It’s difficult to hear Jesus’ words at the end of our Gospel lesson, isn’t it? It sounds apocalyptic AND like our news reports right now… Wars and rumors of wars. Nation rising against nation. A growing famine in Yemen. Fires that leave communities burned out, with too many deaths and so many missing… We feel the birthpangs but don’t know what is coming into the world!
We must never forget that we are Easter people in a Good Friday world – and so for us, every ending has within it a new beginning. We believe in resurrection. We can’t help it. In every beginning we know there is an end and in every ending we know there is new life.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus and the disciples take a good look at the Temple in Jerusalem. This isn’t just any building. This is Herod’s rebuilding of the Temple that Solomon had built. Herod had some bad feelings to work off, he needed to make amends to God and to the Jews, so he built a magnificent building. The disciples were impressed and probably interested in hearing what Jesus might say about Herod the Great– a great builder of buildings, but a cruel, cruel man.
Jesus tells his followers that none of the buildings will stand the test of time. And then when they ask further, he tells them that things are going to get worse – nation rising against nation, wars and rumors of wars, earthquake and famine – the end of the world as they know it. Yet Jesus finishes this warning by saying, ‘This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.’ This is but the beginning of new life out of the death of the old.
We Christians are creatures of habit, just like all human beings. We like the familiar, especially in church, especially around our worship, because it’s in our liturgical practice, in our routine, that we’ve met God. When the world is changing all around us, we want to enter these doors and hear the familiar words and remember that God is present here.
But we are at the beginning of the end. We feel the birthpangs. It used to be that small communities and towns were the backbone of America. It used to be, at least for a time in our history, that if we built a church and opened the doors, it would fill up. Church was the center of social life. There wasn’t enough room for the children’s program, for Sunday School. We expanded, added classrooms and teachers.
But the world is changing. Our small towns are dying out. Industry isn’t what it used to be. Church isn’t the center of our social lives – not like it used to be. WE open our doors, but people don’t just flock in. Children have sports on Sunday mornings, families have other responsibilities. People travel, have second homes, spend time with grandchildren. It’s just not the same. It’s the beginning of the end. It’s not clear what will happen to the church – not just ours, but to churches across our denomination and our country.
It’s also the beginning – there is something new being born but we can’t yet see what that new thing is. We are in the birthpangs – one foot in the old and one foot in the new – unable to hold onto the past and a bit fearful of the future.
What can we do? We can heed the instruction from Hebrews: let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. Scholars are not entirely sure who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews nor are they sure to whom the letter was written – except that they are Jewish Christians. What’s interesting to me is that the letter was probably written between 60 and 95 CE or AD. And that’s interesting because the writer spends a lot of time explaining why we Christians don’t need to make Temple sacrifices – Jesus, our high priest, has taken care of that for us.
We know that Herod’s Temple, the one that the disciples admired, that Jesus says will not remain forever, was destroyed by the Romans about 70 CE or AD. So Hebrews was perhaps written as a response to that destruction. It was the beginning of the end for everyone who had made Temple worship the center of their lives – both Jews and Christians. New ways had to be created for worship to go forward. In the ending – a new beginning. Jews and Christians around the world found new ways to worship God and faithful living has continued to this day.
Here we are, near the end of the liturgical year, near the end of the calendar year. We’re entering the holiday season – and for many people, this year will not be the same as last year. For some of us, people we love will be missing. For some of us, new members have joined our family gatherings. Some of us will end the year healthier than last year. Some of us will end the year with a new diagnosis, a new health concern. Some of us will find new jobs in the coming year. Some of us will retire.
Whatever our losses or gains, whatever our joys or our sorrows, we are facing the beginning of the end and we have nothing to fear. These are just the birthpangs of the new world being born. God is in our beginnings and God is in our endings, watching over the details, making sure that nothing and no one is lost.
So let’s provoke one another – not with our anxieties or our fears – but with love and good deeds. Let us look with compassion on each other and on the world around us. And may our compassion and love inspire – provoke – us to acts of kindness and generosity. Endings and beginnings can be terribly frightening – but we are Easter people. We know that with every death there is new life and God in the midst of it all. We have no need to fear the beginning of the end or any ending at all. We are Easter people in a Good Friday world – and so for us, every ending has within it a new beginning. We believe in resurrection. We can’t help it. In every beginning we know there is an end and in every ending we know there is new life. The One who promised this is faithful. Amen.