Monday, November 12, 2018
I was out of town on a retreat with some colleagues last week, so I didn't write much. I was grateful for the time but found myself in church on Sunday under-prepared. I wasn't preaching, so, beginning on Wednesday, I took advantage of the down time and neglected to read the lessons with daily scrutiny. I didn't like it. This week, the clergy from Arkansas get together for clergy conference, and, again, I'm headed out of town for some peer support. I worry I won't have the opportunity (or internet access) to write daily, but I'm preaching, so I can't afford to neglect my studies.
As I read a gospel lesson on which I would rather not preach (Mark 13:1-8), I am drawn to the final word: "birthpangs." Actually, the NRSV makes that one word, but most of the other sources I find translate it into English as "birth pains" or "troubles." I don't know whether "birthpangs" is actually a word in English, but I think it's a mistake to remove the labor-specific image behind the word Jesus uses. He isn't merely describing a difficult time. Jesus' portrayal of "wars and rumors of wars," including international and domestic strife, as well as earthquakes and famines is not simply a prediction of difficulties ahead. These are the sign of something new, a beginning, a birth.
The Greek word that is translated by the NRSV as "birthpangs" is "ὠδίνων," which is the genetive plural of "ὠδίν." It is first and foremost the pain of childbirth, but it is, of course, more commonly used to describe a necessary pain that opens up or introduces something new (see Strong's Concordance). The word occurs four times in the New Testament. Two of them in the gospel (here and in the parallel Matthew 24:8). One comes in 1 Thessalonians 5:3, when Paul actually uses the sudden onset of labor pains to describe the coming of Christ. The other, interestingly enough, is Acts 2:24, when the word is used to describe the resurrection's power over the the agony/pain of death, which Peter understands to be transitional.
Back to Mark 13. Jesus might not have had an actual childbirth in mind when he described the upcoming sufferings that the would would endure, but those pains are the beginning of something else. They are not an end in themselves. And the thing that comes afterward is something that we look forward to--the end, the completion, the salvation. As a twenty-first century, privileged, North American Christian, it is hard for me to hear a prediction of war, earthquake, and famine as the beginning of good news, but to a first-century, Palestinian Christian, who faced persecution by the authorities and rejection by the elites, a massive global shakedown was a good sign.
This passage describes hardship and struggle, but it is part of God's great arc of salvation. When Jesus says, "This is but the beginning of the birthpangs," he wants his disciples to know that there is relief and joy on the other side of the struggle. I've never met a mother who had been through childbirth who wanted to go through the pain again, but I've met plenty who celebrate the birth of their child as the greatest gift they have ever received. What does it take for us to read these words of Jesus and find hope in them? It requires us to let go of our position of relative comfort and security and trust that a great global shakedown is good news for Jesus' followers. But isn't that the definition of faithfulness all along?