MARK | PART 10: THE BEGINNING OF BIRTH PAINS
A SERMON BY PASTOR CHICO MARTIN
Lections: Heb 10:1, 5-7, 11-18; Mark 13:1-8
The psychotherapist Arthur Janov conceived a therapy practice called primal-scream therapy. The idea is for the therapist to take the patient back in memory to their childhood experience, and in the process, move the person through the traumatic pain that prevents him or her from forming the healthy attachments that are necessary to accept love. According to Janov, when you re-experience painful events, you bring them from your unconscious to your consciousness, and you express their pain by being very loud: with sobs, screams, and other types of emotive release. This is a therapy that sets talking aside, so that the central nervous system can be exposed. That’s where your childhood pain is stored, so that’s where you go to get at it. By bringing it up from the darkness of your substratum being, you take away its controlling power: you claim it and tame it; you are freed from its destructive influence; and you are healed.
Birth regression therapy follows a nearly identical model, and shows why all of us can understand today’s gospel reading about the beginning of birth pains. Usually we think of the mother – the person giving birth – as the person who experiences birth pains. We know that a difficult or unsuccessful birth, as well as the humiliation, abuse, and mistreatment in the health care system that pregnant women worldwide routinely experience, can traumatize the birth-giver; we are less likely to consider the effects of a difficult birth on the child. Some of us may have firsthand experience of such births, or have witnessed them with the animals on a farm, when we aid calves and lambs, and most of us are familiar with the many challenges to human births: long labor, breech presentation, meconium, the umbilical cord. Janov reports findings from patients who have had birth feelings re-surface, and for 75 years psychologists have studied children who demonstrate patterns of fear, anger, hopelessness, and other symptoms of traumatic birth.[i] Even so-called easy births are probably painful for the child, and everyone of us shares the experience of being nourished in the warm, liquid womb and then forcibly pushed and squeezed – or delivered by Caesarean section – into this shocking world of noise and lights, steel and adrenalin. We all carry with us the memory of birth pains, so we all can intuit why Jesus likens this present existence of ours to what we might call a second-order being-in-the-womb: and something of what it will be like for a new heaven and earth to be born out of the present heaven and earth, as this life, this world, passes away.
We conclude our ten-part study of the middle passages of Mark with the beginning of what is known as “The Olivet Discourse,” which continues through all of the 13th Chapter. Verses 1-2, which take place as Jesus and his disciples are leaving the Temple, are a prophesy of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; Verses 3-8 (which are set atop the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple) are the start of Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples. Jesus is preparing them to continue his ministry following the Passion and Resurrection events which will induce the birth pains. Jesus, as he does throughout the discourse, combines apocalyptic symbolism with practical exhortation: “Take care that no one leads you astray… And when you hear of wars do not be disturbed…These are the beginning of the pangs.”
One way of understanding the practical exhortation is to see “in the crisis of history the eschatological is foreshadowed.”[ii] The word eschatological, as the noun eschaton, comes from the root meaning ‘end’ or ‘final things,’ so we see rehearsed in historical events the end times our symbolic language describes. In this view, there is identity and difference between the present and the future. The destruction of the Temple, which covered with its magnificent buildings 1/6 of the area of Jerusalem, was accomplished by the Roman general Titus 38 years after the crucifixion and just 6 years after it was completed. We have from Josephus some idea of its “manner of stones.” The stones were 25 cubits long, 8 cubits high, and 12 cubits wide,[iii] so setting a cubit equal to 15-20 inches, we can picture the stones Herod the Great used to rebuild the Temple as 30-40 feet long, 10 -12 feet high, and 15-20 feet wide: massive stones, indeed! And for the most part, completely destroyed.
There can be several explanations for why Jesus tells his disciples the Temple will be destroyed. He has just told the story of the widow who puts two small copper coins into the temple treasury: “she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.” Jesus portrays the widow as a victim of the predatory religious authorities who “devour widow’s houses” and have turned the temple into “a den of robbers.” When Jesus says, “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down,” his pronouncement is a judgment on the corrupt religious establishment of the time. We recall that James, the brother of Jesus, writes in his epistle, “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.” The wisdom of James is consistent with what is spoken throughout Scripture. Isaiah, for instance, says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isa 1:17), and in Psalm 146 we sing, The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked,” and five verses later, “Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”
The plight of the widow was particularly perilous in ancient Israel and throughout the Mediterranean region. Jesus singles out religious authorities for condemnation because they are representatives of God, the God who speaks through Scripture, and the Kingdom of God is to be exactly what the words suggest: confrontation of the authorities of the nations – the Caesars and their priests – by God’s greater authority. The confrontation is not, however, to be in the manner of the world, that is, not by military might, or terrorism, yet the authorities will be held accountable, and in the manner of Israel’s ancient traditions, God will reign. As the British theologian Tom Wright argues,[iv] Jesus has in mind no separation of church and state, of religion and politics. The Kingdom of God he inaugurates during his lifetime on earth will fulfill the Scriptures, overthrow the rulers of the world, have an entirely different kind of temple than the sacrificial temple in Jerusalem, and establish God’s reign over all creation. Jesus is a radical, cosmic liberator, and he gives birth to a new reality.
The destruction of the Temple is but one of the eschatological events foreshadowed in the crisis of history; here Jesus mentions deceivers, who falsely represent themselves as divine figures, wars between nations and kingdoms, earthquakes and famines. Jesus calls all of these events “birth pains” because they are the trauma humankind experiences as it is squeezed and pushed – or surgically delivered – into the authentic human existence of the fully realized Kingdom of God.
Birth pains are frequently used in the Old Testament to describe the trauma preceding messianic deliverance:
Isa 13:6f: “Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty. Because of this, all hands will go limp, every heart will melt with fear. Terror will seize them, pain and anguish will grip them; they will writhe like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at each other, their faces aflame.
Mic 4:9f “Why do you now cry aloud – have you no king? Has your ruler perished, that pain seizes you like that of a woman in labor? Writhe in agony, Daughter Zion, like a woman in labor, for now you must leave the city to camp in the open field.”
Hos 13:13: (of Ephraim, the northern tribe of Israel that was to be conquered by Syrians, described as “a trained heifer that loves to thresh” and whose birth pangs God prophesizes in the language of a farmer:) “I will put a yoke on her fair neck. I will drive Ephraim, Judah must plow, and Jacob must break up the ground.” These signs will be to Ephraim “Pains as of a woman in childbirth come to him, but he is a child without wisdom; when the time arrives, he doesn’t have the sense to come out of the womb. I will deliver this people from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from birth.”
Jer 6:24: (of an approaching army) “We have heard reports about them…Anguish has gripped us, pain like that of a woman in labor. Do not go out to the fields or walk on the roads, for the enemy has a sword, and there is terror on every side.” 22:23: “You who live in Lebanon, who are nestled in cedar buildings, how you will groan when pangs come upon you, pain like that of a woman in labor! 49:22: “Look! An eagle will soar and swoop down, spreading its wings over Bozrah. In that day the hearts of Edom’s warriors will be like the heart of a woman in labor.”
Our transformation by and for Kingdom life is more than an arrival at an assembly of the saved or a family reunion. The Kingdom of God was inaugurated by the advent of the Messiah and will be in all ways accomplished by his future coming again. We live between promises, incubating in a social matrix, and our redemption is a community event, for we are collectively one body. Our individual salvation is necessary only in so far as we are thereby enabled to live as a member of this body, which we call Christ and see foreshadowed in the church. The Kingdom of God is not so much about how we can get to heaven as it is about heaven coming down to earth.[v] God works in our lives through faith and obedience, and we are sanctified for surviving deception.
Jesus gives us hope, even as he cautions us; later in Mark 13, he says, “Be on your guard, I have told you beforehand all things.” Unlike gestation in the mother’s womb, we do not go through a second-order being-in-the-womb with our eyes closed and our minds undeveloped. The revelation of Jesus illuminates the unity of the unfolding drama of human history, the form of the divine, the perfectibility of the human, and the trustworthiness of our knowledge of God’s promises. The created order mirrors the coherence of all things, and in the beauty of all things, we are fashioned, regardless of our circumstances, with purpose, and by love. This is true even when the refining and purifying we go through are events that look like the fire that burned through the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Paul said, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” The Temple in Jerusalem has been made obsolete by the person and body of Christ, of which we are the members: “the temple of God is holy,” Paul says, “and that is what you are.…” (1 Cor 3:16-17).
The prophesy of Jesus is made not to foretell the future so much as it to instruct us on how to live in the present: we are prepared by knowing what suffering means, because we are prepared by knowing that a new human being is in the making. The world is a radically different place than it was before the Incarnation, and it has been changed, not by drones and terror and police, but by the cross: by humility, and servitude, wisdom and gentleness, the merciful exchange and co-inherence of love refined. We have our being in the midst of creation giving birth to new creation. In our end is our beginning. Amen.
[ii] C.E.B. Cranfield, quoted in Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 1993, 199
[iii] Antiq. XV, 392 [xi,3], quoted in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Mark 13.