Proper 28, Year B, The Church of Our Saviour, Gallatin

“This is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (Mk. 13:8).

No man should speak too lightly about birth pangs.  None of us really knows what we’re talking about, do we? I think it is indisputable that we’re not on our own turf here. My mother was not shy in telling me how many hours she had been in labor before I was delivered. She was the expert on the subject of my coming into the world, though she was gracious not to claim too much on this basis. She knew the events intimately, however, whereas I did not remember them at all.

Perhaps with this in mind, older translations spoke simply of “sorrows” or “sufferings”: a more antiseptic language altogether. Yet the word refers quite directly to labor pains, echoing the language of the Old Testament. “Yet as soon as Zion was in labor, she delivered her children” (Is. 66:8), it says in the prophet Isaiah: just one of a number of examples in the prophets where the work of God in the midst of Israel is likened to the process of labor and birth. “Suffering” is pointed enough, yet “birth pangs” gets us down into the nitty gritty.

The prophets spoke in part of the birth of the Messianic age, when the true King of Israel would be set in place and the kingdom made secure. The Gospels continue this narrative. The story of the birth of Jesus is itself a story about the birth of the Messiah. Matthew’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel tell the story of the Messiah’s coming into the world. Luke’s Gospel, especially, focuses on how the faith of Jesus’ mother Mary brought forth the Savior of the world.

Luke makes plain that the disciples, and everyone else in those days, was looking for the Messiah. The disciples on the road to Emmaus tell the stranger they encounter on the way that they had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel (Lk. 24:21). Before his Ascension into heaven, the disciples again asked Jesus whether he would now restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). In the time of Jesus hope ran high that God would now act.

Our Gospel today points toward the birth pangs of the Messianic age. Jesus’ point, here in the Gospel of Mark, is that the end is not yet. The inner circle of Peter, James, John, and Andrew (two sets of brothers) are seeking to know the signs of the times: “Tell us, when will this be?” (Mk 13:4). When will the epic battle, the key crisis, the final call, come? Jesus doesn’t want them to be misled. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come” (Mk 13:7). Still to come: not only the Messianic age, but the key crisis which proceeds it. “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” (Mk 13:8). In other words, we are in labor now but the end is not yet.

It’s commonly said that the early Christians expected the Lord Jesus Christ to return in glory soon after the Resurrection, but it’s clear from the Gospels that Jesus spends quite a bit of time cautioning people who are eager to set up a timetable for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus says just a little later in our chapter, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mk 13:32). There’s more emphasis on being prepared, on staying alert, on being watchful and wakeful: on the long haul.

“This is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (Mk 13:8). We tend to look for the epic spiritual battle and for the dramatic crisis of faith, but the long struggle requires endurance and patience. These two are signs of faith, capacities we need as members of the church. As disciples of Jesus we need to build capacity for the coming of the Messiah. We build this capacity as we pray and as we worship, increasing our endurance and patience as followers of Christ.

A friend of mine with experience of intractable problems is fond of saying that when you think you have exhausted all the possibilities, and come to the end of your rope, then you need to “grind it a little finer.” As followers of Jesus, we have to stick with it because this is just the beginning of the new age and there is more to come. We, too, need to “grind it a little finer.”

What comes to birth, of course, is much more than the labor which precedes it. Our Gospel keeps directing us beyond this present moment toward what is to come. In this present, we live in the time between the beginning of labor and the arrival of the Messiah in glory. Do not be alarmed, because there is more to come. But what is ahead of us is our redemption and salvation, the source of our joy, the coming of Christ in glory.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee