One of the things I enjoy reading or watching on TV is British murder mysteries. It’s not so much the murder itself that’s of interest to me, it’s the unraveling of a puzzle, and coming to understand the thoughts and emotions of the people involved. So one night David came into the house and heard some terrible screams and moans coming from the TV, and he assumed I was watching a particularly nasty part of a murder mystery. But I wasn’t. I was watching something completely different, and another favourite of mine: “Call the Midwife.” Virtually every episode features a very realistic scene of a woman giving birth, and that’s what David was hearing.
Birth pangs and death throes: they can be mistaken for each other. Blood, pain, crying – they can signal a new birth on its way, or a terrible death occurring. And sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.
In the gospel today, where Jesus is talking about the coming destruction of the great temple in Jerusalem, and the wars, famines and natural disasters that lay ahead, he describes them as birth pangs. What a strange thing to do! The disciples would have been shocked and afraid at the thought of the temple being destroyed and wars to come. And by the time Mark was writing his gospel it’s likely that the temple had already been destroyed by the Romans (AD70), and certainly the Christians to whom he was writing were under attack and Peter had been killed.
So if these terrible events were to happen, why would Jesus use the analogy of birth pangs? Why not death throes? Why a metaphor of new life, rather than a simple foretelling of death and disaster?
Perhaps the key lies in Jesus’ frequently repeated words, “Don’t be afraid.” He says it here, and he says it after his resurrection when the disciples are terrified that he’s died and their world has been overturned. “Don’t be alarmed…. Fear not.” There’s more at work than the situation suggests on the surface. This isn’t the end of the story but the beginning of something new.
We know that about his death. It was horrendous, tragic, appalling. But it was followed by something totally astonishing and game-changing, with his resurrection.
Could the same dynamic be at play in the context of terrible events in history like the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the persecution of Christians, the wars and natural disasters that continue to this day? Could it be that through the grace of God they’re not the end but the doorway to something new, the birth pangs of something entirely different?
I don’t believe that God has set up a world where things will get worse and worse until it all comes to a fiery end that has been predestined. I do believe that God is constantly at work in the world to bring to birth goodness and healing and reconciliation. It’s an on-going project, and our job is to join in on it day by day, to see the signs of hope and new life, to listen to the birth pangs and roll up our sleeves to get messy if necessary for the sake of birthing something better.
What this means is that we’re not about looking back in nostalgia or looking ahead in fear or the desire for an escape from this world. We’re about living in our world with courage and hope and faith. There are hard things to tackle, tough issues to deal with. But God is with us, and ahead of us, and within every situation.
And in actual fact, despite the human tendency to catastrophize and fear the worst, the global situation in many respects is better now than it has ever been:
- In the last 20 years the population of the world living in extreme poverty has almost halved
- 80% of the world’s children now receive immunizations
- Deaths per year from natural disasters are less than half of what they were 100 years ago
- 80% of people in the world now have some access to electricity
- And despite the persistence of wars in some countries, globally we’re living in the longest peaceful period between superpowers in human history.*
(* Statistics quoted from UN sources in Factfulness, by Hans Rosling.)
Those are phenomenal achievements globally. And they’re facts that most of us aren’t aware of or actually assume are false. They didn’t just happen: it was the result of intentional committed energy being put into focused areas such as through the Millennium Development Goals. And we still have a lot of work to do, especially around the environmental crisis. But humanity’s hard work for peace, justice, food and health for all, safety and shelter, has been birthing a better world, not witnessing its death throes.
What does all this have to do with a Stewardship Sunday? Simply this: that when we face the future with fear and fatalism, assuming that things are getting worse and bracing for more, we shut ourselves into a closed off, fear-based, scarcity mentality. We clench up. We build walls. We see enemies everywhere. And that is a far cry from the kingdom of heaven and our calling.
Instead, if we can look to the future with curiosity and openness and hopeful courage, we’re more likely to be open-hearted, active, out-going, generous. We’re willing to work for the good of all, not just ourselves. We’re willing to go through those painful birth pangs for the sake of accomplishing something worthwhile.
Here at St Aidan’s we have some seriously hard work ahead, as we scale down our over-large buildings and refocus our purpose in the Beach. But our mission is to be lovers of God’s people and God’s world, not guardians of buildings. Our calling is to follow Jesus in extravagant love and service, not to hold back. So it’s about going through birth pangs to something new and exciting as we look ahead, not death throes to terrible endings. And that’s worth investing in: through our gifts of time, energy, skills, money and commitment. Not to save our buildings or even to pay our clergy, but to enable the mission of birthing new hope and life and healing into the world.