November 29, 2020, Waiting to Begin, Mark 13:24-37 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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The Advent season is the time in the Church year when we await the birth of a child – I should say, the Birth of The Child. And so, as we travel through Advent this year I’d like to share with you some of my own experiences with the subject of birth. Childbirth, and the pregnancy that precedes childbirth, has been a fairly big part of my life. If you add together all the time I have spent being pregnant, it comes to seven and a half years, all told – seven and a half years out of the 64 years of my life, seven and a half years awaiting the birth of a child. Not everyone has quite that extensive familiarity with the process of birth, and many people have never been pregnant, of course. But during Advent we all share in the anticipation and uncertainty of waiting. “Beware, keep alert;” Jesus tells us, “for you do not know when the time will come.” Expectation. It’s what Advent is all about.
But the Collect for today reminds us that we aren’t only looking forward to the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child on the first Christmas day. Today we pray, “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal…” The Collect reminds us that we aren’t only looking forward to the remembrance of the first coming of Christ, and his Birth in Bethlehem; we are also looking forward to his second coming on the last day, when he comes to judge all mankind.
Most of us, I think, would much prefer to concentrate on the bright star over Bethlehem, the holy child born in a stable, his gentle mother, and the angels singing their hearts out to some ragged peasants camped out on the hills with their sheep: all those familiar images we’ve loved since we were children, safe, and comforting, and full of joy. But the Collect for the First Sunday in Advent looks forward to what we call the End Times, and for most people I think that conjures up scary images we associate with the Book of Revelation: dark moons and dragons and bloody warfare; angels on war horses instead of clouds, and armed with swords instead of harps.
But what we so often miss is that the image God uses again and again when he speaks to us about the last day, is not the image of death – it is the image of birth. Isaiah wrote, “For a long time I have held my peace; I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant. I will lay waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their vegetation; I will turn the rivers into islands, and dry up the pools. And I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground.” And Micah wrote, “Writhe and labor to give birth, Daughter of Zion, like a woman in childbirth; for now you will go out of the city,
dwell in the field, and go to Babylon. There you will be rescued; there the Lord will redeem you from the hand of your enemies.”
If we look back a few verses in this same passage in Mark that we read today, Jesus is talking about some of the signs that herald the coming of that day. “See that no one leads you astray,” he says to his disciples. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.” Just as there must be the pain of labor before a child is born, so the glorious day of the Lord does not come without pain. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” Paul wrote. “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”
Notice the image that Jesus uses in teaching his disciples about the last day. “From the fig tree learn its lesson,” we read today, “as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” Teaching about the coming of the last day, surprisingly Jesus doesn’t speak of the destruction of the fig tree – the falling of the leaves or the rotting of the fruit or the bare, lifeless branches at the coming of winter. No, not at all. He compares his coming to the new tender green shoots sprouting on the branches, the sure promise of the coming of summer and new, abundant life.
My daughter Louisa was born in the middle of a cold, dark January. We lived on the farm at that time, and when I went into labor we were all set up and ready for her to be born at home. The midwife came, but my labor went on and on and on for a whole day, and then another day, and even though the pains were very strong, this baby didn’t seem to be getting any closer to being born. Finally, the midwife made the decision that we’d better get to the hospital, and in the wee hours of the morning we drove for what felt like a very long time through a snowstorm, and at long, long last Louisa came into the world. But the thing I remember above all things from that day is looking over at her in the nurse’s arms right after she was born, and seeing her face. And she was so absolutely beautiful, so perfect, that I just wept for pure joy.
And the thing that is so obvious that it doesn’t even seem like it needs to be said – and yet it does need to be said – is that that joyful moment wasn’t an end; it was a beginning. As long as the nine months of a pregnancy feel while you are in the midst of them – and pregnancy can feel very long indeed – in the grand scheme of things it’s only a very brief time of waiting and preparation for the real object of all our desire and expectation – which is the beginning of a brand new life.
As we enter the season of Advent once again, that is what our hope and expectation is: not the end, but the beginning, the beginning of new life at the coming of our Lord. We aren’t waiting for the darkness and the violence and the pain and the suffering; we don’t have to look any further than the evening news to find those things – the pains of labor are upon us already. Can’t you feel it? Nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. Earthquakes in various places; and famines. The whole creation is groaning in travail, this very day. But keep awake, watch, because we don’t know the day or the hour of his coming, but we do know that he is coming. Today or tomorrow or ten years from now: even the Son himself doesn’t know the time. But one thing we know: that when he comes we will see his face at last. And then I believe that we will weep for pure joy.
“You know the time,” writes Paul, “that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand.” So then, by the grace of God, let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, that in the last day – which is our real beginning – when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.