Sunday, November 15, 2009

Birth Pangs of the New Creation: A Homily for Proper 33, Year B

Homily for Proper 33, Year B
Sunday, November 15th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 13:1-8

“For these are but the beginnings of the birth pangs.”
--Mark 13:8

What are we prepared to lose? What are we prepared to give up? We are learning that in spite of changing demographics in this community there are tremendous opportunities for the Kingdom of God to be experienced here in Thornhill. We are also learning that Holy Trinity can indeed be a part of sharing the Good News of that kingdom. We have recently received a report that indicates that there are over four thousand Anglicans that live within our parish boundaries. Furthermore, that report indicates that there are over ten thousand people that live within our parish boundaries that have no religious affiliation. We also learn that amongst those number there is a goodly percentage of those people under the age of twenty. Thus, in spite of what we might think, there is a tremendous mission field in this community. Even more exciting news, as we shall learn in more detail in the weeks ahead as the result of our third Natural Church Development Survey are released, is that we are becoming more comfortable about reaching out and sharing our faith with others. If “Back to Church Sunday” was any indication (approximately 50 people accepted invitations to join us that day), we are indeed becoming more and more confident about sharing our faith journey with those around us. We stand at the threshold of new and wondrous possibilities. God is calling us into a new day, and indeed into a new era. I believe that all signs indicate that we are ready to accept that call. There is a question though, of what we are willing to lose to journey into this new land and into this new era? The call is not without cost; no journey forward can be made without leaving something behind. What are we willing to give up?

As Jesus and his disciples exited the Temple, that grand edifice which was a monument the architectural vision of Herod the Great under whose patronage this latest version was constructed, the disciples of Jesus marveled at its grandeur, beauty, and apparent permanence, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Their rapture in the architectural magnificence of the Temple was interrupted by the words of Jesus, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone of them will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” How hard it must have been to hear these words. The Temple stood as a monument to their faith, the greatness of their God, and was considered to be the very place where heaven met earth, yet Jesus claimed that its great stones would fall. And he was right. Within fifty years the Temple was destroyed and both Judaism and Christianity were left to discern the religious and spiritual landscape into which God was now calling them.

The spiritual landscape in times of discernment will seem fraught with obstacles indeed. It may seem like the edifice with which we are so comfortable and so enraptured is crumbling down. There may be temptations to go off course, to follow different captains, it may seem like we are at war with one another. But Jesus offers a word of hope, fear not, “for these are but the beginnings of the birth pangs.”

This section of Mark’s Gospel is the beginning of a section we call the “little apocalypse”, because it goes on to describe an apocalyptic end-times scenario. I have spoken before about how difficult this imagery may be to us mainstream Christians, but let us consider this passage in the context of Mark’s message. We are now drawing close to the end of our liturgical year, which will culminate next week with the feast of the Reign of Christ. We will cease reading Mark’s Gospel until three years hence when we take it up again. Cast your mind back to last year at this time when we began talking about Mark’s message of Jesus. Near the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus introduces his mission with the words, “repent, believe, for the kingdom of God has come near.” Literally, the kingdom is at hand. Throughout this year this has been the interpretive key to which we have always turned as we have journeyed with St. Mark, the kingdom is at hand, drawing near, breaking through as we speak. It is this message that Jesus repeats at the beginning of the Markan “little apocalypse” as we draw near to the concluding our reading of the Gospel of Mark, namely, we are now experiencing the birth pangs of the kingdom. This is the oft-neglected hope of apocalyptic literature, the end is nigh, but so too is the beginning!

Those who have experienced giving birth, and those who have witnessed a birth will know that it is not an easy thing. Perhaps the phrase “birth pangs” is even too light a word. There is first the tremendous physical pain of birth itself, which is accompanied by the fear that something might go wrong, and then when the child comes, so too comes shocking realization that the life of family will never be the same again with the addition of this new member. Uncertainty, upheaval, suffering, pain, trauma, fear, and yet new life, new joy, new birth, new hope -- this is the message of Jesus as his disciples marvel at the magnificent edifice of the Herodian Temple. It is time for one glory to give way to another. A baby is on the way. What we have experienced to date in our life together has been wonderful, has it not? The edifice of our shared life is grand and something to marvel at, but Jesus is here to remind us, don’t cling to it too dearly, for the best is yet to come. What are you willing to give up? Which stones have to fall? Shall we choose to move forward as this era ends and another begins? Can we face the day with bravery, courage, and faith that this is not the end, but rather the birth of a new glorious day?

I believe that we stand like the disciples marveling at an edifice, for us it is the edifice of Anglican Christianity in Thornhill. We have reason to celebrate it, rejoice in it, marvel at it, and all that it has been to us. But if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, our Lord stands in our midst reminding us that he is about to do a new thing. This is not the end, but rather a new beginning. When a child is born our lives must change, but what a joy it is to change when we hold that lovely child in our arms and experience new life and new hope. We will have to give up many things precious to us, but who would not give them up when we realize that the child who is about to be born in our midst is, once again, the little child of Bethlehem in who brings life to world?

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

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