Nov. 15 2015
Birth Pang for a New Beginning
I dedicate today’s message to all the biological mothers out there. We are going to talk about childbirth, so sorry fathers, this is not your day. Last week on Facebook, I saw a post about a new mother, a Norwegian illustrator who drew a series of cartoons depicting the woes of pregnancy in a humorous way. They include things like hormonal body hair growth (but can’t shave because you can’t see below your belly), abstaining from wine (that she calls “life water”), the swellings, invasive questions from strangers (“Are you expecting triplets?/ LOL whale!/ You are going to explode!/ OMG you are huge!”), fear of water breaking in public, can’t put on shoes (because your belly is so hug), running to the bathroom as a third trimester workout, “stop touching my belly”, and so on. I want to add to these, the morning sickness and the birth pain; yes, oh my goodness the famous (or infamous) birth pain! We hear so much about this pain, which scares young girls away.
These are some of the things that mothers have experienced themselves and non-mothers learn about indirectly. But even those of us who have never experienced motherhood know very well that pregnancy and childbirth are a terribly challenging experience but very well worth it. There’s a saying, “It is always the darkest before dawn”. If I understand correctly, before the baby comes out, the pain is the worst? Doctors would say, “what you’re experiencing is not pain but pressure”, and mothers would say, in between screaming, “go to h-e-l-l!” But what do you experience after the worst moments of pain? A beautiful baby! So the discomfort and the pain associated with pregnancy and child birth are not a bad ordeal, because there are also bad and tragic ordeals with no happy endings. The ordeal of pregnancy and childbirth is full of hope and joy. You go through that ordeal with the hope for something good to come afterwards. (As you can see, I am skipping over the ordeal of raising that child for long years.)
In today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, we are introduced to the character of Hannah, the mother of Samuel who was the last judge of Israel and the one to anoint the first king of Israel. Again skipping over the issue of poligamy in the ancient world that we cannot understand or condone, Hannah was a woman in distress because although she was the favored one of the two wives, she was disgraced for not having children. But God had a plan for her and gave her one very special child, turning her from a position of disgrace to a position of honour. In today’s gospel text, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. He was in Jerusalem and soon afterwards, he would be arrested and executed. His disciples saw the temple and started “oo-ing and ah-ing” at its grandeur when Jesus became a party pooper by predicting the dark times to come. There will be rumors of wars, imposters who claim to be Christ, nation will rise against nation, as well as earthquakes and famines. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs”. What? The chaos I just described is not bad enough? There are much more to come? Well if you look at a mothering experience, after the ordeal of pregnancy and the terrible pain of childbirth comes at least 18 years of sacrifice and going crazy, doesn’t it (especially don’t you just love the teenage years)?
Just as it is the darkest before dawn, the world will experience the worst trial before God’s glory is revealed. During this trial, the followers of Jesus are taught not to put their trust in false security built by humans. Even the Jerusalem temple, which is the supreme example of magnificence and utmost importance to the Jewish religion was destroyed like it’s a sand castle on the beach; it is unwise to put our trust in worldly things no matter how excellent a human achievement is. The analogy that there will be great distress before the glory of God is revealed is very common in the Jewish apocalyptic thoughts. And since the Christian thoughts originated from the Jewish apocalyptic thoughts concerning the end of times and the final judgment, we can understand this Mark’s text the same way. There will be a period of chaos, ordeal, and distress; but afterwards comes God’s judgment, and God’s chosen people (in Mark’s context, the followers of Jesus) will see God’s glory revealed and receive their eternal reward. For the enemies of the Jesus people, this period is heading toward an ultimate tragedy; but to the Jesus people, it is just a birth pang leading towards God’s glory and eternal joy.
We are heading towards the end of the Christian year. Two weeks from now is the beginning of Advent, which is the beginning of the Christian year. We start our Christian year in hope and anticipation of the birth of Jesus; we end it by meditating on the accomplishment and certainty of God’s plan. During this time of ending the Christian year, we prepare for a new beginning, not through human efforts and intelligence, but through being renewed by the Holy Spirit. The process of being renewed (or as conservative Christians would say, being “born again”) requires something similar to pregnancy and birth pang. It requires letting our old self die so that our new self can be born in the Spirit. When an adult is baptized, especially by submersion (the Baptist way), it symbolizes the death of the old self and the birth of the new self. This new self is (or should be) guided by God’s spirit and the teachings of Jesus, which goes against all human instinct and inclinations; through this process, we have to deny our “self” (or empty our “self”) so that God’s spirit can fill us and guide our thoughts, actions, and the orientation of our lives. Being born again doesn’t mean accepting Jesus in our hearts and then going to heaven when we die. It requires a painful process of changing our lives to the core.
As we head toward the end of the Christian year, I invite you to renew our covenant and relationship with God. Experience assurance and conviction, declare that God is our loving parent and faithful friend, and empty ourselves so that God’s spirit can fill us and guide our lives. Although this transformation to the new self involves the pain of abandoning our human ways, pleasures, and worldly rewards, because we know that the new life of living in the love of God is a lot better than the rewards of the world, and because we look to the future and not to the present, we can gladly go through this birth pang of transformation for the hope of a greater joy, although it is a challenge and ordeal.
In the United Church of Canada, this week is celebrated as the Restorative Justice Week. A lot of churches will be talking about our correction facilities, what goes on in there, and how to treat inmates with fairness. Also this Thursday is Transgender Day of Remembrance. Some churches will be talking about the stigma and injustice that transgender people go through. As I said, being born again is about letting God’s spirit guide our thoughts and actions; God’s people will never condone social injustice. God’s people will get angry at the acts of injustice in our world and do something about it. As we renew our relationship with God, make sure that God’s spirit leads you to caring for all God’s people in our world; especially the marginalized and oppressed. We are called to be God’s agents in this world because God doesn’t have a body. As we go through the end of the Christian year and wait for baby Jesus, let us remember that Jesus came for the suffering people of the world. Let us go through the painful but hopeful birth pang, be born anew, and continue the works of love and justice that Jesus started. May God fill us with the compassion of Jesus and turn us into the doers of the gospel, as well as the believers. Amen.
Rev. Sunny Kim