Monday, November 30, 2009

God's Expectant People: Expect Birth Pains

1st Sunday Advent

Scripture Readings:
Malachi 3:1-5
Matthew 24:1-36

A father asked his little boy, way in advance of his birthday, what he wanted for his birthday present. The boy said he wanted a baby brother. And, lo and behold, his wish came true, when his birthday came around, he had a baby brother. As his next birthday came around, his father asked him again, “What would you like for your birthday?”
The little boy hesitated and told his father, “Dad, what I would really like is a pony, but I’m afraid that would be too much for Mom.” (Gene Sikkink; “Parables, Etc” May ’94)

“Birth pains” is one of the terms that Jesus and the apostles use to describe the experience of the waiting period that leads up to the return of Jesus and the completion of the kingdom of God. (Matthew 24:8; Romans 8:19-22; 1 Thessalonians 5:3) This was not a new way of talking. The Old Testament and many Jewish rabbis used the same idea of birth pains to describe the events leading up to the arrival of the Messiah, the Christ. (Isaiah 13:6-8) References to this have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well.

Some reading I did, once, suggested understanding the Advent tradition of expectancy for the birth of Jesus and expectancy for the return of Jesus by comparing it with the expectancy of pregnancy. This seems like a good idea; except for the fact that I don’t know anything about pregnancy, except by hearsay. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies.

I think it is important to notice that the disciples asked Jesus for signs of the end of the age, signs of the coming of the kingdom of God; but Jesus, in his answer, referred to them as birth pains. Signs are for the eyes and for the head. “Well, look at that! That’s a sign!”

Birth pains are much more personal than signs are. In a day when people commonly lived in one-room houses, and when babies were born at home, birth pains were something that either happened directly to you, or happened right in front of you, in your very room. One way or another, birth pains required some kind of movement and action, or reaction and response, on your part. Birth pains make you do something.

Now the birth pains Jesus talks about are his answer to the two questions asked by the disciples: about when the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed; and about when would the end of the age come; the coming of the kingdom of God on earth.

The Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. The kingdom has not come yet, except in our hearts and our fellowship. That span of time, from then till now, is the span of the birth pains, so far. The birth pains have lasted from then till today. How much longer they will last; Jesus tells us that no one knows. He is pretty clear about that.

The important thing, for us, is that this means that we are living in the time of the birth pains of the kingdom of God. The experiences that happen to us, the events that we hear about from our families and friends, or learn about from the television apparently have to do with something God cares about. They have to do with something that is important to us and we have to do something about them.

What are real birth pains; a mother’s birth pains? I have no idea. On the other hand, they are events in the mother’s body that produce the event of a child, hopefully as soon as possible, but not too soon, either. The pains serve the purpose of a good outcome. The Lord has designed the birth pains of the kingdom for the special purpose of preparing the world for a blessed event; to prepare the world for his coming.

It is clear, from what Jesus says, that these birth pains will affect the whole world. It is also clear that they will affect God’s people. Since they affect God’s people, too, they must be designed to prepare us for his coming to us, or for our coming to him.

It needs to be remembered that birth pains are things that hurt. Pains are painful. The birth pains that Jesus talks about are the events in this world that hurt us directly, or someone we know. Or they are agonizing events in the larger world that cause us sorrow, or worry, or fear, or anger, or confusion, or doubt.

Jesus tells us some of what sort of pains those will be, and he also tells us how to respond. “Don’t be alarmed (24:6). Stand firm to the end (24:13). Keep on loving (24:12). Share the good news (24:14). If the best way to stand firm is by running for your life; go ahead and do it (24:16). Don’t believe what everyone else seems to be believing (24:4). Don’t go where everyone else is going (24:26). Be careful about people who claim to be prophets (24:24).”

In Malachi, the prophet speaks to people who were waiting for the Messiah, the Christ. And he wrote way ahead of the time; four hundred years before the birth of Jesus.

Even then they were waiting; and things were not going well for them. Some things were good. They had been set free from exile in Babylon. They had returned to the Promised Land with great expectations and a lot of inspiration.

But, by the time of Malachi, their sense of expectation became disappointed. Life went on and nothing changed. They worked and worked, and never got ahead. Their family life was unhappy. Their worship felt empty. These were their birth pains.

Malachi says, “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” And he says, “But who can endure the day of his coming?” In other words, Malachi is saying that if they don’t respond the right way to the things that are going on around them, they will never be ready for the time when the Messiah will come.

Malachi was right. When Jesus the Messiah came to his people, most of them were not ready for him. They were not prepared enough to recognize him when they saw him.

If you read Malachi, and Haggai, and Nehemiah, and Ezra (who lived toward the end of the Old Testament times), you will see that God’s people had become half-hearted. God’s people had become careless about the way they lived. They were careless and lackadaisical about living a life of worship. They were selfish, self-centered people; materialistic, possession centered people. They had no love, no joy, no real caring about what was right, or what was just.

They responded to their birth pains by just doing what they had got used to doing without thinking. They wanted a God who took away the birth pains by changing the world around them, and not by troubling them with a change in themselves.

The events in the world that worry us, or frighten us, or confuse us, or hurt us are designed to change us, but we decide how we change. Think about the list of birth pains: wars, famine, earthquakes, persecution, etc. Let’s put them in other terms: conflict, insecurity, sickness, opposition. When these things happen to us, they hurt, and the hurt creates a choice: how to respond?

How we respond to these pains prepares us for the very goal of life on earth, and the whole purpose of history; to make us people who are prepared for true and everlasting fellowship with other people and with God himself.

It takes no birth pains to be a father, but more than one father has told me that the moment he held his first newborn child in his arms he had a deep desire to be a new person for that child’s sake. Birth pains are not things you count and talk about, but things that can change your heart.

But it is clear that some of the ways we respond do not make us prepared. Some of the ways we respond to pain and fear and stress make us less fit to be the people whom God designed us to be than we were when we first began.

Even when the birth pains happen far away from us and do not seem to affect us, how we respond is important. We have attitudes about the kind of world we live in, and those attitudes shape our personality and our character. It makes us helpful or unhelpful. Our response to the world around us refines us, and mellows us, and gives us a sense of calling. Or else it coarsens us, and embitters us, and invites us to serve ourselves.

Jesus tells us that the whole world has a rendezvous with him, and that history is preparing every human being for that meeting. Even the things that are a pain are a part of the changes that need to happen in people’s hearts, and minds, and lives to prepare them. Jesus tells us that the birth pains are a part of our preparation.

The sufferings and injustices that Jesus experienced in his condemnation and in his death on the cross were the birth pains he endured to give us a new birth. They were his birth pains to bring us to life in his Spirit. His birth pains give us power and mercy to grow and live a new life.

Even though the first Christmas happened two thousand years ago, every year, waiting for its anniversary, gives us new symptoms, and new birth pains, that push us toward a new kind of life where we become simpler, and humbler, and more faithful, and more ready to learn and grow. Or else they push us the other way. Every year it is a new push toward our being born, our being prepared for the coming of the Lord.

But this is not a threat. This is our hope. It is the work of Jesus who was born, and lived, and died, and rose for this very thing: to give us birth into a new life.

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