“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
This week, once again, we might wish that we were only dealing with rumors of war. Instead, we have worldwide words and images and witness to senseless carnage. It is no rumor that on Thursday in Beirut, Lebanon, over 43 men, women, and children were killed and over 240 injured in a bomb attack claimed by the militant group Islamic State. It is no rumor that on Friday in Baghdad, the same militant group coordinated two attacks that killed 26, including 21 people praying at a memorial service. It is no rumor that on that same day in Paris, six coordinated attacks took 129 precious lives, with dozens more hanging delicately in the balance between life and death, even as we pray.
In his 1919 poem, in the wake of World War I, William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming,” giving voice to this feeling that rises as we hear more than rumors of war and devastation; the feeling of living in a semiapocalyptic age, even if those aren’t terms we like to think in. He wrote(1):
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; …”
The imagery is compelling, and does important work in naming feelings and thoughts that lurk beneath the surface on weeks like these. But as Christians, we do not stop there. In the end, Jesus calls us to look with faith beyond this dark vision, toward the Day that is promised, the ReignofGod day that will not, does not, come without struggle and suffering. Jesus is clear: there will be birth pains. All will not be well, maybe for a long time.
Then what kind of time are we living in? Believe it or not, the congregation receiving the letter to the Hebrews was asking themselves that very same thing. What’s the point of being Christian, what’s the point of Jesus and his death and resurrection, when at times the world seems to tremble with evil and violence? What difference has Christ really made? Like many of us, they seem to have been discouraged with the disconnect between what we trust to be God’s ways, God’s hopes, God’s desires, and the state of our world, communities, even churches.
Hebrews is an ancient sermon sent to such a discouraged congregation, one “tired of trying to live the Christian life in a culture that offers no support for it.”1 This preacher, the author of Hebrews, turns the community’s attention to Jesus’ death and resurrection as the ultimate victory over death and sign of forgiveness, and tells them that they are living in an inbetween time: Christ has finished his cosmic work and sits at God’s right hand, but the full effect of Christ’s work has not yet been accomplished.
The vision of Hebrews is that God is now at work in the world subduing the enemies of Christ; as one preacher puts it,
“the world today is something like Europe after the Dday invasion. The victory is sure, but there are still battles to be fought. Christ has already defeated evil, but only at the end of time will this triumph be clear and complete.”(2)
The author of Hebrews disagrees with Yeats: if we pay attention, he writes, if we trust and wait on the Lord, the center DOES hold. God ultimately reigns; and faith and prayer matter, even in situations and times when life seems to be coming utterly untethered.
Today, at the beginning of 1 Samuel, we see the people of Israel in a societal time of transition, when chaos and war seem to reign more often than not, after the judges but before the kings. It is its own sort of inbetween time. And what do we find there, starring as the fulcrum of this transitional narrative? We find a woman, Hannah, and a baby boy named Samuel. A barren, bullied woman, and then, a baby. How can the transition of Israel from chaos to order rest in such seemingly impotent hands?
And yet, this is what we see: it is the fervent faith and prayer of Hannah that brings hope to Israel; her willingness to pour out her grief and hopes to God eventually results in a boy who will lead Israel into fuller life as a nation. There is a precariousness to Israel’s future on display here: Samuel is nearly not born; but according to the scriptures, Hannah’s desire and prayer ultimately brings all of Israel hope, in a way she cannot know or imagine. Both the birth of Samuel and the birth of Jesus are made possible by the extraordinary faith of seemingly insignificant women, their mothers. The value of things, of people, of prayer, is not what it first may seem.
Our gospel passage from Mark today hits us on the head with the reminder that things are not as they seem: do not be deceived, Jesus reminds his followers, by appearances of power, worth, and meaning: Look beneath the surface. The temple seems awesome, indestructible. But it will fall down. Things are not as they seem.
Buildings are not as grand as they seem. And our ground of hope is firmer than it seems.
I wonder: what signs of hope, God’s beauty and life and grace, are present to us, here at St. Paul’s, even in this in-between time?
In the past twelve months at St. Paul’s, very faithful and active parishioners have welcomed at least 11 new babies into their homes, lives, and our congregation. By my likely incomplete tally, in the coming year we will watch a whole troop of children learn to walk and sing: Jack, William, Leone, William, Claire, Olivia, Amelia, Emma, and Angelique. And we mourn the loss of Thomas and Anthony much too soon. New babies; an uncertain chance taken on new life. It might seem small potatoes, easily dismissed by many. But I don’t think it can be dismissed by faithful Christians, who trust that God does incredible things through seemingly small and insignificant bodies, seemingly insignificant acts of faith. Like baby Samuel. Like baby Jesus.
None of our babies have to live into such grand futures for this claim to hold. Because having children in a world as seemingly unstable as ours is a profound act of faith.
As the often blunt theologian Stanley Hauerwas says:
“We are able to have children because our hope is in God, who makes it possible to do the absurd thing of having children. In a world of such terrible injustice, in a world of such terrible misery, in a world that may well be about the killing of our children, having children is an extraordinary act of faith and hope. But as Christians we can have hope in the God who urges us to welcome children. When that happens, it is an extraordinary testimony of faith.”(3)
Indeed, each of our bodies is too small and insignificant to hold up to the terrible power of a bullet; but our God is mighty, and patient, and suffers long. Along with us. Until the ultimate victory of God’s love, light, and life in Christ is more to the world than a holy rumor. Until Hannah’s hymn and Mary’s magnificat don’t describe a sacred alternate reality, but a description of justice and dignity for all babies born on this earth. Until the rumors and news of misery becomes drowned out in a higher, and more glorious song.
I think it might sound like the song sung by Desmond Tutu as he struggled against the darkness and violent brutality of apartheid:
Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, victory is ours through him who loved us. Victory is ours, victory is ours through him who loved us.(4)
The Rev Laurel Mathewson
1 Thomas Long, Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol 3
3 The Hauerwas Reader (2001), p age 615.