Sermon on Mark 13:1-8 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
When Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4, 1933, the United States had been enduring the most significant economic crisis of its history for almost three and a half years. After the market crashed in 1929, the average household income plummeted more than forty percent. Half of the nation’s banks had failed, and crippling drought drove millions of people from their homes and livelihoods in the Great Plains. By 1933, one out of every four American workers was unemployed. It was, in other words, one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history. Roosevelt acknowledged this with astonishing candor in his inaugural address. He refused to sugarcoat or downplay the challenges of the Great Depression: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” he averred. This context makes that immortal line all the more surprising: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” For Roosevelt, fear was more pernicious than any of the adversity we had endured or any of the calamities we had yet to experience. Fear was a bigger obstacle than unemployment, drought, or financial ruin. And so before the First 100 Days, before the New Deal, before he did anything, Franklin Roosevelt argued that that the biggest challenge our country faced in responding to the Great Depression was to cast out fear.
The gospel according to Mark was written during one of the darkest chapters in the history of God’s people, a time of great uncertainty and fear. Most scholars agree that the gospel was written around the time of the Jewish War, which was Rome’s final showdown with the recalcitrant residents of Judea. Though the Jewish people always retained certain privileges in the empire, including the freedom to worship their own God in the Temple, their repeated attempts to oust their occupiers finally exhausted Rome’s patience. While this was not the first time Judea had experienced violent retribution from the Roman authorities, most people in Jerusalem recognized that this time would be different, that Rome’s vengeance would be absolute. Mark captures the totality of the anticipated destruction when he quotes that ominous prediction of Jesus: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” The situation was indeed bleak for God’s people: Jerusalem was surrounded by hostile forces, the Temple was about to be destroyed, and the Jewish way of life was about to come to a violent end. If ever there was a time to fear, this was it.
Yet, Jesus specifically enjoins his disciples not to be afraid. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars,” when you see armies at the gate, when you feel that your world is coming to an end, “do not be alarmed.” This advice is almost shocking, especially in light of the fact that Jesus goes on to list a host of other calamities, including uprisings, earthquakes, and famines. Nevertheless, Jesus asserts that the greatest trial God’s people will face is fear. This diagnosis seems almost laughably naive when we think about the state of the world. The calamities Jesus describes are painfully familiar: destructive weather events have become commonplace, millions of American children go to bed not knowing where their next meal with come from, and just this week, terrorists murdered hundreds of innocent people in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris. It seems that every day our equilibrium is shaken, that every day we are reminded how truly vulnerable we are. As we bear witness to all of this human misery, devastation, and death, how are we not to be alarmed?
It’s easy to read the last line of this passage with a sense of dread: “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” as if to say, there is much more to come, or “you thought this was bad, wait until what comes next!” But the word that Mark uses, the one our version translates as “birth pangs,” is very specific to birth. It is a word that connotes not only the agony of childbirth, but also the joy that comes with bringing another human being into world. Those of you who have children know: even though the process of raising a child can be difficult and painful, there is an persistent and inescapable joy that exists at the very heart of being a parent. The hours in labor, the sleepless nights, the disappointments, the feelings of inadequacy and failure, all melt away when you hold that child in your arms. This is why Jesus specifically refers to birth pangs: not so that we think about pain, but so that we think about birth, so that we remember the joy at the heart of the gospel. This is a joy that has the power to cast out fear. It is a joy that has the power to remind us that God is present even in the darkest moments of our lives. It is a joy that Jesus embodied on the cross, when he put his life and his death in God’s hands, when he trusted that both his life and death were part of God’s story. Indeed, by framing the end of the world as we know it within the context of birth, Mark affirms that God is present in all our beginnings and endings. This astonishing statement demands a mature sense of God’s Providence, a persistent and inescapable belief that everything; every beginning and ending, every victory and defeat, every life and death; that everything belongs to God. This fundamental truth of our faith is incompatible with fear; Jesus tells his disciples not to be alarmed not because he is naive, but because fear prevents us from recognizing that even the things we are afraid of belong to God.
On Friday, more than 125 people in Paris were killed by terrorists acting at the behest of ISIS. In the wake of the attacks, countless religious leaders from every tradition have condemned the attacks, giving voice to our collective grief and outrage. One imam in particular offered a particularly cogent reflection: “Terrorists have no religion whatsoever. Their religion is intolerance, hatred for peace.” The so-called Islamic State’s view of the world is warped, not just because it is predicated on violence and extremism, but because it assumes the world can be cleansed of anything inconsistent with its narrow and twisted interpretation of Islam, that the world God created somehow contains people who do not belong. This intolerance cannot exist in true religion, because true religion requires us to trust not in our own will, not in our own prejudices, not in our own power, but in the power of God. True religion requires us to recognize that nothing exists that is ultimately apart from God. This morning, it would be tempting for us to adopt a posture of vengeance or of apathy, to clamor for retribution or throw up our hands in despair. These responses, however, are ultimately rooted in fear, because they forget the all-encompassing reality of God’s Providence. The gospel calls us courageously to claim joy even in the midst of our darkest moments. It calls us to remember that the towers and temples in our lives, though built with toil and care, will fall to dust, but that our hope is ultimately founded on God. It calls us to put our trust in the God who is present in our beginnings and endings. Above all, the gospel calls us to cast out fear and remember this fundamental truth of our faith: that everything we are and everything we have belongs to God.