11/18/18: The Birth Pangs Mark 13:1-8
The Birth Pangs
First Lesson: Psalm 16
Second Lesson: Mark 13:1-8
Rev. Scott Dickison
In his poem, “The Precision of Pain and the Blurriness of Joy,” the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes about this strange human phenomenon where we can describe with great precision the pain we feel, but struggle to find words for joy.
The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy, he writes. I'm thinking
how precise people are when they describe their pain in a doctor's office.
Even those who haven't learned to read and write are precise:
"This one's a throbbing pain, that one's a wrenching pain,
this one gnaws, that one burns, this is a sharp pain
and that––a dull one. Right here. Precisely here,
yes, yes." Joy blurs everything. I've heard people say
after nights of love and feasting, "It was great,
I was in seventh heaven." Even the spaceman who floated
in outer space, tethered to a spaceship, could say only, "Great,
wonderful, I have no words."
The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain —
I want to describe, with a sharp pain's precision, happiness
and blurry joy. I learned to speak among the pains.
It’s true, isn’t it? We have 1,000 words for pain and learn to use them with precision, and even creativity, from an early age. When he was 2, our son, Billy, reached up on the kitchen counter and touched a sheet with hot cookies on it and learned the meaning of the word “hot.” And from then on, all we’d have to do was say, “Careful, that’s hot,” and he would immediately pull his little hands away. “Hot” was one of his first words—he learned to speak among the pains. Once his younger brother, Sidney, came along, he even tried it himself: whenever Sid would pick up a toy Billy wanted to play with, Billy would say, “Careful Sid, that’t hot!”
We learn pain’s location. We’re asked, Where does it hurt?And we learn to locate it and respond, “here.” We can point to pain, we can give voice to pain. Pain almost demands that we describe it.
We learn to speak among the pains. So when Jesus—“a man of sorrows acquainted with grief”—speaks with precision about a pain, we can trust he’s pointing to us to something specific.
When we meet Jesus and the disciples here in the 13th chapter of Mark, it’s Wednesday evening of Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, and he and the disciples are coming out of the temple in Jerusalem. Now, being fishermen from the Galilee, this was likely the first time the disciples—and Jesus for that matter—had been to the great city as adults. And so you can imagine how they’re taking it all in. One of them remarks at the grandeur of it all—the enormous walls of the temple. Most of the temple would indeed be destroyed in the decades following Jesus’ death and resurrection. And, looking at the stone, Jesus seems to predict what’s to come: that the temple will be razed—“all will be thrown down,” he says.
As you might imagine, the disciples have some questions about this, and so later, as they’re sitting on the Mount of Olives just outside the temple, they come and ask him to explain what he meant—specifically, when will this happen and how will they know what to look for when it does? And Jesus describes for them a scene that at first glance seems apocalyptic—looking ahead to the end times: wars and rumors of war, nation rising up against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes and famines. And it’s all very dark and even a little bizarre, but maybe more than anything it’s confusing. The one thing lacking in all of this is specific details about exactly whatwill happen and when. In fact, as others have pointed out, Jesus’ overall message in all these “predictions” seems to be, “Don’t worry about the details. Don’t think you’ve got the details figured out, and be suspicious of those who act like they do.”
Jesus’ message to his disciples seems to be similar to those words from Frederick Buechner we quote so often: “This is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
“This is the world,” he tells them, “Terrible things will happen,” he tells them—not a bold prediction in first century Palestine or 21st century America—"But don’t catastrophize them and assume this must be the end.” Christians in every generation since Christ ascended into heaven have looked around and seen the violence and war and death and hatred, all of which seems so much worse than how it used to be, and they’ve wondered if this must be it. And not just Christians, but others, too.
The past has a way of taking on a kind of sheen the further into the past it goes. “Things used to be simpler, there wasn’t as much violence or anger or hatred—we didn’t used to be this divided." I’ve been hearing this a lot lately and I’m sure you have, too. I’ve even thought it at times recently and perhaps you have, too. But when I take a step back I’m just not sure it’s true. Less than 50 years or so years ago, black children couldn’t go to school with white children here in Macon and most places in the South. A little over 50 years ago, a president was assassinated, and then his brother, and then the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Go back another couple decades, and we’re talking the hight of Jim Crow; lynch mobs—sometimes numbering in the hundreds and even thousands—gathering out in the light of day, even here in downtown Macon. People taking pictures, sending postcards. As we remembered last week: the world torn apart by vicious and bloody wars. Genocide.
It’s almost always true that what were the “good old days” for some were very dark days for many others.
And this is not to put down past generations, or belittle the very real darkness we’re experiencing now—the very real violence and fear and injustice—and I have grave concerns about the direction we’re headed as a people. We have, without question, seen better days. But I believe we’ve seen darker ones, too. And it sounds odd to say, with these images of famine and earthquakes and “war and rumors of war,” but I believe Jesus intends for us to feel some degree of comfort, here, too, about the state of things then and today and any time there is pain and suffering, which is all the time. Terrible things will happen, he says, but don’t be alarmed—don’t be “startled” is another translation; don’t be surprised. Have clear eyes about the darkness in the world, but don’t forget the light. There will be war and violence and all manner of natural disaster, but this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
The birth pangs, Jesus says, with the precision of pain. A deep pain, to be sure. An all consuming pain. The labor pains of child birth are perhaps the most terrific natural pain there is—and yet they signal a very specific thing. This is not a futile pain, or a senseless pain or even an unnecessary pain. If any pain is necessary, this is it. For it’s from this pain that new life comes into the world. This is the hope offered by Jesus here, to his disciples who in just a few days time would witness his death and face their own betrayal. His disciples—almost all of whom, tradition tells us, would be martyred, too. They, too, would be “men of sorrows, acquainted with death,” and so they must know this suffering will not be in vain.
I believe we’re supposed to know this, too. That, though it shouldn’t be this way, and it is not God’s dream for the world that it be this way, human beings being what we are, and the world being what it is, there will be suffering. There will be death, there will be hurt and violence and pain. But God is with us in the pain, and where God is, there is opportunity for something new to be born—even now, with all the mess we’re in! From this pain, from any pain, new life can be born. If we would see it and name it.
I heard an interview some time ago with Ruby Sales, a theologian and leader in the Civil Rights movement. And she was talking about growing up in church and receiving this rich spiritual tradition from her parents and grandparents and ancestors, but for a season of her life, giving up on it. She joked about how a young worker in the movement she couldn’t stand to hear the preachers pray for so long! She wanted to get to the marching. Until one day when she was going to get her hair done at a woman’s house, and while she was there, the women’s daughter came in. She’d been hustling all night and looked rough: bruises all over her body, on drugs, no doubt to ease the pain. Ruby said she looked at this young woman and something inside her told her to ask her, “Where does it hurt?” And so she did. She asked her, “Shelly, where does it hurt?” And she said that simple question unleashed territory the young woman had never shared before. Going all the way back to childhood she shared all that had happened to her in her life, naming, locating the source of her pain. Ruby said she knew then that she needed a larger way to do the work of justice; that it couldn’t all be in the head or the material world. That what was needed was a way to speak to the heart of people. To speak to their pain, so that in the sharing of that pain, healing might begin.
Where does it hurt?
Where does it hurt.
You learned to answer it as a child, when it hurts here or here.
But we’re not always asked this question later in life, after we learn that real pain is felt elsewhere. It’s harder to point to, but given the opportunity, we learn that we can still locate it.
Where does it hurt?
If we could find a way—if we could trust each other enough—to ask this question of each other, gently, I wonder what new life would be born?
What blurry joys…
Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld. As found in Joy: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wyman.
William C. Placher’s commentary on Mark from the Beliefseries has again been immensely helpful.
“Where Does It Hurt?” Krista Tippett, interring Ruby Sales, On Being podcast.