By The Rev. Sherry Deets
25 Pentecost; Proper 28 – November 18, 2012
If our passage from Mark today feels different, looks different, and sounds different, that’s because it is. Both Daniel and Mark are presenting us with what is called apocalyptic writing.
In a nutshell, apocalyptic literature stems from a worldview that believes that everything happening on earth represents and correlates with a larger, heavenly struggle between good and evil. It therefore reads into earthly events cosmic significance and anticipates future events on earth in light of the coming battle between the forces of God and the devil. And so, it often tries to make sense of current events and experiences by casting them in a larger, cosmic framework and in this way give comfort to people who are currently suffering or being oppressed.
Because of this dualism, and because apocalyptic literature tends to be highly symbolic, it’s ripe for reading all kinds of things into it – like predictions about the end of the world! But this chapter in Mark – and other passages, notably the book of Revelation – were not written so that we could ferret out signs of the end. Rather, they were written to offer comfort to first-century believers struggling to make sense of their world and lives. For this reason, it’s way more helpful to read this and similar passages in light of the challenges the original readers were facing, challenges that might be very similar to some of our own.
From this passage and those to come in this chapter, for instance, we can gather that Mark’s community was not only struggling with the disruptions that the fall of the Jerusalem Temple introduced into first-century Judaism and Christianity, but also that they had been harassed by some people claiming to be Jesus or some other messianic figure returned. Mark’s people were literally caught up in “wars and rumors of war” and probably found comfort in the belief that Jesus had already anticipated this and was offering words of encouragement to them through this Gospel. When it comes to our own day and age, that kind of encouragement is still valuable, for though our wars may be different, we are still harassed at times by a fear that the world is falling apart. To twenty-first century believers, just as to first century disciples, Jesus says the same “do not fear.”
So what are some practical ways to let go of our fear, our anxiety? Anxieties can gray the whole sky like cloud cover or descend on our whole horizon like fog. When we rename our anxieties, in a sense we distill them into requests. What covered the whole sky can now be contained in a couple of buckets. So when we’re suffering from anxiety, we can begin by simply holding the word ‘help’ before God, letting that one word bring focus to the chaos of our racing thoughts. Once we feel that our mind has dropped out of the frantic zone and into a spirit of connection with God, we can let the general word ‘help’ go and in its place hold more specific words that name what we need, thereby condensing the cloud of vague anxiety into a bucket of substantial request. So we might hold the word guidance before God. Or patience. Or courage. Or resilience. Or boundaries, mercy, compassion, determination, healing, calm, freedom, wisdom or peace.
Through petition/prayer we reframe the situation and rename our need. Anxiety tempts us to catastrophize, to inflate every risk into a potential cataclysm. Soon surrounded by possible catastrophes on all sides, we shrink into the primitive mind. We sink into reptilian scripts that limit our options to three: fight, flee or freeze. Through petition, we reframe our anxieties into opportunities for growth. This reframing enables us to rename our need. For example, the reptilian brain might shout that we need to fight: “I must vanquish all who oppose or threaten me!” But we can instead request compassion to understand our antagonists, mercy to forgive them, wisdom to communicate with them, and determination to work toward reconciliation with them. The reptilian brain might scream that we need to flee: “this situation is stressful! I need to get out of here!” But we can instead request patience to transform our response into something more productive. The reptilian brain might whisper that we need to freeze: “Somebody is mad at me, I’d better keep my head down, lay low, and stay out of sight.” But we can instead request the courage to stand tall, the humility to accept being misunderstood, and the resilience to get back up again after being knocked down.
God shows up in all kinds of places, working with us, for us, through us, and in us. We just have to look. We are called to live now, allowing the promises of God about the future to infuse our every present moment. Because when we live looking for the activity of God here and now, we begin to see it. When we can face our anxieties, process them by asking God to help us transform them, turn them into an opportunity for growth, we are living in the present.
Six centuries ago, a Christian woman, Julian of Norwich, fell terribly ill. The people around her thought she was on her deathbed, but she recovered after seeing a series of visions. After she recovered, she gave us these words. She said: “God has NOT said, ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shall not be travailed, thou shalt not be afflicted,’ but he HAS said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.'”
In other words, don’t let tough times define your life. Jesus says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” This is definitely NOT the beginning of the end. It is instead the beginning of the beginning.
That is an interesting phrase, isn’t it-“the beginning of the birth pangs.” Birth pangs are the beginning of the beginning. Women approach birth pangs with mixed emotions. They fear the pain that they know is coming, but they also look forward to the birth of the baby. As the time approaches, the mood is not despair but joy-or hope-or eagerness–eagerness to see the baby–eagerness to hold the baby.
Jesus speaks of wars and rumors of wars-of earthquakes and famines-BUT he says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” In other words, he’s telling Christians that the tough times are NOT an occasion for fear, but rather an occasion for hope. He’s telling us that the tough times are NOT the beginning of the end, but are, instead, the beginning of the beginning. And remember, Jesus promises us “I am with you always, even to the end of the ages”. Amen.
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