is lost… as the impending day of judgment and doom.

Or we can listen to the scriptures. In our passage today, it says Stand up and raise our heads because what is coming is not destruction – but redemption. What is being born in our midst is the new creation.

Today is the first Sunday of the Christian year.

Today is the start of a season of hope in the midst of despair, the season of light when everything appears to be dark.

If last week we prayed for Christ the King to come on earth – then today is the day that we start looking for the Kingdom.

Today is the day we look around and see the signs of the kingdom everywhere. We see it in the hunger that young people have to understand and learn more about who God is. We see it in the hunger we experience as we gather to worship and pray. We see it in that spark of hope that is in our hearts – even though we could look at the world and think radically different things.

I think in many ways this church understands that because two years ago you were faced with a tough decision. You looked around and church attendance was declining and you had to decide if you were going to go to part time or stay with a full time pastor. Some churches in that situation would have said, well – we are pretty much hopeless.

But you said that something new is being born in our midst – and we are going to wait and see what happens. That’s why we light this candle today. We light this candle remembering that hope is just around the corner that the promises of God are almost in our reach. That all of the groaning and birth pangs around us are merely getting us ready for what is to come. There is no fear to be had. There is no trembling on this day. Because God is coming near to us. God is coming and so let us stand up and raise up our heads and await the glory of our King. Amen and Amen.

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